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Central Fire Station
Photograph: Iryna Rasko/Shutterstock

The oldest buildings and structures in Singapore

Built over a century ago, these iconic and historic buildings stood the test of time

By Cam Khalid
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The image of Old Singapore – and we’re talking about the pre-colonial era – usually consists of wooden kampongs, sampans and jetties – a testament to its humble origins as a fishing village. Structures made of bricks and concrete were then introduced during British colonial rule, resulting in some of the country’s iconic buildings which – despite Modern Singapore’s constant transformation – are still standing today. From the oldest government building to the first place of worship, here are the ones that manage to survive for over a century.

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Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka
Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka
Photograph: Sengkang/Wikimedia Commons

Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka

Built in 1820

You’d think the grand Sultan Mosque is the oldest mosque in Singapore with a history that dates back to 1824. But no, Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka’s humble beginnings as a wooden surau (Islamic assembly building) goes way back to 1820, making it the oldest mosque and also the very first place of worship in Singapore. 

The sequestered mosque was established by pioneer Arab businessman and philanthropist Syed Omar Aljunied, who was personally welcomed by Sir Stamford Raffles when he arrived in Singapore. His son Syed Abdullah then financed the brick makeover in 1855. After several facelifts over the years, the mosque was listed as a historic site by the National Heritage Board in 2001.

Thian Hock Keng Temple
Thian Hock Keng Temple
Photograph: Hit1912/Shutterstock

Thian Hock Keng Temple

Things to do Tanjong Pagar

Built in 1821/1822

A century ago, Telok Ayer Street was right up against the sea before land reclamation work began in the 1880s. And the Thian Hock Keng Temple, known as the Temple of Heavenly Happiness, was first built as a small joss house sometime between 1821 and 1822 before it was rebuilt in 1839. 

It was popular with newly arrived Chinese immigrants, who came here to burn incense in thanks to Ma Cho Po (a Taoist deity and protector of seafarers) for their safe arrival. Some of the materials used in the temple were taken from the boats, including the rooftop mosaic. Inside, the main altar features a statue of Ma Cho Po, and other deities of luck, war and punishment. The oldest and most important temple of the Hokkien people in Singapore, it was gazetted as a national monument in 1973.

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Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple
Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple
Photograph: Galina Savina/Shutterstock

Sri Mariamman Temple

Things to do Chinatown

Built in 1827

Oddly enough, the biggest and oldest Hindu temple in Singapore is found in the middle of Chinatown. The Sri Mariamman Temple’s roots can be traced back to 1827 when it was first built by Naraina Pillai, the first recorded Indian immigrant to enter colonised Singapore (he travelled with Sir Stamford Raffles from Penang), as a humble shed made of wood and attap. The oldest parts of the existing brick structure date back to 1843. 

Dedicated to the Goddess of Rain, Mariamman, it's famous for its staggeringly detailed gopuram (tower gateway), and was declared a national monument in 1973. It's also the site of Theemidhi, a remarkable fire-walking ceremony held a week before the Hindu festival Deepavali.

The Arts House
The Arts House
Photograph: Shutterstock

The Arts House

Art City Hall

Built in 1827

Formerly known as Old Parliament House, what is now The Arts House was regarded to be the oldest existing government building. However, it was first built in 1827 for Scottish merchant John Argyle Maxwell as his private residence before being taken over by the colonial government. Extensions were added in 1875, 1901 and 1909, and the architecture eventually transformed from the Palladian style to Victorian.

The building served as the Parliament House from 1959 until 1999, and was gazetted as national monuments in 1992. After its vacancy in 1999, it was then converted into a home for performing and visual arts, and has been bustling ever since its inception in March 2004. 

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Armenian Church

Things to do City Hall

Built in 1835

This early 19th-century architectural masterpiece along Hill Street is the first Christian church in Singapore. And that’s not the only first – in 1909, it became the first building in Singapore with electricity. Dedicated to St Gregory the Illuminator, the first Armenian monk, it was commissioned by the first twelve Armenian families who settled on the island, and designed by prominent Irish architect George D. Coleman. 

Gazetted as a national monument in 1973 and restored in 1994, the small church also doubles as a tribute to the once-influential Armenian community in Singapore including the Sarkies brothers who built the Raffles Hotel, Agnes Joaquim who hybridised Singapore’s national flower Vanda 'Miss Joaquim', and Catchick Moses who co-founded the national newspaper The Straits Times.

Malay Heritage Centre
Malay Heritage Centre
Photograph: Shutterstock/ferryelegant

Malay Heritage Centre

Things to do Rochor

Built in 1843

Formerly known as Istana Kampong Glam, the iconic building was home to Malay royalty and the seat of the sultanate since its completion in 1843. Also designed by George D. Coleman, the palace features a combination of the Palladian style, which was then popular in England, with traditional Malay motifs. However, the Kampong Glam estate including the Istana became state land when Singapore gained independence in 1965. 

In the late 1990s, the government announced plans to transform the former Istana into a Malay Heritage Centre to spotlight the rich arts and cultural tradition of the Malay community. Since opening its doors in 2005, the centre honours the Malay culture with five permanent galleries, family-friendly festivals and interesting programmes. It was gazetted as a national monument in 2015.

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Lau Pa Sat
Lau Pa Sat
Photograph: Kashmira Kasmuri

Lau Pa Sat

Restaurants Singaporean Raffles Place

Built in 1894

A treat for the senses, Lau Pa Sat is one of the most popular hawker centres in Singapore, serving up everything from local to international fare. But bet you didn’t know it actually started as a fish market on the waterfront in 1824 before relocating to its present location in 1894. 

With its distinctive octagonal shape and ornamental columns, Lau Pa Sat remains one of the oldest Victorian structures in Southeast Asia and one of the first structures built in pre-fabricated cast iron in Asia. Despite going through several changes, the market still stays true to its original vision and elegant old-world charm. An iconic Singapore landmark, it was gazetted as a national monument in 1973.

Central Fire Station
Central Fire Station
Photograph: Bertrand Duperrin/Flickr

Central Fire Station

Kids City Hall

Built in 1908

The Central Fire Station is easily spotted by its distinctive red and white façade. It also comes complete with a watchtower and living quarters for firemen, and was used to trace fire fighting and civil defence developments in Singapore.

Today, it’s a civil defence museum also known as the Central Defence Heritage Gallery. With fire trucks and equipment on display, as well as customised interactive stations for a close-up experience of what firefighters and rescuers go through during a mission, it welcomes all to fully experience and understand this integral part of Singapore's history.

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