Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore

Loh Kah Seng, the author of Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore, is a historian of Singapore and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia. The author completed his PhD thesis “The 1961 Kampong Bukit Ho Swee fire and the making of modern Singapore” in 2008.

Drawing from the significant events in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s, this informative book is filled with narrative stories of the past and has been compiled against the backdrop of historical fire hazards and their impact on the society at large. The past scenes and descriptions of a series of fire incidents – Kampong Bugis (1951), Geylang Lorong 3 (1953) and Lorong 25 (1953), Kampong Tiong Bahru (1955 and 1959), and Kampong Koo Chye (1958), finally leading to the Bukit Ho Swee inferno on 25th May 1961 – are well-interspersed with powerful personal and factual accounts through oral histories, photos, news and official records.

Though fifty years have passed since the Bukit Ho Swee fire left 16,000 people homeless, the recounts by those who lived there gave insights into the daily life of the squatter communities (referred to as “residents in the urban kampongs”) and how they had to cope with fire hazards, mainly due to confined living spaces and closely-built houses made of wood (referred to as “attap settlements”). Following the declaration of a national state of emergency, the People’s Action Party government made a huge effort to restore the shattered Bukit Ho Swee community, with the promise to “build house for the fire victims within nine months”.

This book is certainly for readers who are interested in the social history of post-war Singapore, the beginnings of public housing policies (including emergency housing programme) and disaster management, as it makes a strong and lasting emotional statement on the connection between public housing (arising from disaster recovery) and modernity. As one reviewer puts it, “Through recovering this oral history and offering an alternative picture of modernity that was lost to PAP rule, Loh’s book may allow Singaporeans – whether academics, planners, or former squatters – to move toward a postcolonial citizenship”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *