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Feb 22, 2019

Young Generation of Singaporeans Who Grew Up Without Firecrackers


Usually on the first day of Chinese New Year, most streets were carpet with thick red layers of burnt out crackers. And on the 15th day of the Chinese New Year, cracker wars are staged in streets so tycoons from rival groups can display their wealth and reputation by letting off strings of crackers just to see who can outlast the other.

I have written on this topic as a guest blogger in the blog "Good Morning Yesterday" with courtesy of my blogger friend Mr Lam Chun See.



I was born in Bukit Ho Swee kampong in 1948 when Singapore was a colony under the British rules.  A pioneer generation before the independence of the Republic of Singapore and have grown up with the sound, sight and smoke of firecrackers during the Chinese New Year.

My mind was tickled with a question:  "How did a younger generation of Singaporeans who never had the chance to celebrate Chinese New Year to hear the sound, the sight, the smoke of firing crackers decades ago before firing of crackers was banned in Singapore.

When asked by the young generation of Singaporean after 1971, they said that Singapore is known for its strict regulations and laws in place to maintain peace and order.

Lighting firecrackers may be an auspicious activity for Chinese Singaporeans as part of their culture, but the loud, cracking act has been banned in Singapore.  Today, Singaporeans are only able to set off firecrackers during festive seasons.  If we are hoping not to miss a pyrotechnic display, be sure to travel to Singapore closer to its National Day celebrations and witness its majestic firework display as part of the celebrations.

In 1957 when I was 9-years-old on Chinese New Year day, I had the first experience of playing with fire ..... playing with firecrackers.  Early that morning when the family were still sleeping, I sneaked out of the house in Bukit Ho Swee, I brought a few firecrackers and a joss-stick.

I have seen older neighbourhood boys firing the crackers and thought that it wouldn't be difficult to do it.  There was nobody to guide me how to use the firecrackers with a loud bang and the fun to play this game.  With one hand holding a lighted joss-stick and another hand holding a firecracker (the bigger one in red), I lighted it and held it for too long that the firecracker just blew it.  Blood ooze out from the finger and I had a shock.  I quickly ran home and my mother used a cloth to stop the bleeding.  She did not scold or beat me.  She knew I was in shock and told me the danger of the firecrackers and don't play with it.  I was dumbfounded and did not know what was happening to me.

This is my personal experience and childhood memories to play with fire without telling anybody this kind of game to play as a child.  Was I foolish or just curious?

In 1971, the Year of the Pig and synonymous to prosperity for businessmen, did not go off with much of a bag.

Reason:  16 big importers of crackers and fireworks did not import any that year because of the government's ban on 30 different brands from Hong Kong, Macao and China.

The only firecracker manufacturer in Singapore, Forwin Fireworks (S) Pte. Ltd., was producing mainly for export.

The government's firecracker restrictions were applied because of the tragedy in 1970 when 6 people died after being burnt in traditional cracker wars.

Chinese business tycoons, who usually take part in massive cracker wars in the Chinatown areas, were viewing last year's celebrations with a tinge of sadness.

"Don't forget reasons why firecrackers were banned"


I would like to point out the fallacy in Mr Andy Tan's argument, "Bring back those noisy, wonderful crackers" (ST, Feb 3, 2000) to bring back firecrackers.

He believed that firecrackers will "strengthen emotional bonds", and will induce Singaporeans not to go on overseas vacations.

I think these reasons are without foundation.

Surely, it is too simplistic to think that a noisy and dangerous ritual will have a profound emotional impact on Singaporean culture.

As for keeping Singaporeans at home, I think he is wrong again.

I am old enough to remember the time when the sound of firecrackers went on all day and all night.

My young children were kept awake all night, crying from fear and exhaustion.

Firecrackers were bursting right next to their window, having been thrown down from the upper floors of our apartment.

In addition to the serious noise pollution, it caused injury to people as well.

I was working at the Singapore General Hospital in those days.

The casualty department was filled with burn patients every Chinese New Year.

The Fire Department was also kept busy when Chinese New Year came along.

As for Singaporeans going abroad for holidays, firecrackers had the opposite effect.

At that time, firecrackers made Singaporeans go abroad to escape the noise pollution and the danger.

When the Government banned firecrackers, Singaporeans heaved a great sigh of relief.

The majority of rational Singaporeans were behind the Government in its enlightened move to do away with a superstitious and dangerous ritual.

Please don't repeat past mistakes by re-inventing the wheel.

If you play with fire you will get burned.

We have experienced what it was like.

I will not recommend it nor wish it on the future generation.

GEORGE WONG SEOW CHOON

[Quoted this letter in the Forum Page, The Straits Times, 4 February 2000]

Why Singapore banned firecrackers in 1972

I refer to the letter "Bring back those noisy, wonderful firecrackers!" (ST, Feb 3, 2000).  During the Chinese New Year (CNY) festivals in February 1970, firecrackers killed six people, injured 68 and caused over $350,000 worth of damage to property through explosions and fires.

Because of this, the Government, in March 1970, imposed a partial ban on the firing of crackers.

During festive occasions like CNY eve and Chap Goh Meh, the firing of crackers was permitted for adults in certain refined areas and within specified hours.

However, sections of the public did not cooperate or observe the conditions under which firecrackers and fireworks could be discharged.  The result was more tragedies.  In 1971, nine persons were injured during the CNY festival.

In 1972, during CNY, members of the public became even bolder.  There were 376 incidents reported about crackers being fired indiscriminately outside stipulated places and times.

Despite vigorous police action, the firing of crackers still resulted in 26 being injured.  In addition, two unarmed policemen were attacked brutally when they tried to prevent a group from letting off firecrackers.unlawfully.

The loss of life, limb and property as a result of firing crackers was senseless.  It led to much grief and unhappiness for those who loved ones were killed or injured.  There was a public outcry for the ban on firecrackers.

Alternative way to create the sound of firecrackers

Although the young generation today did not play with firecrackers, please see how they have invented an alternative way to create the sound of firecrackers in this video . This is a safe and innovative way which is not illegal.  The loud sound of the "balloon crackers" would also bring prosperity for every festive occasions.


Feb 9, 2019

Virtual New Year Reunion



London-based photographer Timothy Wee, 26, joined his family in Singapore via Skype for a virtual reunion dinner on Chinese New Year Eve in 2013.  With his image projected on the dining room wall, he got into the spirit of tossing the 'yusheng' with (from left) Wee Kiat Sia, 55, mum Sandra, 53, brother Matthew, 21, and his grandparents, Mr & Mrs Wee Cheng Ho, 85 and 76 respectively. "I didn't want to miss another Chinese New Year with my family," he said.
(Source:  Straits Times, 10 February 2013).

'Virtual' means unreal or an illusion, but with Internet online technologies today, Timothy was able to use Skype from London to create this photo of the family together for the 'lo hei' at the same time.  He holds a pair of chopsticks but he could not taste or smell the food.  Interesting!


Keeping alive traditions
Imagine what the Chinese New Year would be like without the family reunion dinner, the hong bao and the other age-old customs that go with it.  While there is no immediate danger that the Chinese New Year in Singapore will lose its traditional flavor and meaning, there appears to be a gradual and perceptible diluting of Chinese New Year customs with each passing generations.  In many instances, Chinese Singaporeans have found the traditions less attractive, perhaps even a bother.  For they do not, or make no attempt to, understand the meaning behind them.  For instance, some people my see the giving of hong bao as simply a ritual offering of pocket money and forget the connotations of good luck that go with it.

It is somewhat disturbing that such a trend has started to develop here.  From the years of learning to co-exist in harmony with people of many different cultures, Singaporeans have learnt to be tolerant.  So tolerant, it seems that, even where it concerns their own culture, they have become inclined to insist that traditions be maintained.  In larger, and basically homogeneous, societies such as Korea and Japan, traditions die hard.  When everyone else does the same thing at festival time, there is more pressure on the individual to conform.  However, even in these societies, while traditions are far less likely to disappear, they are no doubt slowly evolving with the times.  A busier lifestyle, coupled with increasing Westernisation, makes its harder for people to keep up with the old customs.

For most Singaporeans, however, an erosion of their cultural heritage is likely to result in a blurring of cultural identities.  Singaporeans have long been imbibing and learning from the wisdom and cultures of other countries.  This they must continue to do, not only to survive economically but also because it has generally helped to enrich the country culturally and spiritually.

What has to be borne in mind, however, is that the new ways should add to the existing cultural stock and not gradually displace the customs and values that have made Singaporeans what they are.

Perhaps most Singaporeans are still too occupied with making a living to worry about the preservation of their cultural heritage.  Yet, paradoxically, greater affluence has spawned a new and increasing class of people who spend their Chinese New Year holidays overseas just to get away from what they see as the burden of observing tradition.  Singaporeans of all races will only be the poorer for it if their Chinese New Year holidays become, in time, no different from other holidays in the year.

In many other countries, the passing of the old year and ushering in of the new is marked by celebrations of special significance that distinguish them from other festivals.  Singaporeans will have to make a greater effort to keep old customs and practices alive if the Chinese New Year is to retain its uniquely traditional flavor.  Learning about these traditions will be a good start.  This Chinese New Year is as good a time as any for Chinese Singaporeans to begin.

In 1955, a family reunion dinner photo with the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore below:


Singapore's Grand Old Man Dr Lim Boon Keng with 25 members of his family for the annual Chinese New Year reunion dinner on 13 February, 1953.






The task of preserving tradition is not easy


On 1 March, 1984, Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said:

"The future of our children cannot depend on happy recollections of crackers and special flowers and fruits, and new clothes connected with Chinese New Year, however much joy these memories may bring.

"The relationships between children and parents, between brothers and sisters, between husband and wife, and the rights and duties of parents and children, these are crucial to the continuity of any civilisation."

The Prime Minister's remark is earnest and well-intentioned.

He means that consolidation of family ties is more important than happy recollections of festive occasions.

The joy and happiness of the Lunar New Year not so much because of such things as the sound of crackers, the special flowers and fruits and the new clothes as because of the closer ties brought about by the festive mood among family members and relatives and friends.

Having reunion dinner on Lunar New Year's Eve, paying New Year visits, exchanging New Year gifts, giving red packets to children and wearing new clothes, all specially meant for the festive occasion, have resulted in closer ties between parents and children, between brothers and sisters, between husband and wife and friends and relatives.

At the same time, they will also come to understand the rights and obligations between them.

A poet confesses that he is twice as homesick on festive occasions because festive occasions can best evoke family love and affection. 

As Mr Lee puts it, language is not synonymous with culture.

But without these characteristics, how are we going to show our festive mood and joy?

The various features of the festive occasion are similar to those of the religious ceremonies.

Without the church and the prayers, the religious feeling will naturally be diluted.

I am not suggesting that the fire crackers should be restored.

But I do cherish the memory of such fading festive mood and joy, just as I cherish the memory of the changing family ties.

This is because I am afraid that once these festive characteristics disappear altogether, the traditional family ties will also follow suit.

If, for pragmatic reasons, the Chinese allow their language and customs to die out on the one hand and hope to preserve certain fine traditions in their community on the other, it is feared that the task is not so easy as one imagines.

I am afraid that by then, even if we are still able to study Confucianism in English and even quote the classics, we would already have changed, and for the worse.

Yusheng Prosperity Toss during Chinese New Year






Yusheng Prosperity Toss, also known as lo hei is a Cantonese-style raw fish salad.  It usually consists of strips of raw fish, mixed with shredded vegetables and a variety of sauces and condiments, among other ingredients.

Today, the common form of yusheng is the 'qicai yusheng' (seven-coloured raw fish salad") or 'xinnian yusheng' ("Chinese New Year raw fish salad") was said to be created in the 1960s by chefs Lau Yoke Pui, Tham Yu Kai, Sin Leong and Hooi Kok Wai, together known as the "Four Heavenly Kings" in the Singapore restaurant scene.  The recipe included ingredients such as shredded white and green radish and carrots, ginger slices, onion slices, crushed peanuts, pomelo, pepper, essence of chicken, oil, salt, vinegr, sugar and more.  To enhance the taste, the chefs began the practice of pre-mixing the sauce in order to ensure a balanced taste for each dish as compared to the past when diners mixed the sauce themselves.  This new way of eating yusgheng was not readily accepted until the 1970s when younger diners embraced it.  From then on, the popularity of this yusheng recipe soared and spread overseas.

Key ingredients and what they represent:

*  Carrots -  good luck
*  Green radish -  eternal youth
*  White radish -  good job opportunities in the coming year
*  Raw fish  -  symbolises abundance and prosperity
*  Pomelo -  luck
*  Crushed peanuts -  a sign that your home will be filed with many valuable possessions
*  Sesame seeds  -  the hope that your business will flourish
*  Golden crackers -  symbolises wealth
*  Plum sauce -  a key component that binds the salad together, it represents stronger ties among family and friends
*  Pepper and cinnamon powder  -  signify the wish for wealth
*  Oil -  often drizzled onto the salad in a circular motion rather poured over.  This is to symbolise that money will come from all directions.





Every mother who cooks with love for her children will know what they like their favorite food or what food they dislike.

Please watch this meaningful and touching video in Chinese here
.

Jan 25, 2019

Sing. Chase Away The Blues!





Maybe over 25 years ago, karaoke came on the scene in Singapore.  Soon it was all the rage.  Everyone was into the "singing" saga.   Some thought that it was a passing fad and it wouldn't last. Something that would die off just as soon as Singapore's wannabe crooners realised that it was easier getting a driving licence than putting two notes together.

It's years down the road and karaoke is still a hot item on the local entertainment menu.  A must at almost every other pub and lounge.  No karaoke.  No go.

Yes, from Tanjong Pagar to Tampines.  From Siglap to Serangoon Garden, pubs and lounges have been installing "that" machine on their premises and business has boomed.

Sales of laser discs have also soared.  Not just English.  But Chinese, Tamil and even Hindi.  There are also Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and other dialects.  'Why? Simple.  Everyone wants to sing.  Have you heard about your neighbors singing in the bathroom?
And rather than doing it in their bathrooms they can now - for the price of a beer - do it in front of an audience.

By the looks of things, karaoke appears to be here to stay, hence the argument: If you can't beat it, why fight it?

In the last several decades, live entertainment has managed to maintain its niche in the market. There's enough to go around.  No need to rush.  No need to travel far.  No need to burn a hole in your pocket.  That's the Singapore entertainment scene as it is today.  There's everything for everyone, be it karaoke, live music, cabaret or just basic drinking holes.  Brian Miller reported in the New Paper on 27 August, 1994.

 Karaoke is Japanese for "empty orchestra". 

A karaoke lounge is where patrons sing to music emptied of vocals.  In the lounge, a karaoke machine dominates the scene.  It's a combination of a player, an amplifier set, a television monitor, or projector and screen, as well as a key controller.

Karaoke lounges were introduced in Japan about 40 years ago and proved the rage among Japanese businessmen.

It caught on quickly in Taiwan and was fast gaining popularity even in London.  There are now karaoke fast-food joints, karaoke home sets and karaoke coaches for long-distance travelling for tourists in a group and almost every community centre in Singapore.

In 1986, the government has lifted its 3-year ban on karoke, a Japanese-style sing-along, in restaurants and nightclubs.  The Home Affairs Ministry approved the licence if satisfied that there will be no excessive noise or unruly behaviour.

Karaoke is fun and so physical exercises for sports and health.

A Chinese school principal has introduced a daily 30-minute shuffle dance routine for his students and staff.

The principal introduced the dance to replace the daily callisthenics - based workout which is compulsory in Chinese school.  Please watch this video here .



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Jan 7, 2019

Childhood Memories of Fireworks Display


In Singapore, the Marina Bay area ushered in the New Year 2019 with a dazzling fireworks display over the island's skyline and other festivities in the vicinity.



Landmarks including The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, the ArtScience Museum and the Merlion also lent their facades for light projection shows throughout the night.



The countdown for the last 10 minutes of Year 2018 was screened on the digital clock on The Fullerton Hotel and everyone joined together and shouted with excitement from 10 to 0 to welcome a Happy New Year 2019. The sky was blazed with colourful spectacular fireworks and I captured a video clip here .


The Singapore waterfront was calm and quiet before the fireworks started at 11:00 pm on 31 December, 2018.  Earlier in the afternoon and earlier evening, the intermittent heavy rainfall
which later drizzled; unexpectedly the blessed "greatest event of the year" completed successfully when the rain stopped.



The musical events at the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre was open to the public free of charge at 7 pm.


As a "Kiasu Singaporean", I 'chopped' my favorite spot (as always in the past years of the Countdown fireworks displays) beside the ArtScience Musuem at Marina Bay Singapore. Please read about this here .


The crowd grew bigger and bigger as the time for the countdown at midnight.  The visitors were mostly Singaporean and their family, guest workers from China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Blanglalash, India and a few visitors whom I met from Japan, Mongolia, Russia and England.

The wait for the countdown fireworks display for 9 to 10 hours is worthwhile for everyone.  Many were prepared with umbrellas, ponchos, mats, food and drinks to picnic everywhere at the Marina Bay areas.   The waiting periods helped them to occupy the time with their smartphones to play games or watch YouTube with their favorite videos.


Childhood Memories of Fireworks Display

At the "Senior Talkshop" course in Mandarin organised by The TSAO Foundation, I spoke about my childhood memories of fireworks display when my mother brought me to the Clifford Pier at the Singapore waterfront in 1953 here .

I hope the parents in Singapore will help their young ones to watch fireworks display every chance they have - to create their fond childhood memories and remember the happy memories of Singapore.

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Dec 18, 2018

A Generation's Baptism of Fire



Book looks at 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire and its place in S'pore social history.

Squatters into Citizens:  The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire And The Making Of Modern Singapore
By Loh Kah Seng Singapore: NUS Press, 315 pages

By CLARISSA OON
SENIOR WRITER clare@sph.com.sg
[Source:  The Straits Times,  13 July, 2013]

It was one of several kampong infernos of the time, yet the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire was a seminal event with reverberations for a generation's way of life.

So contends a new book by Singapore historian Loh Kah Seng, which will  be launched tomorrow  by publisher  NUS Press at the National Library Building.

Through the lens of a disaster and the massive relief effort that followed, Loh offers a comprehensive, vivid and deeply nuanced look at changing demographics, housing policy and the turbulent political economy of the period.

The assistant professor at the Institute for East Asian Studies at South Korea's Sogang University draws on fresh interviews with 100 former Kampong Bukit Ho Swee residents, and weaves in information from data and policy and  sociological studies of the period, to offer this compelling  account of the build-up to a conflagration that robbed 16,000 people of their homes.

Many homes razed were part of a patchwork of illegally-built cheap wooden dwellings that had sprung up on Singapore's urban periphery.

He then draws out home the aftermath of the Bukit Ho Swee blaze became, for the young People's Action Party (PAP) Government, a rallying point for a nascent citizenry and an occasion to kick-start the first big public housing project by the new Housing and Development Board (HDB).

Living in planned housing that required regular rental payment, in turn, converted the hawkers, casual labourers and subsistence farmers of a kampung's informal economy into a full-time industrial workforce.

Squatters into Citizens is an academic as well as personal project.  Loh's father was among the elderly former kampung dwellers interviewed for the book, and the author himself grew up in one-room rental flats around Bukit Ho Swee in the 1970s and 1980s. 

In the preface, he writes that he was embarrassed by his family's housing situation as a child, only to revisit this milieu now as an academic - the story of many a post-65er who hurtled along with the nation from Third World to First, and now hungers to rewind to and understand a bygone past.

Perhaps as a result, his writing has a passion and immediacy that is atypical of much scholarly analysis.  His eye for detail is almost filmic, augmented by the book's inclusion of evocative archival visuals, from an artist's woodcut depicting a family's grief after the blaze, to aeriel photographs showing how densely packed together the  wooden houses were, followed later by overhead shots of the HDB landscape that rose up like Lego blocks in its place.

In particular, the book excels as a pungent but not over-idealised ethnography of life in Kampong Bukit Ho Swee, a village built on the slope of a hill with a disused cemetery on top and bordered by Havelock, Outram and Tiong Bahru roads.

Low-income families lived cheek by jowl amidst pigs and graves.  The author notes that in moving from the overcrowded and low-lying central area of Singapore to higher, former burial grounds, "pragmatism overcame the customary Chinese respect for the deceased.

Men worked as unlicensed hawkers, odd-job workers and pirate taxi drivers.  For leisure, they gathered at the village coffee shop to gamble or listen to Rediffusion. 

Homemakers supplemented the family income as washerwomen and seamstresses, and even as part-time shipyard cleaners since, "being slim, they can more easily enter the aperture of the tank and sustain the hardship of working within its restricted space" - as a 1960 official inquiry on contract labour, quoted by the author, put it.

On festive occasions, everyone gathered outdoors to watch Teochew (and Hokkien) opera performances organised by wealthier residents.  It is a portrait of an optimistic community" attempting to 'find a road' (che lor in Hokkien) and eke out a livelihood".

Kampung residents had an ambivalent relationship with the concrete Singapore Improvement Trust (the precursor of the HDB) flats dotted around them.  They were a source of aspiration for some, but 'compared to the never-ending challenge of finding work, residents did not regard concrete housing and modern amenities as a priority ... The dimness inside the house was of little concern when the occupants' social and economic life took them outside of it much of the time.

Loh's previous book was the co-authored The University Socialist Club And The Contest For Malaya, about the pivotal 1950s political club that drew both moderates and left-wingers.  Like that tome, Squatters Into Citizens parses both official and alternative versions of political history.

He delves into how resistance to eviction and rehousing was a subject of much political capital for the PAP's opponents then.  At the same time, he notes how former kampong residents eventually came to accept and even endorse public housing. 

Two minor criticms may be levied at the book.  Malays were among the residents of Kampong Bukit Ho Swee and victims of the fire, but Loh does not explore Malay family life in the kampong or the politics of race and resettlement.  He only alludes to this in a passing mention that the challenge for the colonial government of giving appropriate compensation to wooden-house dwellers "was essentially a Chinese problem: the British considered the Malays 'more amenable ... to resettlement'".

The other question which Loh does not manage to answer, for various reasons, is whether the fire was an act of arson engineered by the Government so it could clear the land and build flats - as was alleged in some quarters at the time.

Nonetheless, Squatters Into Citizens is a resonant text of social history.  It owes a debt to sociologist Chua Beng Huat's earlier work on HDB housing (interestingly Chua's family lived in Kampong Bukit Ho Swee too and he is one of the former residents interviewed) and studies on squatter colonies and rehousing efforts elsewhere in South-east Asia.  However, the amount of detail and analysis on the import of a major disaster for an emerging Singapore state is all Loh's own.

Intellectual contributions aside, the book is a layered examination of what Singaporeans went through to make a home, and a much-needed breaking of the silence between generations.



A related article 'Burn notice' posted by Dene Mullen on August 15, 2013


How was the great fire the origin of the Singapore we know today?

The fire broke out in a kampong (urban village) named Bukit Ho Swee in 1961 at a historic juncture for Singapore.  The island had just become a self-governing state and housing was under the purview of the newly elected People's Action Party (PAP) government.  The fire - the biggest blaze in Singapore's history - gave the PAP a strong mandate to rehouse nearly 16,000 fire victims in emergency public housing in under a year.  This allowed the clearing of kampongs and inner city slums and created a modern city of planned new towns and estates - an urban landscape that persists to this day.

You also mention how the fire transformed many of the people involved into 'model citizens'.  How so?

The fire was not merely a humanitarian disaster, or the rehousing an act of relief.  It was a national event that transformed 'squatters' into citizens.  Gone was the previous ability of kampong dwellers to elude the reach of the state, live in unauthorised housing or partake in unregulated economic activity.  As tenants, later owners, of public housing, families were integrated into the expanding structures of the state.  The terms of their housing were now dictated by the government, the kampong's secret societies replaced by community centres, while full-time employment became necessary to pay the bills.

Public housing continues to be an important plank of the developmental nation.  The housing is subsidised by the state but Singaporeans pay for the flats they can afford.  Besides continuity, there is unceasing change.  The construction of emergency public housing - very basic semi-permanent housing in the early 1960s - was halted by the middle of the decade, as housing standards and expectations rose.  By the 1980s, all the emergency housing had been converted to better quality housing or demolished.

How can Singapore be used as a model for other Southeast Asian cities with large squatter settlements?


One would be cautious about 'models'.  Other countries in Southeast Asia have vast hinterlands from which continuous streams of migrants move into the informal settlements of the city.  There, too, informal settlers are not easily cleared:  they are cultivated by politicians or are well organised.  In the 1940s and 1950s, Western cities such as London were held up as models of proper planning for Asian cities, but they did not work in Southeast Asia.

How has the evolution of Singapore's urban landscape impacted on society?

The transformation has been nothing short of revolutionary.  In a generation, Singaporeans went from being state-wary squatters to a disciplined, home-owning citizenry whose economic contributions have propelled the city-state into First World status.  The price of citizenship is the flip side of this great change - people have lost their previous initiative, agency and sense of daring, while the poorest have become disillusioned about the future for themselves and their children.

Why, in your opinion, has Singapore, achieved its incredible economic growth and been able to modernise so much faster than its neighbours?

There are many reasons.  Singapore was fortunate - the government embarked on a program of export-led industrialisation at a time when firms in the West and Japan were seeking cheaper factory sites and industrial labour overseas.  The PAP was single-mined in its economic programming - political opposition was non-existent by the late 1960s.  This authoritarianism combined with Western ideas of development and modernisation that were dominant in the post-Second World War period, and which the PAP eagerly appropriated and implemented.

How is the balance of power in the region shifting from the state to global capital, and what effect will this have?

Global capital is penetrating Southeast Asian cities and creating very similar swathes of urban space: the mega malls, hi-tech infrastructure and private housing.  Gavin Sharkin has warned about the threat such privately owned areas pose to social activism, which thrives in public spaces.  But global capital also continues a long process initiated by colonial and then nationalist capital - which is that of weaving people into imperial, national, and now transnational frameworks.   In this sense, Southeast Asians will continue to encounter forms of domination and have to struggle to preserve their community.

Why did the public housing revolution work in Singapore but not so much in other Southeast Asian nations?

There is no easy answer.  There are many common explanations - that housing and planning in other countries were hamstrung by the lack of political will, inadequate finance and poor policy coordination.  These failings are actually not causes, but symptoms.  Ultimately, it may not be realistic to expect replication.  This is where one pays heed to context - state-led housing and economic development worked in a particular timeframe in Singapore, whereas circumstances differed elsewhere.

Bibliography of the book

Twelve years ago, I first met Loh Kah Seng at my flat in Simei on 21 Oct 2006 afternoon.  The interview was arranged through my blogger friend, Victor Yue, the Chinatown Boy.

I did not realise that the 2-3 hours interview would be a PhD thesis for Kah Seng about the Bukit Ho Swee and how it would be written in the book "Squatters into Citizens".

Thanks to Kah Seng, the nostalgic memories of the Bukit Ho Swee fire led me to inspire me to write my true life story at age 13 and share them on my blogs.  This is not a script for a drama by MediaCorp.  I was not acting in the inferno movie or to play an assigned character role.  This is the story as told in my first person and the changes to my life; the changes to Bukit Ho Swee and Singapore after the Bukit Ho Swee fire.

I am glad to be among the 100 former Bukit Ho Swee fire victims invited by Dr Loh Kah Seng to interview and tell our personal stories in his book.

Preface of the book by Dr Loh Kah Seng



At around 3 p.m. on 25 May 1961, a small fire broke out in Bukit Ho Swee, a kampong (village) settlement of wooden housing on the western fringe of Singapore city.  Within hours, the inferno had jumped across two roads and destroyed the homes of nearly 16,000 people. 
Kampong fires were not unusual in Singapore, but the scale of this disaster surpassed all previous ones, even the great fire of February 1959 at Kampong Tiong Bahru, just across the main road from Bukit Ho Swee, which had rendered 5,000 people homeless.

What ensued at Bukit Ho Swee was even more remarkable.  By 1961 Singapore had become a self-governing state under British colonial rule, and housing thereby came under the purview of the People's Action Party (PAP) government, elected in 1959 in a landslide victory.

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew assured the fire victims that they would be rehoused in modern apartments within nine months.  

This promise resulted in the first big building project carried out by the Housing and Development Board (HDB), established the previous year to implement the PAP government's ambitious housing programme.  The HDB quickly erected high-rise blocks of emergency flats on the fire site, enabling former squatters to return to Bukit Ho Swee - not in nine months but within a year.

The fires and flats of Bukit Ho Swee loomed in the background of my childhood years of the 1970s and 1980s.  In 1969 my parents got married and began living with my grandparents in their three-room flat in Block 29, Havelock Road.  I was born in 1972, followed two years later by my sister.  In 1975 our family of four moved into a one-room rental flat in Block 28, Jalan Membina, the site of the emergency housing built after the 1959 Kampong Tiong Bahru fire.


The author at a playground outside Block 28, Jalan Membina, the site of the emergency housing built after the 1959 Kampong Tiong Bahru fire.  1970s photograph by Loh Tian Ho.

So began my experience of living in one-room housing.  Two years later we shifted to an improved one-room flat in nearby Block 14, and again in 1980 into a lower-rent, improved one-room flat in Block 79, Indus Road.

I found the housing embarrsssing and repeatedly urged my parents to obtain a larger home.  But my father was a coolie on a daily wage and my mother a housewife, although the family also did some handicraft work at home for additional income. 

My parents slept on blankets laid over the linoleum in the living room and my sister and I on a bunk bed in a partitioned corner.  Once, my face burned with embarrassment when a classmate from Havelock Primary School visited my home and said, "Your house so small ah?" The school, as opposed to the flat, was the centre of my life.

I knew nothing of Block 79; as Yeo Seok Thai, a resident in the block, told me in an interview, it was complicated (hock chap), where low-income families struggled with debt and their children ran afoul of the law.  

I graduated well from Havelock and enrolled in River Valley High School on Kim Seng Road, which had sheltered victims of the 1961 inferno.  In 1989 my family at last left the locality for a three-room flat in Yishun New Town, in north Singapore. 

This, I thought happily, was the true meaning of progress.  I knew nothing about the great kampong fire and had no wish to return to Bukit Ho Swee.


Dr Loh Kah Seng and BHS fire victim, James Seah

Excerpts from the book and mentioned in the interview

.....  Farther north, at the junction of Havelock and Delta Roads, were three major local employers: the Singapore Steam Laundry, Seiclene Electric Laundry, and the Fraser and Neave factory across the road.  James Seah, his parents and four siblings lived in a wooden house at 20, Beo Lane.  His father, a bookkeeper in a trading company, took a bus to the Central Area daily, while his three sisters worked in the steam laundry.

.....  James Seah's family moved into a one-room emergency flat in Block 9, Jalan Bukit Ho Swee; he was studying nearby at Delta Primary School, while his elder sisters were still working at the Singapore Steam Laundry at Delta Circus.

.....  When this author spoke to former fire victims in 2006-7, two generations after the inferno, it was event how deep the social influence of the official discourses was.  For individuals such as James Seah, the 1961 disaster contained an important set of lessons for young Singaporeans.  In Seah's view, the government suppressed secret societies after the inferno, while low-income families were able to break out of the cycle of poverty as their children acquired higher education.  Seeing the fire as "a breakthrough for the PAP government to really change the whole socio-economic landscape of a big part of Singapore", Seah felt proud that his "days have to be tied up to Singapore's starting time".  A sense of national identity and support for the government inextricably merged.

.....  James Seah was saddened by young people's apparent ignorance of the difficult experiences of their elders.  The dangerous desire for Western-style politics, he said, was the result, which only history could rectify, by "bringing this little kid, who shouts like that, influenced by Western democracy, and putting him in our time to go through the racial riots, the labour strikes, the fire".  But Seah was also acutely aware it may be impossible to fully convey the intimacy of a terrifying event outside the experience of young Singaporeans:

[How do I describe to you the day when it was on fire and we ran?  Then the next day, when we came back and saw all was gone?  That element of living through a certain period can never be replicated ... I talk to my children, and they say, "Where go such things?" ... This is something that I am very fearful of for the children, because they can't imagine the hardship that their parents went through.]

.....  In August 2011, 50 years after the fire, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech recalled the disaster at Bukit Ho Swee as a key event that nurtured a sense of a shared destiny among older Singaporeans.  He referred to the trauma suffered by James Seah, then 13, on the day of the inferno and in the aftermath, before his family were rehoused within a week in an HDB flat.  Seah's experience, Lee surmised, was a fitting entry for the state's Singapore Memory project, which aims to collect five million memories of ordinary Singaporeans by 2015, the 50th year of Singapore's independence.  It is hoped that this ambitious project will not edit out those fragments of stories from Bukit Ho Swee that do not fit neatly with the state's account: the rumours of arson, the contribution of gangsters to the kampong, the official perception of the HDB estates as a "black area", and the disillusionment of the one-room HDB dwellers.  Such jagged fragments mark boundaries to and gaps in the glossy "shared history" that government propagate to their citizens.

Nov 21, 2018

Short Speech in Chinese to Inspire


Thanks to China TV program and the video was posted to YouTube.

Watching this special program inspired me to post this blog to share with my friends here .

As I was curious to learn more about [人生七年] or 'Life in 7 years', I did a search on Google and found this video here .

The Up Series is a series of documentary films produced by Granada Television for ITV that have followed the lives of forteen British chidren since 1964, when they were seven years old.  So far the documentary has had eight episode every seven years) all of which were broadcast on ITV , apart from the 6th episode which was broadcast on BBC One.

Since its first instalment in 1964, the celebrated Up documentary series has  traced the fortunes of group of British children from a variety of backgrounds and different areas of the UK, returning at seven-year intervals to take snapshots of their lives. Directed by Michael Apted,the series reaches another landmar with the three-part 56 Up, in which a ll but one of the original 14 participants take part. Ironically, the missing one, Charles Furneaux , went on  to become a TV producer.  In April 2015, Paul Armond, the Canadian director behind the groundbreaking Seven Up! documentary, died aged 63.

The original of the original transcript in Chinese below:
她4分44秒的演讲,却让整个世界都沉默了!!

在这个演讲开始之前,我先间现场的大家一个问题。

你们当中有谁觉得自己是家境普通,甚至出身贫寒。   将来想要出人头地只能靠自己。你们当中又有谁觉得。 起码在奋斗的时候,可以从父母那里得到一点助力。你们当中又有谁觉得:人家的小孩自己是家境普通甚至出身。。自己是有鈛大家的小孩。起码在奋斗的时候可以从父母那里得到一点助力。

前些日子有一个在银行工作了十年的资深的人力资源筥理师。他在网络上发了一篇帖子叫做[寒门再难出贵子]。寒门的小孩。他想要出人头地想要成功。比我们父辈的那一代更难了。这个帖子引起了特别广泛的讨论。你们觉得这句话有道理吗。先拿我自己说。我们家就是出身寒门的。

我们家都不算寒门。我们家都没有门。我现在想想我都不知道当初。我爸跟我妈那么普通的一对农村夫妇。他是怎么样把三个孩子,我跟我两个哥。从农村供出来上大学上研究生。  我一直都觉得自己特别幸运。我爸跟我妈都设怎么读过书。  我妈连小学一年级都没上过。她居然觉得读书很重要。她吃再多的苦也要让我们三个孩子上大学。

我一直也不会拿自己跟那些。比如说家庭富裕的小孩去做比较。说我们之间会有什么不同或者有什么不平等,说我们之间会有什么不同。但是我们必须要承认这个世界是有—些不平等的。他们有很多的捷径。我们也没有。但是我们不能抱怨。我们也没有。有些人出生就含着金钥匙。有些人出生连爸妈都没有。

人生跟人生是没有可比性的。我们的人生是怎么样。那你的一生就是抱怨的—生。那你的—生就是感动的—生。你—辈子都在感受感动。你一辈子都立志于改变这个社会。那你的一生就是一个斗士的—生。

英国有一部纪录片。叫做[人生七年]片中访问了十二个来自不同阶层的七岁的小孩。每七年再回去重新访问这些小孩。到了影片的最后就发现,富人的孩子还是畗人。穷人的孩子还是穷人。但是里面有—个.   他到最后通过自己的奋斗变成了—名大学教授叫尼克的贫穷的小孩。变成了一名大学教授。是有漏网之鱼的。可贝命运的手掌里面。

而且现实生活中更是数不胜数。所以当我们遭遇失败的时候,更不能去抱怨自己的父母。井没有斩断—个人当我在人生中。因为家境不好为什么不如别人的父母。他成功的所有的可能。遇到很大困难的时候。我就会在北京的大街上走一走,看着人来人往。你在这个城巿里面,你有的只是你自己。刘媛媛。真的昰依无所依。你什么都没有。在这个社会上杀出一条路来。这段演讲到现在,你现在能做的就是单枪匹马的。我们大部分人都不是出身豪门的。我们都要靠自己。所以你要相信。是想吿诉你。让你用你的一生。这个故事关于独立,关于梦想。没有—点点人间疒疾苦。去苖斗出一个绝地反击的故事。关于勇气,关于竖忍。它不是—个水到柒成的童话有志者事竟成,破釜沉舟。百二秦关终。这个故事是苦心人天不负。卧薪尝胆三千越甲可夻吴。谢谢大家.


The facial expressions of  the speaker during her speech is the body language to convince the audience and the inspiration to share her personal experiences to learn from her.

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Aug 8, 2018

Singapore - City of Tomorrow

James Seah on a trishaw at T4,
Singapore Airport

National Geographic released a Singapore edition of the magazine - complete with an exclusive interview with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - to commemorate Singapore's 53rd National Day.

Titled Singapore - City of Tomorrow, the complimentary magazine will be distributed 250,000.  The magazine is part of #WhatMakesSG, a partnership between National Geographic and the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI).

The collaboration is aimed at celebrating "the passion driving Singapore's progress and how the city-state is taking steps to seize future opportunities".

Mr Lee shared his views on Singapore's future, and highlighted the importance of teamwork and collaboration in enabling Singapore's transformation to a city of the future.

In his exclusive interview with the magazine, Mr Lee shared his views on what he believes makes Singapore different, the country's future and the importance of teamwork.

"There are any number of cities in Asia which have three or four million people in them; probably dozens, many dozens.  Why are we different?  It's because of the way we have been able to make our people work together and to make the system work,"  Mr Lee said in the interview.

"It doesn't mean we're smarter than other people, I think we work as hard as others but we work together more effectively and so you produce something special," he added.




I collected a complimentary copy of the National Geographic special issue at Terminal 4, Singapore Airport on 7 August, 2018.

I am pleased to reproduce the interview with Prime Minister on this blog for the convenience of the readers and friends.

PRIDE OF THE LION CITY

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks exclusively with National Geographic about the island nation's future by Mark Eggleton.

When Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talks about his sense of warmth.  A warmth for his people and importantly, his and the Government's role as stewards of the future.  Rather than suggesting the Government owns the present, he emphasises the importance of taking care of Singapore right now and ensuring it's handed on in good condition to future generations.  It's this genuine affection for his whole country which immediately strikes you.

In the days preceding the interview, Lee had invited a National Geographic photographer to tag along on his engagements - including a visit to a newly opened pre-school, a stroll in the city's Botanic Gardens, a walk around his constituency's hawker market, and even the home of his constituents.  What was surprising was how each visit quickly turned into something more.  Reason being is unlike many politicians who can look awkward with their constituents, Lee revelled in simply being out and about.  Generous with his time and happy to take endless smartphone selfies, he chatted and laughed with a range of people and families.

On the day we meet in his private office at Istana, Lee is dressed casually and keen for a relatively informal chat.  Outside, the serenity of the property's vast pristine gardens is only broken by the low thrum of a lawnmower.  A green sanctuary in the heart of the city, Istana is the official Presidential Palace as well as the Prime Minister's office, and its sense of peace had made its way inside where Lee is in an avuncular mood.

Sitting in his relatively austere office and responding to a remark that our interview might go slightly off-piste, Lee jokingly replies "we're not very good skiers" before outlining why he is excited for Singapore's future as a digital economy hub that continues to deliver outsize opportunities for its people.  He is keen to point out that government is a team and while he can give orders nothing can happen "unless I've got teamwork", which includes Government ministers as well as the civil service and the private sector.

What excites him the most is while Singapore is still a young country of just over 50 years of age, "we have the resources, the people trained and the organisation, to plan our next 50 years, and remake Singapore substantially.  Not all of it but step-by-step we can remake the economy, the whole (economic) landscape, the way we invest in our people and I hope our standing in the world.  That's a big job.  I'm 66 but my successors, they will have to carry it forward."

The Lion City is already well on its way to transforming itself into a thriving digital economy as it already has some of the most advanced digital infrastructure in the world.  Government services are all migrating online and Lee says there is a huge focus on ensuring the whole population understands the opportunities afforded by the digital economy.

GOING (DIGITAL) NATIVE

"The young ones, they call them digital natives whereas old one like me, we're immigrants.  There's a lot we can do to make the internet easy and convenient for old people to use and we have all sorts of classes for them," Lee says.

Ensuring every generation is catered for starts back in primary school classrooms where the first four years of schooling focus on English, mother tongue, maths and science and the nature of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning is given top priority.  For Lee, who was the top mathematics undergraduate during his time at England's University of Cambridge, STEM skills are the key to the future and they're actively encourage in tertiary education.

"You don't have to become a master programmer, but you must at least have an idea of how computers and programming works.  Then it doesn't look like sheer magic to you and you will not be totally terrified by it when you are in a position of responsibility and you've got to make decisions."

Bearing in mind how the global economy is changing, Lee remains optimistic for the global economy and especially for Singapore, where he believes people will be able to adjust as automation and artificial intelligence fundamentally change the nature of work.  He suggests Singapore's value proposition is its geography and it can do quite a lot of things well and perhaps sufficiently better than elsewhere, such as being a financial services and data hub for the region as well as providing a strong regulatory and legal framework for business.

"In medical services, we have patients who come here from all over the region as well as from longer distances such as Russia.  I think if you are a first world-city with that concentration of talent, services and quality of life, people will want to live and work here."

As for Singapore's ever-evolving physical transformation, Lee speaks of moving the current military airbase at Paya Lebar in the central-eastern part of Singapore to Changi - freeing up an enormous amount of land for reuse and development.


"You can redevelop that land as a new township but most importantly all the surrounding areas, which is maybe one third of the island, has been developed in a height-constrained way.  Take the airbase out and you have completely different possibilities."

Lee also spoke of the current process of moving the port at Tanjong Pagar to the Tuas mega-port on the western edge of Singapore, which will free up "really prime land right in the middle of the city.  It's another opportunity for two-plus Marina Bays worth of redevelopment.

CHALLENGE AND OPPORTUNITY

Beyond Singapore, Lee speaks of the country's role as ASEAN Chair this year and the two ideas chosen as themes for the chairmanship - Resilience and Innovation.  Both underline the opportunities and challenges countries in the region need to confront in a globalised digital economy.  Lee ways resilience means dealing with shocks and problems and dangers, while innovation means looking for new opportunities to work together and to grow.

"On resilience, we're talking about things like disaster relief and cybersecurity co-operation while on innovation, we're talking about a smart cities network.  We have 26 smart cities signed up and we hope we can work together.  We are chairman for a year, it's rotating chairmanship.  It doesn't mean we are the commander-in-chief, we are just the co-ordinator for this year.  What it means is we have to work together to make ASEAN relevant in the world.  Work together economically and work together when it comes to political and strategic issues."

Lee is a great believer in a networked future where nations work collaboratively and he envisions a world where talent connects globally.

"There are any number of cities in Asia which have three or four million people in them; probably dozens, many dozens.  Why are we different?  It's because of the way we have been able to make our people work together and to make the system work.  It doesn't mean we're smarter than other people, I think we work as hard as others but we work together more effectively and so you produce something special."


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