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Squatters into Citizens

The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore

Loh Kah Seng

Publication Year: 2013

The crowded, bustling "squatter" kampongs so familiar across Southeast Asia have long since disappeared from Singapore, leaving few visible traces of their historical influence on life in the city-state. In one such settlement, located in an area known as Bukit Ho Swee, a great fire in 1961 destroyed the kampong and left 16,000 people homeless, creating a national emergency that led to the first big public housing project of the new Housing and Development Board (HDB). HDB flats now house more than four-fifths of the Singapore population, making the aftermath of the Bukit Ho Swee fire a seminal event in modern Singapore. Loh Kah Seng grew up in one-room rental flats in the HDB estate built after the fire. Drawing on oral history interviews, official records and media reports, he describes daily life in squatter communities and how people coped with the hazard posed by fires. His examination of the catastrophic events of 25 May 1961 and the steps taken by the new government of the People's Action Party in response to the disaster show the immediate consequences of the fire and how relocation to public housing changed people's lives. Through a narrative that is both vivid and subtle, the book explores the nature of memory and probes beneath the hard surfaces of modern Singapore to understand the everyday life of the people who live in the city.

Published by: NUS Press Pte Ltd

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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 1-6

Since 1979 the Southeast asia Publications Series (SeaPS) has brought some of the best of australian scholarship on Southeast asia to an international readership. it seeks to publish leading-edge research by both young and established scholars on the countries and peoples of Southeast asia across all disciplines of the humanities and social sciences with particular encouragement to interdisciplinary ...


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pp. vii-ix

List of Maps

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pp. xi-12

List of Illustrations

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pp. xiii-xv

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xvii-xviii

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pp. xix-xx

Numerous individuals and institutions have made this book possible. Jim Warren, the supervisor of my doctoral research on which it is based, has been a mentor and friend, helping me to consider what it means to be an academic and public intellectual. I am also thankful to the staff of the Asia Research Centre...

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pp. xxi-xxvii

At around 3 p.m. on 25 May 1961 a small fire broke out in Bukit 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 ...

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Chapter 1: Fire: A Catalyst for Modern Singapore

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pp. 1-25

...fire were rehoused in modern housing has become a formative episode in the state-sanctioned historical narrative of Singapore, commonly known as the ?Singapore Story?. According to Singapore?s Housing The fire disaster was a blessing in disguise for all the occupants there. It is a far too familiar picture of an inert community who ...

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Chapter 2: Hopeful Migrants in the Urban Kampongs

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pp. 26-46

In the 1950s, a new urban landscape materialised in Singapore. At the margins of the city stood a discontinuous belt of over 50 urban kampongs, fanning out of the southern apex of the island along the main radial roads. In 1961 they were home to about 250,000 people, who formed part of the urban population of 1 million. Housing in ...

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Chapter 3: A "Black Area"

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pp. 47-72

In the 1950s, Kampong Bukit Ho Swee stood in a growing precinct of wooden housing at the western end of the Singapore River, two miles from the Central Area. It was dwarfed by a larger kampong, Si Kah Teng, across Tiong Bahru Road, while two other roads bor-Town. Cutting through Bukit Ho Swee were two small interior roads, ...

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Chapter 4: "A Roar from the Oppressed People"

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pp. 73-97

...?Bukit Ho Swee was not on our radar screen? when the Housing and Development Board commenced its public housing project in 1960, said a Board architect in 2006.1 This statement belies the efforts of three colonial agencies to regulate unauthorised wooden housing west which in 1951 became the city council, was responsible for approving ...

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Chapter 5: Experiments with Emergency Housing

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pp. 98-126

In the 1950s, the threat of clearance was matched by another severe hazard confronting urban kampongs. Fire gradually transformed the character of the urban margin by replacing burnt-out wooden settle-ments with planned housing estates. The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee inferno followed a series of massive blazes within the city, each equalled or ...

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Chapter 6: The Inferno

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pp. 127-153

Theatre, atop Tiong Bahru Hill ? began to smoulder. A heat wave had recently descended upon Singapore, raising temperatures to 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) and scorching the attap roofs of wooden houses to tinder-dry.1 The day was cloudy, anticipating material and searing heat and created strong gusts of wind that drove ...

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Chapter 7: State of Emergency

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pp. 154-181

Declaring a national state of emergency, the People?s Action Party Swee community. The rehabilitation of fire victims commenced on housing estate that transformed a burned-out area of ?Old Singapore? and spearheaded the making of a modern nation-state. The crucial initial stage of this relief operation spanned the provision of shelter ...

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Chapter 8: Nine Months

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pp. 182-211

Upon the site of the former kampong, there was feverish building activity very soon after the unprecedented fire. Bukit Ho Swee Estate was the first big housing project in the People?s Action Party govern-ment?s campaign to transform the semi-autonomous ?black areas? of Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew?s promise to build flats for the fire victims ...

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Chapter 9: Bukit Ho Swee Estate

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pp. 212-242

Despite its modern fa?ade and officially sanctioned ways of life, Bukit Ho Swee Estate maintained a tenacious hold on its past. As Gerard Ee, a social worker in the estate since 1982, observed, ?You can pong out of the guy.? 1 This statement is a good starting point for examining the long-term social impact of the 1961 inferno and the ...

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Chapter 10: Memory, Myth and Identity

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pp. 243-261

In 2006 Ng Hoot Seng, a Chinese cobbler in his seventies working in the Tanjong Katong area, had on the sides of his shoe rack histo-rical photographs of Singapore, including an image of men hauling along to watch the spectacle that day, recalled that the blaze was impossible to fight because the wooden houses were too closely built ...

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Conclusion: Fire, Emergency and High Modernism

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pp. 262-275

In 2010, the mobile exhibition ?Storeys of Our Homes?, organised ment in housing Singaporeans, the exhibition is said to have evoked residents in what was once rural Singapore. Its tour of these outlying margin reached its historical conclusion. Not surprisingly, the Bukit Ho Swee fire was one of the exhibition?s main episodes in its grand ...


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pp. 276-280


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pp. 281-302

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About the Author

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pp. 303-331

Loh Kah Seng is an Assistant Professor at the Institute for East Asian Studies at Sogang University. He works on little-studied subjects in the social and political history of Southeast Asia. His present research investigates the transnational and social dimensions of the making of modern Southeast Asia after World War II. Loh is the author of ...


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pp. 304-315

E-ISBN-13: 9789971697952
Print-ISBN-13: 9789971696450

Page Count: 344
Illustrations: 4 maps, 60 images
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: New