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Published: 03 Jan 2013 11:32AM (Singapore)
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Remembering the Bukit Ho Swee Fire
Survivor of the Bukit Ho Swee Fire Mr James Seah, vividly recalls the 25 May 1961 blaze that razed through his home to the ground. Mr Seah shared his experiences at the second "Resilience through Heritage" exhibition which featured Singapore's most devastating fire. The series of exhibitions by the National Heritage Board was supported by SCDF and the Heritage Development Unit of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
By Kathilein Kalyani

Back in 1961, building fires were common and hard to contain. Those who lived during that period of time would have known the unfortunate and terrible incident that occurred that year—the Bukit Ho Swee fire.

The National Heritage Board (NHB) launched its second exhibition under the “Resilience through Heritage” series, emphasising what was said to be Singapore’s most devastating fire—the Bukit Ho Swee fire that broke out in 1961.

The exhibition outlined the details of the fire, the scale of the destruction, the fire-fighting and relief efforts of the agencies involved, the aid rendered by the community, as well as the subsequent resettlement and redevelopments efforts the government undertook.

Survivor of the Bukit Ho Swee fire, Mr James Seah, shared his personal experience at Woodlands Regional Library during the first leg of the exhibition's tour.

“The worst fire in Singapore happened on 25 May 1961, at Bukit Ho Swee. I was a little boy of 11. It was Hari Raya Haji and I was having school holiday,” said Mr Seah in a hushed voice.

Mr James Seah sharing his firsthand account of the Bukit Ho Swee fire. PHOTO: Matthew Wong

“My mother and I were on our way back from my second aunt’s home when we started to hear cries of ‘Fire! Fire!’ coming from our estate. Thick, black smoke billowed. My mom was quick-thinking to have kept our personal belongings like birth certificates in a bag before. She quickly grabbed the important belongings and ran out of our house. Our house was also burnt down. In all, about 16, 000 people were left homeless and four were killed in the tragic inferno.”

It was the first time Mr Seah witnessed such a terrible fire and national tragedy.

“My mother and I ran as fast as we could. We kept running till we reached Havelock Road. However, my mother wasn’t sure of where to head to next and we were at a loss. Fortunately, a car came by and stopped in front of us. It was the daughter of my mother’s relative and she knew that there were several fire victim camps set up along Kim Seng road and River Valley Road. She drove us there and shortly after, I was reunited with my siblings at the camp,” explained Mr Seah.

Suppliers like Nestlē provided food for the hungry and even milk powder for babies.

The ruling People’s Action Party’s greatest challenge was to build homes for the victims. It was a great achievement that the Housing Development Board (HDB) completed building new flats in nine months at Margaret Drive for the fire victims.

During the exhibition, Major (Maj) Andy Choo spoke about the causes of residential fire.

“One of the very common things residents normally tend to do is overload electrical outlets. If I have a stereo set, I just plug it on. After that, I realized that I’m lazy to extend the line, then I’ll put a multiple adapter and plug on more electrical appliances. And such practices at the end of the day draw a surge of current.”

“And when it draws a surge of current, that is when it starts to melt certain components that are not built to withstand that kind of heat. And when it starts to melt, that’s when the fire will start. If there’s a nearby ignition source, like cotton or polyester material, once it catches fire it will spread like wildfire. And that’s where all fires usually begin,” explained Maj Andy Choo.

Maj Andy Choo explains the common causes of residential fires. PHOTO: Matthew Wong

The exhibition featured a replica of a burnt housing structure, which incorporated exhibition panels, photographs and artefacts from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) gathered during the Bukit Ho Swee Fire. Two video clips about the fire was also shown.

The showcase makes its rounds across the island at the following libraries:
- Geylang East Public Library (28 December 2012 to 28 February 2013)
- Serangoon Public Library (01 March to 29 March 2013)
- Jurong West Public Library (30 April to 31 May 2013)

To complement the travelling exhibition, NHB and the National Library Board (NLB) will be organizing a series of public lectures conducted by individuals who have experienced or conducted research on the Bukit Ho Swee fire, including a talk on fire safety and prevention of residential fires and the importance of emergency preparedness.

To find out more about the talks, visit NHB’s website:

Mr Loh Swee Meng (center) donated photos of the Bukit Ho Swee fire to the National Heritage Board with Mr James Seah (left) and Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's Director of Heritage Institutions (right). PHOTO: Matthew Wong
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