Tuesday, May 16, 2006

City Hall, Singapore

City Hall, one of the last colonial-era monuments built in Singapore, occupies a special place in the local imagination. It was in here that Japan officially surrendered on 12 September, 1945; on its front steps that on 5 June, 1959 the PAP and its leader Lew Kuan Yew celebrated their first electoral victory and proclaimed the right for self-government; on its grand lawn, the padang, that celebrations were held in August 31, 1963 for the formation of the independent Federation of Malaysia comprising Singapore, Malaya, Serawak and Sabah. And here, on 9 August 1965, that Singapore’s first parliament was sworn in, two days after Singaporeans learned they had been expelled from Malaysia.

Originally the Municipal Council, the building only changed its name to City Hall in 1951 after King George VI proclaimed Singapore a city. Construction of the building started in 1926 and it was completed in 1929. You may find it surprising that Singapore’s Municipal Council was only formed in 1856 and only had its own premises from 1929, respectively 38 and 111 years after Singapore’s founding in 1819.

To understand why, it’s important to remember that Singapore was founded by the East India Company (“EIC”) whose primary concern was to maintain a secure free-trade port and keep all administrative costs (and hassles) to a minimum. The EIC pretty much left it up to local ‘head men’ to look after their own people. The EIC’s ultimate grip was undisputed via a combination of military strength and by holding the reigns to a chain of debt stemming from its control of opium and liquor licenses. However, massive population growth, increasing colonial interest in Malaysia’s natural resources and rising nationalist sentiments all made it necessary to formally establish an administrative body that would look after public infrastructure and utilities.

The abolishment of the EIC (1858) and Singapore’s formal conversion to a British crown colony (1867) further elevated the government’s responsibility to properly build and maintain infrastructure. Initially, function was more important than form, with the Municipal Council fulfilling its obligations while keeping a low-key physical presence.

However this low-key presence changed with the construction of this massive building with a pompous fa├žade. A combination of tremendous wealth from exports of rubber and tin combined with increasing concerns that colonial authority must be asserted in the face of rising nationalist sentiments, perhaps explains the architectural style. But in spite of this grand gesture, Britain was completely unprepared when Japan swiftly occupied Singapore on 15 February, 1942; in the process also destroying British assertions of racial superiority.

Exercises in civic education identify the historic events, listed above, that should be imagined while viewing this building. Perhaps two historic events are excluded from the list. One is the mass assembly of Indians that congregated on the padang on 24 October, 1942 to hear Subhas Chandra Bose encourage their support of the Indian National Army. The other is the memorial in 1946 for Lim Bo Seng, one of Singapore’s most courageous Japanese resistance fighters (and probably the last communist sympathizer publicly honored by the PAP and the colonial government).

The imagined associations with this building may soon be changing again. This September the doors will temporarily open to the public for artists’ exhibits in the Singapore Biennale. It will be interesting to see how these exhibits compete or contradict the memories that have been created around this space. Subsequently City Hall will be converted into a major museum and gallery space to be opened by the year 2010.

For pictures of the spaces where the Singapore Biennale will be featuring exhibits, click here.

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