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Hock Lee bus riots – fact or fiction by CNA? (Part 1)

hock lee

Jewel Philemon

The second episode of Channel News Asia’s latest production, ‘Days of Rage’, featuring the 1955 Hock Lee Bus Riots has been met with compelling criticism, since its premiere on the 27th of January.

It is a five-part documentary series aimed at showcasing key incidents in Singapore with unseen footage and perspectives.

The Hock Lee bus riots, which occurred on the 12th of May 1955, stemmed from a strike in which underpaid and overworked workers, with the support of middle school students from Chinese schools and labour unions, sought redress from the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company. The strike turned ugly (claiming the lives of two police officers, an American journalist, and a middle school student) when the bus company refused to cooperate, forcing the government to use brute police force to break up the strike.

Despite appearing to showcase new perspectives about historical events, the 45-minute documentary on the incident tells an oft-repeated cautionary tale of communist-manipulated chaos during a politically turbulent era. Beginning with an introduction of colonial controls and poor worker protections, the film quickly segues into a narrative of how leftist radicals with communist agendas exploited the plight of oppressed workers as well as the innocence of middle school students, waging a war against authority. Union leaders Fong Swee Suan and Lim Chin Siong are delineated, through interviews and a voiceover narration, as the masterminds behind the riots which are alleged, in the film, to be part of a larger plan to cripple the nation’s transport sector.

There are several sophisms within this narrative.

First, the film establishes communism as an evil that has no qualms of using violence to advance its agenda. Communism is identified as the root cause of the riots which claimed four lives, and communists are classified as the clear villains of the story. In the case of the riots, the film seems to position Fong Swee Suan and Lim Chin Siong as the villainous propagators of communism – the duo very quickly go from being leaders of the People’s Action Party’s radical left to communist manipulators.

These points are left unsubstantiated by facts.

Although the narrator does not expressly label Fong and Lim as communists, several allusions to this classification are rife in the narrative. For example, a shot of the actors playing Fong and Lim is replayed when the narrator says, “Many trade and student unions acted as fronts for communists to instigate political chaos.” This statement is not backed up by evidence in the documentary.

The documentary also presents the opinions of interviewees who repeatedly excoriate Fong, in particular, as a communist with clandestine plans to create political chaos, during critical junctures in the narrative. Examples:

In trying to explain Fong’s agenda and how Fong allegedly converted unionists to his cause, Associate Professor Albert Lau from the National University of Singapore said, “There was an obvious agenda in what they were doing. Fong’s aim was basically to set up a branch of his union in the bus company as part of a wider strategy of controlling strategic sectors like the transportation services. One of the best ways to bring the workers on board was to champion better wages, better conditions on their behalf. Through that means, Fong would then be able to recruit members into the union.”

Again, this “obvious agenda” remains unsupported by facts. Also, Lau fails to mention why championing better wages and conditions is the best way to bring workers on board – were the workers so oppressed that they had to seek shelter from unions despite the political risks that unions may carry? If so, why does the documentary not focus on the oppressive conditions the workers faced? Why does the film seem more concerned with Fong’s alleged political beliefs and unprovable agendas as opposed to concrete conditions which caused the workers to strike?

Another interviewee, Bill Teoh Kah Chay, formerly from the Internal Security Department,  addresses the oppression that the workers face, but focuses on manoeuvring the oppression into an explanation of how Fong found it easy to bring workers into his union. “It was very well known that the Hock Lee management was very oppressive,” he said. “So it was quite easy for Fong Swee Suan and company to work up the workers. Pay was really bad in those days. When you want to win the people over, let’s say you want people to convert to communism, when they’re hungry, they’ll listen to you.”

The narrator echoes these assumptions, stating that Fong’s “demands” for workers to unionize were part of an “underlying strategy by the pro-communists to control Singapore’s strategic public services.” In another instance, the narrator says, “Fong’s strike action was going as planned” – right after an interviewee described how strikers lay down in the bus depot driveways, refusing to give way to the buses.

Such narrative sequencing implies that Fong deliberately coerced workers into carrying out that particular action which was part of his overall plan. It is curious to note that this implication, too, is not supported with proof in the documentary.

Similarly, the narrator mentions that the event being discussed is a strike organized by union leader Fong, as a refresher to audiences post a commercial break. This comment precedes the depiction of the casualties which creates the subliminal association that the casualties are a direct cause of one man and something he put into motion.

The most flagrant example of the documentary’s ostensible bias against Fong is probably the depiction of the settlement in which David Marshall’s coalition government reinstated striking workers without any loss in income, which is described in the documentary as a “victory for Fong’s union.” Albert Lau elaborates, “Fong Swee Swan’s union, supported by the Chinese middle school students, won hands down…The Straits Times even called the settlement ‘unconditional surrender.’”

Interviewee Janadas Devan (Director for the Institute of Policy Studies and the Chief of Government Communications) further stated, “I don’t think there was at any point where they lost the capacity to control the events…They showed who was in charge. It wasn’t the government, it wasn’t the British, it was they. That was the whole purpose of the exercise.”

These emphatic statements were directly preceded by stark images and descriptions of family members mourning those who died in the riots.

Films of all natures build characters. Documentaries, or films that seek to factually reflect history and reality, build characters through interviews, personal stories, and re-enactments, and each character is still designed to evoke a specific kind of reaction from the audience. The sequencing and treatment of the predominant narrative in this documentary seems intent on making audiences sympathetic towards the victims and authorities, and suspicious towards Fong and the strikers – something which is conspicuous through the liberal use of vivid personal stories illustrating the characteristics of the victims, and the lack thereof for Fong and the strikers.

The only words in favour of Fong Swee Suan in the entire documentary were the words of former Chinese middle school student, Han Tan Yuan, who described Fong as a soft-spoken, “gentle,” and “genteel” man, and Otto Fong, Fong Swee Suan’s son, who said, “My father was always very clear on who he was fighting for and those are the workers within the bus company."

Fong Swee Suan with his son, Otto Fong. (Photo: The New Paper).
Fong Swee Suan with his son, Otto Fong.
(Photo: The New Paper).

It is also critical to note that it was only towards the very end of the documentary that the narrator stated that Fong was only suspected of being a communist.

The narrator asserted, “The Hock Lee bus riots also fuelled intelligence suspicions that Fong and Lim were communists.” This admission was made long after Fong was referred to as “the pro-communist” with subversive plans, and after the documentary aired comments by interviewees who said that Fong tried to convert workers to communism and that he had an “obvious agenda.”

In Part Two of our feature, we speak to historians and the son of Fong Swee Suan for their views about the documentary.

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* Fong was arrested in June 1955 for his involvement in the riot. He was held for 45 days in detention under the Emergency Regulations. Read about Fong Swee Suan here.

Read also: “Historians question accuracy of CNA’s historical documentary”.