Silent star of Singapore

The red-roofed Sri Temasek sits serenely on a knoll on the Istana grounds, overlooking lush gardens. The 1,600 sq m bungalow fell into disrepair for some years and was not used. It has since been restored and will be used for small state functions.
The red-roofed Sri Temasek sits serenely on a knoll on the Istana grounds, overlooking lush gardens. The 1,600 sq m bungalow fell into disrepair for some years and was not used. It has since been restored and will be used for small state functions. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

Restored colonial bungalow is the PM’s official residence but none of them has lived there

SINGAPORE - The Prime Minister has an official residence at the Istana?

Sri Temasek, a just-restored colonial bungalow in the Istana domain, has piqued curiosity since Mr Lee Hsien Loong delivered his National Day message there last Friday.

Built in 1869 for the then-colony secretary, it remains today the official residence of the Singapore prime minister.

But none of the three PMs - Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Goh Chok Tong or Mr Lee Hsien Loong - has made it his home.

Instead, Sri Temasek stars silently at official functions and tells the story of Singapore's early diplomatic life.

Foreign leaders near and far were hosted on its intimate premises, mainly in the 1960s and 1970s.

Among them was "the Father of Malaysia", the late Tunku Abdul Rahman.

The late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi dropped in too, as did Jordan's King Hussein and US Vice-President Spiro Agnew in the Nixon days.

Lord Denis Healey, the defence secretary who announced the 1968 British troop withdrawal from Singapore, was pictured there wielding chopsticks at a small dinner while then-PM Lee Kuan Yew looked on, bemused.


Sri Temasek tells the story of Singapore's early diplomatic history. Among the foreign leaders hosted there by then-PM Lee Kuan Yew were Malaysia's Tunku Abdul Rahman (left), India's Indira Gandhi (centre) and Britain's Denis Healey (right). Other leaders who visited included Jordan's King Hussein and US Vice-President Spiro Agnew. PHOTOS: ST FILE

In 1962, Mr Lee hosted a party to thank trade unionists and civil servants for their help with the referendum on Singapore's merger with Malaysia.

In 1983, the body of the late finance minister Hon Sui Sen lay in state for a couple of days at the stately two-storey building for people to pay their last respects.

The bungalow was built by Major J. F. A. McNair, a civil engineer who also had a hand in the soaring Gothic design of St Andrew's Cathedral.

Designed in an East-West style, the red-roofed Sri Temasek is 1,600 sq m, and distinguished by arches.


Built by the British in 1869 for the then-colony secretary, Sri Temasek features a blend of East-West motifs in the decorative fretwork of the timber arcade. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

For some years, the national monument fell into disrepair and was not used. It was mostly restored this March, and will be used for small state functions.

The Straits Times viewed Sri Temasek yesterday with architects from CPG Consultants, the firm restoring it.

Senior architect Maureen Soh highlighted the Western symmetry in its layout.

Eastern elements are present in the Malay eaves. Carved Chinese "breeze blocks" with cut-out designs set into the wrap-around verandas let in lots of fresh air.

The 2m-wide verandas shade people from the brutal tropical sun.


The 2m-wide verandas, designed to shade people from the brutal tropical sun, have floors of teak and chengal. Carved Chinese "breeze blocks" with cut-out designs set into the wrap-around verandas let in lots of fresh air. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Said Ms Soh, who first saw Sri Temasek in 2004: "It was rundown. But I felt more for the building as I worked on it.

"It is a simple building but has special features such as tiers of arches and columns," she added.

Set serenely on a knoll, Sri Temasek overlooks lush gardens, and there are glimpses of the city skyline.

In the 1998 book, The Man And His Ideas, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is reported saying that his three children were seven, five and two when he became PM in 1959. He and his wife Kwa Geok Choo decided not to move into Sri Temasek.

He said: "We did not want them to grow up in such grand surroundings with butlers and orderlies to fuss over their needs."

The family stayed there only briefly in 1965 - for security reasons, amid the turmoil of Singapore's separation from Malaysia.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong too decided not to make Sri Temasek his home when he became PM in 2004.

Still, the family would have fond memories of the grounds.

The three children ran around in the evening, "while Kuan Yew played golf or practised on the practice tee and the putting green", Madam Kwa said in a Straits Times interview in 2000.

These unspoken historical and personal reasons may have prompted the choice of Sri Temasek as the setting for this year's National Day message.