The Evolution of Singapore’s Street Lighting

For the first half of the 19th century, much of Singapore was covered in darkness at night. Although there were candles, oil and kerosene lamps, they were unable to illuminate large areas and were mostly confined to localised spaces such as houses and offices.

Oil Lamps

The first street lamps were apparently set up in 1824, five years after the establishment of Singapore as a trading post. Coconut oil was used for the lamps, which were lit at bridges, several major streets and important buildings. However, they were of little effect due to poor illuminance. Not only they were incapable of providing sufficient light cover at night, their dim lights instead showed the way to godowns and warehouses, where the goods were stolen by thieves under the cover of darkness.

Oil lamps gave rise to the role of lamp attendants, or lamplighters as they were fondly called. The team of lamplighters would go to every oil lamps to lit them before the night fell, and extinguish the flames during the mornings.

Gas Lamps

The industrial development rapidly changed the cities especially in the Western world. By the late 19th century, Paris streets had almost 20,000 gas lamps installed. The city’s urban planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann – his slogan was “light before all else” – helped Paris in becoming one of the world’s earliest City of Light. Meanwhile, in 1886, Härnösand of Sweden became the first European city to replace all its gas lamps with electric street lighting.

In Singapore, it was only after the establishment of the Kallang Gasworks in 1862 that piped gas could be used to supply to the gas lamps installed at the major bridges and main streets at the downtown and city areas, replacing the not-so-effective oil lamps. It was, however, a costly investment to build and maintain the underground network of gas-suppling pipes.

On 24 May 1864, during the grand celebration for Queen Victoria’s 45th Birthday, Singapore’s first gas lamps were operationalised, marking a significant milestone in the local history of street lighting. By the late 19th century, Singapore had almost 930 gas lamps of 15 candle power each, lighting up some 40 miles (64km) of streets. As for the oil lamps, not all were phased out; many still continued to be used at the less important areas where the gas supply network could not reach. Gas lamps in Singapore would last almost a century until the 1950s.

Coal were burnt in the gasworks and the gas, when combined with oxygen, produced light, heat and carbon dioxide. Although gas lamps were much brighter and reliable than the oil lamps, they were not necessarily of lower maintenance. The lamps still had to be lit every night and extinguished every morning.

So each night, the team of lamplighters, equipped with ladders, would go to the gas lamps to lit them up, one by one. A lamplighter would have to climb up the ladder, and, with one leg curled round the lamp pole, attempt to lit the lamp. They would return the next morning to extinguish the gas lamp, which was easier as they could, without using the ladder, extend a long rod with a hook to put out the light. Other than lighting up and putting out the gas lamps, the lamplighters were also required to clean the glass globes and replace the gas mantles at each lamp periodically.

The burning of coal produced massive amount of carbon monoxide and other byproducts which led to serious pollution. Hence, by the 1870s, there were debates of the advantages of the new electric street lighting compared to the traditional gas lamps.

In the 1890s, the Municipal Commission debated again whether to introduce electric street lighting into Singapore. James MacRitchie, the Municipal Engineer of Singapore from 1883 to 1895, was tasked to do a feasibility study of electrical street lighting in the colony.

The cost was a major concern, as one electric lamp cost almost three to five times more than a gas lamp. But at the same time, it was bright enough to replace three gas lamps. Electric lamps, at 100 yards (about 91m) apart, were sufficient to lit up a particular stretch of road at night. By comparison, for the same stretch of road, one gas lamp had to be installed every 30 yards, or about 27m, in order to have the same illuminance effect.

Mercury Vapour Lamps

By the late 19th century, some private companies in Singapore had already started installing their own electric lights powered by small generators. In 1905, Singapore’s electric tram system started operating; its electricity was supplied by the new power plant at MacKenzie Road, which presented a good opportunity to upgrade the street lighting. Like the gas lamps and its gasworks and piping network, the electric lamps needed to be supported by a power station and network of cables.

Hence, a large $1.5 million budget was approved by the colonial government for the new street lighting project. High pressure mercury vapour lamps – a type of gas-discharge lamp that used an electric arc through vaporized mercury to produce light – were used. In 1906, Singapore had its first electric street lighting installed at Raffles Place and Esplanade.

The early electric lamps, however, were unstable, often breaking down due to issues in the electrical supply and cables. In 1907, a shophouse at Kling Street was burnt down caused by the possible fusing of electric light wires. Blackouts were frequent.

Elsewhere in the world, Rangoon had its electrical street lighting installed in 1908. British cities, however, were still using gas lamps well into the 1920s, as their municipal governments had invested heavily in gas lighting and were reluctant to change to the newer and more efficient electric street lighting.

By the 1920s, Singapore’s increased demand in electricity meant that another power plant was needed. The St James Power Station was therefore built in 1927. In 1939, after a successful trial at East Coast Road, Clemenceau Avenue, the section between Cavanagh Road and Newton Circus, became the first road in Singapore to be installed with a set of modern electric street lighting. Costing a total of $13,000, the new mercury vapour lamps, conforming fully to the standards, replaced the road’s old gas lamps.

The rise of automobile in Singapore indirectly led to more electric street lamps installed. Gas lamps were dim, and at some roads, their poor illuminance posed a safety hazard for drivers especially at night. The plans to install electric lamps at more areas in Singapore, however, were derailed by the impending war.

The bombings and air raids during the Second World War severely damaged parts of Singapore’s electric network, throwing many areas of the island into darkness. After Japan occupied Singapore, they carried out several reconstruction programs including the installation of modern street lighting. In 1942, some 43 busy street junctions in the city had their lighting restored.

The Japanese Occupation ended in 1945, The returning British had huge tasks on their hands to rebuild the island and battle the increasing crime rate. In 1947, based on the request of the Police Commissioner to install better lighting at strategic locations, the Singapore Municipality worked out a $170,000 lighting program to replace the street lights at major roads such as Jalan Besar, Serangoon Road, Havelock Road, Victoria Street, Outram Road, New Bridge Road, Bras Basah Road and Beach Road.

By then, there were several gas lamps left in Singapore. The lamp-lighting had become a sunset industry. In 1948, a team of 25 lamplighters remained hired by the Gas Department of the Singapore Municipality. The Electricity Department, on the other hand, had five technician and a foreman to go around switching on and off the electrical lamps. No ladders or climbing were required as the switches were generally situated at the bases of the lamps. It was obvious that gas lamps would be phased out eventually.

The Singapore Municipality purchased hundreds of Class A and B high pressure mercury vapour lamps from England for installation at several main streets. The decline in the crime rate at these streets proved that the brightening of streets at night played an important part in crime fighting. A further $620,000 fund was then approved by the Municipal Commissioners for more high pressure mercury vapour lamps at Singapore’s main streets for the following four years.

At least two types of street lamps were used, made of either galvanised steel or concrete frames. Both the main frames stood vertically from the ground, whereas their lamps were overhung either perpendicularly to the frames, or had curved brackets that resembled a goose neck.

These goose-necked street lamps were a common sight in many parts of Singapore throughout the sixties and seventies. The sturdy frame design was almost maintenance free, and they can still be found at the Seletar and Dempsey areas today, although most of their lights are no longer functioning.

Sodium Vapour Lamps

In the late sixties, the Singapore government introduced the low pressure sodium vapour lamps installed at the junctions, curved roads and accident-prone locations. By the seventies, high pressure sodium vapour lamps were used for street lighting despite their higher costs.

Emitting twice as much light as the mercury vapour lamps, the sodium vapour lamps could replace the mercury vapour ones at a ratio of 2:3 in order to have the same lighting effect. This means the electricity consumption by the lamps could be reduced by a third. Hence, the Public Utility Board (PUB), in 1974, carried out the installation of high pressure sodium vapour lamps at several major roads such as Nicoll Highway, Maxwell Road, Orchard Boulevard Road, Stamford Road and Connaught Drive.

While the mercury vapour lamps gave off a bluish glow, the sodium vapour ones were more of an orangey light.

In 1974, another $48,000-worth of high pressure sodium vapour lamps were used to brighten up Changi, from Tanah Merah Road to Upper Changi Road. The accident-prone Punggol Road was installed with the same type of street lighting in 1983.

There were also variations in the design of street lamp posts; the double arm street lights were typically installed at the centre dividers of major roads to provide illuminance for opposite carriageways.

Singapore’s street lamps today are largely standardised as the octagon (cross section) type, made of the weather and corrosion resistant galvanised steel. Their heights vary between 6m and 14m, depending on factors such as the allowable height limit in the area, nearby structures and the types of trees beside the lamp posts. For example, the street lights at Tanah Merah Coast Road are of a shorter height due to planes taking off and landing at the nearby Changi Airport.

LED Lamps

After decades of usage, the high pressure sodium vapour lamps would eventually become an outdated technology. The familiar orange glow – some found it romantic, creepy for others – would be gone soon. Studies show that in general, people perceive orange-lit streets as darker – and more dangerous – than white-lit streets, but on the other hand, the orange light is more gentle to the eyes of drivers.

After the millennium, the light emitting diodes (LED) became popular. It was not a new product, being invented back in 1927. But it would only be in the 2000s when white LEDs became commercially available for residential use. And as the prices grew more competitive, it soon made its way into schools, offices and hospitals, replacing the halogen and fluorescent bulbs. Comparing to other lights, LEDs fare better in energy saving and are more lasting with less maintenance requirements – they need to be replaced only once a decade whereas sodium vapour lamps have to be changed every three years.

Most of the non-street lamps in Singapore are managed by Singapore Land Authority (SLA), Housing and Development (HDB) and National Parks Board (NParks). The street lamps at public roads, totalled 95,000, came under the Land Transport Authority (LTA).

In the early 2010s, LTA conducted a trial of 17 LED street lights at Little India’s Northumberland Road and Tekka Lane. In 2014, some 4,000 street lamps at lower-traffic 500 roads were converted to LEDs. It is expected that Singapore can save $10 million annually after all of its street lamps are retrofitted with LEDs by 2022.

In 2017, the concept of “smart” lamp posts was introduced under the Smart Nation Sensor Platform (SNSP) initiative. These street lights are fitted with sensors to detect, collect and transmit various data such as vehicular traffic, temperature and humidity.

From the oil lamps to gas lamps, and from the gas lamps to electric lights, different generations of street lighting often overlapped each other and coexisted during transition periods that could last for decades. Here is a summarised timeline of Singapore’s street lighting:

Types of Street Lighting in Singapore


Oil Lamps

1824 to early 20th century

Gas Lamps

1864 to 1955

Electric Lamps (Mercury Vapour)

1906 to late 1970s

Electric Lamps (Sodium Vapour)

1969 to Present (expected to phase out by 2022)

Electric Lamps (LED)

2014 to Present

Street Lamp Trivia

Trivia 1 – Street lamps of different designs can be found at various residential estates and historic districts, such as Chinatown, to reflect their unique identities. Below are some of the different street lighting designs:

Trivia 2 – A street lamp at Tuas South Boulevard has risen to much popularity in recent years among local cycling groups. Known as Tuas Lamp Post 1, it marks the end of the long road and represents a checkpoint or milestone for many cyclists, who will paste stickers on the lamp pole to signify their achievements.

Trivia 3 – Many old lamp posts of Seletar Camp are refurbished and converted into street signage posts, reflecting the history and heritage behind this former British air base.

Published: 24 September 2021

This entry was posted in Historic and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s