National Service Riots of 1954
Singapore's earliest attempt to introduce compulsory conscription in 1952 was vigorously resisted by the Chinese middle school students. On 13 May 1954, violence erupted when hundreds of students clashed with the police. As a result, 26 people were injured and 45 students arrested. The National Service Riots marked the beginning of intense communist subversion in the Chinese middle schools, which subsequently became the breeding ground for communist sympathisers in Singapore.
Before Singapore's independence in 1965, Chinese education in Singapore had progressed mainly due to the contributions of rich Chinese philanthropists. Chinese schools were run by governing bodies that comprised of members selected based more on their prestige than their knowledge of running an educational institution. The British colonial government did not provide funding for Chinese schools. When it came to economic opportunities, the colonial government also preferred rewarding English-educated graduates, thereby causing dissatisfaction among the Chinese-educated segments of society.
Before the establishment of Nanyang University in 1955, the highest level of Chinese language education in Singapore was offered by the Chinese middle schools (the equivalent of secondary schools and junior colleges today). These schools were strongly influenced by political developments in China. When China became a communist country, communism exerted a strong influence on the Chinese-educated community.
National Service Ordinance
The National Service Ordinance was introduced by the colonial government in 1952 (it took effect in 1954) on the grounds that a people seeking self-government should be able to defend themselves. The Ordinance required males between the ages of 18 and 20 to register for part-time national service, and later to be called up into the Singapore Military Force (SMF) or the Civil Defence Corps (CDC) for training. Failure to register by the stipulated deadline would result in offenders being handed a six-month jail term, a fine of 2,000 Malayan dollars, or both.
Initially, the idea had full public support and registration for national service went smoothly with 98% of eligible students having registered themselves. However, the National Service Ordinance ruling angered the Chinese middle school students because they were compelled to defend the same British order that had discriminated against them and in which they saw no future in. Many Chinese who felt that they were not being treated as equals by the British also did not feel obliged to serve the colonial government. Finally, the temporary disruption to the process of education in Chinese schools as a result of national service caused displeasure within the Chinese community.
While the Ordinance incited resentment towards the colonial government, the national service issue was a godsend for those seeking to encourage communist activists. The communists now had an ally in the Chinese middle school students and they exploited the students' grievances to their political advantage.
On 13 May 1954, some 500 male and female students held a demonstration against the National Service Ordinance. The demonstrators tried to march on Government House (Istana Negara) to lodge their protest. When they failed to disperse, the riot squad stepped in and the demonstration turned violent. Twenty-six people (20 students and six policemen) were injured. The police arrested 44 boys and one girl, all above the age of 16. They were released the following day on bail. Later, as the demonstration gained momentum, 1,000 students locked themselves in at the Chung Cheng High School but were forced out by the police the next day.
On 18 May, a 55-man delegation demanded that students be exempted from national service but the authorities turned them down. As more student demonstrations were expected in the weeks ahead, directors and principals of ten boys' and girls' high schools announced on 21 May that their institutions would be closed for summer vacation two weeks earlier – a decision which affected around 15,000 Chinese students. This sparked off a defiant response on 22 May as 2,500 male and female students locked themselves in the Chung Cheng High School. Parents of the students came down to the school at dawn on 23 May to fetch their children but were met with opposition from student leaders who tried to prevent the parents from entering the school. The police later persuaded the leaders to let the parents pass and the school grounds were cleared peacefully by late morning.
Due to the vigorous protests of the Chinese middle school students, the first big-scale attempt to recruit male youths for part-time national service did not proceed smoothly. The colonial government eventually decided to postpone the implementation of the National Service Ordinance. The demonstrations against the Ordinance awakened the Chinese students' political consciousness and strengthened the influence of student leaders. The riots emboldened the students and in October 1954 they made a public proposal to form the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students Union (SCMSSU).
The authorities had used police force to crush the riot of 13 May. In 1955 and 1956, when the process towards Singapore's self-government intensified, police-student clashes were to recur. The government tried to diffuse tensions by making concessions to student demands but when the students grew too radical and violent under the influence of the SCMSSU, the police were ordered in to control the situation. With the help of the army, the police were able to prevent widespread civil disorder arising from the student unrests.
For the communists, the demonstrations against the National Service Ordinance and the subsequent use of force by the police played into their hands. These developments aroused public sympathy towards the students' cause and gave a tremendous boost to openly left-wing activities in the Chinese middle schools. Communist subversion in these schools subsequently heightened under the banner of the SCMSSU.
Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman
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The information in this article is valid as at 2004 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.