Singapore - SG50 Heritage Tour

In August 2015, Singapore celebrates it's 50th anniversary of statehood. First formed in difficult times back in 1965, what was once a city of Malaysia became a country in its own right. With volatile neighbours, a difficult "birth" and a lack of natural resources, life was set to be hard for the young nation but through canny leadership, some radical policies & laws and the hard work of its people, Singapore has not only survived its first 50 years but flourished. It's now the economic hub for the region, consistently voted one of the safest locations on the planet and because of its ethnic & religious diversity has a character & life all of its own.

As part of the SG50 celebrations, Canon was kind enough to invite me to an event to showcase just a small part of the heritage of Singapore. The tour was in association with the National Heritage Board and would focus on three buildings recognised as national monuments, chosen because of their prominent personalities or because of their association with communities who have contributed to the success of Singapore.

Before the tour began I must confess I had no idea there was even a National Heritage Board! Learning about it, I did see one quote from the founder of the organisation (S. Rajaratham, Singapore's second deputy Prime Minister) which I liked, and why it's important to recognise, respect and preserve national monuments like these.  He asserted that the templates, churches, mosques, houses, street names & localaties of a place constitute the collective memory of a people. Even for a young country like Singapore it's very true.

Of course, this isn't just a post about the heritage of Singapore - it was an opportunity to photograph the monuments and test out some of Canon's kit at the same time! As well as bringing along my own personal 17-40mm f/4 lens, Canon kindly donated a brand new 5DS and a 24-70 f/4 lens as well as their latest mirrorless offering, the M3 equiped with a 55-250mm lens. The pictures below are meant to give a little more insight into some of the heritage of Singapore in this jubilee year, interspersed with the occasional tidbit of camera gear nerding :)

The first stop on the tour, the Abdul Gafoor mosque located in the heart of Little India.  Built in 1907 and restored again in 2003, it's a striking addition to the busy neighbourhood & certainly stands out as a community hub. It's most well known for the detailed calligraphy work displayed in numerous places around the mosque, seen in more detail later. -5DS

An array of garments available for visitors who may not be aware of the modest requirements for the mosque. -5DS

An example of the calligraphy with each point of the star naming one of the 25 prophets of Islam.  Shot with the M3 and perspective corrected in Lightroom. -M3

Although I took care to not take any identifiable photos of people using the mosque, this shot & the connotations for his religion was just too good to resist! -5DS

The mosque wasn't busy at the time of shooting with only a few men scattered around, most sitting resting & relaxing.  I was surprised to see numerous signs requesting patrons not sleep in the central areas.

I avoided shooting the main open areas where possible given there were people actively using the area and we were asked not to shoot people in the act of praying.  Instead, I've focused here on small, anonymous acts of worship.


It's hard to ignore spiral staircases as a photographer. -5DS

The rear of the mosque is no less ornately designed & decorated as the front.  Shot on the 5DS using the built-in HDR merge function to account for the bright skies. -5DS

A riot of colour on the rooftop! -5DS

Shot to test the detail resolution of the 5DS, at 100% this shows great detail.  Impressive stuff. -5DS

Crescent moons. -M3

The second stop on the tour was St Joseph's Catholic church, built by a Portugese Christian mission in 1906.

The Gothic architecture is unusual in Singapore, seemingly out-of-place among the more modern office & HDB buildings. Yet it does give a bit of an impression of staunch indifference to the blocky, boring buildings slowly rising around it! -5DS

I found the interior to be a strange mix, with fairly plain, unadorned pews & blank white walls blended with ostentatious papal portraits, statues and the church's signature stained glass windows. -5DS

An example of one set of the church's famous stained glass windows. -5DS

A balance of the modern & the traditional.  A statue of Mary backlit with a bright blue neon light might sound srange but in the eclectic mix of interior decoration, it kind of worked!   -5DS

Fine detail from one of the stained glass panels.  -M3

How could I resist :) -5DS

Sniping from quite a distance away with the telephoto lens on the M3 was a challenge, particularly when nailing focus.  At 250mm indoors the noise is very evident too, but just about works in black & white. -M3

At closer range the M3 did fair better and I was pleasantly surprise to see it nail focus when I left the AF to its own devices. -M3

Backlit by the Sun, even at full stretch the M3 could capture great detail in the stained glass windows.

The third and final stop on the tour was the Yueh Hai Ching temple.

 Established originally in 1836 it's by far the oldest building it's closer to the centre of town than the other monuments and overlooked by towering office blocks.

The temple entrance flanked by modern skyscrapers. -5DS

After a recent renovation, burning incense and offerings are now banned from the interior of the temple and now everything is outside.  A pall of fragrant smoke hovers outside the entrance. -5DS

Vibrant, colourful 3D displays adorn the temple all over, depicting a range of different scenes & events. -M3

This 3D tigress and her cubs was stunning.  So bright, vibrant and exciting :) -5DS

Awesome light in the interior. -5DS

Remanants of an offering. -5DS

What struck me most about the Chinese temple was how colourful, vibrant and FUN the decoration was!  It's unique, I have never seen anything quite like it and for something that looks so unassuming from the street, it was an absolute joy exploring it and seeing just how striking the renovations have made the temple.  Definitely my favourite monument of the three!

The tour was a lot of fun.  Singapore occasionally gets criticism that it lacks the heritage because it's "only" 50 years old but I think that it's a mistake.  It has some interesting, colourful and unusual gems tucked away all across the city, each with their own story, and I was really happy & privileged to be given the chance to learn more about them.  They are now definitely going on the "Singapore Tour" I take friends & family on when they come to visit!

As I explored each venue I had the chance to snap some street photography scenes with the 5DS.  A few highlights are below.

The Gear

The cameras loaned to me from Canon were another highlight of the afternoon.  Getting a proper hands-on with the 5DS was an absolute pleasure - it's a solid camera, familiar & easy to use as all Canon cameras are and produces very impressive images indeed. I have the suspicion that the lenses I used with it are not good enough to get the best out of the sensor but when I get a review unit for a proper evaluation I'll be sure to check it out!

The M3 was more of a mixed bag. I must admit the camera has a reputation which preceded it! I'll reserve full judgement until I get a proper chance to play with it but it was far from being bad - it pleasantly surprised me, but didn't excite me.  It struggled indoors as I expected, particularly when focusing, but outdoors it was snappy & capable. I suspect it's a stop gap effort from Canon while they work on a more complete mirrorless solution.