Istana Singapore

Façade of the main Istana building. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Istana is our version of the White House. Home to seven presidents, it has witnessed historic events such as the Second World War and Singapore’s independence. We find out what makes this national monument so significant to Singaporeans.

By Romesh Navaratnarajah

Singapore has no shortage of luxury homes with huge price tags. For instance, the exclusive Sentosa Cove enclave is known to attract ultra-wealthy foreigners looking for multimillion-dollar bungalows that come with private berths for their yachts.

Over in the downtown core, developers are trying to outdo one another with more impressive projects. Recently, a $108 million super penthouse at Wallich Residence in GuocoLand’s Tanjong Pagar Centre made headlines after it was put up for sale.

The 21,108 sq ft five-bedroom triplex unit on the 64th floor includes a 12m private pool, 600-bottle wine cellar and round-the-clock butler service.

Singapore’s most expensive home

However, this price pales in comparison to the estimated $18 billion to $25 billion for the Istana (palace in Malay) in District 10, according to a PropertyGuru contest held back in 2013.

Consumers were invited to ‘guesstimate’ its value, with the aim of educating the public on how to accurately price a residential property.

PropertyGuru said its calculations were based on several factors including the Istana’s original building cost of $185,000, the value of the 40ha land it sits on, the purpose of the land (commercial and residential use), and the impact of inflation.

“Let me clarify that the Istana is not, and will never be, for sale,” PropertyGuru Group’s Chief Marketing Officer Bjorn Sprengers said at the time. “We chose the Istana because it is Singapore’s most distinctive and respected sovereign icon. After all, it is the official residence of the president of Singapore.”

A mysterious place

Despite this, many young Singaporeans don’t really know much about the Istana.

“I think they want to keep a low-profile for safety reasons,” said student Firdaus Sari. “After all, I’m sure it houses some priceless treasures.”

Natasha Salman, another student, said the first word that comes to mind is “mysterious”.

“I know it is our president’s home, but that’s only because I pass by it regularly (when I’m) in town,” she told PropertyGuru. “It would be interesting to find out more about the Istana.”

Her friend Asrina Kamal added: “I didn’t even know that it’s open to the public.”

In fact, the Istana grounds are open to the public on certain public holidays such as Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Puasa and National Day. There are usually a variety of performances, guided walks and booths selling food and drinks.

Members of the public are also encouraged to explore and have picnics on the Istana’s expansive grounds.

Built by convicts

Formerly a nutmeg plantation, the Istana site was picked because it was elevated, and on a clear day offered views of the Indonesian islands and Johor. Completed in 1869, the building was built by convict labourers and housed British governors during colonial times.

Yusof bin Ishak was the first Singapore president to live there when he took office in 1965, and it has remained the official residence for subsequent presidents including the current head of state, Dr Tony Tan.

Over the years, the Istana has also hosted many foreign dignitaries including Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, members of the British royal family, and former US president Barack Obama.

Today, the front of the Istana is bound by busy Orchard Road and it is close to shopping malls such as Plaza Singapura and PoMo, as well as Dhoby Ghaut MRT station.

As such, many visitors who walk through its impressive main gate are surprised to find extensive, well-manicured gardens which are considered among the most beautiful in Singapore.

The gardens are home to different types of mature trees and plants, with a team of curators and gardeners from the National Parks Board helping to maintain it regularly.

In addition, the gardens contain a few relics from the past, such as a marble statue of Queen Victoria and a Japanese cannon captured during World War II.

Cannon located on the green field in Istana

The Istana’s grounds contain many mature trees and important relics, including a Japanese cannon.

Designed by a famous architect

The main Istana building was designed by famed architect Major McNair, who was also behind the historic Empress Place Building. It blends different architectural styles like classical Palladian, Anglo-Indian and tropical Malay elements.

Three-storeys high, it comprises a total of 10 palatial rooms. Six of them are function rooms decked out in antique furnishings such as mahogany Louis XVI chairs, Persian carpets, rosewood tables and ornate chandeliers.

For a small fee, visitors can tour the state room, banquet hall and reception room. However, the president’s lounge on the top floor which overlooks the grounds is a restricted area.

There are another three conserved buildings within the compound: Sri Temasek – a bungalow that is the prime minister’s official residence, the Istana Villa guesthouse, and The Lodge.

A dedicated park

To give it more prominence, a 1.3ha park was developed opposite the Istana’s main gate. Completed in 1996, the Istana Park was built at a cost of $13 million. More than 150 species of plants can be found here, and it has become a popular spot to relax and take photos.

The centrepiece of the park is a four-storey Festival Arch that rises from a reflecting pool. Last October, the president opened the Istana Heritage Gallery there, where visitors can view state gifts from world leaders and learn more about the Istana’s history.


Type: Palace

Tenure: Freehold

Land area: 40ha

Completion: 1869

Facilities: Extensive gardens, swan pond, nine-hole golf course, gun terrace

Nearby amenities: Shopping malls, MRT station

Price range: $18 billion-$25 billion


  The PropertyGuru News & Views   This article was first published in the print version PropertyGuru News & Views. Download PDFs of full print issues or read more stories now!