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TMJ owns a run-down istana in Singapore worth RM14billion, but he can’t sell it.

PS: If you’d like more stories like this, please subscribe to our HARI INI DALAM SEJARAH Facebook group  😀 

(This article is originally written in BM. Click here to read it)


If you talk about property prices in Singapore, the first thing that would probably come to mind is that it’s VERY expensive. If we in Malaysia can feel the pinch of property prices here, a smaller country like Singapore would feel it even more. Singapore has one of the most expensive housing prices, so if you inherited land from your ah ma or ah gong then you’re lucky but if you recently bought a house or land in Singapore then confirm plus chop you rich la.

But Tengku Mahkota Johor (TMJ) upped y’all coz he actually owns land with a palace on it, worth 14 billion ringgit, in the ‘little red dot’ . How does he own this though? Let’s see …


TMJ’s SG land is about 30 times bigger than the White House

This whole piece of land is located near the U.S Embassy and bordering condos worth 3.3 million USD (around RM 13.75 million) each. So you can kinda guess how high the value of the land is right here. And it’s massive too – TMJ is the registered owner of a 210,875 square meter plot.

“Owning a piece of land in Singapore is certainly a privilege as land is the most precious resource in the city-state. Over the past five decades, land prices have appreciated significantly. This has fueled wealth creation for older generations. Many also aspire to own a landed property as it is a status symbol for the well-heeled” – Christine Li, Bloomberg, 20 Feb 2019.

istana woodneuk land

TMJ owns this estate … right next to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Image from Bloomberg

The first thing you need to know is that there are two istanas in the land he owns, and people keep mixing them up. So here’s an easy reference.

  • Istana Woodneuk –  Has a blue roof, and is still standing…barely.
  • Istana Tyersall – Had a red roof, but has been demolished for almost a century.

Before we get into the whole story of Istana Woodneuk, its neighbour, Istana Tyersall needs a little recognition too since it kept getting mistaken for the other palace.


Istana Tyersall caught on fire, got abandoned and then was demolished a LONG time ago

It began with a majestic building called the Tyersall House. It was built by William “Royal Billy” Napier, the former Lieutenant-Governor of Labuan and first lawyer in Singapore, on a piece of 67-acre land at the Tyersall estate in 1854. When he wanted to retire and go back to England, the house was put for sale by Boustead & Co and was later bought over by Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor (aka TMJ’s great-great-great-grandfather) in 1860. Sultan Abu Bakar later moved his residence there from Telok Blangah where he lived during his reign as Temenggong, after his father’s death in 1862.

Sultan Abu Bakar, 1st Sultan of Modern Johor. Image from Berita Harian

Sultan Abu Bakar, 1st Sultan of Modern Johor. Image from Berita Harian

When he was proclaimed the Sultan of Johor on 13 February 1886, he decided to commemorate his ascension by building a new palace in Singapore. So in 1890, Sultan Abu Bakar had Tyersall House demolished to make way for his upcoming palace, Istana Tyersall. The palace officially opened on 3 December 1892 and was known to be first building in Singapore to be supplied with electricity.

istana tyersall

Istana Tyersall that stood from 1892 to 1935. Image from Wikipedia

Just a few years later, Sultan Abu Bakar passed away in 1895 and the estate was given to his son, Sultan Ibrahim of Johor. But the new sultan preferred to stay next door, at Woodneuk House. Newly abandoned, no one noticed a fire on 10 September 1905, at Istana Tyersall. A servant of the estate only noticed the fire at 2 AM. By 2.45 to 3 AM, 3 fire engines came from the Singapore Fire Brigade and they only managed to put out the fire at 6 AM. Istana Tyersall was badly damaged and was left to rot.

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30 years of abandonment later, the beautiful estate was sadly demolished under the tender issued by Sultan Ibrahim.


Which brings us to Istana Woodneuk, the Sultan’s new hangout after 1935

Just like Istana Tyersall, this palace was owned by an angmoh and then bought over and rebuilt by the Johor royalty. Before it was called Istana Woodneuk, it was actually Wookneuk House (as mentioned before) but it caught on fire in 1925 and was reportedly burned down (kinda weird isn’t it). So the new Istana Woodneuk was rebuilt in 1935 as a replacement for Sultan Ibrahim and his 3rd wife, Sultanah Helen.

An old photo of Istana Woodneuk. Image from Bloomberg

An old photo of Istana Woodneuk after the Woodneuk House burned down. Image from Bloomberg

The palace survived Japanese bombings during World War 2 and the whole estate was used during the war to station the troops and set up camp. Istana Woodneuk was even temporarily used as a HQ for the Australian Army under Major General Gordon Bennett in 1942. After the war in 1945, a few orang putihs stayed in the palace and it was only given back to the Sultan in 1948. For some reason, no one else stayed in the palace after that and it met the same fate as Istana Tyersall.



So now it’s kinda sitting there cos the Singapore govt won’t let TMJ sell it

Although we don’t know when exactly Istana Woodneuk got abandoned, there is still a clear ownership of the property since

The palace is currently off-limits because the structure isn't stable anymore. Image from The Independent Singapore

The palace is currently off-limits because it’s dangerous. Image from The Independent Singapore

Even though the land is owned by the Johor royalty and has been passed down through the generations, it’s currently zoned for “special use of green space” which means that residential or commercial development is very limited (we’re guessing some ice cream wafer shops for tourists). But in 1990, the Singapore govt bought a chunk of the land for SGD 25 million (about RM 76 million), the Botanic Gardens managed to buy some of the land in 2004 and the govt got another 98,000-square-meter piece in 2009 for an undisclosed amount.

Since he can’t sell it, the ruins of Istana Woodneuk is now a playground for thrill-seekers, photographers, drug addicts and vandals. It also has somehow become a backdrop for wedding photos.

Are they not scared that the stairs might break? Or worst ... hantu. Image from Bridestory.com

Are they not scared that the stairs might break? Or worst … hantu. Image from Bridestory.com

In 2006, Istana Woodneuk burned down because of a major fire that was caused by drug addicts. It’s iconic blue roof tiles caved in and it was destroyed beyond repair. A few years ago the Singapore police started arresting trespassers because it was off-limits and deemed structurally unsafe. Oh and according to some people, there are “entities” and “Satanic rituals” going on there too.

A sad end to two majestic buildings, and seems to us like a waste of history. So if you’re paying them a visit, do look appreciate that the two ruins were once the jewels of Singapore a century ago. Oh and if anything happens, don’t come to us for a bandaid or an exorcism k?

PS: If you’d like more stories like this, please subscribe to our HARI INI DALAM SEJARAH Facebook group  😀 

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