On “Squatters into Citizens” or makings of a nation in the eyes of mainstream sociology

I recently finished reading the interesting book on a signature event in the foundational period of modern Singapore, the Bukit Ho Swee fire. The book is named “Squatters into Citizens” with the subtitle “the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore” and is published by NUS press.


In brief, Bukit Ho Swee fire is a major fire among the chain of fires in the rural (Kampong) settlements of Singapore during 1950s to 1970s. Among the many things that sets it apart from the other fires is its immense scale (16000 people left homeless because of it) and its timing: right when PAP gets elected and is trying to implement its policies (a modernist capitalist society), the fire allows the PAP government to create a national emergency and enables faster implementation of its modern housing projects and clearing of slum areas.


The book explains the events before, during and after the fire and shows how and why it came out to be such an influential turning point in Singapore history. I will try to briefly mention these discussions and point out a few areas where the “mainstream”ness shows itself.


1) Anyone who read a bit about Singapore culture would know the nostalgic “Kampong” sentiments. An in cases such as this book, it is all too easy to fall into such a nostalgia in an attempt to please the readership and look “objective” (by taking a different position than the modernist PAP accounts). However, this book excels in trying to convey both viewpoints on the life in rural areas. You will occasionally read parts where interviewees display this nostalgic attitude; but you almost always will also notice an appreciation of the modern lifestyle. Furthermore, the author makes an interesting case by saying the rural areas were actually very open to modernism in the first place, due to its strong relations with the urban center.


2) Transition from urban to rural, primitive accumulation and centralizing the means of production. One subject where the book is very lacking is conveying how this fire event is placed in the history of humankind. The book is structured to give the sense that this is a particular and unique event, where the possible relations to similar progressions in other societies are hidden\not mentioned. I think it is pretty well known that, the transition to “market economy” always includes a stage where the means of production are centralized to bourgeoisie and masses are forced into wage labour markets. This event, among other things, shows a very clear demonstration of this phenomenon, where previously the ties of the people to the wage labour markets were previously weaker than desired due to a certain level of autonomy and a period of primitive accumulation purges these to set up the stage for markets. This also allows one to better interpret the dual nature of the PAP government both as a moderniser and a bonapartist party. All these chances are missed in this book.


3) Fire itself. This subject is obviously well researched and tells the story of the fire with its tragedy and heroism very well. Of course, in this regard, this is a story about how humans respond to seemingly overwhelming catastrophes.


4) After the event. The sections concerned with the results of the fire is where the meat of the book is. As I already hinted, there’s no grain of a dialectic understanding of the process; but the events are viewed in the simplifying glass of mainstream sociology. Without due attention to conflicting processes and dualities; one is often forced to declare something (“in the final analysis”) “good” or “bad”. However, the story as told in this book is still important to understand the makings of Singapore. The fact that HDB and PAP are so tied in various ways makes this worth reading to political theorists as well.