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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.


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.


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.


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