Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Fong Swee Suan

An Introduction of Fong Swee Suan

Fong Swee Suan, 76, is a legendary figure among workers in Singapore from the 1950s to the 1960s era. He played an important leading role in the trade union movement and the anticolonial struggle in Singapore, earning him the enmity of the British colonial regime and its supporters.

Fong Swee Suan was the Secretary General of the Singapore Bus Workers Union, which explains how he became involved in the Hock Lee Bus Riots in 1955, where workers demanded better working conditions.

Together with Lim Chin Siong and other trade union leaders in Singapore, Fong Swee Suan was among the members of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1954 and also helped to mobilize workers’ support for the PAP. He was educated in Chinese in the Chinese High School in Singapore.

The birth and growing up years

Fong Swee Suan was born on 27th October 1931. His grandparents came from China and had migrated to Singapore in hope of having a better life here. Life in China was hard and his grandparents were poor and had to live in poor living conditions with poor sanitation. Food was also a problem. His grandparents then heard that coming to Singapore would get a better life. For the sake of the later generations, his grandparents then decided to leave their homeland.

His Father and elder brother opened a laundry shop to earn a living. The business flourished. Many of the customers were mostly Malays. His mother, on the other hand, bought a piece of land to grow fruit trees and plants as cash crops, so that the family could earn a bit more money from the produce. This resulted in causing the family to live separately. To him, his mother was a big influence to him as she had taught him right values and good character.

Although he did not come from a wealthy family, he studied hard and did not give up. Unfortunately, he was halfway through his education when the World War II started. When World War II ended, he continued his education in primary school, studying in Primary Four. However, he was much older than his classmates who were studying in that level. He continued to pursue his studies and graduated in 1948.

In 1949, he left home to further his studies in Chinese High School but transferred to another school in Singapore to continue his classes. He was admitted to the second year and went into a class with Lim Chin Siong. He was already 20 years old that year. Swee Suan participated in many strikes including an examination strike. When he proceeded to study in his third year, he was expelled from school because he joined many of the student strikes.

His Contribution to Singapore

After he left school in 1950, he became a Secretary in the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union. He was then promoted to a higher position in April 1953. He met Lee Kuan Yew for the first time in 1954, through a friend.

On 21st November 1954, PAP was officially opened. Fong Swee Suan was also elected as a committee member.

In May 1955, he initiated and lead in the Hock Lee Bus Riot. The services of bus transport were severely disrupted paralyzed as buses were prevented from leaving as the strikers formed human barriers by sitting on the ground. It was on the 23rd of April when the workers of the Hock Lee Amalgated bus Co, who were members of the pro-communist Singapore Bus Workers’ Union [SBWU] went on strike. The head of the SBWU, Fong Swee Suan declared an official strike, urging all bus companies to stage a sympathy strike if the dispute was not settled. The dispute escalated when the Hock Lee Bus Company retaliated by dismissing 229 workers, belonging to Fong Swee Suan’s Union. Strikers went on hunger strike and picketed the depot. On April 23, 1955, workers from the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company and some Chinese students began to go on strike. They were members of the Singapore Bus Workers' Union (SBWU) and were protesting against poor working conditions, long work hours and low pay. They also felt threatened by a rival union which was supported by the bus company to counter any labour action by SBWU.

The strike was rumored to be instigated by pro-communists. However, it was more likely to have been fanned by anti-colonial sentiments. Singapore had just held a Legislative Assembly Election on April, and the Labour Front led by David Marshall formed a minority government after winning a narrow victory. Fong Swee Suan and Lim Chin Siong, two anti-colonial leaders of SBWU, felt that the labour front was still controlled by the British. Violent as it was, the riots were an opportunity to fight for independence and self government. Fong Swee Suan later made a public apology to express the regret for the violence which got out of hand. 'We express our deep distress at the violence used against the buses of the Hock Lee Bus Company and the police.'

The strikers stopped the buses from leaving the depots and crippled the country's entire transport system. In a show of support, students from the Chinese Middle schools came in busloads to join the strikers. They organized donation drives, brought food and money, and even entertained the workers with songs and dances. Other workers also expressed support.

The police attempted to disperse the picketers many times. On April 27, 1955, police tried to break up the strikers and injured 15 people. This gained more public sympathy and support for the strikers.

On 11th June 1955, he was arrested with the rest of the leaders who lead in the riot. They were accused to have started the main strike. They were in detention for a total of 15 days. Many people objected and were then released.

In 21st September 1956, he was appointed as the vice-chairman of the Association of Workers’ Singapore Industry. This Association was set up on the 22nd May 1954. in 21st September 1956, he led a seven member representative group to see a minister, Lim Yew Hock, to discuss about the matter where the chairman of the Industry Association, Lim Zhen Guo, was arrested.

On 27th October 1956, Lim Yew Hock, decided to arrested all the people involved in all the strikes as there were too many strikes, thus resulting in another arrest of Fong Swee Suan. Arrested together with him were 200 other communists such as Lim Chin Siong, Chengara Veetil Devan Nair. Lim Yew Hock also destroyed the Middle Road Union Workers’ Party. Students involved were also dispersed.

In 1957, at Changi Detention Centre, Lim Chin Siong and other communists signed a treaty written by Chengara Veetil Devan Nair. 4th June 1959, the communists were released from the detention centre. After they were released, the held a conference with reporters and answered the reporters’ questions. They also spoke of a new strategy after Singapore’s independence, which included Singapore’s responsibility and policy. After expressing their views on this issue, they became very popular amongst the people. In 1959, he was appointed as the government secretary of the ministry of manpower and the dispute secretary of National Trades Union Congress of Singapore (NTUC).

On the 18th June 1960, Wang Yong Yuan challenged to be a leader of a party. So Fong Swee Suan, together with other communist parties, supported the Central party.

After Fong Swee Suan criticized the manpower policy in PAP, he was transferred to become a politic secretary of the deputy prime minister’s office.

July 1961, he objected to the idea of merger with Malaya. He broke off from PAP because of this1 objection. September 1961, he was appointed as the Singapore Socialism. At the same time, he was also the advisor of many other parties.

On 2nd Februry 1963, he was arrested for the third time. He was being brought to Malaya, with a short detention in Kuala Lumpur and then transferred to another detention centre in Muar. He was there for 4 years and 6 months. On 25th August 1967, he was released before the 10th anniversary of Malaya’s independence. He received his O’level and A’level certificates during his detention period. In 1968, he became the Administrative Assistant of the Kuala Lumpur central sugar factory.

On 1970, he moved to Johor and became a branch manager of De Cheng Machinery Pte Ltd. On 1976, he set up You Lian Machinery Pte Ltd. The business involved heavy machinery and estate investments. On 1991, he got his Bachelor of Arts from Kensington University.

He retired on 1996 and continued on an arts research and got an MBA and a PhD degree from another university. He has three children, his eldest daughter, Xiu Min is an architect. His eldest son, Fang Yong Jin, is a mechanical engineer. His youngest son, Fang Yong Zheng, is an electrical engineer.

Black Thursday

On 12th May 1955, later known as "Black Thursday", a major riot broke out in the streets of Alexandra Road and Tiong Bahru. The police tried to break up the 2,000 students and strikers using water cannon and tear gas, but the crowd retaliated by stoning the policemen and buses. In total, two police officers, a student and an American press correspondent, died and many more were seriously injured.

The police managed to stop the violence by the next morning. Later, Hock Lee Bus Company and the SBWU signed a ruling issued by the Court of Inquiry. The strikers' jobs and pay were restored and they declared victory for their action. However, because of the unexpected violence, public opinion became more critical towards the rioters. The Chief Minister of Singapore, David Marshall, took action. He expelled student leaders involved in the rioting and closed down two schools where the most students had been involved.

However, the students were defiant. On 16 May 1955, about two thousand students forced their way into the two schools. Anxious parents, friends and supporters came daily to give students food, clothing and money.

Marshall had no choice but to give in. He re-opened the two schools and allowed the expelled student leaders to return to school. He also blamed the pro-communists for the unrest saying, "The patterns of action of the demonstrators conform to Communist techniques." The British authorities were critical of Marshall for not taking tougher actions towards the rioters and strikers. They would later reject his proposal for independence in 1956, claiming that the local government was not able to manage internal security.

Done By: Joycelyn Moh (10), Cheryl Tan (21), Wong Ting Yen (25), Yip Zhi Yi (26) 2 diligence!

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