Monday, March 15, 2010

The Scars of Detention

By Michael Fernandez

“A woman will always sacrifice herself if you give her the opportunity. It is her favourite form of self-indulgence.”
W.Somerset Maugham(1874---1965)…THE CIRCLE(1921)

In July 1961, when the Utusan Melayu staff went on strike in K.L and Singapore . UMNO wanted to control its editorial policy. Said Zahari , its editor-in-chief, not only lost his job but also was banned from entering Malaya by the Tunku. It was lifted by Dr.Mahathir Mohamed in 1989 He was a Singapore Citizen. For the next one and a half years during this politically ferment period he gave seminars and talks to various civic groups---students, media, and trade unions.

I knew Said Zahari’s family quite well; was able to have a frank exchange of views and information a few weeks ago at their home (Subang Jaya USJ).The whole family was there: Said and his wife Salamah, their eldest son, Roesman older daughter, Rismawati, Norman, and the youngest, Noorlinda and also most of the grandchildren.

During the early hours of the morning of 2nd Feb 1963, a team of Internal Security Officers in Singapore led by ASP Hashim arrested Said Zahari. About 120 leftwing activists were also detained in the “Operation Cold Store” Salamah bte Abdul Wahab, the wife of Said, whose kids Roesman (6 yrs), Rismawati (5), Norman (3 ½) who was adopted by Salamah’s sister (he was not around), and the youngest, to be born a few months later, was perhaps kicking her mother’s womb protesting against the ISD officers. On seeing the silent tears of Salamah, ASP Hashim tried to comfort her :“ Don’t worry, cik Salamah, we are taking Encik Said…only for a while.”

Thereafter, Salamah was always looking through the main door everyday for a taxi or a car to stop and let out Said;. three days went by, no sign of Said; a week past, still no sign of her husband…She tried to pacify her two older children saying “ Bapak would be back soon. He is away on work!” It was not until three weeks later that she was allowed to see him for a brief 20 minutes in the Central Police Station lock- up in Singapore. She was upset with ASP Hashim for his “ for a while” statement, a fellow Malay and a Muslim. She felt there was no need for him to lie to her. She found it difficult to forgive.

MF: I believe that while Said was working, you never went to work. You stayed at home to look after your husband and children. What did you do?

Salamah:“ For the first nearly six years, we lived with my parents in Singapore. My father Abdul Wahab, a well-known Jockey/trainer, had a few houses in Singapore, K.L., Ipoh and Penang. We hardly experienced any difficulties: the children went to school regularly. Little Linda was going to K.G. II Chinese Medium, and some of Said’s political friends came regularly to the house to help Linda in her studies particularly Chinese”

MF: “After your parents moved out to live in K.L., what did you do to earn a living? “

Salamah :I sold hawkers food. At that time, Roesman (15) and Rismawati,(14) had only a vague idea that their father was a “ political detainee” they could not understand its true meaning. For that matter, I too have only a hazy idea of what “political detainee” meant. At times, both Roesman and Risma used to grumble. Because their father was cooped up in prison; they had to do a lot of chores which Bapak, should or would have done: they had to get up very early at 5.00 am; cut vegetable; wash the fish including the “ikan bilis”, Boil and cut the eggs ; wash and cut the banana leaves; boil the rice and other little chores. But the grumpiest part of their daily routine was rushing back to the Hawkers’ Stall at Kallang Place in Singapore immediately after school in order to help wash up and pack up the pots and pans. In those days it was not easy to get a” trishaw” to go home. On the way, I used to drop at the Geylang Serai market to buy the groceries for the following day. Both Roesman and Risma had to come back to the market to carry the things back home. Thus the children had very little time to study or play with other children of their age. It was tough for them and I must admit that quite often for small mistakes I used to cane them .I vented all my frustrations on them. And if the beating was at night, the older ones used to run out of the house and the next victim was the smallest…Linda!

At this point,Linda, who was seated on the floor leaning against her mother’s

Lap, gestured to me the beatings she used to get! The whole family burst out laughing at her precise gestures.

It was on these occasions that I longed for my husband to be beside me to comfort me, to advise me what to do, to lighten my aching burden of responsibilities, to help me rest from these daily increasing problems which were taking a heavy toll on my nerves. And I often had splitting head-aches .

Many a time I felt like giving up in despair; but every time I thought of doing that the thought of facing Said after that was the shame I could not think about. But what kept me going was the promise I made to Said when he teasingly asked me once and I replied rather heroically:”I’ll carry on somehow, don’t worry…”

MF: “You had an operation at the Singapore General Hospital, When was it ,Salamah, Is it ok to talk about it? I hope its not too painful to dwell on it”

Salamah:”no. It is a bit painful still to recall…Yes, it was one of the darkest trials of my life…it was in June 1968….I was lying semi-conscious in the hospital after my operation to remove my cancerous breast!..In my heart I really wished that the operation would free me from this cruel world. When I was admitted, our family friend, Dr.Beatrice Chen, a Kidney Specialist, and wife of Dr. Lim Hock Siew, a fellow detainee with my husband, did not tell me that I had cancer, …. that my breast was to be removed! I heard the truth from Said’s mouth when he was brought to the Hosp[ital, escorted by two Internal Security Officers.”


During the Interview, Salamah related a few incidents she could remember vividly:

On one occasion, the Internal Security Officers at the weekly family visit in Changi Prison introduced a rule not to allow more than two people at a time. Salamah brought her two older children…Roesman and Rismawati. They would not allow Risma in. It was a human tug-of-war between Salamah on one side and an ISD officer on other side…the little Risma provided herself as the “rope”.Salamah shouted and cursed them for their inhuman behaviour, till they gave up in despair and cancelled the “rule of two only ”

Another rule they introduced was not to allow detainees to receive cooked-food from home except on festive occasions like Chinese New Year, Deepavali, Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji. On a Hari Raya Puasa occasion the ISD officers wanted to cut up the “Ketupat”(steamed rice in a thatched-leafy container) into several pieces for “security” reasons. Salamah protested and scolded them,” These are for human beings to eat, not for animals!”, she lashed out at them. When she angrily picked up the “bunch” of Ketupat to throw at them, they relented and gave in. They even wanted to cut up the chicken in the chicken-curry. Her outburst was so furious that they gave up but warned her that it was the last time she would get away with it.

She was also unhappy with the Singapore authorities for discriminating her. Though she was born in KL she lived most of her life in Singapore. She studied in the Methodist Girl’s School in Singapore. In 1968, when she applied for a Hawker’s licence to sell food, the Govt. turned it down saying she was a Malaysian. She had to “rent” a stall to sell food. Quite often the Stall-owners got into trouble if they were not around whenever the Health Officer came to inspect the stalls.


Perhaps the most heart-rending trauma that Salamah, the wife of Said Zahari experienced was from the relatives of both sides. Hers and his. When the newspapers were howling mad at Said’s friendship with the Brunei rebel leader Azahari and his friendship with Lim Chin Siong, Mahadeva and others, Salamah came under increasing pressure from the relatives:They often hinted unkind words; sneered at her helplessness; poked fun at her children about their absent father; made snide remarks about her freedom from her husband.

Salamah related to me an incident that took place in her mother’s house late 1968 when her parents were preparing to move to KL permanently. It was a few months after her cancer operation and just after she started selling food at a Hawker’s Stall. Salamah’s mother invited Said’s mother, some of his brothers and his sister for a “Kendoori”( a Malay feast). In her Mother’s house, apart from her parents, her sisters and a couple of her brothers were also present. It was a rare occasion that Salamah witnessed. When all were assembled in the hall, Said’s mother asked her about the food business When she told her it was “susah”(difficult), she added:”,Memang-lah.(of course, it was difficult).”Said’s mother continued, “ Did you tell Said it was tough?” When Salamah didn’t answer,Said’s mother shouted,” Tell me ,why didn’t you tell him? Why didn’t you ask him to come out? To look after you and his children? Why? ” “I have never seen Said’s mother so angry”, Salamah recounted to me. “I answered rather meekly, ‘I didn’t want to upset Said unduly’.. She lashed out again, ‘what rubbish are you talking?’ Then a female voice, who shall remain unnamed ,said, in an even tone, ‘listen,,We all wish you and the children a good life. You can’t live by selling hawker’s food. You must persuade, no, force him to come out. If he is stubborn, give him an ultimatum and then divorce him and get married again. You are still young!” then several voices murmured” ,BETUL!”’(true) .I couldn’t take it any more.. Then I shouted :‘”I can’t do that!” Then her own mother also added, ”Its for your own good” Then another female voice shouted sarcasticall” ,She doesn’t want to ask Said to come out….because she can be free to do what she wants..”These cruel words pierced her like stab wounds. Covering her tearful eyes, Salamah ran out of ..the house, wanted to escape from everybody and everything…she went behind the house and just sobbed and cried her heart out…

Their words were certainly cruel , but, were they malicious? Or were they uttered out of genuine concern for her and her chidren? Salamah cursed her husband within her heart for putting her through such malicious attacks but she recovered soon enough to take comfort in her passionate love for her husband. Their heartless words only strengthened her love for her husband, and faith in Allah and she prayed hard for greater patience and strength to bear these and more tribulations.


“Research has shown that the more nurturing the father the more masculine the son and the less promiscuous the daughter…Every Child deserves a loving and committed father” Dr. Michael O’Donnel, a U.S. child psychologist.

A few weeks ago, when I interviewed Said Zahari, his wife Salamah, his four children and most of his 16 grandchildren who were there whom Said described as his “only wealth”, at his small terrace house in USJ, Subang Jaya, KL.

Roesman, 44,was a tower of strength to his mother and his brother and two sisters. Though he could not understand at first why” Bapak”(father) was sitting in prison while he and his sisters toiled with his mother to support the family. Gradually when he understood that Bapak was struggling even in Prison to fight for social justice, he adopted his father’s ideals as his own and tried to live up to it as the loyal son of Said Zahari:. Roesman studied law at a private college in KL but had to abandon it half-way in order to go back to Singapore to help his mother sell food He worked hard to support his mother, lived as an example to his brother and sisters, later to his wife and his two daughters of whose achievements he’s justly proud.

Rismawati , literary-minded like her father, was the letter-writer for the family. She used to give her father all the news of the family in her weekly letters. With her husband, she runs a kindergarten cum childcare centre.

Norman Noordin alias Norman Said …he was adopted by his mother’s older sister, a nurse, Saliah ,who married Dr. Raja Ahmad Noordin( now Tan Sri Raja Ahmad Noordin) . He was educated in the UK and US. He’s now a senior executive in a private firm. Norman lives near his natural parents and visits them regularly.

Noorlinda, the baby of the family has six children of her own to look after. However she refuses to have a maid even though her engineer husband advised her to have one. She was in her mother’s womb when Papa was arrested in 1963. She had no feeling for her father until very recently. Though she’s 38, she told a human Rights Convention in KL, when she was only 12, in 1975, the ISD officers in Singapore never allowed her father to touch her or cuddle her; and that she could only speak to her father over the phone whenever she visited him in prison. She grew up a stranger to her father.

Said’s two eldest Grand-daughters(Roesman’s):Shirin and Shauna, both in their late teens told me that ‘ ..Toh(grand-dad) has been and will always be our role model”. Shirin just completed her Diploma in Mass Communication and likely to follow her grand-father’s footsteps, and Shauna is entering International Islamic University to study law. Both are not only lovely-looking but are very bright particularly very skilful in English language. They had their early education in Singapore.

Conclusion: Who sacrificed and suffered the most? For the family and for the country: Was it Said Zahari the husband or Salamah, the wife. It is obvious, as Said Zahari himself stated in his DEDICATION to the book DARK CLOUDS AT DAWN( A Political Memoirs) that her “sacrifices and sufferings were a thousand times more than mine” the real heroine in this tragic story is Salamah… Why did she sacrifice the man she loved so passionately to the Changi Prison, the husband on whom her children and she depended; the father of her young kids? Was it for some personal glory or for some financial reward? Or for some high position in society? She went through this trauma for 17 years , for what ? Some would call her a “fool”, some others would merely “pity” her, and very few would really support her unwavering stand. Was the sacrifices and sufferung she went through only for the love of her husband? Was it anything to do with Said Zahari’s ideal of democracy, social justice .and Press Freedom which is still a burning issue?

I asked Salamah (now 65): Have all the wounds you received both physical and emotional from various sources been healed”….. ”ever since Said lost his editorship job in 1961.?.”

She hesitated for a moment, frowned and knit her eyebrows and said slowly and deliberately,”Most of them have healed. But the big scars like the one on my breast will never heal…would be permanent scars to remind both of us what we went through together”.

Michael Fernandez.

(The writer, in Singapore, has been a long-time family friend of Said Zahari and was with him in the Changi Prison in Singapore. Written in June 2002)

Footnote: Said Zahari lost his wife in 2005? Lives with his daughter, rismawati and her family still in Subang Jaya. He is about 85 with a lot of the usual oldage ailments: diabetics, heart problems and weak legs…hes got severe cramps on both his legs and mostly confined to the wheelchair…yet his spirits are high…always smiling and takes the ups and downs of life as matter- of- factly because every year he survives he considers a blessing from God because he is a deeply religious man but not in the ritual sense.

The Left-Wing Trade Unions in Singapore, 1945-1970

By Michael Fernandez & Loh Kah Seng

Paper written for the Paths Not Taken symposium (July 2005)

The story of the trade union movement in Singapore, like other aspects of the nation’s postwar political history, is customarily told from the perspective of the victors, the People’s Action Party (PAP). From the early 1960s, PAP leaders began to deride left-wing trade union leaders – their former allies – as front men of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), seeking to bring Malaya and Singapore under communist rule through a united front strategy, or as pawns manipulated by the MCP. The paradigm of communist subversion has been embellished in the 1980s in several “semi-academic” publications, based on the interviews of PAP leaders and official documents.2 In conventional history, the PAP’s suppression of the “communist-led” unions is held to herald the “modernisation” of the labour movement and as crucial for the development of Singapore’s post-1965 industrial economy.3 The only academic work written before the 1990s which resisted this meta-narrative somewhat is Yeo Kim Wah’s landmark book on postwar politics in Singapore, which unfortunately ends in 1955.4

As late as 2001, Carl Trocki lamented that “virtually nothing has been written about the history of labour and development of the labour movement”.5 This is true but the meta-narrative of communist subversion has been partially undermined in the 1990s by both academics and left-wing participants of the 1950s and 1960s. The memoirs and interviews of the leftists, whose views are vital for an alternative perspective, suggest that the driving force behind their enterprise was not communism but anti-colonialism. In his interview by Melanie Chew, Lim Chin Siong denied he had any connection with the MCP and suggested that “certain splinter groups” from the party, rather than its Central Committee, were working on their initiative in the Hock Lee Bus strike.6 This view is corroborated by Chin Peng, the former MCP Secretary-General, who revealed that “I don’t think we can control it [the united front strategy] from far away. It would depend on the man on the spot. They discussed among themselves and they coordinated their activities, not controlled from the Central”.7 Similarly some scholars have cast doubt on the notion of the MCP as a powerful puppet master. Lee Ting Hui stated that the MCP’s aim in the 1950s was not to seize power in Singapore but limited to “re-gathering and regrouping of strength”.8 Tim Harper, in his political biopic on Lim Chin Siong, maintained that the party’s “role now looks less all-encompassing than previously supposed”, being significantly weakened by police arrests by 1954.9

The themes of the new scholarship, premised on the notion of writing history from the left’s own perspectives, are idealism and anti-colonialism. Harper’s portrayal of Lim Chin Siong as a nationalist, based on a reading of Colonial Office records against the grain,10 corroborates C. J. W-L Wee’s study of Lim in Lee’s Lieutenants, which drew from the Melanie Chew interview.11 Using recently-released Singapore Harbour Board (SHB) documents, Liew Kai Khiun provided a sympathetic view of Jamit Singh, General-Secretary of the Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association (SHBSA), as an idealist inspired by the decolonisation struggle in Southeast Asia.12 Liu Hong and Wong Sin-Kiong have delved into Chinese trade union records to put forth a plausible story of the unions from their perspectives, which casts “the workers as heroes”.13 This paper, similarly, seeks to provide a window into the left-wing trade union movement from the inside. It ventures that the movement’s militant stance on labour issues and its involvement in Singapore’s politics were logical consequences of the historical context within which it originated and developed. The insider’s approach is admittedly not without limitations. It will not provide definitive answers to important questions outside the participants’ knowledge, say, the MCP’s role in the movement. On these issues, the conclusions ventured must be taken as provisional. The aim rather is to detach the trade union movement from the meta-narrative of communist subversion and unravel some of the myths and misconceptions resulting from that narrative, so the movement can be understood historically, as a product of its times.

“Trade unionism and politics are one and the same”14

The trade union movement was shaped by the historical context. In the early twentieth century when it originated, Chinese workers, who comprised the majority of Singapore’s working class, belonged to associations based on locality, surname and kinship or to guilds comprising of workers and employers, organisations generally controlled by the employer. The leading Chinese businessmen collaborated with the British regime, which appointed them to the Legislative Council, Municipal Commission and Chinese Advisory Board and as Justices of the Peace.15 To build up a credible bargaining power against employers backed by the colonial administration, the labour movement had to be militant, political and anti-colonial. The British government noted in 1946 that the unions’ militancy, exemplified in the use of strikes to establish their power to workers and employers, was “a stage in the growth of Unionism in this country which is to be expected and which must be outgrown if democracy is to take root and grow in this colony”.16 Since it was the colonial regime which subjugated them, the left saw the fight for the workers’ economic interests as inextricably linked to the struggle for political self-determination. The labour movement, in short, was an endeavour to restore to the worker his dignity and full rights as a person.17

The relationship between politics and trade unionism needs to be properly understood, for it has frequently been misrepresented. Carl Trocki claimed that the left-wing unions placed the political agenda above economic aims.18 This was not the view of the unionists, for whom the distinction between the economic and political was not that clear-cut. They were committed foremost to workers’ economic interests, as the Fitzpatrick Branch of the Industrial Workers’ Union (IWU) maintained: “economic security was given first priority among the aims of our leaders”.19 Union leaders held that unions must be autonomous: as James Puthucheary, Lim Chin Siong’s deputy in the Singapore Factory and Shop Workers’ Union (SFSWU), asserted, “trade unions should influence political parties and not vice versa”.20 Chen Say Jame, Secretary-General of the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union (SBWU), emphasised that while he was willing to work with the communists to achieve union goals, the union must not become the MCP’s instrument.21 To safeguard workers’ interests, left-wing union leaders believed, labour had to become a primary player in the country’s politics and consequently “[p]olitical agitation is…inseparable from any labour movement”.22 The Singapore Commercial Houses and Factory Employees’ Union (SCHFEU) explained:

The working conditions of the workers are related to the social system and the nature of the existing system. Therefore the fight to improve the working conditions cannot be isolated from the struggle for a pro-workers’ Government and a fair and democratic Society.23

Unionists saw it imperative to align with politicians who were genuinely committed to advancing workers’ interests. They were aware that workers, being pragmatic in outlook, could not be organised for “political strikes”. Only through advancing workers’ interests could unions win their support towards the long-term political goal. The SBWU, as Fong Swee Suan explained, won over the bus workers because, unlike the moderate unions, it did not try to work through government machinery, but “took the initiative and lead [sic] the workers to raise their living standard”.24

The need for labour to have a “political arm” was reinforced by war. The decisive British defeat by the Japanese and the experience of harsh rule by an alien power between 1942 and 1945 profoundly cultivated anti-colonial sentiments in the minds of future trade union leaders. James Puthucheary joined the Indian National Army in 1943 and fought British forces in Burma.25 Devan Nair, a self-confessed communist who switched to the PAP side after his release from detention in 1959, supported the MCP-dominated Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) during the occupation.26 A new generation of nationalists emerged, with a strong desire to end colonial rule and achieve the emancipation of workers, and was to become the political allies of the left-wing unionists after the war.

The postwar trade union movement imagined itself as part of a global labour and anti-colonial movement.27 In Singapore, as in many other developing countries, it became an integral part of the anti-imperialist struggle. Devan Nair recalled that he “was profoundly affected…by the mighty tides of social and political revolution which swept over the Asian continent….The names and pronouncements of the Great Titans of this Asian revolution – of men like Soekarno, Mao Tse Tung, Nehru and Gandhi fired our imaginations”.28 Awareness of the Chinese Communist Party’s victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949 and of the international decolonisation movement, in which communists were frequently at the forefront, fused radical anti-colonial politics in Singapore with the language and spirit of Marxism. Lim Chin Siong explained:

The 1950s was a very exciting period throughout Afro-Asia and Latin America. It witnessed the collapse of the colonial empires and the emergence of many independent states! Of all these developments, the victory of the Chinese Communist Party and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China had far-reaching consequences.

Ever since the October Revolution when the Russian Communist Party succeeded in building a socialist state in Russia, it was thought that a new era had come. Many Socialists in the world believed that the people in the colonies and the semi-colonies [such as China], must unite and join forces with the Socialists, headed by Russia. And the complete emancipation of the colonial people could only be achieved through proletariat leadership. The success of the Socialist movement at that time came as a great encouragement and excitement to us.29

To most leftists, despite their sympathy to communist ideas, they were not doctrinaire Marxists but socialists, a point lost on their anti-communist opponents and on many scholars. Chen Say Jame commented that he found out who the “communists” were only after they were detained, and insisted that the search for unity made ideological distinctions secondary:

I felt that in the 1950s strikes by bus workers, the employers were using the colonial regime to deal with the workers. The Hock Lee Bus Company was the most obvious, using Special Branch personnel and government fire engines, while the government also used the company to suppress the workers. Thus I felt that the strikes were a battle against the colonial government. Many people thought that the MCP was involved, because the MCP could not be seen. But it was not our responsibility to find out who was a communist. At that time, our greatest strength was to unite everyone against the colonial power, that was the most important thing. We did not want to divide into who I was, who you are, like during the Sino-Japanese War, when China was divided into the Nationalist Party and the Communist Party. Division will only lead to doom.30

End of war: a brief dawn for trade unionism

The history of the trade union movement is of its attempt to establish itself, in partnership with political parties, as a permanent voice in Singapore’s politics. In the 1920s, inspired by the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement in China, Chinese workers in Malaya and Singapore began to organise independently of employers. The MCP, formed in 1930 and more radical than the traditional Chinese associations, encouraged the formation of unions along Western lines in the mid-1930s. Among a number of Malaya-wide strikes for higher wages in 1936-1937, those involving Chinese rubber workers, miners and other industrial workers were led by the MCP-controlled Malayan General Labour Union (GLU).31 These Chinese unions, however, failed to bridge ethnic divides and embrace the Indians and Malays, as the MCP was essentially a Chinese party. In 1940, the British government belatedly recognised the legality of trade unions by passing the Trade Unions Ordinance and the Industrial Courts Ordinance, but this was apparently a propaganda attempt to win over the Malayan working class in the context of war in Europe.32 Prior to the Pacific War, official protection was not forthcoming for workers, whose welfare was largely dependent on employers’ goodwill.

Immediately after the war until the MCP’s armed insurrection in mid-1948, left-wing trade unionists revived their collaboration with the communists and achieved some initial success. The MCP was a legal organisation, and popular too, having endeared itself to the Chinese population by its anti-Japanese activities during the war. With little savings under Japanese rule, workers now faced pressing economic problems: low wages, high cost of living, which in December 1946 was 3¼ times that in 1939,33 and the shortage of rice, their chief staple, inflated prices. To many, the MCP appeared the most progressive force for resolving these problems. The party, conversely, “concentrated on expanding its popular base as a prelude to capturing power through working up popular resentment against the BMA [British Military Administration] and through labour unrest”.34 Chin Peng attributed this united front policy to Lai Teck, the party Secretary-General, who overrode the rest of the Central Committee desiring revolutionary struggle.35 Partnership with the MCP also involved the English-educated leaders of the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU), who felt that “one by one we can be broken, but when we stand together no one can prevail against us”.36 The Trade Unions Ordinance, which the government put into operation in May 1946 to control the unions, made their registration compulsory. The number of unions grew rapidly, as shown in Table 1, from 11 in 1946 to 177 in 1948. Nonetheless the MCP did not control labour in its entirety. The party was more influential in unions made up of Chinese-speaking industrial workers from small-medium Chinese firms than in unions in the Naval Base and other British military services, the public service such as the Municipality and Public Works Department (PWD), and large commercial firms such as the STC and other bus companies.37

Table 1

Number of Trade Unions and Employee Unions in Singapore, 1946-1965

Year Total unions Total union membership No. employee unions Employee union membership
1946 11 N.A. 8 18,673
1947 163 N.A. 126 96,067
1948 177 76,000 118 74,367
1949 132 51,654 93 47,301
1950 133 53,561 91 48,595
1951 147 63,228 107 58,322
1952 164 69,152 122 63,831
1953 176 78,806 133 73,566
1954 181 81,741 136 76,452
1955 236 145,112 187 139,317
1956 265 163,137 205 157,216
1957 277 147,132 216 140,710
1958 281 135,255 218 129,159
1959 238 152,639 176 146,579
1960 190 150,554 130 144,770
1961 184 170,193 124 164,462
1962 178 194,904 122 189,032
1963 170 148,641 112 142,936
1964 160 163,128 106 157,050
1965 164 119,832 106 113,754

Compiled from SAR 1946-1965.

The fledging labour activism reflected its anti-colonial and pro-communist influences. The unions and the Singapore GLU, the MCP’s labour arm, carried out 92 strikes in 1946-1947 to improve workers’ welfare and unite them. The first strike in October 1945 saw 7,000 SHB workers down tools to protest the high cost of living, demand higher wages and condemn the shipment of ammunition to Java (apparently to be used against the Indonesian nationalists).38 They obtained a 20% wage rise at the end of the month. The SGLU also pledged its support for independence movements in Vietnam, India and Indonesia, and the International Labour Organisation meeting in Paris, and praised the Soviet Union in its war against fascism and the MCP for its anti-Japanese efforts.39 A wave of strikes followed in December for improved wages, allowances and working conditions among STC workers, firemen, hospital attendants, cabaret girls, and Municipality and PWD workers. In January 1946, the SGLU mobilised 200,000 people in a protest strike against the arrest of Soong Kwong, leader of the Selangor MPAJA, and others for holding court to try a Japanese collaborator. Soong Kwong was released and the strike hailed a success, although the police retaliated in mid-February by raiding SGLU offices. Another wave of strikes broke out in June-July among SHB artisans and dockers, postmen, power station workers, lightermen, and Naval Base labourers for improved pay and allowances, and again in early 1947 among STC, SHB and Municipality employees. According to Yeo Kim Wah, 101 out of the 119 strikes between October 1945 to September 1947 were successful in their economic demands.40 Politically, the unions’ increased bargaining power was an important part of the broad pan-Malayan alliance of political parties and business and labour associations pressing for equal rights for the people of Malaya in 1946-1948, although the Anglo-Malay collaboration won out with the establishment of the Federation of Malaya in February 1948, which endorsed Malay special rights.

Table 2

Number and Causes of Strikes in Singapore, 1955-1965

Year No.


% strikes for economic reasons* % strikes for sympathy % strikes for other causes
1955 275 40.0 49.1 10.9
1956 29 58.6 0.0 41.4
1957 27 66.7 3.7 29.6
1958 22 72.7 0.0 27.3
1959 40 70.0 0.0 30.0
1960 45 62.2 0.0 37.8
1961 116 59.5 0.0 40.5
1962 88 73.9 0.0 26.1
1963 47 70.2 0.0 29.8
1964 39 71.8 0.0 28.2
1965 31 90.3 0.0 9.7

Compiled from SAR 1955-1965.

* Economic reasons include wage increases, arbitrary dismissal, retrenchment, and conditions of service.

After 1947, however, the labour movement was undermined by economic and political developments. Where large profits had previously made employers agreeable to strikers’ demands, the improvement of the economy reduced labour’s bargaining power and its willingness to strike.41 The Singapore Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), the successor to the GLU, had at times to coerce workers to strike. Only eleven out of thirty-five strikes between July 1947 and June 1948 were successful. More importantly, the colonial regime adopted a more hardline posture towards the unions. Tightened labour laws on the administration and membership of unions made it more difficult for the communists to gain control and barred convicted communists from holding office. In April 1948, the British raided SFTU offices for disturbances caused in the SHB strike. The SFTU called for a protest strike but less than 50,000 workers, mainly from the SHB, Municipality and STC, responded, with the public allegedly “not badly hit” by the stoppage of services.42 The British banned a May Day rally and procession planned by the SFTU. On 18 June 1948, the killing of two European planters in Perak by MCP cadres heralded the start of armed conflict between the British and the MCP. The colonial government introduced the Emergency Regulations which, in giving it the power to detain suspected communists without trial, expanded its hardline policy towards the left. The MDU quickly dissolved and the SFTU was deregistered in December. The Registrar of Trade Unions was empowered to freeze union funds if the elected union officer had disappeared – this, ostensibly to safeguard the interests of union members, had the effect of weakening unions. Unions were also required to give two weeks’ notice before striking, allowing the management to employ strikebreakers or resolve disputes in the interim.43 Many union leaders, fearing to be branded as communists or “fellow travellers”, left the political arena.44 The unions that operated between 1948 and 1953 were non-political and moderate, such as the Singapore Trade Union Congress (STUC) established by V. K. Nair and Lim Yew Hock in May 1951, which conceded under British pressure the right to organise strikes and prohibited its officials from joining political organisations. It failed to gain ground among Chinese unions, which continued to be “numerous and usually small” and variously represented workers under certain employers, in certain industries or occupations and of certain races.45 Employers also harassed their employees from joining unions or formed splinter or “yellow” unions to divide the workers.46

The mid-1950s: “时势造英雄 (changing times create heroes)”47

Left-wing unionism revived in 1954. The conventional explanation is the decision of the MCP, now losing the jungle war in Malaya, to come to power through constitutional means in Singapore and then subvert the peninsula. This was ostensibly to take advantage of the more relaxed political situation in Singapore brought about by the Rendel Constitution of 1954, which granted a measure of self-government to Singapore. Given the British crackdown on the communists, this theory, as suggested by Tim Harper, is now less convincing. It is probable that, even without MCP subversion, the prevailing economic and political circumstances would have nurtured a revival of left-wing politics. Workers continued to face low pay, poor working conditions and unsympathetic employers. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 raised wages in the rubber industry, but this was negated by a general rise in the cost of living, which was behind most demands for wage increases in the early 1950s. Terms of employment were also a major grievance. Many Chinese workers, for instance, had only two holidays in a year, during the Lunar New Year. The Weekly Holidays Ordinance obliged 15,800 shops to close for one whole day per week but attempts of employers to ignore the Ordinance were reportedly “numerous” in 1954, when 250 convictions were recorded under the Ordinance.48 After a sharp drop in union membership from 76,000 in 1948 to 51,564 in 1949, the numbers improved between 1950 and 1954 (see Table 1). From 1954, labour drew towards leaders who were charismatic, militant and most importantly showed dedication to the workers’ cause, like Lim Chin Siong, who would head the SFSWU, Fong Swee Suan (SBWU), Sydney Woodhull (Naval Base Labour Union, NBLU), and Jamit Singh (SHBSA). These unionists, most of whom were former Chinese Middle School students, undergraduates from the University of Malaya Socialist Club and English teachers, are typically seen in mainstream history as “Communist front leaders”, but their leadership was a response to the times. The MCP’s influence, compared to the immediate postwar years, is much less certain. What is undisputable was the broad coalition of politicians, journalists, university and Chinese Middle School students, and workers arrayed against the colonial system. In 1954, Chinese school students vigorously opposed British military conscription and perceived discrimination against Chinese education, while the University of Malaya Socialist Club was publishing anti-imperialist editorials. Non-communist politicians in the newly-formed Singapore Labour Front and PAP attacked the Rendel Constitution as a “sham”. The left-wing unionists supported the party they deemed most progressive and leftist, the PAP, comprised of English-educated moderates like Lee Kuan Yew, Toh Chin Chye and Goh Keng Swee, and leftists such as Lim, Fong and Samad Ismail.

Understanding the labour movement in the mid-1950s requires a deconstruction of the “strike” and “riot” and the myth of the power of the left. The strike has tended to be defined by its undesirable outcomes. The Hock Lee Bus strike of April-May 1955, for instance, is disparaged by the Ministry of Education because “[e]conomically, 946,354 man-days were lost at a time when poverty and unemployment were rampant”. Strikes naturally resulted in “riots”, since “[p]ro-communist politicians were most interested in fostering unrest and violence”.49 The oratorical ability of Lim Chin Siong, Jamit Singh and other unionists is depicted as “rabble rousing” of workers who were politically naïve and manipulated by “communists” and “political opportunists”. This ignores workers’ grievances and misrepresents the unions’ intents. Lim Chin Siong argued that riots took place not because union leaders incited the workers but because of “social conditions”. Strikes and riots, Lim explained, have to be understood in the historical context: 1955 was a landmark year with the installment of the Labour government under David Marshall, with its pledge to support labour, a stimulus to union activism. The mood in many strikes was tense, with employers often refusing to recognise the unions, forming “yellow unions” to challenge them and hiring “blacklegs” or strikebreakers, often secret society members, to work.50 This forced union leaders to call strikes to obtain the employer’s recognition.51 The colonial regime, disdainful of disruption to business, typically supported the employers. Conversely, picketers frequently blocked workers who wanted to work or lay on the ground to prevent vehicles from going out. Scuffles between the picketers, employers, pro-management workers, “blacklegs”, and police were common and reflected the frustration of workers. It is simplistic to blame the violence solely on “communist instigation”.

Trade unionism in the mid-1950s was an expansion of earlier efforts to unite workers and make labour a primary player in the political scene. For union leaders, the Hock Lee Bus dispute was of “great historical significance”, for “[i]t not only paved the way for the Union to lead the workers for righteous struggles in later days but also greatly influenced the trade union movement which due to the Emergency Regulations of 1948 was in a hibernated state”.52 The intensity of the 1955 bus strikes at Paya Lebar and Hock Lee bus companies must be understood in the circumstances: bus employers paid their workers low wages and treated them as tools.53 At the heart of these disputes was recognition of workers’ right to unionise. The Nanyang Siang Pau, a Chinese newspaper, aptly described the situation:

The Emergency Regulations and the Trade Disputes Ordinance totally deprived the workers of their basic rights and claims. If their demand for improved living and protection of employment is rejected by their employer, they have to wait 14 days before they can go on strike, thus giving their employer the opportunity to enlist new hands and frustrate the strike.54

In February, a strike for pay increases at Paya Lebar Bus Service was countered by the employers engaging “blacklegs” to drive the buses. When the strikers squatted in front of the company’s gates in protest, they were arrested by the police. The issue of union recognition was fought again in the larger Hock Lee Bus dispute, where 229 employees on strike, belonging to Fong Swee Suan’s SBWU, were dismissed by the company, now wary of conceding to demands following the Paya Lebar strike. The employers recognised only the Hock Lee Bus Employees’ Union, their union. The dismissed workers picketed outside the bus depot and were joined in a show of “extensive sympathy” by workers of six other bus companies and Chinese Middle School students.55 Chen Say Jame remembered the “blacklegs” as righteous fellows, who asked the strikers to let the buses out once and agreed to split the pay with the SBWU. The dismissed workers survived in the 43 strike-days by driving “pirate taxis”.56 The tension was heightened by acts of hostility on both sides: while the SBWU attempted to block pro-management drivers from taking the buses out, the picketers were roughened up by police trying to clear them on two occasions. Yet when full-scale violence broke out on 12 May, many eye-witnesses like Han Tan Juan insist that the police started it by using water cannons to disperse the picketers.57 The strike achieved the dissolution of the “yellow union”.

Other strikes, totalling two hundred and seventy-five, erupted in 1955. The militant unions enjoyed a surge in membership, particularly the SFSWU, which membership rose from 372 to nearly 30,000 in ten months and became the spine of the left-wing unions. The number of unions swelled from 181 to 236, with total membership rising from 81,741 to 145,112, representing a third of those gainfully employed. Of the unions, 187 (or 79%) were employee unions with a membership of 139,317 (96% of total membership), reflecting the increased assertiveness of labour (see Table 1). English-educated workers in European business houses, hitherto disinterested, began to organise under the Singapore Business Houses Employees’ Union (SBHEU), although it remained moderate for some years.58 The expansion of the left-wing unions came about, ostensibly, because workers realised these unions genuinely supported their cause.59 The British administration saw demands for wage increases as the only legitimate reason for industrial action. But to left-wing unionists, labour’s struggle to be recognised as an equal partner in the production process necessitated industrial action for other economic causes such as arbitrary dismissals and conditions of service, and reasons which might be seen as “political”, like strikes to express sympathy for other unions and to protest against perceived imperialism abroad or government detention of leftists in Singapore. Of the 1955 strikes, half were sympathy strikes, although in following years, economic reasons were the main issues (see Table 2). As seen in the Hock Lee dispute, mutual support bridged workers and Chinese Middle School students. In June 1955, the SFSWU submitted a memorandum calling for Chinese schools to be accorded equal status in the local education system.60 In the same month, the government arrested Fong Swee Suan and four other unionists, who had called a sympathy strike to support the SHBSA strike (below), for threatening internal security and carrying out activities not connected with the labour movement. A Chinese newspaper judged the grounds for the arrests “unconvincing” because “all along the actions of these trade union leaders are in the service of the people”.61 The SFSWU and SBWU responded with a 15,000-strong protest strike and obtained the detainees’ unconditional release. Upon his release on 25 July, Fong protested that he was fighting for the workers’ interests and that “anyone who is devoted to service to the public can be given a ‘red hat’ and detained under the Emergency Regulations”.62

A major achievement of the unions was their penetration into the government sector. Following the Hock Lee dispute, the SHBSA started a peaceful 67-day strike which won for the union public recognition and sympathy and, tangibly, wage increases and shorter working hours. In the aftermath, Jamit Singh worked to unite other unions at the Harbour Board into the Singapore Harbour Board Workers’ Union (SHBWU), a move which strained relations between the union and the SHB. In July 1957, the SHBWU started a “go-slow” to show support for the labour dispute of railwaymen in Port Swettenham. The SHBSA won the “moral and political high ground”, when the Harbour Board rejected some of the recommendations made by an official enquiry into the “go-slow”.63 Industrial action at the Singapore Naval Base showed similar restraint. Sydney Woodhull’s considerable achievement for the NBLU lay in his ability to “extract substantial concessions from the dockyard with only one major strike”.64 By issuing strike threats in the volatile labour situation, Woodhull won from the Admiralty improved salaries and wage increases in 1954-1955. The NBLU’s non-participation in the 1955 strikes suggests that the workers’ material interests dictated its industrial policy. The union did strike in January 1956 for pay increases and protection against redundancy and retrenchment, which drew sympathy from politicians such as Lee Kuan Yew and Ahmad Ibrahim, the Assemblyman from Sembawang constituency, where the Base was located.65 In April, the Admiralty backed down, granting a 15% pay increase, shorter working hours and reduced transport charges.

The active efforts of the unions brought tangible benefits to their members and Singapore’s anti-colonial struggle. The 1955 strikes brought about an increase in the average weekly and hourly earnings of manual workers by 10% and 14% respectively. Many employers soon recognised workers’ rights to sick benefits, sick pay, free medicine, two weeks’ annual leave, and severance pay.66 The Labour (Amendment) Ordinance (1955), Shop Assistants Employment Ordinance (1957) and Clerks Employment Ordinance (1957) fixed for labourers, shop assistants and clerks the daily working hours, previously as much as 12 to 14 hours, at eight, made Sunday a non-working day and gave them paid holidays. An Industrial Arbitration Court established in 1960 sought to prevent and resolve trade disputes by allowing unions to engage in collective bargaining. In 1960, when his party was in power, Lee Kuan Yew hailed the successes of the trade union movement:

The days of employers ignoring the laws giving benefits and rights to the workers are on the way out. Gone are the employer’s or “yellow” unions. The intransigence of die-hard employers whose answer to a trade union claim was the use of secret society gangsters is lowly disappearing.67

Politically union activism raised labour’s consciousness against the colonial system and of important social issues such as Chinese education, contributing to a further swing to the left in the 1959 elections. Within the framework of constitutional struggle, the unions’ success in harnessing mass support behind a group of English-educated politicians who could deal with the British was vital. Before the elections, London had chosen Lee Kuan Yew ahead of Lim Yew Hock as the future leader of Singapore. Lee, who had supported British control of internal security in the Marshall and Lim constitutional talks for self-government in London, increased in public stature through his association with the left, by maintaining “I will not fight Communism to support colonialism”.68

Table 3

Wages in Singapore, 1952-1965

Year Average weekly earnings of manual workers in principal industries


Average hourly earnings of manual workers in principal industries


1952 31.43 62
1953 31.00 63
1954 33.04 65
1955 36.80 74
1956 37.12 77
1957 37.98 79
1958 36.67 79
1959 36.88 80
1960 38.49 81
1961 38.54 80
1962 42.82 88
1963 43.89 89
1964 43.49 89
1965 44.55 93

Compiled from SAR 1952-1965.

Note: A week consists of six working days.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, the left was not all-powerful. The unions’ heyday was cut short by purges by Lim Yew Hock who as Chief Minister was determined to suppress the left to broker an agreement with the British on Singapore’s self-government.69 In October 1956, the SFSWU and SBWU, “[u]nder the common principle of preserving human rights”, supported Chinese school students in a sympathy strike against the closure of the Chinese High School and Chung Cheng High School.70 A participant in the student protests remembered that violence erupted when riot police surrounded the students gathered in the two schools and used tear-gas to disperse them.71 The top union leaders, including Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, James Puthucheary, Sydney Woodhull, and Devan Nair, were detained for their involvement. Lim Chin Siong was charged with telling workers at a concurrent mass rally in Bukit Timah near the Chinese High to pah mata (“beat the police up”).72 In 1995 he denied it, saying it would have been “very foolish and irresponsible on my part”.73 The SFSWU was deregistered for its part in the event, foreshadowing what was to come in the early 1960s, for participating in and using its funds for activities contradictory to the union’s rules, such as using its Bukit Timah office as a centre of resistance. The union’s members went over to the Singapore General Employees’ Union (SGEU). Recent research by Greg Poulgrain has shown that the 1956 riots were instigated by Lim Yew Hock, who told Alan Lennox-Boyd, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, in London that he had provoked the violence so as to detain Lim Chin Siong and bar him from the 1957 constitutional talks.74 In the talks, Lim agreed to the establishment of an Internal Security Council (ISC) under de facto British control in exchange for full self-government. When the left, possibly responding to the agreement, attempted to take control of the PAP’s executive committee in August 1957, it was struck by a second round of arrests by Lim, which netted thirteen unionists.

The PAP swept the 1959 elections and Lee Kuan Yew became Prime Minister of the State of Singapore. The unions supported the party in the campaign, after which Lim Chin Siong and other top detainees were released. But this did not herald a new dawn for the labour movement. Quickly the PAP enacted amendments to the Trade Unions Ordinance, giving the Registrar of Trade Unions vast powers to deregister unions deemed to be acting against workers’ interests without giving deregistered unions the right to appeal. The unions were consulted on these amendments and perhaps complacently supported them, although the changes “made arbitrary decisions unassailable by shutting the doors to an appeal to a court”.75 To bring the unions under its control, the government began to deregister splinter unions, amalgamate small unions and affiliate unions to the STUC. In 1960, the Registrar cancelled the registration of 37 unions. The administration also appointed “Ten Tall Men”, the majority of whom were leftists, to reorganise the labour movement and unify all unions under the STUC.

The 1960s purges: “helping people is not a matter for records, but a matter for heart”76

The PAP’s tenure of power signalled the beginning of the end for the labour movement. Within the PAP, a conflict between the Lee Kuan Yew group and the left over issues of merger with Malaya and abolition of the ISC led the latter to split from the party to form in September 1961 the Barisan Sosialis. This broke up the STUC into the pro-PAP National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the left-wing Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU). At this point, SATU had the upper hand, with the support of the SGEU, SBWU and SBHEU, led by Lim Chin Siong and others who had joined the Barisan. The SHBSA and NBLU, while sympathetic to the left, remained separate; although Jamit Singh knew the Barisan leaders and was actively involved in SATU affairs, he did not affiliate the SHBSA with SATU.77 The government accused SATU of instigating the 77 strikes which occurred in August-December 1961 (compared to 39 in January-July) but revealingly, 61% were for economic reasons, predominantly dismissals and retrenchment.78 In September, 1,500 Chinese lightermen belonging to the Transport Vessel Workers Association under the SGEU umbrella struck over pay and working conditions. Supported by a thousand more stevedores who refused to work as strikebreakers, the twakow owners were forced to make concessions. The strike had a political dimension: the lightermen supported the Barisan, the owners the PAP. However the lightermen insisted that although there were pro-communists in the union, it was not a communist front organisation, and “[i]ts principal aim at all times was to look out for the interests of its members”.79

Many of the other strikes were called by the formerly-moderate SBHEU. With Devan Nair, who controlled the unions of English-educated employees in the public sector, now supporting the PAP, left-wing unionists such as Dominic Puthucheary (James Puthucheary’s younger brother), S. Woodhull, Kam Siew Yee, and Lim Shee Peng moved to organise the SBHEU’s membership of English-educated workers in the private sector. Under the leadership of Foo Yong Fong, the union’s President, and P. Govindasamy, the General-Secretary, the workers cast away their fear of the European employers to undertake the fight to obtain union recognition.80 A former SBHEU activist emphasised that this was the first time white-collar workers found “the power of unity and courage to fight” in “an organisation that truly led them in their fight for better working conditions, better pay and restoration of their human dignity”.81 The new activism, manifested in sit-down strikes, go-slows and walk-outs, quickly achieved recognition from such bastions of European business as Guthrie and Company, Robinson and Company and Raffles Hotel. A sit-down strike in August 1961 by 180 employees of Guthrie’s against the dismissal of two workers without informing the SBHEU had the desired effect: the management quickly gave its assurance that it had no intention of bypassing the union.82 The dramatic strike against Robinsons in September best illustrates the new assertiveness of the English-educated workers. When the company dismissed a salesgirl, Annie Chong, and allegedly used abusive language against her, the employees picketed in front of the company’s gates in protest. The government accused the SBHEU of trying to “trap workers who may have genuine industrial grievances into supporting the political battle that Lim Chin Siong and his friends have to wage” and dispatched the police to forcibly remove the picketers for “illegal obstruction”. As a sign of their resolve, the workers locked arms to resist before being removed.83 Despite the government’s intervention, the picket lines re-formed and the strike held. On several occasions, the picketers succeeded in persuading shoppers from entering the store. The strike ended the following day, with the management capitulating to cries of bersatu (“unity”) from the employees.84

Nevertheless, despite the SBHEU’s successes, the left-wing unions were overtaken by political developments between 1961 and 1963. Here, the left showed its lack of a strategic vision for merger. With the support it harnessed, the movement had opposed colonialism in the 1950s with considerable success but with full self-government now attained, it was unprepared for the next lap of constitutional development – independence. The left-wing leaders had always supported merger with Malaya but had no concrete plans for achieving this after 1959. The difficulty was deepened by the need for the left to contend with a tripartite of conservative forces – the Alliance government of Malaya, the PAP government and the British government – in formulating such a plan. In contrast, Lee Kuan Yew vigorously pursued merger with Malaya as a way to bring the anti-communist Alliance government to bear on the left. Said Zahari maintained that Lee played up the “communist bogey” to Malaya’s Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, and the British, portraying the left as communists and exaggerating the threat of Singapore becoming a “second Cuba”.85 Concerned by the PAP candidate’s heavy defeat in the Hong Lim by-election in April 1961, the Tunku spoke in May of a willingness to bring Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo territories into closer political and economic cooperation. This announcement caught the left by surprise. What they did henceforth – rejecting Malaysia as a neo-colonialist plot to perpetuate British influence in the region – was merely a reaction to the plan developed by the PAP-Alliance-British group, rather than the formulation of a coherent alternative.

At the same time, Lee pressured the British to arrest the leftists under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance. Recent research into the imperial archive has found that Lord Selkirk, the British Commissioner in Singapore, and his deputy Philip Moore believed that the Barisan meant to stay within constitutional means and rejected the use of violence. For a time, explaining that the left were a political rather than security problem, Selkirk and Moore warded off Lee’s calls for mass arrests.86 However the left was outmaneuvered by the PAP in the merger campaign. It failed to take a clear and persuasive position towards the September 1962 merger referendum, which offered “three ways to say yes and no way to say no”, first calling upon the people to vote for an option which would disenfranchise nearly half of them and then telling them to cast blank votes instead. The PAP, not surprisingly, won 71% of the vote in the referendum. In July, Lee’s lobbying paid off: London overrode Selkirk and Moore and sanctioned the arrests to broker an agreement on merger with the Tunku.87 The British implicated Lim Chin Siong in an anti-Malaysia revolt in Brunei allegedly organised by the Parti Rakyat Brunei, with which leader A. M. Azahari Lim had contacted a few days prior. On 2 February 1963, “to prevent a Cuba in Singapore”, Operation Cold Store detained 113 left-wing political leaders and trade unionists, including Lim.88 Subsequent British investigation found little evidence of Barisan involvement in the “Brunei plot”.89 But the detentions decimated the left-wing union leadership. The PAP comfortably won 37 out of the 51 seats in the September elections, with the weakened Barisan managing 13. The British had sanctioned the arrests but the call had been from Lee Kuan Yew.

After Cold Store, the PAP carried out a systematic crackdown on the left-wing unions which lasted until the mid-1960s. Lee’s government would tolerate no alternative sources of power. Despite his rhetoric of having defeated the “communists” through the open democratic process, his government was willing to take repressive action against its opponents.90 Having come to power largely on the unions’ political efforts, the PAP now determined, in an act of amnesia, that they were to be apolitical. The NTUC, upon its registration in January 1964, announced its “institutional independence…from any political party”,91 and was given preferential treatment by the government, such as permission to hold May Day rallies, a privilege denied to the left-wing unions save once.92 The government mounted trials of left-wing union leaders for misuse of union funds to tarnish their credibility and deregistered unions whose leaders were found guilty. In truth the issue was not, as implied, corruption or officials’ abuse of power but the simple failure of many unions to maintain proper documentation from the start, due to the lack of expertise of union officials in these matters and the shortage of funds for engaging accounting clerks.93 Ostensibly the funds were used to support the families of striking workers and detained union leaders, who were paid as employed union officials.94 This suggests that the unions were more concerned with the morality of the deed than the technical legality or documentation. As law scholar Shahid Siddiqi noted, deregistration was unfair and unjustified because it punished the union instead of the officials and disregarded less draconian penalties.95 The authorities also accused union leaders of involvement in pro-communist activities, although this was not established in court, nor were union officials formally charged for them. The government’s aim was to recall in public memory the “revelations” Lee Kuan Yew made in the radio talks on merger in 1961, when he “established” the leftists as communists.96

The first purge removed Jamit Singh from the SHBSA. In October 1962, Singh and Yeow Fook Yuen, the Treasurer, were charged with the misappropriation of SHBSA funds totaling $7,500. T. T. Rajah, the defense attorney, claimed the money was to help needy union members but there were neither witnesses nor documentary evidence to support this assertion.97 Jamit Singh declared emotionally, “[h]elping people is not a matter for records but a matter for heart”. The protracted trial ended in March 1963, when Singh and Yeow were convicted of Criminal Breach of Trust and sentenced to eighteen and nine months’ jail respectively. After the trial, Jamit Singh was arrested under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance, banished to Malaya and prohibited from returning to Singapore. The SHBSA was deregistered, although it would have been more appropriate to fine the union for failing to supervise Jamit Singh. Since the Trade Unions Ordinance did not call for the deregistration of unions which contravened union rules, Shahid Siddiqi concluded that “[c]learly, the Registrar here invented and used a new ground for deregistering a union”.98 In November 1964, the Chief Justice, noting Jamit Singh’s contribution to the SHBSA, overturned the jail terms on appeal and substituted them with fines. By then, the union was under government control. Jamit Singh’s allegation that the trial was a smear campaign and an attempt by the government to capture the union was spot on.99 The Deputy Public Prosecutor, Francis Seow, later admitted that the trial was to reduce Singh’s capacity for “political mischief” and tarnish his public image.100 The SHBSA was reregistered in January 1964 under a condition banning “Communists and political opportunists” from the leadership.101

The PAP next moved against the SATU unions. In February 1962, following the unearthing of mass war graves in Siglap of Chinese killed in the Sook Ching during the war, there was a Chinese public outcry against the PAP’s policy of economic cooperation with Japan. The “blood debt” issue struck an emotional cord with broad sections of the Chinese population, including workers in the SATU unions and the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which organised a mass rally in 25 August 1963 to press for Japanese compensation for wartime atrocities. Lee Kuan Yew, attempting to speak at the rally, was booed by large sections of the audience. Three days later, the Registrar of Trade Unions asked seven SATU unions, including the SGEU, SBWU and SBHEU, why their registration should not be cancelled for displaying anti-Malaysia banners and placards at the rally, deemed as “communist united front” activities contravening union rules.102 However, it appears that the booing of the Prime Minister was not orchestrated by the unions or SATU central leadership but spontaneous, a reflection of the people’s unhappiness with Lee.103 The authorities next froze the funds of the SGEU, SBHEU and SBWU. SATU called a protest strike in October but it was declared illegal and fizzled out after the police detained S. T. Bani and thirteen other unionists. In November, the SGEU, SBWU and SBHEU were deregistered on the grounds of involvement in “communist united front activity”, breaking the back of the left-wing labour movement.104 The deregistration, which left some 60,000 workers without unions, appeared difficult to justify since, after the October arrests: “[t]here was, therefore, no reasons to deprive the workers of the protection of their unions”.105 In December, an amendment to the Trade Unions Ordinance authorised the Minister for Labour to freeze the funds of unions served with notice of cancellation of registration. The government also appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the financial affairs of the deregistered unions. The inquiry’s report found the unions guilty of numerous irregularities, such as unauthorised use of funds to help political detainees. The SBHEU, which with its English-educated employees probably kept the best accounts, allegedly had a “Foo and Samy Fund” to support the families of the union’s President and General-Secretary when they were detained for causing hurt during a 1962 strike.106 To discredit the unionists, the report placed the blame on the leading office-holders in the unions, typically the President, Secretary-General and Treasurer, who were charged with a “laisse-faire” attitude towards the unions’ financial affairs.107

The 1963 NBLU strike, probably the final chapter in the campaign against the labour movement, reveals the government’s machinations against the unions. For some months in 1963, the PAP had interfered in the NBLU’s affairs, supporting a seven-member “interim committee” opposed to the left-wing leadership. In October, the latter launched a strike involving 9,000 workers over demands such as annual leave, gratuities and dismissal of employees. The government and the Admiralty collectively opposed the strike, making much of the union’s “pro-communist” links, although this was not examined in court. The dockyard accused the union of using its funds to help the Barisan in the September elections by charging them to the costs of preparation for the strike.108 However, while the NBLU strike was contiguous to the SATU protest strike, the union had given strike notice to the Admiralty on 14 September, a date held back by its seeking legal advice on picketing within the Naval Base. The strike demands were legitimate issues which the Admiralty had refused to settle since 1959. The Malayan Trade Union Congress representative, S. J. E. Zaidi, reported that the strike was a genuine industrial dispute.109 In resorting to strike, the NBLU explained that “we have been patient with the Admiralty for 4 years”.110 The dockyard’s attitude had hardened in August 1963 after a successful two-day unofficial sit-down strike by 600 storehouse employees, deciding that against making concessions to the union, the option of forcing “a strike was consciously accepted as the better”.111 The October strike received generous donations from friendly unions, university students and civic organizations, which helped support the picketers’ families.

As the strike persisted, Lee Kuan Yew intervened personally at the end of October. He was determined not just to end the strike but to break the NBLU leadership and install in its place a pro-government Executive Committee.112 Lee alleged that the strike was called without a secret ballot by the union members, which the union denied, stating that 81 Representatives, on behalf of their individual Section members, had voted for the strike at an Extraordinary General Meeting, with 12 against and 3 spoiled votes. The fact is that the Union constitution did not require the individual members to vote on a strike ballot but only their elected Section Representatives. The Prime Minister himself knew this, as he had been the NBLU’s Legal Advisor in the 1950s. Lee also charged Michael Fernandez, the new NBLU General-Secretary, with pro-communist ties, citing his close friendship with S. T. Bani and Tan Jing Quee (SATU President and Assistant General-Secretary respectively) and Sydney Woodhull (Barisan Vice-President).113 The reality was less sinister. The post of General-Secretary had been vacant following S. Ghouse’s arrest during Cold Store, and Bani was contacted in the union’s search for a replacement because his father was formerly the NBLU’s President in the 1950s. Moreover, Bani’s family lived in Sembawang. Through Bani, Tan Jing Quee asked Fernandez, his friend from the University of Malaya Socialist Club and then a teacher in Kuala Selangor, to take up the position.114 Fernandez’s immediate family and friends, including Tommy Koh, the NBLU’s Legal Advisor, warned him of the risks involved, but he eventually accepted the invitation, mainly because the union pointed out that being a Malayalee he could communicate with its Malayalee activists who did not speak English. Lee Kuan Yew, however, struck a decisive third blow by revealing that the union’s Executive Committee had exceeded its term of office by six months. When the Registrar of Trade Unions assessed the strike as unlawful, this forced its termination on 8 November. Upon closer analysis, the term of office issue was a technicality. The NBLU leaders were aware of the problem but had decided to delay the election of new office-bearers until after the negotiations with the Admiralty, as the dual processes of electing 100 Representatives from the general membership and of the Representatives choosing the Executive Committee members took three to four months. The union had written to the Registrar and Solicitor-General on the matter but neither responded. David Marshall, who was consulted, had advised the NBLU that as in the past several years the elections were seldom held in May, as required by the constitution, it was merely a technical matter, and that they could be held as soon as possible after the negotiations with the Admiralty.115 After the strike, Fernandez demanded, “Why did the Prime Minister have to wait for 32 days before deciding that our strike was illegal?”116 As the union had given two weeks’ notice for the strike, the fact the government did not prevent it proved its intention to destroy the left-wing leadership.117

This strategy is revealed in the Admiralty records:

Plans were made to use the Government’s resources to ensure the isolation of the NBLU from support by other unions; to build up anti-strike leaders in the NBLU; to spread anti-Fernandez propaganda; and to provide Police protection for transport conveying the workers to the base. (It was noteworthy that the Government propaganda was ruthless, and not particularly fussed about accuracy, in denigrating Fernandez and de Cruz and building up the opposition party).118

The NBLU was deregistered in January 1964, although Shahid Siddiqi proposed that a “more reasonable remedy would have been to order fresh elections”.119 The union was subsequently revived, subject to prohibitions laid down by the government, most significantly against “Communist subversives” and “anti-nationals” from gaining control of the union.120 In 1966, the Naval Base’s industrial and clerical workers were unified in a single union under the NTUC’s wings. In accomplishing the NBLU’s depoliticisation, the government had ignored its political contributions in the 1950s. Lee Kuan Yew, then the union’s Legal Advisor, and Sydney Woodhull had advised the union to field an Executive Committee member, Ahmad Ibrahim, as an independent candidate to contest Sembawang constituency in the 1955 elections. Ibrahim, funded by the NBLU, won, and later joined the PAP and became a PAP Minister after the 1959 elections.

Admittedly the battle was not won solely by state repression but also by the NTUC’s strategy. According to Eric Cheong, who was originally involved in the SBHEU but left to join the rival, pro-government Singapore Manual and Mercantile Workers’ Union, workers in the 1960s were more interested in “dollars and cents and their rice bowl” than in politics.121 The NTUC, from a “pathetic” initial position, adapted the tactics of the militant unions to labour’s changing mentality in the 1960s. NTUC-led strikes, focusing on economic issues, caused the loss of more man-hours between 1961 and 1963 than the SATU unions and won for its members tangible benefits. The NTUC was partly responsible for the rise in 1962 in the average weekly and hourly earnings of manual workers by 11% and 10% respectively, although this was also due to the SBHEU’s actions. These strikes led many workers to believe that the NTUC was independent of the government and served their interests.122 The pro-government Amalgamated Union of Public Employees established itself by supporting successful strikes in 1963 for better wages and treatment by police civilian staff and hospital nurses.123 From 1962, employer-employee relations, reflecting the NTUC’s ascendancy, improved, with fewer work stoppages and man-days lost.124 Nevertheless the NTUC’s strategy worked because state repression had deregistered the left-wing unions and removed their leaders. Workers, witnessing the obvious, did the natural. After the October 1963 arrests, fifty branches of the deregistered SATU unions left for the NTUC.125 Upon the SBHEU’s deregistration, the majority of its English-educated members joined the SCHFEU but they were dismayed to find that their new leaders were Chinese-educated, whom they regarded as of inferior calibre.126 In April 1967, the SCHFEU and two other unions responded to a Barisan call for a strike against the Trade Unions (Amendment) Ordinance and other laws. Support was lukewarm and the unions were deregistered. By 1966, the “pro-communist unions” purportedly had only 28,000 members to the NTUC’s 150,000.127 That year, the Barisan resigned from Parliament to take its struggle “into the streets”.128 This was a key strategic error, for the disappearance of the only opposition from the legislature gave the PAP a complete monopoly of power, removed any chance of revival of the trade union movement and condemned many of the union leaders to long terms of imprisonment without trial. Others, disillusioned by the Barisan boycott, accepted the terms put to them by the PAP to obtain their release from prison, upon which they gave up politics for good.

Post-1965: Labour Disciplined

Devan Nair declared that with the rise of the NTUC, the labour movement had “come of age” and obtained “greater sophistication”.129 However the unions were not autonomous. Nair admitted that “I do not make any distinction between the PAP and the NTUC….We were two wings of the same political movement”.130 Where the left-wing unions had engaged in anti-colonial politics to advance workers’ interests, the NTUC supported the PAP’s policies of nation-building after Singapore became an independent state in August 1965. The NTUC-led honeymoon for workers between 1961 and 1965 did not last. With the radical unionists detained and workers safely under the NTUC umbrella of unions, the government began to shape labour towards its aim of achieving rapid industrialisation by encouraging foreign multi-nationals to locate in Singapore. Intended to be an obedient workforce engaged in routine factory work, labour could not be allowed to organise independently against the employer. In 1966, the government passed the Trade Unions (Amendment) Act to separate unions and politics, prohibiting non-Singapore citizens and those with criminal records from holding office or being employed in unions. It also required all unions to take a secret ballot before a strike could be carried out, which made swift action against employers impossible.131 The Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act, passed in 1968, reduced the bargaining power of unions by giving employers greater discretion in the employment of workers and the power to make decisions on promotions, internal transfers, hiring and dismissals without fear of industrial action. Income policy was determined independently of the unions by a National Wage Council, formed in 1972. In 1969, a trade union seminar, “Modernisation of the Labour Movement”, lauded the NTUC’s transformation from a bargaining institution to “a social institution establishing a definite stake in the economy of the country”.132 For the first time in the 1960s, 1969 was also notable for the absence of new work stoppages. It saw an end to a decade-long effort by the PAP to discipline the left-wing unions.


The left-wing trade union movement in Singapore lasted only a generation. It faced formidable resistance from employers and governments, both colonial and post-colonial, which preferred orderly economic growth to strong, autonomous unions. In seeking to establish a political arm, the movement secured political allies which did not share, or even opposed, its vision of labour as an equal partner of capital in the production process. Although the unionists were inspired by Marxist concepts, the MCP was an ideologically divergent party aiming to establish a different political system. The MCP’s failure to sustain a constitutional strategy also made the unions’ collaboration with it difficult and dangerous. The Lee Kuan Yew group in the PAP used the left as a bridge to the Chinese-speaking masses; upon coming to power they quickly eradicated alternative sources of power and moulded labour into a disciplined cog in the industrial economy. The Barisan Sosialis, arguably the only genuine party of labour but lacking a clear vision for merger, was smashed by PAP-British-Alliance machinations in the creation of Malaysia. The unions were inexperienced in politics and made mistakes, believing moral leadership and worker solidarity to be sufficient to achieve their aims. But their demise was ultimately due to the state’s repressive laws, purges and trials which decimated the leadership and prevented the maturity of the movement, and the maneuvering of government officials and politicians who made them scapegoats for riots and revolts. From a global perspective, the labour movement, although it rejected the simple dichotomy of democracy and communism, was a victim of the Cold War and the forces that determined to destroy Marxism.

The rise and fall of the left-wing unions is an important part of Singapore’s postwar history that has been submerged under the PAP story. The Cold War is over, except in Singapore’s history. The unions’ story belongs to the theme not of communist subversion but of the rise of a people, lifted by youthful idealism and dynamic anti-colonialism. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the unionism was part of a larger movement seeking to create a different Singapore from the society the PAP has since built. The labour movement’s emphasis on social justice and worker solidarity and its willingness to collaborate with other groups on the fringes of society, such as the Chinese school students, cut across ethnic, social and occupational divides and offered hope for genuine democracy. It underlined the importance of ends in life other than material achievement and economic growth. The movement brought dignity and self-respect to the working class, besides the tangible gains. Its political involvement was crucial for the country’s progress towards nationhood, dashing the timidity that enveloped the island after 1948, and rousing the people, through issues which touched them personally, against the British regime. Together with the Chinese student movement, the unions provided the formidable power base for the anti-colonial political parties, the PAP and, briefly, the Barisan. The left-wing trade union movement bore Singapore out of colonialism into statehood, although it was not to survive it.


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