Hock Lee Bus Riots

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Driver's Badge belonging to a driver of the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company LtdA driver’s badge belonging to the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company Ltd (Image from National Museum of Singapore)

Hock Lee Bus Strike
On 12 May 1955, a strike broke out at the Hock Lee Bus Company along Alexandra Road after 229 members of the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union (SBWU) felt that they were unfairly dismissed. The strike soon escalated into a full-scale riot between police, workers and about 2,000 Chinese middle-school students, resulting in the loss of four lives while leaving 31 others injured.

Beginnings of unrest
Since early 1955, left-wing trade unions began gathering workers to help obtain wage increases and better working conditions for employees. On February 1955, 250 workers of the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company joined the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union (SBWU) led by trade unionist Fong Swee Suan to fight for such causes.
Chief Minister David Marshall with Fong Swee SuanChief 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)

In response, the Hock Lee Bus Company dismissed two of their employees who were SBWU branch officials, and followed that up by refusing 100 Hock Lee drivers a day off to attend a SBWU meeting on 24 March 1955, viewing the event as a case of mass resignation.

The situation deteriorated even further on 24 April, when all 229 SBWU workers of the Hock Lee Bus Company were dismissed after management refused to allow them to operate spare buses that were instead offered to spare drivers of the Hock Lee Bus Employees’ Union.

The following day, the sacked Hock Lee workers gathered at the Hock Lee Bus Company along Alexandra Road, stopping each bus as it left and even forming a human barrier on the last day to block the entrance to the bus depot. Despite warnings from the police, the workers refused to move, resulting in clashes with police that caused a total of 15 injuries. The incident also prompted then Chief Minister David Marshall to step in for negotiations with both parties.

Marshall’s attempts at negotiations fell through as Fong Swee Suan backed out of the initial agreement, despite the workers initially agreeing to return to work. Strikes continued on 11 May, forcing the police to use high-pressure water jets to disperse the crowds that had gathered at the depot.
Riot Police using a high-power water jet to disperese riotersRiot Police using high-pressured water jets to disperse rioters at the site of the Hock Lee Bus Riots (c.1955. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

The Day of the Riot
On 12 May, rising tensions between workers and police soon saw the strikes escalate into an all out riot. An estimated 2,000 people consisting of mainly workers and Chinese students, fought back against the police with the use of bricks and stones. The violence resulted in the deaths of four people, including 16-year-old Chinese student, Chong Lon Chong, who suffered a gunshot wound and was believed to have been paraded around for several hours before being sent to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Police detaining those who took part in the Hock Lee Bus RiotsRioters being detained by Riot Police for their involvement in the Hock Lee Bus Riots (c.1955. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

The riot eventually subsided in the early hours of 13 May and an agreement was soon reached between the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company, the SBWU and Hock Lee Bus Employees’ Union, with the latter being dissolved and an arbitrator appointed to negotiate terms between the unions and bus management. In late May, the arbitrator ruled in favour of the SBWU, resulting in the loss of jobs for 85 out of 170 workers from the Hock Lee Bus Employees’ Union.
Lim Hack Tai's 'Riot'Lim Hack Tai’s ‘Riot’ was inspired by events such as the Student riot at Fort Canning Hill of 1954 and the Hock Lee Bus riots of 1955.(Image from National Museum of Singapore)