Keeping mouth shut vital for job

Keeping mouth shut vital for job

When he took office in 1957, Mr Bala Subramanion found himself presiding over 400 people, and a service that the British colonial administration had left behind.

"Back then, it was very different. We sorted mail by hand, and delivered them by foot, or at best, bicycles," says the spry 97-year-old with a chuckle.

Despite being a few years short of a century, the grandfather of two has memories as clear as day.

It would take up to a week for a letter to be delivered locally. And if you sent a letter to the United Kingdom, it would take two months for it to reach.

Mr Bala started off as a postal clerk in 1936 at the then General Post Office at the Fullerton Building.

"It was a great deal then, to be a postman," he says.

He and 11 others had to be sworn in at a ceremony where they were told that they were "the 12 apostles and had the duty to maintain the prestige, observe the rules and keep the efficiency of the postal service".

Honesty was important, given that items such as money came in the mail.

Mr Bala explains: "There was no such thing as bank transfers then. So people sent money by post in the envelopes.

"They were supposed to do so via registered mail, but they didn't. So the integrity and honesty of postal workers were important."

One of the cardinal sins, he adds, was not to divulge the contents of any correspondence they came across.

"We were public servants and we had to keep our mouths shut about what went through our points of entry (where the mail came from)," he explains.

In other words, activities at work were strictly confidential.

Mr Bala started as a clerk sorting out the mail and was later sent to various departments to learn the ropes of the trade.

After the war, he got a two-year scholarship to study every aspect of the postal system in the UK and worked a few years there before returning in 1955 to be assistant comptroller.

His workplace was at the General Post Office (GPO) Building, which became The Fullerton Hotel in 2001.

Mr Bala recalls how he loved showing people around and telling them about the curved service counter, which was 90m long.

It was one of the longest in the Commonwealth, he says.

Visitors were also fascinated by the basement where a 35m tunnel connected the GPO directly to a pier in Collyer Quay.

Mr Bala says: "On Fridays, overseas mail would arrive from Britain. The mail was transferred to and from ships via this tunnel."

And there were days when the postal workers had to work extra hours without any overtime pay - they had to wait for the mail to come, sieve through and clear it before going home.

Mr Bala also remembers the opaque glass at the gallery of the GPO above the sorting floor.

"The comptroller of post would stand there to observe the postal workers and make sure no one opened the letters while sorting them," he says.

"We had to stand most of the time to sort out the letters and packages."

Mr Bala gets nostalgic during this time of year - Christmas - which used to be the busiest time at the GPO.

Postal workers were not allowed days off and had to work around the clock, he recalls.

Overseas cards and parcels arriving by boat during the festive season then were well over 3,000 each time.

LETTERS TO SANTA

The post office would also be flooded with letters from children to Santa Claus.

Mr Bala says: "During my time, they were all redirected to The Salvation Army and it would reply to the children."

Now, these letters are forwarded to the Santa Claus Post Office, in Santa's village in Finland - even if they are not stamped.

In 1957, exactly 100 years after the British set up the postal service in Singapore, Mr Bala became its first local comptroller of post. The position was re-designated to postmaster-general in 1967.

As head of the postal service, he met many dignitaries but his most important assignment came after Singapore broke away from Malaysia in 1965.

"I had to bring the postal headquarters from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore - everything, from finance, savings bank and philately (collection of postage stamps).

"We also had to train people. We managed to complete the whole operation in six months," he says.

Mr Bala received the Public Service Gold Medal from Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak in 1965. A copy of the photograph can be seen at the Fullerton Heritage Gallery at The Fullerton hotel.

Mr Bala retired in 1971, after 35 years in the job.

Even though he misses the days of letters, both the Fullerton Building and Mr Bala have moved on.

While the monument is now a luxurious hotel, Mr Bala has become computer-savvy, communicating often through e-mail.

"We can't expect everything old to stay the same," he says with a laugh.


This article was first published on Dec 14, 2014.
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