On February 4, Fong Swee Suan, the veteran Singaporean trade unionist and political activist, died at the age of 85. Following years of political exile in Malaysia, Fong spent his later years living a quiet life in Singapore. This relative serenity stands in stark contrast to the tumultuous years of Fong’s youth, when he played a prominent role in Singapore’s anticolonial struggle during the 1950s and early 1960s.
Fong’s first involvement in anticolonial politics came as a student at the Chinese High School. Fong and his classmate, Lim Chin Siong – who would later be an influential left-wing politician and trade union leader – mobilised their fellow students, organising political discussion groups and encouraging their classmates to assist in relief efforts for the poor. In 1951, Fong’s education was cut short when he was one of 108 students expelled for boycotting the Junior Middle III exam.
Following his expulsion from the Chinese High School, it was an easy and logical step to the world of labour politics. In 1952, Fong joined the Green Bus Company and in 1953 he was elected as secretary-general of the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union (SBWU). In the aftermath of the second world war, Singapore had been shaken by a series of strikes. However, following the declaration of a state of emergency in 1948, the trade union leadership had been either driven underground or co-opted by employers and the colonial state. All of this was to change in 1955.
That year Fong instigated an SBWU strike against the Hock Lee Bus Company to get improved working conditions and protest against the company’s unfair treatment of union members and officials. The Hock Lee Bus strike was part of a broader upsurge in labour unrest in Singapore during 1955, as workers across multiple industries protested against deteriorating economic conditions, discriminatory working practices, and the infringement of labour rights. Much of this unrest was led by the Middle Road Group, a coalition of leftist trade unions linked to the People’s Action Party (PAP), of which Fong was a founding member.
The British authorities and the pro-business press denounced the strikes as a communist conspiracy, urging the embattled chief minister, David Marshall, to suppress the unrest using the police and British troops. When the Hock Lee Bus strike descended into a riot, leaving four dead and 31 injured, Fong was arrested and detained for 45 days for his alleged role in organising the riot – an accusation that he always denied.
The Hock Lee Bus strike was just the start. The colonial authorities routinely accused Fong and his contemporaries of being communist conspirators, operating on behalf of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). Fong was arrested again in 1956 but no substantive evidence was ever provided to irrefutably demonstrate that the left-wing trade unions were part of a communist conspiracy to destabilise Singapore.
This is not to deny that the world view of the left-wing trade union leaders was informed by socialist principles. Such beliefs were a logical response to the context in which they operated. For the Middle Road Group, socialism offered a solution to the inequities of colonial rule in Singapore.
For the Middle Road Group, Marxism was not a blueprint for communist revolution, as the British authorities claimed. Instead it offered a solution to the inequities of colonial rule in Singapore: an end to political disfranchisement and economic inequality.
Marxism, however, was not the only source of inspiration for the leftist trade union leaders. As a major port city, Singapore was a site of vibrant cosmopolitanism. This was reflected in the left’s rhetoric. Not only did it draw inspiration from anticolonial struggles elsewhere in Asia, but the left explicitly invoked a range of international discourses, including human rights, self-determination and Third Worldism, to articulate their vision for a free and independent Singapore.
By placing the local struggle against colonial rule in Singapore in a global context, the leftist trade unionists could give deeper meaning to workers’ more immediate concerns. This ability to speak to and for the island’s working-class population was a critical factor in the PAP’s 1959 election victory. The PAP’s triumph, however, masked emerging tensions between the leftist trade unions and the anglophone wing of the party. In the wake of the election, the left became increasingly dissatisfied with their exclusion from policymaking and the PAP’s reluctance to push for the repeal of the emergency regulations.
These tensions came to head when it was discovered that Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who led the anglophone wing, had been negotiating with the British government and the Federation of Malaya over the reunification of Singapore and Malaysia.
In opposition to the proposed merger of Singapore and the Federation, Fong and his fellow trade unionists left the PAP and established their own rival party, Barsian Sosialis. The PAP condemned Barisan’s opposition to the merger, branding it “anti-national”.
Barisan’s leadership, however, was not opposed to the reunification of Singapore and the Federation. What the left objected to was the terms of the merger, arguing that it amounted to a form of neocolonialism since Singapore would not be fully represented in the Federal Parliament and it would not have full control over internal security.
Fearing that the left’s opposition had the potential to derail the merger, the PAP initiated a campaign to discredit the trade union leaders associated with Barisan. The PAP’s campaign against the left culminated in Operation Coldstore, when 113 activists, including Fong, were arrested in February 1963 as part of a joint security operation by the governments of Britain, the Federation of Malaya and Singapore.
Fong was detained until 1967, after which he was exiled to Malaysia and prohibited from entering Singapore until his travel ban was lifted in 1990. Many of his contemporaries suffered a similar fate. The left’s retreat from public life has meant that the PAP’s narrative has tended to dominate accounts of this period. In the decades following Operation Coldstore, the PAP frequently invoked the argument that the government was forced to take unpalatable actions in order to counter the communist threat. In recent years this view has come under increasing scrutiny.
Revisionist historians and members of the “old left” have argued that Barisan’s opposition to merger was not a symptom of communist subversion. Instead it stemmed from the left’s desire to free Singapore from colonial control and achieve true national independence.
These views have not gone unchallenged. In response, the PAP and counter-revisionist historians have reiterated the argument that Barisan’s leaders were communist conspirators, determined to destabilise Singapore as part of a campaign of subversion.
Such conflicting views means that Fong’s unfortunate passing serves as a timely reminder of the need to record the memories of those individuals who were intimately involved in Singapore’s anticolonial struggle.
This shouldn’t just be a story of the victorious. The story should be about more than the founding fathers of the PAP. It should be also about “the vanquished”, to borrow C.J. Wan-Ling Wee’s term, and the role they played in building Singapore.
It is only by recognising the plurality and diversity of views that exist when it comes to this tumultuous period that we can better understand the complexities of Singapore’s transition from colonial port city to first-world city state. ■
Dr Gareth Curless is a lecturer in History at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom