Chinese Middle Schools Protests

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What started as the government's move to curb the rise of communism in Singapore, triggered what would be known as one of the worst riots in the history of the nation.

When Lim Yew Hock succeeded David Marshall and assumed officeas Chief Minister in 1956, one of first efforts he undertook was the active suppression of communist activities in Singapore. After pledging and obtaining a vote of confidence from the Legislative Assembly, Lim went on to institute strict measures to clamp down on communist activities and stabilise the ground.

In September 1956, he ordered the dissolution of the Singapore Women's Association (SWA) and the Chinese Musical Gong Society, both of which were believed to be pro-communist. Other than striking the stronghold of 10 other communist front organisations and arresting 300 activists, he also slapped the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students’ Union (SCMSSU) with a ban - citing the charge that the union had "persistently engaged in political activity and systematically organised subversive indoctrination of students in a typical Communist pattern of intimidation".

Additionally pledging his support for government action was then Minister for Education Chew Swee Kee, who likewise declared that the union was "nothing less than a Communist front organisation", and that his government would stop at nothing to rid the country of subversive elements.

On 25 September, shortly after the announcement of the SCMSSU ban - in an act of defiance calling for its reinstatement - 5000students from Chung Cheng High School and The Chinese High School staged a sit-in in their schools. Across Nanyang Girls' School, Nan Chiau Girls’ High School, Chung Hwa Girls’ High School and Yoke Eng High School, students also met up at protest meetings. However, all students dispersed early on after they werecautioned against violating the act prohibiting unlawful "assembly of unauthorised bodies on school premises between 7.30p.m. and 7.30 a.m.".

Chinese Middle Schools ProtestsPolice clearing students from the Chinese High School.

Nevertheless, the government remained resolute on its quest to quell suppression, detaining four students from Chinese High School and Chung Cheng High School, calling for the expulsion of 142 students, terminating the services of two teachers, and issuing warnings to seven teachers involved in insurgent activities. This instigated students of these schools to respond by barricading themselves within their school compounds, putting up anti-government posters, and holding meetings with resolutions passed condemning the government's action.

Despite an order for the temporary closure of schools on 12 October, students resolutely remained inside their schools whilereceiving outside moral and material support from pro-communist trade unions and organisations such as the Chinese SchoolsStudents' Union, the Parents’ Friendly Association, the Bus Workers' Union, the Singapore Factory and Shop Workers’ Union,Singapore Farmer's Association, and Nanyang University undergraduates. Members of the Singapore Bus Workers' Union evenorganised parties to visit the schools and "comfort" the encamped students.

Chinese Middle Schools ProtestsStudents marching along a road with arms linked.

On 22 and 23 October, the encamped students in both schools attempted to picket other schools into forcing a general strike of all Middle School students, compelling the Chief Minister to go on air and issue a warning to the parents of the protesting students to remove their children from the schools by 25 October, 8 p.m. However, the students organised to resist their parents' effort, while officials of the pro-communist Parents’ Friendly Association persuaded parents not to withdraw their children.

By the time 8 p.m. came, large crowds of anxious parents, bus conductors, workers, and other students had gathered at both schools, but no students had left their camps.

Chinese Middle Schools ProtestsReport on Military Action taken in the Singapore Riots, 25October to 2 November 1956. 

Shortly after 8 p.m., there were attacks on the police and police cars around the vicinity of the two schools, with parked vehicles being overturned and burned as well. Soon after, rioting broke out in other parts of Singapore, causing a curfew to be imposed from 12.21 a.m. to 6 a.m. on 26 October. During this time, the police moved into the schools to evict the students using tear gas.

Concurrently, they also raided the premises of several pro-communist unions, which culminated in the arrest of over 200 people in the wee hours of 27 October. Among those detained were union leaders Fong Swee Suan, Lim Chin Siong, C.V. Devan Nair, Sidney Woodhull, and James Puthucheary.

Chinese Middle Schools ProtestsPolice in the foreground with a burning vehicle in the background. 

By the time order was finally restored on 28 October, the number of casualties stood at 13 dead and 127 injured. Between 25 October and 31 October, a total of 290 people were arrested for rioting, 962 for breaking curfew, 912 detained under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance, and 55 for other offences. In property damage, three buildings were set alight and two others were severely damaged, while 31 vehicles had beenburnt, with an additional 101 others wrecked. Click here for a summary of the damages.

All the schools involved in the riots resumed normal curriculum by 13 November 1956.


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