Singapore’s Open-air Museum of Historical and Cultural Heritage

An article by Lam Pin Foo. Refer to the About page.

Spreading over 18 hectares of prime land in Singapore’s city centre is the sprawling Fort Canning Park, which is named after a British viceroy of India after the founding of modern Singapore in 1819 by Stamford Raffles of British East India Company. It later was converted into a British crown colony.

This scenic and undulating stroll park, whose summit is 60 meters above sea level, is an open-air museum of Singapore’s historical and cultural heritage dating back to the 14th century when it was the governmental and trading hub of the ancient Malay sultanate established by a Sumatran prince who named it Temasek. Remnants of brick foundations of buildings were still visible on the hill after Raffles had some of the surrounding jungle cleared. Unfortunately, these remnants were later demolished by the colonial regime to make way for developments on the hill, which was renamed Fort Canning Hill. Its original name was Bukit Larangan (Forbidden Hill) as the common folks were denied access to it because it housed the royal palace and government facilities. The hilltop has a commanding vista of parts of the the city centre and a good view of the Singapore River.

Regrettably this historical landmark has been largely under-explored by both foreign and domestic tourists, despite its variety of interesting sights and other attractions. Most overseas visitors, who are in Singapore for only a few days, will be more interested in visiting Sentosa, Bird Park, Night Safari, Zoological Gardens, Botanic Gardens and the fabulous and exotic shopping in Orchard Road, Little India, Chinatown and Arab Street. These are commonly accepted as must-see places when in Singapore. Many Singaporeans, too, are not very familiar with this rare gem in their midst and some are simply indifferent to its ancient past.

Before writing this article, I made three separate visits to Fort Canning Park at different times: in the morning, during lunch time and in the early evening. I came upon only a couple of foreign tourists, a small group of school children on a school outing and some office workers eating their box lunch under shady trees. I asked more than a dozen Singaporean friends about the historical relics on this hill, and quite a few had yet to make a trip up there.

There are several entrances to this park: from Canning Rise, Tank Road, River Valley Road and Hill Street. Armed with a comprehensive direction map provided by the park’s information kiosk, a visitor should find it easy to navigate the park in any way his or her interests dictate. For those who are more history or culture inclined, it would give you a better historical perspective to begin your discovery tour of the park with the 14th century History Walk. A series of eye-level concisely-written plagues will tell you the early Singapore history and legends and the significance of Fort Canning Hill and its subsequent development.

As I am interested in history, I would first head for the Archaeological Excavation Site where thousands of artifacts, including whole and broken ceramic pieces, finely fashioned gold and glass ornaments and gold and other minted coins, were dug up in the 1980s. Some of these are from the 14th century, which lends credence to the existence of the flourishing Temasek kingdom. Some historians believe that these gold and glass ornaments came from the various palace workshops on site and they were crafted by highly skilled artisans. An assortment of fragments of these relics are permanently displayed at the site and the more valuable articles are in showcases at the Fort Canning Centre.

In the vicinity of the archaeological trenches is an old tomb called Keramat (Sacred Place) believed to be the burial place of Iskandar Shah, the last of the five rulers of Temasek. However, some scholars have cast doubts on this claim as he was said to have fled to neighbouring Malaya after the fall of his sultanate to foreign invaders and died there. Be that as it may, it is an important and dignified monument fit for a royal personage and well protected by a 14th century-style Malay roof which is supported by 20 elegantly carved wooden pillars of superb workmanship whose motifs are of Javanese provenance.

At the top of the hill is the site of a colonial-style bungalow specially built for Raffles and his family to reside in when he came to Singapore in 1823 for his third and final stay prior to his retirement in England. It stood at a spot which afforded him the best view of the growing township below and the waterfront with international trading ships from Asia, Europe and United States calling at this fledgling but thriving free port which was his brainchild. He and his wife would often spend quality times together at the Raffles Terrace enjoying their English afternoon tea leisurely or watching the beautiful tropical sunset with gin and tonic in their hands.

After Raffles left Singapore, a succession of colonial governors also lived on the hill until 1860 when a pompous incumbent built himself a palatial new home with extensive grounds close to Orchard Road. It is now the official residence of the President of Singapore.

Fort Canning Hill was often depicted in old paintings of Singapore because of its scenic beauty and its sweeping view of the town’s significant landmarks. Some of these can be seen at the Singapore History Museum at the foot of the park. I particularly enjoy gazing at an oil painting of a governor’s garden party at his hill residence, with guests of different races in their resplendent national attires enjoying themselves on the well-manicured rolling lawns with the prospering township in the background.

For the defence of Singapore against possible sea-borne attacks, Fort Canning Hill was converted into a military fortress in 1861 with barracks and other buildings to house the military personnel. It also provided a safe refuge for the local European population in case of riots and other disturbances. Today, a 19th century Fort Gate, and what remains of the fortress, including several old cannons, are still there for all to see. A grand administrative building, which has been converted into the present multi-purpose Fort Canning Centre, was the headquarters of the British Far East command and the office of the commanding officer, Lt-General Percival, before Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942.

Another of the hill’s historical significance is that a portion of it was set aside as Singapore’s first experimental botanic garden spearheaded by none other than Raffles himself, who was a noted self-taught botanist. He planted food plants like nutmeg, clove, ginger, lemongrass and chillies which later were planted all over the island and became an important contributor to the early Singapore economy. Most of these botanic species are still thriving at the popular Spice Garden in the park.

The governor’s hill bungalows had long been demolished. The famed Raffles Terrace, on whose spacious front lawns many a garden party was held, is gone too. Gone also are the original lighthouse to guide ships in and out of the colony together with the flagstaff on which the Union Jack had proudly flown in front of the governor’s residence. However, a new Raffles Terrace has been constructed and now houses the replicas of three important icons of the past, namely the Lighthouse, Flagstaff and the Time Ball, to remind the park’s visitors of Singapore’s colonial heritage.

Before leaving the historic legacies, there is one last but not the least of the historical sites that visitors must cover before they continue to proceed with their tour of other attractions as well as to savour the park’s scenic charm in order to complete their memorable trip out there.

This is Singapore’s first Christian Cemetery sited at the foot of the park. There are two imposing 19th century Gothic-style entrance gates at either end of it. It was a burial ground from 1822 to 1865 for more than 600 early Singapore residents, two-thirds were British and other Westerners and the rest were mainly Chinese and other Asians. Many prominent colonial officials and community leaders were interred here. Most of these graves were dug up in 1970s as they were in very dilapidated conditions and the human remains removed elsewhere. However, a dozen well-preserved graves are still there at one corner of this former Christian Cemetery. Numerous tombstones have been inset into two brick walls on site as a reminder of its past usage. Many died young in those bygone days, often from fatal tropical deceases, One tombstone summed it up poignantly, ” … came to the East in search of adventure and fortune but instead he found death at a tender age.”

Two well-designed 19th century cupolas still stand at another corner of this former cemetery land. They were probably intended as resting places for visitors to admire the the beauty and tranquility of the park. This former burial ground has been transformed into the spacious Fort Canning Green, and nowadays regular open air musical and theatre performances are staged there by both local and foreign artistes which attract large crowds, right in front of the elegantly impressive Fort Canning Centre.

If a visitor is still energetic enough after all the walking, there are several other places that might be worth seeing. I would single out two of these for mention, Spice Garden and Battle Box.

The Spice Garden provides an interesting contrast to the more history oriented relics at the park. As in Raffles’ original botanic garden, at the Spice Garden one can also see a variety of herb and spice plants such as nutmeg, clove, ginger, chillies and lemongrass, all of these and others are often used in Singapore cuisine to enhance its taste. There are well-trained staff to guide visitors around and to give them a better insight into these food plants.

The Battle Box tells the story of the events leading to the fall of Singapore during WWII. The construction of this 9-meter deep underground bunker started in 1936 and was intended to serve as the “Nerve Centre” of the British army command in the event of war. It has a maize-like complex of 26 rooms, complete with life-like wax figures of British army personnel and their war efforts against the Japanese invaders. To introduce a touch of realism, while the running commentary is going on, the special sound effects enable the visitor to hear the bombing of Singapore outside the underground bunker. It was here that General Percival, British commander in Malaya and Singapore, and his senior officers took the momentous decision to surrender the colony to the Japanese Imperial Army on the fateful day of 15 February 1942. The British surrender was the biggest military defeat in the annals of the British army.

Within walking distance from Fort Canning Park, there are plenty of eating places to suit all budgets and several shopping malls. In addition, there are five museums, namely National History Museum, Peranakan Museum, Philatelic Museum, Singapore Art Museum and Asian Civilisations Museum and other historic and cultural sights for visitors to explore and to get to know Singapore better.

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