Hock Lee Bus Riots

A strike that ended in tragedy

4 min read

TL;DR

On 25 April 1955, 229 members of the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union (SBWU) started a protest after being dismissed from their jobs at Hock Lee Bus Company. Then Chief Minister David Marshall stepped in to help, but negotiations failed and the strike continued. On 12 May, enraged by the police’s use of water cannons on the crowd, over 2,000 students from the Chinese middle schools joined the protest, which quickly escalated into a full-scale riot causing four deaths and 21 injured.

Driver's Badge belonging to a driver of the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company Ltd Drivers of the Hock Lee Bus Company all wore badges like these to work. (c1950s. Image from National Museum of Singapore)

A brewing conflict

Since early 1955, left-wing trade unions had been gathering workers to help fight for better pay and better working conditions. By February, the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union (SBWU), led by trade unionist Fong Swee Suan, had already garnered the support of 250 drivers of the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company.

Chief Minister David Marshall with Fong Swee Suan Chief Minister David Marshall speaking with Fong Swee Suan, the secretary of the Singapore Bus Workers Union who was under Emergency Detention for his involvement in the Hock Lee Bus Riots. (c.1955. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

To show their disapproval of the workers joining the union, the Hock Lee Bus Company dismissed two of the employees, who were SBWU branch officials. To make matters worse, a rival union known as Hock Lee Bus Employees’ Union was formed, paying its members $2 a day as a retainer fee. Suspected to be a plot by their employer, members of this new union were made up of spare drivers who were given priority to operate the spare buses of the company.

When 100 SBWU drivers requested for a day off on 24 March to attend a union meeting, the company refused their application, fearing that it was going to lead to a mass resignation. On 24 April 1955, the drivers’ dissatisfaction with the company reached a boiling point when 229 workers, all SBWU members, were dismissed at the same time.

The next day, the disgruntled drivers gathered outside the company along Alexandra Road as an act of protest. For over three weeks, they blocked the entrance to the bus depot and stopped all buses that were still running. The police had repeatedly tried to stop the protest but their efforts were opposed with violence, causing 15 injuries in the clashes.

A failed negotiation

Then Chief Minister David Marshall stepped in to help with the negotiations between SBWU and Hock Lee Bus Company. The workers initially agreed to go back to work, but Fong Swee Swan, the union secretary, backed out of the initial agreement.

As a result, the negotiation fell through and the strikes continued. On 11 May 1955, the police were forced to use high-pressure water jets to disperse the angry protestors.

Riot Police using a high-power water jet to disperse rioters Riot police using high-powered water jets to disperse the rioters. (c1955. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

The violent riot

On 12 May 1955, enraged by the action of the police, close to 2,000 workers and Chinese students took to the streets and fought back with bricks and stones. The unfortunate incident caused the deaths of four people and numerous injured.

Chong Lon Chong, one of the students, was merely 16 years old when he died in the clash. Some of the people who were present that day said that he could have survived the gunshot fired by the police, if he hadn’t been paraded around for hours after as a display of police brutality.

Police detaining those who took part in the Hock Lee Bus Riots Numerous were detained by the police for their involvement in the riots. (c.1955. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

The streets eventually became peaceful again the next day. An agreement was soon reached between Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company, the SBWU, and Hock Lee Bus Employees’ Union. An arbitrator was appointed to negotiate the terms between the parties and eventually ruled in favour of SBWU. The rival union was dissolved and 85 out of its 170 workers in were dismissed.

This incident prompted the government to strengthen its laws against strikes and illegal demonstrations, an effort to ensure that a tragedy like the Hock Lee Bus Riot will never be repeated.

Lim Hack Tai's 'Riot' Lim Hack Tai’s ‘Riot’ was inspired by events such as the Fort Canning Hill Student Riot of 1954 and the Hock Lee Bus Riots the following year. (Image from National Museum of Singapore)