Robinson's Department Store fire at Raffles Place



The Robinson’s Department Store building at Raffles Place was destroyed by a fire that broke out at around 9.55 am on 21 November 1972. The fire, which was one of the worst in Singapore’s history, also caused damage to the roof of the Overseas Union Bank next door1 and forced the Stock Exchange in Clifford House at Collyer Quay to stop trading for the day.2 Nine people, eight of whom were trapped in the store’s lifts, were killed in the blaze.3 The government subsequently called for the formation of a commission of inquiry to investigate this tragedy.4 Many of the commission’s recommendations were later incorporated into the Building Control Act of 1974, which gave the authorities the power to take action against unauthorised building works and dangerous or dilapidated buildings.5

Outbreak of fire
At around 9.55 am on 21 November 1972, a fire broke out at the Robinson’s Department Store building at Raffles Place. The fire was caused by a short circuit caused by the overloading of an electrical branch circuit on the ground floor of the building. The store’s in-house fire-fighting squad responded to the fire outbreak by evacuating people and attempting to put out the blaze. The fire brigade was notified shortly after the fire was detected and arrived at the scene at 10.13 am. The firemen tried to combat the fire as best as they could, but two nearby water hydrants were not functioning properly. Water issued from the hydrants, but the water pressure was too low.6 At noon, the water pressure fell and the firemen had to pump water from the Singapore River.7 The fire resulted in the deaths of nine people, eight of whom were trapped in the store’s lifts.8

At the opening of the Fire Brigade Week exhibition at the Victoria Memorial Hall that coincidentally took place one day after the fire, then Minister for Social Affairs Othman Wok stressed the urgent need for Singaporeans to heed fire safety measures.9 Two days after the fire, the National Trades Union Congress donated S$1,000 to begin a fund for the families of union members who were believed to have perished in the fire. The fund was organised by the Singapore Manual and Mercantile Workers’ Union (SMMWU).10 In less than a month, the SMMWU managed to raise more than S$25,000 for the fund.11

Commission of Inquiry
On 21 December 1972, then President Benjamin Sheares officially appointed the following persons to the Commission of Inquiry tasked to investigate the Robinson’s fire: Justice F. A. Chua as chairman; Lee Chow Soon as secretary; and Jimmy Chen Wei Ying and C. A. V. Chew as members. The commission’s terms of reference called for an inquiry into the causes of the fire and the adequacy of existing fire protection measures in the Robinson’s building. The commission was also tasked to look into: staff training to deal with fires and fire drills; frequency of inspection of electrical and other connections; adequacy of fire prevention measures adopted by the management, owners or lessees of the Robinson’s building; structure of the building with reference to the partitions, walls and floors; and the adequacy of steps taken by the fire brigade in extinguishing the fire. Finally, the commission was directed to provide recommendations on measures that could be taken by owners, tenants and occupiers of buildings to present similar disasters from occurring in the future.12Two weeks later, the commission invited members of the public to assist in the inquiry by giving evidence regarding the fire.13

The public hearings for the inquiry lasted 40 days and ended on 3 May 1973. The report of the commission was presented to the president in August 1973,14 and Othman made a statement regarding the report in parliament on 30 November 1973.15 The findings of the commission were subsequently made public on 1 December 1973.16 The commission found no fault with the fire brigade and its efforts to put out the fire, but the findings revealed that Robinson’s Department Store had inadequate fire protection measures and had in fact stored large quantities of combustible goods in unauthorised loft stores that had allowed the fire to grow out of control.17 The commission concluded that by the time the fire brigade was summoned, the store could not have been saved.18

Building Control Act

In their report, the commission made recommendations pertaining to: the inspection of unauthorised additions and alterations to buildings; the means of exit; regulations and maintenance of electrical installations and lifts; adequate staff training on procedures to take in the event of fire; as well as changes to the operational procedures of the fire brigade.19

The recommendations regarding the inspection of unauthorised additions and alterations to buildings were quickly taken up in the Building Control Bill. The bill was first presented by then Minister for Law and National Development E. W. Barker in parliament on 28 August 1973.20 On the second reading of the bill, three additional sub-clauses were proposed in light of the Robinson’s fire and eventually accepted. These sub-clauses were concerned with: the control, regulation and supervision of premises used for trade; measures pertaining to the constructing, installation and inspection of lifts and elevators; and the provision for air and open spaces within or between buildings.21 The bill was passed on 30 November 197322 and the Building Control Act came into operation on 1 April 1974.23

Opening and closure of stores
On 11 December 1972, a new Robinson’s Department Store was opened at Specialists’ Centre along Orchard Road. There were also plans to rebuild the store on the Raffles Place site as required under the lease agreement with the site’s landlord, the Portuguese Catholic Mission.24 However, a month later, the government acquired the site for urban redevelopment.25 Robinson’s then reopened a Raffles Place branch in July 1977 at Clifford Centre, which subsequently closed in November 1983.26 In June 1983, the company moved its main store to Centrepoint.27 In May 2014, the Centrepoint store closed down following the end of its lease.28 The retail group (now known as Robinsons) opened its new flagship store, Robinsons Orchard, at the former The Heeren mall along Orchard Road in November 201329 and continues to operate Robinsons stores at Raffles City (opened in March 2001),30 Jem mall in Jurong East (opened in June 2013)31 and The Gardens at Mid Valley City mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (opened in September 2007).32




References
1. Nine feared dead. (1972, November 22). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Fire disrupts share trading. (1972, November 22) The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Singapore. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Robinson’s Fire, 1973. (1973). Singapore: Singapore National Printers, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 614.84 SIN 1973)
4. Robinson’s fire: Govt orders inquiry. (1972, December 5). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Two new laws come into force today. (1974, April 1). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Singapore. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Robinson’s Fire, 1973. (1973). Singapore: Singapore National Printers, pp. 3–11. (Call no.: RSING 614.84 SIN 1973)
7. Nine feared dead. (1972, November 22). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Singapore. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Robinson’s Fire, 1973. (1973). Singapore: Singapore National Printers, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 614.84 SIN 1973)
9. ‘Biggest ever’ fire-fighting display. (1972, November 15). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; All that’s left – a morning-after view… (1972, November 23). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. NTUC starts fund for fire victims’ families. (1972, November 24). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Fire fund tops $25,000. (1972, December 14). The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Judge heads fire inquiry. (1972, December 27). The Straits Times, p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Republic of Singapore. Government Gazette. Extraordinary. (1972, December 26). (Vol. 14, G.N. 118). Singapore: [s.n.], pp. 4757–4759. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SGG-[HIS])
13. Robinson’s fire inquiry: Public invited to give evidence. (1973, January 7). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Singapore. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Robinson’s Fire, 1973. (1973). Singapore: Singapore National Printers, p. ii. (Call no.: RSING 614.84 SIN 1973)
15. Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates: Official Report. (1973, November 30). Report of Commission of Inquiry into Fire at Robinson Departmental Store. (Vol. 32). Singapore: [s.n.], cols. 1314–1319. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
16. Inquiry clears Robinson fire fighters. (1973, December 1). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Singapore. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Robinson’s Fire, 1973. (1973). Singapore: Singapore National Printers, pp. 5–6, 9–11, 14, 16. (Call no.: RSING 614.84 SIN 1973)
18. Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates: Official Report. (1973, November 30). Report of Commission of Inquiry into Fire at Robinson Departmental Store. (Vol. 32). Singapore: [s.n.], col. 1315. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
19. Singapore. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Robinson’s Fire, 1973. (1973). Singapore: Singapore National Printers, pp. 18–19. (Call no.: RSING 614.84 SIN 1973)
20. Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates: Official Report. (1973, August 28). Building Control Bill. (Vol. 32). Singapore: [s.n.], col. 1273. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
21. Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates: Official Report. (1973, November 30). Building Control Bill. (Vol. 32). Singapore: [s.n.], cols. 1338–1339. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
22. Singapore. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates: Official Report. (1973, November 30). Building Control Bill. (Vol. 32). Singapore: [s.n.], col. 1341. (Call no.: RSING 328.5957 SIN)
23. Two new laws come into force today. (1974, April 1). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Kwee, M. (1972, December 12). Robinson’s plans to rebuild at fire site. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Govt takes over Robinson fire site. (1973, January 18). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Robinson’s sixth store opening. (1977, July 15). The Business Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Page 15 Advertisements Column 2. (1977, July 18). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Oei, S. G. (1984, June 2). Retrenchment at Robinson’s. Singapore Monitor, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Rebirth of Robinson’s. (1983, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Chung, G. (2014, June 14). Robinsons MD quits months after grand Orchard opening. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
29. Zachariah, N. A. (2013, November 9). Robinsons’ fancy new home. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
30. Ong, C. (2001, March 15). It’s worth waiting for. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Robinsons teams up with local labels. (2013, June 27). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
32. Z. A. Rahim. (2007, November 27). Fun land for shopping. The Straits Times, p. 58. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

 


Further resources
Tyers, R. K. (1993). Singapore: Then & now. (p. 129). Singapore: Landmark. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE)

Thick basement walls save cars from blaze . (1972, November 22). The Straits Times, p. 9. 



The information in this article is valid as at 1 September 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Fires--Singapore
Accidents
Arts>>Architecture>>Public and commercial buildings
Streets and Places
Events
Architecture and Landscape>>Streets and Places
Events>>Disasters

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