Part of the old campus of Singapore Polytechnic, the first polytechnic in Singapore, will likely be giving way for the construction of the upcoming Prince Edward MRT Station of the Circle Line.
The history of Singapore Polytechnic stretched back to the early fifties, when the idea of a polytechnic in Singapore was first proposed. In the first half of the 19th century, it appeared there was no actual need for Singapore to have a technical institution, as the former British colony was striving for an economy based on trades and commercial activities.
After the Second World War, the entrepot trade’s importance declined; the rose of industrialisation in Singapore signaled a need for technical education, and this began to show by the early fifties due to the lack of technically trained people. In April 1952, a group made up of Rotarians, Technical Association of Malaya members, lawyers, teachers and the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) representatives met at the Adelphi Roof Garden and agreed that a polytechnic in Singapore was necessary.
The colonial government responded by setting up a study committee to look into the suggestion. In late 1953, with the submitted report, the government acknowledged the need for a polytechnic. Establishing a technical institution finally became a reality on 27 October 1954 when the Legislative Council passed the Singapore Polytechnic Ordinance “for the purpose of providing studies, training and research in the technology, science, commerce and arts”. In early 1955, the first board of governors for the polytechnic was appointed, with J.D. Williams selected as the first principal.
The construction of Singapore’s first polytechnic took place in 1957; the Prince Edward Road campus was completed about a year later, at a cost of $11.5 million. Before the establishment of Singapore Polytechnic, the only technical schools in Singapore were the Balestier Junior School (set up in 1930), St Joseph’s Trade School (1938), Malay Crafts School (1940s) and Maris Stella Vocational School (1940s).
The Pioneering Years
Designed in the modernist architectural style, the campus had a prominent main rectangular foyer with distinctive mosaic patterns. It was situated next to the sea, which has been reclaimed into present-day Marina Bay. The Palmer House, former home to the Chinese Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), was located behind the campus, and the eight-storey Asian Seamen’s Club stood a short distance away.
More than 3,000 students had enrolled in 58 courses provided by the new polytechnic, which was also the first technical institution in Southeast Asia, ranging from engineering, accountancy, navigation to plumbing, brickwork and plastering. In the 1958/59 semester, there were 700 full time students and over 2,800 part time students. Almost 1,000 had signed up for the engineering course.
On 24 February 1959, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, officiated the opening of Singapore Polytechnic accompanied by Sir William Goode, the then-Governor of Singapore.
In mid-1960, the polytechnic adopted its crest in the form of a red and yellow shield with the phrase “Berkhidmat Dengan Keahlian” (“to serve with skill”) written on it. The phrase referred to the objective of the polytechnic, which was to train the manpower required for Singapore’s industries.
The sixties saw the Singapore Polytechnic used as a hosting venue for numerous seminars and exhibitions, such as the Malaysia Student Photographic Exhibition (1963), Singapore Arts Society Exhibition (1963), Exhibition of Light Industries Service Unit (1964), Public Service International’s Seminar (1964), Proliferation Security Initiative Seminar (1964), International Machine Tool and Metalworking Industries Exhibition (1965), Building Industry Exhibition (1965), Food Industries Exhibition (1965) and Polytechnic Students’ Union Seminar (1966). Important local political leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew, Toh Chin Chye and Goh Keng Swee were regularly invited as guests of honour at the exhibitions and seminars.
In addition to its diploma courses, the Singapore Polytechnic also started introducing degree courses in 1965. In doing so, the aim was to develop Singapore Polytechnic into an institute of advanced technology that could award its own degrees. However, this did not happen. In 1968, 68 Singapore Polytechnic engineering students were conferred degrees but by the then-University of Singapore.
In the following year, it was decided that the professional courses would be transferred to the University of Singapore’s Faculties of Architecture and Engineering. The polytechnic itself was restructured in the same year into the School of Industrial Technology and School of Nautical Studies. The University of Singapore’s Faculty of Architecture was also housed at the Singapore Polytechnic in the sixties. It remained there until 1970 when the faculty was relocated to the Kinloss House at Lady Hill Road.
By 1973, the number of engineering students at Singapore Polytechnic exceeded 4,800 – more than four times the enrolment in 1959. The polytechnic, in 1973, targeted to produce 2,500 technicians for the industries every year.
Due to the demands, the Singapore Polytechnic was expanded to three campuses in the seventies – its original campus at Prince Edward Road, a temporary Princess Mary campus, converted from a former British barracks, at Dover Road, and a third campus at Ayer Rajah Road. The Princess Mary campus was later demolished and replaced by a new school campus completed in 1979; it has since become the permanent campus of Singapore Polytechnic.
In late 1978, the Labour Ministry’s Employment Service and the Research and Statistics Department was shifted from Anson Road to the former Singapore Polytechnic building.
The campus was later occupied by the National Institute of Commerce (NIC) in 1982. Spending $7 million in the renovation and equipment, the NIC, a commercial institute developed by the Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB), offered a series of commercial courses and training with well-equipped facilities including advanced mini computers with programming, word processing and accounting capabilities, electric and electronic typewriters, and language and office training laboratories.
In the mid-nineties, the campus was leased out as a commercial entity renamed as Bestway Building, which later housed Mediacorp TV12 (formerly Singapore Television Twelve).
Today, the rapid pace of development is finally approaching the old Singapore Polytechnic campus, which has been sitting at the corner of the Tanjong Pagar district for more than half a century. As for now, the former campus’ main building will not be affected, but its other buildings will be demolished. By 2025, this historic area, also known as Tanjong Malang, will likely have a different look with the new Shenton Way Bus Terminal and a completed Prince Edward MRT Station.
Published: 16 April 2016
Updated: 18 November 2022