What the **** happened to Singapore’s Public Square?

By Ng Yi-Sheng

For his first GRC piece, Ng Yi-Sheng unearths the history and power subsoil of our very own Padang—from its early colonial beginnings to the steroidal spectacle catchment area that it is today. Making comparison to Persian and Indonesian models of public squares to project a future for assembly.

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It happened a month ago. I was giving a tour of the National Museum to a visiting friend, geeking out about Singapore’s forgotten narratives, when we came across an old oil painting from 1851.

John Turnbull Thomson’s “The Esplanade from Scandal Point”, 1851. Photographed at the National Museum by the author.

This a familiar image to us local history nerds. It’s a precious little snapshot of early colonial Singapore, with recognisable landmarks—St Andrew’s Cathedral! St Gregory the Illuminator! Fort Canning Centre!—and its multi-culti inhabitants—a veritable Where’s Wally panorama of sahibs & memsahibs, sepoys & Orang Laut, pigtailed Chinese men, Arab women in full purdah. As a newly-designated writer for this blog, however, it made me realise something rather extraordinary.

This is a Singaporean public square.

A central gathering point for a city’s inhabitants, as lively and colourful as the town square/plein/place/Platz/ plaza/praça/piazza in any picturesque, live-action Beauty & the Beast-style European village.

What’s even stranger is that the site still exists today. It’s the Padang.

Back in the 1800s, folks called it the Plain, Cantonment Plain, Raffles Plain & the Esplanade—it was joined up with what’s now the Esplanade Park, stretching all the way to the sea. It boasted a tree-lined promenade & a grassy knoll nicknamed Scandal Point, because of all the gossip traded there. A regimental band played there twice a week. The 1887 Raffles statue stood there, a monument to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee—it was regularly battered by flying footballs, & folks would climb it to get a better view of cricket games.

Contrast all that to what we’ve got now: a flattened, patch of manicured lawn that feels positively hostile to those seeking a space to lepak and mingle, treeless except at its border. Sure, you can walk across it under the burning sun, but it’s principally the domain of the once-whites-only Singapore Cricket Club & the once-Eurasians-only Singapore Recreation Club.

The Padang on 1 October 2019. Photographed by the author, which is why MBS is senget.

& sure, it’s still technically public land, but that just means you feel the eye of the government there—Parliament’s just next door!—especially when the area’s appropriated for nostalgic National Day Parade marchpasts. Less public square than Red Square.

(Oh, & it’s under construction now. For what?)

What the **** happened? It’s convenient to blame the PAP, but the answer’s probably more nuanced than that. Architectural historian Lai Chee Kien suggests that the Padang’s spiritual ancestry goes back not just to Europe, but also to the Persian maidan: part of the royal conurbation, linking the palace grounds, bazaar, mosques & madrasahs of the city—all of which “collectively articulated the shah’s role as the purveyor of political might as well as economic and civic life.”

The Brits encountered & reinforced this concept in Mughal India—note the Maidan of Calcutta, completed on the grounds of Fort William in 1758—& perhaps transplanted it to Singapore. Lai notes how the Padang wasn’t just a locus of communal leisure; it also “instilled and socialised concepts of colonial discipline and abidance among the British settlers”. Even in the 1800s, it was used for military drills & ceremonies, & in the 1920s and 30s, the Municipal Building/City Hall & Supreme Court went up on its perimeter. In other words, that image of the field as a meeting place for diverse groups needs to be regarded with some skepticism. Not everyone would’ve felt welcome there; certainly, no-one would’ve expected to feel *equal*.

View of parade participants at the Padang on the morning of the Installation of Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof bin Ishak, 3 December 1959. Photographed by author at the National Museum.

Back at the National Museum, one can see the logical progression of this power play. Here’s the Padang again as a public square, but now it’s a site of a rally for the emergent postcolonial regime. It’s a glorious revolutionary moment, foreshadowing Tahrir Square, Tiananmen before the tanks rolled in.

The tanks do roll in, of course. Every ****ing 9th of August.

Can we ever get back to that idyll of 1851—that moment when people of all backgrounds gather at the Padang to chill? Some would argue it still happens once a year, when F1 descends on the nation: then the field is transformed into a concert ground, & young people thrash their heads to Swedish House Mafia amidst the screaming wheels of racers & a dry ice laser show. But that’s still an elitist exercise: at $138 a night, & gargantuan roadblocks for the majority of the population, you can hardly call it a public event.

It was my first time at F1. I left early because the dry ice & haze gave me violent coughing attacks.

Yet the truth is, it’s possible. Consider what’s happened down south on the island of Java, Indonesia. In Jakarta, the old colonial Stadhuisplein, renamed Taman Fatahillah/Fatahillah Square, is now a pedestrian playground where people sit on dusty carpets, fed by itinerant hawkers & entertained by roving musicians. In Yogyakarta, on the fringe of the Sultan’s palace, there’s the alun-alun—the Javanese version of a maidan or square: though largely empty by day, it comes to life at night with souvenir merchants, obligatory hawkers & candy-coloured incandescent pedalcars, as well as playful pilgrims challenging themselves to walk blindfolded between the sacred banyan trees for good luck. These are public squares as they should be: scenic, historic, democratic.

Taman Fatahillah, Jakarta 2019; Alun Alun Kidul, Yogyakarta, 2016. Photographs by the author.

Given our city’s penchant for reinventing itself, I can actually envision a time when Singapore decides it’s sick of the sterile version of the Padang we’ve got now; plants it with trees & native grass again, opens it up as a permanent pasar malam where one may chew satay as the triplet towers of Marina Bay Sands gaze jealously on.

But in the meantime, we’ve got to value the other spaces we’ve got where people assemble freely, blithely, organically.

If the Padang isn’t our public square anymore, then where else do we find community?

Further reading:
Lai Chee Kien, “The Padang as a Centrepiece of Colonial Design”. Biblioasia,  8 September 2016. http://www.nlb.gov.sg/biblioasia/2016/09/08/the-padang-centrepiece-of-colonial-design/

A more detailed photograph of the JT Thomson’s painting:

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