A look back in history: Could the Hock Lee Bus Riots been prevented?

A full-blown riot comprising 2,000 people happened on 12 May 1955. Violent clashes meant that four people lost their lives, with 31 injured. Which riot was this?  

The infamous Hock Lee Bus Riots. But what led to the riots, and could it have been prevented?  

Labour and employment terms weren’t as harmonious before.  

Left-wing trade unions began rallying workers to demand change from their employers, in a bid to improve labour and employment terms. These tended to be more aggressive in nature, compared to our peaceful labour relations today. 

Who was involved?  

The Singapore Bus Workers’ Union (SBWU), headed by unionist Fong Swee Suan, had garnered the support of 250 drivers from the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company, earlier in February that same year.  

There was also another new group that was established called the Hock Lee Bus Employees’ Union (HLBEU), suspected to be initiated by the company itself.  

What started this whole thing?  

  • 24 March 1955: 100 Hock Lee ground staff took a day off to attend an SBWU meeting; this was viewed as mass resignation by the company. To quickly solve the lack of manpower, the company dispatched workers from the HLBEU to take over their duties. The  
  • 24 April 1955: 229 workers, all SBWU members were dismissed at one go. Over the next two days, the unhappy drivers protested at Alexandra Road, the company’s bus depot and stopped buses from plying the roads, urging other drivers to join them in their cause.  Then Chief Minister David Marshall attempted to mitigate the situation between SBWU and Hock Lee Bus Company and managed to get the workers to go back to work. However, union secretary Fong Swee Swan backed out of the agreement.  
  • 11 May 1955: The failure of negotiation resulted in strikes, with the police using high-pressure water jets to break up the angry mob.  
  • 12 May 1955: The strikes intensified – the police deployed water hoses on rioting workers and Chinese students, who also had grievances with the government. This day ended with four people dead, and 31 injured.  
  • 13 May 1955: The riot subsided in the early hours of 13 May.   
  • 14 May 1955: An agreement was reached between the bus company, SBWU and HLBEU. The terms included the appointment of an arbitrator as well as the dissolution of HLBEU. 85 of the 170 workers from HLBEU were dismissed.  

How did such riots affect our country’s growth?  

Such riots reflected the industrial relations in Singapore back in the 50s and 60s, where unemployment was high, bad working conditions and social unrest. When Singapore gained independence in 1965, we were faced with a dire economic situation and limited resources.  

It was imperative for Singapore to attract and retain foreign investments, to create jobs for Singaporeans. The social unrest Singapore was plagued with at the time prevented foreign companies from coming to Singapore for business.  

Enter Tripartism  

With this goal in mind, the trade unions affiliated to the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) supported the government’s call to move away from traditional confrontational approaches when dealing with labour-management relation – with a shared vision to strive for industrial peace with justice.  

With this, tripartism was born – this consisted of the government, a responsible labour movement and enlighted employers adopting a consultative problem-solving approach for the mutual benefit of employers, workers, and society. This solved many problems that was plaguing Singapore pre and during independence, and allowed our country to flourish to the global metropolis it is today!  

So, could the riots have been avoided?  

If tripartism was introduced into the picture earlier, possibly. Confrontational labour-management relations never did anyone well.  During the Hock Lee Bus Riots, among the dead, was 16 year old student, Chong Lon Chong. Chong’s body was paraded around by protestors during the riot, after he was shot in the commotion.  

It is important to remember activists who fought to make tripartism happen (some unionists include our founding father Lee Kuan Yew). Without them, we won’t have the luxury of peaceful labour-management relatons today.  

Fast forward to how Tripartism looks like today  

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, many countries experienced strikes, unemployment, work shortages, but not Singapore. Through tripartism, employers and employees have always enjoyed a harmonious and united working relationship.  

With Labour Day coming up, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng delivered in his May Day message, saying that the tripartite model enables partners to help workers adapt to changes brought about by the pandemic.  

For example, The Ministry of Manpower (MOM), National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and Singapore National Employers Federation are committed to cover at least four in 10 workers under the Tripartite Standard on Flexible Work Arrangements by the year end, Dr Tan noted.  

On top of that, there also many other recommendations that will be rolled out, for example protecting lower-wage workers in society by expanding the Progressive Wage Model to more sectors and occupations to cover up to nine in 10 lower-wage workers.  

Read his full speech here.