young and without history 2007

‘Being “Young” and “Without History”: Reflections of a Young Researcher into Recent Singapore History’. Asiaview. 17, November 2007: 6-7.

‘Coming back here to do research feels like returning to my own past’, I wrote in an open letter to residents of Bukit Ho Swee Estate when I conducted fieldwork in Singapore for my PhD dissertation. Inviting individuals who had experienced the great fire of Kampong Bukit Ho Swee in 1961 to participate in my research, the letter added, somewhat self-consciously, ‘I am a Singaporean born after the fire in 1972. My father’s family had lived along Havelock Road and had fled from the fire, although their kampong was not burnt. I was born in Blk 29, Havelock Road, and later lived in Jalan Membina and Indus Road [places in the vicinity of Bukit Ho Swee]’.

Young Singaporean scholars like myself venturing into the nation’s recent history are likely to be influenced in some way by the present. It may be, as in my case, a personal connection or a broader response to real-life developments and concerns in contemporary Singapore. This article, in discussing my research into the Bukit Ho Swee fire, considers the relationship between the past and present and between the old and young.

The subject of my doctoral research is a watershed event, being the greatest fire in Singapore’s history, burning down a massive urban kampong (‘village’ in Malay) and rendering 15,694 people, mostly low-income Chinese, homeless. In the aftermath, the fire victims were swiftly rehoused in emergency flats built on the fire site by the Housing and Development Board. I examine the inferno as a case study of the social transformation of Singapore in the first decade of the People’s Action Party (PAP) government. The Bukit Ho Swee disaster is officially depicted as a ‘blessing in disguise’ in clearing what was allegedly ‘an insanitary, congested and dangerous squatter area’ and enabling the ‘emergence of Bukit Ho Swee Estate: from desolation to progress’. Such an account of the fire indicates, as James Scott contended, the ‘self-confidence about scientific and technical progress’ which typified ‘high modernism’; what is emphasised is the progress which came afterward, not what was lost in the flames. My thesis sought to establish what the fire meant to the fire victims and to the government which responded vigorously to the disaster. This involved research into the official archives and interviews with former kampong dwellers, many of whom still live in or visit Bukit Ho Swee, now a graying estate close to the town area.

To be born after the fire in present-day Singapore is to be ‘young’. There are several historical frames defining the ‘old’ and ‘young’ – the Japanese Occupation, the ‘trials and tribulations’ of political development in the 1950s and early 1960s and the unforeseen independence of the nation in 1965 – but all share the one requirement of having experienced the landmark events in recent history. ‘Young Singaporeans’, also labelled ‘post-1965ers’ in the press, are purportedly ‘without history’, having been born in the supposedly rosy phase of Singapore’s development after 1965. A generation ago, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew defined this divide by stating that while his generation ‘faced Japanese Occupation, conquest, hardships, brutalities’, the younger generation ‘have had relatively quiet and placid a life’.

If the recent history so framed disempowered me, it was also compelling. This is after all the period closest to the present; it explains how I am part of this successful, stable but also highly regulated, forward-looking society. It also witnessed the rise to power of the PAP, the party which has since established hegemony over the city-state. Many young Singaporean scholars who venture into the recent past, I think, do so in the pursuit of answers to personal and social questions, such as ‘How did Singapore reach its present state?’, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is our future?’ Whereas the PAP Old Guard and older local researchers typically frame the recent past as a success story to highlight the vulnerability of the present and the need for continued PAP governance, the younger scholars are turning to it to independently appraise this official ‘Singapore Story’.

In my endeavour, oral history enabled me to bridge the gap with the ‘old’. Speaking to low- and middle-income Singaporeans, mostly postwar baby boomers now in their 60s and 70s, I obtained an acute sense of both the achievement and loss among the generation which experienced the fire and the profound changes in everyday life which followed. I was re-acquainted with the Hokkien ‘dialect’ (more accurately, language) used by many interviewees but which is losing touch among younger Chinese typically schooled in English and Mandarin. What struck me, having grown accustomed to thinking of vernacular Hokkien as a coarse tongue, was its simple charm when spoken by lowly-educated Chinese. The local place names used by the kampong dwellers, unlike the official English versions, are important clues to their historical relationship with the physical environment. Ma Kau Thiong (‘Macau cemetery’ in Hokkien) was the vernacular term for the disused Cantonese-Hakka cemetery adjacent to Kampong Bukit Ho Swee; it was an important place in the rhythm of kampong life, where pigs roamed freely and unsupervised children played around the gravestones and dug around for bones. Hokkien words and phrases, too, provide an important insight into the mindset of low-income Chinese which English can never adequately express. Trying to make a living in the 1950s by hawking or doing other forms of part-time or irregular work which was typical among low-income Chinese in that decade was plainly stated as che lor (‘find a road’ in Hokkien). The term indicates the difficulty of life but also the dynamism with which it was tackled.

What surfaces powerfully in the oral histories is the agency and resilience of low-income Chinese, who are customarily depicted in the older narratives to have been ‘led’ to success by the PAP government. An official publication stated that in Kampong Bukit Ho Swee resided ‘an inert community who would not think of moving from their unpleasant and dangerous surroundings until a disaster makes the decision for them’. Oral history, historian Paul Thompson declares, can ‘give history back to the people in their own words’. Speaking with former kampong dwellers helped me understand the deep relationship they had with graves, pigs, gangsters, and inflammable wooden houses in the kampong which the political elite desired to remove. It is illuminating history from the margins.

At the same time, the interviews constantly reminded me of my status of being ‘young’ and ‘without history’. My informants declared how ‘cham’ [‘difficult’ in Hokkien] life was in the past, how ‘people of my generation had the most difficult life’, underlining what I personally did not experience. Accompanying such comments was a nostalgia for the non-economic aspects of kampong life. My interviewees repeatedly highlighted what is now impossible in Singapore – how living in an wooden house was liang (‘well-ventilated’), that the houses were left unlocked in the day and how people were far more helpful to one another. One of them, reflecting on his childhood days in the kampong, observed that ‘there was no interference from the parents, unlike the parents now, who would stop the kid from doing this or that. It was “free concept”, the brain was free. We were more capable, more daring’. In these reminiscences, the rapid development of Singapore under the PAP government sits uneasily in the minds of older Singaporeans. The government is one they truly admire – I am often told that the young Lee Kuan Yew was lua hiong (‘very daring’ in Hokkien) and that Singapore would have been doomed without him. But the profound changes in everyday life which occurred when kampong dwellers were rehoused in public housing and entered a more regulated form of life in the 1960s have left many of them in a position of ambivalence towards the transformation. As sociologist Chua Beng Huat noted, nostalgia for the kampong is ‘an intrinsic critique of the present by the ordinary people’, which belies a desire for ‘recovering control over daily life within the present zone of material comfort’. The oral history indicates how, in a real sense, the fire is still being ‘lived through’ among the elderly people, as they continue to appraise what the kampong, the fire and the subsequent development mean to them.

Through the oral history of the Bukit Ho Swee fire, the event attains, in Shahid Amin’s words, a deeper meaning as a metaphor for the rapid development of modern Singapore and as a focal point for its enduring memory. The relationship between the old and young and between the past and present becomes clear. It is an uneasy one, both for the young scholars attempting to make sense of a recent history from which they are personally removed, and for the elderly participants who are remembering the past and are still considering its meanings.

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