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Apr 27, 2019

A village goes up in smoke

With the courtesy of to share an aged newspaper article in The Straits Times published on 14 January 2014.

In the second of a series about events that shock Singapore, Debra Ann Francisco looks at the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire which left four people dead and 15,000 homeless.

Debra Ann Francisco

May 15, 1961

The area of Bukit Ho Swee included the area bound by Kampong Tiong Bahru (known as Jalan Bukit Ho Swee today), Delta Road and Havelock Road.

The fire of Bukit Ho Swee was the biggest fire in the history of Singapore since World War II.

Also known as the Hari Raya Haji fire, the initial flames reportedly broke out at about 3.30pm among some squatter huts.

Strong winds quickly spread the fire across Tiong Bahru Road.  The flames were described by eyewitnesses as terrifying and fast-moving.  The flimsy attap and wooden huts were easily set ablaze and soon, even the five blocks of flats and shophouses close by were consumed by the fire.

Smoke filled the wooden homes, squatter huts and shops.  Kampung residents worked together, using hoses, buckets and any container that could hold water to douse the flames but, before long, they had to evacuate the area.

The residents tried to salvage whatever they could physically carry as they frantically evacuated the area.

The scene was one of utter chaos as screaming children and weeping women searched for their family members.

Workers returning home at 4.30pm were met by horrific clouds of smoke.  Stunned, they tried to find their loved ones in the fleeing horde.

Twenty-two fire engines raced to the scene to fight the flames.  Even the troops from the British Army and the Singapore Military Forces came to help the firefighters contain the blaze at Delta Circus.


The blaze across the 150-acre site left four people dead, more than 45 injured and 15,000 homeless.

Two oil mills, three timber yards and three motor workshops were among the countless businesses destroyed.

The flames were finally extinguished more than seven hours later.

Many people returned to the area in the next few days to discover that their homes were completely razed to the ground and precious belongings reduced to cinders and ash.


The public and the Government acted swiftly and provided relief to the victims of the fire.  Donations in cash and kind poured into the relief centres that the homeless were housed at.  These relief centres included four schools in the Kim Seng area.

By February 1962, 12,000 low-cost flats were constructed for the victims on the very same piece of land ravaged by the Bukit Ho Swee fire.

The fire prompted a shift of people into public housing built by the Housing Board.

Sources: ST, NLB Infopedia

Bukit Ho Swee fire victims queuing for breakfast at the Kim Seng relief centre.

Survivors putting up at the Kim Seng (West) School.

A massive salvage operation being conducted at the 150-acre Bukit Ho Swee fire site.  Under strict police and army supervision, groups of people were allowed into the ravaged area to dig for their belongings.



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