The Historians

Monday, March 9, 2015


           Due to the weather conditions, we had to skip CHIJMES and after exploring SAM, head to National Library as our last stop in the Bras Basah area before we set off to Fort Canning in Jeremy's car parked at the Bras Basah complex.

At Present

          The Central Public Library was opened in 2005 to replace the old National Library previously located a Stamford Road (Yong, 2011). It now serves as the headquarters of the National Library Board (NLB). It stands 16 storeys tall and combined the functions of the old library with a reference library- the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library and a Drama Centre- owned and managed by the National Arts Council.

Lee Kong Chian- Who is he?

I have heard of many places named after Lee Kong Chian and Lee Foundation (e.g.: Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine (NTU),  Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (NUS), Lee Foundation Theatre (NAFA) etc.) So I wanted to find out a little more on who he actually was..   

Lee Kong Chian was born in Fukien and began his career in Singapore as a schoolteacher.  He turned to business (married Tan Kah Kee's daughter - I have heard of the acclaimed Tan Kah Kee Young Inventors Award during my days doing product design in secondary school! ) and formed his own Rubber company: Lee Rubber Company. A son of a tailor who through hardwork and perseverance (Tan, 1987) became a multi- millionaire and one of the leader of the  Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, he was very influential among the Chinese immigrant community (Turnbull, 2009). He established Lee foundation in 1952 and began using his wealth to support education. ( Rahman & Wee , 2011)


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Did you know that the National Library's beginnings were tied to the establishment of Singapore's first major institution- The Singapore Institution now known as Raffles Institution?

Raffles proposed setting up an educational institution and envisioned a library to support the educational aims of the college. Through this, the seeds of the National Library was sown. 

Although the building did face issues at the beginning..The old National Library building managed to be set up in 1960..  

          The old National Library building at Stamford Road was opened on 12 November 1960. Provision for the setting up of the free public library came into realization with the contribution of $375,000 from a rubber tycoon and philanthropist Lee Kong Chian. He was keen to promote the use of vernacular languages for the public and donated on condition that the library would be made public and free for all. 

At present 2 features from the old Stamford Road National Library Building remain in its new premises to preserve memories of the old building. Firstly, the Saint Andrew's Cross- a geometric floor pattern transplanted from the foyer of the old building at Stamford Road has been retained and brought to the plaza of the new building. Next is the bamboo garden at Basement One that features a brick wall constructed using the red bricks taken from the former National Library at Stamford Road (Balamurugan.2004)

The Saint Andrew's Cross from the foyer of the old National Library

The Saint Andrew's Cross
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Foyer, Stamford Library
The Saint Andrew's Cross at the foyer of the old National Library
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The red bricks used for the old National Library

Bamboo Garden with Red Bricks from the old Naitonal Library
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Twin Pillars of Old National Library
Twin Pillars of Old National Library
Previous Remains of the National Library facing SMU
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Why the Saint Andrew's Cross and the Red Bricks?

I was initially curious what a library had to do with the Saint Andrew's Cross and how significant were these Red Bricks that many remember fondly about the old National Library

From 1875 to 1940, the site of the National Library Building at Stamford Road was initially occupied by St Andrew's Chapel and School buildings. The red bricks were said to reflect the red-brick period of British architecture in the 1950s.

British Red Brick Universities
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It was indeed unfortunate that we were unable to explore both the National Library and CHIJMES due to the poor weather conditions that day as we hurried off to Fort Canning. 

Nevertheless through this experience of researching about the National Library and uncovering the elements used to 'remember the past ' still present at the building was definitely an eye opener for me (having walked past the Saint Andrew's Cross on the way to Art Friend at Bras Basah Complex for the greater part of my life in art school). 

In hindsight, this experience made me reconsider the significance of the National Library and due to its commonplace in society,  we very often overlook - that 'it was there / part of Singapore's make-up all along', an asset that we sometimes take for granted. 


In the case of the National Library, the contrast in architectural styles used are apparent- a reflection of the day and age it is being built in . The present one towering 16 storeys high with huge glass panels. gardens, built to be 'eco-friendly' in comparison to the old building that is said to follow after British red-brick architecture 


Once again if not for this trail I would never have known about the existence of such 'artefacts of the past' and their histories. I understand from some readings online that the bamboo garden with the red bricks apparently does not allow the public to enter. (This perhaps in an effort to preserve and protect the precious bricks from any vandalism).

Personally I feel more awareness should and can be created for such places. This trail has inspired me as a History and Art teacher (when I bring my students past this place to buy art materials or to the library) to do my part to impart to my students the insights to these locations and perhaps other sites I will encounter in future.

I must say I am extremely grateful to have our FREE and PUBLIC Library.


Balamurugan, Anasuya (2004). National Library Building, Stamford Road. Infopedia, 12 August 2004.

Chew, D. (2005, November 14). More than just booksTODAY, p. 33. Retrieved July 11, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Cultural awakening at opening of new National Library . (1960, November 13). The Straits Times, p.1.
"From Rags to "Rubber King" [Microfilm: NL 12194]. (1967, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 11.
National Library Board Singapore. (2014, August 28). History of national library Singapore. Retrieved from
National Library Board. (n.d.). About the National Library Building. Retrieved March 3, 2011, from National Library website:
National Library, our heritage and a treasure . (2000, February 19). The Straits Times.
Tan, B. H. (1987, November 10). Rubber Tycoon who never forgot the poor. The Straits Times, p.4

Tan, H. Y. (1999, March 27). National Library building will not be conservedThe Straits Times. Retrieved March 1, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Tan, Y. (2001, December 12). Library for the 21st centuryThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved July 19, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Turnbull, C. (2009). A History if Modern Singapore, 1819-2005.  Singapore: NUS Press, p.140, 142
Seet, K.K. A Place for the People – the story of a National Library. Singapore: Times Books International, 1983.
(Call Number: SING 027.55957 SEE)

Yong, C.Y (2011), National Library Building, Victoria Street. Infopedia

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