Hock Lee bus riot – fact or fiction by CNA? (Part 3)

hock lee

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.] In Part 2, our critique focused more on specifics, in particular the historical facts which CNA seemed to have ignored or avoided including in its documentary. [Read it here.]

In this final Part 3 of our series, we include interviews with Mr Otto Fong, the son of Fong Swee Suan who was featured in the documentary; 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; and Dr Loh Kah Seng, Assistant Professor at the Institute of East Asian Studies in Sogang University, South Korea. Dr Loh was also interviewed for the CNA documentary.

By Jewel Philemon

Mr Otto Fong, son of 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 documentary’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 broadcasted product:

The Online Citizen (TOC) to Otto Fong: What were the points you made in the interview that were not shown in the final edit?

Otto Fong (OF): A few important points I made that didn’t make it were:

– That my dad was never a communist. He and my mother brought the children up to choose our own paths, and at home, he was content to let everyone be themselves fully without any words of reproach or harsh words from him. Never did he talk to us about communism ideologies.

– People do not strike for nothing. Our forefathers were dirt-poor people who migrated here for a better life. They wanted a hopeful future where their children could receive education, so they would not stand for more of the same kind of dead-end employment they suffered back home.

– The other bus companies, other than Hock Lee Bus, accepted the union’s terms and employers and employees worked together better. The union took special effort to train workers to behave more professionally and reject corruption. Hock Lee did not wish to abide by union terms and chose to apply for special government permission to create their own in-house unions, and instead of negotiations, they chose to fire union employees.

–  The union had warned the government that the firemen must stop using the high-powered hoses on strikers. Yet the hoses were used three times, which inflamed the sentiments of the onlookers living around the area. The previous government should be held responsible for the riot, not the strikers nor union.

– There was a peaceful negotiation and settlement before the strikes, which Hock Lee agreed to but reneged on by firing the unions’ workers.

TOC: How accurate do you think the final episode is?

OF: A fair and balanced documentary should provide views from all sides. The government’s view was of course well-represented, the bus company’s view was too. But the unionists’ views were cut out. My father and Lim are not the villains that the official story wants them to be, so where were those views on this documentary?

The few of my interview that made it on the documentary were more neutral descriptions, which meant views contrary to the official old story were cut out. The representative from Hock Lee was able to present his side of the story: that Hock Lee’s employers would not make profits had they agreed with union demands. So why is my father’s side of the story taken out? 

The narration provided nothing new from the old official version, and even implied that the organisers of the strike must be responsible for the subsequent riot. It was the government which did not stop the hosing of the strikers, and that action inflamed the onlookers living around the area. It was Hock Lee Bus Company that reneged on the peaceful settlement, and yet, somehow, it was implied that my dad and Lim should be responsible for the bloodshed after the riot started.

Therefore, the documentary featured the views of the old government and the Hock Lee Bus Company, but not those of my father’s [on the] union actions.

TOC: How do you think the documentary is unfair towards your father or unfair towards presenting a holistic view of the riots?

OF: There was never any evidence of my dad being a communist. And he has never stated he was anything else but a socialist. Yet the narration continued to use the word ‘Communist’ in describing the strikers, rioters and union. My father and Mr Lim played a significant, praise-worthy part in the creation of a new Singapore, and credit should be given where credit is due – for all and not just a few. My father does not deserve to be labelled as some comic book villain.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on behalf of my father. He is a great man and a wonderful father, and I am lucky to be his son.

This will be my last word on the Hock Lee Bus event. I am complete with the past.


TOC to Dr Loh Kah Seng: As a historian, is the story the co-producer wanted to tell accurate? Why or why not?

Loh Kah Seng (LKS): The issue is not accuracy. As an interpretation of the past, the story is based on a group of historical facts. There was communist manipulation, attempted or actual, of the workers and students not only during the strike but also in the left-wing movement as a whole.

The real problem is that the story is dated and non-inclusive. Historians researching the imperial archive in Britain, such as Tim Harper, Geoff Wade, Simon Ball, and Mathew Jones, have found that the power of the Malayan Communist Party to be much diminished in Singapore and Malaya in the 1950s and 1960s due to crackdowns by the Special Branch. There were communists in the mass organisations, but most of the leaders were new groups of left-wing socialists that emerged in the more open political environment after the Rendel Constitution of 1954. These socialists, including Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan, were probably not taking orders from the MCP and did not plan to come to power through violent means.

In historical terms, the entire period between the late 1940s and the 1960s should not be seen as ‘days of rage’ but as ‘days of hope’. The period was an extraordinary time of political and cultural pluralism and optimism. Various political and cultural groups in Singapore were inspired by international ideas and moments of self-determination and modernisation and were determined to cast out the old ways and the colonial system. They were debating different ways to transform Singapore, the colony, into Malaya, a modern nation-state, which would include Singapore. This is a theme that runs through recent works by Huang Jianli, Hong Lysa, C. C. Chin, Thum Pinjtin, and my co-authors and I on a book on the University Socialist Club. The optimism filtered down to the people because of the efforts of the anti-colonial mass movement led by the left wing. To say that there was only one party doing the right thing for Singapore and everything else was communist-controlled is a reductionist view.

TOC: What are your thoughts on the Hock Lee bus riots that you wanted to contribute to the documentary but couldn’t?

LKS: What has been long lacking in Singapore history is social history, in this case a history of the Hock Lee Bus riots that explores the needs, worldviews and lives of workers. Low-income workers, who were rational and practical-minded by nature, resorted to a strike only when material conditions were bad enough and no alternative recourse was available, because a strike was a risky act that entailed the loss of income and possibly the job. And the strikers were caught up in a riot that they did not want because of the circumstances and tensions of the times – when the bus company refused to recognise the legitimate grievances of the workers, when the police tried physically to remove the pickets (even though industrial action was a legal course of action), or when picketers utilized passive resistance (against removal/arrest and to prevent buses from operating).

Much of the Hock Lee Bus strike (and other strikes in the post-war years) can in fact be explained by a socio-economic history of labour in post-war Singapore and of labour’s unequal relationship with capital and the colonial state. No amount of propaganda by the left-wing or communists would have moved workers to strike if they had no genuine grievances and if the left had not shown itself to be sincere and capable of addressing these grievances.

In fact, the documentary team did a good job in its research and interviews. It probably had material for a more inclusive and updated story of the Hock Lee Bus strike. It had interviewed former union leaders and student activists whose voices differed from the master narrative (if you listened carefully enough). In recent years and ending decades of silence, these voices have begun to speak out publicly against the master narrative – in forums, interviews, memoirs, and books. In academic terms, we call these voices ‘fragments’, because while they are lodged within the master narrative, they struggle against it and try to disturb it, seeking to articulate a counter-hegemonic history of Singapore.

So the sad thing is that the documentary missed a great opportunity to craft a more inclusive story that embraces other voices and the new research. It shows the authors of the master narrative to be incapable of reconciling neither the diverse historical forces that transformed Singapore into a modern nation nor the social cleavages that still divide Singaporeans today (be it between the victors and the losers, or the young and the old). As an unabashed history of the victors, Days of Rage is not just about the past; it is firmly rooted in the past – in old ways, mindsets and values. Its story does not call upon us to reflect on the master narrative, to discern its fragments and silences. Because it does not make us come to terms with historical controversy and complexity, it does not challenge us to become a more mature and self-aware people.

It is certainly disheartening to discover that the real facts and the sound, robust points that Otto Fong and Dr Loh Kah Seng had made were discarded in favour of a speculative, antiquated narrative which misleads its audiences into holding specious arguments to be the whole truth. The effects of such inequitable documentation have already started transmogrifying into an alarming impairment of essential critical thinking skills:

But perhaps what is more distressing is our own amnesic propensity to only recollect the masked truths behind propagandized events such as the Hock Lee bus riots when we face similar oppressive circumstances – we tend to expel important, still prevalent issues such as worker protections from our immediate field of vision until we are thrust into the shoes of those who are oppressed.

This description on Channel News Asia’s own webpage could be indicative of the fugue surrounding events like the Hock Lee bus riots:


12 May 1995 is infamously referred to as ‘Black Thursday’, not ‘Black Friday’.

With Singapore 50 fast approaching, we especially need to put forth a continuous, concerted effort to reject dubious casuistries and uncover the critical whole truths behind blurry episodes in our history so that we may learn from and improve our ever-evolving society, especially for those who are less privileged, less fortunate.

As for what we can learn from the Hock Lee bus riots, Dr Thum Pingtjin puts things into perspective:

“One critical point that Lee made in his speech was that the colonial government was blinded by its inability to understand the public. They could not see the legitimate grievances which fuelled public anger. They framed the strike as a purely law and order issue, dehumanised the strikers, and sought simplistic explanations.  

“Another point that was made by David Marshall at the time was that everything that the colonial government had done – for example, call in police and troops to indiscriminately break strikes – was entirely legal. Also, everything the Hock Lee manager did – indiscriminately fire workers and refuse to accept the arbitrator’s decision – was also legal. Something can be legal and yet illogical and immoral at the same time. For example, racial discrimination was legal and encouraged in South Africa until just over two decades ago. Thus, falling back on the letter of the law is not enough to address your problems.  

“So I think it is important to remember is that we need to treat people with dignity and respect, recognise that large problems are complicated, and understand the distinction between what is legal and what is right. We cannot solve problems, least of all riots, by demonising people, nor applying simplistic solutions, nor simply saying that decisions can or should be made simply because they are legal.”


Select Bibliography, compiled by Dr Loh Kah Seng

Aljunied, Syed Khairudin. ‘Against Multiple Hegemonies: Malay Female Anti-Colonialism in British Malaya’. Journal of Social History, 47 (1), 2013: 153-175.

Ball, Simon J. ‘Selkirk in Singapore’. Twentieth Century British History, 10, 2 (1999): 162-91.

Chin, C. C. ‘The United Front Strategy of the Malayan Communist Party in Singapore, 1950s-1960s’. In Michael Barr and Carl Trocki eds. Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Postwar Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press, 2008: 58-77.

Fernandez, Michael and Loh Kah Seng. ‘The Left-Wing Trade Unions in Singapore, 1945-1970’. In Michael Barr and Carl Trocki eds. Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Postwar Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press, 2008: 206-27.

Harper, T. N. ‘Lim Chin Siong and the “Singapore Story””. In Tan Jing Quee and Jomo K. S. eds. Comet in Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History. Kuala Lumpur: INSAN, 2001: 1-56.

Huang Jianli. ‘The Young Pathfinders: Portrayal of Student Political Activism’. In Michael Barr and Carl Trocki eds. Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Postwar Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press, 2008: 188-205.

Jones, Matthew. ‘Creating Malaysia: Singapore’s Security, the Borneo Territories, and the Contours of British Policy, 1961-1963’. Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 28 (2), 2000: 85-109.

Loh Kah Seng, Edgar Liao, Lim Cheng Tju, and Seng Guo Quan. The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity. Amsterdam; Singapore: Amsterdam University Press and NUS Press, 2012.

Loh Kah Seng. Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore. NUS Press and Asian Studies of Australia Association Southeast Asia Series, 2013.

Thum, Pingtjin. ‘“The fundamental issue is anti-colonialism, not merger”: Singapore’s “Progressive Left”, Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia’. Asia Research Institute Working Paper No. 211, National University of Singapore, 2013.

Thum, Pingtjin. ‘Chinese Newspapers in Singapore, 1945-1963: Mediators of Elite and Popular Tastes in Culture and Politics’. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 83 (1), June 2010: 53-76.

Thum, Pingtjin. ‘Flesh and Bone Reunited As One Body: Singapore’s Chinese-Speaking and their Perspectives on Merger’. Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, 5, 2011-12: 29-56.

Wade, Geoff. ‘Operation Coldstore: A Key Event in the Creation of Modern Singapore’. In Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang and Hong Lysa eds. The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years. Malaysia: SIRD & Pusat Sejarah Rakyat, 2013.