Chinese Middle Schools Protests

A blood-stained page in modern Singapore’s history

5 min read
Chinese Middle Schools Protests

TL;DR

In the 1950s, the rise of communism was seen as a threat to Singapore’s democratic system, and its multicultural society. The government’s measures to clamp down on communist activities led to a nation-wide protest from thousands of Chinese middle school students in October 1956, which ended in a violent riot resulting in 13 deaths, 127 injured, and over 2,000 people arrested.

A threat to Singapore’s stability

To understand the Singapore government’s stance against communism, we need to take a closer look at the political climate during the 50s. In those days, communism under Stalin and Mao were flawed, totalitarian systems that brutally suppressed freedom of religion and civil rights. The violent militant movement was also catching on with the Chinese in Malaya and Singapore. The violent militant movement was also catching on with the Chinese in Malaya and Singapore.

The dark memories of the Japanese Occupation, which ended just a little over a decade ago, were still lingering in the hearts of many Singapore. All people wanted were peace and stability, and the government was not going to allow foreign powers to once again threaten the system.

Taking action

When Lim Yew Hock succeeded David Marshall as chief minister in 1956, one of his first priorities was to clamp down on communist activities that would disrupt Singapore’s safety.

In September 1956, he broke up the Singapore’s Women’s Association (SWA), and the Chinese Musical Gong Society, both of which were believed to be pro-communist. Lim went on to strike the stronghold on 10 other communist front organisations, arresting 300 activists.

The Singapore Chinese Middle School Students’ Union (SCMSSU) was banned for using intimidation and propaganda to indoctrinate the teenage students. Then Minister for Education Chew Swee Kee, also declared the union as being “nothing less than a Communist front organisation”.

The act of defiance

Chinese Middle Schools Protests Students marched along a road with arms linked as an act of protest against the government’s decision to disband Chinese organisations they believed to be pro-communist. (c1956. Image from The National Archives, United Kingdom.)

Chinese Middle Schools Protests Police clearing students from the Chinese High School. (c1956. Image from The National Archives, United Kingdom.)

The announcement turned out to be the catalyst to one of modern Singapore’s biggest riots. On 23 September, 5,000 students from Chung Cheng High School and Chinese High School staged a sit-in at their schools. As a show of solidarity, students from Nanyang Girls’ School, Nan Chiau Girls’ School, Chung Hwa Girls’ High School, and Yoke Eng High School, also gathered for protest meetings.

The government saw a potential disaster brewing and in an attempt to curb the problem, issued an act prohibiting unlawful “assembly of unauthorised bodies on school premises between 7.30 p.m. and 7.30 a.m.” The decision was a successful one, as most students dispersed quickly for fear of violating the ban.

More action followed to completely stamp out the communist movement in Chung Cheng High School and Chinese High School. The government arrested four students and called for the expulsion of 142 others, firing two teachers, and issued warnings to seven others involved in the insurgent activities. Enraged, the students responded fiercely – barricading themselves within their school compounds, putting up anti-government posters, and actively condemning the government’s action.

On 12 October, in response to the protests, the government ordered a temporary closure of the schools. But the students defiantly remained in their schools, spurred on by moral and material support from other pro-communist trade unions and organisations, including the Chinese Schools Students' Union, the Parents’ Friendly Association, the Bus Workers' Union, the Singapore Factory and Shop Workers’ Union, Singapore Farmer's Association, and Nanyang University undergraduates.

On 22 and 23 October, the encamped students rallied students from other schools to join them in a strike – their ultimate display of disobedience.

The final showdown

The chief minister realised that firm action was the only way to stop the protests. He went on national television and radio to issue a warning to the parents of the protesting students, informing them that they had to remove their children from the schools by 25 October, 8pm.

The pro-communist Parents’ Friendly Association, however, persuaded the parents not to listen to the minister. Those who did were ignored by their children, who continued staying on wilfully.

When the deadline came at 8 p.m., huge crowds of concerned parents, bus conductors, workers, and other students had gathered at both schools. But none of the students had left their camps.

The protest soon turned violent, as the students directed their rage at the police near their schools. They attacked the uniformed officers, torched and overturned the police cars, and damaged other vehicles. This sparked off riots across the island, and in response, the government imposed an emergency curfew from 12.21 a.m. to 6 a.m. on 26 October. Between these hours, the police moved into the schools and evicted the students using tear gas.

On 27 October, the final blow from the government finally came when police raided the pro-communist unions’ headquarters and arrested over 200 people. Among those detained were union leaders Fong Swee Suan, Lim Chin Siong, C.V. Devan Nair, Sidney Woodhull, and James Puthucheary.

The price of peace

Chinese Middle Schools Protests The nationwide violence left 13 deaths, many more casualties, and numerous properties damaged. (c1956. Image from The National Archives, United Kingdom.)

Chinese Middle Schools Protests Police in the foreground with a burning vehicle in the background. (c1956. Image from The National Archives, United Kingdom.)

Order was finally restored on 28 October. The nationwide violence left 13 dead and 127 others injured. Three buildings were burnt, two others severely damaged, while 31 vehicles were torched, with over 100 others wrecked.

The police arrested or detained over 2,000 people for rioting, breaking curfew, disrupting public security, and other offences, sending out a strong message that such activities are not tolerated.

Peace, in this instance, came at the cost of innocent lives. A few weeks later, on 13 November 1956, the schools involved in the riots resumed normal curriculum, with hopes of a communist takeover stemmed once and for all. 

References
1 Lau, Albert. Southeast Asia and the Cold War. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012. 
2 Infopedia. Fong Swee Suan. 2013, Retrieved from http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_2013-07-29_173512.html
3 Same team – game goes on. (1956, June 9). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved fromhttp://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19560609-1.2.2 
4 The clean-up: Act two. (1956, September 25). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19560925-1.2.2 
5 5,000 school rebels. (1956, September 26). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19560926-1.2.2 
6 142 pupils to be expelled: Bar is permanent at all schools. (1956, October 11). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19561011-1.2.3
7 History SG. Protests by Chinese Middle School Students. 2014, retrieved from http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/376486b7-a68b-4a2b-acad-97e0b678a8e7