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


By Loh Kah Seng

EuroSEAS Humanities Book Prize 2015

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 the 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 the 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.

"His writing has a passion and immediacy that is atypical of much scholarly analysis. His eye for detail is almost filmic, augmented by the book's inclusion of evocative archival visuals...a resonant text of social history...a much-needed breaking of the silence between generations." - Clarissa Oon, Straits Times

"This excellent book - located at the intersection of history, ethnography and sociology - makes a major contribution to our understanding of the social history of post-war/post-colonial Singapore, and more generally to the interdisciplinary field of disaster studies." - James Francis Warren

“...this powerful tale stimulates our imagination about Singapore and provokes us to find other such undiscovered yet significant sites of social history.” - Yasuko Kobayashi

“Squatters into Citizens significantly advances our understanding of this disastrous yet momentous episode in Singapore history. It will be particularly useful to those who are interested in the social history of post-war Singapore, Singapore’s housing policy, and disaster studies. Furthermore, Loh’s writing style is such that it allows you to step into the lives of the Bukit Ho Swee dwellers.” - Jack Chia

Loh Kah Seng is Assistant Professor at the Institute of East Asian Studies, Sogang University. He is the co-author of The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity.

Asian Studies Association of Australia: Southeast Asian Publications Series
Publication Year: 2013
330 pages, 229mm x 153mm
ISBN: 978-9971-69-645-0, Paperback

NUS Press