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A "recycled teenager" learning to blog.

Jun 20, 2017

The Desolation-to-Progress - History of Bukit Ho Swee

The memories of Bukit Ho Swee kampong may be forgotten by many people, but to me, it's in my blood, in my mind because I was born in this little known place in Singapore.  My memories would then die with me ...

It is not newsworthy to share on the blog, but I just come across news stuff to me.  Thanks to a 34-year-old newspaper article on BUKIT HO SWEE published on 6 November, 1983 in the former Singapore Monitor.  Thanks to NewspaperSG of the National Library Board of Singapore to share on the blog.


There aren't many places like Bukit Ho Swee in Singapore.  It's disaster-prone.  In 40 years from successive "biggest-fires-ever" have swept through it.  But residents there are now confident their estate will not catch the headlines again with another blaze.  There are no huts anymore; only Housing Board flats.  The highly combustible huts were wiped out in the mid-1920s, rebuilt and burnt down again in 1934.  Then in 1961 disaster struck again.  This time the Government moved in to ensure that no more huts would rise again from the ashes, instead "emegency" flats were built for the squatters.  In 1968, the untouched part of squatter colony at the Kim Seng Road end was razed, leaving 100 families homeless.

A poignant photo of a fire victim with only his clothes in his hand, staring at the dark smoke in the sky during the Bukit Ho Swee fire on 25 May, 1961.  What was in his thoughts at that moment?
Was it the end of the world for him?

At the Bukit Ho Swee Fire Relief Centre after the fire

"Even the younger residents undestand better than most others elsewhere how much our Government has done for us," says 62 year old school tuckshop operator Mr Woon Teng Hin.

Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the opening ceremony of the Jalan Bukit Ho Swee Housing Estates on 23 September, 1961.  He kept his promise to the homeless fire victims that the fire site would be developed and built within 1 year.  The 1-room "emergency" flats were completed in 9 months.

With rising affluence and younger residents getting married, many of the original squatters have moved out.  Only 30 per cent of those squatters are left so the Kim Seng Citizens' Consultative Committee, the HDB, Archives and Oral History Department and Singapore News and Publishers Limited sponsored a week-long pictorial exhibition on "The Emergence of Bukit Ho Swee Estate - from desolation to progress" from November 15, 1983.

The exhibits cover a period of almost 150 years, back to the days of junks, opium farms and Tay Ho Swee who gave his name to the estate.  Those were also the days of the Chinese-style, walled-in mansions with farmers cultivating vegetable plots and rearing pigs outside.


Ho Swee owned junks which were built in the creeks in nearby Covent Garden and which made regular sailings to Trengganu and Singgora in southern Thailand.  The family estate below the hill was let out to vegetable farmers.  As the population grew, more people "squatted" on these farms.  Three separate kampongs developed on this and adjoining estates.

Mr Lee Boon Eng, 66, remembers that some time in the 1920s most of the huts in the area were burnt down.  "I was very young then, can't remember how it all happened.  No Social Welfare then.  And the British Government didn't care much about such things.  The victims came back, rebuilt their huts and carried.

"There was a big cemetery here, stretching all the way to Tiong Bahru.  Ho Swee was buried here.  His grave was a landmark here."

On 9 August, 1934, fire broke out at the Tiong Bahru end.  Fanned by a strong wind, the blaze fanned 1.6 km through huts to the edge of the Singapore River, making 5,000 people homeless with a couple of hours.

But this time there was better organisation.  The whole fire brigade turned out to fight the flames which threatened to sweep through the godown along the river bank.

The police also turned out in force because almost the whole population seemed to have turned out to watch the fire.  The area for 4.8 km around was a "seething crowd" the Chinese newspaper of the day reported.

The Chinese Chamber of Commerce moved in with aid.  They requisitioned the Great World Cabaret to house some of the victims,  The rest put up temporary shelters on the fire-site after firemen had doused the embers.

The chamber distributed food and money to the victims the next day.  The Hokkien Huay Kuan organised a variety show at the amusement park to raise funds for them.  With the proceeds new huts were built.  The post-war housing shortage and the population growth brought more people into the area; the three kampungs became one huge squatter colony stretching from Tiong Bahru to Covent Garden.

"It was a terrible place.  No roads inside.  To go through other people's living rooms or even in the bedroom." Mr Lee recalls.

Mr Woon, then jobless, remembers:  "All the people here were very poor.  We had to spend so much time fetching water from the standpipes.  And so many people sharing the toilets.  The toilets had buckets.

"There were several secret societies: 08, 24, 36.  They had their headquarters in the Baba Kongsi, a row of 10 brick houses at Havelock Road.  All the factory owners, shopkeepers, even hawkers and trishaw riders had to pay them for protection.  And these gangs were always fighting each other.  A lot of killings.  Even the police didn't dare to come inside this kampung."

Says Mr Lee: "During the Hock Lee riots most of the students escaped through this place.  The police didn't dare to follow."

Many of the men worked as labourers on the river side, building boats or carrying produce between the tongkangs and the godowns.  The women worked in the kampung's cottage industries, packing melon seeds (kway chee), making wooden boxes, or working in the sauce, sago, candle factories or the big coconut oil factory at Beo Lane.

Most families reared pigs to supplement their meagre earnings.  Many others could not find jobs and turned to the gangs for help.

Then came 25 May, 1961.  A  hot, windy Hari Raya Haji.  In a hut behind Baba kongsi a kerosene stove was turned on.  The flame was turned on too high, the dry rotting and heavily papered kitchen wall caught fire.

Within minutes, the fire was running wild, engulfing the kongsi, three Chinese schools, timber yards, the oil mill and hundreds of shacks in its path.  Flames were carried by the wind from one end to the other and old women knelt by the roadside shrines to pray for relief from such "divine fire."

At day's end with troops, hundreds of policemen and 22 fire engines called out, the big countless of homeless was made.  This time 16,000 lost everything and had nowhere to go.

A rag-and-bone man was killed and 15 others, including several firemen, were injured.

Mr Tan Phong Sai, 66, who has now moved to a bigger flat in Clementi Estate, remembers vividly that nightmare.  

[Source: Singapore Monitor.  JACKIE SAM reports.]

The Progress of Bukit Ho Swee over the Decades

The Drama Box featured the story of Bukit Ho Swee here .

Participants in the "Drama Box Bukit Ho Swee Project".

The most thoroughly researched video at Suria Channel Terbit 03 - Bukit Ho Swee and Tiong Bahru Area fires (in Malay with English Subtitles) here .  Thanks to the Tiong Bahru Secondary School to post the video at YouTube.

Apr 8, 2017

More seniors stepping up to help

The young student teaching the elderly grandmother how to use the computer.

(Source: The Straits Times, 18 June 2012)

Over 100 take training course to become more effective volunteers

By Leslie Kay Lim

More than 100 people have taken part in a programme rolled out in February 2012 to train older people to become more effective volunteers.

The scheme, called RSVP Senior Volunteer Training Centre, is offered by the Organisation of Senior Volunteers (RSVP) in response to a growing interest among those who want to help in their golden years.

The programme is designed to motivate volunteers, teach them about the realities of what they are getting into, and help them do a better job.

It consists of communication and time-management workshops, as well as discussion of volunteerism."

"Over the years, people have said they wish they were more prepared," said RSVP first vice-president Ngaim Tong Yuen of volunteering.  "The programme is a natural progression."

RSVP, a non-profit group with more than 1,000 members, was set up in 1998 to encourage senior citizens to stay active, Mr Ngiam added that many organisations may not be utilising this group to their full potential, and described them as an "under-tapped" segment of volunteers.

This may be because recruitment efforts have focused on the younger generations, though their commitment has been called into question.

Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing expressed concern that young people who take up causes may not continue from 6 per cent in 2001 to 22 per cent in 2010.

For the 65 and above group, growth went up from 4 per cent to 10 per cent from 2004 to 2006, and hovered at around 10 per cent in the following years.

In addition to having more time on their hands, the elderly - especially the ageing babyboomers - are now healthier and more educated than the generation before.

In terms of their value as "a rich pool of volunteers", NVPC chief executive Laurence Lien noted that "older workers have been described as reliable, competent and dedicated".

"They need little supervision and make good colleagues," he said.

Retired civil servant James Seah, 63, picked up new interests and friends after the National Library asked him to blog for its "iremember" project.

In addition to posts about events in the past like the Bukit Ho Swee fire for the library, he has maintained his own blog at since 2007.

There are many more like Mr Seah who want to make a difference.  Said Mr Ngiam: "They want to be useful and they want to help others.  They have the skills and life experience that they want to pass on to younger people.

"And they would like to be viewed as a national asset rather than a burden," he added.


Mar 16, 2017

Tommy Koh Who?

Tommy Koh's photo curated on this blog with the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.  The caption on this photo:  President of the University of Malaya Law Society.  Tommy Koh Thong Bee was the only candidate to obtain first class honours at the first Bachelor of Law examinations conducted by the University of Malaya Law School.  Covering Date: 07/01/1961  (above).

Tommy Koh of 02 Raffles Scout Group riding trishaw carrying Lord Rowallan, Chief Scout of Commonwealth, during a rally at St. Andrews School grounds. Covering Date: 01/11/1954.

It may be rude or impolite of me to ask this question "Tommy Koh Who" as the title for this blog.

Professor Tommy Koh Thong Bee is not an ordinary, not a nobody in Singapore.  For those who do not know him, please find out more from this humble blog.

This is an unsolicited blog feature about Prof Tommy Koh to share on this blog to share.  I have taken the liberty to blog here because I understand that not many young Singaporeans have heard about him.  His name was not mentioned in the lower or higher secondary school history text books and not the reasons for an excuse.

He did not need to have a fan club to be popular or well-known like celebrities of local TV stations.

He did not need my personal blog to write about him to be known.  The purpose of this blog to share what I have learnt about Prof Tommy Koh after reading his book "the Tommy Koh reader:  Favourite Essays and Lectures".

In his book, he wrote: " I wish to dedicate this book to the following men and women who have or had worked with me as my Personal Assistant."  [the name list is mentioned in the book].

I was curious to learn more about Prof Koh for Wikipedia and other Internet resources to probe me to research more on the blog.

He is an unique, extraordinary Singaporean to inspire everyone who get to know him  and learn about his contributions to Singapore in so many ways and at his present age, still healthy, active and sharing his thoughts and ideas for the country in various media channels.

Foreword by Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, President, National University of Singapore:

It is a great pleasure and honour to write this foreword for The Tommy Koh Reader, a collection of essays and lecture by one of our most esteemed members in the National University of Singapore (NUS) community, Professor Tommy Koh.

Professor Koh is a well-known figure in Singapore and internationally, having served for many decades as one of our foremost diplomats, and also for his many leading contributions to the development of the arts and culture scene of Singapore.  For NUS, he was one of our brightest law students at the inception of the Law Facultry, garnering first-class honours, before going on to complete post-graduate studies in Harvard and Cambridge.  He served with distinction as Dean of the Law Faculty from 1971 to 1974.  Education remains a powerful passion for Professor Koh, and we are grateful that he has continued his close association with his alma mater, offering his valuable insights and wisdom for new generations of students as Rector of Tembusu College.

Professor Koh has written that he would have happily served out his career as an academic and educator.  But fate would have it otherwise, and in 1968, he was asked to serve as our fledging nation's Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1968-1971, 1974-1984).  From that point on, he would go forward to establish an illustrious diplomatic career, serving in a succession of high offices, including Ambassador to the US (1984-1990), Special Envoy of the UN (1993), and presently, Ambassador-at-Large.

As a diplomat, he worked tirelessly in service of Singapore, from the crucial period when it had just become a newly independent nation.  His writings capture the temper of those years, with its challenges and triumphs, and in particular, he illuminates, as few can, the fortitude and courage of our post-independence leadership as they worked relentlessly to carve out the political and economic space for Singapore's survival and growth.

Though he often had to roam far from the shores of our island state, his heart was always firmly rooted in the soil of Singapore.  His indefatigable passion, talents and intellect were directed especially, to the fields of arts, culture and heritage preservation - topics which lie especially close to his heart.  A well-known patron and supporter of the arts, he was the founding Chairman of the National Arts Council (1991 to 1996), and subsequently, Chairman of the National Heritage Board (2002 to 2011).  Working through these institutions, and often through his personal initiatives, he has made immense contributions to promoting and expanding not only the range, but the quality of artistic and cultural opportunities and experiences available to all Singaporeans.

The essays, lectures and speeches in this collection are thus drawn from a life rich in experience and learning, and are grouped into broad categories:  Family, Career, Singapore, Diplomacy, the Law, Art, Culture and Heritage, and finally, Nature and the Environment.  These writings reflect Professor Koh's diverse interests and formidable intellect, and the topics he addresses range from weighty issues such as the rule of law and income disparity, to more lighthearted fare such as Singapore's unique hawker cuisine, botany and even, the naming of roads.  He has not hesitated to voice disagreement with prevailing policies or orthodoxies, but always offers his dissenting opinions in good faith, and in a manner intended to encourage greater engagement and understanding.  His exposition is clear, forthright and precise; but in his more personal reflections, it is easy to discern the effervescent good humour and warm-hearted humanity that has made him a widely admired public figure.

Taken together, this book is much more than a collection of written works and speeches that summarises Professor Koh's career and contributions.  We are offered a rare glimpse into the values and beliefs that he holds most dearly, and which have guided his actions and undertakings in his  long and distinguished career.  For instance, from his mother, he writes touchingly of inheriting her keen eye for aesthetics, good graces and zest for vivacious living; from his father, the importance of learning and the joy of reading, but also the need for grit and recovering from hard knocks; and from his formative school years, an acceptance and celebration of diversity and the many hues of our multi-racial society, and an equal intolerance towards ethnic and racial prejudice.

Professor Tommy Koh describes himself amongst these pages as having been "a happy warrior for peace".  It is a wonderfully apt phase, as all his efforts have indeed been directed towards the singular objective of creating a better quality of life for all in a safer world.  In pursuit of that objective, he has been unsparing and devoted, and the results have been both remarkable and transformative.  Yet, throughout his distinguished career, he has always retained a common touch, and an abididng interest and concern for his fellow citizens, particularly those in our society who are less fortunate, or who are more vulnerable.  He remains an engaged citizen, and a man of goodwill, modesty and warm generosity.

The world has changed greatly since Professor Koh started out as a young diplomat, but his life and experiences exemplify many crucial traits that have only gained in relevance: a steadfast adherence to principles; an acceptance of diversity and multi-cultural possibilities; a joyful sense of curiosity; and living a purposeful life that impacts positively on society.   We would all do well if we could emulate Professor Koh's example of being a tireless advocate for mutual respect, inclusive collaboration and shared advancement.

Although there are 94 pages of the photos in his book, I have selected some of the archived photos as "memory-aids" to share on the blog, with the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations Tommy Koh with his wife at the Singapore Airport.  Date: 13/07/1968.

Front row from right, Singapore Permanent Representative to the United Nations (UN) Professor Tommy Koh, Mrs Tommy Koh and others at the UN, New York  c 1975.

Singapore Ambassador to the United States Professor Tommy Koh, who is also the conference chairman, speaking at opening of international conference called Global Strategies: The Singapore Partnership.  Dated:  24/10/1988.

Guest of Honour, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew (right) and Ambassador-At-Large Professor Tommy Koh at a Forum on Europe-Asia Relation at Shangri-La Hotel.  Date: 20/02/1998.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew with moderator, Ambassador-At-Large Professor Tommy Koh, at Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum on the topic "What will the next 50 years have in store for Singapore?" at University Cultural Centre Hall, National University of Singapore (NUS), organised by NUS Students' Political Association. Dated: 19/10/2009 (below).

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong (right in red shirt) being presented with a book "The Asian Civilisations Museum A-Z Guide" by Chairman, National Heritage Board Prof Tommy Koh Thong Bee at Official Opening of Asian Civilisations Museum at Empress Place.  Date: 01/03/2003

Director of Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Professor Tommy Koh speaking at launch of IPS' publication 'A Defining Moment - How Singapore beat SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)' at Singapore History Museum.  Guest of Honour at the event was Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Date: 22/07/2004.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong and Professor Tommy Koh sharing a light moment during the Q & A session of the NUSS 60th Anniversary Lecture at the University Cultural Centre yesterday. Photo by Ooi Boon Keong. Date: 4/10/2014.  Courtesy of TODAY.

Singapore Prime Minister Mr. Lee Hsien Loong today addressed an audience of more than 1,500 ministers, mayors, senior government officials, global water industry leaders, heads of international organisations, leading researchers and practitioners at the inaugural Water Conversation at the Singapore International Water Week 2011.  Date:  5/07/2011.

Ambassador-at-large and Chairman designate of National Arts Council (NAC) Professor Tommy Koh speaking at opening of Singapore Art Fair '91, an event organised by Ministry of Information and the Arts (MITA) and sponsored by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) at World Trade Centre (WTC) Hall 2.  Date:  02/08/1991.

Opening of One-Two-Six Cairnhill Arts Centre at 126, Cairnhill Road - Close-up of Chairman of National Arts Council Professor Tommy Koh giving a speech.  Date:  24/04/1993.

Close-up view of Chairman of National Art Council Professor Tommy Koh speaking at Patron of the Arts Award Presentation Ceremony held at Raffles Hotel Ballroom on 07/11/1994.

Cultural Medallion and Young Artist Award (1993) Presentation Ceremony at Shangri-La Hotel - Close-up of National Arts Council Chairman Professor Tommy Koh making an address on

Ambassador-At-Large Professor Tommy Koh examining a five dollar bi-metallic United Nations (UN) fiftieth anniversary circulation coin at the opening ceremony of UN 50th Anniversary Exhibition at Bishan Junction Eight on 24/10/1995.

Chairman of National Arts Council (NAC) Professor Tommy Koh speaking at final session of Sing Singapore '94.  A Festival of Songs Competition, organised by NAC and Ministry of Information and the Arts, held at Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza in Orchard Road on 12/06/1994.

Launch of the "Tommy Koh Reader - Favourite Essays and Lectures" Book

I had the pleasure and opportunity to meet Professor Tommy Koh on 8/3/2014 at BooksActually book shop where he signed his autograph on the book and to pose a memorable photo with me for keepsake.  Thank you, Professor Tommy Koh for your kindness.

After reading his book, I have learnt his perseverance and experiences which what people see, and what people don't see of him.  So please don't ask "Tommy Koh Who" after reading this blog 😊