Today (13 May), 65 years ago, unarmed young Chinese middle school students lined Clemenceau Avenue up to the Istana. They were supporting their leaders who were presenting a petition expressing opposition to national service conscription at the Istana.

by Dr Lim Hock Siew

In the political history of Singapore, 13 May 1954, stands out as a turning point in our people’s struggle for political freedom and social justice.

Amidst the atmosphere during the early 1950s brought about by the “Emergency Regulations”, some thousands of Chinese middle school students courageously spearheaded a movement which made a breakthrough to the “white terror” created by the colonial rulers.

On that historic day, the students defied threats advanced by the colonial rulers and staged a demonstration in front of the Government’s Residence (now the Istana) to register their opposition against national service conscription. As to be expected, what started as a peaceful expression of a people’s views was brutally confronted by the colonial police who wantonly beat them up.

Far from being intimidated and subdued by such police brutality, the incident sparked widespread resentment among students in the Chinese middle schools all over Singapore. Inevitably, it served to arouse the political awareness of students of that generation in Singapore which, hitherto, had stayed latent.

It was the spark that torched a prairie fire!

The Incident led to the emergence of a situation where students got themselves actively involved in an extensive student movement which swept across literally all the Chinese middle schools and later over at Nanyang University. It was fairly common to see students as they graduated from schools playing leading roles in the trade union movement as well as in political organisations under the PAP. It was also not uncommon in the 1950s to notice cultural and civic organisations cropping up like bamboo shoots after spring rains staffed by hitherto student activists.

Like a gigantic tidal wave, these activities swept the People’s Action Party (PAP) into power in 1959, hoping that the newly formed political party would bring about political freedom and social justice to our people.

But it was not to be. Subsequent repressions conducted by the PAP after it came to power proved to be more ruthless than those carried out by the colonial rulers and they have to be seen through and through as a massive political betrayal in Singapore history.

Today, “emergency” laws have become the “normal” laws of Singapore. Political dissent can result in a double and even triple decade imprisonment without trial. Restrictions imposed on the mass media, on public assembly and freedom of expression are, if anything, more severe than during the colonial days.

But it has to be said that no political situation can forever remain static and unchanged. The time will soon arrive when our people will free themselves from the five decades of political oppression in Singapore.

This article dated 26 July 2011 is in the book YOUTH ON TRIAL published by Function 8.

This was first published on Function 8’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.