May 13 Student Movement … 60 Years On

By Function 8 and MARUAH

More than 700 people will commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the May 13, 1954 Incident with a special lunch on Tuesday, 13 May 2014. They are some of our pioneer generation of independence fighters and come from Singapore and many countries abroad. Several of them left Singapore during the 1950s and 60s when the government had used the Emergency Regulations and later the Internal Security Act indiscriminately. Most are now in their 70s and 80s.

Jointly organised by Function 8 and MARUAH, this 60th anniversary lunch which falls auspiciously on Vesak Day is to honour the people who have made significant contributions to Singapore but who have largely been forgotten today. Truly they are our pioneers.

On May 13, 1954, eight student representatives from the Chinese Middle Schools were scheduled to present a petition to the Governor of Singapore at the Istana, seeking exemption from national service for male students between the ages of 18 and 20. They were supported by nearly a thousand students who lined the pavement from Clemenceau Avenue to the Istana. That peaceful assembly was violently disrupted by riot police who were armed with ropes, batons, shields and rifles. Many students were injured and 48 were subsequently arrested and charged for obstructing the police and refusing to disperse when ordered to do so.

More student protests and sit-ins following the incident forced the Chinese Chamber of Commerce to mediate between the students and the colonial government. After a record 22 days’ camp-in, the colonial government finally allowed deferment of national service.

It was the action of the students that inspired the people to unite and demand civil and political rights for Singaporeans. Two weeks after the May 13, 1954 Incident, the students at the University of Malaya, who published a newsletter called Fajar, were targeted by the colonial police. The editorial board of the publication was charged for sedition over an editorial entitled “Aggression in Asia”. Eminent Queen’s Counsel, D N Pritt came to Singapore to defend the students. He was assisted by Lee Kuan Yew. The acquittal of the students without their defence being called raised the profile of Lee who shortly after, formed the People’s Action Party with the support of the students and workers.

The series of industrial actions, protests and demands for civil and political rights finally compelled the British to grant independence to Singapore. Recognising the enormous contributions of the pioneers who stood up for our human rights, Function 8 and MARUAH will be commemorating the 60th anniversary of the May 13 Incident with a lunch in their honour.

Photo: ST file, Seah Kwang Peng