“GOING once, twice... Fair warning given, sold!” the auctioneer says with finality as he gives his gavel a resounding tap. There’s a pin drop silence as the stunned Singapore Stamp Club members slowly come to terms with the final sale price.
A grubby brown envelope with a violet “HOUSE DESTROYED BY FIRE” cachet has just made history by realising one of the highest prices paid for a post-war postal history item! After recovering from the shock, the room in the Singapore Philatelic Museum erupts into loud applause lasting almost a full minute.
Unable to understand why someone would want to pay good money for a letter sent in the 1960s, I turn to the person sitting next to me to ask him what the fuss is all about. “That’s the famous Bukit Ho Swee cover. The postman was forced to turn back when he saw the entire village engulfed in flames. That blaze remains one of the worst in Singapore’s history,” replies the elderly man, while admitting that he couldn’t remember the details offhand.
“The Civil Defence Heritage Gallery nearby is a good place for you to find out more,” he suggests, before walking to the front to give the bespectacled winning bidder a congratulatory pat on the back.
Suffice to say, my interest is piqued! Braving the slight drizzle, I walk briskly down Coleman Street and turn right into Hill Street. Barely through the gallery’s entrance and suddenly the drab Singapore sky opens up. I heave a sigh of relief, grateful for not getting drenched.
Through the corridors of history
The gallery is located in the Central Fire Station building, the oldest existing fire station in Singapore today. An ex-firefighter by the name of Segar Suppiah manages the gallery.
Taking advantage of the lull in visitors due to the torrential downpour outside, Segar happily guides me towards the Bukit Ho Swee exhibit, giving me a quick overview along the way: “One of Singapore’s biggest fires occurred in Bukit Ho Swee on May 25, 1961. Apart from four fatalities, the blaze left some 16,000 village dwellers homeless and razed a school and score of shops, factories and wooden and attap houses.”
Pausing to pick up a sweet wrapper on the floor, Segar asks me to start with the exhibits on my own while he looks for the dustbin. “Take your time to read the information. The exhibit is just by the replica Bukit Ho Swee street sign over there,” he gestures before walking back to the main entrance.
In an area set to look very much like the village prior to the blaze, I learn from the easy-to-read information boards that the area around Kampung Bukit Ho Swee wasn’t averse to blazes in the past. This place, including two nearby villages, suffered a large-scale fire on Aug 8, 1934 when 500 wooden and attap houses were burnt down. The other significant blaze occurred on Feb 14, 1959
in neighbouring Kampung Tiong Bahru. This catastrophe, which destroyed homes belonging to about 12,000 people, was a foreshadow of that huge fire that would engulf all of Bukit Ho Swee just two years later.
The 1961 blaze, whose cause remains unknown to this day, began at 3.30pm in Kampung Tiong Bahru. Aided by a combination of factors such as strong winds, oil and petrol from nearby godowns, the fire quickly spread across the road to Bukit Ho Swee and in just a very short time, transformed into a raging inferno.
Continuous radio broadcasts were made to recall firefighters and policemen who were away from their duties due to the Hari Raya Haji celebrations. By 6pm, troops from the Singapore Military Force and British army began arriving together with 180 firemen and 20 officers in 16 fire engines.
A nearby diorama of a firefighter dousing a double-storey wooden shophouse sets the stage perfectly as I read about low water pressure from the hydrants hampering rescue efforts. Attempts to reach the fire-stricken areas were also delayed by the congested housing settlement layout as well as throngs of curious onlookers.
Despite the all-out effort by the valiant firemen, the conflagration peaked at 8pm, when the fire spread to Havelock Road before moving to the Delta area. There, the wide Ganges Avenue served as an effective firebreak and finally allowed the blaze to be brought under control.
HEROES AMONG MEN
“Sorry to leave you for so long,” Segar’s voice catches me by surprise. “Meet my two friends who have just turned up,” he continues before introducing me to Muhammad Faisal Asadi and Steven Sim.
Muhammad Faisal, who recently sat for his O-levels examination, is currently serving his national service with the Civil Defence Department. His duties at the Central Fire Station include helping Segar at the gallery.
Meanwhile, Sim is a Secondary 2 student who visits Segar regularly during the weekends. Wildly interested in Civil Defence activities, the lively boy who hails from Woodlands is already planning a career in firefighting.
When asked what sparked his interest, Sim quickly leads us to two medals on display on the opposite side of the gallery. “I want to be like my hero, Kamsan Asimin. Apart from being involved in dousing the blaze in Bukit Ho Swee, Kamsan was also decorated with the Gallantry Medal by Queen Elizabeth II for his heroics during the blaze at Teck Guan Street on April 20, 1954,” replies Sim, pride
in his voice.
“Kamsan’s bravery made the front pages of the Straits Times and Singapore Standard. Members of the public admired his dedication when they got to know that he remained steadfast even after suffering from severe burns on his body and arms,” adds the 14-year-old.
According to a newspaper cutting displayed beside the medals, Kamsan grabbed the fire hose and braved the searing heat while standing atop the turntable ladder. His superior and team superintendent at that time, G.J. Shaw, said that Kamsan didn’t show any signs of backing down even though the fire was menacingly close.
At this juncture, Segar interjects by turning the clock a little further back. “Look all around. This is the place where Kamsan first reported for duty with his friend and neighbour, Mostam Yasman, back in 1947. In the past, this place was called Hill Street Fire Station,” explains Segar.
Apart from Bukit Ho Swee, Kamsan also took part in putting out a huge fire at the Robinson’s Department Store building in Raffles Place. The blaze which occurred on Nov 21, 1972 claimed the lives of nine people who were trapped in the store’s lifts. The inferno damaged the roof of the neighbouring Overseas Union Bank and forced the Stock Exchange in Clifford House at Collyer Quay to stop trading for the day.
A blazing beginning
In the aftermath, the government called for the formation of a commission of inquiry to investigate the tragedy. The commission’s recommendations gave birth to the Building Control Act 1974. The law handed the authorities power to improve building safety, especially those built more than a century ago.
“Fire safety didn’t feature highly in the daily affairs of the people back in late 19th-century Singapore,” explains Segar when Muhammad Faisal asks how fires were dealt with in the past. “Still a very young colony then, we had very limited resources and other far more urgent needs. The act of extinguishing fires largely fell on the shoulders of untrained volunteers and convicts.”
Walking us through several panels dedicated to early fire safety development, Segar continues by telling us that the first Voluntary Fire Brigade was formed in April 1869. The fledgling organisation, staffed by part-time police and army officers, failed miserably when it was put to the test a year
later. Despite having three engines at their disposal, the team discovered that the distance between the blaze and water source was too great. As a result, the building on Malacca Street was gutted.
The lack of a trained and organised force, coupled with a prevalent “to each his own” mode of thinking, not only hampered progress for several years but also led to the loss of many lives and a lot of property.
The idea to hire full-time firemen was mooted on May 8, 1886 and that led to the formation of the Singapore Fire Brigade two years later. The senior officers were British while the firemen were primarily Malay.
The early fire stations, continues Segar, were established within police quarters where fire brigade recruits had to share living spaces and training grounds with their police force counterparts. “Cross Street Fire Station only came into existence in January 1891 after the authorities realised the wisdom of giving the firemen a place to call their own. This was followed by one in Beach Road two years later in 1893. Our Central Fire Station was built in 1909,” shares Segar before announcing that the first two have since ceased operations.
“Coupled with the purchase of two horsedrawn steam fire engines, these developments put Singapore on a firm footing towards having a competent fire fighting force by the turn of the 20th century.”
By the time we reach the last few displays highlighting the activities of Singapore’s modern Civil Defence Force, the earlier downpour has reduced to a slight drizzle. The boys and I learn about the changing landscape of the land and why high-rise fire fighting is now a top priority for the force.
“Unlike in the past, modern firemen have to battle the blaze from within the building. This is really dangerous as air-conditioning units can exacerbate the situation by concentrating heat and smoke,” explains Segar, adding that weekly drills are conducted in commercial buildings to better prepare the firefighters for any eventuality.
Thanking my host for his gracious hospitality and waving farewell to the two boys, I leave the gallery knowing more than just about the Bukit Ho Swee incident. I’ll surely look at fire stations in a different light from now and remember the brave fire fighters of the past.
WHERE Civil Defence Heritage Gallery
62 Hill Street, Singapore
Tel +65 6332 2996