On 25 May 1961, which happened to be Hari Raya Haji, the biggest outbreak of fire in Singapore occurred in the squatter settlement in the Bukit Ho Swee area. A combination of factors such as strong winds, oil and petrol from the nearby godowns transformed the fire that had started at 3:30 pm in Kampong Tiong Bahru into a raging inferno. The conflagration peaked at 8 pm with 22 fire engines deployed to the scene. The fire was finally contained near a razed Delta Circus. Although the casualty count amounted to four, the destruction caused was massive. An area of about 100 acres (about 0.4 sq km) consisting of a school, a coffee mill, two oil mills, two junk shops, two tyre shops, three timber yards and three workshops were destroyed in the disaster. A total number of 2,833 families comprising 15,694 people were left homeless.
Following the outbreak of the fire, about 8,000 fire victims were temporarily housed in five schools located in the Kim Seng Road area. The schools functioned as relief centres for the next 13 days until relocation was possible. The City Council Water Department rushed to lay gas, water pipes and huge stoves overnight. Woon Wah Siang, who was then the chief of the Social Welfare Department, together with his team, ensured relief and rehabilitation for the fire victims. Many organisations, including the General Hospital, the Red Cross, St John Ambulance Brigade, Singapore Work Brigade, the British Army, Singapore Military Forces and other volunteer organisations, also came forward to contribute their services and launch fund-raising activities. Basic items such as clothing and blankets were provided to the fire victims. Army trucks delivered 6,000 blankets, 3,000 mattresses, as well as food, cutlery, plates and other necessities. Order had to be maintained in the relief centres, where volunteers helped to man the drink and food lines. Visiting hours to the relief centres were restricted to between 4 pm and 6 pm in an effort to prevent unscrupulous people from exploiting the situation, and depriving the victims of food and other amenities. Widespread looting soon occurred at the fire site although the area was cordoned off and policed by Gurkha platoons, the army and the police.
The Bukit Ho Swee Fire National Relief Fund Committee, headed by then Minister for Labour and Law K. M. Bryne, was established just two days after the fire with an initial donation of $250,000 from the government. An island-wide collection of money started immediately and the total funds collected amounted to $584,202.17.
The Bukit Ho Swee fire is a historical precedent in many ways. The disaster resulted in the convening of a special sitting of the Legislative Assembly, during which the government passed a motion to acquire the fire site for redevelopment into a low-cost housing area, and also amended the Land Acquisition Ordinance. The amendment of the ordinance allowed land that had been devastated by fire to be acquired by the government at not more than a third of the original value of the vacant site, unless specified otherwise by the minister. This amendment was carried out to prevent landlords from unduly benefiting from an appreciation in the value of their land.
1. Hari Raya inferno. (1961, May 26). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia (p. 76). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board. Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN; The zig-zagging inferno. (1961, May 27). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Koh, 2006, p. 76.
4. The Straits Times, 27 May 1961, p. 16.
5. Koh, 2006, p. 76; Singapore. Legislative Assembly. Debates: Official Report. (1961, May 31). Bukit Ho Swee Fire (Vol. 14, pp. 1565). Singapore: [s.n]. Call no.: RCLOS 328.5957 SIN.
6. Premier Lee assures fire victims: Homes for all of you soon. (1961, May 29). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Aid for fire victims. (1961, May 27). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Singapore Housing and Development Board. (1967). Bukit Ho Swee estate. Singapore: Author. Call no.: RSING 331.833 SIN.
9. The Straits Times, 27 May 1961, p. 1.
10. Disaster trail of the blaze that left 150 acres in smoking ruins. (1961, May 27). The Singapore Free Press, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. The Straits Times, 27 May 1961, p. 1.
12. Govt. starts fund for fire victims with a donation of $250,000. (1961, May 27). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Koh, 2006, p. 76.
14. Debates: Official Report, 31 May 1961, Bukit Ho Swee Fire, Vol. 14, pp. 1569; Singapore. Legislative Assembly. Debates: Official Report. (1961, May 31). First Reading of the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill (Vol. 14, p. 1615). Call no.: RCLOS 328.5957 SIN.
15. Singapore. Legislative Assembly. Debates: Official Report. (1961, May 31). Second Reading of the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill (Vol. 14, p. 1616). Singapore: [s.n]. Call no.: RCLOS 328.5957 SIN.
16. Debates: Official Report, 31 May 1961, Second Reading of the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, Vol. 14, p. 1616; Debates: Official Report, 31 May 1961, Bukit Ho Swee Fire, Vol. 14, p. 1569.
The information in this article is valid as at 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.