Fire: A Catalyst for Modern Singapore

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The title of this blog is reproduced from Chapter 1 of the book “Squatters into Citizens” – The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore – by Loh Kah Seng.

The related blog is available here .

Excerpts are made from this book to share my personal related topics from my interview with the author.   After his interview with me on 21 Oct 2006, the book was published in 2013, seven years later.

He dedicated the book to his parents and other kampong dwellers.

The story of how the 16,000 victims of the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee 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 and Development Board, Bukit Ho Swee had been “an insanitary, congested and dangerous squatter area”, but
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 would not think of moving from their unpleasant and dangerous surroundings until a disaster makes the decision for them.

In the Singapore Story, the fire is depicted as a “blessing in disguise” whereby an enlightened government rehoused the “inert community” of squatters after a disaster and set the country on the right path to progress and modernity.  This book suggests a more complex and nuanced story.  The inferno tipped the balance in  a protracted struggle not between modernity and backwards, but between two forms of modernity.  On the one hand, the People’s Action Party (PAP) government, like the British colonial regime before it, envisaged the creation of a well-planned city of public housing estates.  On the other, both administrations confronted the proliferation on the urban fringe of kampongs, built haphazardly and without planning controls.  These kampongs constituted an alternative form of modernity to the official vision.  Squatters were not inert, as depicted, but progressive and urbanised,  and  with effective social autonomy.  The rehousing after the Bukit Ho Swee fire integrated these semi-autonomous squatters into the formal structures of the state, an early project of social engineering that helped accelerate the development of postcolonial Singapore.

The following archived photos with the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore, these captured moments of the Bukit Ho Swee fire victims packing their treasured belongings before the fire and the aftermath after the day’s fire on 25 May, 1961 to search for whatever that’s left.

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Preface of the book “Squatters into Citizens”

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 Februry 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.  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 embarrassing 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 sruggled with debt and their children ran aoul 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.

Although I myself knew nothing about the blazes and the kampong settlements they razed, they have remained in the minds of those of my parents’ generation, the “pioneers” whop made the dramatic transtion from unauthorisecd dwellings to public housing.  Among the first former kampong dwellers I interviewed was my father shared with me what one would call the “history of modern Singapore” as he knew it.  I transcribed and translated the interview, which was in Hokkien, and gave a copy to my sister.My mother had lived in a wooden house in Kim Seng, close to Bukit Ho Swee, before she married my father; she was rather hesitant abut a formal inteview. But she hovered in the background of my conversations with my father, and I was able to piece together a rudimentary narrative of her early life from fragments of her interjections from time to time.  Oral history does not often have a place in households in a city-state that is always looking forward.  My interview with my father addressed an amnesia in the history of Singapore that was both personal and academic.  It crossed a cultural divide between generations created by the advent of public housing.

Did my personal background make me the right candidate to investigate the impact of the 1961 fire?  I knew nothing about the calamity, but having lived in one-room flats in a low-income estate gave me a strong sense of the lives of the renting poor and the role of housing in their lives.  Once I had started my research, I became more confident that I was the right candidate.  I would, I thought, unravel the social history of kampong dwellers and their resistance against the social history of kampong dwellers and their resistance against the colonial state.  I imagined that I knew the social and mental worlds of the “underclass” who still, unlike my parents, live in one-room rental units and who are faceless, voiceless and unplaced in the official Singapore Story about our supposedly historic journeyd from fishing village to First World city-state.  I was invigorated by the prospect of finding an alternate past to the one dominated by the PAP government, a past that loomed large over the present.  My research into the Bukit Ho Swee fire, I thought, would qualify the Singapore Story, which tells a heroic tale of the government building modern flats for homeless squatters.  I was interested in investigating the dynamism of the kampong community and its resistance to unfair eviction.  The wooden house dweller of Bukit Ho Swee seemed to be the perfect subaltern.

My research appeared to be aided by the fact that, as momentuous events that shattered the calm of history, fires are much written about and well remembered.  Besides the interview with my father, I found oral history invaluable for obtaining insights into both the perspectives and experiences of wooden house dwellers.  This book draws from about 100 interviews conducted between 2006 and 2007.  The oral history fieldwork frequently brought me back to Bukit Ho Swee, where several of my informants still resided.  I found many fire victims and eyewitnesses of the disaster by approaching grassroots leaders, visiting coffee shops frequented by elderly residents, and posting open letters at HDB blocks inviting residents to participate in my reserch.  I also interviewed individuals whose life and work were bound up with 1961 fire in other ways:  architects, public officials, firefighters, artists, grassroot leaders, rural activists and social workers.

In using the oral history, I have tried to  both build a collective biography of Chinese kampong dwellers and acknowledge differences in experience due to age, gender and income group.  The interviews comprise the voices of males and females; English, Mandarin and Hokkien speakers (an indicator of economic status in Singapore); and former civil servants, shop owners, hawkers, shipyard cleaners, factory workers, construction workers, general labourers and homemakers.  Where the interview material is sensitive, I have used pseudonyms to protect the individuals’ anonymity.

There are gaps in the oral hstory record.  Although the Oral History Centre of the National Archives of Singapore had conducted interviews in the preceding decades, which helped fill part of the gap, most of my informants were “baby boomers” born after World War II, presently in their late fifties to seventies, with a handful in their eighties.  Their memories of the kampong and inferno were based on the experiences of children, adolescents and young adults.  It was difficult to locate older kampong dwellers, especially to find out about their rehousing in HDB flats after the fire.

Information about them often came second-hand from the recollections of younger people, such as their children.  Still, the strength of oral history is that being a child in the 1950s was rather different from growing up in present-day Singapore.  The kampong child’s social life centered around the immediate locality in which he or she grew up, studied and played.  This produced a keen awareness of the landscape far beyong the child’s age.  Most of my informants remembered the past vividly.  As Samuel Setoh, born in 1944, emphasised, “Old people always say they forgot where they put the keys or what they did just now but long, long ago, they can still remember because it is in the ‘heart disk’.”

Admittedly, memory erodes over time into a reflection, shaped by events both in the individual’s life and in society  The social memory of the fire is marked by official representations.  In his study of the 1922 Chauri Chaura riot, which holds a pivotal place in Indian national history, Shahid Amin finds recollections tainted by the hegemonic master narrative.  How much of my oral history was the independent memory of the “subaltern” and how much a filtered oral history have argued that any influence renders the source wholly unreliable.  My approach has been more modest:  I have tried to distinguish the independent layer of memory from the state-influenced parts, and to use the respective fragments to write about booth individual experience and social myths.

My interviews usually went well, and many individuals, including fomer fire victims, complimented me on a worthwhile and much-needed project.  But I noticed anger and recrimination in some interviews and silence and wariness in others.  This pointed to a story to be told about the present as well as the past.

The research into the Singapore archives was more challenging.  Here, I found, I had been deemed the “wrong candidate” for the project.  Fifty years after the fire, obtaining access to the archives remained fraught with dificulty:  official gatekeepers are mindful of the long shadows cast by the makers of the recent past.  In Singapore, a researcher seeking access to classified government records is requird to obtain the depositing institution’s approval.  The HDB turned down my request “as the records contain personal data of identifiable individuals”.  Subsequently, the assistance o my member of parliament, an academic, enabled me to obtain the depositing institution’s approval.  The HDB turned down my request “as the records contain personal data of identifiable idividuals”.  Subsequently, the assistance of my member of parliament, an academic, enabled me to obtain partial extracts of 8 of the 25 requested HDB files.  The Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports granted me access to 23 Social Welfare Department files, mostly on its relief work for fire victims, with the condition not to release sensitive information prior to the ministry’s clearance – a necessary stipulation.  But I was unsuccessful with the Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security Department.  Their documents on what were regarded as politically sensitive issues of police invstigations into the cause of the fire and thework of the rural associations were important for writing a “total history” of the inferno.  The records, I was told, were still classified.  These gaps in the documentary record affected particularly the part of history I wanted to tell after the disaster, while the cause of the fire remains in the realm of social rumours that the inferno was caused by an act of arson by the state to clear the kampong for public housing.  I was not the first researcher on Singapore’s history to experience such a rebuff.

I  was also being followed, I came to discover, by rumours in some official quarters that I was attempting to fix the blame for the fire on the ruling government.  As the researcher, I found myself enmeshed in rumours about rumours.  In academic studies of fires in other places and times, the question of arson is a logical, if politically incorrect, subject of inquiry.  In this case the rumours also usefully captured the fraught relationship, both historical and continuing between the state and squatters.

There was also, among some local academics, a view that I was working on the “wrong” topic.  The Bukit Ho Swee fire was inconsequential in Singapore’s history, they said.  These academic responses also say something, I believe, about what is considered worthy scholarship in Singapore.

The final and most important challenge in my research was mediating between what I had wanted to write and what my documents and inteviews were telling me  My initial idea of an independent kampong community soon had to be modified to a “semi-autonomous” one that before the 1961 fire was alredy lined to the state and formal economy.  I also acknowledged the fact that public housing, no matter how unpopular in the early years, is strongly desired by most Singaporeans (and indeed myself) in the present day.  Most crucially, I found that many of my interviewees did not simply affirm or reject the Singapore Story but moved between it and their own narratives, sometimes weighed down by the official acount, at other times contesting it or even departing from it.  Frequently, the oral testimony reconciled between national and individual narratives as the storytellers shifted between their present and past identities, respetively, as citizens and squatters.  I did not find my subalterns but, rather, individuals whose real agency lay in mediating between different narratives, experiences and memories.  The oral narratives were partially counter-hegemonic, partially afirmative but always entwined with the dominant account.

Excerpts from the book mentioned in the interview with James Seah

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 2006-2007, two generations after the inferno, it was evident 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 landscapte of a big part of 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 fore 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 got such things?” … This is something that I am very fearful of for the children, ecause they can’t imagine the hardship that their parents went through.

In August 2011, 50 years after the fire, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loon 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 Signapore’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 contributions of gangsters to the kampong, the official perception of the HDB estate 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 governments propagate to their citizens.  As Howard Zinn wrote in his A People’s History of the United States, local past may not exactly correspond with the claims of those preoccupied with the unity of the nation.  Yet a nation is richer and more resilient if it can acknowledge events such as the Bukit Ho Swee fire that expose historical and continuing social fissures and tensions.  Such a mature nation is reflective, self-aware and more inclusive.

The blog is posted to share my personal learning experiences in the interview with Kah Seng, who helped me to learn more about myself and the Bukit Ho Swee fire from his meaningful book and the success of his thesis.

These are life lessons for me to learn from my blog to express and to share them to my children, grandchildren, classmates and friends, whom I have not spoken to them about the Bukit Ho Swee fire in person in the past.

The blog mentioned in the National Day Rally 2011 here and the selected section of the video on YouTube.

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