The Hock Lee Bus Riots #OnThisDay 12 May 1955
📸: Strikers and Chinese students picking up stones from the ground to retaliate after the police used fire hoses to disperse them at the Hock Lee Bus Riots (NAS)
One of Singapore’s worst riots happened #OnThisDay (12 May 1955), at the junction of Dawson and Alexandra Roads. The Hock Lee Bus riots, also known as Black Thursday started from a strike and evolved into a full-blown riot, killing four people and injuring 31.
It all started when workers, subjected to long hours, poor benefits and harsh conditions, joined unions such as the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union (SBWU) to demand better wages and treatment. The left-wing trade unions deployed militant tactics to demand better employment terms. Tensions reached a tipping point when 229 members were fired by the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company on 24 Apr 1955.
Over the next two days, the unhappy dismissed workers took to the streets and went on strike. Joined by pro-Communist student supporters as well as other sympathisers, these strikers picketed the bus depot and disrupted bus services in an attempt to urge other working bus drivers to quit in solidarity. Then Chief Minister David Marshall attempted to mitigate between SBWU and the Hock Lee Bus Company. The workers initially agreed to go back to work, but Fong Swee Swan, the union secretary of SBWU, backed out of the agreement.
With negotiations failing, strikes continued. The Police was called in to disperse the crowds. Their use of batons for crowd control injured 15 people, which then sparked public sympathy for the workers. Thousands more swarmed to the spot. Agitators made fiery speeches to incite anger against the police.
Clashes between the workers and police intensified on 11 May 1955 after the police resorted to using high-pressure water jets in an attempt to disperse the crowd. When they did it again the next day, protesters retaliated by throwing bricks and stones at the police, thus escalating the strike into a riot.
The riots, which peaked on 12 May 1955, eventually died down in the early hours of 13 May 1955. Singapore was engulfed in a night of danger, despair and deaths, including that of two police officers, a news correspondent and a 16-year-old student who was paraded by rioters for hours after sustaining a gunshot wound. On 14 May 1955, bus company owners met with union members and reached agreements that ended the strikes.
The Hock Lee Bus Riots showed how workers’ unhappiness could be exploited to sow instability, and highlighted the importance of nurturing labour relations and fostering strong ties between all stakeholders. In the years after, the government worked to improve labour relations and set up National Trade Union Congress in 1961 to foster strong ties between all stakeholders, for the good of the nation.
#EveryWorkerMatters #LabourDay #Labour #Union #HockLee #MotionOfThanks #WagesWelfareWorkProspects