Where echoes of S'pore's past resound

The Arts House (below), formerly Parliament House, is now an arts venue and a home for local voices, but the Chamber (left), where independent Singapore's formative laws were debated and passed, still retains its original custom-made furniture from L
The Arts House formerly Parliament House, is now an arts venue and a home for local voices, but the Chamber (above), where independent Singapore's formative laws were debated and passed, still retains its original custom-made furniture from London and upholstery from 1954.ST PHOTOS: NIVASH JOYVIN
The Arts House (below), formerly Parliament House, is now an arts venue and a home for local voices, but the Chamber (left), where independent Singapore's formative laws were debated and passed, still retains its original custom-made furniture from L
The Arts House (above), formerly Parliament House, is now an arts venue and a home for local voices, but the Chamber where independent Singapore's formative laws were debated and passed, still retains its original custom-made furniture from London and upholstery from 1954.ST PHOTOS: NIVASH JOYVIN

From places of worship and educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings have been gazetted as national monuments. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history. This is the 26th in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems.

In the Chamber, where independent Singapore's formative laws were debated and passed, voices from the past still echo today.

Stand among the dark wood benches and deep red seats, and you might hear snatches of speeches by founding fathers such as Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Goh Keng Swee.

It is not a trick of the imagination. Since last year, historical parliamentary speeches have been played each hour in the room where they were once delivered.

The idea is to evoke a sense of place, says Ms Sarah Martin, chief executive officer of Arts House Limited (AHL). "You feel as if you've walked into something."

Known today as The Arts House and run by AHL, the former Parliament House has been an arts venue since 2004. But with 2017 representing its 190th anniversary, the building's history stretches back far further than independence.

"One of the beauties of this place is it has always retained the notion of being a house," says Ms Martin.

Designed by colonial architect G.D. Coleman, it was built in 1827 as the home of Scottish merchant John Argyle Maxwell. Maxwell never lived there, leasing it to the government instead. Until 1865, the building was Singapore's first courthouse. It later housed various government functions, including the Supreme Court up till 1939.

Through World War II and afterwards, it lay silent as a mere government storehouse.

But life returned to the premises in 1954, when the building became home to the Legislative Assembly, Singapore's first governing body.

Lawmakers held forth in fiery debates which could stretch long into the night. Upon Singapore's independence in 1965, the Assembly House became Parliament House instead - a role it played for over three decades. Former MP Seng Han Thong, who entered Parliament in 1997, recalls how MPs would clatter noisily up the wooden staircases when the division bell rang to call the session to order.

The sense of history was heightened by photos that lined the walls - of the first Speaker, the Legislative Assembly and so on. As for the Chamber itself, Mr Seng says fondly: "It was a small space, but filled with many big ideas and big issues."

As the number of MPs swelled from the original 48 to more than 80 by the late 1980s, it was decided that a new Parliament House would be built. On Sept 6, 1999, MPs left the old Parliament House, walking over to the new one next door.

In The Arts House today, the Chamber still features its original custom-made furniture from London and upholstery from 1954.

Other rooms have been transformed. The airy and elegant Blue Room retains its tall windows, but not the pale blue walls which gave it its name. Previously the Members Room where MPs could relax between sittings, it now hosts performances such as music recitals.

But despite such changes, the building's layout has been scrupulously preserved. And its history still informs its role today.

In recent years, The Arts House has shaped up to be a centre for the literary arts - in line with its former role as Parliament House. Says Ms Martin: "We're the home of the word. Because the word was a very powerful tool in helping us form this country. And I think, historically, that was the mandate of this house."

The annual Singapore Writers' Festival, for instance, was held at The Arts House in 2014 and last year. The building also plays host to the annual Sing Lit 101 lecture series on local writing, which is currently in its fourth and final season.

The Arts House may even host debates again some day if the opportunity arises, adds Ms Martin.

And there are other events which evoke the building's storied past, one way or another.

Last March, MPs past and present returned to the Chamber to pay tribute to the founding Prime Minister on the first anniversary of his death, with a spray of orchids left on the seat he once occupied.

Earlier this month, the Chamber was filled with voices of a different sort during the launch of local poetry anthology A Luxury We Must Afford - a wink at Mr Lee's pronouncement that poetry is a luxury Singapore cannot afford. Says one of the poets, university student Shawn Hoo, 21: "Today it feels like poetry is being given the parliamentary hearing that it has been asking for."

The poem he read that evening imagined a "freak election" scenario where an ordinary man finds himself in the seat of a parliamentarian.

"That moment felt like I was evoking simultaneously the past, present and future... That night at the launch, it reminded me of the power of that space - but how poetry creates new spaces for us too."

In its transformation from a colonial landmark to a home for local voices, from the sombre seat of government to a lively cultural space, perhaps The Arts House's journey mirrors Singapore's own.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2017, with the headline 'Where echoes of S'pore's past resound'. Print Edition | Subscribe