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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

[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.


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