A bicentennial guide to 200 years of Singapore-made tech and games

PHOTO: Unsplash

Singapore's 54th year of independence is coming soon, and if you stand by the official narrative, it's worth celebrating 200 years since Sir Stamford Raffles stepped on our shores to look around for a bit before leaving William Farquhar to run things.

But instead of paying homage to the achievements of an alleged racist colonialist, we'd rather give props to our own countrymen who've gone on to achieve pretty respectable things since 1819. Especially in the realm of technology and gaming, considering we're supposedly a smart nation and all. 

Here's a non-exhaustive list (we really tried to look for things made in the 1800s... no dice) of innovative things that emerged before our independence and since. 

Rediffusion (1949)

Photo: Roots.sg

Way, way before Spotify, Singaporeans were already subscribing to music. Rediffusion was the nation’s first commercial — and the only cable-transmitted — radio station that garnered over 9,000 subscribers within a few months after launching in August 1949. The subscription rate was relatively affordable (in the old days) at $5 a month, and special Rediffusion radio sets were set up in coffee shops. Folks would gather around these old-timey radios to listen to American rock ’n’ roll as well as stories masterfully narrated in various Chinese dialects.

The following really was bonkers — Rediffusion subscribers reached up to 90,428 by 1977. Free-to-air radio was among the reasons why it faded away, but the biggest one was because of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, which obliged Rediffusion to cease all dialect programmes by 1982.

Setron TV (1964)

Photo: Carousell

It’s no 4K Sony Bravia, but the TV set produced by Setron Limited was the first-ever Singapore-assembled black-and-white TV set. Setron was even granted pioneer status by the government, being the first electronics plant at the dawn of an industrialising Singapore. While component parts were imported from Belgium, the assembly itself was carried out in Setron’s factory at Tanglin Halt. By 1966, one in six local households owned a Setron TV set. Being a bulky, boxy thing, the TV sets were also shelves that owners draped lacy doilies over and put their picture frames on. 

Coinafon (1971)

Photo: Facebook / Justin Yue

Oh hey, these iconic things actually have a name! Kids, in the old days, we had to call each other with this thing called a landline, and if you’re out and about, there are these things called public telephones. You either put coins in ‘em or you used phone cards, which store a fixed amount of money to make calls, be it local or international. In 1971, the Singapore Telephone Board (which would eventually merge with another entity to become Singtel) introduced their Coinafon, the squarish orange payphone typically located near provision shops, convenience stores and hawker centres. These things are so vintage that they’re considered collectables now.

Creative Technology (1981)

Photo: Facebook / Deblow PC Builds & MODs

Ah yes, the first proper tech giant coming out of Singapore. Founded by Sim Wong Hoo, Ng Kai Wa and Chay Kwong Soon, the company first tried its hand in making personal computers, including one called the Cubic CT, which had Mandarin-language capabilities. That failed to be a hit, and Creative pivoted to developing sound cards for PCs. It found success in Silicon Valley, and soon the Creative Sound Blaster became a de facto standard for audio-processing cards in the booming multimedia PC market.

With that success, Creative started getting into the digital audio player space, and your first MP3 player (if you weren’t able to afford iPods) was probably a MuVo or a Zen. The company’s still in the audio hardware industry today, but it’s now probably more known for its relentless legal battles with other tech companies such as Samsung and Apple over patent infringement. Oh, and this old meme as well.

Match.com (1993)

Photo: Website screengrab

The old days of online dating services were not as swipe-y as it is today, but it existed. Match.com was one of the first pioneers of online dating, and behind it was Gary Kremen and Singaporean Ong Peng Tsin. The company also pioneered the subscription model that’s now prevalent among other online dating services. While Ong is no longer involved with Match.com, the service is now under the ownership of Match Group, which also owns Tinder, OkCupid and other online-dating apps.

Lin Hsin Hsin Art Museum (1994)

Photo: Website screengrab

Lin Hsin Hsin may not be a household name, but the Singaporean artist and poet is one of the first few to really explore the boundaries of technology and the internet — which is not surprising, considering she’s a math and computer science graduate. Her paintings and poems in the ‘90s revolved around the theme of computers, mobile phones and e-commerce, and in 1994, she designed and built the world’s first virtual museum. The Lin Hsin Hsin Art Museum showcased her oil, paper and digital art creations, and even had a live cyber graffiti wall. Apparently, she even predicted the coming of the Y2K bug and the emergence of Twitter.

Electronic Road Pricing and In-Vehicle Unit (1998)

Photo: Flickr / JNZL

The transportation innovation beloved by all Singaporeans. Instead of installing toll booths on roads, the Singapore government instituted dynamic electronic tolls with charges that can be raised or lowered according to time and congestion levels. The first ERP gantry popped up in 1998 along the East Coast Parkway, and with that, the mandatory installation of cash-deducting devices called In-Vehicle Units in every Singapore-registered vehicles. The message was pretty clear — if you want to drive in Singapore, you’re paying for it.

SAR 21 (1999)

Being a small nation with one of the fiercest gun laws in the world, it’s pretty astounding that we have our own Singapore-made assault rifle. The story goes that the Singapore Armed Forces were looking to replace the ageing M16 rifles being used, and a decision was made to develop an entirely new low-maintenance weapon that’s specifically designed to be used by young (and that means small) Singaporean conscripts. Honourable mentions: the BR18 bullpup rifle, the Conventional Multirole Combat Rifle and the Bionix armoured fighting vehicle. 

NEWater (2000)

Photo: Facebook / PUB

Yes, yes, we’ve heard all the jokes already. “Drinking our own piss, hurr hurr.” Tired wisecracks aside, the reclaimed water produced by thorough microfiltration and ultraviolet technologies is clean enough to pass over 150,000 scientific tests. It’s cleaner than clean, actually — NEWater is used mainly for industrial purposes because the quality is just that high. 

USB ThumbDrive (2000)

Photo: Patrick Kelley

This one’s pretty contentious though. The invention of the humble ThumbDrive is credited to Singaporean tech company Trek 2000 International. But then there’s also a patent filed in the United States by Israeli company M-Systems in 1999 that was titled “Architecture for [USB]-based Flash Disk”. Then there’s IBM, which filed an invention disclosure later that year for its own flash drive. But it was Trek that made its ThumbDrive the first commercially-available product in 2000, and its legacy continues today. 

The reason why we acknowledge Singapore as ground zero for the creation of the USB flash drive is that Trek managed to score legal victories against four other companies over patent infringement. Even so, ThumbDrives are slowly becoming obsolete thanks to the prevalence of cloud storage today. 

EZ-Link (2002)

Photo: Facebook / ​​​​Pauline Poincétia

EZ-Link cards have been around for so long that we nearly forgot the bendy little things we used to slot into machines when riding buses and trains. Anyway, the Land Transport Authority launched the contactless smart card for use on public transport in 2002, and tapping in and out is much faster — unless you’re one of those who refuses to take the damn card out of your bag. But aside from using it for public-transport rides, EZ-Link’s functionality has been expanded to other usages, including vending machines, hawker centre food and ERP tolls.

Infrared Fever Screening System (2003)

Photo: Facebook / Science Centre

In response to the SARS outbreak scare in 2003, the Defence Science & Technology Agency teamed up with Singapore Technologies Electronics to conceptualise the Infrared Fever Screening System. We don’t want to get into the weeds of wavelength theories and the mechanisms of heat loss, but this Singapore-made system can basically screen large groups of people for feverish individuals through thermal imaging tech. 

Razer Inc. (2005)

Photo: Facebook / Min-Liang Tan

Razer actually formed in 1998 to launch a high-end PC gaming mouse called the Boomslang, but the current iteration of the gaming hardware company is thanks to our boy Min-Liang Tan and his associate Robert Krakoff after they procured the rights to the brand. After finding success through multiple variations of chic RGB-lit gaming mice and keyboards, Razer started producing other hardware, including high-performance laptops, phones, and soon, toasters. But the company’s cult following wouldn’t have been possible without its affable CEO Min-Liang Tan, a frequent commenter on social media (who isn’t afraid to respond to everyone), as well as a hardcore gamer through and through.

X-Mini (2006)

Photo: Facebook / X-Mini

The boombox of old might not be as sophisticated as those of today and the X-Mini rode the wave of a growing demand for portable Bluetooth speakers. Launching in 2006, home-grown company XMI had revolutionised the portable-audio scene by developing a brand new type of speaker: the first one that could fit in your pocket. With its iconic capsule speakers, the industry pioneer is built on a product mantra which has not diminished over the years — “great sound in small forms”.

FIFA Online 2 (2006)

Along with Mario and Tetris, the FIFA series belongs to a selected group of video games that is familiar to even those who have no interest in gaming — or even real football. Seeking to build on the success of Fifa video games, both EA Singapore and Neowiz Games came together to develop the game, especially for the Asian market with a focus on a free-to-play model.

SCDF Shut-Off Valve Adaptor (2007)

Photo: TNP / Kevin Lim

After 36 years of fighting fires across Singapore, a Singapore Civil Defence Force veteran had an idea to make life-saving operations a lot easier, faster and safer. Senior Warrant Officer (SWO) Zahari Mohd Zain came up with a simple yet effective solution called a shut-off valve adaptor, which allows firefighters to easily extend the length of their hoses without having to run back to the water pump and shut off the water supply. It’s an innovation that could only arrive after years of being on the ground, and SWO Zahari’s invention remains a crucial part of operations today. 

Garena (2009)

Photo: Facebook / Garena Singapore

In the flurry of mouse clicking during a ranked game in League of Legends, you might not have realised that the multiplayer platform Garena+, where users do their social networking, had been created in Singapore. Thanks to Forrest Li, homegrown Garena was formed in 2009 and has been growing continuously since. Tapping into the burgeoning mobile gaming scene in 2014, Garena has continued to make inroads as one of the most prominent game publishers in the region. Besides publishing free-to-play games, such as Fifa Online 3 and Heroes of Newerth, the organisation has branched into online payment, social networking and e-commerce. 

iNo Mobile (2009) 

Photo: Facebook / iNo Mobile

Every mobile brand in the saturated market has been targeting the needs of the tech-savvy millennials, so why not have one for the elder generations? Apparently, it seems we do have our very own smartphone brand and its debut effort in 2009 had been a mobile phone that pretty much looked like a candy bar calculator dressed in white with oversized keys. With the elders in mind, the basic phone comes with no frills, but only a siren, torch as well as an SOS button.

Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken (2011)

Taking the Rocketbirds: Revolution! and adding new upgrades, the team at Ratloop Asia adds yet another to the side-scrolling games collection in 2011. Building on the success of the original game, Rocketbirds: Revolution!, Ratloop Asia decided to try their hand at a different platform. Entirely a 2D affair, the game brings the players through a PlayStation 3 action-platformer with some 3D elements and puzzle bits, while taking about six hours to complete a solid storyline.

Vibease (2012) 

Startups in Singapore are known for their plethora of products and services dedicated to improving lives. Vibease isn't what you would call a regular local startup. Started in 2012, Dema Tio founded Vibease as a wearable smart vibrator that can be controlled from miles away through an application on a smartphone. Great for long-distance intimacy!

Carousell (2012)

Photo: Facebook / Carousell

Sure, sites like eBay and GumTree have always been around, but it was Carousell that made buying and selling used or unwanted items a breeze with a user-friendly mobile app. Pictures of products can be uploaded straight to the online marketplace and sold directly to interested customers. Of course, its meme-worthy moments have captured the continued fascination of the local community as well. Nothing like a bit of Carouhell schadenfreude to perk up your day. 

Aftershock (2012)

Photo: Facebook / Aftershock PC

Aftershock has always been about the PC Master Race, and since 2012, its team of hardware geeks and gamers have been delivering high-end custom rigs that can handle the requirements of any video game. It helps that the machines they assemble are drop-dead gorgeous too.

The success has led them to put their fingers in other pies too, including gaming laptops, affordable-yet-powerful monitors and a series of electric height-adjustable standing desks. Don’t sleep on ‘em.

Assassin's Creed 3 naval battles (2012)

Assassin’s Creed is a globally beloved video-game franchise and Ubisoft Singapore has been a major part in its polish and popularity. Though it left its mark in various Assassin's Creed titles, the largest AAA lead studio in South East Asia is best known for its fantastic naval battle gameplay and ocean technology that premiered in AC3, which was then vastly improved for AC4 Black Flag. So it’s not too surprising that the Singapore-based studio is hard at work producing an entirely new seafaring title: Skull & Bones. Can’t wait, mateys. 

Spike Away (2013)

Photo: Cheng Siew Ming

Nothing too techy about this, but what a great (and highly ridiculous) invention to fend off people from getting all up in your personal space. 10/10 would buy. 

Paktor (2013)

Photo: Facebook / Paktor

Singapore’s answer to Tinder works pretty much the same way as Tinder, in which one simply swipes through profiles and chat after matching. It’s simply another option for online dating and social networking, and one that managed to garner over a million registered users in Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and South Korea. 

Lurking (2014)

Halloween fast approaches, which means you’re likely to be in the mood for some creepy games. Luckily for you, DigiPen Institute of Technology’s 2014 entry into the horror genre opens in absolute darkness. As a sound-based survival thriller, sound is the only way you can actually see, and walking or throwing objects creates an ‘audio pulse’. Enemies hear your fears. Even PewDiePie’s into it. 

Secretlab (2014)

Photo: AsiaOne

An issue that every gamer would face in their life: getting comfy in a seat for long hours at a time. Secretlab found a solution to that in 2014. Founded by a pair of competitive Starcraft II gamers with the mission to create the ultimate seating experience for gamers, their Throne line of chairs was launched in 2015 and it sold out within two weeks. It’s probably time for you to get one yourself — your back will thank you.

Ryde (2015)

Photo: Facebook / Ryde

Ryde is billed as the world’s first real-time carpooling mobile application and this is no lie. Just don’t expect to be greeted with a limousine and champagne. A more down-to-earth description would be that Ryde has been providing a private car ride-hailing service since 2015.

Ravenmark: Scourge of Estellion (2015)

Witching Hour Studios is a known name in the local games industry and it all started with Ravenmark: Scourge of Estellion. The mobile turn-based strategy game played like Fire Emblem, and the fact that a Singaporean studio lovingly brought it to life made it even more amazing. Turn-based strategy fans love it of course, as challenging as it is.

Rotimatic (2016)

Rotimatic is one of those inventions that went viral online and it’s not hard to see why. The countertop kitchen appliance churns out flatbread like it’s a printer for pastry, and all folks need to do is load flour, water and oil into the machine. It’s a mess-free, automated way to get fresh roti, even if it is pretty expensive and limited in capabilities for now. Makes for a cool party trick though. 

Masquerada: Song and Shadows (2016)

Singapore’s most successful indie game developer returned with Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, which went for a Venetian setting for an isometric RPG. Enjoyable enough for many, but for Kill Screen, it’s apparently “as enjoyable as a dictionary”. Still, big up to Witching Hour Studios for going all in for this one and scoring Best Indie Game at the Tokyo Game Show.

Stifled (2017)

If you’re down for some virtual jump scares, this creepy game will likely leave you terrified. As a spiritual successor to Lurking, Gattai Games launched Stifled, which also uses your own voice and mic to project sounds into the digital environment, whilst in VR.

Elk: The Travel Converter (2017)

Photo: Website screengrab

The best apps on iOS are always the minimalist ones, and Elk: The Travel Converter proved to be charming (and useful) enough to win an Apple Design Award in 2017. Produced by Muh Hon Cheng and Lin Junjie, the app was built out of a study room in an HDB flat — a process that took just a couple of months from conceptualisation to going live on the App Store. 

Cat Quest (2017)

For all you chonky cat lovers out there, leap into a grand adventure brought to you by our homegrown indie game developer, The Gentlebros. Since its launch in 2017, over 400,000 copies of Cat Quest have been sold worldwide — a game beloved for its lovely cartoon hues with a cattery full of cat-puns. Oh, and by the way, you’re a dungeon-crawling, monster-fighting cat! Having been nominated for Best Mobile Game at the prestigious D.I.C.E. Awards last year, we can’t wait for its upcoming sequel (where you can play as a dog too). 

Songbird Symphony (2019)

Photo: Game screengrab

We’ve been playing Songbird Symphony ever since we were able to get our hands on it, and by golly, what an adorable game. The rhythm/platform title is Joysteak Studios’ first game too, which makes it all even more remarkable. The game seems simple enough, but it can get pretty punishing if you’re not staying in the groove. Expect nothing but a kaleidoscopic blast of music and colour.

ilyas@asiaone.com / mabelkhoo@asiaone.com