Vernon Cyril Palmer, a stalwart of the Singapore broadcasting industry passed away on 20 November 2009. He was interviewed by the Oral History Centre in 1993.
Born on 12 April 1925 to Eurasian parents of Scottish, German, Siamese and Burmese descent, Vernon Palmer spent his early years in Pulau Bukum where his father was working as a manager for Shell Company. At the age of 14, he moved to Newton Road to live with his grandmother as it was easier for him to commute to school at St Andrew’s. He related in his oral history interview about his parents’ expectations of him and his own interest in wireless engineering:
” In those days, children weren’t consulted as to the careers they wanted to pursue For example, my mother wanted me to be a doctor. I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. My father wanted me to be a lawyer, like all fathers. And my grandmother wanted me to be a church pastor...I had no interest in any of these disciplines. I wanted to take up wireless engineering because wireless was still a mystery in those days…my parents couldn’t forsee the day when television would come.”
During the Japanese Occupation, Vernon Palmer found a job as a truck driver for Kirin Biru Kaisha Brewery (Tiger Brewery during British time) along Alexandra Road. He also learnt about engineering from an engineer he met as well as from reading books. He subsequently became an electrician in the Kirin Brewery where he maintained all its electrical appliances. Just before the war ended, Vernon Palmer joined the radio station as a technical assistant in broadcasting.
He recalled in his oral history interview:
”It was about that time that I went to broadcasting…and got a job as a technician in the basement at the Cathay Building. I was attached to the Outside Broadcast Unit. One of my responsibilities was to set up the microphone system and public address system for the surrender ceremony on the Padang. My job was to fix up the microphones and to install the horn-shaped loudspeakers which I tied onto trees around the Padang. Then later, I helped with the recording of the ceremony and the surrender speeches”.
Vernon Palmer later joined the Progarmme Division at the request of Colonel John Dumeresque, director of Radio Malaya.
“I rather liked this idea of forming a link between the Engineering Section and the Programme Section because I saw the need for this department. Within a week or two of my being transferred to the Programme Department, I set up a Special Effects Library. I went out and recorded special effects, for example, the mah mee man and his tock tock, the Indian rojak man with his type of tock tock on his cutting board, the ice-cream man, various hawkers, including the tinker who used to have a little zinc rattle which he used to rattle to draw attention to his presence along the road. Then, ship sounds at sea, motor-car sounds, anything that was particular to Singapore. Other effects are ordered from the BBC and from the USIS. I built up a comprehensive Sound Effects Library”.
In 1950, Vernon Palmer was offered a 1 year scholarship to study at the BBC School of Broadcasting. When he returned in the following year, he set up the Programme Engineering Department which took charge of broadcast productions. He also spent a few years in USA in the early 70s attending a course at Boston University on Public Relations and Telecommunications, and then to the NBC, CBS and ABC studios in Hollywood, and to the Paramount studios to learn how to produce films. During his stay in US, he studied the feasibility of introducing commercials in radio and costs of establishing a television broadcasting station. Having proved that it was possible to be self-supporting by commercialising radio, it paved the way for television broadcasting to be introduced in Singapore. He recalled:
“Believe it or not, we set up the first Channel 5 television station in a converted garage that we used to repair our cars and vans...We merely converted that into one studio with its associated control room, announcer's cubicle and video tape and tele-cine rooms.
The main control room was necessary because from this control room, you would control the cameras inside that one and only studio. The announcer's cubicle was necessary because we needed to segregate the big studio from the announcer who had to make the narrations and to make announcements about the programme.
Then there was the tele-cine. Tele-cine is virtually a cinema projector with a television camera attached to it electronically so that the pictures from the film would be transmitted electronically to the transmitter. Then we had to have the video tape room.
Video tapes at that time had just been invented. Up to this point in time, we were shooting everything that needed to be stored on film. In came the two prized video tape machines. The video tapes were about two inches wide and they came in huge reels which required quite a strong person to carry. They were two sizes. One was about 10 inches and the other one was about seven inches, seven-inch reels. So these reels were huge and they were expensive. Because they were so expensive, they had to be re-cycled. This is the reason why we could not afford to store in archives any of the earlier programmes that we telecast because it was too expensive to hold these tapes in archives.”
In his three and a half decades in the broadcasting business, Vernon Palmer held many posts - from technician, to radio producer, news reader, stage director, and controller of television. He retired in 1982. As he looked back at his involvement with radio and television, Vernon Palmer had this to say:
“I am very proud to have been involved to the extent that I was. I never envisaged myself being a programme man at the outset… If I had to live my life all over again, I think I would choose the same profession. But there would be certain things that I would do slightly differently. Now knowing what I know about radio and television, we could achieve certain things much faster than we did then. But I suppose this is the case in most professions when you are going into it at its very early stages.”
And Singaporeans should be grateful to him for bringing sights and sounds to their living room and keeping us entertained.
Information extracted from the Oral History Interview with Vernon Cyril Palmer, Acc No 1423