Singapore Once Celebrated New Year’s at 11:30pm. Here’s Why.

The History of Time in Singapore

Singapore, 31st December 1981.

The streets were silent in anticipation of the annual renewal. Resolutions were waiting to be made, children eager to turn a year older, people expecting a holiday. And then it happened. Cheers filled the air in spite of PM Lee’s ominous New Year’s message – actually entitled ‘Difficult Times Ahead’ – as little parties shook up a ruckus to celebrate the start of 1982. Exactly 37 years ago, it would have been 11:30PM.

And then, with a coordination mostly seen only in military parades, people across the island reached for their clocks and watches, and simultaneously wound them up to 12AM. Half hour had gone missing upon a nation. But time disappearing here was neither random nor a new feat.

A Brief Note on Time

In the late 1800s, with increasing connectivity across the world as a result of industrialisation and heightened levels of international trade, it became an issue of great gravity that people could not come to a consensus on what time it was. For instance in the United States, this lack of standardisation made travel significantly difficult, as seen for instance by the existence of a table that indicated over a hundred local times differing from each other by more than 3 hours.

Time zones across the world. Source.

Having decided that enough was enough, then United States president Chester Arthur requested for the holding of the International Meridian Conference in 1884. During this conference, a common meridian — an imaginary line dissecting Earth, was decided. It was called the Greenwich Meridian and it extended from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. Since there was now a centre line, it was also now easier to determine time relative to that line. The globe was divided into 24 equal slices, with each of the slice sharing a common time zone. For example, Singapore was put 7 hours ahead of Greenwich Meridian Time or in the GMT +7 time zone.

This was subsequently replaced by the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC – an arrangement of letters derived as a compromise between the English proposal to use ‘CUT’ and the French one to instead use ‘TUC’) system in 1960. To the effect of mild confusion, some countries nonetheless still retain the term GMT to refer to the UTC.

A map showing just time zones. If geography and science were solely used to determine time, this picture would be just 24 straight lines. Source.

In reality however, world time zones are based on political and economic factors rather than purely geographical ones. China, for example, only has one time zone as a symbol of unification — even though it spans at least three time zones. For this reason, in summer, sunrise will be at 7:30 AM in Kashgar, China while it’s at 3:30 AM in Harbin, China.  

Singapore too has had a history of changing its time for reasons beyond science and geography.

Daylight Saving Time in Singapore

In the midst of attempts at global standardisation, another concept, Daylight Saving Time (DST), was proposed in 1895. Given that in summer daylight tended to last longer, following a regular schedule would have meant that much of this additional daylight would have been spent sleeping. To prevent this and maximise the seasonal increase, it was proposed that during certain parts of the year, clocks should be wound forward such that people started and ended their day earlier, and could thus make use of the remaining evening light after the end of the workday for leisure.

However, if you live near the equator, day and night are nearly the same length throughout the year. But elsewhere on Earth, there is much more daylight in the summer than in the winter. The closer you live to the North or South Pole, the longer the period of daylight in the summer. Thus, Daylight Saving Time is usually not helpful in Singapore and other countries near the equator.

This didn’t stop the British from trying though. In 1920, two years after the end of World War I, the Straits Settlement Legislative Council suggested that time on the island should account for Daylight Saving, as was the case in England. Time in Singapore was proposed to be pushed forward by 30 minutes. The reason for this was that the labourers here might enjoy more leisure time after work in summer – even though it was probably just an attempt by the British to standardise their colonies.

The idea was scrapped, not because Singapore was located close to the equator, but because the change seemed like too much. In 1931 and 1941, there were attempts at bringing Daylight Savings back, but ultimately the concept never gained traction in Singapore.

War-Time Singapore

British soldiers surrounding to the Japanese in Singapore, February 1942. Source.

In 1942, Britain surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in what the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, called the “worst disaster” in British military history. Soon,  it was decided that Syonan’s (Singapore) clock should conform with that of Japan, which was an hour and a half ahead. Thus for three years, 8AM was pitch dark and people who went to bed at 8PM did so while the sun was still out.

When Japan lost WW2 and returned Singapore to the British, many saw regained freedom and the end of much violence and cruelty. Perhaps an understated victory that came with the end of the Japanese Occupation was the ability to fix a three-year-long major sleep cycle disruption.

Why Singapore celebrated New Year’s 1982 at 11pm

Announcement on the front page of The Straits Times, December 31, 1981. Source

Then Prime Minister of Malaysia Dr Dato Mahathir announced, during his visit to Singapore in 1981, that Malaysia was going to establish a standardised time by aligning West Malaysia with East Malaysia, which was half an hour ahead, in the GMT +8h. Due to the close economic and social ties between the two countries, Singapore decided to follow suit by skipping 30 minutes on the 31st December 1982.

Hotels and bars – like the Marco Polo and the Hyatt Regency – had countdown parties that abruptly ended at 11:30pm. The Muslim Religion Council (MUIS) reminded Muslims to add 30 minutes to their existing prayer timetables. NParks announced that parks and playgrounds in Singapore would be lighted up from 7pm, instead of 6:30pm. In other words, changing time zones wasn’t an easy task and caused much confusion. But nonetheless, it happened, and it brings us to our current GMT +8h zone.

Rationalising Your Struggle to Get Out of Bed

The average person fights a daily mini battle trying to get up every morning. It may be heartening to know that in Singapore, this is not entirely your fault. Our body clocks tend to align with the natural clock of the sun, which is to say that we are biologically programmed to wake up when the sun comes out. Unfortunately, this is not a reality that most Singaporeans enjoy. Generally, work and school schedules dictate that we report between 7AM and 8AM, meaning that the day begins way before the sun rises.

The time zone of a country is dependent on where it is relative to the Greenwich Meridian. Our society tends to be run as though it were located in a timezone 8 hours ahead of the GMT when in reality, it is only 7 hours ahead. This essentially means that we are in the wrong time zone and operating an hour ahead of our natural body clocks. In other words, your grogginess may be because your body expects to be up significantly later.

Interestingly, this time conundrum was the culmination of over a century of deliberate policy-making rather than the result of a once-off arbitrary administrative error.

Moving Forward

Time is often taken for granted as a commodity. For many, it is also taken for granted that the leisure of certainty and standardisation of time is an ever-present one when in reality, as with many other present-day luxuries, the journey in getting here was a long one.

Perhaps it is not over. Regionally, there have been suggestions of a common Asean timezone, spearheaded by none other than Singapore. On an international level, some are advocating for the abolition of time zones — instead having a single global time. Also, with the tide of policy shifts towards healthier and more wholesome lifestyles, it would not be a big surprise if the benefits of adhering to a schedule that matched our natural time zone were recognised and changes were made accordingly.

In all possibility, Singapore may someday regain its lost hour. 

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