When Mr Fadzlillah Fadzil took on a job at the television station as technician in 1964, he thought he had stepped into an exciting industry with a future. Instead, he bore witness to some of the most historic moments in Singapore history, recording the images and sounds that would inspire, inform and entertain generations of Singaporeans.
On August 9, 1965, technical producer Mr Fadzlillah Fadzil reported to work at the television studio as usual. It was just another workday.
But on that fateful day, he became one of just several people in the TV studio to witness arguably the most significant moment in the history of Singapore – when founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew announced Singapore’s separation from Malaysia.
“We didn’t know the Prime Minister was coming on set, and even when he came on, we didn’t have an inkling about what he was about to announce,” Mr Fadzlillah, 75, recalled. “But I remember everyone was quite tense.”
The tension in the air broke into a torrent of emotions when PM Lee said that Singapore was no longer part of Malaysia. Viewers watched their steely and resolute leader waver and break down on live television. The image of him wiping his eyes and the audio of his voice cracking was burned into the memories of thousands watching.
“We were stunned when he teared and broke down. But we focused on the job at hand and tried not to be affected,” Mr Fadzlillah shared. The news of the separation truly sunk in for him the next day, when “it was all everyone could talk about”.
Mr Fadzlillah Fadzil (left) with his colleague at the studio in the 1980s. Photo Source: Mr Fadzlillah Fadzil
“I, like my friends and relatives, wondered how we would ever survive, without being part of Malaysia,” he said. But survive, the nation did, and it thrived. Mr Fadzlillah credits television for playing a part in this success story.
“It brought people of all races together. After dinner, people would often gather at community centres or at the homes of those with TV sets to watch the programmes that were showing,” said Mr Fadzlillah, a father of three adult children. “In a way, through its content, TV not only helped to shape us as a nation, but also helped us bond and forge a sense of friendship and community.
“I lived with my uncle in the kampung then and we were one of the few families to own a TV set; a black-and-white one. I remember our neighbours and others would come by after dinner to watch whatever was on TV. We didn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing what we wanted to watch.”
The only channel on air when TV was launched on February 15, 1963 – Channel 5 – broadcast for four hours daily from 7.15pm to 11.15pm, news segments, dramas, variety shows and documentaries. Channel 8 launched on November 23, 1963 and aired the same range of programmes.
After graduating from the Singapore Polytechnic in 1964, he joined Radio Television Singapura (RTS) as a technician in the camera control unit. His job was to make sure the images captured by the camera were clear. He was soon promoted to the position of technical producer and stayed on at RTS until 1977, when he left for a six-year stint at Television Brunei.
In 1980, he returned to the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation and stayed on as a technical producer for 20 years till he retired in 2000. He watched as the organisation and the television landscape transformed, shaped by the advent of new technologies. First, colour seeped into the black and white screens, followed by 24-hour programming.
In between, he was also a front row witness to some of the most dramatic moments in Singapore’s history. One of the most significant, and tragic, was the collapse of Hotel New World in 1986. He was at work when the collapse happened. Off-duty colleagues were alerted and teams were designated to be on-site in eight-hourly shifts.
“This was the time before we had Internet, handphones or smartphones. Everyone – especially those with loved ones who were affected – wanted information about the latest situation, who had been rescued and what was the body count,” he recalled. “I felt that I had a duty to the victims, survivors and their families. No matter how tired I was, I told myself I have a job to do and a responsibility.”
The changing nature of the industry also meant that Mr Fadzlillah had to continuously learn new technology that marked each era of television, a task he relished.
Mr Fadzlillah is retired today and has stopped watching television. Photo Source: Mr Fadzlillah Fazil
“In our work every day, the biggest challenge was to learn new skills and new technology. For instance, we had to learn how to manipulate lighting better when colour TV came about. When it was just black and white, there weren’t as many dimensions and depth in a scene that we had to look at,” Mr Fadzlillah said.
“Camera technology was always changing too. From four lenses, we learnt to use one zoom lens, which provided clearer images but would need different operating skills and methods. And from recording on film, we had to learn to record digitally.”
These days, Mr Fadzlillah – perhaps ironically – no longer watches much television.
“From free-to-air TV to cable TV and the Internet, there’s just so much content out there now,” he said. “I find that people have become more anti-social. We need to relearn how talk to each other face-to-face and really share our thoughts, opinions and experiences in person.”
Written by: Esther Au Yong
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign