Happy Labour Day!

Singapore celebrates Labour Day on May 1. This public holiday was started in 1960 just after the rise to power of the People’s Action Party (still the ruling party on this island nearly sixty years later). As in many countries, unions were much more significant in the post-War era, and May Day offered an opportunity to demonstrate workers’ solidarity. Today, Labour Day seems to have drifted away from its original focus — but the Prime Minister still gives an annual speech about the workforce and the economy. He assures us that the economy is going strong.

For me, Labour Day meant an opportunity to visit the Istana, the official residence and office of the President of Singapore. Built in 1867, it is an impressive building.

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Visiting the Istana is kind of like visiting the White House, except that no one actually lives in the Istana (why it is still called the “official residence,” I am not sure; apparently, no one has lived there since 1985). But they do use the building to welcome state visitors and hold state dinners — and they open it up to the public on five public holidays a year.

To get into the Istana, you start by standing in line. If you get there at 8:28 on a grey, about-to-have-huge thunderstorms morning, you hardly have to wait at all (but when we attempted to visit last year at 10:00 on a day with much better weather, we were told the line would be two hours long). Once you get in, you go through a set of huge white gates:

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Beyond that is another set of lines, this time for security. And then you walk up a long, long drive, past rolling lawns that make the place feel like a mini-botanical garden. The grounds include a miniature Japanese garden …

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… a swan pond …

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… and a Victorian pond (you can tell they like their water features).

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I was a fan of the gazebo at the Victoria pond (named for the British queen, though they removed her statue once the British colonial government moved out).

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I also liked the signs that warned us to “keep off the pond,” both because I don’t know how one can be “on” a pond and because it looks like they are still using the same visitor signs that someone spray-painted from a stencil kit in the 1980s.

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You can go into the Istana itself to see four or five rooms on the first floor, but you can’t take pictures inside. Just imagine lots of very large, important-looking rooms with high ceilings, gaudy chandeliers, and white columns, and you’ll have the right idea. The government uses these public visitor days to trot out the official state gifts it has been given from countries all over the world. So you walk by cases that include tea cups, goblets, and chalices, bowls, boxes, and vases. One display area is labeled “ornamental watercraft,” while another is titled “human figurines.” I liked that the US gave Singapore a bronze cowboy on a horse — and that the Saudis one-upped us by donating a golden knight on a horse on top of a clock. The Germans made a present of a mini-Brandenburg Gate.

Outside, for open house day, sections of the great lawn had been turned into a playground …

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… and a concert tent …

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… while a formal terrace was appropriated by a Zumba class (at least, I think that’s what’s going on here):

Lots of people also like to visit the gun terrace to see this cannon and the view into the city:

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There are, of course, all sorts of plants at the Istana. They have a whole sea of Singapore’s national orchid, Miss Joaquim.

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After a tremendous thunderstorm passed over (which I waited out in a tent set out just for this purpose), I took a guided nature walk to learn a little bit about Singaporean botany. Here are just a few of the flowers we saw (from what we were told is a “musical note plant,” a Ceylon ironwood, and a tembusu tree).

We learned about the jelutong tree, whose sap can be used for chewing gum, and the meninjau tree, from which you can fry up bitter-tasting emping belinjau crackers. We also spent a while in the spice garden (the tree in front is a nutmeg).

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I’m not sure I’ll run back to the Istana — among other things, I don’t want to stand in line — but I’m glad that I paid a visit. It made for an interesting morning.

 

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