One of Singapore's biggest fires occurred in Bukit Ho Swee on 25 May 1961.1 The fire razed a 100-acre area (0.4 sq km) consisting of a school, shops, factories and wooden and attap houses, leaving some 16,000 kampong dwellers homeless and four fatalities. The property damage was estimated at $2 million.2 The cause of the fire remains unknown.3 The fire was a pivotal moment in the development of modern Singapore, with ramifications in the physical and social transformation of the nation and the public housing programme.4
Kampong Bukit Ho Swee
In the 1950s, Kampong Bukit Ho Swee was a residential precinct bordered by the larger Kampong Tiong Bahru (also known as Si Kah Teng) across Tiong Bahru Road, Havelock Road, the Ma Kau Tiong cemetery and the Tiong Bahru Sewerage Works. The post-World War II years saw a boom in the area's population, which increased from 2,772 people in 1948 to 19,017 people in 1957.5
The area had previously suffered a large-scale fire in 1934, when a blaze on 8 August burnt down 500 wooden and attap houses in Bukit Ho Swee and two other nearby kampongs. Another fire occurred on 13 February 1959 in neighbouring Kampong Tiong Bahru, destroying the homes of around 12,000 people and foreshadowing the blaze that would engulf Bukit Ho Swee two years later.6
1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire
The fire started at 3.30 pm in Kampong Tiong Bahru and spread across the road to Bukit Ho Swee, with a combination of factors such as strong winds, oil and petrol from nearby godowns intensifying the fire into a raging inferno.7 As it was the Hari Raya Haji public holiday, firefighters and policemen were recalled to their duties by continuous radio broadcasts from 5 pm, while troops from the Singapore Military Forces and British army began arriving from 6 pm. About 180 firemen and 20 officers in 16 fire engines were deployed to fight the fire as well as nearly 1,000 army personnel to aid in crowd-control.8
The low water pressure from hydrants in the affected area initially hampered firefighting, but engineers from the Singapore City Council restored adequate water pressure about an hour later. Access to the fire-stricken areas, especially the kampong behind Boon Tiong Road, was hampered by the congested layout of the housing settlements as well as the throngs of people who had gathered. The congestion slowed down movements of various operations such as fire fighting, evacuation and cordoning of the area, and firemen had to direct their water jets from Tiong Bahru Road.9
Despite the valiant efforts of the firefighters, the fire spread across Tiong Bahru Road towards Beo Lane, only to abruptly change its direction at Havelock Road, where it razed flats and shophouses, before spreading to the Delta area.10 There, the wide Ganges Avenue served as an effective firebreak, preventing the fire from spreading to the flats across the road.11
By 5 pm, about 7,000 fire victims had been temporarily housed in five schools located on Kim Seng Road. These schools functioned as relief centres until relocation of the fire victims was possible. The City Council Water Department rushed to lay gas, water pipes and huge stoves overnight.12
The conflagration peaked at 8 pm with a maximum of 22 fire engines deployed.13 The fire was finally extinguished near a razed Delta Circus.14
Aftermath of the fire
The fire claimed four lives and caused massive destruction. An area of about 100 acres (0.4 sq km) housing a school, a coffee mill, two oil mills, two junk shops, two tyre shops, three timber yards, three workshops and 2,800 homes was razed, while nearly 16,000 people were left homeless and with meagre belongings. Animals such as chickens, pigs and other livestock perished in the fire, leaving the local economy in tatters.15
The Social Welfare Department led by its then chief, Woon Wah Siang, and his team ensured relief and rehabilitation for the fire victims at the relief centres on Kim Seng Road.16 Many organisations also came forward to help, including the General Hospital, the Red Cross, St John Ambulance Brigade, the Works Brigade, the British Army, the Singapore Military Forces and other volunteer organisations.17
Army trucks helped to deliver 6,000 blankets, 3,000 mattresses, as well as food, cutlery and plates to the relief centres. A clinic was also set up by the General Hospital at Kim Seng West School. Fire victims received $10 to help with their expenses, and volunteers helped to man the drink and food lines at the relief centres.18
To prevent looting, about 1,500 policemen, including two platoons of Gurkhas, cordoned off the fire site and conducted patrols throughout the night, with a partial curfew imposed on the area.19 The Health Department started burying animal carcasses in deep trenches, and “Operation Salvage” was carried out to allow victims to recover their belongings, under strict army and police supervision.20
The Social Welfare Department later described the relief operation as “the greatest challenge ever to be met in its fifteen-year-old span of existence”, while then Housing and Development Board (HDB) planner and architect Alan Choe noted that the organisation of relief efforts “tested the whole machinery of the government in action.”21
A Bukit Ho Swee Fire National Relief Fund Committee was established two days after the fire, headed by then Minister for Labour and Law K. M. Byrne.22 An island-wide collection of money started immediately, and the magnitude of the losses moved many to help, including donors from other countries. The government contributed $250,000, while the largest foreign donation of $20,000 came from the Federation of Malaya (now Malaysia). A donation of $25,000 was made by tycoon Lee Kong Chian, while associations including those of taxi drivers, barbers and trishaw riders also contributed. Even the inmates of the prisons at Changi, Pulau Senang and Outram raised funds and helped cook meals for fire victims. A total of $1,586,422.16 was collected and by the end of 1961, some $1.4 million had been distributed to fire victims. A portion of the funds was also used to purchase houses for the fire victims.23
Government priorities lay, however, in relocating fire victims, as crowded and unsanitary conditions at the relief centres posed a constant danger of health problems.24 The day after the fire, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew revealed plans to move the fire victims into completed flats, or those in the process of being constructed, at Queenstown, Tiong Bahru, St Michael's Estate, Macpherson, Kallang and at Bukit Ho Swee itself. These plans were made after an emergency cabinet meeting and consultations with the HDB.25 Then Minister for National Development Tan Kia Gan also ordered the demolition of unauthorised structures at the fire site, with the government securing control of the area.26
Relocation of affected families
On 24 September 1961, the government pledged to move all the affected families to new houses within a year.27 The first phase, marked by “Operation Shift”, managed to relocate about 6,000 people to the available 1,150 flats in Queenstown, Tiong Bahru, Alexandra and Kallang.28 By February 1962, all the remaining families were successfully rehoused.29 After the fire site and adjacent lands were acquired for public housing, the HDB built 12,562 flats in the area by 1967, a number of them one-room emergency housing flats. A census in 1970 recorded 45,066 people in the estate, the majority of them former residents of Kampong Bukit Ho Swee.30
Aside from relocation, the government offered several assistance schemes such as rent subsidy of $7 per person up to a maximum of $35 per family. Rental waivers or rent-free periods were not given, as the government cited reasons such as not wanting to upset the rent structure of the HDB as well as accountability to public funds.31 However, those who became jobless due to the fire were given public assistance until they found new jobs.32 Also, to ensure that the education of affected children would not be disrupted, fee remission, free supply of exercise books as well as free loan of textbooks were provided.33
Seven years later, a fire wiped out the remnants of Kampong Bukit Ho Swee, a three-acre site with some 200 wooden and attap houses.34 This fire – which started near the spot where the 1961 fire began – razed the homes of about 3,000 people. Similarly, strong winds were one of the factors that contributed to the fast-moving fire. In response to this fire, the government highlighted the hazards of living in slum areas, and rehoused most of the affected families within a day.35 The Bukit Ho Swee area was then gradually transformed into a public housing estate.36
Political, social and developmental impact
The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire proved to be a pivotal moment in the development of modern Singapore. The People's Action Party government successfully moved a motion in the Legislative Assembly to acquire the fire site for redevelopment into a low-cost housing area, and amended the Land Acquisition Ordinance. This amendment allowed the value of land that had been devastated by fire to be assessed based on its inhabited state before the fire. As government guidelines valued unoccupied land at three times more than inhabited land, this amendment gave the government more power in acquiring fire sites. The government justified this move as removing any inducement or temptation for landlords to commit arson, with the ultimate goal of profiting from unoccupied land.37
The flats constructed to house the fire victims constituted the first large-scale building project undertaken by the HDB.38 The fire, site clearance and rebuilding marked a key moment in the nationwide public housing and kampong clearance programme, leading to the transformation of the social and physical landscape of Singapore. The relocation of the former villagers to public housing also allowed the government to integrate them into the state-sanctioned formal economy, advancing the development of the nation.39
1. “Hari Raya Inferno,” Straits Times, 26 May 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Loh Kah Seng, Squatters Into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore (Singapore: Asian Studies Association of Australia, 2013), 148. (Call no. RSING 307.76095957 LOH)
3. Tommy Thong Bee Koh, et al. eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, 2006). (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
4. Loh, Squatters Into Citizens, 2–3.
5. Loh, Squatters Into Citizens, 47–50.
6. “12,000 Lose Homes,” Straits Times, 14 February 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG); Singapore Housing and Development Board, Bukit Ho Swee Estate (Singapore: Singapore Housing and Development Board, 1967), 7. (Call no. RSING 331.833 SIN)
7. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 76.
8. “Hari Raya Inferno”; “Aid for Fire Victims,” Straits Times, 27 May 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Aid for Fire Victims”; “Hari Raya Inferno.”
10. “The Zig-Zagging Inferno,” Straits Times, 27 May 1961, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Hari Raya Inferno.”
12. “Premier Lee Assures Fire Victims: Homes for All of You Soon,” Straits Times, 29 May 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Koh, et. al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 76.
14. “The Zig-Zagging Inferno.”
15. Loh, Squatters Into Citizens, 148.
16. “Aid for Fire Victims.”
17. Singapore Housing and Development Board, Bukit Ho Swee Estate, 12.
18. “Aid for Fire Victims.”
19. “Aid for Fire Victims.”
20. “More Rush to Help the Fire Victims,” Straits Times, 28 May 1961, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Loh, Squatters Into Citizens, 158.
22. “Govt. Starts Fund for Fire Victims With a Donation of $250,000,” Straits Times, 27 May 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Loh, Squatters Into Citizens, 166.
24. “S’pore Fire Debates: Speedy Aid Measures,” Straits Times, 1 June 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Aid for Fire Victims.”
26. Loh, Squatters Into Citizens, 154.
27. “It’s Flats in a Year for All Fire Victims,” Straits Times, 24 September 1961, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Lim Beng Tee, “'Operation Shift' Gets Into Stride: 6,000 Victims Rehoused,” Straits Times, 4 June 1964, 4. (From NewspaperSG); Singapore. Legislative Assembly, Bukit Ho Swee Fire, vol. 14 of Debates: Official Reports, 31 May 1961, 1570. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
29. Singapore Housing and Development Board, Bukit Ho Swee Estate, 12.
30. Loh, Squatters Into Citizens, 198.
31. Singapore. Legislative Assembly, Bukit Ho Swee Fire, 1570–71.
32. Singapore. Legislative Assembly, Bukit Ho Swee Fire, 1575, 1579.
33. Singapore. Legislative Assembly, Bukit Ho Swee Fire, 1596–97.
34. Philip Khoo, Abul Fazil and Judith Yong, “Chaos As Homes Go Up in Flames,” Straits Times, 24 November 1968, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
35. “3,000 Victims Lose Homes,” Straits Times, 26 November 1968, 24; “Instant Homes for 240 Families,” Straits Times, 26 November 1968, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
36. Gretchen Liu, Singapore: A Pictorial History 1819–2000 (Singapore: Archipelago Press & National Heritage Board, 1999), 316. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LIU-[HIS])
37. Loh, Squatters Into Citizens, 173.
38. Loh, Squatters Into Citizens, xxi.
39. Loh, Squatters Into Citizens, 2–3.
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