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?
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