Queenstown tour traces Lee Kuan Yew's footsteps

Among the stops on the SG50 trail is one at the HDB blocks in Stirling Road, a former swampland. The area housed victims of the massive 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

A blaze that razed a settlement in Bukit Ho Swee in 1961 left 16,000 kampung dwellers without a roof over their heads.

The late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, after walking through charred Bukit Ho Swee, memorably declared: "Even if there are 5,000 families affected, we can build enough units to house them all."

His People's Action Party government worked feverishly to relocate the residents in new flats in places such as Queenstown's Stirling Road, which was once swampland.

Over the next few years, Mr Lee and his team built homes and social institutions across Queenstown, Singapore's first satellite estate.

Bukit Ho Swee survivor Chua Soo Heng, 60, recalled that they were ferried in army trucks and rehoused in two-room flats.

"The fire at Bukit Ho Swee spread very quickly and we lost our home overnight... We were lucky to get a flat," the Queenstown resident said in an oral history interview with civic group My Community.

This slice of history can now be relived under a new tour of Queenstown that will have participants walking in Mr Lee's footsteps.

The Stirling Road blocks are one of 10 stops in the tour organised by My Community and the Queenstown Citizens' Consultative Committee. The SG50 trail, which will run from 9am to noon from Aug 7 to Aug 10, can take up to 50 people each time.

My Community's founder, Mr Kwek Li Yong, said the tribute trail was developed after Mr Lee's death in March.

Calling Queenstown "a microcosm of Singapore", he said: "Its development represents a turning point in Singapore's history when Singaporeans were encouraged to leave their kampungs for concrete flats."

Other stops include Commonwealth Close estate, where an iconic photo of Mr Lee standing between two housing blocks was taken in 1965.

Commonwealth Close is where the Housing Board launched its Home Ownership For The People scheme in 1964. The image represents Mr Lee's vision in transforming Singapore into a society of home-owners and was widely shared online after his death.

The stops also include the social institutions personally launched by Mr Lee or members of his team, including then finance minister Goh Keng Swee.

One of them is the former Baharuddin Vocational Institute in Queensway, which focused on providing courses such as dressmaking, furniture design and pottery.

At its opening on June 20, 1965, Mr Lee said the Government would build schools "to teach our children modern techniques to fit themselves for the modern technological civilisation".

Meanwhile, Dr Goh had opened as many as 30 factories in Tanglin Halt Industrial Estate.

They include the Van Houten chocolate factory, Setron electronics factory and mercantile house Sime Darby.

Tour participants will also get to walk past the trees that Mr Lee planted along Alexandra Canal.

Other highlights include the former Queenstown Polyclinic, the former Queenstown Remand Prison, and the Queenstown Public Library, which was awarded conservation status in 2013.

The prison was where former Workers' Party leader J.B. Jeyaretnam and party chairman Wong Hong Toy were jailed after they were found guilty of making a false declaration about party accounts in 1984.

Organisers said participants will get to see the good and the bad of the early nation-building years.

Said My Community's vice-president, Mr Jasper Tan: "Participants can get a clear perspective of how Singapore developed over time, walking the grounds of Queenstown with us."

This article was first published on July 31, 2015.
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