Hock Lee bus riots – fact or fiction by CNA? (Part 2)

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

In Part 1, we provided a more general overall critique of the documentary. [Read it here.] Here in Part 2, our critique focuses more on specifics, in particular the historical facts which CNA seemed to have ignored or avoided including in its documentary. 

This Part 2 includes the views of historian, Dr Thum Pingtjin, Academic Visitor at the Oxford Centre for Global History, University of Oxford; Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore; and co-ordinator of Project Southeast Asia. 

hock lee

By Jewel Philemon

Next, the purposes and functions of the interviewee opinions, as projected in the film, are rather inconsistent. Interviewees like Janadas Devan, Albert Lau, and Bill Teoh Kah Chay are allowed to communicate their opinions and speculations regarding the cause of the riots, while other interviewees, like the Chinese middle school students (such as Han Tan Yuan, Charles Tan, and Wong Shiang Hoe), are used to recount descriptions on what occurred during the riots.

Interviewees like historian Dr Loh Kah Seng merely served as a narrative device to speak of Britain’s affairs in Singapore during that era – a feat which could have been managed by the voiceover narrator himself, who broadcasted several such statements without similar authentication from historians.

This discrepancy is problematic on a few levels. First, by not making the distinction that some comments (like those of Devan, and Lau) are merely speculation or opinions, the film suggests that the comments in question are hard, cold, indisputable facts. Further, the exclusion of the opinions of the other interviewees on what they believe the cause of the riots was or whether they felt the riots were caused by communists or whether they felt the workers’ demands were fair, deprives the documentary of the holistic, unpartisan legitimacy that it purports to possess as a record of history.

Additionally, valid comments gleaned from interviews that are antithetical to the master narrative seem to be almost concealed in the least dramatic and least intense segments of the film – not where the comments make the most sense.

For example, Otto Fong’s comment that “the downtrodden remain downtrodden. They want to see change. That’s why they (the workers) put themselves in the line of danger” would have uplifted the discourse by providing a logical reason as to why the workers became so invested in the protest, concurrently opening more avenues for increased focus on the cultures, views, norms, and attitudes of the workers which could shed light on the true cause of the strikes and subsequent riots – that is, if the comment had been used in a critical point in the narrative, such as the juncture where another interviewee spoke of how workers lay in the middle of the bus depot driveways. Instead this action seems to be attributed to “Fong’s strategy for strike action,” and Otto Fong’s astute observation becomes lost amid other ungrounded remarks.

Needless to say, the film does a good (in fact, cohesive) job of relaying the government’s side of the story. It even devotes some time to featuring the Hock Lee bus company’s side of events - chairman Guok Seng Swee is given some air time to explain why he couldn’t comply with the workers’ demands. The workers’ actual demands weren’t identified in the documentary, so it is impossible to debate whether the demands were fair, whether the chairman really was blindsided by the strike and could not do anything to stop it.

The film, however, fails to represent the perspectives of the workers, the Chinese middle school students, or even the perspectives of the supposed antagonists of the story – the leftist radicals within the PAP.

But perhaps the most telling indication of Days of Rage’s editorial slant is the documentary’s conclusion. Self admittedly made to serve as a reminder of the lessons learnt during historic events, the episode on the Hock Lee bus riots concludes with a clipping of a segment of Lee Kuan Yew’s National Day Rally speech from 1982, in which the politician says:

“Every time I pass by Alexandra Road, I remember the Hock Lee bus depot there and workers linking arms and refusing to let buses out, police coming in with water cannons, finally riots. I’ve not forgotten. It’s vividly etched in my mind. Anytime anybody starts anything which will unwind and unravel this orderly, organized, sensible, rational society and make it irrational, emotional – I put a stop to it. And without any hesitation.”

The narrator ends the documentary, with the following remarks:

“The Hock Lee bus riots is a dark reminder of how quickly the radical left could mastermind and unleash chaos. It was an era where chaos and disorder were used as political tools to gain control. But in the midst of hardship and suffering, conflict and sacrifice, Singapore found a way to peace, prosperity, and independence.”

Several salient questions arise from the documentary’s treatment of the Hock Lee bus riots, among which is this one: Communism is constantly projected as the diabolic seed which spurred the riots – is this true? If so, where is the factual proof that supports this? Why aren’t the claims of communism backed up by research from the historians interviewed? What is the real story behind the riots?

Historian Dr Thum Pingtjin is an Academic Visitor at the Oxford Centre for Global History, University of Oxford; Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore; and co-ordinator of Project Southeast Asia.

He debunks Days of Rage’s assertion that the riots were incited by communism. In an exclusive interview with TOC, he says:

“It has long been established that the communists did not have a hand in the riots and were actively discouraging violence. As it became clear they had no chance of winning the insurgency, in 1952 the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) established a new party policy of peacefully supporting left-wing political parties. The idea was to allow the British decolonisation process to take place and to give the British no excuse to continue to hold on to the Federation and Singapore or engage in repression. Once independence had been achieved, then the MCP would be free to contest for power. This instruction was sent to all cadres in Singapore. That’s why, for example, the Plen reached out to Lee Kuan Yew in 1958 and promised him MCP support. Thus, by definition, anyone who took part in a riot could not have been taking orders from the MCP, because the MCP did not want violence to give the British a reason to crack down. Communist documents captured by Special Branch, including the MCP newsletter, Freedom News, show this clearly.

“They responded to the strikes by celebrating the workers’ success – but then reiterated the MCP policy and urged ‘struggle attitudes’ to be ‘less leftist’ (for example, see Freedom News No 61). The admonition was repeated in subsequent issues (eg Freedom News No 64 and 65). Violence was counter-productive for the MCP. The Hock Lee Bus Strike, like other strikes in this period, occurred because workers were being exploited and tried to protect themselves by forming a union to negotiate for better conditions. At this time, there were few legal protections for workers. Singapore also had massive unemployment. Employers simply could hire and fire at will, knowing they could easily find new workers. Unions were the only option workers had to protect themselves. But the manager of Hock Lee responded to the union by firing all the workers. The workers were thus forced to strike, or become jobless.

“The reason why Hock Lee became such a big issue was that it was the first major strike to occur under the new Labour Front government. Previously, the colonial government would simply order police and troops to break up the strikes, regardless of whether the workers had any legitimate grievances. But the Labour Front government wanted to be fair. David Marshall sought to arbitrate. He worked with the union’s legal advisor, Lee Kuan Yew, to mediate. This alone was a watershed in Singapore. The union cooperated and were happy to accept the ruling of the arbitrator. But the manager of Hock Lee repeatedly refused to cooperate and reneged on his promises several times. Finally, after two and a half weeks of frustration, the police were called in to forcibly break the strike, which is how the riot started. The best account of the events of this period is by Lee Kuan Yew. As the legal advisor to the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union, he witnessed the events first hand and was an active supporter of the strike. With events fresh in his memory, he related the events in the Legislative Assembly on 16 May 1955. You can look up the Parliamentary Record via the website, http://www.parliament.gov.sg/publications-singapore-parliament-reports. The collected Freedom News has also been published by RSIS as a book. Finally, Lee Ting Hui’s book ‘The Open United Front’ quotes many MCP documents captured by Special Branch which urge moderation and an end to violence.”

Dr Thum also criticized the erroneous nature of the CNA documentary. He chronicles the actual events behind the Hock Lee bus riots, answering many of the questions that the documentary fails to raise or address in its conjectural examination of the riots:

“The fundamental problem with the ‘Days of Rage’ documentary is that it is factually inaccurate. The bus workers' union agreed terms with Hock Lee management on 4 April. Hock Lee management then quietly hired new workers with the intention of reneging on the agreement. Once they had enough, they fired all union-affiliated workers. This forced the union to serve a strike notice on 22 April. The management refused to back down, so the workers struck on 24 April. But in order for the strike to be effective, they could not simply stop work - they had already been fired. So they picketed the depot and prevented buses from leaving. The management called the police, who tried to break up the picket on 27 April, leading to clashes and injured workers. The PAP accused the police of unprovoked violence.

“The same day, an independent Commission of Inquiry was appointed by the government. It met on 5 May and ruled in favour of the workers, who were happy to accept the terms and publicly ended their strike. But - against the advice of both its own lawyer and the unions' lawyer (Lee Kuan Yew) - Hock Lee management imposed conditions on the workers' reinstatement. The angry workers then returned to the picket line. Word spread about this injustice; the picket line swelled over the weekend (7-8 May). The Singapore Factory and Shopworkers' Union met and voted to hold a general strike in support of the bus workers. This happened 12-13 May. On 13 May, Hock Lee management tried to drive buses out to break the picket, injuring workers in the process.

“So you have a company that openly, repeatedly, and legally broke its promises, defied the government, and physically tried to run over workers with their buses; a large crowd of Singaporeans who were extremely angry about this; and police whose priority was to keep the peace, regardless of who was in the right or wrong. Clashes broke out and escalated. You know the rest of the story.

“These crucial facts are never mentioned anywhere in the documentary. The fact is that the Singapore Bus Workers' Union repeatedly agreed to a peaceful settlement of the dispute, even before the strike took place, then again after the strike was underway. The government's Commission of Inquiry also ruled in their favour. Yet Hock Lee management refused to honour its agreement, then found a technicality to get around the Commission of Inquiry's ruling. The entire time, the union's main demand was simply for Hock Lee management to honour the agreement it had signed on 4 April.

“So when the Hock Lee management agreed to the workers' terms on 14 May, all it was being forced to do was to honour an agreement it had already signed.

“The riot should never have happened, and would not have happened if not for Hock Lee management's intransigence. If the colonial government had still been in complete control, they would have gotten away with it. The only difference was that the new David Marshall government was trying to be fair and impartial. Any talk of some conspiracy for violence is simply misplaced because the union clearly did not want nor plan for a strike. If Hock Lee management had, at any time, simply kept its word, the riot would never have happened.”

Why did the documentarians exclude these facts from their narrative? Did they really mean to propagate inaccuracies or were they simply ignorant of these facts? Were they forced to rely on dated information due to the limited accessibility of new research, fresh points of view?

It seems not. Mr Otto Fong (son of one of the protagonists in the documentary, Fong Swee Suan),  and Dr Loh Kah Seng (Assistant Professor at the Institute of East Asian Studies in Sogang University, South Korea), interviewees on the episode, registered their disappointment about the show’s one-sided final edit which did not include many of the points they made.

The duo spoke to TOC about the accuracy of the final edit and recalled the remarks they made during the documentary interview which were cut from the final and broadcast product.

We will publish their response in a Q&A in the days ahead. Stay tuned for that.