Laying cables to light up the island

The faces of the kampung folk would light up when they saw Mr Teo Heng Lam and his men.

Some offered coffee or snacks, urging them to take a break from their work, recalls the former electrical engineer about the "good old days" of bringing electrical supply to all four corners of the island.

As part of the rural electrification programme, he and his team would install cables to supply electrical power to villagers who had been relying on kerosene or hurricane lamps.

"They were always happy to see us because we were bringing electricity to them," Mr Teo, now 70, tells The Straits Times.

He is one of the pioneers whose story is featured in Heart Of Public Service, a new two-volume book set that tells of Singapore's development since independence.

Mr Teo had joined the then Public Utilities Board (PUB) in the early 1970s after graduating from the University of Western Australia in Perth.

Singapore was facing economic uncertainty. The British military withdrawal in 1971 had been unexpected, and the demands of industrialisation were massive as it involved developing Jurong industrial estate and the Southern Islands.

But there was a heady sense of purpose, "a special feeling that we were building something", says Mr Teo, who now runs his own engineering consultancy after retiring in 2005.

As Singapore's population and electricity consumption grew in the mid-1970s, his department embarked on a project to upgrade the capacity of the transmission network from 66kV to 230kV.

Though he supervised a team of four engineers, six technical officers and 60 daily-rated workersin laying the larger cables underground, he would invariably be working alongside them, helping to carry heavy equipment or descending into the deep trenches.

"It was a good way to build rapport with the workers," he said.

Many, however, shunned tinkering with switches and cable connections or fixing a power fault in the dead of night. "In those days, it would be pitch black, and the feeling of being the only soul in a forested area can be spooky," he said.

Looking back, Mr Teo sees the evolution of Singapore's electricity needs in distinct phases.

In the early 1970s, electricity was a treasured commodity and people were used to frequent power disruptions. When consumption rose as people started owning television sets and radios, blackouts were still tolerated.

But as Singapore developed and began to rely on high-tech products that were more sensitive to power blackouts and voltage dips, higher standards were required.

Ensuring a reliable, secure and consistent supply of electricity was a task that was far more challenging, said Mr Teo.

His two biggest challenges were dealing with the major power failures in 1983 and 1992, caused by a failure of equipment, that affected most of the island.

"The process of restoring power was very tedious, as it took more than a few hours to check on machines at the substations and restart the machines that had been crippled," he said.

"But there was a very strong sense of community in the electricity department at that time. If there was a power failure, all the engineers, even those off-duty, would contact the control centre and ask what they could do to help."

This article was first published on Oct 19, 2015.
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