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 Devel- opment 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, offi- cial 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 consequenc- es of the fire and how relocation to public housing changed the people’s lives.
Through a narrative that is both vivid and subtle, Squatters into Citizens
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.
For sale only in the U.S., its dependencies, Canada, and MexicoASAA Southeast Asia Publications Series
"Loh uses the story of the fire and its ensuing myths to tell a bigger story: one of housing the nation and of the contested nature of modernity. In shining a light on a historical moment at the intersection of the colonial and postcolonial, Loh reveals an important national story, and also one that speaks to the history of Southeast Asian urban redevelopment more broadly." –Pacific Affairs
Author: Loh Kah Seng;
Loh Kah Seng is assistant professor at the Institute of East Asian Studies at Sogang University.