Saturday, 21 June 2014

Who orchestrated the Anti-National Service riot of May 1954

Last month, veteran historians CC Chin and Hong Lysa have published their reflections on the role of the Communist Party of Malaya in the events leading up to the National Service Riots of 1954. The battle between these two historians, who hold diametrically opposing views on the CPM’s role, is undoubtedly thought provoking.

According to Chin, the clandestine CPM student movement committee was responsible for leading the Singapore student protest on 13 May 1954 against conscription by the British colonial power. This protest was met with fierce opposition from the colonial government which eventually resulted in 10 students severely beaten up and 48 students arrested by the police. Chin proceeded to pinpoint one CPM cadre Chiam Chong Chian as the person-in-charge of organising the protest on 13 May 1954.

However, in her article on May 19, 2014, Hong rebutted and disagreed that the protest was masterminded and led by the CPM, questioning whether the CPM student movement committee was effective enough to lead the students. Hong argues that Chin’s assertions conveniently support the PAP’s exaggeration of the CPM’s strength which justifies the PAP’s subsequent arrests of suspected communists and sympathisers.

While Hong is entitled to her opinion on the facts of the 13 May protest, Hong’s suggestion that Chin had written his article to support a political position is quite harsh, even in academic circles. Speculation about an opponent’s political affiliations, unfortunately, does not lead to more historical inquiry.

Interestingly, Hong also concedes that historians need more research and recollections from the individuals involved to form a clearer picture of the event.

Recently in February 2014, one such volume of recollection essays by former CPM cadres has been published in Malaysia. The book “Chiam Chong Chian Memorial Collection” edited by Huo Shi and Ding Jing Lei aims to commemorate the life of Chiam, the CPM cadre in-charge of leading the 13 May protest.

Chiam was born in Kuantan, Pahang in 1931 and had come to Singapore to study at the Chinese High School in 1947, where he and many other classmates were recruited into the Anti-British League movement. On 31 May 1950, he evaded arrest by the police and went underground, eventually taking on official CPM work from 1952.

For more Chiam's background, read the earlier post here.

Chiam subsequently went on to incite and direct many of the mass protests in the 1950s, including the student protest on 13 May 1954.
CPM cadre Huo Shi recalled that Chiam had coordinated the 13 May protest by relaying the CPM leadership’s instructions through him to the various cadres organising the protest and other CPM front organisations.

Chiam also conveyed the leadership’s instructions to Huo Shi on the final conditions which would be used to negotiate with the colonial government for the resumption of classes. Huo Shi was operating partially in the open and was the point of contact for the Communist underground.

As a mark of his commitment to the Communist cause, Chiam even risked arrest by going down personally to observe the protest at Chung Cheng High School so as to formulate tactical strategies. Huo Shi wrote that Chiam was nearly arrested but he cleverly used his Malay language to avoid arrest.
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Interestingly, Huo Shi related one incident which suggests that the CPM had come prepared to confront the colonial government and maximise political gain from any outbreak of violence.

Immediately after the 13 May 54 protest, Chiam had handed to Huo Shi 36 photographs of students being beaten by police at the scene of the protest to serve as proof of police brutality. These photos were subsequently reproduced by the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students Union and sold to students as keepsakes. The speed at which the photographs were developed and distributed in those days goes to show organised the Communist movement was.

Click on the picture to enlarge

Reading the accounts of these former CPM cadres, it is apparent that the CPM did have a tangible influence on the 13 May student protest. Why then do some individuals try to omit the CPM’s role in the protest?

It could be a result of the secrecy of the CPM’s underground operations, where the risk of arrest by the police forced CPM cadres to masquerade as student activists, thus giving others the impression that the 13 May protest was free from CPM influence.

Ultimately, perhaps one could better deal with this conundrum by remembering that all historical accounts are merely incomplete memories of the past. Some may recall the 13 May protest as a student-led phenomenon, with little knowledge of the political intrigue that went on behind the scenes. Others, like Chiam’s comrades, will remember the event as a time when the CPM struggled against the colonial government through the students, who responded resoundingly in their favour.

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