Chaos in the streets of Singapore

riot grrls

Masked female students from Chung Cheng High School forming a “suicide squad” human barricade against advancing police. (The Straits Times, 26 October 1956, page 2.)


Students barricade themselves in Singapore’s Chung Cheng High School, protesting against what they see as “high-handed actions” by the government. Riot police are stationed outside, together with several government officials. Three organizations have been either banned or dissolved in the past months — the Singapore Women’s Association, the Chinese Musical Gong Society, and the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students Union. Inside, students are giving speeches to parents, about how they can help to preserve Chinese culture. The students, together with some of their parents, have been here for days, and the food supply situation is getting tricky. At 2pm, the students’ demands are delivered over police radio via an intermediary: they want food, and they want the police to leave. The Deputy Commissioner of Police, Mr Broadhurst (a British man, since this was in the days when Singapore was still a colony), replies: “To your first point, yes, they can have food. Point number two, the police will stay put.”

As the situation escalates, the government issues an ultimatum for the students to clear out from the schools (students have also gathered at The Chinese High School). Two days later, the students are forced out from the schools. In response, the students, joined by what the Straits Times described as “hooligans”, spread out through the island, rioting, destroying property, and fighting running battles with the police.

Opposite the Central Police Station, the Eighth Police Court is set ablaze.
Mobs storm the Rochor and Jurong Police stations, shouting “pah mata, pah mata” (beat the police, beat the police).
A crowd of 200 attempt to storm the Thomson Road Police Station but are forced back, retreating while hurling missiles at police.

Thousands are involved, and even Johor sends reinforcements to help reestablish order.

(Information from The Straits Times reports, 26 and 27 October 1956. Retrieved from NewspaperSG via NLB eResources.)


Exciting, wasn’t that? I had fun doing my research on it, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. The real question here is: why wasn’t this in my history textbook?

In secondary school, I learnt the bare bones of Singapore’s history. The British discovered a nice little tropical island, colonizing it for their own purposes. The Japanese arrive later during World War II, putting our ancestors through a world of pain. The war ends, and after a few years, Malaya (Malaysia) and Singapore gain their independence. *YAWN*

Nobody told me there were a number of action movies that were played out right here in my little sleepy island home, action movies filled with intrigue, suspense, and sheer blood-soaked violence! Of course, the textbook writers can’t possibly include every single event from Singapore’s history in textbooks meant for teenagers, but now I’m wondering why they had to include only the boring bits. (I hated history so much in secondary school, I ended up dropping the subject.)

The 1956 student riots (continued)

Behind the violence, a number of complex struggles were taking place. In the larger scheme of things, the British were resisting communist elements in the region. When we think “Communism” these days, we often think of China’s faux-communism or of Karl Marx’s famous bearded picture. But back in the day, the communists were tough guys (and gals) who camped out in the jungles of Malaya, armed with rifles and grenades. In Singapore, the Chinese community was linked to the communist element, but in no simple manner.

Lee Kuan Yew in 1956, as secretary-general of the People’s Action Party (PAP), told the Labour Front Coalition Government to resign over what he described as an “inept handling of the situation”. (Yes, there was a time when the PAP were not the ruling party.) In later years, Lee Kuan Yew would clamp down heavily on the communist element, but in October 1956, he condemned the government for using force against these communist-linked groups, saying: “The solution to the present crisis does not lie in acts of violence against the police, troops, or in innocent civilians, or in burning cars. The solution lies in peaceful and non-violent methods of political struggle. We should remove the government constitutionally and not by violence.” (The Straits Times, 27 October 1956, page 1.)

What’s missing from our history (or social studies) textbooks?

In writing about the 1956 riots, I have had to leave out tons of information, all of which carry lessons for the way we think of ourselves as citizens in Singapore and in the larger global community. Textbook and curriculum writers face the same pressures as well, and the choices that are made about what information to include or to leave out often has lasting effects.

In the US, attempts are being made to leave out the “unpleasant” bits of American history. What’s left? Narratives carrying the ideas of white superiority and creationism.

Let’s not let that happen in Singapore. (I’m not a history teacher, so let me know what’s missing and what’s not in 2015’s textbooks!)

What have we forgotten?

We did it! Sing50 is now offering “honoraria” to their “community performers”!

Screen capture on 19 Jan 2015

Screen capture on 19 Jan 2015

Congratulations, all you online netizens, denizens, and Citizens of the World! Sing50, who were initially not going to pay the majority of its performers, will now offer honoraria to their “community performers”! (See this post and this clarification for more background information.)

Screen capture on 14 Feb 2015

Screen capture on 14 Feb 2015

Of course, labeling the payment as an “honorarium” is a sneaky way of saying that Sing50 still treats its performers as volunteers. (Honorarium: A payment given for professional services that are rendered nominally without charge.)

There is a horrible, toxic culture of not paying musicians in Singapore. When I played in Perth, festival organizers were thoroughly apologetic that they could only pay my band a small amount (only in the hundreds of dollars). When I played in Copenhagen, festival organizers were similarly apologetic that they couldn’t pay me anything, but they gave me tickets that I could sell (I would keep all the money from any of those ticket sales). There is an understanding in these cities that musicians should be paid, and that it is a shameful, shameful thing when musicians are not paid.

In Singapore, people act as if musicians should be grateful for the opportunity to perform.

Of course, this isn’t the only problem that musicians face in Singapore. This may sound a little strange, but if we want Singapore’s music industry to thrive, we need more social safety nets, and we need to be more forgiving of “failures” in our local system.

When people dare to fail, they often succeed. We need to have some kind of safety net for entrepreneurs and artists who try for their entire lives to accomplish something, but who eventually end up in a financially dire situations. Yes, a welfare system is tricky to create and to maintain — but I don’t think it’s an accident that countries with solid welfare systems (the Nordic countries, US, and UK come to mind) also have very healthy music industries.

It is absolutely ridiculous that being in the “Normal (Academic)” or “Normal (Technical)” streams in secondary school is seen as a major life failure. These are teenagers we’re talking about, with their entire adult lives ahead of them. Why do we need to condemn these children as failures when so many of them have the potential to excel in other fields beyond the academic?

Everything is connected, and our local music scene is inextricably connected to our local politics.


Everything is connected, and this post is connected to this post, where you will be able to find Mr Seah’s (Kevin Ghosty’s) music 😉