Singapore on Shortwave – BBC Far East Relay Station
by Adrian Petersen
Let’s go back to the year 1937, and that was the year in which the BBC began to give consideration to establishing a shortwave relay station in Asia. They began to make overtures to the commercially owned radio station, BMBC, the British Malaya Broadcasting Corporation, in Singapore. The intent was to buy this station and then to upgrade it into an international shortwave relay station to carry BBC programming to the growing radio audiences in Asia. These negotiations seemed to move a bit slowly, but considerable progress was made ultimately. A QSL letter received in Australia in 1940 identified the station simply as “Broadcast Station”, seeming to indicate that by this time there was some confusion as to the exact status of this station.
In 1939, plans were made to install a 100 kW shortwave unit at the new transmitter base still under construction at Jurong, near the now famous Jurong Bird Park. The large Marconi transmitter from the Chelmsford factory in England was sent out by ship late in the year 1940, but the ship was torpedoed and sunk en route. Soon afterwards, a 50 kW RCA transmitter was sent out from the United States, but when the equipment was received in Singapore, it was discovered that the power transformer was designed for the 110 volt 50 cycle power system in America, not the 240 volt 60 cycle power system in Singapore. At the end of the year 1941, it was announced that work on the shortwave station at Jurong was almost complete; but, there were no large shortwave transmitters.
Penang Transmitter Moved to Singapore
In August 1942, ZHJ, the 7½ kW Marconi transmitter at Penang, was transferred to Singapore and installed at Jurong where it went on the air as “Radio Shonan” with programming beamed to Australia. The last known broadcast as “Shonan Radio” took place on February 3, 1945.
Singapore Station Re-activated
Soon afterwards, radio staff from British radio stations in Delhi India and Colombo Sri Lanka were transferred to Singapore to re-activate the radio station with whatever equipment was still available. This station was then re-opened as BMA, the British Military Administration, in October 1945. It was noted in Australia on four different shortwave channels, and also on mediumwave 1333 kHz.
At this stage, three different organizations were noted on air, each with its own programming, and all using the same facilities. These were BMA British Military Administration, SEAC South East Asia Command, and BFEBS British Far Eastern Broadcasting Station. All three organizations issued QSL cards to verify reception reports. The SEAC usage of the station was concluded at the end of June 1946 and at the same time BMA officially became Radio Malaya, and that of course is a long story for another occasion.
Initially, BFEBS produced its own programming in the older studios located in Cathay Building, but on January 30, they moved into their own studios at Caldecott Hill on Thomson Road. Network programming in area languages was identified in the color schemes, as Purple & Orange. Off air relays of the BBC in England began five months later.
A total of four shortwave transmitters, 10 kW units with the model number SWB-11, were shipped from India, and these were installed at Jurong and activated progressively, beginning in January 1946.
In mid 1948, it was announced that the BBC in London would take over the BFEBS station in Singapore as the BBC’s first overseas base, and this change in ownership was finalized on August 8.
Big New Station for Malay Peninsula
However, in addition to the BBC developments in Singapore, there were simultaneous developments on the Malay peninsula. The original concept of installing a 100 kW shortwave transmitter at Jurong was cancelled due to the fact that the new airport was nearby and the tall antenna towers would prove to be a hazard to aircraft maneuvers. In mid 1946, the BBC commissioned a site survey in Johore state, just across from Singapore, for the construction of a massive, high powered, shortwave relay station. Just one year later, a large tract of land near Tebrau was procured, 450 acres of jungle and small rubber plantations.
Plans for this new BBC relay station called for two transmitters at 100 kW and four at 7½ kW, with a total of twenty antennas. A little more than three years later, the new facility was ready for the installation of the electronic equipment. During the Christmas season in the year 1950, the first 100 kW transmitter was activated, followed by the second 100 kW unit just one month later. Subsequently, the four smaller units at 7½ kW were also installed and activated.
Interim Transfer to Ceylon
During the interim period while the facility at Tebrau was under construction, there was another interesting change of location for this BBC station in Asia. The usage of the shortwave station at Jurong in Singapore was phased out in 1949 and the facility was granted to Radio Malaya with its headquarters in Singapore.
There was a new British shortwave station recently completed at Ekala in Ceylon and this came on the air as Radio SEAC, South East Asia Command. In April 1949, this station was taken over as a BBC relay station to fill in until the new station at Tebrau was ready for service. Twenty one months later, at the end of the year 1950, the BBC terminated its usage of Radio SEAC in Ceylon and concentrated its relay programming for Asia via the new Tebrau station on the Malay peninsula.
Modernization at BBC Tebrau
Twenty years later after its original construction, a modernization project was implemented at the BBC Tebrau. The four older transmitters at 7½ kW were removed and four at 250 kW and four at 100 kW were installed progressively, beginning in December 1970. At the height of its electronic power, BBC Tebrau was on the air with a total of ten shortwave transmitters, four at 250 kW and six at 100 kW. The feed lines from the transmitters to the antenna systems were the longest in the world, somewhere around half a mile in length.
Back to Singapore Again
However, another problem for the BBC lay on the horizon. Malaysia was now an independent nation and the central government in Kuala Lumpur declined to renew the lease for the BBC Tebrau. Initially, consideration was given to establishing a new station in Brunei on the island of Borneo. When this did not work out, consideration was given to Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, with the suggestion that Radio Australia join in the project. Ultimately though, Singapore was chosen, and thus the BBC announced in 1976 that they planned on closing the Tebrau station and relocating again on Singapore island. However, the Malay government did extend the lease for the BBC in Tebrau until the new Singapore station was completed and ready for service.
The new BBC site in Singapore is located at Kranji on the northern edge of Singapore island and it is only ten direct miles from the previous location at Tebrau in Malaysia. This new station is compacted into just four acres of swampy landfill, and at one stage during early construction, eight hundred truck loads of soil every day were dumped in to raise the land level about three feet. Even so, the main two storey transmitter building is built on concrete piles and some of the antenna towers are actually located in the waters of a tidal ocean area.
The BBC Far Eastern Relay Station at Kranji in Singapore now contains nine transmitters, eight of which were transferred from Tebrau; four at 100 kW and four at 250 kW. An additional 250 kW transmitter was installed just before the end of the century. There are seventeen towers supporting eighteen antennas for coverage of all major areas of Asia. In February 1978, test broadcasts began from the first transferred transmitter and by June a little mare than a year later, all eight transmitters were taken into regular broadcast service. The final broadcast from the BBC Tebrau took place on Sunday March 18, 1979. The doors were closed, and the two old units at 100 kW were abandoned.
British Forces Station in Singapore
However, before we conclude the Singapore story, there was another shortwave station of interest on this crowded island, and that was BFBS, the British Forces Broadcasting Service. Interestingly, BFBS Singapore was one of the few shortwave stations in our world that evaded public attention in the international radio world for a year or more. This station was launched in 1952 and it was not, shall we say, “discovered”, until April in the following year by two international radio monitors in Adelaide, South Australia; Rex Gillett and Jim Paris. The other notable shortwave station that evaded international attention for more than a year was NYAB in Thimpu, Bhutan, many years later.
The original BFBS transmitter was a 7½ kW Marconi from England and the main fixed channel was 5010 kHz. This unit was installed at the main transmitter base at Jurong and the programming was usually in Nepali and English, though occasionally other languages were heard at times. An FM outlet was added to this station on November 2, 1966 and this transmitter was co-sited with the splendid studio building in the British army base at Tanglin on the edge of Singapore city.
When British army troops moved away five years later, BFBS Singapore was closed, in November 1971. The shortwave transmitter was gifted to Radio Singapore who then programmed it on the same regular channel in the 60 metre band, 5010 kHz, in parallel with their own unit on 5052 kHz. However, the FM unit was re-activated as BFBS by popular demand in time for Christmas. Nevertheless, the station finally went silent in four years later again in 1975 and the FM transmitter was then taken over for the relay of BBC programming and remotely operated from Tebrau. The studio building then was re-furbished and it is in use today as the office for commissioned officers in the Singapore army.
And so that is the saga of British broadcasting in Singapore, a story that occupies nearly seventy years. Many QSL cards have been issued over the years by the BBC for its four different locations, Jurong, Ekala, Tebrau and Kranji; and in fact you can obtain a QSL card even to this day direct from the station in Singapore itself. The BFBS station at Tanglin also issued QSL cards, for both their FM and shortwave outlets. You can hear the BBC Far Eastern Relay Station Singapore in almost every country of the world at some time during their broadcast day. You should check the World Radio TV Handbook for scheduling that might be heard in your area.
Read this column with appendices and additional material from Wavescan Sunday July 30, 2006:
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.