Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore. By Loh Kah Seng. Singapore: NUS and NIAS Presses, 2013. 330 pp. $38.00 (paper).

Loh Kah Seng’s new book, Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore (NUS & NIAS Presses, 2013) provides a highly interesting social history of urban kampongs in Singapore and the modernist public housing scheme that transformed Singapore. Loh, currently an Assistant Professor at the Institute for East Asian Studies at Sogang University in South Korea, is also the author of Making and Unmaking the Asylum: Leprosy and Modernity in Singapore and Malaysia (2009).

Loh’s book is a well-written and accessible narrative that blends the author’s personal history (his early years in a one-room rental flat and interviews of his parents) with oral history methods, ethnography, and disaster studies. He also analyzes different “mythologies” and the ways they operate in Singapore. In his chapter on memory, myth, and identity, for instance, Loh examines the ways the Bukit Ho Swee fire is treated: from the celebratory official narrative promoted by the People’s Action Party (PAP) in various public texts to the nostalgic view of the kampong and kampong spirit, as well as the “counter-myth” of rumors and “wild talk” that circulated in Singapore about the fire. Each of these “myths” and how they work in shaping views of the past is highly relevant to history educators and anyone interested in the ways different discourses about the past, public policy, and public space work in Singapore. The book also highlights the challenges historians of Singapore often face when they are unable to gain access to public records (e.g., classified government records held by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and the Ministry of Home Affairs).

The book also provides an alternative account and conceptual frame through which Singapore’s past and public spaces can be viewed. Noting that linear and mostly celebratory views of Singapore’s housing policy obscure the resistance and social contestation that took place, Loh demonstrates the ways  policy-makers used a language of crisis (i.e., disease, crime, disorder, social danger, communism, etc.) with scientific-rationalist visions of order and development that didn’t recognize the  agency, self-reliance, and autonomy of local communities. Loh argues that national developmental goals do not necessarily cripple local communities, even though the transitions required by new policies are often painful. Singapore’s kampong culture exhibited high aspirations, social autonomy, a blending of traditional and modern views, and a desire for development that is respectful of traditional values and cultures. Like Pankaj Mishra, in his excellent book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (2012), Loh points to the way traditional or more communal values and capacities can serve as a buffer against social dislocations caused by government interventions.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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