1954 National Service riots

Last updated

13 May Incident or 1954 National Service riots
Date13 May 1954
Location Singapore
Also known as13 May Incident
ParticipantsSingapore Chinese Middle School Student Union Members and Singapore Police Force Riot Squad.
Part of a series on the
History of Singapore
Flag of Singapore.svg Singaporeportal

In December 1953, the British colonial government in Singapore passed the National Service Ordinance, requiring all male British subjects and Federal citizens between the ages of 18-20 to register for part-time National Service. [1] The deadline for registration was on the 12th May 1954 and those who fail to register would either be jailed or fined. On the 12th May 1954, students from the Chinese Middle Schools still did not register themselves for National Service. In light of the impending deadline for registration and with requests from the Chinese students, Chief Secretary William Goode would later meet representatives from the affected student body in the government house on 13 May 1954. [1]


On 13 May 1954, students gathered to present their petition to Chief Secretary William Goode. However, the peaceful demonstration turned into a clash between the police and students. More than 2 dozen people were injured and 48 students were arrested. [2] The demonstration of 13 May 1954 was followed by further demonstrations and proved a key moment in galvanizing popular opposition to colonial rule.


Following the end of the Japanese Occupation in 1945, the British sought to regain political control over Singapore, what was a vital strategic centre to them. The British Military Administration was set up, focusing on the reorientation of the state in order to meet post-war crisis. The British set sights to bolster social and economic life, and to secure their footing in Singapore (Harper, 2001). [3] Of the social programmes that the government laid out, the most far-reaching and critical was education. The British envisioned setting up "national schools", prioritizing English-medium education and undermining vernacular education. With that, Chinese schools were starved of funding, resulting in anger and resentments among the Chinese students and teachers. This led to the rise in anti-colonial sentiments. [4]

This growing anti-colonial sentiment was further fueled by the larger anti-colonial sentiment that was also happening outside Singapore - how winning freedom for colonies in Africa and Asia played a part in instilling hope in the progressive left in Singapore – that independence may come one day. [4] One good example was also the defeat of the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam (1954).

Moving into 1948, the outbreak of communist insurrection in the Malayan jungles, saw the declaration of emergency in Singapore. The declaration of emergency which was to last for almost a decade, saw heightened security control. Singapore was turned into a police state, progressives and anti-colonial activists were rounded up, and political repression suspended all forms of left-wing politics in Singapore (Turnbull, 2009). [5] While organized opposition to colonial rule was difficult, nevertheless, the period was plagued with social discontent and stirrings of anti-colonial and nationalistic sentiments in view of the British's plan to consolidate and maintain rule, following the Japanese occupation (Quee, Tan, & Hong, 2011). [2]

13 May 1954

In December 1953, the National Service Ordinance was passed, requiring the registration of all male British subjects and Federal citizens between the ages of 18-20 for part-time military training. After the announcement was made regarding the National Service draft, personnel involved were to register for the call-up from 8 April – 12 May 1954. By 12 May 1954, students from the Chinese Middle Schools still did not register themselves for National Service (NS). [1] In light of the impending deadline for registration and with requests from the Chinese students, Chief Secretary William Goode would later meet representatives from the affected student body in the government house on 13 May 1954. This day however, resulted in a clash between Chinese Middle School students and riot squads. More than 2 dozen were reportedly injured and nearly 50 students were arrested. Of those arrested, 7 were convicted of obstructing the police. [2] Following the riot, students re-assembled in Chung Cheng High School and only dispersed in the afternoon on 14 May 1954. [6]

On 18 May 1954, a delegation of students (the 55-member Chinese Middle Schools Student Delegation) met the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (CCC), requesting their (CCC) help to speak to the British government on their (the students) behalf. However, the only concrete result from this meeting was having their school holidays being pushed forward by 2 weeks [6] to deny students the opportunity to rally together. Having their school holidays pushed forward, this action prompted a second massive sit in by the students which took place on 23 May 1954 in Chung Cheng High School. However, due to the prevention of food supplies from reaching these students, the group dispersed. The third massive sit in took place in the Chinese High School on 2 June 1954. This time, students requested for the postponement of call-up for National Service. Though, the lack of response from the government saw the students went on hunger strike on the 15 June. The students only dispersed on the 24 June. [7]

Constant negotiations were made back and forth between the students and the government in the following days. [1] However, due to the resistance put up by the students, the attempt to recruit male youths for National Service took a back seat.

The aftermath of 13 May 1954 resulted in the conviction of 7 students for obstructing the police during the demonstration, as well as further tightening of control over the students by the British.

Interpretations of 13 May 1954

13 May 1954 connotes different interpretations, and be characterized as:

(i) 13 May 1954 as communist subversion, (ii) 13 May 1954 as Anti-Colonial Movement, and (iii) 13 May 1954 as a bottom up, spontaneous response to particular events.

(i) 13 May 1954 as Communist subversion

In the 1950s, the Chinese students were one of the largest groups involved in demonstrations and their motivations have been consistently credited to communist manipulation – through the united front strategy. The united front strategy was a political tool employed by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) with aims of regathering and rebuilding their strength which was greatly depleted in jungle fighting during the earlier years of the State of Emergency between 1948 and 1960. The strategy focuses on building relations and contacts with workers, peasants and students, emphasizing on how plans and arrangements should be made in order to gain mass. [6] According to Singh (2008), [7] the first step of this strategy is to engage students through the exploitation of communal issues. Singh quotes an MCP directive as saying:

The work of winning over the school children is very important and must not be overlooked. Especially in circumstances where the enemy is stronger than we are, the work of winning support from school children and organising them is more important than military activities.(Sing, 2008) [7]

According to Lee (1996), [6] the reason as to why the MCP chose to start the mass movement from the students can be attributed to the following reasons:

(i) the MCP recognised these Chinese students as a valuable political force and worked towards systematically absorbing them into the communist movement and

(ii) during this period of time, members of the Town Committee (a secret organisation operating underground as the executive arm of the Malayan Communist Party with its mobile headquarters on the borders of Malaya and Thailand) were arrested, leaving only the cells in charge of propaganda and cells in the Chinese Middle School, intact. The propaganda sector consisted of few people, but the student sector had many members. Thus, it was the student sector which had the manpower to launch the open united front struggle when the time came. However, in order to mobilise and arouse the students, an issue had to be capitalised upon. The National Service Ordinance was chosen to serve this purpose. [6]

In Lee's book, he also mentioned that in the eyes of the communists themselves, the agitation over the national service was a great success. Lee made this statement based on a following comment by Ng Meng Chang (a student cadre) :

…. said that the tremendous success of the May 13 incident was beyond expectation… this was the most successful student struggle ever since the emergency regulations…

Lee (1996) [6] also concluded by saying that "13 May 1954" had seen the creation of many student leaders which should be given support to, as they become future pillars of the student movement. This statement was drawn from unpublished statements of ex-detainees.

In conclusion, authors like Singh (2008) [7] and Lee(1996) [6] hold that the Malayan Communist Party was looking for manpower and the result of "13 May 1954" was a fulfillment of this aspiration. All in all, 13 May 1954 as Communist subversion was seen in the context of the cold war and in supporting this position, sources from scholars such as Lee (1996) [6] and Singh (2008) [7] are largely from colonial media.

13 May 1954 as Anti-Colonial Movement

Following the declaration of emergency in 1948, the political-left in Singapore grew vastly, both in size and power in 1954. This was attributed to the large levels of economic exploitation and social injustice felt by the people which then saw subsequent calls for self-governance and democracy. This was especially so for the Chinese when the decision was made by the British to prioritise English-medium education over vernacular education. With that, friction between the Chinese community and the British authorities resulted. Anger and anti-colonial resentments were felt within the Chinese community for English language represented colonial domination. [4] This was not all. In 1954, both the Chinese leadership and student activists face further pressures when the British made even more demands by making English the only language to be used in the legislative assembly. [2]

The Chinese middle school students had however, also moved out of the parameters of strictly Chinese-focused issues by linking themselves to a larger historical context of anti-colonial movement. The Chinese students, together with the Socialist Club members of the University of Malaya, identified themselves with the students of China, India, and Indonesia who also played a role in their country's liberation. [2] Both the English and Chinese-educated students were seen to be working together to resist colonial rule, and that the socialist club had a hand in organising "13 May 1954". This was in view that copies of the Fajar Publication (Issue 7) were found in the Chinese High Schools. With that, amidst the Chinese student's demonstration, the hostels of students from the socialist club were also raided by the police on 28 May 1954, and 8 members of the University socialist club were charged with sedition for articles printed in the Fajar Publication (Quee, Tan, & Hong, 2011). [2] According to Loh (2013), [8] this particular issue, dated 10 May 1954, and titled as "Aggression in Asia", was one that involved critical views on the ongoing Anglo-American Military initiative to form the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO). In addition, the issue also contained comments on the National Service Bill which was passed in Singapore earlier on. It argued that by pressing students into military service, is in no way "national" for it entailed "a colonial people to be trained to fight wars in the making of which they have no part – no choice of their foes or allies. Though we are not fit to rule ourselves, we are not unfit to die for other people's interests." (Loh, 2013). [8] Loh bases his opinion largely from the Fajar Publication itself.

Anti-colonial sentiment was overwhelming, but the colonial authorities simply look upon them as the result of communist agitation. Common hatred (both Chinese and English students) of exploitation, British rule and the declaration of Emergency in paved the way for "13 May 1954", a resistance seen to be driven by overwhelming "leftist resentments against the British", with the rank and file on the ground taking initiative and moving without proper direction and control (Barr, & Trocki, 2008). [9]

In the view of scholars like [2] and (Barr, & Trocki, 2008), [9] "13 May 1954" represented the convergence of notions of nationalism (with help from the English-educated). The student resistance was very focused and uncompromising. It was evident that they were pushing the boundaries as far as the emergency regulations would allow, and anti-colonialism was the main engine driving their cause. [2]

All in all, 13 May 1954 as anti-colonial movement, was seen in the context of nationalism and anti-colonialism.

13 May 1954 as a bottom up, spontaneous response to particular events

Moving beyond the idea of communism and nationalism altogether, "13 May 1954" was seen as an episode of student activism that can be explained solely on its own terms, according to Thum (2012). [1] Thum (2012) [1] also said that in fact, the National Service Ordinance was actually supported by the Chinese - "The Ordinance was supported by the Chinese press who recalled the heroic defence of Singapore by volunteers in 1942. Community leaders also praised the ordinance and called upon the Chinese community to fulfill their glorious task of defending the country." Thum bases his opinion largely from Chinese sources (newspapers) such as the Nanyang Siang Pao, Nanfang Evening Post and Sin Chew Jit Poh.

In Thum's view, "13th May 1954" was an event triggered by the flawed implementation of the system of putting this ordinance in place such as how

(i) Some overage students had been forced to miss examinations or leave school as a result of a call up,

(ii) miscommunication and translation regarding the term "National Service" that resulted in adverse sentiments among these Chinese Middle School students

(iii) the lack of documents sent to these young men to explain the purpose of national service causing many to believe that they would be sent into the Malayan jungle to fight for the British

(iv) the ineffective registration process that disrupted lessons and

(v) how the students were turned down time and again by the government when all they wanted was to "seek clarifications" regarding National Service.

In addition, miscommunication and translation regarding the term "National Service" resulted in adverse sentiments among these Chinese Middle School students for it was mistranslated as minzhong fuwu, 民众服务, which literally meant "servitude by the masses", a term with demeaning connotations implying the mass of the people acting as indentured servants of the elite. This discontent and miscommunication was further fueled by the ineffective registration process whereby Chinese Middle School students were provoked by the disruptive and authoritative conduct of the government team, who sent teams into Chung Cheng High School (the biggest Singapore Chinese Middle School) without warning, and went from class to class to distribute registration forms, disrupting lessons. Teachers who refused to halt their lessons were also forced to leave the classrooms, leaving students outraged and thus, the refusal to register for national service. This episode was repeated again on 23 April 1954 at the Chinese High School. [1]

On 13 May 1954 itself, representatives from the affected students made preparations to meet William Goode in government house to negotiate about the ordinance. The crowd (approximately 1000 people) that assembled in the vicinity of the government house to give their support were actually students from the Chinese inter-schools sports competition — just a 30-minute walk away at Jalan Besar Stadium via Serangoon Road and Bukit Timah Road. [1] The students were there to await the outcome of the meeting, and it was not a planned protest.

In the days following 13 May 1954, tensions arose due to the "difficulties posed to the students by the Governor" when all that the students wanted was a form of written assurance for the postponement of national service for all students who are still schooling. According to Thum, [1] once again drawing his opinions from Chinese sources, the process of appeal was made difficult for the students. For instance, their first petition was returned to them unopened because it was not submitted through "proper channels". With that, the students resubmitted their petition by registered mail however, the petition was again, returned to the students with the instruction that petitions from students should be submitted through the principal and management committee of their school. This was done, but there was no reply from the government once again.

All in all, 13 May 1954 was seen in the "local context" and according to Thum, [1] was a bottom up, spontaneous response to particular events on the ground. It was an episode of student activism that can be explained solely on its own terms. He draws his opinion largely from Chinese sources, which he sees as "fertile ground for histories seeking to access the Chinese sphere".

Significance of 13 May 1954

The aftermath of 13 May 1954 saw the formation of the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students Union (SCMSSU), and it was under the banner of SCMSSU that the 1950s saw more intense left-wing activities, for example, the Hock Lee Bus riots.

13 May 1954 also has a crucial significance in the politics in Singapore for it was through this event that enforced unity between students, labour workers and the People's Action Party (PAP) led by Lee Kuan Yew (a young lawyer back then) and leftist trade union Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan (both active in the bus worker's union). It all started with the Chinese students' decision to engage Lee Kuan Yew to defend the 7 students who were charged for obstructing the police on 13 May 1954. [6] Prior to this, Lee Kuan Yew was also involved in fighting the case for the Fajar 8. Although the 7 students were eventually still sentenced to 3 months imprisonment, this episode allowed Lee Kuan Yew to build connections with the Chinese (especially the students and trade union workers), a group that was crucial in supporting his victory in the 1959 elections. The 1959 election was the first full internal self-government granted by the British authority and the People's Action Party led by Lee Kuan Yew won 43 out of 51 seats in the legislative assembly, forming the government. However, this landslide victory would not have been possible without the support from the Chinese community, especially that of the labour unions (as the Chinese made up the majority population in Singapore). The PAP appealed to the Chinese community by promoting workers' rights and establishing policies that aim to abolish Emergency Regulations, putting an end to colonialist exploitation. This was important for the Chinese community who have been fighting for their place throughout colonial ruling. One such example was the threat they face regarding vernacular education in light of the British's vision to prioritise English-medium education and undermining vernacular education (Trocki, 2006). [10]

In short, the PAP was able to draw on the concerns of the Chinese (which made up the largest population in Singapore) and garnered their support in the 1959 elections.

See also

Related Research Articles

Lee Kuan Yew 1st Prime Minister of Singapore

Lee Kuan Yew, commonly referred to by his initials LKY and sometimes referred to in his earlier years as Harry Lee, was the first prime minister of Singapore, governing for three decades. Lee is recognised as the nation's founding father, with the country described as transitioning from a "third world country to first world country in a single generation" under his leadership.

Peoples Action Party Ruling political party in Singapore

The People's Action Party is a major centre-right political party in Singapore.

Sook Ching Japanese purge of hostile elements among the Chinese in Singapore during World War II

The Sook Ching was a systematic purge of perceived hostile elements among the Chinese in Singapore by the Japanese military during the Japanese occupation of Singapore and Malaya, after the British colony surrendered on 15 February 1942 following the Battle of Singapore. The purge took place from 18 February to 4 March 1942 at various places in the region. The operation was overseen by the Imperial Japanese Army's Kenpeitai secret police and subsequently extended to include the Chinese population in Malaya.

Chin Peng Malaysian communist

Chin Peng, former OBE, born Ong Boon Hua was a Malayan communist politician, anti-fascist activist and long-time leader of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA).

Barisan Sosialis Singaporean political party

Barisan Sosialis (Malay); or the Socialist Front is a now defunct political party in Singapore. It was formed on 29 July 1961 and officially registered on 13 August 1961 by left-wing members of the People's Action Party (PAP) who had been expelled from the PAP. The prominent founding members of the Barisan were Dr Lee Siew Choh and Lim Chin Siong. It became the biggest opposition party in Singapore in the 1960s and the 1980s. The main objectives of the Barisan included eradicating colonialism, establishing a united independent and democratic Malayan nation comprising the Federation of Malaya and Singapore and introducing an economic system to promote prosperity and stability in society. The party was merged into the Workers' Party of Singapore in 1988.

Lim Chin Siong Singaporean politician

Lim Chin Siong was a leftwing politician and trade union leader in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s. He co-founded the People's Action Party in 1954, and galvanised many trade unions in support of the party with his popularity. He remains the youngest parliamentarian of Singapore to be elected. However, Lim's political career was cut short by two detentions without trial after being labelled a Communist: first, in 1956 to 1959, when under Lim Yew Hock he was arrested; and second, from 1963 to 1969, under Operation Coldstore. He was released in 1969 after he attempted suicide in prison, on the condition that he renounce politics for good.

Operation Coldstore

Operation Coldstore, sometimes spelled Operation Cold Store, was the code name for a covert security operation carried out in Singapore on 2 February 1963 which led to the arrest of 113 people, who were detained without trial under the Preservation of Public Service Security Ordinance (PSSO). In official accounts, the operation was a security operation "aimed at crippling the Communist open front organisation," which threatened Singapore's internal security. The operation was authorised by the Internal Security Council which was composed of representatives from the British, Singapore and Malayan Federal governments.

Hock Lee bus riots

The Hock Lee bus workers' strike began on April 23, 1955. The incident was a result of failed negotiations between the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company and its bus workers. The workers wanted better working conditions while the employers wanted to protect their business interests. The strikes eventually escalated and resulted in a clash among the Singapore Bus Workers Union, Hock Lee Employee's Union, the Singapore Chinese Middle Schools Student Union and law enforcement on May 12, 1955. The event has been commonly understood as a violent confrontation between colonialists and communists. The event was however also born out of the conditions of colonial society as well as being part of a necessary modernisation trajectory that Singapore was embarking on.

Lim Yew Hock Singaporean and Malaysian politician

Haji Omar Lim Yew Hock was a Singaporean and Malaysian politician of Chinese descent, who served as a Member of the Legislative Council and Assembly from 1948 to 1963, and the second Chief Minister of Singapore from 1956 to 1959.

1964 race riots in Singapore event (21 Jul.–3 Sep. 1964) in Singapore; during a procession for Mawlid, clashes arose between Malays and ethnic Chinese, leading to riots spreading through Singapore, killing dozens; led to islandwide curfew and catalysed Singaporean independence

The 1964 Singapore Riots refer to a series of communal race-based civil disturbances between the Malays and Chinese in Singapore following its merger with Malaysia in 1963, and were considered to be the "worst and most prolonged in Singapore’s postwar history". The term is also used to refer specifically to two riots on 21 Jul 1964 and 2 Sep 1964, particularly the former, during which 23 people died and 454 others suffered severe injuries.

History of Singapore Aspect of Southeast Asian history

The history of Singapore may date back to the eighteenth century. Evidence suggests that a significant trading settlement existed in Singapore during the 14th century. In the late 14th century, Singapore was under the rule of Parameswara, who killed the previous ruler and he was expelled by the Majapahit or the Siamese. It then came under the Malacca Sultanate and then the Johor Sultanate. In 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles negotiated a treaty whereby Johor allowed the British to locate a trading port on the island, leading to the establishment of the British colony of Singapore in 1819.

1959 Singaporean general election

General elections were held in Singapore on 30 May 1959. They were held under the new constitution and the first in which all 51 seats in the Legislative Assembly were elected. This was the first election victory for the People's Action Party (PAP), as they won a landslide victory with 43 seats, and the party has since remained in power after the elections.

Self-governance of Singapore

The self-governance of Singapore was carried out in several stages. Since Singapore's founding in 1819, Singapore had been under the colonial rule of the United Kingdom. The first local elections on a limited scale for several positions in the government of Singapore started in 1948 following an amendment to the Constitution of Singapore.

Ong Eng Guan was a Hokkien Singaporean politician. An anti-communist, he was a Chinese-educated orator who was one of the pioneer members of the People's Action Party (PAP). Ong was well-known among the Chinese community in Singapore. He was elected to the City Council of Singapore and became to date the first and only duly elected mayor of Singapore in the 21 December 1957 fully elected City Council Election, after the PAP won 13 out of 32 City Council seats. Ong's anti-colonial stance shocked the British government and every City Council meetings then were considered entertainment for the spectators there.

Eu Chooi Yip was a prominent member of the anti-colonial and Communist movements in Malaya and Singapore in the 1950s and 60s. Eu Chooi Yip was born in Kuantan, Malaysia.

Alex Josey Journalist, political writer, commentator

Alexander Arthur Josey was a British journalist, political writer and commentator, biographer, and during WWII and the Malayan Emergency, a propagandist. He is best known for his biographies on the former Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, as well as: Democracy in Singapore: The 1970 By-Elections, Singapore: Its Past, Present and Future, Socialism in Asia, and Trade Unionism in Malaya.

Singapore–Taiwan relations Diplomatic relations between the Republic of Singapore and Taiwan

Singapore–Taiwan relations are the international relations between Singapore and Taiwan. Taiwan has a representative office in Singapore. Singapore operates the Singapore Trade Office in Taipei in Taiwan, both of whom are members of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The Presidential Envoy of ROC and Prime Minister of Singapore regularly meet, in the form similar to private state-to-state gesture diplomacy at APEC.

This is the only Prime Ministerial Election in Singapore history. The People's Action Party Central Executive Committee met on the victory of the 1959 Singaporean general election to elect a Prime Minister. At the end of the election, Lee Kuan Yew won by a mere 1 vote, that was voted by the then party Chairman Toh Chin Chye

The University Socialist Club was a left-wing student group active from 1953 to 1971 that played an important role in the politics of colonial Malaya and post-colonial Malaysia and Singapore. Members of the club played a significant role in bringing about independence from Britain and in debates over the shape of the post-colonial nation. The club was instrumental in the formation and early success of the PAP and later, the Barisan Sosialis Party. Prominent members of the Club included Wang Gungwu, S.R. Nathan, Poh Soo Kai, Sydney Woodhull, Lim Hock Siew, and Tommy Koh and M. K. Rajakumar.

Poh Soo Kai was a Singaporean politician, political prisoner. He was a founding member of the University Socialist Club and the People's Action Party (PAP).


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Thum, Ping Tjin (2012). "The Limitations of Monolingual History." In Tarling, Nocholars. Studying Singapore's Past: C.M. Turnbull and the History of Modern Singapore. Singapore: NUS.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Quee, Tan Jing; Tan Kok Chiang & Lysa Hong (2011). The May 13 Generation: The Chinese Middle Schools Student Movement and Singapore Politics in the 1950s. Strategic Information and Research Development Centre (SIRD).
  3. Harper, Tim N. (2001). "Lim Chin Siong and the 'Singapore Story'." Comet in our sky: Lim Chin Siong in history.
  4. 1 2 3 Thum, Ping Tjin (2013). "'The fundamental issue is anti-colonialism, not merger': Singapore's "Progressive Left", Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia'". Asia Research Institute Working Paper No. 211. National University of Singapore, pp. 1-25.
  5. Turnbull, Constance Mary (2009). A history of modern Singapore, 1819-2005. Nus Press.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Lee, Ting Hui (1996). The Open United Front: The Communist Struggle in Singapore, 1954-1966. South Seas Society.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Singh, Bilveer (2015). Quest for Political Power: Communist Subversion and Militancy in Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions.
  8. 1 2 Loh, Kah Seng; Liao, Edgar; Cheng Tju Lim & Guo Quan Seng (2013). The University Socialist Club and the contest for Malaya: Tangled strands of modernity. NUS Press.
  9. 1 2 Trocki, Carl A.; Barr, Michael D. (2008). Paths not taken: Political pluralism in post-war Singapore. NUS Press.
  10. Trocki, Carl A. (2006). Singapore: Wealth, power and the culture of control. Psychology Press.