Singapore’s mobile population penetration rate stands at almost 155% (from the 2014 statistics by Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore). That is more than a mobile line per person. Despite the large number of mobile subscriptions, public phones still play a part in Singapore’s society, providing telecommunication services for domestic maids, foreign workers and others who do not possess mobile phones.
Public phones in Singapore arguably reached their peak in the eighties and nineties, when they were almost present in every housing estates, hawker centres and shopping malls. This could be a coincidence with the rise of pagers in the same era, when pager’s users often had to make returning calls to the paging initiators.
From STB To SingTel
The first telephones were introduced in Singapore as early as 1879. Two years later, Bennett Pell, the manager of the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company, used a simple manual 50-line switchboard to set the first Private Telephone Exchange at Collyer Quay. He later also established a trial connection between Raffles Square and Tanjong Pagar using a telegraph line, making Singapore the first British colony in the East to have a telephone system.
In 1955, the British colonial government formed the Singapore Telephone Board (STB), which would merge with Telecommunication Authority of Singapore in 1974 to form Telecoms. In 1982, Telecoms, after installing more than 500,000 private and public telephone lines, merged again with the Postal Service Department. By 1990, a significant milestone was reached when Singapore installed its one millionth telephone line.
Telecoms, by the late nineties, had become the most profitable statutory board, holding assets that exceeded $4.2 billion in value. As part of a three-year corporatisation program, the Singapore government restructured Telecoms to become Singapore Telecom (SingTel), and public listed it on the stock exchange in 1993.
The Coin-Operated Phones
Public phones were uncommon in Singapore in the fifties and sixties, especially in areas from the city. For example, until the late fifties, the Sembawang Hills Estate only had one public phone serving 6,500 residents.
It was only after several complaints that the Singapore Telephone Board decided to install the second public phone near the Shell petrol station at Sembawang Hills Estate in 1960.
To improve the situation, the Singapore Telephone Board carried out the installation of more than 50 public phones in Singapore in 1962, half of them in rural places. In the early sixties, there were about 250 public phones in Singapore, in a ratio of 3.75 phones to every 100 persons. It was ranked higher than Hong Kong (3.2), Bangkok (1.8) and Saigon (0.9). By 1965, the number of public phones in Singapore had increased to almost 650.
In the late seventies, the Ministry of National Development embarked on a plan to double the density of public phones from seven to 14 per square kilometre. This was mainly due to the long waiting time in the application of private telephone lines. Under the Telecoms plan, all the new four- and five-room HDB flats came with telephone lines. However, the rate was only 15%, 50% and 75% for one-, two- and three-room flats respectively.
This led to a surge in the application of new telephone lines; in 1977, more than 3,000 people applied for residential lines per month, and in some areas, the waiting time could be as long as 18 months. As a stop-gap measure, Telecoms carried out their “one phone for each block” plan; at least one public coin phone was to be installed at the ground floor of each HDB block.
The public phones in the seventies typically had round booths in bright orange colour that were secured onto the walls, completed with thick phone books filled with names, addresses and contact numbers. They would be later replaced by the Telecoms’ booths that were in standalone or wall-mounted versions designed in shades of red.
In 1978, a strange incident happened at Florence Road of Upper Serangoon. A youth was reported to be struck by lightning on his left ear when he used a public phone during a thunderstorm. The following investigation, however, indicated that the phone was not damaged and in fine working condition. As a precautionary measure, Telecoms issued a statement to urge the public not to use public phones during thunderstorms.
The public phone services in the late eighties brought significant revenues for Telecoms. In 1987, Telecoms raked in $20.4 million from their public payphones; a year later, the amount rose to a record $24 million. The cash earned from the local calls made by public phones, however, was small change to the company, which reported a profit of $1.5 billion in 1987. A large portion, about $700 million, was from the international calls made from Singapore.
The public coin phones, however, were often subjected to issues such as maintainability, reliability, vandalism and theft. Coin collectors hired by Telecoms had to be regularly dispatched to the 25,000 public phones in Singapore. In many incidents, the phones were prised open and had their coins stolen. These factors led to Telecoms pondering the possibility of a cashless public phone system in Singapore. By the late eighties, the company decided to switch to the cardphone system by 1991.
The Rise of Cardphones
The switch from coin-operated payphone system to card-operated phone system took place in the mid-eighties. The first cardphone was introduced by the Telecoms in 1985 as an one-year trial to gauge the public response and their general acceptance in using pre-paid phone cards, which were issued in simple designs that indicated their stored values in the denominations of $2, $5 and $10. The $20 and $50 phonecards were introduced at a later time.
In late 1985, some 47 cardphones were installed at major shopping complexes, Changi Airport and the Woodlands Checkpoint. Surveys were carried out to find out customers’ preferences, as well as to assess the operational and technical aspects of the new telecommunication equipments. At the start, three types of card technology were tested; magnetic cards, cards with hologram technology and cards with built-in programmed integrated circuit chips. The following year also saw the 47 cardphones modified to allow users to dial directly to as many as 155 countries in the world.
By the late eighties, the success of cardphones led to many of them installed at post offices and the Telecoms outlets, and also places that demanded high phone usages, such as Raffles Place and Hill Street.
To prevent call hogging at these busy districts, coin phones and cardphones were often placed side by side, and the cardphones were programmed such that they could only make oversea calls. This was to discourage users from hogging the cardphones with local calls. In September 1992, the Telecommunication Authority of Singapore (TAS) opened up the market to private competitors, who brought in coin-operated phone models that had more user-friendly features, such as volume control.
In the same year, Singapore Telecom also purchased 6,000 sets of new cardphones. Costing $20 million, the new models were used to replace the older version of cardphones islandwide. The public listed company would spend another $19 million to upgrade the public phone services again in 1998. Between the nineties and early 2000s, two versions of cardphones were commonly found in Singapore. However, this did not signal the end of the public coin phones. Many of them had co-existed with the cardphones, and entering the new decade, the new models possessed both the coin- and card-operated functions.
The phone cards soon became popular collectible items. Singapore Telecom would design the front of the phonecards with pictures showcasing various Singapore landscapes, heritage, food and festivals. The phonecards later also served as advertising platforms for companies such as Fujifilm, Dulux and Konica, which would launch their own series. The stored values were indicated at the back of each phonecards. Small holes were punched onto the printed arrows to indicated the remaining values after usage.
The Good Ol’ Coinafon
In 1971, the Singapore Telephone Board also introduced the Coinafon, the iconic squarish orange-coloured payphone that could be typically found outside provision shops and kopitiams. Some were installed at private housing estates. For example, in the eighties, Coinafons, together with their wooden telephone booths, could be found along roads outside the terrace houses at Upper Paya Lebar.
The early Coinafons belonged to the rotary dial type. In 1984, Telecoms introduced the newer Coinafon model that came with push buttons and a digital display. It provided greater convenience to the users and also allowed them to check whether the numbers they dialed were correct. The rental charges for Coinafons for private owners ranged between $700 to almost $900 per annum. Telecoms would later stop selling these phones, but the durable Coinafons survive the test of time and can still be found at some of the older shops in Singapore today.
Public phones once played an important part in everyday life in Singapore. To make an urgent call home while having a late night out. Or waiting anxiously beside the public phone after paging someone. In army camps, dozens of recruits queued up at nights to make calls to their families and loved ones. By the late nineties, public phones’ popularity began to decline as mobile phones made their way into the life of common Singaporeans. By the early 2000s, mobile population penetration rate had jumped to more than 80%.
Today, there are still as many as 11 licensed operators in Singapore to provide public phone services, although most of Starhub’s public payphones had been phased out in 2010.
Published: 19 August 2015