Hock Lee bus strike and riot
by Ho, Stephanie
Dismissed workers of the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company went on strike from 25 April 1955. Joined by supporters and Chinese middle school students, these strikers picketed the bus depot and disrupted bus services. Police were called in to disperse the crowds and resorted to using water jets when warnings failed. The strike escalated into a riot on 12 May 1955 resulting in four deaths and 31 people injured.
Reasons for strike
Since early 1955, left-wing trade unions began to organise workers, and used militant methods to obtain increased wages and improved working conditions for employees.1 In February 1955, 250 workers of the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company joined the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union (SBWU) led by trade unionist Fong Swee Suan, the secretary of the union.
In response, the bus company dismissed two employees who were branch officials of the SBWU. At the same time, a rival union – the Hock Lee Bus Employees’ Union, also known as the Hock Lee Bus Workers’ Union – was formed.2 This union was made up of spare drivers who received a retainer fee of $2 per day for joining the union.3 The members of the SBWU viewed the Hock Lee Bus Employees’ Union as an employer’s union, or “yellow” union, and grew suspicious of their employer.4
This tension between the bus workers and their management later erupted into a series of disputes. On 24 March 1955, about 100 Hock Lee drivers and conductors took the day off when their management refused to grant them leave to attend a SBWU meeting. The company viewed the incident as a case of mass resignation by the workers and hired workers from its own employees’ union to continue bus services.5
The situation further deteriorated the following month. On 18 and 24 April, SBWU workers in the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company staged lightning strikes to protest against certain actions taken by their management. In the first instance, the workers alleged that the management had breached certain terms of an earlier agreement between the bus company and the SBWU. They were also unhappy with the number of Hock Lee Bus Employees’ Union members being employed as spare workers. In the second instance, the workers objected to the management’s refusal to allow members of the SBWU to operate the spare buses. In response, the management dismissed all 229 SBWU workers in the bus company.6
On 25 and 26 April, the sacked Hock Lee workers arrived at the company’s bus depot at Alexandra Road.7 They stopped each bus as it left and tried to persuade the crew to stop work in sympathy to their cause. Despite police intervention, the workers continued picketing the major bus stops.8
On 27 April, the workers continued to block the gate of the bus depot by forming a human barrier. They refused to move despite repeated warnings. The police then used batons to disperse the crowds resulting in 15 people injured. The police action generated sympathy for the workers. Eight hundred SBWU members employed by other companies stopped work between 10 am and 2 pm on that day to protest against “police bullying”.9
The workers also received support from large groups of sympathisers and Chinese students. Among the supporters were agitators who used loud speakers to make fiery speeches and incite the crowds to oppose the police.10 To avoid further clashes between the police and picketers, bus services along River Valley Road, Tiong Bahru Road and Alexandra Road and other routes served by the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company were suspended.11
The Labour Front government led by then Chief Minister David Marshall stepped in to intervene as negotiations between the workers and bus management reached a deadlock. Marshall persuaded the management to offer to reinstate the workers and a Court of Inquiry presided by District Judge F. A. Chua was appointed to look into the circumstances of the dispute.12 Initially, the SBWU workers agreed to return to work pending the results of the inquiry. However, Fong, the secretary of the SBWU, said he had signed the agreement without the consent of the general workers and backed out of the agreement.13
On 7 May, 21 of the 63 Hock Lee buses, driven by members of the Hock Lee Bus Employees’ Union, returned to the roads. According to an agreement made at the Court of Inquiry, the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company could run one third of its bus fleet using members of its own union. However, the services did not run smoothly. The company complained of “trouble-makers” who boarded the buses and created various nuisances, including persistent ringing of bells, banging on the sides of the vehicles and ripping seats with knives.14
On 11 May, clashes between the workers and police grew more intense. The former continued to block buses attempting to leave the depot despite repeated warnings. Eventually, on the orders of magistrate T. Kulasekaram, the police used high-pressure water jets to disperse the crowds resulting in several workers suffering minor injuries.15
On 12 May, the strike escalated into a riot. That morning, police again used water hoses to disperse demonstrators, but this time the crowd retaliated by throwing bricks and stones at the police. As the police observed large numbers of workers and students being organised and sent to the Alexandra Road area, they established road blocks to cordon off the “danger area”. They hoped to prevent reinforcements from swelling the crowd in that area.16
Despite these measures, large numbers of students and workers infiltrated the area on foot. The rioting crowd was then estimated at 2,000.17 By the late afternoon, these crowds began attacking policemen, police posts, road blocks and cars. The police used “tear smoke” to disperse the people but rioting continued till about 3 am.18
The riot resulted in four people dead and 31 people injured. Corporal Andrew Teo Bok Lan of the Volunteer Special Constabulary was beaten to death and his car overturned and burned. Detective Corporal Yuen Yau Pang died from injuries sustained after the vehicle he was in was similarly attacked.19 Other victims included American press correspondent Gene Symonds and a 16-year-old Chinese student, Chong Lon Chong, who suffered a gunshot wound.20 It was believed that the student had been paraded around for several hours before he was sent to the hospital. By then, it was too late for his life to be saved.21
The riot subsided in the early hours of 13 May. Later in the day, the government closed three Chinese middle schools – the Chinese High School, as well as the Chung Cheng High School and its branch school. The government stated that this action was taken because of the “deterioration in the strike situation and the increased participation in that situation by pupils of these schools in particular”.22 The students reacted by taking control of the Chung Cheng school and staging a sit-in. The Labour Front government responded by convening an All-Party Education Committee to look into the problems of Chinese education. This committee recommended that the government not take any disciplinary action against the students until the problems of education had been thoroughly examined.23
On 14 May, an agreement was reached between the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company, the SBWU and the Hock Lee Bus Employees’ Union, thus ending the strike.24 According to the agreement, the Hock Lee Bus Employees’ Union would be dissolved, the Court of Inquiry discontinued and Charles Gamba of the University of Malaya appointed as arbitrator between the unions and bus management.25
On 16 May, an emergency meeting of the Legislative Assembly was held to restore certain powers to the Commissioner of Police so that he could impose curfews to control the internal security of the state. During the meeting, then Chief Secretary William A. C. Goode attributed the rioting to “irresponsible political leaders and Chinese students”. He said, “It was they who deliberately provoked widespread industrial unrest and by a vicious emotional campaign aroused the workers against the police”.26
In late May, Gamba ruled in favour of the SBWU. As a result, 85 out of 170 workers of the dissolved Hock Lee Bus Employees’ Union lost their jobs.27
On 11 June, Fong and several other trade unionists were arrested under the Emergency Regulations over their involvement in the riot.28 Fong was fingered as a chief instigator of the riot29 and was detained for 45 days.30 After his release, Fong denied he was a Communist.31 In an interview many years later, he claimed that the strike was not instigated by the Malayan Communist Party but added that there could have been party elements who took advantage of the situation.32 Fong admitted responsibility for the strike which preceded the riot but not for causing the riot.33
1. Singapore. Labour Dept., Annual Report (Singapore: Labour Department, 1955), 9. (Call no. RCLOS 331 SIN-[RFL])
2. Labour Dept., Annual Report, 12.
3. Parliament of Singapore, Emergency (Amendment no. 2) Regulations, 1955, vol. 1 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 16 May 1955, col. 208. (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN)
4. Parliament of Singapore, Emergency (Amendment no. 2) Regulations, col. 208.
5. “Took Day Off: 100 Busmen Lose Jobs,” Straits Times, 25 March 1955, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Labour Department, Annual Report, 13.
7. Richard L. Clutterbuck, Riot and Revolution in Singapore and Malaya 1945–1963 (London: Faber, 1973), 108. (Call no. RSING 959.57024 CLU-[HIS] STU)
8. “The Police Clear Way for Strike Hit Buses,” Straits Times, 27 April 1955, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “15 Bus Strikers Injured,” (1955, April 28). Straits Times, 28 April 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Parliament of Singapore, Emergency (Amendment no. 2) Regulations, cols. 177–178.
11. “It’s Another Walk to Work Day – Buses Of the Roads,” Straits Times, 29 April 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Marshall at the Bus Depot,” Straits Times, 30 April 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Off Route Somewhere,” Straits Times, 7 May 1955, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Bus Seat Rippers Force Changes in Routes,” Straits Times, 8 May 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “Crouching Ranks Broke in 12 mins,” Straits Times, 11 May 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
16. . Parliament of Singapore, Emergency (Amendment no. 2) Regulations, cols. 179–180.
17. “Rioters Battle the Police,” Straits Times, 13 May 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Parliament of Singapore, Emergency (Amendment no. 2) Regulations, cols. 179–182.
19. “Two ‘Noble Men’ Died to Keep Law and Order,” Straits Times, 29 June 1955, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Singapore Salutes a Brave Newsman,” Straits Times, 17 May 1955, 12; “Unknown Person Shot Boy, Jury Finds,” Straits Times, 2 July 1955, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Parliament of Singapore, Emergency (Amendment no. 2) Regulations, cols. 183–184.
22. “After the Tension – Quiet,” Straits Times, 14 May 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “The Picture They Didn’t Want Taken,” Straits Times, 17 May 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG); Yeo Kim Wah, Political Development in Singapore, 1945–55 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1973), 200–201. (Call no. RSING 320.95957 YEO)
24. “Hock Lee Strike Ended: Most Buses Back Today,” Straits Times, 15 May 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Labour Dept., Annual Report, 14.
26. Parliament of Singapore, Emergency (Amendment no. 2) Regulations, col. 239; “The Guilty Men – by Goode,” Straits Times, 17 May 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “Busmen Protest Gamba’s Award,” Straits Times, 30 May 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “PAP ‘Worried’ Over Fong,” Straits Times, 26 June 1955, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Fong Swee Suan 方水双, Fang Shuishuang hui yi lu方水双回忆录 [Memoirs of Fong Swee Suan]. (Johor Bahru 新山：Xin shan tao de shu xiang lou 新山陶德书香出版, 2007), 64. (Call no. Chinese RSEA 959.5704 FSS-[HIS])
30. “Fong is Back: It’s a Big Surprise,” Straits Times, 26 July 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “I’m No Red: Fong,” Straits Times, 27 July 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Chen Tianming 陈天明, “方水双出版回忆录 1955年福利巴士工潮 “主谋”方水双揭秘辛.” [Fong Swee Suan memoirs reveal truth behind the 1955 Hock Lee Bus Riots], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报 , 26 April 2007, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Sonny Yap, Richard Lim, and Leong Weng Kam, Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, 2009), 78. (Call no. RSING 324.25957 YAP); Fong Swee Suan, Fang Shuishuang hui yi lu, 66.
The information in this article is valid as at 6 August 2014 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.
Strikes and lockouts--Singapore
1945-1955 Aftermath of war
Hock Lee Bus Riots, Singapore, 1955
Hock Lee Bus Strike, Singapore, 1955
Politics and Government