Help, where's the nearest payphone?

About 25 people were seen using the payphones in Tekka Centre in five hours. Some needed a payphone because the batteries in their mobile phones had run out, while others had forgotten to take their phones.
About 25 people were seen using the payphones in Tekka Centre in five hours. Some needed a payphone because the batteries in their mobile phones had run out, while others had forgotten to take their phones.ST PHOTO: JEREMY KOH

Just over 2,000 left as cellphones become common; but payphones handy in a crunch

Mr Hassan Melan wanted to call his family to tell them they wouldn't be able to reach him as his phone battery had run out.

The 57-year-old F&B worker looked in vain for a payphone at the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station. In the end, he hopped on a train to where he knew he would find one.

"I felt bad asking a stranger to lend me his phone," Mr Hassan told The Straits Times, as he finished his call from a payphone in Tekka Centre in Little India, about 1.2km from his original location.

Mr Hassan's story would ring true with anyone who remembers how ubiquitous payphones used to be, when there were at least 20,000 all over the island. Today, with the mobile population penetration rate reaching 148.4 per cent as of December last year, their number has fallen just over 2,000.

They are run by 14 operators, including Singtel and StarHub, and can be found in places like HDB estates and tourist attractions, said the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA).

The number of phones operated by Singtel has not changed in the past few years, and it has no plans to discontinue its payphone service. "Payphones serve to connect users without mobile phones and are useful in emergency situations," said its spokesman.

Indeed, in five hours, The Straits Times counted about 25 people using the payphones in Tekka Centre.

Almost all owned mobile phones.

Some needed a payphone because the batteries in their own phones had run out, while others had forgotten to take them along that day.

Yet others, like Indian construction worker Panneerselvam Veeramani, 31, had run out of funds on his prepaid mobile card, and was waiting for his pay to arrive so he could top it up. He was telephoning an uncle in Singapore.

But there are also a few who choose to use payphones instead of a mobile phone.

Hostel security manager Chua Choon San, 63, uses payphones about eight times a month to save money.

Calls are charged at 10 cents for every two minutes on a Singtel phone and every three minutes on a StarHub phone - less than those made through his prepaid card, explained Mr Chua, who has two children, aged nine and 11. He earns about $4,000 a month.

"My wife doesn't work very much, so I don't want to spend money on unnecessary things," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2016, with the headline 'Help, where's the nearest payphone?'. Print Edition | Subscribe