By Grace Chua
SINGAPORE'S flagship postal service marks its 150th year as an independent organisation this year, but the grand old dame has more than just longevity to celebrate.
Last year, Singapore Post (SingPost) won the prestigious World Mail Award for the quality of its mail services, in which at least 98per cent of mail posted is delivered by the next day.
It pipped seven other postal services, including those from the United States, Britain, Germany and Spain, for the award.
It may seem obvious that a small country can beat much bigger ones, but SingPost, the Public Postal Licensee, has not always been that efficient.
Before 1983, when mail was still sorted by hand, letters and other items often took three to five days to reach their destinations.
'Postmen had to go into kampungs with mud tracks, and some were chased by dogs,' said former postmaster Loke Peng Keong, 62, who oversaw the Ang Mo Kio and Thompson postal districts in the 1970s and 1980s.
'Most used motor scooters, but some had bicycles to get around,' he said.
Now, banks of gleaming barcode-reading machines sort mail - even down to the order in which the postman will deliver the letters.
Mail sorting is entirely automated, but SingPost still has about 1,800 employees, including postmen, back-end staff, couriers and counter workers.
In the 1930s and 1940s, an all-male counter staff donned jackets and ties to serve customers, says former postmaster-general M. Bala Subramanion, 91, who began as a clerical employee in 1936.
'We used to sit on stools. Now, counter staff are in nice chairs, and the post offices are completely air-conditioned,' he said.
Mr Bala, who had a knack for morse code, was later posted to the telegraph division, where he tapped out customers' messages. Eventually, he would volunteer in the World WarII effort as part of a signals division.
In the 1960s, each time a first-day cover was released, crowds would throng post offices, said Mr Loke, who started as a clerk in 1964. 'It was madness. You could work the whole day, chopping covers non-stop,' he said.
People would ask for the corners or edges of a stamp sheet, which were considered more valuable, and newspapers carried announcements about new first-day covers being issued.
The covers are still popular, but the crowds have thinned, and the post office's busiest times are now Christmas and Chinese New Year.
Once, there were post office branches as far away as Pulau Bukom and Pulau Semakau.
In the early 1980s, Mr Loke was postmaster, clerk and sole worker at the Pulau Bukom branch, serving the staff of companies like Shell.
Today, the island post offices have gone, but 62branches serve customers all over mainland Singapore.
The post office first offered financial services in the form of the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB), which was set up on Jan 1, 1877, to cater to a ballooning population of small traders.
It grew in time to be known as the 'People's Bank', dependable and unshakeable.
In 1974, rumours sparked a notorious run on Chung Khiaw Bank, to the benefit of POSB.
'People withdrew their money and came next door (to the post office) to deposit it in POSB,' Mr Loke said. 'My salary was only $300, but I handled about $1million that day. My hands were shaking.'
POSB was hived off from the post office in 1975, when it became a statutory board, and in 1998 the bank became part of DBS.
Today, SingPost has come full circle, as the middleman for a slew of financial services, including loans, insurance and even unit trusts from Prudential.
In a world which now uses e-mail as its main form of communication, it has had to reinvent itself.
Mail volume is still growing - in 1964, when Mr Loke started at SingPost, the post office handled 'a couple of hundred items a day,' he said. Today, it deals with 2.7million mail items a day.
But its retail services, which include financial services like pawn shops, are growing faster. From 2006 to last year, retail revenue grew 10.8per cent to $61.6million, compared to 7.9per cent for mail to $365.3million.
In addition, where others may have scaled down, SingPost decided to leverage on its unparalleled reach into the heartland, while using the Internet to its advantage.
Said SingPost chief executive Wilson Tan: 'One of SingPost's key strengths is the ability to distribute to and touch the heartlanders.'
For example, its ClickPost service allows small businesses to e-mail documents to the post office, which then prints them out to send to customers via regular mail.
Its vPost online-shopping service allows shoppers to order from US, British, European and Japanese retail websites, and consolidates their orders to save on shipping.
In 2003, SingPost was listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange.
But some things never change. Every Christmas, the post office is flooded with children's letters to Santa Claus.
Some 100 of these missives are forwarded each year to the Santa Claus Post Office, in Santa's village in Finland - even if they are not stamped.
SingPost expects Santa's mail to be business as usual this year.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on November 17, 2008.