The first television programme to hit Singapore’s airwaves was a 15-minute documentary, ‘TV Looks at Singapore’, broadcast on 15 February 1963. More than half a century later, two veteran broadcasters – and old friends – look back at the early days of broadcasting in Singapore.
Passersby hurry by, staring at their mobile phones. But at a pastel-coloured void deck, pioneer broadcasters Mr Ujagar Singh Gill, 86, and Mr Sim Choon Hin, 82, are reminiscing about an evening half a century ago, when Singapore was spellbound by a very different screen.
Three hundred guests in Victoria Memorial Hall – and many more curious viewers at community centres islandwide – stared as black-and-white images began to move. It was 15 February 1963, and Singapore’s first television broadcast had begun.
Singapore broadcasted its first programme on 15 February 1963, in black and white. Image Source: National Archives Singapore
“The first day of transmission was quite jittery,” said Mr Singh. “We had rehearsed this many times, but still – when it really goes out on air and people are watching your programme, it makes you a little more tense.”
Mr Ujagar Singh Gill, 86, and Mr Sim Choon Hin, 82. Image Source: National Library Board
The first programme was a 15-minute documentary titled TV Looks at Singapore. It was followed by a cartoon, recalled Mr Singh with amusement, and eventually the news.
The entire broadcast lasted just 90 minutes. But it had long been in the making. Mr Sim and Mr Singh were part of the engineering division that brought television to Singapore. They oversaw everything – from determining how tall aerial towers needed to be, to acquiring equipment and overseeing the construction of the TV station.
As Singapore’s technological capabilities improved, transmissions grew longer, though there was still only one channel. The broadcast started around 6 or 6.30 in the evening and ended around 11 pm, recalled Mr Sim, with the main item being the local news. This was followed by foreign newsreels, which were brought in by plane, as there were no satellites then.
As the TV industry developed, so did the friendship between the two men. Said Mr Singh: “We worked very closely on the television project, and carried on from there while we were in different sections of the department. Since then, we have formed a bond.”
The two men met in early 1960s when Mr Sim joined the Department of Broadcasting. One stark memory they shared was when the temporary television studio caught fire on a Sunday in the mid-1960s.
The next day, the engineers were tasked to restore television service by that evening. “The whole day we were in there, trying to clean up all the things,” recalls Mr Sim. In the end, they rigged up an external broadcast van as a temporary studio.
But the most important broadcast they were responsible for was on 9 August 1965, when the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew held a press conference on Singapore’s separation from Malaysia.
“What I can remember very vividly was that I was in that office with the other engineers, including my chief. Then the radio programme controller rushed in and said that, on the radio, we had just announced that Singapore is independent,” said Mr Sim. Learning that PM Lee would arrive later that day to record a press conference, the engineers all headed to the control room to prepare.
Television broadcasts played a pivotal role during such historical moments. “It was quite a crucial time for Singapore,” said Mr Singh. Television was important “to get the government’s viewpoint and message to the people” – particularly during a time when overseas rumours were rampant.
Television also changed lifestyles. “Putting the TV sets in community centres brought all the people living nearby together to watch, because not every household had a TV,” observed Mr Singh.
Mr Singh remembers the role TV played in bringing people together and in forging a nation. Image Source: National Library Board
But as TVs became more common in homes, TV-watching became less social. Said Mr Sim: “Normally you put your furniture facing each other, but with a TV you face the wall.”
“And this has now evolved to another extreme – people looking at their handphones!” he noted. “At least with TV you watch the same programme together, you enjoy together.”
Mr Singh retired from the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, as it was then known, 27 years ago, and Mr Sim, 18 years ago. From having adjacent offices and often going for a jog after work, they now meet for regular lunches with other former colleagues. The old friends talk about everything from politics and health to their old passion of broadcast technology.
But is there a future for broadcasting as technology evolves at a bewildering rate? Both men thought so.
Mr Singh noted that TV has come a long way. “Of course, there will be improvements, new technology and what not, but… TV will be there as a key information provider.”
Mr Sim agreed: “Probably in the future you don’t need a big-screen TV in your hall anymore. Each individual will have a handphone. But still the news, the current affairs programme, the drama or soap opera, will be the same.”
And both take a quiet satisfaction in having watched over TV’s long evolution till today. Said Mr Singh: “We were the pioneers who started TV, developed it to whatever it is now. I think very few people have that opportunity to see something grow from nothing.”
Written by: Josephine Chen
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