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In his new book, Squatters into Citizens, Dr Loh Kah Seng explores how the vision of a modern city was achieved in Singapore in the aftermath of the great fire of 1961. Here, he discusses the city-state’s public housing sector, its transformative effect on citizens and Singapore’s good economic fortune

Written By:
August 15, 2013
Burn notice
Dr Loh Kah Seng is currently professor at the Institute of East Asian Studies at Sogang University, South Korea, and was previously secretary of the Singapore Heritage Society. Photo by Melissa Sim

How was the great fire the origin of the Singapore we know today?

The fire broke out in a kampong (urban village) named Bukit Ho Swee in 1961 at a historic juncture for Singapore. The island had just become a self-governing state and housing was under the purview of the newly elected People’s Action Party (PAP) government. The fire – the biggest blaze in Singapore’s history – gave the PAP a strong mandate to rehouse nearly 16,000 fire victims in emergency public housing in under a year. This allowed the clearing of kampongs and inner city slums and created a modern city of planned new towns and estates – an urban landscape that persists to this day.

You also mention how the fire transformed many of the people involved into ‘model citizens’. How so?

The fire was not merely a humanitarian disaster, or the rehousing an act of relief. It was a national event that transformed ‘squatters’ into citizens. Gone was the previous ability of kampong dwellers to elude the reach of the state, live in unauthorised housing or partake in unregulated economic activity. As tenants, later owners, of public housing, families were integrated into the expanding structures of the state. The terms of their housing were now dictated by the government, the kampong’s secret societies replaced by community centres, while full-time employment became necessary to pay the bills.

How has Singapore managed its public housing sector?

Public housing continues to be an important plank of the developmental nation. The housing is subsidised by the state but Singaporeans pay for the flats they can afford. Besides continuity, there is unceasing change. The construction of emergency public housing – very basic semi-permanent housing in the early 1960s – was halted by the middle of the decade, as housing standards and expectations rose. By the 1980s, all the emergency housing had been converted to better-quality housing or demolished.

How can Singapore be used as a model for other Southeast Asian cities with large squatter settlements?

One would be cautious about ‘models’. Other countries in Southeast Asia have vast hinterlands from which continuous streams of migrants move into the informal settlements of the city. There, too, informal settlers are not easily cleared: they are cultivated by politicians or are well organised. In the 1940s and 1950s, Western cities such as London were held up as models of proper planning for Asian cities, but they did not work in Southeast Asia.

How has the evolution of Singapore’s urban landscape impacted on society?

The transformation has been nothing short of revolutionary. In a generation, Singaporeans went from being state-wary squatters to a disciplined, home-owning citizenry whose economic contributions have propelled the city-state into First World status. The price of citizenship is the flip side of this great change – people have lost their previous initiative, agency and sense of daring, while the poorest have become disillusioned about the future for themselves and their children.

Why, in your opinion, has Singapore achieved its incredible economic growth and been able to modernise so much faster than its neighbours?
There are many reasons. Singapore was fortunate – the government embarked on a program of export-led industrialisation at a time when firms in the West and Japan were seeking cheaper factory sites and industrial labour overseas. The PAP was single-minded in its economic programming – political opposition was non-existent by the late 1960s. This authoritarianism combined with Western ideas of development and modernisation that were dominant in the post-Second World War period, and which the PAP eagerly appropriated and implemented.

How is the balance of power in the region shifting from the state to global capital, and what effect will this have?

Global capital is penetrating Southeast Asian cities and creating very similar swathes of urban space: the mega malls, hi-tech infrastructure and private housing. Gavin Shatkin has warned about the threat such privately owned areas pose to social activism, which thrives in public spaces. But global capital also continues a long process initiated by colonial and then nationalist capital – which is that of weaving people into imperial, national, and now transnational frameworks. In this sense, Southeast Asians will continue to encounter forms of domination and have to struggle to preserve their community.

Why did the public housing revolution work in Singapore but not so much in other Southeast Asian nations?

There is no easy answer. There are many common explanations – that housing and planning in other countries were hamstrung by the lack of political will, inadequate finance and poor policy coordination. These failings are actually not causes, but symptoms. Ultimately, it may not be realistic to expect replication. This is where one pays heed to context – state-led housing and economic development worked in a particular timeframe in Singapore, whereas circumstances differed elsewhere. 

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