The Lion City Roars – Radio Singapore, Singapore Island
by Adrian Petersen
As the world traveling tourist knows, the island of Singapore is both ancient and modern. Its pre-history goes way back through the centuries into the unwritten eras of legendary events more than a thousand years ago, and yet it is these days a fast, modern and bustling city of international trade and commerce.
The earliest known written record about Singapore is a 3rd century account from China that tells of a settlement that was already established on the southern edge of the island known as Pulau Ujong; that is, “The Island at the End of the Peninsula”. It was in the 14th century that a rajah from Palembang in Indonesia took shelter on the island during a storm. He was startled by a wild animal that he took to be a lion, and from that time onwards, the island has been known as Singapura; that is, “Lion City” in the Sanskrit language. However, it is suggested that the animal was in reality, not a lion, but a tiger.
In the year 1819, the British established a trading post on Singapore island under Sir Stamford Raffles, and this event is looked upon as the earliest beginning of their modern era. Ultimately, on August 9, 1965, the island became an independent country in its own right. The name Singapore identifies the city, the island, and the nation.
Throughout the past several centuries, Singapore has come under the political and cultural influence of many nations and many peoples, and these would include the British, Dutch, Portuguese, Thai, Vietnamese, & Japanese. The three main ethnic groups on Singapore these days are the Chinese, Malay & Indian.
The nation of Singapore is made up of some 50 islands, only half of which are inhabited. The main island measures approximately 26 miles or 42 km east- west and 14 miles or 23 km north-south, The total population of this very prosperous and yet crowded nation is nearly 4½ million.
There are many splendid tourist locations in Singapore, and these would include the Tiger Balm Gardens with its Buddhist culture, the Jurong Bird Park with its multitude of colorful and tuneful birds, Sentosa Island with the breathtaking views from the cable cars, and the Merlion as the symbol of Singapore itself. The Merlion stands in the water at the entrance to Singapore River, and it is a small statue with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. It was installed in 1964.
It can truly be said, as their official website states: Whatever your interest, Singapore offers you the traditional and the modern, the East and the West.
Early Wireless Stations
The first wireless station on the island of Singapore was given the callsign VPW, and this unit was an arc transmitter used solely for the transmission of Morse Code. The earliest known listing for VPW is in the year 1919, and the original allotted channel was 3,400 metres, corresponding to about 88 kHz in the longwave band.
Subsequent callsigns for this maritime communication station, which was located towards the centre of the island, were VPS (mid 1930s), and then GXM (before independence), though nowadays this service is on the air under several callsigns with the prefix 9.
Two years after the coastal wireless station was established, the British Admiralty built a navy base near Seletar on the northern edge of Singapore Island. A new spark gap Morse Code wireless station was installed quite close to the already established maritime wireless station, VPW, and this new facility was given the callsign BXW. In subsequent years, the callsigns in use at this station have been GYL & GYS.
International shortwave communication from Singapore has been conducted in more recent time under the callsigns 9VC, 9VF, 9VG, & 9VP. Aeradio calls to aircraft, as well as the Volmet weather broadcasts, are heard under the callsign 9VA. The transmitters for all of the major communication wireless and radio stations in Singapore have all been located at a high area towards the centre of the main island.
Amateur Radio Broadcasting – Mediumwave
As was the custom of the era in many countries of Asia and beyond, the first attempts at radio broadcasting were made by amateur radio operators and organizations. It was in 1925 that the Amateur Wireless Society of Malaya was formed in Singapore with the intent of establishing a radio broadcasting service with a 100 watt mediumwave transmitter. However, there was a delay in establishing this new facility, due no doubt to the fact that all of the equipment had to be ordered from England. This new station was finally inaugurated in 1927 under the British-style callsign 1SE and it was on the air spasmodically on 330 metres (910 kHz) for half a dozen years. The last known entry for this station in international radio broadcasting lists was in the year 1929.
Amateur Radio Broadcasting – Shortwave
During the 1930s, many amateur radio operators entered the international radio scene with attempts at radio broadcasting in the shortwave bands. The first of these radio entrepreneurs was Sir R. E. Earl who represented the British government at the Harbour Board in Singapore. He operated his own shortwave amateur station 2SE and he was on the air with broadcast programs on Saturdays twice a month. A little earlier in this program, we mentioned the amateur station, 1SE, and Sir Earl’s station was the second in the colony, hence the callsign, 2SE.
During this same era, the callsigns of two amateur stations in Singapore were included in the lists of shortwave broadcasting stations. These were VS6XW, a new callsign, operated by Sir Earl at the Singapore Port Authority, with an irregular schedule on 28.75 metres in 1930, and VS1AB in the 41 metre band from 1932 – 1934. At the time, there was no local radio broadcasting service on mediumwave, and therefore each station had to produce its own programming which consisted mainly of recorded music.
Early Radio Broadcasting – Shortwave
Interestingly, the first official radio broadcasting service in Singapore was a shortwave operation, not mediumwave. The reasons for this would be twofold:-
- Tropical location, and therefore wider coverage area on shortwave
- Intent to cover the Malay peninsula from a single location
The first known logging for this new shortwave radio broadcasting station is given in the Melbourne based radio magazine, “Listener-In” in mid November 1933. The station was identified under the callsign ZHI, the frequency was 6060 kHz in the 49 metre band and the schedule shows 2½ hours each Monday Wednesday & Friday.
During the following year, the International DX Alliance in the United States gave the power as 180 watts. Now, in those days the power of a radio transmitter was calculated at the input level, though these days the measurement is taken at the antenna output of the transmitter. Thus, this new shortwave broadcasting station in Singapore really had a rated power of less than 100 watts.
Even though there was confusion in the radio magazines at the time, the correct address for the station was 2 Orchard Road in Singapore, the location of a commercial radio service. There is at least one known QSL from this period, a letter issued to an American listener in the year 1934.
Early Radio Broadcasting – Mediumwave
Soon after the shortwave broadcasting service was launched, plans were announced for the establishment of a local broadcasting service, on mediumwave. The transmitter power was 2 kW, the operating channel was 1232 kHz, the callsign was ZHL, and the location was in a government building in Empress Place. This mediumwave station began a regular broadcasting service on June 1, 1936. Programming on both shortwave and mediumwave was in parallel. A couple of years later, the studio facility was transferred to Cathay Building on Thomson Road.
Government Radio Broadcasting Station
In 1937, work commenced on a complete new facility at Caldecott Hill in the outer reaches of Thomson Road under Sir Shenton Thomas. This facility, made up of studios and transmitters, was officially opened on March 1, 1937. At this stage, the original 90 watt shortwave transmitter, ZHI was re-designated as ZHO, and four new transmitters of 500 watts each were given callsigns in the ranges, ZHP & ZHN. The four transmitters rated at 500 watt with the callsigns ZHP were on the air with broadcast programming whereas the transmitter ZHN was noted at irregular times with program relays to the ABC radio network in Australia.
All of these callsigns were noted in Australia & the United States, and reception reports were verified with the now famous, and nostalgic, and, I might add, quite rare QSL card, depicting a sunset scene in Malaya.
Jurong Transmitting Station
Soon after the new station at Caldecott Hill was commissioned, work on a big new shortwave station was commenced at Jurong, quite near the now famous Jurong Bird Park. In 1939, the BBC London entered into a purchase arrangement for this Singapore radio station with the intent of establishing a high powered relay facility for international radio coverage throughout Asia. A new 100 kW shortwave transmitter was shipped out from Chelmsford in England, but it was lost at sea when the supply ship was torpedoed and sunk. As a replacement, a new 50 kW RCA transmitter was shipped out from the United States, but this arrived with power transformers designed for the American 50 cycle 110 volt electrical system, not the British 60 cycle 240 volt system in Singapore. The buildings and antenna systems were completed but never activated, due to the unavailability of a suitable transmitter.
The shortwave & mediumwave station on Caldecott Hill made its last broadcast under the British colonial administration in late February 1942, and the Japanese administration re-opened the station again a few weeks later on March 27. Only one channel was in use at this stage, 9705 kHz, which was previously on the air under the callsign ZHP1.
However, quick usage of the empty facility at Jurong was implemented with the installation of a shortwave transmitter from the island of Penang. This comparatively new unit, probably a 7½ kW Marconi unit from England, though it is sometimes shown as 10 kW, had been installed in Penang by the British administration a few months earlier under the callsign ZHJ. In Singapore, this unit was inaugurated in August 1942 on the single channel 12,000 kHz.
Programming for Shonan Radio, “Light of the South”, in English and several Asian languages, was usually produced in the Singapore studios on Caldecott Hill, although as noted in Australia, there were occasional relays from Radio Tokyo in Japan. On other occasions, there were also relays to and from Radio Saigon in Vietnam, and with the Philippine stations PIRN & PIRM in Manila.
Shonan Radio was last heard in the United States on February 3, 1945. There are no known QSLs from Shonan Radio.
Under the Americans & the British
Soon afterwards, the radio facilities in Singapore were re-activated, initially under the Americans as SEAC Radio, though shortly afterwards the station was taken over by the British as BMA Radio. In March 1945, the Newark News Radio Club in the United States reported the monitoring of signals from Singapore on 15450 kHz, no doubt coming from the previously transferred 10 kW transmitter located at Jurong. The programming was beamed to the Philippines. The re-activated mediumwave transmitter ZHL was first noted in Australia a few months later in mid September on 840 kHz.
As time went by, additional mediumwave and shortwave transmitters were activated at Jurong, a new studio facility was constructed at Caldecott Hill, and the radio networks were divided into colors; Blue for English & Malay, Red for Chinese & Indian, Green for Chinese, and I think that there was also a Yellow Network at one stage as well. Over the intervening years, a total of 11 different shortwave transmitters were installed at Jurong, rated at 10 kW & 50 kW.
However, when the housing estates began to encrouch into the Jurong area, the old shortwave base was closed and a modern new facility was constructed at Kranji, quite close to the BBC shortwave station. The Singapore shortwave station, operated by Singtel near Kranji, contains six shortwave transmitters at 250 kW and one at 100 kW. The mediumwave transmitters at Jurong were closed and a new transmission center was installed at the center of the island, though the mediumwave units were de-activated several years ago.
Listening to Radio Singapura
You can hear Radio Singapura in any part of the world, at least at some time during their broadcast day. They are on the air in five languages on fixed frequencies in the 49 & 41 metre bands from 2300 UTC till 1600 UTC. The programming from the local FM networks is on the air in the mornings & afternoons & evenings, and the external service is on the air as Radio Singapore International from the same transmitters on the same channels in the evenings local time from 0900 UTC to 1400 UTC. Both units verify reception reports with very colorful picture cards showing local scenes throughout the island of Singapore.
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Adrian Petersen is a noted radio historian and broadcaster for many years with Indianapolis based Adventist World Radio, a global shortwave, AM, FM and satellite radio network. Originally from South Australia, Adrian has worked in radio across Asia and the Pacific and is well known worldwide for his long running Wavescan radio series. He has published an extensive number of radio heritage articles using his large database of historical information, and personally maintains the AWR heritage collection, one of the world’s largest privately held memorabilia collections.
Views expressed in this column are those of the author and may not necessarily represent those of the Radio Heritage Foundation. Send us your column comments and feedback.