Radio Malaya Singapore in Two Different Countries

The Singapore Station

By the end of January 1942, Japanese armed forces had scrambled down through the thick jungles and the multitude of rubber plantations on the Malay Peninsula until they finally reached Johore Bahru, facing Singapore Island. They then began sporadic attempts at bombarding the island and at crossing the waterway that separated the Malay mainland from Singapore Island itself.

At that time, the radio station operated by the Malaya Broadcasting Corporation MBC in Singapore was still on the air with a somewhat unplanned mixture of regular and emergency programming in a conglomeration of several languages: English, Malay, Chinese, Hindustani, Arabic, French or Dutch, whatever was needed and whoever was available. There was a strong emphasis on lively contemporary music in the English language.

We ask the question: On Sunday February 1, 1942, just before the concerted Japanese attack on Singapore Island, what were the locations, and what was the radio equipment, available for use by the Malaya Broadcasting Corporation?

British Malaya Broadcasting Corporation ZHP 9690 kHz June 4 & 5 1939, low power, probably 400 watts, Singapore, located in original building at Caldecott Hill, on Thomson Road Singapore.
© Adrian Petersen Collection, AWR

Historical research provides the answers.

The main production and on air studios for MBC were located in Cathay Building at 2 Handy Road in Singapore City, with a landline program feed to the transmitters which were located 5 miles out, beyond the edge of the city. In one of the offices was a large batch of their now famous colorful blank QSL cards that feature a Sunset in Malaya. These cards had been printed in Singapore in December 1938.

Subsidiary production and on air studios were available at the extended MBC radio station at Caldecott Hill, together with a tall 200 feet mediumwave self-supporting tower. From this tower radiated the programming of the 2 kW mediumwave transmitter ZHL on 225 m (1333 kHz). There were 4 shortwave transmitters at 500 watts each operating often as pairs under the callsigns ZHP & ZHN, and also a lone 100 watt shortwave transmitter that operated on air under the callsign ZHO.

An additional transmitter station was located at Jurong, a dozen miles out from the city studios, and quite near the famous Jurong Bird Park. The Jurong shortwave transmitter station was largely just an empty building, though the planned antenna systems were already installed.

On Sunday evening February 8, 1942, the Japanese invasion of Singapore Island began in earnest with thousands of personnel clambering in via the damaged wooden causeway bridge and by small boats and every conceivable form of floating object. Even while the fighting was in full force nearby, the staff at MBC Singapore were engaged busily destroying as much of the old though valuable electronic equipment as possible.

Wednesday February 11, 1945 was the final fatal day for MBC Radio Malaya Singapore. The station was on the air all morning, and around midday the final closing announcement was made by a foreign engineer, probably an Englishman. He and his Asian colleague then attacked and destroyed the last remaining transmitter. Radio Malaya Singapore MBC was gone. Finished.

By this time the vast majority of the more than 300 staff personnel had all disappeared; they had simply melted into the local fabric. Some of the overseas personnel chose to remain in Singapore, including the popular announcer Captain James Mudie who had served previously with the BBC in London.

Some of the foreign staff then hurriedly fled Singapore in three small boats, hoping to escape to nearby Java, and then onwards to anywhere, out of South East Asia. In their hasty onward journey, one boat was beached, and another was sunk, both with heavy loss of life through enemy action. The third small boat made it safely through, though precariously, to Batavia on the Indonesian island of Java.

NIROM Map of Netherlands East Indies showing main centers, January 1939.
© Ray Crawford Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.

The Batavia Station

Back in those days, the now well known city of Jakarta in Indonesia was identified under its old Dutch name, Batavia, and it was then, as now, the capital city of the Malay archipelago, the Dutch East Indies. On the local scene, the same indigenous language was spoken in both territories, though in the British Straits Settlements the official administrative language was English and in the Dutch East Indies the official administrative language was Dutch.

During the month of January 1942, as the Japanese forces were scrambling down through the thick jungles and the multitude of rubber plantations on the Malay Peninsula towards the island of Singapore, the senior staff at the radio station MBC Singapore began to lay tentative plans for an alternative Radio Singapore. Heading up the planning for the possible implementation of a set of alternative strategies was an Englishman, Mr. Alan Rose.

On Sunday February 1, 1942, the Japanese armed forces were at the southern edge of the Malay peninsula, poised for an invasion of Singapore Island itself. It was time to act.

At 9:00 am, some 40 key MBC radio personnel in Singapore received a message: Take what you can, personal items, and enough food for a week, and go. These senior staff personnel, led by Alan Rose, were announcers, radio engineers, radio monitors and news reporters.

They boarded the first boat available which happened to be a Dutch cattle boat. Moving quietly at night, and sheltering hidden during the day, they arrived at Batavia (Jakarta) four days later, on the morning of Thursday February 5 (1942). These evacuated radio personnel were received kindly in Batavia, and they were quickly granted living accommodations, and part of a building for use as offices and an on air studio, as Radio Singapore.

NIROM transmission masts in Bandung
By Willem van de Poll, CC0, Link

The first test broadcasts from Radio Malaya Batavia were transmitted from the NIROM high powered shortwave station at Bandoeng, some 70 miles south east from Batavia, on Monday evening February 9 (1942). The transmitter power in Bandoeng was rated at either 40 kW or 60 kW.

This first historic broadcast consisted of news bulletins in English and Asian languages, and it was broadcast on a shortwave channel that was normally in use by Radio Malaya in Singapore. Interestingly, Radio Malaya in Singapore picked up the live broadcast from their personnel at Batavia on Java Island and they relayed the programming on another of their own regular shortwave channels.

Next day (Tuesday February 10, 1942), the two shortwave stations, Radio Malaya in Singapore and Radio Malaya in Batavia, coordinated their activities, with the possibility that all programming for Radio Malaya Singapore would be transferred from Singapore to Batavia. And that is exactly what happened.

For the next 2½ weeks, the Radio Malaya programming was assembled, not in Singapore but in Batavia on Java Island, and it was broadcast from Bandoeng. The outside world was not aware of this subtle change. In fact even the BBC in London quoted news from this new and temporary Radio Malaya Batavia, attributing the news reports as from Singapore, not Batavia.

A perusal of a dozen different series of shortwave magazines back then yields only one monitored logging of Radio Malaya during the 2½ week Batavia era. The Australian Radio and Hobbies magazine for April 1942, page 56 states:

ZHP1 9705 kHz 30.9 m Singapore Straits Settlements: Has been heard on a few occasions with English announcer just as before.

Yes, it was indeed a logging of Radio Malaya on one of their regular shortwave channels, 9705 kHz. No, that broadcast was not on the air from ZHP1 in Singapore; the Singapore station was absolutely dead, and the Japanese were in control of the island and what was left of the radio station. Yes, that program was broadcast from the new and temporary Radio Malaya across the waterways in Batavia, Indonesia.

This feature was written by Adrian Peterson and originally aired on Adventist World Radio’s “Wavescan” DX program of June 6, 2021

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  1. Hi Everyone.

    I am Michael and I am very interested in the story of the Malaya Broadcasting Corporation in Singapore, especially for the years 1938 – Cebruary 1942.

    Did the station carry advertising during those years?

    What was the range and nature of programming in the English and Chinese languages?

    Thank you Everyone.