While many would instinctively associate YMCA with the all-time favourite disco classic by American band Village People, fewer may be aware that this hit was actually inspired by the Young Men’s Christian Association that was founded in London in 1844.[1] More commonly known by its acronym YMCA, the organization strives for spiritual, intellectual and physical well-being of individuals and wholeness of communities.[2] Founded on these same Christian principles, the YMCA was first established in Singapore in 1902 at No. 1 and 2 Armenian Street.[3]

Photo provided by YMCA Singapore

Photo provided by YMCA Singapore

The organization aimed to reach out to all youth in Singapore, promoting healthy development with the Christian ideals of care, honesty, respect and responsibility.[4] In addition to housing several sports facilities including tennis courts, grounds for football, hockey, cricket as well as Singapore’s first swimming pool, the YMCA provided technical and commercial education programmes for youths to further their studies and acquire new skills.[5] With an increasing number of available programmes, the organization had to relocate to another building on the same street named Zetland House in 1904 to accommodate the subsequent rise in its membership.[6] Due to further expansion several years later, it eventually moved to its prime site at 1 Orchard Road in 1911.[7]

However, during the Japanese occupation of Singapore in World War II between 1942 and 1945, the YMCA building was transformed into the headquarters of the much-feared Japanese Kempeitai (Military Police).[8] Civilians and military personnel of the Allied forces[9] who were suspected of being anti-Japanese were interrogated and brutally tortured in the building through electric shock, water torture, violent beatings and starvation[10]. Amongst them was war heroine Elizabeth Choy, a YMCA member who had to be imprisoned for a total of 193 days, as she was accused of relaying messages to British internees.[11]

At the end of the war, there were differing views on the fate of the YMCA building. It was only after countless discussions that the YMCA managed to recover the building, and finally resumed its operations in December 1946.[12] The building was later demolished in 1981 to make way for the larger and more modern complex of today, which was officially opened in 1984.[13] At present, the YMCA of Singapore caters to all members of the communities, regardless of race, language or religion,[14] through its wide range of educational and social interaction activities.[15]