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The 1961 Kampong Bukit Ho Swee fire and the making of modern Singapore

Loh, Kah Seng (2009) The 1961 Kampong Bukit Ho Swee fire and the making of modern Singapore. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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By 1970, Singapore’s urban landscape was dominated by high-rise blocks of planned public housing built by the People’s Action Party government, signifying the establishment of a high modernist nation-state. A decade earlier, the margins of the City had been dominated by kampongs, home to semi-autonomous communities of low-income Chinese families which freely built, and rebuilt, unauthorised wooden houses. This change was not merely one of housing but belied a more fundamental realignment of state-society relations in the 1960s. Relocated in Housing and Development Board flats, urban kampong families were progressively integrated into the social fabric of the emergent nation-state. This study examines the pivotal role of an event, the great Kampong Bukit Ho Swee fire of 1961, in bringing about this transformation. The redevelopment of the fire site in the aftermath of the calamity brought to completion the British colonial regime’s ‘emergency’ programmes of resettling urban kampong dwellers in planned accommodation, in particular, of building emergency public housing on the sites of major fires in the 1950s. The PAP’s far greater political resolve, and the timing of and state of emergency occasioned by the scale of the 1961 disaster, enabled the government to rehouse the Bukit Ho Swee fire victims in emergency housing in record time. This in turn provided the HDB with a strategic platform for clearing other kampongs and for transforming their residents into model citizens of the nation-state. The 1961 fire’s symbolic usefulness extended into the 1980s and beyond, in sanctioning the PAP’s new housing redevelopment schemes. The official account of the inferno has also become politically useful for the government of today for disciplining a new generation of Singaporeans against taking the nation’s progress for granted. Against these exalted claims of the fire’s role in the Singapore Story, this study also examines the degree of actual change and continuity in the social and economic lives of the people of Bukit Ho Swee after the inferno. In some crucial ways, the residents continued to occupy a marginal place in society while pondering, too, over the unresolved question of the cause of the fire. These continuities of everyday life reflect the ambivalence with which the citizenry regarded the high modernist state in contemporary Singapore.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Sciences and Humanities
Supervisor(s): Warren, James
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