When art educator Dahlia Osman was a child, she would visit her grandparents during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr at a house in a sprawling estate near Singapore’s Botanic Gardens.
Known as Tyersall Park, the estate, which belongs to the royal family of Johor, once housed a large palace called Istana Tyersall, which was demolished in 1935.
There was also a smaller mansion known as Istana Woodneuk, which burned down in 1925.
In its place, Istana Wooden York was built, but became known to the community as Istana Woodneuk. It has been abandoned since it was damaged beyond repair by a fire in 2006.
Dahlia’s grandparents moved to Tyersall Park with their children in 1951 when her great-grandfather, Ahmad, was hired as a gardener at Istana Woodneuk. Her grandfather, Handair bin Haji Sidek, later became the chief servant of Sultan Ibrahim.
“My father wasn’t from Tyersall but my mom did grow up there from when she was three years old till she got married and moved out in 1968. She told my siblings and I many stories about her childhood and how it was growing up at Tyersall.
"Some stories were paranormal ones, some were about the tropical fruits that grew in abundance there, while some were about happy events and occasions that they organised as a community,” Dahlia, 49, told This Week in Asia.
Tyersall Park has been in the news in recent weeks, with Bloomberg reporting that the current registered owner of the land – the Crown Prince of Johor, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim – is in talks with Singapore authorities for permission to develop a cluster of high-end homes there.
The land is currently zoned “special use of green space”, with restrictions on residential or commercial uses.
A representative of Singapore businessman Peter Lim is reportedly assisting the crown prince in the matter.
Lim’s business relationship with the Johor royal family spans joint ventures in real estate, health care and security.
This includes the Vantage Bay Healthcare City, an integrated real estate development project, and the Thomson Iskandar medical hub project in Johor Baharu, just across the border in Malaysia.
Lim declined to comment on the Tyersall Park matter when approached through his representative.
The Tyersall Park estate stretches across 210,875 square metres of greenery – bigger than Hong Kong Island’s largest public park, Victoria Park.
Segments of the original estate were sold to the Singapore government in 1990 and 2009 for the development of the Botanic Gardens, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The net value of the remaining land is around $600 million, according to Alan Cheong, executive director of the research and consultancy team at brokerage Savills.
However, factors including negotiation, changes to land usage, and development charges paid to the government would increase the price to between $2.66 billion and US$4.5 billion (S$6.1 billion), Cheong said.
If sold, the site would be one of the country’s most expensive private developments in recent decades and could cost as much as $4.5 billion to develop, according to a Savills estimate.
Crazy Rich Asians link
Tyersall Park was thrust into the spotlight by the 2018 hit movie Crazy Rich Asians, based on the book with the same name.
Author Kevin Kwan, who grew up in Singapore, set the ancestral home of his key protagonists, the Young family, within the estate.
Since then, the private park has drawn daytrippers and those seeking out supernatural experiences.
Many have visited Istana Woodneuk, including British YouTuber Richard Hazeldine, whose video has garnered over 200,000 views, though he later said police reports of trespassing had been made against him.
Another YouTuber Sheryl Biangco explored the palace last year and said that no fences or signs were there to warn people off the grounds.
Photos of the mansion shared online show its walls covered in graffiti – words and cartoons in vibrant colours and other less savoury graffiti, including satanic symbols.
But it was not always like this.
For a long time, Istana Woodneuk stood with imposing grace, even after the last occupants moved out in the 1990s.
As a child, Dahlia remembers sneaking into the empty Istana with her brother whenever they visited their grandparents on the estate.
Its mesmerising grandeur held Dahlia in awe – grand staircases, saloon-style swing doors, and the wood-panelled main room where the smell of timber filled the air. For the young Dahlia, it evoked the sight of lavish parties.
Her grandparents’ house, built in 1952, was at the foot of the hill below Istana Woodneuk and was near a grass patch where children played. A row of similar houses served as accommodation for the sultan’s employees.
Dahlia last visited the estate in 2002 with her mother, Rubiah Anuar, and grandmother Armidah.
After the community and the royal family moved out in the early 1990s, only Dahlia’s grandparents and one or two families remained.
Her grandfather Handair looked after the estate until his death in the late 1990s, while Armidah continued to live there alone until 2001, when her family urged her to move out, saying it was too dangerous for her to be there on her own.
“Istana Woodneuk was still grand and beautiful in 2002, when I last visited it. Since then, it gradually became the current ruins; it was badly burnt and vandalised. It saddens me to see it abandoned, crumbling and defaced,” Dahlia lamented.
Asked for her views on parts of the area being redeveloped into luxury housing, Dahlia questioned if the heritage value would be lost in the process.
“Istana Woodneuk could have been conserved by the National Heritage Board as a heritage building or national monument, where the public and our students celebrate this shared legacy and develop a better understanding of our cultural past, not just for remembrance’s sake but to document a lost way of living that was close to nature as opposed to the urbanisation of today,” she said.
The community living there were close-knit and had a connection to the land.
“It was every bit theirs as it was the sultan’s. Their stories could offer insights into a unique community of people,” she explained.
Today, the only remaining link with this community is her mother, who found it a pity that the estate is facing development.
“She grew up surrounded by nature. She thinks that it is a pity such a rich habitat filled with flora and fauna will be urbanised,” said Dahlia.
“The rich botany and wildlife of Tyersall would be an interesting study as part of Singapore’s natural history as well,” she added.
Sharing Dahlia’s views is Sarafian Salleh, a heritage researcher who has spent much time studying the palace and its occupants.
“The plot should be conserved. The plot of land along the stretch at Holland Road ought to be left in its natural state. I am not very keen on the idea of having any private housing there,” he said.
But preserving Istana Woodneuk may pose a challenge to the government, according to Liao Wen-Chi, associate professor of real estate at the National University of Singapore.
“Singapore’s urban planning has treasured the conservation of cultural heritage and meanwhile strived for economic efficiency and public accessibility. Iconic projects include the South Beach and the National Gallery Singapore, to name a few.
"The complication of Istana Woodneuk is that it is private property of the State of Johor.”
Sarafian believed that there is a way for the palace to be opened to the public as a conservation site.
“With Johor’s permission, build walking paths and a green corridor through the Woodneuk plot, similar to that of Thomson Nature Park.
"There will be information signboards along the way that will describe the history of Istana Woodneuk, its architecture, and information on the plants seen in the green space,” he explained.
But even if luxury homes were indeed built on the land, Liao believes that “various government policies and regulations [will be] in place to prevent enclaves for both public and private housing”, meaning they will not be segregated.
“Urban development should balance the conservation of cultural heritage and the creation of economic value. I trust the authorities of Singapore and the State of Johor will find a win-win solution,” said Liao.
In terms of the size and price range of the park, Liao drew parallels with Jalan Anak Bukit, a 32,200 square metre piece of land to the northwest of Istana Woodneuk, that was sold for $1.03 billion by the government in late August.
“Among all the government lands sold this year, Jalan Anak Bukit is the site closest to Istana Woodneuk, but Istana Woodneuk’s location is better. Thus, we may use Jalan Anak Bukit’s price to gauge a lower bound of Istana Woodneuk’s current value.
"With more than two million square feet, Istana Woodneuk’s value would be at least $4.3 billion, similar to the Bloomberg article’s estimate of $4.5 billion,” Liao added.
The Singapore National Heritage Board had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publishing.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.