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‘The Modern Magic Carpet’: Wireless radio in interwar colonial Singapore

  • CHUA AI LIN (a1)

Wireless radio broadcasting in colonial Singapore began with amateur organizations in the early 1920s, followed by commercial ventures and, finally, the establishment of a monopoly state broadcasting station. Listeners followed local broadcasting as well as international short wave radio. Both participants in and the content of radio reflected the multiracial, cosmopolitan make-up of a colonial port city which functioned through the lingua franca of English. The manner in which early broadcasting developed in Singapore sheds light on the creation of different imagined communities and the development of civil society. There was an increasing presence of non-Europeans, women, and youth, many of whom were drawn by the mystique of this new technology. Wireless radio also brought about a transformation in the public soundscape. These themes contribute to our understanding of the global history of radio as well as the nature of colonial societies within the British empire.

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1 Swettenham Frank Athelstane, British Malaya: An Account of the Origin and Progress of British Influence in Malaya, revised edition (London: Allen & Unwin, 1948; reprint, 1955), p. 342. Swettenham served as Governor of the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Penang, and Malacca) from 1901 to 1904.

2 Anderson Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

3 Douglas Susan J., Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), pp. 2324.

4 ‘Listening-in’, Straits Times, 7 May 1925, p. 9.

5 Fred Keller, ‘Work of the Pioneers in Malaya’, Omba Pende, September 1931, p. 2; ‘Programme of Singapore Amateurs’, Straits Times, 8 April 1925, p. 1.

6 ‘Wireless in Malaya’, Straits Times, 28 December 1925, p. 11; ‘Bancam’, ‘Work of the Pioneers in Malaya. I – History of the A.W.S.M.’, Omba Pende, August 1931, pp. 16–17; McDaniel Drew O., Broadcasting in the Malay World: Radio, Television, and Video in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore (Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing, 1994), p. 24.

7 ‘What's on the Ether?’, Omba Pende, July 1931, p. 16; ‘Singapore's Experimental Station’, Malayan Radio Review, 20 June 1932, pp. 3–4; ‘Z.H.I. Singapore Calling’, Radio Magazine of Malaya, 1 February 1936, pp. 9–10.

8 ‘What's on the Ether?’, pp. 16–17. Reception reports were also published in the Malaya Tribune's daily column ‘To-day's Radio’.

9 ‘Five dollars for nothing’, Omba Pende, July 1931, p. 3.

10 Quoted in a letter by Powell Robinson of the Malaya Broadcasting Company Ltd., to Omba Pende, August 1931, p. 24.

11 ‘Broadcasting’, Straits Times, 29 June 1931, p. 18.

12 ‘Big Ben links Empire’, Malaya Tribune, 24 June 1933, p. 15.

13 Advertisement for the Radio Service Co. of Malaya, Omba Pende, August 1931, p. 17; Singapore and Malayan Directory (Singapore: Singapor Printers Ltd., 1936), sub voce ‘Radio Service Co. of Malaya’.

14 Details of broadcast frequencies were published regularly in the radio programme listings in the daily newspapers.

15 ‘First News of New Features for Malayan Broadcasting’, Straits Times, 6 February 1935, p. 5; ‘Chinese Music on the Air’, Straits Times, 9 June 1936, p. 12.

16 ‘Radio Listener's Disappointment’, Straits Times, 18 December 1936, p. 3; ‘Closure of ZHI: The Reason’, Straits Times, 19 December 1936, p. 12; ‘Listeners’ Protest at Closing of ZHI’, Straits Times, Radio supplement, 23 December 1935, p. 1.

17 ‘All-Malaya to Hear ZHL’, Straits Times, 17 July 1938, p. 2.

18 McDaniel, Broadcasting, p.45.

19 Malayan Radio Times, 24 May 1936, front cover.

20 Automobile Association of Singapore, Motoring Beyond 100: Celebrating 100 Years of the Automobile Association of Singapore (Singapore: Automobile Association of Singapore, 2007).

21 ‘Singapore Radio Society’, Straits Times, 3 October 1923, p. 10.

22 ‘Malaya Broadcasting Company’, Straits Times, 5 April 1924, p. 8.

23 ‘Mr P. Robinson “Broadcasts”’, Straits Times, 25 November 1931, p. 2.

24 ‘Wireless in Malaya’, Straits Times, 19 February 1932, p. 16.

25 ‘Radio Society’, Straits Times, 10 November 1930, p. 12.

26 ‘Five Dollars for Nothing’, Omba Pende, July 1931, p. 1.

27 ‘First meeting of Society’, Malaya Tribune, 31 October 1930, p. 10.

28 ‘Radio Society Revived’, Malaya Tribune, 10 November 1930, p. 9.

29 ‘First Meeting of Society’; advertisement for G.H. Sweet Shop, Omba Pende, July 1931, p. 4.

30 ‘The Singapore Radio Society’, Malayan Saturday Post, 14 March 1925, p. 9.

32 ‘Five Dollars for Nothing’, p. 4.

33 Malayan Radio Review and Gramophone Gazette, July 1933, p. 33.

34 ‘The Dawn’, Malayan Radio Review and Gramophone Gazette, June 1933, p. 1.

35 Malaya Tribune, 19 December 1930, p. 12; Omba Pende, July 1931, p. 1, back cover; and November 1931, p. 1.

36 Turnbull C. M., A History of Singapore, 1819–1975 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 157–58.

37 ‘Bancam’, ‘Work of the pioneers in Malaya. I – History of the A.W.S.M.’, pp. 16–17.

38 Tessensohn Denyse, Elvis Still Lives in Katong (Singapore: Dagmar Books, 2003), p. 166.

39 Advertisement for Mitsuboshi Electric Company, Omba Pende, July 1931, p. 21.

40 ‘Bancam’, ‘Work of the pioneers in Malaya. I – History of the A.W.S.M.’, pp. 16–17.

41 Abisheganaden Paul, Notes Across the Years: Anecdotes from a Musical Life (Singapore: Unipress, 2005), pp. 5658.

42 ‘Unique Chinese Choir’, Straits Times, 19 November 1933, p. 10.

43 Abisheganaden, Notes Across the Years, pp. 8–9, 74; Malayan Radio Times, 11 September 1938, p. 32.

44 McDaniel, Broadcasting, p. 42.

45 Radio Magazine of Malaya, 1 February 1936, p. 2.

46 McDaniel, Broadcasting, p. 37; Malayan Radio Times, 16 February 1936, pp. 30–40.

47 For a detailed personal account of work of the Malayan Broadcasting Corporation from December 1941 to February 1942, see Playfair Giles, Singapore Goes Off the Air (London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1944).

48 Ibid, p. 143.

49 Ibid, pp. 55, 69, 98, 123; Barbara Lee, oral history interview, Oral History Centre, National Archives of Singapore, reel 1.

51 Playfair, Singapore, p. 58.

51 ‘Women's Page’, Malayan Radio Review and Gramophone Gazette, June 1933, p. 25.

53 McCrum Robert, MacNeil Robert and Cran William, The Story of English, 3rd edition (London: Faber & Faber and BBC Books, 2002), pp. 1619.

54 Biocca Frank, ‘Media and Perceptual Shifts: Early Radio and the Clash of Musical Cultures’, Journal of Popular Culture, 24 (2), 1990, pp. 115.

55 See the discussion of noise in Thompson Emily, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002), Chapter 4 ‘Noise and Modern Culture, 1900–1933’.

56 ‘Spark-Plug’, ‘Motoring in Malaya: The Craze for Power and Speed’, The Christmas Herald of Malaya, 1929, p. 32.

57 Omba Pende, August 1931, p. 17.

58 Tang She Choon, oral history interview, Oral History Centre, National Archives of Singapore, reel 7.

59 The New World News, 31 January 1931, p. 14.

60 Bumiputera, 14 July 1934, quoted in Tan Beng Sooi, ‘The 78 rpm Record Industry in Malaya Prior to World War II’, Asian Music, 28 (1), 1996–97, p. 14.

61 Ibid, pp. 14–15.

62 Siang Song Ong, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (1923; reprinted Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 146–47; Purcell Victor, The Chinese in Malaya (1948; reprinted Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 125; Lee Edwin, The British as Rulers: Governing Multiracial Singapore, 1867–1914 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1991), pp. 5760.

63 A. W. Jansen, ‘Radio as a Hobby’, St. Joseph's Magazine, 1931–32, p. 40. Jansen was probably an old boy of the school, as the magazine included writings from students and teachers as well as the school's alumni.

65 Malayan Radio Times, 7 June 1936, inside front cover.

66 Saler Michael, ‘Modernity and Enchantment: A Historiographic Review’, American Historical Review, 111 (3), 2006, <>, [accessed 8 October 2011]. Among the works discussed by Saler are Treitel Corinna, A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); Cook James W., The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001); During Simon, Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002).

67 Mrázek Rudolf, Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and Nationalism in a Colony (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp. 172–73.

68 The Orient Gong, August 1936, pp. 464–66, 490–91.

69 Hollywood News Magazine, 1 May 1935.

70 Singapore and Malayan Directory, 1936, sub voce ‘Universal Cars Ltd.’, ‘Universal Motor & Accessory Co.’, ‘Universal Pictures’, ‘The Universal Trade Co.’.

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Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
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