In the mid-1960s, over 25% of our population still lived in rural areas of the island and engaged in agricultural activities. To raise the standard of living for residents, the Public Utilities Board (PUB) embarked on a Rural Electrification Programme that, when it was finally completed in 1974, helped bring our heartlands into the modern age. Among those who shouldered this responsibility was Mr Teo Heng Lam, a member of a fledgling engineering corps that took to their new tasks with spirit.

Mr Teo recalls how he came to choose engineering as his vocation.

My father taught himself engineering practice and was very good with his hands. When I was young, he taught me how to repair fuses and fix electrical appliances like toasters and irons. He also bought, repaired and rented out electric motors to sawmill operators around the island. So I grew up fixing our neighbours’ fuses and so on, to earn a little extra pocket money. I had a natural interest in making things work.

Having studied electrical engineering at the University of Western Australia, Mr Teo worked for one-and-a-half years at a transformer manufacturing firm before coming home to join PUB in 1970, at the age of 26. He vividly recalls his first assignment.

In those days, the kampong roads were really bad, and our cars would rattle over rocks and potholes, often resulting in cracked exhaust pipings. No wonder we had to repair them all the time.

Before the Rural Electrification Programme, most of the kampong folks used kerosene and hurricane lamps for light. So when they saw us coming, they were very happy and would offer us coffee or snacks.

Digging trenches to lay electricity high-voltage (HV) and low voltage cables was hard. The quicker and more economical way for us to transmit electricity was by stringing overhead cables from pole to pole. So after our workers had put up the poles and cables, engineers like us would inspect them to make sure that the aerial cables were strung with the correct tension.

We also supervised HV switchgear installation, cable jointings and conducted tests before the electricity supply was turned on. I remember that before we opened the doors of the brick kiosks that housed the HV switchgear beneath the pole-mounted transformers, we’d knock on them – hard. This was to chase away any snakes, including cobras, that might be nesting in them. They loved the warmth, you see!

As Singapore’s population rose and industrialisation grew during the 1960s and 1970s, our demand for electricity climbed at a rate of 8% to 10% every year. The highest voltage at this time was 66kV, and to meet this hunger, PUB introduced a higher-capacity 230kV transmission network. Fresh from his work on the Rural Electrification Programme, Mr Teo moved to PUB’s Extra HighVoltage (EHV) Section to assist with this project.

Laying transmission cables along our roads required us to excavate 1km-long trenches. This was hot, dusty work that often resulted in traffic jams – and unhappy motorists. So when we had to install cables across intersections, we’d work from 10 pm to 7 am, to minimise the disruption to traffic. Sometimes, when our younger, married engineers had to work through the night, there were a fewn instances when their wives would make spot-checks at the sites, just in case!

To upgrade Singapore’s electricity infrastructure, PUB also had to transport 12 massive 230kV/66kV transformers for the new 230kV transmission network from Keppel Harbour to substations at Choa Chu Kang, Kallang Basin and Ayer Rajah. This was done one transformer at a time, on a low-loader in the early hours of the morning. The process took several nights and started with lifting the transformer with a floating crane from the ship to the low-loader, transporting it to Pasir Panjang Power Station as a transit point before making the major movement to the 230kV substation.

The low-loader and transformer weighed about 250 tonnes altogether, and we had to plan our routes very carefully. At Stevens Road, for example, we reinforced a bridge over the Bukit Timah canal with timber in order to support the weight of the low-loader and transformer.

Still, we had a few close calls. Failure was not an option, as this was the only low-loader we had! Our hearts would skip a beat when it started to drizzle as the low-loader struggled up the slope to the Choa Chu Kang substation, or scraped under an overhead pedestrian bridge along Cantonment Road. And although the low-loader crawled along at 15km/h, its momentum made it hard to come to a complete stop quickly.

But our need for electricity didn’t stop at Singapore’s shores, and an even greater engineering test lay ahead for PUB’s engineers. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, in addition to Shell already operating on Pulau Bukom, Esso, and the Singapore Refinery Company established refineries on the offshore islands of Pulau Ayer Chawan and Pulau Merlimau. PUB had a major infrastructure job installing substation equipment and laying 66kV submarine cables from the mainland to these islands.

The operation and maintenance of the submarine cable circuits was a major, ongoing exercise over the years as old cables were upgraded or replaced, due to damage caused by the heavy shipping traffic. But we always made sure that the islands got their electricity, and helping to support our energy and chemical sector, which was just starting out at the time, gave us a great sense of achievement.

Mr Teo served with the EHV Section for over 15 years. He recalls how the engineering corps was driven by a sense of common purpose – to make Singapore the best it could be.

We had the skills and we had good leaders. We were also keen to learn about new technology. As soon as there was a directive from the top, we’d put aside our own interests and work towards our goal. Whenever we had a major outage, for example, our engineering personnel would call up the operations centre and offer our services, or go to the nearest substation to be on standby – we didn’t wait to be notified.

When we visited our counterparts or equipment manufacturers overseas, we could sense the respect they had for Singapore.The way we made things happen after the British had pulled out in 1971 – this really impressed them. And we felt proud to have done our part.