Celebrating the Diamond Jubilee: Queen and Singapore (Part II)

The enduring relationship between Britain and Singapore has been strengthened by several memorable royal visits to the island city-state. 

From Coronation to Diamond Jubilee, The Queen and Singapore have remained intertwined. Despite changes in government and the economic fortunes of both countries, a mutually respectful relationship has remained steadfast over the years.


Singapore’s association with The Queen began in 1947, when as Princess Elizabeth, she married The Duke of Edinburgh. Like many countries across the globe, Singapore sent the royal couple a wedding present on behalf of the nation. Singapore’s leading newspaper, The Straits Times reported that the contribution was a gold casket, designed and made by the local company, BP de Silva. Eighty-five tahils (just over three kilogrammes) of solid gold were used to make the chest, which took 1,200 hours to craft.


In a letter of thanks, Princess Elizabeth, showing empathy with the country’s fortunes, wrote that she was “particularly delighted that Singapore, which had suffered long years of enemy occupation with a patience and heroism that I for my part shall never forget, should have wanted to express their good wishes in this way.”


Ceremonial Fanfare


During her reign, The Queen has visited nearly every country in the Commonwealth, and some like Singapore have seen several royal visits.


The inaugural visit came in February 1972, when she was welcomed by the country’s president of the day: President Benjamin Sheares. This made history as the first ever meeting between a British monarch and a Singaporean President, on Singapore soil. A booming 21-gun salute and a ceremonial display welcomed the royal visitors. The Queen arrived on the Royal Yacht Britannia, accompanied by her husband Prince Philip and daughter, Princess Anne. As Head of the Commonwealth, The Queen’s three-day visit to the young republic came at a significant time in Singapore’s history. The early seventies saw a city in bloom, both economically and aesthetically. The effect of the British military pull-out had almost been overcome, and the Singapore-British relationship had reached a new high in bilateral cooperation in trade, investment and cultural exchange.


The country was spruced up for the impending royal arrival, with housing estates and roads receiving extra plants. The stretch of Clemenceau Avenue that runs from Newton Circus to the President’s official residence - the Istana, was remetalled in a three-day improvement project. At the Istana, a new pathway was laid outside the entry walls, which were bordered by freshly planted shrubs.


Nothing was left to chance. The Straits Times reported that even the red carpet was rolled out at a final rehearsal at the East Lagoon port terminal where Britannia was due to dock.


The royal party’s arrival was quite a sight, with the Britannia escorted into Singapore waters by three of the country’s maritime defence gunboats: RSS Sovereignty, RSS Independence and RSS Freedom. Decorated with streamers, Britannia’s band played on the royal deck as the welcoming ceremonies began on the wharf side below. The honour guard presented a presidential salute to the tune of the national anthem, “Majulah Singapura”.


Ahead of their arrival in Singapore, The Straits Times reported that the royal family took a private trip to Tioman Island in Malaysia, before official duties began. Britannia was said to have weighed anchor there so they could enjoy a secluded picnic on the shore.


While seventies Britain was experiencing a burgeoning hippy movement of peace and free love, long-haired men visiting Singapore were unlikely to get through immigration. John Horsburgh, former Chief Operating Officer of Rolls-Royce, recalls working at Sembawang shipyard when the government banned long hair, officially describing it as a sign of “Western hippie drug culture”. “Ships weren’t allowed in the dockyard unless the crew’s haircut conformed. One ship was turned away because the owner’s son’s hair was too long,” he said. An enterprising barber even set up shop next to the security post, which was the first point- of-call for many if they wanted to get through immigration onto Singapore shores.


There were no such problems greeting the royal yacht as it was welcomed into Singapore. Here The Queen inspected the guard of honour before the dignitaries were presented to the royal visitors.


For security reasons, the route the motorcade took to the Istana was shrouded in secrecy. The Straits Times reported at the time that the sight of The Queen and the Singapore President driving past in the presidential car, en route to the Istana, proved quite a surprise for people waiting at bus stops.


The visit was a showcase of Singapore’s growing industry, economic success and vibrant culture. A state banquet at the Istana ended with a cultural show, including six dancing lions from the Singapore Chin Woo Association; probably the first time The Queen had seen a lion dance.



The royal visitors enjoy a traditional lion dance; Residents of Toa Payoh greet The Queen warmly


The royal visitors enjoy a traditional lion dance; Residents of Toa Payoh greet The Queen warmly


Gifts were exchanged, according to The Straits Times, and presents for the royal family included a ski boat for The Duke of Edinburgh; three gold-plated Rollei cameras, and a jade pendant for Princess Anne.


On the first day of the visit, The Queen was afforded an exuberant welcome at the Toa Payoh housing estate in the northeast of Singapore. Crowds lined the streets, crammed the corridors and waited at the windows of Block 53 at Lorong 5, Toa Payoh.


Security personnel had a tough time holding the well-wishers back as The Queen took the red-carpeted lift to the top floor for a bird’seye view from what was then Singapore’s biggest HDB housing estate.


One of the people she met on this first visit, 29-year-old bachelor Thomas Pung, was reintroduced to The Queen 34 years later in 2006. On their second meeting, it was reported that Mr Pung offered The Queen iced water in the same glass he had used to serve Her 7-Up during their meeting in 1972. The set of glasses has since become part of a treasured set and have not been used by anyone since The Queen.


The tightly packed itinerary of business and cultural visits included laying the foundation stone for the new British High Commission building in Tanglin Road. The ceremony for the new S$2.7 million building took all of three minutes as The Queen tapped either end of the marble slab with a maul and declared the stone well and truly laid.


During the three-day visit to the island, The Queen toured a number of Singapore’s key developments. Like many other visiting dignitaries, before and since, The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh planted a tree in the ‘Garden of Fame’ at Jurong Hill. Appropriately, it was a Tembusu, a native tree of Singapore and one of the country’s most distinctive species.


A varied itinerary gave The Head of the Commonwealth an opportunity to see both Singapore’s advancing industry and its rich heritage. One of the most unusual events of this inaugural visit was a night tour of the city, including a 15-minute stroll through Pagoda Street, where the royal party was reported to have stopped at several stalls.


No tour of Singapore would be complete without a trip to the famous Botanic Gardens. An orchid — Dendrobium Elizabeth, was named in The Queen’s honour. Thirty years later, to mark the Golden Jubilee, The Queen was presented with a gold model of the orchid, which was among the exhibits on display at Buckingham Palace in 2009 in an exhibition entitled “Queen and Commonwealth: The Royal Tour”.


At a dinner hosted by then President Benjamin Sheares, The Queen showed her sensitivity to Singaporean traditions, wearing a red-and-white Norman Hartnell evening dress specially designed to complement the colours of Singapore’s national flag. The dress (which was later displayed in the 2009 exhibition) featured Singapore’s national flower — the orchid, as a motif.


Seventies Singapore was in a state of great excitement at the prospect of seeing the royal party. When The Queen visited the Singapore Turf Club, which in 1972 was located in Bukit Timah, a record crowd of 25,760 turned out to greet her.


The royal party watched the races from the Chairman’s box. To celebrate the visit, The Queen Elizabeth II cup was inaugurated and appropriately the winning jockey was English racing legend Lester Piggott, who raced Jumbo Jet to an easy win.


After presenting the winning spoils, The Queen returned to the Istana before travelling to Eden Hall, the home of the British High Commissioner, to meet members of the British community and Eden Hall staff. A dinner on Britannia enabled guests to enjoy a reception on the veranda deck, accompanied by the band of the Royal Marines.


A month after the state visit, The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh visited Singapore again. This time it was part of a whistle-stop 18-hour tour to watch the ANZUK parade (a tripartite force comprising representatives from Australia, New Zealand and the UK) at Mandai Airfield.


Ceremony and Celebration


Newly built Changi Airport was the scene of The Queen’s arrival, 17 years later in 1989, when she returned to Singapore with The Duke of Edinburgh, on a chartered British Airways flight. Singapore was the first state visit of that year, followed by a trip to Malaysia.


At the country’s new airport, the royal couple were greeted and received by then President Wee Kim Wee and Mrs Wee. An official welcome at the Istana saw a hundred strong guard of honour, made up of the 1st Battalion Singapore Guards and 40th Singapore Armed Regiment.


The visit was a memorable occasion for retired teacher and former television presenter Duncan Watt, who met The Queen during a visit to the British Council. He was in the chosen line-up as she arrived at the British Council building on Napier Road.


Mr Watt was introduced to her as a teacher and a newscaster with Singaporean media. He said, “I don’t know why but I got the impression she was startled by that. She wasn’t around for very long, it was a whistle-stop tour. As far as I remember, she just popped in, saw a couple of classes and the staffroom, then went on her way. We certainly prepared a lot for it and everyone looked forward to the occasion.”


During the tour of the island, then President Wee presented The Queen with three carved Chinese seals. These included a matching pair for the royal couple, and a gold horse based on a painting by Xi Beihong, a Chinese painter who died in 1953. The Straits Times reported that one seal was inscribed with the Royal Seal in Chinese, while a matching pair in red and white had The Queen’s name on one and Prince Philip’s on the other.


The importance of remembering the shared losses of war in Singapore and Britain saw the royal couple visit the Kranji War Memorial to lay a wreath in honour of soldiers that died in the Second World War.


Prior to the visit, The Straits Times reported that there was likely to be a ballot for British expatriates wanting to meet their sovereign at Eden Hall as it could only hold 2,000. In 1989, Singapore had a population of some 7,500 Britons compared to more than 30,000 who reside in the country today.


British children greet The Queen at Eden Hall, the British Commissioner's residence in Singapore


British children greet The Queen at Eden Hall, the British Commissioner's residence in Singapore


During the three-day visit, Britannia, which accompanied the royal tour, was the official residence for the couple. Berthed at the World Trade Centre it was the venue for a banquet, on the last day of the tour, attended by 44 of Singapore’s leading dignitaries, including President Wee and Mrs Wee and then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his wife. The party was later joined by a further 200 guests for a reception, before the yacht sailed from Keppel Wharves to a farewell from more than 200 British subjects. The Britannia was last seen in Singapore waters in 1997 on its final voyage before decommissioning. It docked at Sembawang shipyard for repairs, before sailing to Hong Kong for the handover ceremony.


Education and the achievements of youth formed an important part of the agenda and excited pupils at Townsville Primary School in Ang Mo Kio enjoyed a high-profile celebration of their achievements when The Queen paid them a visit. Meanwhile, The Duke of Edinburgh visited the United World College, before the royal couple attended a lunch at the National University of Singapore and toured the conservation area of Tanjong Pagar and Chinatown.


Before the royal party left on Britannia for Malaysia, then British High Commissioner Michael Pike was knighted by The Queen. Sir Michael was conferred the Knight Commander of the Victorian Order for his services to the monarch before and during her visit. Her Majesty also received the chief Far East Correspondent for The Observer, Dennis Bloodworth, investing him as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).


A Changing Business Landscape


In 2006, The Queen visited Singapore for a third time, on the journey home from inaugurating the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.


Arriving by British Airways, the visit began with a welcoming ceremony at the Istana with then President S. R. Nathan and his wife. As in previous visits, this trip played an important part in strengthening friendships and economic ties between the two countries. On this occasion, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong enjoyed a private audience with The Queen before hosting a lunch at The Fullerton Hotel.


The Queen toasts then President S.R. Nathan at a state banquet at the Istana in 2006


The Queen toasts then President S.R. Nathan at a state banquet at the Istana in 2006



In her 80th year, The Queen’s itinerary was no less busy than in previous times and included a meeting with Singaporean and British business leaders at Eden Hall followed by a luncheon held in honour of President and Mrs Nathan.


A tour of the new National Library afforded the royal party a 360-degree view of Singapore’s skyline, which had changed immeasurably in the seventeen years since The Queen’s last visit. Here she was shown rare books in the National Library Board’s collection and a special newspaper supplement published to mark her Coronation in 1953.


This royal visit was a memorable occasion for competition winners Alvina Tan and Cliff Tan from Singapore Polytechnic. The winning pair met The Queen after gaining the top accolades in the Singapore Youth Commonwealth Photo competition, which attracted more than 3,000 entries.


Royal visits help to celebrate historic occasions in the life of a nation and, as on their last visit, the royal couple honoured both countries’ war victims with a wreath-laying ceremony at the cenotaph. The Queen met a number of ex-servicemen, including 86-year old Zainal Muslim who wore a coronation medal amongst his honours, a signal that he had been to Buckingham Palace in 1953.


The third royal tour since Singapore’s independence came at a time when Britain was emerging as the largest investor in Singapore, in terms of total foreign investment.


Bilateral trade was standing at its highest volume ever and interest in Britain was renewed following economic resurgence and its billing as the second-largest trading partner in Europe after Germany. Trade stood at more than S$17.1 billion – making the nation Singapore’s twelfth-largest trading partner and seventh-largest source of tourism.


Advancements in engineering technology were also on show, with Prince Philip viewing the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine, which powers the Airbus A380 – that was to be launched by Singapore Airlines in 2007. The National Youth Achievement Award event later welcomed The Duke of Edinburgh as it celebrated 50 years of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, which at that time saw more than 250 schools and 126,000 people taking part.


The royal visit came just a year after the announcement in Singapore that London had secured the honour of staging the 2012 Olympics and The Queen spoke of her pleasure at seeing some of the Singaporean athletes at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne the week before.


Many of the sportsmen and women training for the 2012 Olympics met Prince Philip when he visited the Singapore Sports School. Some received bursaries from the Lord Sebastian Coe/British Chamber of Commerce 'Dream 2012 Award', to help them prepare for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London.


The Queen and Singapore have continued to enjoy an enduring and mutually respectful relationship, one that in her 60th year of reign, continues to blossom and grow.


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