Mdm Lim, 87 years old, through her daughter, Mdm Teo, 60 years old, related to me about how their whole family used to stay in a kampong located at Geylang Lorong 3 in the early 1950s. In those days, the Singapore City were filled with settlements of unauthorised wooden housing called kampongs (villages), home to autonomous communities of low-income families. However in 1953, there were two eventful kampong fires which broke out in Geylang that year – at Lorong 3 and Aljunied Road, where estimated over 2,800 and over 1,000 people respectively lost their homes. Mdm Teo was only two months old when the fire took place. Mdm Teo and her family of eight were then relocated to low-cost houses built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) at the Upper Aljunied resettlement area for 12 years until 1965.
Such semi-permanent housing, which could last only 40-50 years compared to 60-100 years for permanent housing, were meant to be constructed quickly and cheaply and rented out to low-income families. By the end of the 1960s, the urban landscape of the newly-independent Singapore state was dominated by high-rise blocks of modern flats clustered in planned public housing estates built by the government. Mdm Teo and her family were again relocated from the Upper Aljunied resettlement area to the first batch of flats in Circuit Road.
Modern Singapore was born out of fire, and consequently the kampong infernos hold an ambivalent place in contemporary society. As historical events, the fires belong to the past but they remain in the present as personal and social memory. The conflagrations and the emergency public housing, which followed in their wake, helped to create the disciplined, modern nation-state of today, yet they are also an integral part of present-day critiques of both the government and the high modernist philosophy of development, which it has robustly implemented.
(Interviewed and written by Jennifer Teo Kai Ling for the Singapore Memory Project's 'KopiTimes' Campaign)