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Jun 16, 2021

60th Anniversary of Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961

With courtesy of The Straits Times published on 24 May, 2021 to remind Singaporeans the Bukit Ho Swee for 60 years ago here .

 

The earlier Bukit Ho Swee fire happened when Singapore was then a British colony.  The decision of the People's Action Party government was very different from the British government's decisions.

 




After those earlier fire, the Bukit Ho Swee residents were allowed them to return to the kampong to build their own houses with wooden planks, attap or zinc roofs.



The Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961, the government of independent Singapore acquired the land to develop the fire sites to build infra-structure, build more schools, preschools, nurseries, clinics and hospitals, public transport, improve the country's economy for overseas investment ventures which create more jobs for Singaporeans.

There were  gardens, parks and playgrounds for children to play games.  Swimming pools and open spaces to fly kites.

After independence, the Singapore constitutions were exercised in Parliaments to introduce new ways for law and orders.

The fire victims have suffered through hardship to adapt to the changes in Singapore for the education of young generations to find better jobs and earn better pay for the improvements  of Singapore is worthwhile.  

The HDB resettlement department  changed and planned the new housing estates in Singapore.  These are known as precints to plan and develop.

Every housing estate develop the schools, clinics, sports stadiums for recreation, bus interchange and MRT station for public transport.

Looking back 60 years in Bukit Ho Swee and other kampongs in Singapore.

In the past, there was no laws for use of public land, there was illegal pirate taxis, illegal pedler hawkers in the streets, illegal parking for vehicles.

Over the decades, hawkers were licensed to ensure safety of food, licensed taxi drivers and jobs in buses and MRT, parking tickets by HDB and URA.

The citizens are better disciplined and importance of law orders.

Introduction of national service for 18 years-old citizens to prevent youngsters to join traid societies to become gangsters.  They are trained to learn useful jobs and they learn the importance of law and orders.

Community in every constituency and able-bodied Singapoeans to volunteer to help and protect the country to be safe and secure.

A letter to the editor of The Singapore Free Press on 6 June, 1961, the unnamed author wrote:  "We must not have another Bukit Ho Swee."

This is indeed a blessing for the Bukit Ho Swee fire victims for 60 years.

The nostalgic photos shared on this blog with thanks and courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.


With courtesy of Channel News Asia to share the documents of "Days of Disaster - Bukit Ho Swee fire here and Suria Channel Terbit 03 - Bukit Ho Swee and Tiong Bahru Area fires (in Malay with English Subtitles) here

Please watch these videos to learn more about the Bukit Ho Swee fire which happened in Singapore 60 years ago on 25 May 1961.

Mar 13, 2021

Zoom Teleconference Experience

 


With the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore, I am pleased and humbled to be invited to share my first person childhood memories of Bukit Ho Swee kampong.

Due to Covid19 safe distancing measures in Singapore to limit social gatherings with audience in crowded places, the Archives Invites event will be done digitally instead of physically.

The digital online event is with new "Zoom" teleconference technology on Internet.

I am thrilled to have the opportunity to learn this helpful experience.  Thanks to NAS.

Zoom Video Communications, Inc. is an American communications technology company headquartered in San Jose, California. It provides videotelephony and online chat services through a cloud-based peer-to-peer software platform and is used for teleconferencing, telecommuting, distance education, and social relations.

Founder: Eric Yuan

Founded: 21 April 2011

The Eventbrite registration page here . Eventbrite provide you with a customised experience.  Please share our collective childhood memories of Bukit Ho Swee kampong.

Advantages in Advancement of Communication Technology

Jul 18, 2020

Bukit Ho Swee: The Turning Point

Dr. Loh Kah Seng

The title of this blog "Bukit Ho Swee - The Turning Point" is the chapter based on Dr Loh Kah Seng's contribution to ICAS Publications Series.  The International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS) was founded in 1997.

The topic on this blog is excerpted from his article "The Politics of Fires in Post-1950s Singapore and the Making of the Modernist Nation-State.

Introduction

Present-day Singaporeans, four-fifth of whom reside in modern flats built by the Housing and Development Board (henceforth HDB) generally do not worry about losing their lives, homes or belongings to an unforeseen blaze.  However, while they do not fear fire, many older Singaporeans still remember the infernos of the past, and - what is significant in this closely managed state - often do so independently of the government's representation of the fires.  Admittedly, the official story of the biggest conflagration in Singapore's history, the 1961 Kampong Bukit Ho Swee inferno, which narrates how the  HDB successfully re-housed the fire victims in emergency flats built on the fire site - akin to a modern public housing estate rising literally from its ashes - is told in school textbooks, exhibition galleries and official public histories.  However, both elderly and younger Singaporeans also remember the fire in distinctly different ways in homes, coffeeshops, and online forums.  These opposing memories of the Bukit Ho Swee fire are symptomatic of the contested history of the kampong clearance and fires that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the ambivalence with which elderly Singaporeans have come to regard that past.

Across space and time, fires have had a profound social and political impact on state-society relations.  The outbreak of an inferno, which straddles that grey area between natural cause and human responsibility, is nonetheless merely a 'trigger' of longer-term social pressures, which are demographic, social, economic, and environmental in nature.  Fires are thus also political events in that they reveal how successfully the state dealt with a formidable fire hazard.   Conversely, blazes are indicative of a community's autonomy and dynamism, which enable ordinary people to build effective formal and informal social networks against the threat of conflagration.

Bukit Ho Swee:  The Turning Point

The Bukit Ho Swee fire of May 1961 was the biggest fire in Singapore's history, destroying 2,200 dwellings and rendering   
2,833 families (or 15,694 people) homeless.  However, it was the subsequent emergency re-housing which distinguished it historically from kampong blazes of the 1950s.  The PAP's response, unlike those of the British and Labour Front governments, was characterised by political resolve and speed.  On 30 May, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew promised that in nine months' time a sufficient number of units will be completed by the Housing and Development Board to house every fire victim family' (Straits Times 30 May 1961).

In a special Legislative Assembly session convened the following day, the PAP government passed a motion to acquire the site for rebuilding and amended the Land Acquisition Ordinance to enable the government to acquire sites at one-third of the value of the land.  The educated public similarly understood the importance of the re-housing operation in the creation of the new state.  The Nanyang Siang Pau urged that since the observance of law and regulations is the first lesson for the citizens', citizens will cultivate good civic habits and refrain from building unauthorised houses for their own convenience, thus marrimg the look of the city and showing the cause for future fires.'

By the time of the Bukit Ho Swee fire, the HDB, unlike the SIT, had also adopted a clear policy towards emergency housing.  Although the Board viewed the two-room flat as its minimum housing standard, it accepted the necessity of building at least 10,000 one-room flats, most of which served as emergency units, near the Central Area of Singapore as a short-term measure to house the low-income population living in inexpensive wooden and shop-house accomodations.  The Board's members recognised that the political consideration, were more pressing and that the Housing Board might have to sacrifice its ideas on what units should be constructed.  In November 1960, the PAP government had instructed the Board to continue the SIT's experiment with one-room emergency housing.  Within a week of the Bukit Ho Swee fire, a preliminary plan to redevelop the site had already been prepared, while the HDB made the rebuilding of Bukit Ho Swee its top priority.

In September 1961, the 904 one-room emergency flats at the Tiong Bahru cemetery site, partially - built at the time of the May fire, were completed.  More than 700 of the flats were allocated to the Bukit Ho Swee fire victims.  The first of the HDB's building phases on the Bukit Ho Swee fire site itself was only completed in November, 1962, 18 months after the fire, with two subsequent phases that were realised in early 1965.  By the end of 1963, of the 2,600 families registered with the HDB for re-housing, 2,166 families had been successfully accomodated.    That year, the Board proudly declared that the appearance of the Bukit Ho Swee Fire Site had been completely changed from one of the worst congested slums in Singapore into a healthy housing estate with modern community services and amenities'.   The HDB consequently could be very thankful to the SIT for having commenced construction on the cemetery site after the 1959 Tiong Bahru fire.  The Board partially acknowledged the strategic knocks-on effects of fire removing the urban kampongs.

Singapore has just experienced two of its worst fire in recent year, one in Kampong Tiong Bahru and the other in Bukit Ho Swee, and it is a rather ironic coincidence that the flats erected at the first fire were completed just in time to house the victims of the second fire.

Bukit Ho Swee Estate was a high-modernist housing estate, in which formerly semi-autonomous kampong dwellers were being moulded into disciplined citizens.  The development of public housing constituted, Lim Kim San, the first Cbairman of the HDB in 1964 proclaimed 'a minor revolution in the social and living habits of a sizeable portion of the population.'


Residents were instructed, among other things, not to keep livestock in their homes, obstruct the common corridors and stairways, illegally sublet the flat, or make unauthorised alterations to the flat.  Moreover, its social amenities sought to draw former kampong dwellers firmly into its official orbit.


The estate's community centre, completed in 1965, sought to transform the local youth into 'loyal and efficient people to collectively shoulder the responsibility in nation building'.  The hawkers and street sellers also fell under more official regulations.  In 1966, at the opening of a 2-storey street sellers centre on the estate, a government official enthused that hawkers would no longer block traffic or present health hazards and could now 'do their business in sheltered comfort',  while the residents could 'enjoy the many varieties of cooked food in clean, sanitary surroundings'.

Crucially, the Bukit Ho Swee flats served as  springboard for the government's kampong clearance operations and, subsequently, its urban renewal programme to clear the shop-house dwellings in the Central Area   Out of this social transformation of the urban margins, and thereafter by the urban core, thd HDB announced that 'a planned new city will be built'.

The key to urban renewal was to first resettle the families from the Central Area into flats built on the urban periphery.  As Teh Cheang Wan, the HDB's Chief Architect, later remarked, the Board's 'construction plans would have run into difficulties if not for the God-sent opportunity of the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961, where a site was made available for 10,000 housing!  Two-thirds of the people who eventually moved into the Bukit Ho Swee Estate were not victims of 1961 fire, however.  In September 1962, a number of two-and three-room flats in the estate were reserved for kampong families affected by the clearance of nearby Redhill for industrial and housing development.  In July 1963, another cluster of flats was allocated, in order of priority, to evicted families from the clearance areas; victim of the Bukit Ho Swee fire; victims of the Bukit Ban Kee fires;  and general applicants on the housing register.  After the 1963 Bukit Ban Kee blaze, the HDB temporarily rehoused 206 of the 230 fire vicims families in Bukit Ho Swee.  In October 1964, the Board made more vacant flats in the estate available to applicants evicted from nearby South Precinct I due to the urban renewal programme.  By 1970, there were more than 12,000 flats in the estate, having 45,066 tenants, an increase of 25,000 residents over figure from 1957.

The emergency flats, as a re-housing expedient, had accomplished their goal:  to shatter the vicious cycle of proliferating unauthorised wooden housing, the migration of low-income Chinese families into the urban periphery and the repeated outbreak of kampong infernos.  They also remained deeply unpopular with even the low-income families.  Numerous fire victims allocated one-room emergency flats in Bukit Ho Swee soon required bigger flats.

The HDB quickly realised that 'the general opinion of the public is that there is no marked improvement from moving out of a one-room cubicle in the slum area to a one-room Housing Board unit other than cleanliness.  In 1966, the government decided to build less one-room emergency units and to restrict them to areas further away from the Central Area.  By this time, modern HDB estates had steadily replaced the kampongs in Singapore.  By 1965, the Board had built 54,430 housing units, compared to only 500 wooden dwellings annually being built at that time in 1965.  In the new urban perphery within a five-mile radius of the Central Area stood more than 50,000 units of public housing, accomodating 430,000 people or 23% of the population, and rising.

The social and political margin, which the British colonial regime had sought to erase had been restored by the PAP government in the form of high-modernist public housing.  The result was a marked reduction in the autonomy of families, which hitherto had had the freedom to move and sublet, rent, build or rebuild their accomodations on their own terms.  The loss of this individual autonomy was the social price paid for citizenship, as the families were moved from spontaneous, unauthorised wooden housing  into public housing in the 1960s.  By becoming, first, tenants and subsequently, owners of HDB housing, these families were progressively transformed into citizens of the emergent nation-state.

Conclusion

Modern Singapore was born out of fire, and the kampong infernos that lit up this period of history hold an ambivalent place in contemporary society.  As historical events, the fires belong to the past but they also remain an integral part of present-day critique of the PAP government and the high-modernist pbilosophy of development which it has robustly implemented .  The uncertainty with which the citizenry regard both the government and the forms and consequences of the high modernity is indicative of the scale and economic transformation, which took place during the birth of modern Singapore.


Memories and experiences of a Bukit Ho Swee fire victim.

With thanks to Dr Loh Kah Seng for the knowledgeable and informative articles about the wide ranging aspects of the kampongs and fires in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s. I would like to share the related video clips here and here .

I was one of the fire victims of the Bukit Ho Swee fire on 25 May, 1961 and these are vivid memories and stories for me to learn in my life.

Mar 31, 2020

Memorium of Madam Kwa Geok Choo


MM LEE'S EULOGY TO HIS WIFE

By Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew
[Source:  Straits Times, 7 October 2010]

Ancient peoples developed and ritualised mourning practices to express the shared grief of family and friends, and together show not fear or distate of dealth, but respect for the dead ones; and to give comfort to the living who will miss the deceased.

I recall the ritual mourning when my maternal grandmother died some 75 years ago.  For five nights the family would gather to sing her praises and wail and mourn at her departure, led by a practised prosfessional mourner.  Such rituals are no longer observed.

My family's sorrow is to be expressed in personal tributes to the matriarch of our family.

In October 2003, when she (Mrs Lee Kuan Yew) had her first stroke, we had a strong intimation of our mortality.

My wife and I have been together since 1947 for more than three-quarters of our lives.  My grief at her passing cannot be expressed in words.  But today, when recounting our lives together, I would like to celebrate her life.

In our quiet moments, we would revisit our lives and times together.  We had been most fortunate.  At critical turning points in our lives, fortune favoured us.

As a young man with an interrupted education at Raffles College, and no steady job or profession, her parents did not look upon me as a desirable son-in-law.  But she had faith in me.  We had committed ourselves to each other.

I decided to leave for England in September 1946 to read law, leaving her to return to Raffles College to try to win one of the two Queen's Scholarships awarded yearly.  We knew that only one Singaporean would be awarded.

I had the resources, and sailed for England, and hoped that she would join me after winning the Queen's Scholarship.  If she did not win it, she would have to wait for me for three years.

In June the next year, 1947, she did win it.  But the British colonial office could not get her a place in Cambridge.

Through the Chief Clerk of Fitzwilliam, W.S. Thather, was a good friend of the Mistress of Girton, Mis Butler.  He game me a letter of introduction to the Mistress.

She received me and I assured her that Choo would most likely take a "First", because she was the better student when we both were at Raffles College.

I had come up late by one term to Cambridge, yet passed my first year qualifying examination with a Class 1.

She studied Choo's academic record and decided to admit her in October that same year, 1947.

We have kept each other company ever since.  We married privately in December 1947 at Stratford-upon-Avon.

At Cambridge, we both put in our best efforts.  She took a first in two years in Law Tripos II.  I took a double first, and a starrred first for the finals, but in three years.  We did not disappoint our tutors.

Our Cambridge firsts gave us a good start at life.

Returning to Singapore, we both were taken on as legal assistants in Laycock & Ong, a thriving law firm in Malacca Street.  Then we married officially a second time that September 1950 to please our parents and friends.  She practised conveyancing and draftsmanship, I did litigation.

In February 1952, our first son Hsien Loong was born.  She took maternity leave for a year.


That February, I was asked by John Laycock, the senior partner, to take up the case of the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union, the postmen's union.  They were negotiating with the government for better terms and conditions of service.  Negotiations were deadlocked and they decided to go on strike.  It was a battle for public support.

I was able to put across the reasonableness of their case through the press and radio.  After a fortnight, they won concessions from the government.

Choo, who was at home on maternity leave, pencilled through my draft statements, making them simple and clear.

Over the years, she influenced my writing style.  Now I write in short sentences, in the active voice.  We gradually influenced each other's ways and habits as we adjusted and accommodated each other.  We knew that we could not stay starry-eyed lovers all our lives; that life was an ongoing challenge with new problems to resolve and manage.

We had two more children, Wei Ling in 1955 and Hsien Yang in 1957.    She brought them up to be well-behaved, polite, considerate and never to throw their weight as the Prime Minister's children.  As a lawyer, she earned enought to free me from worries about the future of our children.

She saw the price I paid for not having mastered Mandarin when I was young.  We decided to send all three children to Chinese kindergarten and schools.

She made sure they learnt English and Malay well at home.  Her nuturing has equipped them for life in a multi-lingual region.

We never argued over the upbringing of our children, nor over financial matters.  Our earnings and assets were jointly held.  We were each other's confidant.

She had simple pleasures.  We would walk around the Istana gardens in the evening, and I hit golf balls to relax.

Later, when we had grandchildren, she would take them to feed the fish and the swans in the Istana ponds.  Then we would swim.

She was interested in her surroundings, for instance, that many bird varieties were pushed out by mynahs and crows eating up the insects and vegetation.  She discovered the curator of the gardens had cleared wild grasses and swing-fogged for mosquitoes, killing off insects they fed on.  She stopped this and the bird varieties returned.

She surrounded the swimming pool with free-flowering scented flowers and derived great pleasure smelling them as she swam.  She knew each flower by its popular and botanical names.  She had an enormous capacity for words.

She had majored in English literature at Raffles College and was a voracious reader, from Jane Austen to J.R.R. Tolkien, from Thucydides' History of The Peloponnesian Wars to Girgil's Aeneid, to The Oxford Companion To Food, and Seafood Of South-east Asia, to Roadside Trees Of Malaya, and Birds Of Singapore.

She helped me draft the Constitution of the P.A.P.  For the inaugural meetings at the Victoria Memorial Hall on Nov 4, 1954, she gathered the wives of the founder members to sew rosettes for those who were going on stage.

In my first election for Tanjong Pagar, our home in Oxley Road became the HQ to assign cars provided by my supporters to ferry voters to the polling booths.

She warned me that I could not trust my new-found associates, the left-wing trade unionists led by Lim Chin Siong.

She was furious that he never sent their high school student helpers to canvass for me in Tanjong Pagar, yet demanded the use of cars provided by my supporters to ferry my Tanjong Pagar voters.

She had an uncanny ability to read the character of a person.  She would sometimes warn me to be careful of certain persons; often, she turned out to be right.

When we were about to join Malaysia, she told me that we would not succeed because the UMNO Malay leaders had such different lifestyles and because their politics were communally based, on race and religion.

I replied that we had to make it work as there was no better choice.  But she was right.  We were asked to leave Malaysia before two years.

When separation was imminent, Eddie Barker, as Law Minister, drew up the draft legislation for the separation.  But he did not include an undertaking by the Federation Government to guarantee the observance of the two water agreements between the PUB and the Johor state government.  I asked Choo to include this.

The drafted the undertaking as part of the constitutional amendment of the Federation of Malaysia Constitution itself.  She was precise and meticulous in her choice of words.  The amendment statute was annexed to the Separation Agreement, which we then registered with the United Nations.

The then Commonwealth Secretary Arthur Bottomley said that if other federations were to separate, he hoped they would do it as professionally as Singapore and Malaysia.  It was a compliment to Eddie's and Choo's professional skills.

Each time Malaysian Malay leaders threatened to cut off our water supply, I was assured that this clear and solemn international undertaking by the Malaysian government in its Constitution will get us a ruling by the UNSC (United Nations Security Council).

After her first stroke, she lost her left field of vision.  This slowed down her reading.  She learnt to cope, reading with the help of a ruller.  She swam every evening and kept fit.

She continued to travel with me, and stayed active despite the stroke.  She stayed in touch with her family and old friends.  She listened to her collection of CDs, mostly classical, plus some golden oldies.  She jocularly divided her life into "before stroke" and "after stroke", like BC and AD.

She was friendly and considerate to all associated with her.  She would banter with her WSOs (woman security officers) and correct their English grammer and pronunctiation in a friendly and cheerful way.  Her former WSOs visited her when she was at NNI (National Neuroscience Institute).  I thank them all.

Her second stroke on May 12, 2008 was more disabling.  I encouraged and cheered her on, helped by a magnificient team of doctors, surgeons, therapists and nurses.

Her nurses, WSOs and maids all grew fond of her because she was warm and considerate.  When she coughed, she would take her small pillow to cover her mouth because she worried for them and did not want to infect them.

Her mind remained clear but her voice became weaker.  When I kissed her cheek, she told me not to come too close to her in case I caught her pneumonia.  I assured her that the doctors did not think that was likely because I was active.

When given some peaches in hospital, she asked the maid to take one home for me for my lunch.  I was at the centre of her life.

On June 24, 2008, a CT scan revealed another bleed again on the right of her brain.  There was not much more that medicine or surgery could do except to keep her comfortable.

I brought her home on July 3, 2008.  The doctors expected her to last a few weeks.  She lived till Oct 2, two years and three months.  She remained lucid.  They gave time for me and my children to come to terms with the inevitable.

In the final few months, her faculties declined.  She could not speak but her cognition remained.  She looked forward to have me talk to her every evening.

Her last wish she shared with me was to enjoin our children to have our ashes placed together, as we were in life.

The last two years of her life were the most difficult.  She was bedridden after small successive strokes; she could not speak but she was still cognisant.  Every night she would wait for me to sit by her to tell her of my day's activities and to read her favourite poems.  The she would sleep.

I have precious memories of our 63 years together.  Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life.  She devoted herself to me and our children.  She was always there when I needed her.  She has live a life full of warmth and meaning.

I should find solcace in her 89 years of life well lived.  But at this moment of the final parting, my heart is heavy with sorrow and grief.

DOCTORS:

National Neuroscience Institute
Lee Kim En (Neurology)
Ivan Ng (Neurosurgery)
Francis Hui (Neuroradiology)

Tan Tock Seng Hospital
Suresh Sahadevan (General Medicine), Chin Jing Jih (Geriatric Medicine), Karen Chua (Rehabilitation Medicine), Kwek Tong Kiat (Anasthesia), Thomas Lew (Anaesthesia)

Singapore General Hospital
Fong Kok Yong (Rheumatology),
A. Balakrishnan (ENT)

National Dental Centre
Yuen Kwong Wing (Senior Consultant), Marianne Ong (Consultant)

NURSES:

NNI:  Tan Li Fan
TTSH:  Wong Mui Peng, Ranbhir Kaur, Lily Ng, Tina Tng, Ten Siew Hwa, Heng Mui Chu, Lily Toh
SGH:  Elaine Yek, Eileen Robert Jacob, Li Ying Jacqueline Teo
Khoo Teck Puat Hospital:
Liu Xiao Yan

THERAPISTS:
Physiotherapy:  Susan Niam, Seah Wei Wei
Occupational therapy:  Chan Mei Leng, David Zhang
Speech therapy:  Leiw Li Pyn, Sharon Wu

MASSEURS:
Heng Li Hoong, Lynne Teo

The archived photos with courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore and the National Library Board.









One Last Goodbye
Amid the grief and sadness, a celebration of an extraordinary life

By Chua Mui Hoong
Deputy Review Editor
[ Source:  Straits Times, 7 October 2010)

In the end, there was just a man who loved his wife till the end.

He walked to her casket and placed a single stalk of red rose, green leaves still on its stem, on her body.

He raised his 87-year-old body and walked half a step towards the head of the casket, supporting himself on the frame.

Then, he bent towards her and reached for her face with his right hand.  He brought his hand back to his lips and planted a kiss on her forehead.

As though he could not bear to part, he did that again.  And then he walked away, composed and un-aided.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew gave his wife two final kisses as she lay peaceful in her casket at the Mandai Crematorium.  Madam Kwa Geok Choo - his beloved Choo - had died on Saturday, aged 89, after being bedridden for over two years as a result of a series of strokes.

His kiss was a private gesture of love, but will linger in the memories of those who witnessed it, as a public affirmation of the abiding love they shared.

Earlier, in his eulogy, he spoke of their years together, as starry-eyed lovers at Raffles College and Cambridge University.  He spoke too of her support as he fought for independence, and through his many years as prime minister as he and his colleagues built a new nation.

He spoke of their public life together, reminding his audience of her role in helping to draft legal documents at pivotal moments in Singapore's history, and of her role as his confidente and adviser.

Of his private feelings at losing his wife, he would only say he would have been a different man without her, with a completely different life, adding at the end, with his head bowed:  "I should find solace in her 89 years of her life well lived.  But at this moment of the final parting, my heart is heavy with sorrow and grief."

After lying at Sri Temasek for two days, Mrs Lee's casket was borne on a gun carriage to the Mandai Crematorium.  Hundreds gathered outside the Istana gates to send her off.

Her casket travelled down roads bordering the Central Catchment and nature reserve areas, down Thomson Road past MacRitchie Reservoir where she went courting with her then-fiance more than 60 years ago, past the Lower Pierce Reservoir, down leafy Upper Thomson Road lined with the beautiful albizia, to her final stop at Mandai, a route apt for one who love botany and enjoyed watching birds in the Istana grounds.

Thousands of Singaporeans and foreign dignitaries had gone to Sri Temasek, the official residence of the Prime Minisster, to pay their respects over the last two days.  The crowd included a stenographer she had encouraged to become a lawyer, and a butler's son she had encouraged to become a policeman.  Others came to pay their respects to a woman they had never met, but whom they admired for her faithful support of her husband and for her quiet grace in public.

But yesterday's funeral service at the Mandai Crematorium Hall 1 was private, a family affair with about 300 guests - colleagues, friends and relatives, as well as representatives from the PAP and grassroots organisations, and the doctors, nurses and others who cared for Mrs Lee over the years.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong spoke not as Prime Minister but as the grieving son, clad in mourning garb of plain white T-shirt and black trousers, addressing the Minister Mentor as Papa for the first time in public.

After two days of standing for hours by his mother's casket to receive well-wishers, there were shadows under his eyes.  However, his face lit up when he spoke of her hand-knitted sweaters, and his voice swelled with grief when he recalled how she had taken care of his two older children when their mother died.

On behalf of the family, he said:  "Over these last few days, I, and my family, have been deeply touched by the outpouring of condolences and fond recollection of people from all walks of life.  We stood receiving the visitors, all moved that so many had come."

She was a doting Mama, so attuned to her children's needs, she seemed to know just when daughter Wei Ling needed a toothbrush, or when youngest child Hsien Yang needed medical attention.

The family's eulogies gave glimpses into life in the fiercely private Lee family.  One highlight was Sunday lunches at Oxley Road with three, or even four generations - with the grandchildren tending "to eat far too fast and play too loudly", as grandson Shengwu put it.

Granddaughter Xiuqi, in a fond tribute, celebrated the zest for life her beloved Nai Nai (Chinese for granny) had, relating how she, in her last years, developed a fondness for dessert and ribbons.  As Mrs Lee grew frail and her husband became more attentive to her every need, she "acquired the flow of a girl who knew she was adored".

What Mr Lee, a traditional Chinese gentleman in his restraint and composure had declined to reveal, his children and grandchildren chose to say for him, describing how he learnt to care for his wife after she became frail.

As Hsien Yang said, looking teary-eyed:  "He adjusted his routine to accomodate her changing circumstances and physical condition.  His abiding love, devotion and care must have been a great comfort to her, and an inspiration to Fern and me on how to manage a lifelong partnership, through good health and illness."

His wife Suet Fern, and PM Lee's wife Ho Ching, were present by their husbands' sides throughout the wake and funeral.

Historians will accord Mrs Lee Kuan Yew an illustrious place in Singapore history, for her pioneering legal career, her quiet contributions to constitutional draftsmanship and as the wife of Singapore's founding Prime Minister.

But in her final journey yesterday, she returned to the roles she most valued - that of wife, mother and grandmother.  And listening to her family members' moving tributes, there is no doubt that she loved them all, and was much loved in return.

In the end, there was just a woman who stood by her husband over a lifetime and cared for her children and grandchildren.  That woman was Madam Kwa Geok Choo.


A tribute in cartoons

By Akshita Nanda
[ Source:  Straits Times, 9 September 2011]

Madam Kwa Geok Choo, Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wife, now has a book of sketches in memory of her.

Wife of Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew and mother of the current Prime Minister, the late Madam Kwa Geok Choo was often captured on camera - and now, in cartoons.

A new book by well-known artist Morgan Chua, in Memory of Madam Kwa Geok Choo (1920-2010), sets out her life story in a series of affectionate, light-hearted sketches.  She died in October last year at the age of 89.

The drawings, many inspired by photographs in the National Library Board archives, emphasise her achievements as a lawyer, breadwinner and home-maker, as well as her public persona as Mrs Lee Kuan Yew.

The 72-page self-published volume begins with a note from former president S R Nathan.  He writes:  "I hope that it would stir interest among younger Singaporeans to get to know this remarkable lady better."

Historian Kwa Chong Guan, who is Madam Kwa's nephew and in his mid-60s, says:  "I think the book is a nice balance between historical accuracy and artistic creativity."

The head of external programmes at the S. Rajaratna,m School of International Studies lent cartoonist Chua family photos for reference.

The author, Singapore-born Chua, 61, was the editorial cartoonist for the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong for 25 years until 1997.  His work also appeared in the Singapore Herald in 1970; a best-selling illustrated history of Singapore, My Singapore (2000, Raffles Publishers); and Chronicle Of Singapore (2009), in which Editions Didier Millet condensed 50 years of newspaper history.


Artist Morgan Chua

Chua never met Madam Kwa but last November, a month after she died, he says he felt driven to begin researching her life.  "Everyone was talking about her, but I felt they just echoed what Mr Lee Kuan Yew had written in his books.  Nobody went beyond what he said."

Though based in Tanjoung Pinang on Bintan island with his wife and one-year-old daughter, Chua began spending up to five days a week in Singapore, reading microfilms and old school magazines in the National Library Board collection.  He unearthed interest photos, such as one of Madam Kwa riding an MRT train in the 1980s, when the train lines opened for use. 

"She played a part in the history of Singapore and she deserves a place in the history of Singapore and she deserves a place in the history books," he says.

In his sketches, he adds his own signature twist to well-recorded events, such as the 1940s courtship of Mr Lee and Madam Kwa in Singapore and England.  Drawings based on photos of the couple together in a park, for example, include curious animals in the background.

Chua also mingles facts about Madam Kwa's family, career, hobbies and pets with snippets of Singapore history.  A page about her days at Methodist Girls' School also summarises that institution's origins.

When done with the draft in June, he enlisted friends such as heritage buff and National University of Singaproe's law professor Kevin Tan as fact checkers.

Dr Tan, 50, who just retired as president of the Singapore Heritage Society, says he was impressed by Chua's determination to get the facts right - and also the detailed, tongue-in-cheek drawings.

"I've always thought, 'This guy has something special'," says the self-confessed fan who devoured Chua's work for years in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

"There have been all these sombre tribute to Madam Kwa Geok Choo but this is a lighter touch.  I think he did a fantastic job."

My personal acquaintance with Morgan Chua

The first time I met Morgan Chua at the photostating room at Lee Kong Chien Reference Library at Level 11 of the National Library Building, Victoria Street many years ago.   I did not know he is the famous and popular artist of Singapore and he is a friendly and modest guy.  It is my pleasure and honor to know him in person.

Many years ago, we often meet at the library when both of us were doing our research at the reference library, a "goldmine" for published resources and material.

We were at the library for many hours and once when we were hungry for dinner time, we decided to have chicken nasi bryani at an Indian stall at the coffee shop opposite the library.

I have lost contact with him for many years now, long before he published the book on Madam Kwa Geok Choo.

A few selected drawings from the book are shared on this blog, with thanks to Morgan and hope more readers would like them and learn from an interesting book.






Mar 18, 2020

Making Memories Count

Emotional connections:  A photograph of Mr Gene Tan, director of the Singapore Memory Project, with his mother and three older siblings growing up in a one-room flat in Circuit Road.

By Jennani Durai









The Singapore Memory Project shifts its focus to quality instead of quantity of memories.

I started with big dreams of collecting five million memories before Singapore's 50th birthday, but the Singapore Memory Project now wants quality, over quantity.

Mr Gene Tan, director of the Singapore Memory Project, says the project is "beyond numbers now".  "We feel that Singaporeans can feel something for the project and people are responding more to the emotions behind the memories," he says.  "So we are moving towards memories that are able to connect with other people."

He elaborates:  "Once, we put up a picture of a Singer sewing machine on our Facebook page, and the memories came flooding in.  People talked about how they got their clothes sewn by their mother or grandmother.  That sparked off more memories of the people they love.  The most powerful memories people connect to have to do with relationships."

Heritage experts here say the project's change in focus is for the better.

Dr Chua Ai Lin, historian and vice-president of the Singapore Heritage Society, agrees with the move, saying that the richness of the contributions is more important than the number.  She says:  "People could submit just one line, and it might not even be meaningful.  The things that will speak to people who look at these contributions are rich descriptions that evoke textures and memories of the past, that create emotional connections."

Similarly, Dr Hui Yew-Foong of the Institute of South-east Asian Studies says memories can revolve around just recollections of everyday life.  He says:  "Memories are important not because we have many of them, but because some of them are meaningful to us and define who we are."

The project, initiated by the National Library Board in 2010, was envisioned to hit its target of five million memories by 2015.  However, in the last three years, it has garnered over 800,000 contributions - a far cry from its original lofty aim.

But Mr Tan adds that the shift away from numbers does not mean they are no longer important.  "For any project, 800,000 members are sufficient to build a story.  Now we must try to figure out whether there are any areas of the Singapore experience which we may not have memories yet," he says.

Anyone can submit memories through the project's online portal (www.singaporememory.sg), or through its various roadshows at libraries, community centres and housing estates.  There are also more than 180  volunteers in the Memory Corps, says Mr Tan, who help collect and document the contributions at the project's outreach events.

Writer Justin Zhuang, 29, who contributed an e-book on retro playgrounds to the project, feels strongly that the project's success should not be discounted.  "Although the Singapore Memory Project may look like it's lacking in numbers at the moment, I think it has created an awareness of the values of our past and a platform for people to explore historeis," he says.

He adds that the project is important in that it "signals the state's recognition that every Singaporean is part of its history, not just great men or women".

Mr Alvin Tan, director of the National Heritage Board, says the project could consider highlighting particularly evocative memories that have been submitted and leveraging on them to generate more memories.

Historian Dr Chua adds that collecting any oral history can take a lot of effort.  "It takes a long time for people to warm up and share in the vivid way that the project is looking for.  You may have to meet someone four or five times before they really begin to talk," she says.

She adds:  "It may not be as straightforward as just telling people to come forward and share."

Civil servant Jacky Tan submitted this photograph of his late father selling kueh tu tu from a tricycle stall in Chinatown in the 1970s.

Human resources coordinator Petrina Edema submitted this 1975 shot of her with her mother and brother outside the National Theatre after a visit to the Van Kleef Aquarium.

[PHOTO COURTESY OF GENE TAN, JACKY TAN & PETRINA EDEMA]

One S'pore, many pasts?

As the nation turns 50, does its history matters to Singaporeans?
The debate continued in the post-live show segment of Thursday's VoicesTODAY

[Source:  TODAY, 22 February 2014]

Gary Gan:  History must be taken in context.  If it is being used to educate and help people shape their decisions that would dictate their future, then it is an important tool and we can learn from the lessons the pioneer generation taught us in building this nation.

If history is used as a crutch because we want to hark back to the good old days and do not want to let go, then it is difficult for Singapore to progress.

We hear (talk) that buses were not so crowded, there were not so many foreigners, cars were cheaper and roads were less busy ... People should ralise this is progress.

Chua Ai Lin:  There aree different aspects of history and Gary is referring to the sense of nostalgia.  Earlier, another caller talked about the past being something traumatic.
As an academic, I see history as being about learning information.  So, there are different ways to thinak about the past and, as Gary said, they have different outcomes.

Philip Chew:  Everybody has a story to tell.  In my case, it happens to be Chew Joo Chiat and I want his descendents to know his humble beginnings.  He kept such a low profile that hardly anybody knows he was one of Singapore's pioneers.

Gene Tan:  The collective sentiment that comes from all these stories is instructive, I think the past is, currently and shockingly, slowing us down in a good way.  We look back at things we used to love and the kampung spirit is cited often.

While we cannot get it back, that talk of inclusivenes and pulling people together has made us now more conscious about those whom we need to pay attention to and include.  So the past can slow us down in powerful ways.

Gary:  I agree.  An image comes to mind:  Looking at pictures in the past of how Mr Lee Kuan Yew sat with his Cabinet colleagues - Malay, Indian and Chinese - and would sup together.  That was the norm.  Nowadays, people have their groups and are going in different directions.  Gene mentioned the kampung spirit so, maybe, such things will help us take a sstep back to say that society should still be "like this" in the 21st century.

HISTORY AND IDENTITY

Gene:  I feel that people are averse to reducing the Singapore identity or spirit to only a few words or pictures.  If we can make the Singapore identity a little messier, a little more complex, with something that represents all the minutiae that comes with feeling Singaporean, that would sound more authentic.

Ai Lin:  Maybe the mould we have been given so far does not reflect the messiness Gene is talking about and not everybody can find their reflection in that simplified identity.  So, it is about finding ways to connect and, maybe, we need more ways in which people can connect to a sense of self.

Amos Lee:  If there is one way history has helped us, it is to show us the aspects we can incorporate into our identity.  But we are still debating what makes a Singaporean ... For the young, history ties in with our culture and tradition, especially when it comes to food.

Gene:  It should be mandatory to have many versions of what the past was like and I hope we have many versions of the present, so the future can continue to debate the Singaporean identity.

TO TEACH HISTORY ...

Gary:  I would hazard a suggestion that, if Singapore history was an examinable subject, people would take keener interest.  That may seem cynical but, if we want to drum it into our youngsters, maybe a bit of force is required, rather than to let them think about it casually.

Ai Lin:  (Learning about history) should be about experiencing the past beyond textbooks and we are getting better at it.  Instead of making it compulsory through the exam route, which turns people off, I am more interested in getting them to see it in a fun way; to connect with it.  I think the landscape is powerful.  For example, to me, Byjut Brown is a story of people who were not terribly interested in history before, but have been so taken by the place that they have educated themselves about various aspects of Singapore history.

*  Gene Tan is Director of the Singapore Memory Project.
*  Chua Ai Lin is President of the Singapore Heritage Society
*  Philip Chew blogs about his great-grandfather Chew Joo Chiat and other memories
*  Amos Lee is a social science student
*  Gary Gan was a caller on the show





In search of Singapore's past

Young Singaporeans are responding to the rapid pace of change by documenting lost places and memories

By Jennani Durai[Source:  Straits Times - 2nd Edition, 14 April 2013

Nostalgia has surged of late in Singapore, if the recent proliferation of heritage projects, stores and eateries harking back to bygone days is anything to go by.

Against a backdrop of the very prominent closure of longstanding landmarks such as the Bukit Brown cemetery and the Tanjong Pagar Railway station, as well as aggressive documentation efforts by the National Heritage Board, a groundswell of nostalgic feelings from Singaporeans has arisen.

Books, films, apps and photo exhibitions documenting the past and chronicling changes in Singapore have flourished.  Film-maker Royston Tan, for example, has released Old Places (2010) and Old Romances (2012), two documentaries recording the sights and recollections of an older time.  Heritage blogger Lam Chun See last year compiled several entries from his blog Good Morning Yesterday into a book of the same title.

Meanwhile, stores that evoke the past with ther merchandise and decor, such as childhood memorabilia store The Damn Good Shop in Maxwell Road and eatery Old School Delights in Upper Thomson Road, have also popped up and proved popular.

Experts suggest the recent surge in interest may be a reflection of the stage Singapore is in as a society, immediately following a phase of accelerated growth and change.

Mr Alvin Tan, 40, director of the National Heritage Board, says:  "Perhaps we have reached a stage of maturity in our national development where we start to feel nostalgic for aspects of our heritage that were eroded or lost during the recent decades."

The recent groundswell of interest in Singapore's heritage could be "attributed to our need for visible and tangible markers, such as landmarks, as well as shared memories and experiences to anchor ourselves in times of change as we attempt to define what makes us Singaporeans", he adds.

Historian Chua Ai Lin agrees, saying that the phenomenon is "a response to the pace of change".

"Much like elderly people who don't want to leave the house anymore because they don't recognise things around them, when things are changing too fast, we want to hang on to a few things we feel comfortable with - and that's what this surge of nostalgia is about," says Dr Chua, who is in her 30s and is vice-president of the Singapore Heritage Society.

Dr Hui Yew-Foong of the Institute of South-east Asian Studies believes that the recent surge in interest in heritage can be largely atributed to two things.

"Demographically, a generation of Singaporeans who have grown up with Singapore have reached an age where they are more likely to reminisce about the past and feel more keenly the changes that Singapore has undergone," says the academic, who conducts research on cemeteries and Chinese culturazl heritage in Singapore.

He and his team are documenting about 5,000 graves at Bukit Brown Cemetery where a road is slated to cut through.

At the same time, the growth of social media platforms has also allowed a discourse of nostalgia to develop further, he adds.

Dr Chua agrees and adds that the emergence of nostalgia blogs and Facebook groups, and more seniors learning how to share pictures and stories over the Internet, have meant that "people inspire one another to share their memories".

"When people see something they recognise from the past online, they think 'I remember that too!" or 'I have a similar photo!'," she says.  "This platform for interaction is very, very important.  When people share this publicly, they provide an information resource for everyone who didn't live through it."
The proliferation of heritage projects now may also be fuelled by a sense of regret at not having appreciated things that are no longer around, says naval architect and heritage photographer  Jerome Lim, 48.

Mr Lim, who was approached by the National Heritage Board to showcase his photographs of the old Tanjong Pagar Railway Station before it closed, and who recently launched a series of photographs on Singapore's five-foot-ways, says he began documenting old places as he regrets "not having captured all the things that have changed".

"I was struck by a sense that a lot of plaes in my memories have vanished," he says.  "So now, I feel an urgency to capture these remaining places."

Cafe owner Olivia Teo, 39, who opened eatery Old School Delights with her brother three years ago, says she has been stunned by the overwhelming reaction from customers to the "old school" interior and details in her cafe.

We certainly didn't expect customers to get so excited about the five stones, erasers and old card games such as Happy Family, Donkey and Old Maid in our toy boxes which we place at every table in our eater," she says.

Such nostalgic memorabilia triggers a universal reaction in customers, she adds.

"I never fail to be amazed by the responses and comments we get on our Facebook page whenever we post nostalgic pictures, from an old-fashioned Toyota cab to old school toys, to our heritage buildings such as the Van Cleef Aquarium or the National Theatre," she says.  "This just shows how much people reminisce about the past and get sentimental about it."

Dr Hui, 40, says the recent surge in nostalgia "bodes well for Singapore", a nation which turns 48 this year.

"As we approach 50 in a couple of years, it is important to ask and know who we are," he says.  "This national soul-searching will strengthen us as a people and help us to stand on the global stage not only as an economic entity, but also as a cultural entity."