I remember: Bringing electricity to kampungs

Power to the people

Electrical engineer Soh Siew Cheong and his PUB colleagues connected the power grid to villages all over the island. This amenity changed the lives of many people, providing them with modern comforts and opening up more economic opportunities.
Electrical engineer Soh Siew Cheong and his PUB colleagues connected the power grid to villages all over the island. This amenity changed the lives of many people, providing them with modern comforts and opening up more economic opportunities. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

As a young electrical engineer at the Public Utilities Board (PUB), Mr Soh Siew Cheong brought light into the lives of people in far-flung kampungs.

From the 1960s to 70s, he was on the front lines of an exercise to extend electricity to the villages, many of which were not found on maps or did not have roads.

Besides stringing up aluminium electricity cables on wooden poles, Mr Soh and his colleagues, sometimes, had to help pave roads too. Villagers offered them plain water and Chinese tea - "no Coca-Cola then" - as they toiled under the sun.

"It was a very happy feeling the day we turned on the electricity supply. People were so happy that they came to thank us," Mr Soh, now 73, told The Sunday Times.

In 1969, it was reported that 283 villages and 176,000 people had benefited since the scheme to bring electricity to kampungs started in 1963.

Lifestyles changed as a result - children could study at night and people could earn more pocket money with power for appliances such as electric sewing machines and refrigerators, which led to the opening of more provision shops.

"There was an increase in activity and people in the villages were happier," he said.

Fifty years ago this week, Singapore was praised by a visiting mayor from India, for being tops in South-east Asia for its public utilities. A week earlier, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had opened the Pasir Panjang "B" Power station.

In the 1970s and 1980s, though, Singapore faced the challenge of meeting a growing demand for electricity as the country became more industrialised and more flats were built. Power stations in Jurong and Senoko were built to cope with the demand.

The next challenge was to ensure the reliability of supply.

Small blackouts became intolerable, said Mr Soh, as these led to losses for factories here and a lack of reliable electricity could drive away foreign investors.

Not only was infrastructure improved, but the Public Utilities Act was amended in 1988 to require contractors to carry out work to detect underground power cables before doing any earthworks, or face punishment. "No other country has this, I consider it draconian, in a way," he said. A new class of licensed cable damage prevention workers arose as a result. Excavator drivers were also trained not to damage underground cables.

By the early 1990s, Singapore was not only tops in South-east Asia, but also among the top nations worldwide in electricity reliability.

But as Singapore moved up the value chain and attracted industries, such as the semiconductor industries, to set up here, a new challenge arose."The paradigm shifted to a point that our high value industries could not tolerate these short interruptions of supply," said Mr Soh, who was PUB chief engineer from the late 1980s to 1995.

In response to concerns that Singapore's electricity prices were higher than its neighbours', thus putting off investors, the liberalisation of the electricity market was started in 1995. Singapore Power (SP) was set up as the holding company of the five firms that had split away from PUB. In 2001, the Energy Market Authority was started.

Mr Soh, a grandfather of one who retired from SP in 2004 and is now a senior adviser at a private energy firm, said the next challenge is the greater adoption of green energy.

The University of Singapore electrical engineering graduate, whose four children all studied engineering, said his approach is one of "never say die".

"If there's a problem, we solve it our own way. If we can't, we leverage on the legal system to help us out."

Ho Ai Li

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2015, with the headline 'Power to the people'. Print Edition | Subscribe