Sungei Road Thieves’ Market – From Beginning Till the End

It was popularly known as Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, or Sungei Road Flea Market. In the past, it was also known as gek sng kio (“frosted bridge” in Hokkien and Teochew, referring to the former Singapore Ice Works in the vicinity), Robinson Petang (“Robinson in the afternoon” in Malay – a cheeky reference to the old Robinson Department Store, which was catered to the more well-to-do, while Robinson Petang was largely catered to the poor), or the Poor Man’s Department Store.

The idiom of “one man’s thrash is another man’s treasure” perhaps best describes this former selling roadside bazaar of second-hand goods; a well-known venue that was more than 80 years old but eventually could not outlast the rapid pace of development.

As Sungei Road Thieves’ Market walked into history on 10 July 2017, let us take a look of its beginning till the end of its fascinating 80-plus years of history.


Sungei Road Thieves’ Market began in the mid-1930s as a small trading place along the Rochor River for small merchants to sell their goods, usually in the late afternoons or evenings. In its early days, army stuffs such as boots and ponchos were probably the main goods sold, due to the increasing presence of the British military personnel in Singapore.

One of the “pioneers” of the Sungei Road market was said to be a Chinese called Quek Sien, who arrived from Fujian, China in the early 20th century. Going into the second-hand business in the 1920s, Quek Sien bought unwanted items from many local wealthy Chinese and Peranakan homes, and resold them at the Tekka area, before settling down at Sungei Road in the 1930s.


Due to the shortage of goods during the Japanese Occupation, the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market became a popular place for many locals, especially the poor, to purchase crockery and other domestic items.


The street bazaar by then had become commonly known as the Thieves’ Market, due to its cheap goods that were considered a steal. The most probable explanation, however, was the growing yet unwanted reputation of the market, where many stolen and smuggled items could be found. It was to the extent that if a person had his belonging stolen in the morning, he could probably buy it back at the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market by that afternoon.

Brassware, pottery, electrical appliances and even old bicycles also began to make their way into bazaar, after the karang guni (rag and bone) men collected and resold them at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market. On a good day, a karang guni man could earn as much as $6 a day.


In the fifties and sixties, the market had gained such a notorious reputation that no women dared to venture into it alone, and anyone who drove there, would have to prepare to lose a car radio or hubcap (wheel cover).

The British army began its withdrawal in the late sixties, resulting in a shortage of military merchandise in Singapore. Much of the army stuffs, however, could still be found at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, where, according to some regular visitors, it had enough material available to clothe a battalion of soldiers, or a command of sailors.


Sungei Road Thieves’ Market was affected by the extensive urban renewal projects. Many peddles were forced to move to other places and markets. While the flea market at Sungei Road faced uncertainty, others flourished. For example, a similar bazaar had appeared at Chinatown’s Pagoda Street in the late seventies, offering a wide variety of second-hand items ranging from rusty kitchen knives, chipped bowls, broken clocks to old books, vintage watches and stereo radio sets.

Like Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, the roadside bazaar at Pagoda Street served two purposes – a marketplace for the poor to buy their wares, as well as a source of income for the sellers, most of them middle-aged and old folks.


Tarpaulin canvas for ships, even Japanese awning canvas, could be found at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market.


Several stalls of Sungei Road Thieves’ Market had to be demolished to make way for the widening of the Rochore Canal. Unlicensed peddlers started to ply their trades at the place, causing conflicts and unhappiness among other vendors. By the mid-seventies, there were about 270 licensed and 500 unlicensed vendors at the flea market.


The first Kelantan Road Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat, just opposite of Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, was completed.


The urban renewal projects had forced some of the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market vendors to shift to the nearby markets and shophouses at Kelantan Lane and Syed Alwi Road. However, the bustling crowds, including many Malaysians who were attracted by the cheap bargains, ensured the continuous thriving business of the popular flea market.


The famous tiger’s head decoration that was previously installed at the front of the Aw brothers’ (Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par) Fiat car was found at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market.


“It is the end of an era” according to the Environment Ministry officials who proceeded to tear down the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market stalls and sheds. The peddlers were relocated to Golden Mile, Buffalo Road, Petaling Road and other venues.

Little did they know, the 50-year-old flea market would made a comeback a few years later.


Within a year between 1982 and 1983, two large fires had consumed twenty wooden shophouses at Sungei Road, many of them furniture shops.


By the late eighties, the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market was back alive and bustling again, and the regular peddlers at the market were issued temporary permits to sell their second-hand goods.


The Sungei Road Thieves’ Market was cleared due to the development of Rochor Canal, but again it did not stop the peddlers from coming back.


The Member of Parliament (MP) for the Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency (GRC) Denise Phua called Sungei Road Thieves’ Market a “slum”, blaming the illegal vendors and their messy ways of doing businesses.


The space at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market was halved in order to accommodate the construction of Downtown Line’s Jalan Besar MRT Station. More than 100 vendors were displaced. Others were upset as they could not adequately showcase their goods in the limited lots provided.


The vendors at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market formed an association – Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods – to protect their interests.

One of the first online petitions to save Sungei Road Thieves’ Market was started by the public.


Sungei Road Thieves’ Market had to make way, the authorities declared, before the opening of the Jalan Besar MRT Station.


Sungei Road Thieves’ Market officially walked into history.

Published: 10 July 2017

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Distant Memories of the Big Splash

The former Big Splash tower, once an iconic landmark at East Coast Park, is slated for demolition after almost 40 years of existence.

Many Singaporeans would have fond memories of Big Splash – its slides, pools and restaurants – as one of their favourite recreation parks during their childhood or schooling times, where they spent many weekend afternoons swishing down the slides and splashing into the pools. And not forgetting those awkward moments when someone’s swimwear or trunks got washed off by the high impacts.

Big Splash was developed by Singapore Aquatic Sports Pte Ltd, the wholly-owned subsidiary of private developer Goldhill Properties, who also held directorship at Jurong Watersports Complex Pte Ltd, a firm incorporated in 1975 to set up Mitsukoshi Garden with Japanese retail giant Mitsukoshi Ltd. Located along Japanese Garden Road in the western side of Singapore, Mitsukoshi Garden was the equivalent as well as matching rival of Big Splash.

Both water theme parks shared similar features, both in design and materials used for the pools and slides, which were originated from Yamakuni Iron Company, a well-known Japanese pool maker. In this way, the developers hoped that they would be able to tap into the two large pockets of clienteles in Singapore’s main population centres.

Occupying a site of 33,530 square metres, Mitsukoshi Garden was considerably smaller than Big Splash. But it was still well-equipped, with flow pool, sliding pool, kids’ pool and a wading pool with a stage as its main attractions. Opened in April 1979, the $10 million project also had a restaurant, reception office, golf putting course, spectator’s gallery and function rooms.

Big Splash, however, was more spectacular in design and size, and was soaking in almost a carnival atmosphere.

The iconic five-lane coloured slides – they were ranged between 12m and 17m tall (and 85m long) –  were then the tallest and longest slides in the world for a water recreation centre. Beside the splash pools where the slides ended off, there were the adult-size pool, children’s pool and flow pools with artificially created current movements. All the pools were filled with seawater, and had sand bottoms to give the swimmers a beach effect.

Other than the water amenities, Big Splash also possessed a restaurant, arcade, refreshment kiosks and an amphitheatre for puppet and magic shows. Its entire premises, a large project evolved from the Park and Recreation Department’s plan to develop East Coast Parkway, cost $6 million in construction and a recurring $2 million in annual operation.

Singapore’s largely anticipated water amusement park was opened on 23 July 1977, adding to the vibrancy of the up and coming East Coast Park in the late seventies and eighties. Over the years, more amenities were built at the “green lung” of Singapore, such as the man-made lagoon, chalets, bicycle and jogging tracks, golf driving range, tennis courts, food centre and even a crocodile aquarium.

During its heydays, Big Splash was a crowd-puller, welcoming tens of thousands of visitors every month. It was also one of the popular venues for private organisations to hold their events, picnics and parties.

The popular Big Splash unfortunately had a couple of incidents soon after its opening.

A 19-year-old youth was found in a dizzy state after playing several rounds of the water slides. He was taken to the hospital but died hours later of cerebral hemorrhage. In September 1977, a 5-year-old boy was drown in the wave pool.

The 6000-strong attendance during weekends, as well as loud music and announcements made through its twelve loudspeakers, also attracted many complaints of noise pollution from the residents living at the nearby Amber Road.

The golden era of Big Splash lasted until the late nineties and early 2000s, when its popularity dwindled rapidly due to the challenges of new water theme parks in the Fantasy Island at Sentosa and Downtown East’s Wild Wild Wet. The managing company began to suffer losses, and it led to a lack of maintenance which saw its pools dirtied and iconic slides filled with algae.

By November 2006, Singapore’s once-favourite attraction could no longer continue to operate. Seafood International Market & Restaurant tendered for the site and took over, demolishing the long colourful slides and converting the place into a dining enclave. Its 10-year lease was up in 2016, and the land was returned to the government for redevelopment.

The Mitsukoshi Garden, on the other hand, was long gone, having closed in June 1983 after only four years of operation. It was subsequently sold to a Japanese restaurant chain, and had the premises converted into a dining venue and renamed as CN West Leisure Park.

The Big Splash building will be torn down in a couple of weeks’ time, and when that happens, we will bid a final goodbye to this former representative landmark of East Coast with all the fond memories we have.

Published: 11 June 2017

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McNair Road, Townerville and the Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital

Along McNair Road is an interesting sight, where the prewar terrace houses meet the modern public flats in an interesting mix of old and new architecture. Townerville, the prominent landmark of the McNair/Towner vicinity, refers to the rows of double-storey houses that were built way back in the 1920s.


The terrace houses, bounded by McNair Road, Towner Road and May Road, were designed in a combination of Malay, Chinese and European architectural styles. Every unit is made up of unique features such as a high ceiling, wide verandah, balcony, courtyard and picture rails and skirting.

The six blocks of 84 houses are largely divided into three distinct groups. The 24 apartments along McNair Road are European-looking, while the 34 units, situated at the junction of Towner and May Roads, were built with Chinese-influenced low parapet walls in the verandah and unique column heads. The remaining have Malay-styled pointed roofs.

Townerville was previously utilised by the Ministry of Finance as government quarters in the seventies and eighties. The houses were then left vacant for many years.

In 1986, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) decided to develop the McNair/Towner area as a new housing estate. Eighteen new blocks of flats – Block 108 to 112 and Block 119 to 124, now collectively known as McNair Springs, along McNair Road, and Block 101 to 107 at Towner Road – were built.

The old dilapidated terrace houses soon became an eye sore beside the new HDB flats. Fortunately, instead of demolition, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) announced restoration plans for the empty houses in 1988. Working together with HDB, the restoration project,  costing about $12.4 million, aimed to integrate the old world charm of the colonial ethic-style houses into the upcoming housing estate.

It was URA’s first residential restoration project where its carefully applied 3R principles – Maximum Retention, Sensitive Restoration and Careful Repair – set a benchmark for future restoration projects in Singapore.

After the completion of the restoration in 1990, the terrace houses, now under conservation, were put up for open tender. In just two weeks, the highly sought-after properties attracted more than 1,000 bids. Local real estate tycoon Ng Teng Fong’s (1928-2010) Far East Group eventually clinched the multi-million deal with their highest bids.

By the early 2000s, each unit cost between $1.1 million to $1.6 million. The units were put up for sale again in 2001. Today, the Townerville apartments are largely used for residential and commercial purposes.

Rayman Estate

The residential estate bounded by McNair Road, Towner Road and the main Balestier Road used to be known as Rayman Estate. It was originally called the Balestier Estate, but was renamed in 1949 by the Municipal Commissioners in honour of Lazarus Rayman (1891-1948), the former Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) chairman and Municipal President.

The estate, one of the projects undertaken by Lazarus Rayman’s progressive housing policy, consisted of some 1,400 Artisans’ Quarters, 20 flats and 63 shops, and had its public market added in 1952.

Artisans’ quarters were low-cost apartment units built by SIT to house the skilled workers. Back then such quarters could be found in many parts of Singapore, including Balestier, Tiong Bahru, Tanjong Pagar, Henderson, Bukit Timah Road, Kim Keat Road, Mackenzie Road, Silat Road and Morse Road.

By the late fifties, a new road named Jalan Kebun Limau split the Rayman Estate into two. Thirty years later, in the late eighties, the road would be redeveloped and absorbed into the Central Expressway (CTE), becoming the exit road (Exit 7D) that led to Balestier Road.

Rayman Estate itself vanished into history, together Rayman Avenue, a small road off Towner Road that once led to the housing estate.

Former Schools

Junior technical trade schools were established in British Malaya to equip students with technical skills such as bricklaying, plumbing, construction and mechanical and electrical fittings. In Singapore, the first government technical trade school was set up at Scotts Road in 1929.

The school was relocated to Balestier Road in 1940, but due to the Second World War, its technical classes only began in 1948. The Balestier Junior Technical Trade School lasted until 1963, when it was restructured to become the Singapore Vocational Institute, with its training and courses managed by the Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB).

In 1992, the Ministry of Education (MOE) decided to introduce the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) as a post-secondary institution to improve the employability of vocational trainees. With the new implementation, the Singapore Vocational Institute was replaced by ITE Balestier, which had its new premises built and operated at the former Rayman Estate from 1994 to 2013. Today, the site is occupied by Northlight School.

Other than Balestier Junior Technical Trade School, there were several other schools at the McNair-Towner vicinity during the fifties and sixties, including the McNair Road School, Whampoa School, Griffiths School, Balestier Road Boys’ School and Balestier Girls’ School.

The McNair Road School first started as McNair Road English School in 1925, but was shut down during the Second World War and had its premises used by the military. After the war, the school buildings were returned to the Singapore Education Department.

In 1950, McNair Road School became one of Singapore’s first four schools – the other three being Duchess Road School, Anthony Road School and Monk’s Hill School – to be opened under the Supplementary Education Plan. It was part of the colonial government’s 10-year postwar educational program to provide primary education to almost 9,000 students in Singapore. A total of eighteen schools were opened in the $1.5 million project.

McNair Road School was eventually merged into Rangoon Road Primary School in 1968.

Originally known as Towner Road School, Griffiths School was renamed after James Griffiths (1890-1975), the British Secretary of State for the Colonies who visited Singapore and officially opened the school in 1950.

In 1982, the school faced closure due to declining enrollment, and was forced to merge with Balestier Girls’ School to form Moulmein Primary School. It got its name Griffiths back when the primary school was relocated to Tampines in 1988.

Griffiths Primary School merged once again in 2015, together with Qiaonan Primary School, to form Angsana Primary School. The second controversial merger might see the name Griffiths permanently walk into history.

The eighties and nineties saw the numerous old schools at McNair-Towner ceased to exist, replaced by the newer ones in May Primary School, Towner Primary School and the Precision Engineering Institute (McNair Campus).

There were other schools too, along McNair and Towner Roads, that provided education to students with special needs. Examples were the MINDS (Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore) Towner Gardens School, Spastic Special School and the Rainbow Centre Balestier Special School. The latter was established in 1995; its premises was later converted into the Singapore Boys’ Hostel.

Shitoryu Karate Association

One of the former tenants at McNair Road was the Shitoryu Karate Association (SKA). Originally known as Singapore Karate Association, the karate school had its history dated back to the early sixties. It was founded in 1964 by a group of martial arts enthusiasts and professionals, and was based at the bungalow belonging to one of its founders, a police officer, at McNair Road.

During the first decade of its establishment, karate instructors were invited from Japan to impact the skills to local students who had signed up for the courses. Tough training were then carried out at the McNair Road bungalow’s courtyard.

Over the years, the association’s membership steadily increased, and by the seventies, SKA had produced many outstanding karate-kas who competed in the world tournaments.

The SKA, in the late seventies, also held many international karate-do championships. Many participants from Singapore, as well as regional countries such as Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Brunei, contested at the Gay World Stadium.

In 2017, the association’s headquarters, after 52 years at McNair Road, had to be relocated to Tessensohn Road, a short distance away from its old premises. It was one of the buildings that were affected by the latest redevelopment plan at the McNair-Towner vicinity.

Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital

The Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital is a century-old landmark at the vicinity, located at the junction of Serangoon Road and Balestier Road.

It sits on the former site of Tan Tock Seng Hospital, before the latter was shifted to its current location off Moulmein Road in 1909. Tan Tock Seng Hospital was originally situated at Pearl’s Hill. It was in 1861 when it was forced to move to the junction of Serangoon and Balestier Roads.

Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital started as a small Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) hospital manned by only one physician. It was founded by four prominent local Cantonese community leaders – Leong Man Sau (1866-1916), Yow Ngan Pan (1863-1930), Ng Seng Pang (1873-1953) and Wong Ah Fook (1837-1918) – in 1910.

The purpose of setting up a hospital was to provide free medical care to the clan members and immigrants from the Guangdong province of China. The hospital was named after the Kwong Chau, Wai Chau and Shiu Heng prefectures, the ancestral home for most of the local Cantonese.

From a humble medicine outlet, Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital expanded over the decades. In the fifties, it added a maternity ward, hostel, kitchen and a new front block.

Since its establishment in 1910, the hospital had offered free outpatient services to all the locals, although its in-patient facilities remained limited only to the Cantonese. This, however, changed in 1974 when Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital amended its constitution to admit Singaporeans of all races and dialects.

The Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital of the modern era includes a TCM centre and nursery home. Three of its colonial buildings and front block were conserved in 2010. Its other buildings, however, were demolished in 2015 in a $96-million redevelopment project. Upon its completion in late 2017, the hospital will have the largest nursing home in Singapore.

Central Sikh Temple

The Central Sikh Temple is the main temple for all Sikhs in Singapore. It is the country’s two recognised public Sikh temples, along with the Silat Road Sikh Temple.

A Skih place of worship is called a gurdwara. In 1912, a group of Sikhs purchased a bungalow at Queen Street, though the financial support of Wassiamull, a Sindhi merchant, and converted it into a gurdwara. It became known as the Central Sikh Temple, or Wadda Gurdwara (“The Big Temple”).

Beside being a place of worship for the local Sikhs, the temple also had housing quarters for the aged and poor Sikhs. In 1977, the plot of land where the Central Sikh Temple formerly stood on was acquired by the HDB for residential and commercial redevelopment. It had to be temporarily relocated to Seng Poh Road at Tiong Bahru, while a new Central Sikh Temple was being constructed at the corner of Towner Road and Serangoon Road.

At a cost of $6.5 million, the new temple building was completed in 1986, the year that was celebrated by the Sikhs as the 518th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. On 16 November 1986, the temple was officially opened by Wee Kim Wee (1915-2005), the former President of Singapore.

Central Sikh Temple was designated in May 1999 by the National Heritage Board as a historical site.

Published: 31 May 2017

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Remembrance of Othman Wok (1924-2017), Singapore’s First Malay Minister

One of Singapore’s early Cabinet ministers and old guards (first generation of the People’s Action Party (PAP)), Othman Wok was perhaps best known for his active participation and contributions to the nation’s social development and welfare of the local Malay and Muslim communities.

Born in 1924 to a Malay school principal, Othman Wok, whose full name was Tuan Haji Othman Bin Wok, received English educations at Radin Mas School and Raffles Institution. After graduation, he worked at Utusan Melayu, a Malay newspaper company, where he was gradually involved in union-related activities. He would later be appointed as the Singapore Printing Employees Union’s secretary, and became associated with Lee Kuan Yew, the union’s legal advisor.

Othman Wok joined the PAP when it was formed in 1954, and was elected as an Assemblyman for the Pasir Panjang constituency in 1963. He would continue to serve as a Member of Parliament (MP) for the Pasir Panjang constituency between 1963 and 1981.

But the first real test for Othman Wok came in 1964, when a series of racial riots broke out in July and September between the Malays and Chinese. Singapore had joined the Federation of Malaysia a year before, but political tensions were rising between the two rivaling parties, PAP and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), in both the Malaysia and Singapore general elections. The UMNO accused the PAP government of oppressing the Malays in Singapore, and condemned Othman Wok and the Malay MPs for betraying the Malay communities. When Singapore split from Malaysia in 1965, Othman Wok’s will was tested once again – but he stood firm in supporting the island’s independence.

In total, Othman Wok served as the Minister for Social Affairs for 14 years until 1977. He would serve another three years as the minister without portfolio and the ambassador to Indonesia until his retirement from politics in 1981.

As the Minister for Social Affairs, one of Othman Wok’s responsibilities was to take note of the needs of the disadvantaged groups, and that included the disabled, elderly, orphans, troubled teens and single parents. He also worked hard for racial harmony, as well as the well-being of Singapore’s Malay-Muslim population.

Othman Wok’s active involvement saw the implementation of the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA), which led to the establishment of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS)) in 1968 to look after the welfare of the Muslims in Singapore. It was followed by the setting up of the Mosque Building Fund (MBF) in 1975. Voluntary contributions were collected, via the Central Provident Fund (CPF), from working Muslims for the building of mosques in new housing estates.

When the Malay communities were resettled in the seventies from their kampongs to the new Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates, they had to live without a community mosque. In 1974, the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, together with Othman Wok and several Malay MPs, met the members of the MUIS to discuss possible solutions, one of which was the establishment of MBF to fund the construction of mosques.

There were about 1,200 Muslim families living at Toa Payoh in the seventies. By 1977, the first mosque was built with the help of MBF. It was named Masjid Muhajirin, and was officially opened by Othman Wok. Since then, 26 new mosques have been constructed in Singapore using the fund.

Othman Wok also campaigned for the funds needed to develop a national stadium for Singapore in the late sixties. Sports could always unite the people together, especially football, Singapore’s favourite sport. A need to spur the people’s interest in fitness and health was essential too, as many newly conscripted recruits in the early batches of the National Service were deemed lacking in fitness.

Othman Wok passed away at the Singapore General Hospital on 17 April 2017. He was 92 years old. His final journey was honoured with a ceremonial gun carriage from the Sultan Mosque to Pusara Abadi at the Choa Chu Kang Muslim Cemetery.

Published: 29 April 2017

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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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A Brief Jewish History in Singapore

After the British East India Company established Singapore as a trading post in 1819, various trading communities began to arrive and settle on the island, one of which was the Jewish community. Although there was only a handful of them in Singapore in the early 1830s, by 1858, the population grew to almost 20 Jewish families. Known as the Sephardi or Oriental Jews, most of them were born in India and had their ancestries traced back to Baghdad.

Another group of Jews – the Ashkenasi Jews – arrived much later and were from Germany and other parts of Europe. Largely engaged in trading and the merchandise businesses, they associated with the Europeans regularly and distanced themselves from the locals and even the Sephardi Jews in Singapore.

The early Jewish settlers lived at Boat Quay, moving later to North Bridge Road, Dhoby Ghaut, Mount Sophia and the Rochor vicinity. Their numbers gradually grew – by the Second World War, there were more than 800 Jews in Singapore. During the war, Nazi Germany requested Japan, under the Axis alliance, to kill all the Jews within its boundary. The Japanese did not carry out the genocide, but the Jews were nevertheless brutalised and suffered like other races in Singapore. Many of them were rounded up and imprisoned at the Changi Gaol and Sime Road Camp.

The early Jews had built their own cemetery in Singapore in the mid-19th century. It was located behind the Fort Canning, and was known as the Old Cemetery. The Jewish cemetery was later moved to the Moulmein area, near the junction of Thomson Road and Newton Road, and contained mostly the burials of the Jews that died between 1904 and 1973. Together with another Jewish cemetery at Orchard Road, it was exhumed and cleared by 1985 due to the construction of the new Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) stations.

A Jewish house of worship is called a synagogue. There are two synagogues in Singapore – the Maghain Aboth Synagogue and Chesed-El Synagogue – both are of significant historical values.

Maghain Aboth Synagogue

The Maghain Aboth Synagogue – its name means “Shield of our Fathers” – is the oldest synagogue in Singapore as well as Southeast Asia. The building was built in 1878, but its history went back to almost 1841, when the British colonial government granted the Jewish community a plot of land to built a double-storey shophouse that functioned as their synagogue. The street where the synagogue stood was later named Synagogue Street.

By the 1870s, there was a need for a larger synagogue to accommodate the growing local Jewish community. Wealthy Jewish businessman and community leader Sir Manasseh Meyer (1846-1930) pushed for the acquisition of a piece of land at Waterloo Street to be used for the construction of the Maghain Aboth Synagogue. The old synagogue was subsequently sold and demolished after the Second World War.

In 1978, during Maghain Aboth Synagogue’s 100th anniversary celebrations, David Saul Marshall (1908-1995), Singapore’s first Chief Minister, addressed the community at the synagogue as a Jewish elder and unveiled the seven-branched candle stand menorah, a symbol of Judaism. The synagogue was also visited by former Israeli President Chaim Herzog in late 1986 when he stopped over for a three-day trip at Singapore.

On 27 February 1998, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue was gazetted as one of Singapore’s national monuments.

Chesed-El Synagogue

Meaning “bountiful mercy and goodness of God”, the Chesed-El Synagogue was built in 1905, initially as a private synagogue, by Sir Manasseh Meyer, who was increasingly bothered by the differences, especially in the ritual and service matters, between the local Jews of Asian and European backgrounds.

Designed in late-Renaissance style, the synagogue was situated near Meyer’s residence Belle Vue at Oxley Rise. During the Second World War, the building was taken over by the Japanese military to be used as a storage for ammunition and other goods. The synagogue was opened up after the war for the local Jewish community. Like the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, the Chesed-El Synagogue was also gazetted, on 18 December 1998, as a national monument.

Other than the two synagogues, there are also several buildings that represent the influences and legacies of the Jewish pioneers in early Singapore.

David Elias Building

One of the best known Jewish-influenced landmarks in Singapore is the David Elias Building, located at the junction shared between Middle Road, Selegie Road and Short Street. The three-storey building was built in 1928 and was named after its owner David Elias, who had set up a trading company in Singapore in the early 20th century.

Architectural firm Swan & Maclaren was the designer behind the building, which featured extensively the neo-classical style made popular in the 1920s. Its most eye-catching feature is the pitched roof with a concrete frontage inscribed with a six-pointed Star of David, the name “David Elias Building” and “1928”, the year of its completion.

The David Elias Building was given the conservation status on 28 October 1994.

Ellison Building

The Ellison Building is another landmark in the Rochor vicinity that was built and owned by a Jewish. The construction of the double-storey building, with its prominent curved facade and two semi-circular domes, was completed in 1924 and belonged to Issac Ellison’s (1864-1928), a wealthy local Jewish businessman and community leader.

It was said that during the pre-independence days, the British governors would sit at the building’s upper balconies, during the Sundays, to watch races that were held at the opposite Race Course Road.

The Ellison family owned the building until 1989, when they sold it to a private developer. In 2003, the building was gazetted for conservation, as part of the Mount Sophia Conservation Area project. It, however, came into the spotlight in 2016 when the government announced that parts of the building will be demolished, to make way for the new underground North-South Corridor, and reconstructed.

Like the David Elias Building, the Ellison Building also has its name, year of construction and a Star of David embossed on its roof.

Other notable houses in Singapore that were built and owned by the early Jews are former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s residence at Oxley Road, built by a Jewish merchant in the late 19th century, and the Beaulieu House located at the end of Sembawang Road. The Beaulieu House was said to be built in the 1910s by a Jewish family who used it as a holiday bungalow. It was acquired by the British government in 1924 when the Sembawang Naval Base was constructed, and was subsequently occupied by a British superintending civil engineer and naval admirals.

Several roads in Singapore were also named after the early Jewish community leaders, prominent businessmen and philanthropists who had contributed much to the society.

Meyer Road was named after the above-mentioned Sir Manasseh Meyer. Others are Adis Road, Elias Road and Solomon Street, named after Nissim Adis (1857-1927), Joseph Aaron Elias (1881-1949) and Abraham Solomon (1798-1884) respectively. In addition, Amber Road was named after Joseph Elias’ family clan name.

Frankel Estate was named after the Frankel family, who owned large plots of coconut palm plantations at the vicinity in the early 20th century. Dealing in textile and furniture businesses as well, they also contributed to the development of the neighbouring Opera Estate.

In 1923, the Jewish community living at Frankel and Opera estates were visited by famous physicist and Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein, who was also a distinguished guest at Sir Menasseh Meyer’s grand Belle Vue a year earlier.

Other Jews pioneers who had stamped their legacies in Singapore include Abdullah Salleh Shooker (1849-1942), a Baghdadi Jewish businessman who started by working for Sir Manasseh Meyer. He later became successful himself but died in captivity during the Japanese Occupation. After his death, part of Abdullah Shooker’s estate were donated to take care of the poor and sick Jews in Singapore, Palestine and Baghdad, while his colonial bungalow at Wilkie Road became a welfare home.

Jacob Ballas (1921-2000), a successful stockbroker, philanthropist and Jewish leader, was another well-known Jew in Singapore. Born in Iraq, he and his family moved to Labuan, North Borneo, before settling in Singapore in the 1920s. Despite being a brilliant student, Jacob Ballas could not afford his further studies after secondary education. A young Jacob Ballas became a car salesman and insurance agent before finding success in the stock exchange after the war.

By the sixties, he became a millionaire and was appointed the chairman of the Malaysia and Singapore Stock Exchange. Jacob Ballas had been an active philanthropist, donating generously to the community and synagogues. After his death, his estate and assets benefacted many charities in Singapore. The Jacob Ballas Centre and Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden at the Singapore Botanic Gardens are named after him.

Published: 26 March 2017

Updated: 03 April 2017

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15 February and A Trip to The Bukit Batok Memorial


Today marks the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore.

During Japan’s invasion of Singapore, one of the fiercest battles between the Allied troops and the aggressors took place at the Bukit Timah area. It was also near the former Ford Factory, where the General Commanding Officer (GOM) Malaya Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival (1887-1966) eventually surrendered Singapore to Japan. That day was 15 February 1942, the beginning of Singapore’s darkest moments in history.

At the end of April 1942, the Japanese took more than 500 British and Australian prisoners-of-war (POWs) from the Changi Camp. Yamashita Tomoyuki, the Japanese Commander-in-Chief, had ordered the construction of a memorial to commemorate the Japanese soldiers that had died in the battle for Singapore. It was to be built on a small Bukit Batok hilltop that overlooked the place where the battle took place.



Under the Japanese’s supervision, the POWs were forced to flatten the land and construct a long flight of steps that would lead to the memorial. A 40-feet tall cylindrical pylon capped with a brass cone was built on a double-tier platform, surrounded by gravel paths and a wooden fence. The finished monument was named Syonan Chureito. A small shrine was also set up at the base of the structure where it was used to store the ashes of the dead Japanese troops.

The Allied POWs also wanted to build a memorial for their fallen comrades. The Japanese initially refused, but later accepted the request as they thought the gesture would show their magnanimity. Hence, at the back of the monument, a 10-feet tall wooden cross was erected as a memorial for the perished Allied soldiers.


The Syonan Chureito was officially unveiled by the Japanese on 10 September 1942, whereas the Memorial Cross was unveiled a day later. During the unveiling ceremony, the local community leaders were forced to attend. The local Chinese were represented by Dr Lim Boon Keng, the Malays by Ibrahim bin Haji Yaacob, the Indians by S.C. Goho and the Eurasians by Dr C. J. Paglar.

Throughout the Japanese Occupation, the memorial was frequently used as the venue for Shinto ceremonies and services to honour the Japanese soldiers who had died in Southeast Asia. At the end of the occupation, the Japanese, fearing that the returning British would commit sacrilegious attacks on their sacred site, destroyed the monument. Likewise, the Syonan Jinja at the MacRitchie Reservoir was burnt down. The ashes of the dead Japanese soldiers were transferred to the Japanese Cemetery Park at Chuan Hoe Avenue.


Today, none of the Syonan Chureito structures had remained, except for the 121 concrete steps and Lorong Sesuai, the small road that once led to it. A television transmitting tower now stands tall at the original site of Syonan Chureito. The site was gazetted by the National Heritage Board in 1995, during the 50th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, as one of the 11 World War II sites (later increased to 20) in Singapore.


Published: 15 February 2017

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