National Service riots of 1954
Singapore’s earliest attempt to introduce compulsory conscription was in 1952. The endeavour was unsuccessful as it was vigorously resisted by Chinese middle school students and their parents, who did not see the need to support the British colonial government’s military efforts. The National Service Ordinance (NSO), officially implemented in March 1954, triggered demonstrations by the Chinese students. They were already unhappy with the colonial government’s education and language policies, which they deemed were biased against the Chinese-educated, and believed that they provided better career opportunities for the English-educated. On 13 May 1954, violence erupted when hundreds of students clashed with the police, as they demonstrated against the mandatory registration for military service.1
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 comprising members selected based more on their prestige than their knowledge of running educational institutions. The British colonial government did not provide funding for Chinese schools. When it came to economic opportunities, the government was seen as preferring to reward English-educated graduates, thereby causing dissatisfaction among the Chinese-educated segments of society. Anti-colonial sentiments among the Chinese were exacerbated by the School Registration Ordinance, introduced in 1950, as a security measure during the Emergency. This ordinance allowed the government to close Chinese schools involved in subversive activities. The government had also intended to establish a national education system based on the English school curriculum. The Chinese community saw these moves as threats to their language and culture.2
Before the establishment of Nanyang University in 1956, 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 in 1949, communism exerted a strong influence on the Chinese-educated community in Singapore and reinforced their anti-colonial sentiments.3
National Service Ordinance
The National Service Bill was introduced by the colonial government in 1952 on the grounds that a people seeking self-government should be able to defend themselves.4 The legislative council passed the NSO on 15 December 1953 and it took effect on 1 March 1954.5 The ordinance required males between the ages of 18 and 20 to register for part-time National Service (NS), and to be conscripted into the Singapore Military Force or the Civil Defence Corps for training later. Failure to register by 22 May 1954 was to result in a six month jail term, a fine of 2,000 Malayan dollars, or both.6
Initially, registration for NS went smoothly with 98 percent of eligible students registering. However, the NSO ruling angered Chinese middle school students because they were compelled to defend the same British order that had discriminated them and in which they saw no future. 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.7 The Chinese students, including their parents, were worried that students would be sent into the jungles to fight Malayan communist guerrillas who were a threat to British rule. The Chinese community was also against compulsory conscription due to the traditional belief that good men did not become soldiers.8 Finally, the community was displeased with the temporary disruption to education as a result of NS. All these issues led to students of Chinese High School (CHS) and Chung Cheng High School (CCHS) boycotting the registration.9
While the ordinance exacerbated existing resentment towards the colonial government among the Chinese community, the incident on 13 May 1954 initiated Malayan communists to the importance of infiltrating Chinese middle schools to spread their leftist ideology.10
Most Chinese students of NS age started to skip classes to boycott the NS registration. Students from CCHS and CHS, worried that the government would take legal action against them, sent separate petitions to the government citing their reasons for objecting to compulsory NS and requesting for exemption. CHS students attempted to march to Government House on 12 May 1954 to submit their petition personally but were prevented from doing so by armed policemen surrounding their school.11
On 13 May 1954, hundreds of male and female Chinese students assembled at Clemenceau Avenue to protest against the NSO. When they failed to disperse as ordered, riot police attempted to disperse them with force, and the demonstration turned violent. A second group of Chinese students marched to Penang Road to show moral support and were also handled harshly by the riot police.12 As a result, 26 people (20 students and six policemen) were injured. Later, as the demonstration gained momentum, 1,000 students locked themselves in CCHS but were forced out by the police the next day. As reported in The Straits Times on 15 May 1954, 48 Chinese students (including two girls) were arrested after the two clashes with police during the 13 May riot. They were charged in court the next day and released on bail immediately.13
On 18 May, a 55-man delegation demanded that students be exempted from NS but the authorities turned them down. With more student demonstrations expected in the weeks ahead, directors and principals of 10 boys’ and girls’ high schools announced on 21 May that their institutions would close for summer vacation two weeks earlier – a decision that affected around 15,000 Chinese students. This sparked a defiant response on 22 May as 2,500 male and female students locked themselves in CCHS. Their parents went to the school at the dawn of 23 May but student leaders prevented them from entering. The police later persuaded the leaders to let the parents pass and the school grounds were cleared peacefully by late morning.14
Due to the vigorous protests of the Chinese middle school students, the first large-scale attempt to recruit male youths for part-time NS did not proceed smoothly. The colonial government eventually decided to postpone the implementation of the NSO. 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), which was rejected. The union was allowed to register the following year, however, on the condition that its members did not get involved in political activities and labour disputes.15
The authorities had used police force to crush the riot of 13 May 1954. In 1955 and 1956, when the process towards Singapore’s self-government intensified, police-student clashes recurred. 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 once again called in to control the situation. With the help of the army, they were able to prevent widespread civil disorder arising from the student unrest.16
For the communists, the demonstrations against the NSO 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 were subsequently heightened under the banner of the SCMSSU.17
Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman & Makeswary Periasamy
1. Hong Liu and Sin-Kiong Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition: Business, Politics & Socio-Economic Change, 1945–1965 (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), 142–46 (Call no. RSING 959.5704 LIU-[HIS]); Richard Clutterbuck, Conflict and Violence in Singapore and Malaysia: 1945–1983 (Singapore: G. Brash, 1985), 82–84. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 CLU-[HIS])
2. E. Kay Gillis, Singapore Civil Society and British Power (Singapore: Talisman, 2005), 158 (Call no. RSING 959.57 GIL-[HIS]); Clutterbuck, Conflict and Violence in Singapore and Malaysia, 75; Lee Su Yin, British Policy and the Chinese in Singapore, 1939 to 1955: The Public Service Career of Tan Chin Tuan (Singapore: Talisman Publishing, 2011), 99–100. (Call no. RSING 959.5704 LEE-[HIS])
3. Gills, Singapore Civil Society and British Power, 158–60; Liu and Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition, 144.
4. Gills, Singapore Civil Society and British Power, 158.
5. V. T. Arasu and Daljit Singh, Singapore: An Illustrated History, 1941–1984 (Singapore: Information Division, Ministry of Culture, 1984), 121 (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS]); Mickey Chiang, SAF and 30 Years of National Service (Singapore: MINDEF Public Affairs, 1997), 18. (Call no. RSING 355.22 CHI)
6. Clutterbuck, Conflict and Violence in Singapore and Malaysia, 82; L. Koh, ”In Defence of the Singapore Oasis: Our First Call-Up Since Independence,” This month in…History 6, no. 2 (February 2002)
7. Liu and Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition, 142, 144; Gills, Singapore Civil Society and British Power, 158.
8. Lim Hock Siew, oral history interview by Foo Kim Leng, Lily Tan and Lim How Seng, 26 August 1982, transcript and MP3 audio, 27:47, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000215), 51; Liu and Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition, 142.
9. Liu and Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition, 142, 144; Gills, Singapore Civil Society and British Power, 158.
10. Liu and Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition, 146–147.
11. Liu and Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition, 142; Arasu and Singh, Illustrated History, 1941–1984, 121; Lim Hock Siew, oral history interview.
12. Lim Hock Siew, oral history interview.
13. Clutterbuck, Conflict and Violence in Singapore and Malaysia, 82; “Students Are Freed on Bail,” Straits Times, 15 May 1954, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Clutterbuck, Conflict and Violence in Singapore and Malaysia, 82–83.
15. Gills, Singapore Civil Society and British Power, 159; Clutterbuck, Conflict and Violence in Singapore and Malaysia, 84.
16. Clutterbuck, Conflict and Violence in Singapore and Malaysia, 85–86, 121–23.
17. Clutterbuck, Conflict and Violence in Singapore and Malaysia, 84; Liu and Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition, 147.
“Run Fast, and Officer’s Job Is Yours,” Singapore Press Holdings, last retrieved 14 October 2004.
“Tear Gas Stopped My Lesson,” Singapore Press Holdings, last retrieved 14 October 2004.
The information in this article is valid as at 28 June 2016 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.