Singapore’s first television station

Singapore Infopedia


The first television station in Singapore, Television Singapura, was launched on 15 February 1963.1 It merged with Radio Singapura to form Radio and Television Singapore (RTS) following Singapore’s independence on 9 August 1965.2 On 1 February 1980, RTS was corporatised and renamed the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC). 14 years later on 1 October 1994, SBC was privatised and reorganised into the Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS), Radio Corporation of Singapore and Singapore Television Twelve (STV12), under the management of the Singapore International Media (SIM) group of companies.4 In June 1999, SIM changed its name to Media Corporation of Singapore (MediaCorp Singapore),5 and in February 2001, TCS was renamed MediaCorp TV.6 In May 2004, Media Corporation of Singapore was rebranded as MediaCorp Pte Ltd. 

Television was first demonstrated in Singapore in August 1952 during the British Radio Exhibition organised by the British Radio and Accessories Manufacturers' Association. A television studio was specially built for this purpose, and a mobile camera relayed images via closed circuit link to several screens measuring 10 inches by 9 inches (25 cm by 23 cm).8 This was the second demonstration of television in Southeast Asia, the first having occurred a month earlier in Bangkok, Thailand.9

The first person to be televised was then Governor of Singapore Sir John Fearns Nicoll, whose speech at the opening of the exhibition on 1 August was watched on television by some 3,000 guests at the Happy World amusement park.10 Subsequent programmes included a fashion show11 and a variety of performances, including one by P. Ramlee,12 who went on to have a distinguished career as an actor, film director and musician. The organisers estimated that the shows cost $95,000, with some 31,600 viewers paying $15,800 to watch the programmes in the first four days.13

The television demonstration whetted the appetite of Singaporeans for television, and the setting up of a television station was discussed at length in the press, with issues such as costs and economic viability, governmental involvement, availability of local talent and television advertising being debated.14

The government announced in September 1952 that it was studying plans for a television station, including the financial resources required for a television camera, studio equipment, transmission vans, television engineers, programme assistants and the collection of license fees.15 It also disclosed that two private firms had applied for licences to operate television stations, but the applications were rejected.16

In July 1953, the government announced that it would not set up a television station due to prohibitive costs.17 A number of potential commercial operators, including American television companies, continued to lobby for licences and the subject was revived in August 1955 when the government announced a tender for a private-owned television station. The successful company would be licensed to operate a station for 15 years, after which the government reserved the right to take over the operations, as well as collect licence fees of not more than $2.50 per month from owners of television sets. There were also conditions on programming concerning public policy, and stipulations that the company directors and a percentage of staff had to be Malayan.18

The tender attracted three large entertainment companies – Cathay Organisation, Rediffusion (Singapore) Limited and Shaw Brothers. Cathay touted its $3 million in guaranteed capital, an all-Malayan board of directors, the company's history in film production and distribution as well as owner Loke Wan Tho's experience in the newspaper industry. Rediffusion, on the other hand, highlighted its record in radio broadcasting and its associated companies operating television stations in Europe.19

On 9 February 1956, then Minister for Education Chew Swee Kee tabled a motion in the Legislative Assembly seeking approval for the principle of introducing television via an exclusive licence for a commercial operator. The government's plans were opposed by various assemblymen, including then-Opposition leader Lee Kuan Yew, then Chief Secretary William Goode and then Minister for Communications and Works Francis Thomas. There were concerns of television being exploited for commercial interests, and the quality of television programming under a commercial operator. Instead, Lee proposed that a public corporation be set up to run the station.20

The following day, the government announced that it would not be awarding television rights to a commercial operator.21 Rather, a committee to investigate various aspects of introducing television was formed, comprising then Deputy Chief Secretary A. A. Williams; D. A Stephen and H. W. Jackson, both from the Department of Broadcasting; A. Oppenheim; Ho Seng Ong; Yap Pheng Geck; Vernon Bartlett; Syed Haron Alhabshi; Bradley E. Chan; and E. V. Davies.22 Despite inviting public views on the subject matter,23 there was minimal public response.24

The committee, whose report was released in June 1957, proposed that Singapore's first television station be run by a public corporation rather than a commercial operator. The other recommendations of the committee touched on television airtime, advertising, programming, government control and legislation, as well as the financial details of a government-sponsored public corporation.25

In December 1958, the government announced that it would not be pursuing the matter of establishing a television station as the financial costs were too high.26 It was only in May 1960 that then Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam confirmed the introduction of television in Singapore, after visiting television stations in Japan and inviting directors from the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (Nippon Hoso Kyokai) to advise the Singapore government.27 Rajaratnam submitted a cabinet paper on 7 October 1960, proposing two alternatives with different time periods and expenses in setting up a television station in Singapore. Between the two alternatives, the cabinet opted for the longer-term route of three years that would result in a more extensive television service.28

The development timeline was then finalised in April 1961, with the announcement of a $5.9-million budget for a one-channel television station with a film unit; a second channel would be added later. At the time, television was seen as a means to break language barriers, fight illiteracy, supplement education in schools and foster a Malayan culture.29

In setting up the new television station, the Singapore government received assistance from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), including technical help from ABC staff Keith Wilkes, David Prior and A. J. Wealthy. Prior also became the chief news editor of the new station.30 The station began test transmissions from 21 January 1963 by broadcasting geometric shapes and lines, and turning signal cards and still photographs of Singapore to help television set owners adjust their receivers for optimal picture and sound quality.31

Television Singapura
Television Singapura was officially inaugurated on 15 February 1963. The station's first broadcast was watched by 300 guests at the Victoria Memorial Hall; members of the public in 52 community centres, Victoria Theatre and Princess Elizabeth Walk, as well as 2,400 families who had television sets in their homes.32 They bore witness to the first pictures and sounds from the one-and-a-half hours of monochrome service. The image of Rajaratnam, who steered the preparations for television in Singapore, was aptly the first people saw on Television Singapura.33 He proclaimed that “tonight might well mark the start of a social and cultural revolution in our lives”.34

The first programme aired on the station's Channel 5, TV Looks at Singapore, was a 15-minute documentary exploring the role and potential impact of broadcast television in the lives of Singaporeans.35 This was followed by two cartoon clips, news in English including a five- minute newsreel, a half-hour comedy, and variety show Rampaian Malaysia (“Malaysian Mixture”) featuring English and Chinese songs, an Indian dance and a Malay comic sketch.36 Subsequently, programmes were broadcast in all four of Singapore's official languages (English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil) with a transmission duration of three-and-a-half hours each day.37 

Start of regular television transmissions
On 3 April 1963, then Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak formally inaugurated regular television service that extended transmission time by half-an-hour daily to four hours.38 In August the same year, daily transmissions for Channel 5 were extended to five hours on weekdays and nine hours over the weekend.39 A second channel, Channel 8, was added in November and like Channel 5, it broadcast programmes in all four official languages.40

In January 1964, Channel 5 introduced television commercials,41 and fears of a drop in viewership rates proved to be unfounded.42 Television Singapura also broadcast a historic moment on 9 August 1965 when viewers witnessed then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's announcement of Singapore’s separation from Malaysia and subsequent independence.43

Formation of Radio and Television Singapura

Following independence, Radio Singapura and Television Singapura were merged to form Radio and Television Singapura (RTS).44 This led to many developments, including a move to the new $3.6-million Television Centre in Caldecott Hill in 1966,45 as well as the installation of a satellite earth station in 197146 to facilitate a syndicated and international programming broadcast.47

Singapore became one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to introduce colour television broadcasts in 1974.48 Public response was initially lukewarm to the colour transmissions,49 but soon changed after the first live colour telecast of the World Cup soccer final. Around1,000 colour television sets, costing over $2 million, were sold three days before the final.50

Corporatisation and the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation
The Singapore Broadcasting Act passed in 1979 paved the way for the corporatisation of television in Singapore,51 with the government stating that it would “retain control over the policy of the corporation in the public interest” to ensure that air time for minorities would not be reduced.52 The retention of government control was reflected in the appointment of then Minister for Communications and Acting Minister for Culture Ong Teng Cheong as the chairman of the restructured Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.53

Discussions on the corporatisation of RTS had started in 1969, and given impetus after cuts in the government budget for television led to constraints over facilities and manpower in the mid-1970s.54 The corporatisation led to several changes in name and organisational structure. On 1 February 1980, RTS was renamed the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), and given more autonomy and flexibility. On 31 January 1983, SBC introduced a new channel, Channel 12,55 in the hopes of adding vibrancy to Tamil, Malay as well as children’s and arts programming.56

Formation of Television Corporation of Singapore
On 1 October 1994, SBC was privatised and reorganised into three entities: Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS), Radio Corporation of Singapore and Singapore Television Twelve (STV12) under the Singapore International Media (SIM) group of companies. SIM became a wholly-owned company of the government’s investment holding company Temasek Holdings. The move came in anticipation of competition from cable television.57

In 1995, TCS channels 5 and 8 extended to 24-hour broadcasting.58 In September that year, Channel 12 (operating under STV12) was revamped into the Prime 12 and Premiere 12 channels. Prime 12 featured longer hours of Malay and Indian programming, while Premiere 12 showcased arts, education and sports programmes.59

In March 1999, TCS launched Channel NewsAsia, a news and current affairs channel that aimed to present news from an Asian perspective, and extend the company’s broadcasting reach to other parts of Asia.60

Formation of Media Corporation of Singapore and MediaCorp Pte Ltd
In June 1999, SIM was renamed the Media Corporation of Singapore, or MediaCorp Singapore, with no changes made to its structure and operations.61 Programming belts were reshuffled in January 2000 when Prime 12 and Premiere 12 were renamed Suria and Central respectively. Suria sought to cater to Malay-language programming whereas Central incorporated three belts – Vasantham Central for Tamil programmes, and Kids Central and Arts Central for children’s and arts programmes respectively.62

The following year, in February 2001, TCS was renamed MediaCorp TV, continuing to own and operate Channels 5 and 8, as well as taking over management of Suria, Kids Central, Arts Central and Vasantham Central from STV12.63 In May 2004, Media Corporation of Singapore assumed a new corporate name – MediaCorp Pte Ltd.64

Formation of SPH MediaWorks
With media liberalisation in 2001, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) obtained a broadcast licence to operate free-to-air television channels under its subsidiary SPH MediaWorks. Its Mandarin channel, Channel U, was launched on 6 May 2001, while TV Works (renamed Channel i in March 2002), its English channel, began transmission on 20 May.65 

In September 2004, MediaCorp and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) merged their mass market television and free newspaper operations after four years of competition in both markets in an effort to stem losses.66

Creation of MediaCorp TV Holdings and later developments
In December 2004, a new holding company, MediaCorp TV Holdings Pte Ltd, was formed to manage the MediaCorp channels as well as SPH's Channel U;  Channel i ceased transmission on 1 January 2005. MediaCorp holds an 80 percent share in the new holding company and SPH the rest.67 Despite having a monopoly on the free-to-air television broadcasting in Singapore, MediaCorp’s “hybrid mission” has been described as “a public broadcaster that is run as a private corporation”.68

In October 2008, Vasantham Central was expanded into a standalone free-to-air channel, Vasantham, while Arts Central and Kids Central were combined into a single new channel named okto.69

From December 2013, MediaCorp began transmitting four of its free-to-air channels – channels 5 and 8, Suria and Vasantham – in digital format under the Digital Video Broadcasting - Second Generation Terrestrial (DVB-T2) television standard.70 The migration of all of Singapore's free-to-air channels to digital broadcasting is expected to be completed between 2015 and 2020, and will free up frequency spectrum for other uses such as mobile telephony, wireless broadband internet and other television services.71 

1. “Raja to Launch Singapore TV,” Straits Times, 13 February 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Singapore. Broadcasting Division, Radio Television Singapore (Singapore: Ministry of Culture, Broadcasting Division, 1973), 2, 4. (Call no. RCLOS 791.44 SIN) 
3. Loong May Lin, ed., On Television in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore Broadcasting Corp., 1988), 34. (Call no. RSING 384.554095957 ON)
4. Cherian George, “SBC Restructured into Several Govt-Owned Firms,” Straits Times, 1 October 1994, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Teo Pau Lin, “Simple Change of Name for Media Group,” Straits Times, 16 June 1999, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Page 7 Advertisements Column 1,” Today, 5 February 2001, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “MediaCorp Interactive History,” MediaCorp Pte Ltd, 2011.
8. “S'pore Can See TV Next Month,” (1952, July 1). Straits Times, 1 July 1952, 4; “Singapore Gets TV – or 16 Days,” Straits Times, 22 July 1952, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Television Crew in Singapore on Tuesday,” Straits Times, 20 July 1952, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Governor Televised at Trade Fair,” Straits Times, 2 August 1952, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Singapore Sees First Fashion Show on Television,” Straits Times, 3 August 1952, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “TV Last Night in S'pore Tonight,” Straits Times, 16 August 1952, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “31,600 See TV Show in S'pore,” Straits Times, 6 August 1952, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
14. G. T. Boon, “Coming  – Television in Your Home,” Straits Times, 10 August 1952, 1; “'Television Cannot Be Halted',” Straits Times, 18 August 1952, 6. (From newspaperSG)
15. “'Modest' TV Plans Studied,” Straits Times, 12 September 1952, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “TV Not For Private Firms,” Straits Times, 17 September 1952, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “S'pore States TV Policy,” Singapore Free Press, 21 July 1953, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Singapore TV in 2 Years?Straits Times, 12 August 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “TV Tender – 3 Big Names in the Race,” Straits Times, 24 November 1955, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Commercial TV: Lee Dims the View,” Straits Times, 10 February 1956, 1; “Television Debate,” Straits Times, 8 February 1956, 8; “Television Doubts,” Straits Times, 7 February 1956, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Commercial TV Plan Put On Shelf,” Straits Times, 11 February 1956, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “The Trusty Ten of TV,” Straits Times, 21 June 1956, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “TV: What Is Your Line?” Straits Times, 22 June 1956, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Singapore. Committee Appointed to Examine the Possibility of Introducing Television in Singapore, Report of the Committee Appointed to Examine the Possibility of Introducing Television in Singapore (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1957), 5. (Call no. RCLOS 791.45 SIN)
25. “Singapore TV Report,” Straits Times, 5 June 1957, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “No TV for Singapore This Year or Next - No Money Available,” Straits Times, 13 December 1958, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “Singapore TV: 'It's Definite'Straits Times, 30 May 1960, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Irene Ng, The Singapore Lion: A Biography of S. Rajaratnam (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010), 471. (Call no. RSING 327.59570092 NG)
29. “S'pore TV Station Soon,” Straits Times, 4 April 1961, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
30. “More Aussie Experts for S'pore TV,” Straits Times, 14 January 1963, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “First TV Tests in S'pore Today,” Straits Times, 21 January 1963, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “Raja to Launch Singapore TV.”
33. Ng, Singapore Lion, 471.
34. Judy Yong, “Raja: This Could Be Start of a Cultural, Social Revolution,” Straits Times, 16 February 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Loong, Television in Singapore, 11.
36. “Programme for TV Pilot Service,” Straits Times, 14 February 1963, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
37. “Television Singapura Will Be 'One of the Best'Straits Times, 23 March 1963, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
38. “Regular TV Service Begins,” Straits Times, 2 April 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
39. “Television: Extra Hour Soon,” Straits Times, 2 August 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
40. “Store TV on Two Channels from Today,” Straits Times, 23 November 1963, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
41. “Minister at TV Function,” Straits Times, 14 January 1964, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
42. Loong, Television in Singapore, 17.
43. Loong, Television in Singapore, 21.
44. Singapore. Broadcasting Division, Radio-Television Singapore (Singapore: Ministry of Culture, Broadcasting Division, 1973), 2, 4. (Call no. RCLOS 791.44 SIN)
45. “New Home for TV...,” (1966, August 27). Straits Times, 27 August 1966, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
46. Singapore. Broadcasting Division, Radio-Television Singapore, 1.
47. “World leaders to Send Wishes through Sentosa Satellite Station,” Straits Times, 21 October 1971, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
48. Tommy Thong Bee Koh, et al, eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, 2006), 554. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
49. Loong, Television in Singapore, 34.
50. “Soccer 'Live' Colour Telecast Was 'Superb',” Straits Times, 9 July 1974, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
51. Henry Tan, “Broadcast Media in Singapore,” in Henry Tan and Arun Mahizhnan, eds., Broadcast Media in ASEAN (Singapore: ASEAN Committee on culture and information, 2002), 83. (Call no. RSING 384.540959 BRO)
52. Singapore. Parliament, Third Reading of the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation Bill, vol. 39 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 11 December 1979, col. 535. (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN)
53. “SBC Directors,” Straits Times, 20 January 1980, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
54. Loong, Television in Singapore, 43.
55. Judith Holmberg, What's on Ch 12,” Straits Times, 22 December 1983, 48. (From NewspaperSG)
56. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 554.
57. George, “SBC Restructured into Several Govt-Owned Firms.”
58. “TV Channels 5 and 8 to Run 24 Hours a Day,” Straits Times, 20 September 1994, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
59. Sandi Tan, “So, What Will TV 12 Offer Now?Straits Times, 2 August 1995, 1; “More Malay, Indian Programmes Plus Arts, Sports,” Straits Times, 2 August 1995, 2. (From NewspaperSG
60. “TCS Channel NewsAsia Starts Telecast,” Straits Times, 2 March 1999, 24; “Channel NewsAsia a Bold Move: BG Yeo,” Business Times, 2 March 1999, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
61. Teo Pau Lin, “Simple Change of Name for Media Group,” Straits Times, 16 June 1999, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
62. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 555; Teo Pau Lin, “More Shows for Children.,” Straits Times, 15 September 1999, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
63. “Page 7 Advertisements Column 1”; MediaCorp Pte Ltd., “MediaCorp Interactive History.”
64. MediaCorp Pte Ltd., “MediaCorp Interactive History.”
65. The Hooi Ling, (2001, April 27). “SPH MediaWorks Launching 2 TV Channels with Media Blitz,” Business Times, 27 April 2001, 2; David Boey, “Channel U Gets Off to a Spectacular Start,” Business Times, 7 May 2001, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
66. Chua Mui Hoong, “Media Rivals Strike Deal to Curb Losses,” Straits Times, 18 September 2004, 1; “Act 10: 0,” (2004, December 31). Straits Times, 31 December 2004, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
67. Boon Chan, “50 Years of TV,” Straits Times, 30 May 2013, 6–7. (From NewspaperSG)
68. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 554.
69. Boon, “50 Years of TV.”
70. Chua Hian Hou, “Fancy Having 3–D Channels on TV?” Straits Times, 22 June 2011, 4; “Free-to-Air Channels to Go Digital,” Straits Times, 17 December 2013,  7; Joyce Hooi, “Free-to-Air TV Goes Digital Next Year, Heating Up Competition,” Business Times, 20 June 2012, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
71. Rachel Chan, “Watch TV on the Go, Everywhere,” My Paper, 22 June 2011. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)

The information in this article is valid as at 23 December 2014 and correct as far as we can 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.

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