60 years on, survivors recall fire that 'turned squatters into citizens'

Bukit Ho Swee blaze pivotal in Singapore's leap into modernity with rise of HDB flats

Former residents surveying the ruins of their homes in the aftermath of the fire. Within nine months of the blaze, all the victims were rehoused in flats. The opening in September 1961 of five HDB blocks with 904 one-room, semi-communal units, all of
Residents fleeing from the fire in Bukit Ho Swee with their belongings on May 25, 1961, shortly before the attap houses in the kampung were razed.ST FILE PHOTO
Former residents surveying the ruins of their homes in the aftermath of the fire. Within nine months of the blaze, all the victims were rehoused in flats. The opening in September 1961 of five HDB blocks with 904 one-room, semi-communal units, all of
Former residents surveying the ruins of their homes in the aftermath of the fire. Within nine months of the blaze, all the victims were rehoused in flats. ST FILE PHOTO
Former residents surveying the ruins of their homes in the aftermath of the fire. Within nine months of the blaze, all the victims were rehoused in flats. The opening in September 1961 of five HDB blocks with 904 one-room, semi-communal units, all of
MR JAMES SEAH (above), a survivor of the fire.

A devastating sight awaited Mr Wong Pok Hee when he got home. Despite sprinting back in 10 minutes from the small provision shop where he worked, he found that all his belongings had gone up in smoke.

It was May 25, 1961, and one of the biggest fires Singapore has ever seen had broken out in Bukit Ho Swee. On that fateful day, the insatiable inferno burned from 3.30pm until after 8pm, razing to the ground the kampung where some 16,000 people lived.

Four people died. Property, including livestock, worth $2 million was lost in the blink of an eye. For days, nearby schools became refugee centres.

In the shadow of the flames, one question plagued the residents' minds: "Where are we to live?"

The more sceptical asked: "Who started the fire?"

"I was in my teens at the time," said Mr Wong, now 81. "I saw the smoke rising into the sky from afar at the minimart about a 15-minute walk from my house.

"They later put us in an emergency house in Great World City before we were allocated a fourth-floor flat in Queenstown. It was actually quite easy to get used to."

It is the resettlement of people like Mr Wong from a kampung to a modern public flat that underlines the significance of the Bukit Ho Swee fire.

Sixty years on, it is seen as a pivotal moment in Singapore's leap into modernity, tied to the inexorable rise of Housing Board flats in which about 80 per cent of residents today live.


The opening in September 1961 of five HDB blocks with 904 one-room, semi-communal units, all
of which were occupied by victims of the fire. ST FILE PHOTOS

Within nine months of the fire, all the victims had been housed in flats across the country - a previously unheard of feat that bolstered the People's Action Party-led Government's credibility at the polls.

Just six years after the fire, 12,000 flats were also erected at the site and its adjacent areas.

HISTORIAN LOH KAH SENG
 

By the end of the 1970s, the city area, the most strategic place for the Government to build and where the most adamant of kampung dwellers used to live, was unrecognisable.

Historian Loh Kah Seng, who has spoken to 100 survivors, describes the blaze as a decisive moment that turned "squatters into citizens".

"It marked the transformation of a society, from a group of people who were unruly or very independent-minded, who were not always gainfully employed and who were involved in crime or gangsterism, into citizens who lived in HDB flats, the foundation of citizenship which changed other aspects of their lives," he said.

"They became full-time employees who paid regular rent, raised families and helped to build Singapore as we know it today. In that way, the fire is like an act of God, allowing the Government to build houses in a critical area without taking the blame for eviction."

Before the Bukit Ho Swee fire, flats had been built in Queenstown but these were seen as being too far from Chinatown, where many people worked.

People were so resistant to changing their way of life that, despite fires breaking out in kampungs two to three times a year, they refused to move and even informed fire brigades late in cases of fire in a bid to stymie official intervention.

But the devastation of Bukit Ho Swee, because of its central location and the sheer scale of destruction that left kampung dwellers with no other choice, made it a key moment in changing people's minds.

The Government was able to use Bukit Ho Swee as a foothold to move kampung dwellers nearby to newly built flats, requisitioning their land in turn to build more flats to resettle those in other kampungs.

Speaking to The Straits Times about the benefits of public housing, Mr James Seah, 73, who was also living in Bukit Ho Swee at the time of the fire, told the story of the three little pigs.

His point: Houses made of straw and sticks burn down, but those of bricks do not, he said.

"Most of the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire victims did not miss the kampung because of the risks posed and the fire hazards. Public housing was safer and more convenient," he said. "There was electricity and water, and it was more hygienic."

But the story of the Bukit Ho Swee fire, as with other stories of progress and modernity, is also one of loss.

Both Mr Seah and Mr Wong reminisced about how convivial and open the kampung community was. There were no locked doors, they said.

"To this day, memories of the attap houses and the friendly people still make me happy," Mr Wong said. "It was quite beautiful and sticks in my mind."

Prof Loh said those who were older when the fire happened had it the hardest. Some of those allocated flats on higher floors were so scared of heights they were afraid whenever they had to go out.

The regular rental collection also meant that people lost some of the freedom they had previously. When there was no regulating authority, rents could be negotiated based on personal relations and work could be more part-time and informal.

On the conspiracy theory that government agents set fire to Bukit Ho Swee to force the kampung folk to move, Prof Loh said: "I don't believe it. I can see why many at the time did, but to this day there is no evidence. Many of them have also come round."

Mr Seah and Mr Wong also said they did not believe the rumours.

Mr Seah added: "We spent a lot of time in the kampung playing games. There was no television and very few things to do for entertainment, but there was an open-air cinema and we used to sit around and listen to the radio.

"Today's Singaporeans have grown up with the improvements and developments in health, law and order, education. Bukit Ho Swee was where it began."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2021, with the headline '60 years on, survivors recall fire that 'turned squatters into citizens''. Subscribe