Broadcasts, Dramas and Dreams… Caldecott Hill in 80 Years

Singapore’s broadcasting history officially started in 1935, 82 years ago, when the British Malayan Broadcasting Company (BMBC) was set up at Caldecott Hill. However, the first commercial wireless station had already existed in Singapore as early as 1915. In 1924, the Amateur Wireless Society of Malaya was founded and operated by a group of radio enthusiasts from a studio located at Collyer Quay’s Union Building.

In 1932, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) new Empire Service was launched, ensuring the Malayan listening audience could tune in to its programmes just like the other British colonies. But it was not until 1935 when the establishment of BMBC signified the true start of local radio development.

A New Era

In 1935, the government granted the broadcasting license to BMBC. Also known as ZHL, its Caldecott Hill station would broadcast a medium wavelength of 225m in a daily transmission of about 4.5 hours, typically between 6pm and 1030pm. At the beginning, official announcements, news, weather forecasts, English songs, Malay music and cricket matches’ commentaries were broadcast.

The radio station was officially opened on 01 March 1937 by then-British governor Sir Shenton Thomas (1879-1962), marking a new era in Singapore’s radio sector. It was after more than four years of testing and pilot runs from a temporary studio. The new station was made up of a single-storey building that had transmission, administration as well as accommodation rooms.

The most prominent feature of the radio station was the 2kW-powered mast, at 200-ft tall, that functioned as the signal transmitting and receiving structure. The staffs had to adjust the mast’s height whenever the station’s wavelength was required to be changed.

Caldecott Hill Estate

The Caldecott Hill Estate flourished with the establishment of BMBC. As many as 70 new houses were built within 100 acres of land at the residential estate in 1937, in a project launched by a private company named Fogden, Brisbane and Co., to accommodate the personnel working at the new broadcasting service.

The up and coming Caldecott Hill Estate was one of the earliest suburban residential estates to be fitted with modern sanitation. This was an attractive feature then, considering the Municipal sewerage system was still percolating through Geylang and Katong, and would take several more years before it reached the suburbans.

Second World War

The British government acquired BMBC in 1940, restructuring it as the Broadcasting Station, Posts and Telegraph Department, Singapore and the Federated Malay State). A year later, the operation was taken over by the new Malayan Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), a joint venture between the governments of the Straits Settlements and the United Kingdom.

News of the Second World War and potential Japanese aggression in Southeast Asia soon filled up the radio airtime as thousands of listeners anxiously waited for the latest updates.

When the enemies inched in by early 1942, the Caldecott Hill radio station and studios were quickly abandoned with the radio mast and transmitter destroyed. When Singapore fell, the Japanese military took over the station and repaired it, changing its name to Syonan Hoso Kyoku. A Caldecott Hill camp was also set up nearby, where the Japanese imprisoned, interrogated and tortured many Australian prisoners-of-war.

During the war, the British Ministry of Information carried out broadcasting to enemy-occupied territories in the Far East through a confidential British Far Eastern Broadcasting Service (BFEBS). It came under the British Foreign Office after the war and had its office briefly at Caldecott Hill, operating with sixty European directors, technicians and announcers. It later became known as the Voice of Britain and its facilities were used as a relay station for BBC.

Radio Malaya, under the charge of Department of Broadcasting, later shared the Caldecott Hill premises with BBC when they left their Cathay Building headquarters and moved into the new $430,000-building in 1951.

Property Boom

The late forties, after the war, was a period of property boom. Many properties and estates exchanged ownership. In 1947 alone, the transaction in properties hit $7 million. The Caldecott Hill Estate, like many others, was sold in that year.

It was purchased by India-born Parsi entrepreneur Navroji R. Mistri (1885-1953) for $1 million, an astronomical figure during that time. A successful and wealthy entrepreneur who built a soda water business empire in Singapore and Malaya, Navroji Mistri was better known for as a philanthropist. Dubbed as the godfather of the poor, he had donated millions of dollars to hospitals, universities and charities dedicated to Singapore’s poor children.

Mistri Road, off Shenton Way, was named in honour of him.

In the mid-fifties, Dale Marden and Co., a Singapore housing development company, launched an ambitious project to build more than 700 detached, semi-detached and terrace houses in Singapore, Malaya and Sarawak. 49 of the Singapore houses were constructed at Caldecott Hill, while the rest were built at Thomson Road, Upper Serangoon Road and Carlton Green.

Caldecott Hill Estate had been a residential estate for the upper-middle class. One of its prominent residents were cinema magnates Runme Shaw and Run Run Shaw, who owned a double-storey bungalow worth $80,000.

The estate, like other residential estates in Singapore, was constantly bothered by the squatter issues in the late fifties and early sixties, where scattered rows of illegal attap houses were erected without permission.

Television Singapura

Radio Malaya split into two in 1957, when the Federations of Malaya achieved independence from the British. One branch was relocated to Kuala Lumpur, retaining the name Radio Malaya (changed to Radio Malaysia in 1963), and went on air in 1959. The other was renamed as Radio Singapura, and operated from the original studio at Caldecott Hill.

Singapore wanted to explore the feasibility of a television service in the early sixties. A Japanese Colombo Plan team of experts was invited to survey the situation and make recommendations to the Singapore government. The report convinced the government to inaugurate a television service, and the Ministry of Culture was assigned to lead the project.

After three years of study, Television Singapura ran its first pilot television service on 15 February 1963. Although the television telecast lasted only an hour, it was nevertheless a great achievement and significant milestone.

The new television service adopted the CCIR 625 line system and telecast on Channel 5 at 174 to 184 megacycles a second, operating from the Caldecott Hill Broadcasting House and using a permanent television transmitter building and tower at Bukit Batok.

The daily programme was soon extended to four hours, and a second channel, Channel 8, was introduced later that year. Films, documentaries, children’s shows, sports, variety entertainment and news made up the programmes, which came in English, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, Hokkien and other Chinese dialects.

The newly-established Television Singapura started recruiting experienced staffs from overseas and local employees were sent to Japan, Australia and Britain for training.

In August 1965, with the independence of Singapore, both entities of Radio Singapura and Television Singapura were combined to form the Radio and Television Singapore (RTS).

The license fees for television sets were set at $24 per year, or $2 a month. A luxury item in the sixties, a television set was not affordable for many families in Singapore. Hence, residents would often gather at the community centres at night to catch their favourite programmes.

Trivia: Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s tearful TV interview on the separation of Singapore from Malaysia had become one of Singapore’s iconic moments in history.

State-of-the-art Studios

By 1966, TV Singapura had its new $3.5-million studio complex at Caldecott Hill completed. The site was acquired from an owner named Liu Hsue Ying at a cost of $485,000, or 92 cents per square foot, in a controversial deal that developed into a legal tussle. The Singapore government later compensated her another $120,000.

The opening of the new modern four-storey studio complex, fitted with a further $2-million worth of equipment, by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on 26 August 1966, meant that Singapore now had one of the best TV studios in Asia.

The state-of-the-art complex was also designed with the plan of introducing colour television within the next 10 years. In the mid-sixties, colour television service was highly costly for newly developing countries and Japan was the only Asian nation to provide colour television service.

The development of amenities at the Caldecott Hill studios sped up in the seventies. In 1972, the Radio House was added with a $485,000 full air-conditioning system. Three years later, in December 1975, a new Radio Singapore complex, featuring a six-storey office tower, auditorium, recording studios, tape library and canteen, was constructed at a cost of $4.2 million.

TV viewership also rapidly increased. By 1971, there were almost 200,000 licensed TV sets in Singapore. This was compared to only 7,000 when television service made its debut in Singapore in 1963, and 57,000 in 1964.

The TV viewers’ appetite and expectation also grew in the seventies as watching TV shows became a daily routine. Among the feedback to RTS were “feature films are too old, why can’t we get better ones?” and “are the Cantonese the privileged class that everyone must keep watching Cantonese films?”.

Other vocal viewers called for more war movies, Hindi films, religious programmes, children play-and-learn shows, repeat of Sesame Street on Sunday mornings and even a third TV channel.

Trivia: RTS celebrated Singapore’s 10th anniversary of television service in 1973 with an one-hour variety show performed by Anita Sarawak.

TV World of Colours

By 1973, Singapore was getting ready for colour TV service. Some $3.1 million was budgeted by the Ministry of Culture for Caldecott Hill’s new offices, studios, film processing units and printing laboratory. Another $1.2 million was used to purchase two transmitters, and a further $2.9 million spent on preliminary works.

Producers and engineers were sent to Britain, West Germany and Holland for retraining in colour TV programme production and techniques. Even the Singapore Polytechnic began offering diploma courses in colour TV. The institute had previously produced more than 500 graduates in electronics and communication engineering, which enabled them to have the knowledge adapting themselves to the needs of colour TV.

The moment finally arrived in 1974, as it was the first time TV telecasts in Singapore was shown in colours. The World Cup final on 07 July 1974, shown live on TV, was a pleasant surprise to many football fans as RTS’ colour TV transmission was not expected to commence until August that year.

Other viewers eagerly anticipated the coloured telecast of popular American drama series such as Kung Fu, Ironside, Cannon, Medical Center and Shaft. Local shows and productions in colours, however, were presented to the audience only after 1976.

Colour TV sets, at those years, were almost three times more expensive than the monochrome ones. But with the expected increasing demands, local TV set manufacturers and assemblers such as Setron started producing colour TV sets at competitive costs in the mid-seventies.

Local productions developed significantly in the late seventies and early eighties. Intellectual competitions such as the inter-school Science & Industry Quiz and  Science Challenge were regularly held at Caldecott Hill. Other popular variety shows and contests such as Sharp Night and Talentime were well-received by the TV audience.

RTS also progressed in its live telecast in 1978. The Science & Industry Quiz and Talentime went live on TV for the first time. Previously, only the matches of the Malaysia Cup finals, National Parades and news were telecast live. In addition, on-the-spot reporting was included in the news.

Trivia: The costly project in colour TV service was almost abandoned by the government due to the 1973 oil crisis, which impacted Singapore’s economy.

Singapore Broadcasting Corporation

The beginning of the eighties saw another milestone in the broadcasting history of Singapore. Corporatised on 1 February 1980, RTS was renamed Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) and became the Singapore government’s latest statutory board.

The switch was not met with optimism from the TV viewers, who had already gotten used to RTS. The new entity received complaints that its acronym SBC was easily confused with the Singapore Bus Service (SBS). Others sarcastically mocked that SBC stood for “si bei cham” (damn terrible in Hokkien).

But SBC would slowly improve over time. In 1980, it went full colours when the last 10% of its locally produced shows switched from black and white. Then it introduced many popular American series, BBC documentaries, Hong Kong dramas and Taiwanese serials as well as local variety shows such as the Datsun Show. The highly successful Talentime singing contest, categorised in English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil languages, continued.

By the end of 1980, most viewers were generally satisfied with the TV programmes scheduled by SBC.

In the early eighties, SBC aggressively recruited singers, actors, actresses and dubbing specialists from Malaysia and Taiwan to enhance its Mandarin TV programmes. There were also cultural exchanges with the Hong Kong artistes, producers and scriptwriters.

Locally, a drama training course was established in 1982 to develop Singapore’s own drama artistes, singers, dancers and other production staffs, as SBC readied itself to produce a series of planned Mandarin drama series. When the first application window opened in late 1981, more than 5,000 people, largely between 16 and 24 years old, signed up.

Other than Chinese TV programmes, SBC also rolled out its Tamil productions on Channel 8. One of its earliest Tamil dramas was Chitiram Pesuthadi, although it was not very well-received by the Indian viewers.

Trivia: From Arriflex BL to the Marconi Mk IV, the cameras used for shooting dramas and shows had evolved throughout the decades. The Marconi Mk IV cameras were retired when colour TV service was introduced.

The Awakening

In 1983, SBC created a 2,000-square-metre large village, on the former grounds of the radio building, for the ambitious filming of multi-episode drama The Awakening (雾锁南洋, previously named Fog Over Nanyang).

Replicating scenes from old Chinatown, Singapore River, Emerald Hill and Joo Chiat, the crews put together a collection of realistic props in jinrickshas, bullock carts, antiquated tubby postboxes and fire hydrants for the “village”. Kampong houses, shophouses, warehouses, back alleys and even a boat quay were also set up to accommodate the blockbuster drama whose storyline was cast between the 1920s and 1940s.

Extensive studies were conducted on tea houses, wayang halls and Chinese clan associations to ensure the details were as accurate as possible. A permit was also obtained from the Ministry of National Development for SBC’s largest project till date.

The Awakening was one of the early blockbuster dramas produced by SBC. Building on its success, SBC, and later TCS, moved on to produce many memorable dramas throughout the eighties and nineties.

Other Milestones

In January 1984, SBC added a third channel – Channel 12 – after Channel 5 and 8. The purpose of a third channel was to simulate the public’s interest in the arts as well as to provide information and instructions. The new TV channel mainly focused on programmes such as Broadway plays and musicals, Shakespearean and contemporary plays, forums and debates, classical music, jazz and brass band concerts, Western and Chinese operas, classic dramas and films, and historical documentaries.

The Star Search 1988 was SBC’s first attempt to discover new talents for its Mandarin dramas, and the contest entered its 10th installment in 2010. Meanwhile, the Star Awards was started in 1994.

In the same year, SBC was privatised and restructured into Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS), Radio Corporation of Singapore and Singapore Television Twelve (STV12), all came under a single holding company called the Singapore International Media (SIM). TCS continued to operate Channel 5 and 8, while STV12’s Channel 12 evolved into Prime 12 and Premier 12 in 1995.

In 1999, Channel NewsAsia, a news and current affairs channel that was broadcasted in many parts of Asia, was launched. Then SIM was rebranded as MediaCorp Singapore. In the two years that followed, TCS became MediaCorp TV, while Prime 12 and Premier 12 became known as Suria and Central (Vasantham Central, Kids Central and Arts Central) respectively.

In 2015, MediaCorp began shifting to its new Mediapolis broadcasting centre at Buona Vista. With the relocation completed by 2017, it also spelt the end of Caldecott Hill’s 82-year-old role as Singapore’s broadcasting centre. The vicinity is expected to be redeveloped in future, although no detailed plans have been released yet.

Date: 16 April 2017

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