Keeping the lights on

In the mid-1960s, with much of the population living in rural areas, keeping the lights on was a major challenge. Mr Teo Heng Lam, aged 26 at the time he joined PUB in 1970, was part of the fledgling engineering corp working on the Rural Electrification Programme. He vividly recalls his first assignment.

Before the Rural Electrification Programme, most of the kampong folks used kerosene and hurricane lamps for light. So when they saw us coming, they were very happy and would offer us coffee or snacks.

Digging trenches to lay electrical high-voltage and low-voltage cables was hard. The quicker and more economical way for us to transmit electricity was by stringing overhead cables from pole to pole. So after our workers had put up the poles and cables, engineers like us would inspect them to make sure the aerial cables were strung with the correct tension.

I remember that before we opened the door to the small brick kiosks housing the high-voltage switchgear beneath the pole-mounted transformers, we’d knock on them – hard. This was to chase away any snakes, including cobras that might be nesting in them. They loved the warmth, you see!

As Singapore’s population rose and industrialisation grew during the 1960s and 1970s, our demand for electricity climbed at a rate of 8% to 10% every year. The highest voltage at this time was 66,000 volts (66kV), and to meet this hunger, PUB introduced a higher-capacity 230,000 volt (230kV) transmission network.

Mr Teo's full interview is one of 50 stories that will appear in Heart of Public Service, a two-volume book-set that honours the institutions and officers of the Singapore Public Service. Touching on key milestones in our history, the publication brings alive Singapore’s development through stories about our institutions and our officers. Heart of Public Service is published by the Public Service Division and will be available from mid-October.

To upgrade Singapore’s electricity infrastructure, PUB had to transport 12 massive 230kV/66kV transformers for the new 230kV transmission network from Keppel Harbour to substations at Choa Chu Kang, Kallang Basin and Ayer Rajah.

The low-loader and transformer weighed about 250 tonnes altogether, and we had to plan our routes very carefully. At Stevens Road, for example, we reinforced a bridge over the Bukit Timah canal with timber in order to support the weight of the low-loader and transformer.

Still, we had a few close calls. Our hearts would skip a beat when it started to drizzle as the low-loader struggled up the slope to the Choa Chu Kang substation, or scraped the underneath of an overhead pedestrian bridge along Cantonment Road. And although the low-loader crawled along at 15km/h, its momentum made it hard to come to a complete stop quickly.