Radio broadcasting in Singapore (1924–46)

Radio broadcasting began in Singapore in 1924 through the initiatives of a small circle of amateur radio enthusiasts and hobbyists. It was developed further by commercial companies until it was nationalised by the colonial government in response to the threat of World War II breaking out in Southeast Asia. During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45), radio functioned mostly as a channel for propaganda. Public radio services made a postwar recovery under the British Military Administration, which lasted until the colony’s return to civilian rule in April 1946.

Interwar Singapore (1924–42)
The history of radio broadcasting in Singapore began with the formation of the Amateur Wireless Society of Malaya in 1924. Shortly after obtaining a temporary transmission licence, the interest group, comprising mostly European expatriates, commenced shortwave transmission from a studio in the Union Building at Collyer Quay. However, the pool of listeners in Singapore was small then, as shortwave receivers were costly. Furthermore, local broadcasts were limited and infrequent, so many resident listeners would also tune in to overseas channels in Malaya, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Batavia (Jakarta) and as far as Sydney, Paris, Nairobi, New York City and Moscow.1

Significant inroads were made in radio broadcasting in Singapore during the 1930s. The Empire Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was inaugurated in December 1932, which expanded the array of programmes available for resident listeners. This was followed by the establishment of Radio ZHI, the first professional broadcasting station in Singapore, in 1933. Owned by the Radio Service Company of Malaya, Radio ZHI was a shortwave radio station that delivered static-free broadcasts. It acquired a loyal following in Singapore and abroad. Despite its success, the station closed in 1936 when its licence expired. The year before, the government had granted the newly formed British Malaya Broadcasting Corporation (BMBC) a monopoly licence to operate a broadcasting station and wireless broadcasting in Singapore.2

BMBC was the first large-scale commercial radio station in Singapore. The first test transmissions began in January 1937. In order to fulfil the mammoth task of serving the entire population in Singapore and southern Johor, the company built new studios as well as transmitting and receiving stations at Caldecott Hill. On 1 March 1937, the radio service was officially launched by Governor of the Straits Settlements Shenton Thomas. Unlike previous local stations, which operated on shortwave bands, BMBC broadcasts were made over mediumwave bands and so they could be received on the more affordable mediumwave sets. In 1938, shortwave transmissions were added to extend the broadcaster’s reach to the rest of Malaya.3

As the spectre of World War II loomed over Southeast Asia, radio became an important mouthpiece for government information and propaganda. To this end, the privately owned BMBC was nationalised and reorganised as the Malaya Broadcasting Corporation in 1940. At its headquarters in Cathay Building, 10 editors of the Malaya Broadcasting Corporation prepared news bulletins in English, Chinese, Malay, Tamil, Hindustani, Urdu, French and Dutch. Talks on air raid precautions were also aired. Regular broadcasts were sometimes interrupted for military transmissions of coded messages. In the days leading up to the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, the radio mast and transmitter were destroyed to prevent them from falling into the enemy’s hands. Staff who had been evacuated to Java continued broadcasting from their new location.4
Japanese Occupation (1942–45)
After the capitulation of Singapore, the radio station was seized by the Japanese authorities and renamed Syonan Hoso Kyoku (‘Light of the South’ Broadcasting Corporation). Transmission resumed in March 1942 with production helmed by the Japanese NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai) staff who had accompanied the army in their southward advance. The station aired news of Japan’s war victories in local languages; Japanese language lessons; instructions on the proper show of respect for the Japanese flag and anthem; Japanese music; and Radio Taisho featuring upbeat music that accompanied mass exercise drills. To improve its reach, a shortwave transmitter was added in Jurong. While radio was used to spread information to the masses, its use was tightly controlled. Allied news was heavily suppressed: Those caught listening to foreign stations or discussing external news were arrested. Shortwave radios used in clandestine listening were also confiscated.5

British Military Administration (1945–46)
When the Japanese Occupation came to an end, the British Military Administration (BMA) was installed as the interim government for Singapore and Malaya until the return to civilian rule. Public radio service was swiftly restored within two hours after British forces landed in Singapore on 5 September 1945. The Printing and Publicity Unit of the BMA was placed in charge of providing radio broadcasts in local languages and of distributing and maintaining radio receivers among the civilian population. They were also responsible for repairing and restoring civil radio facilities that had fallen into disrepair during the Occupation. However, progress was often slow, hindered by the lack of manpower and the unsteady supply of spare parts. Nonetheless, the unit was able to assemble a functioning radio service by calling on service personnel to man the stations, tapping on borrowed recordings from civilians and the BBC Transcription Service, and inviting military bands and local orchestras to perform. As part of its strategy to counter enemy propaganda and disinformation, one of its key postwar roles was to deliver the news service in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil, and to tell the Allied perspective of the war during the Japanese Occupation.6

With the return of civilian rule in April 1946, the Pan-Malayan Department of Broadcasting assumed the responsibility of providing radio services to Singapore and Malaya. This ushered in a new phase in the development of radio broadcasting in Singapore as a form of communal entertainment and mass media.7

Gracie Lee

1. Chua Ai Lin, “The Story of Singapore Radio (1924–41),” BiblioAsia 12, no. 1 (April–June 2016); Chua Ai Lin, “’The Modern Magic Carpet’: Wireless Radio in Interwar Colonial Singapore,” Modern Asian Studies, 46, no. 1 (January 2012) 167–191. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)

2. Chua, “The Story of Singapore Radio (1924–41)”; Chua, ‘The Modern Magic Carpet”; “Plea for Z. H. I.,” Straits Times, 22 April 1935, 13; “Radio’s Lstener’s Disappointment,” Straits Times, 18 December 1936, 3; “Closing of ZHI: The Reason,” Straits Times, 19 December 1935, 12; “Listeners’ Protest at Closing of ZHI,” Straits Times, 23 December 1936, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Chua, “The Story of Singapore Radio (1924–41)”; Chua, ‘The Modern Magic Carpet”; “When Will B.M.B.C. Start Broadcasting?” Singapore Free Press, 29 December 1939, 1; “Singapore Station to Broadcast 36 Hours Per Week,” Straits Times, 1 March 1937, 12. (From NewspaperSG); Malaya. Department of Broadcasting, Report of the Department of Broadcasting for the Years 1946–52 (Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., 1953), 1. (Call no. RCLOS 384.54095951 MDBRDB)
4. Singapore. Broadcasting Division, Radio-Television Singapore (Singapore: Ministry of Culture. Broadcasting Division, 1973), [n.p.]. (Call no. RSING 791.44 SIN); Chan Kwok-Buna and Yung Sai-Shing, “Chinese Entertainment, Ethnicity and Pleasure,” Visual Anthropology, 18, nos. 1–2 (2005) 103–142; Malaya. Department of Broadcasting, Report of the Department of Broadcasting for the Years 1946–52, 1–2.
5. Singapore. Broadcasting Division. Radio-Television Singapore, n.p.; Drew O McDaniel, Broadcasting in the Malay World: Radio, Television, and Video in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore (NJ: Ablex Pub., 1994), 50–59. (Call no. RSING 302.2340959 MAC); Bradley C. Freeman and Yokanathan Ramakrishnan, Singapore Radio: Then and Now (UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016), 25–27. (Call no. RSING 384.54095957 FRE); Malaya. Department of Broadcasting, Report of the Department of Broadcasting for the Years 1946–52, 38; Chew Hock Leong, When Singapore Was Syonan-To: Being a Brief Account of What Transpired during the Three and a Half Years Japanese Occupation of Singapore (Singapore:  Printed by G. H. Kiat), 8. (Microfilm NL8342); Chin Kee Oon, Malaya Upside Down (Singapore: Jitts, 1946), 118, 123, 125, 148, 163. (Call no. RCLOS 940.53595 CHI); N.I. Low and H.M. Cheng, This Singapore (Our City of Dreadful Night) (Singapore: City Book Store, 1947), 93–96. (Call no. RCLOS 940.54825957 LOW)
6. H. R. Hone, Report on the British Military Administration of Malaya, September 1945, to March 1946 (Kuala Lumpur: Malayan Union Government Printer, 1946), 48, 152. (Call no. RCLOS 959.506 HON); Malaya. Department of Broadcasting, Report of the Department of Broadcasting for the Years 1946–52, 2, 39; McDaniel, Broadcasting in the Malay World, 59–60.
7. Malaya. Department of Broadcasting, Report of the Department of Broadcasting for the Years 1946–52, 2–3; Chan and Yung, “Chinese Entertainment, Ethnicity and Pleasure.”

The information in this article is valid as at October 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.



Radio broadcasting--Singapore--History

All rights reserved. National Library Board Singapore 2021