The Hock Lee Bus Riots occurred on May 12, 1955, in Singapore. 4 people were killed and 31 injured in the violent and bloody riot. The new government had to tackle the challenges posed by a strengthened Communist movement which organised regular industrial disputes and strikes. One strike that turned violent was the Hock Lee Bus strike. The Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company was one of several small bus companies operating in Singapore in the 1950s. The bus workers belonged to two unions. Singapore Bus Workers Union and Hock Lee Employee's Union.
On April 23, 1955, workers from the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company and some Chinese students began to go on strike. They were members of the Singapore Bus Workers' Union (SBWU) and were protesting against poor working conditions, long work hours and low pay. They also felt threatened by a rival union which was supported by the bus company to counter any labor action by SBWU.
The strike was instigated by pro-communists. Singapore had just held a Legislative Assembly Election on April, and the Labour Front led by David Marshall formed a minority government after winning a narrow victory. Fong Swee Suan and Lim Chin Siong, two anti-colonial leaders of SBWU, felt that the Labor Front was still controlled by the British. Violent as it was, the riots were an opportunity to fight for independence and self-government. Fong Swee Suan later made a public apology to express the regret for the violence which got out of hand. 'We express our deep distress at the violence used against the buses of the Hock Lee Bus Company and the police.'
The strikers stopped the buses from leaving the depots and crippled the city's entire transport system. In a show of support, students from the Chinese middle schools came in busloads to join the strikers. They organised donation drives, brought food and money, and even entertained the workers with songs and dances. Other workers also expressed support.
The police attempted to disperse the picketers many times. On April 27, 1955, police tried to break up the strikers and injured 15 people. This gained more public sympathy and support for the strikers, which was aptly encouraged and supported by the communists.
On 12 May 1955, later known as "Black Thursday", a major riot broke out in the streets of Alexandra Road and Tiong Bahru. The police tried to break up the 2,000 students and strikers using water cannon and tear gas, but the crowd retaliated by stoning the policemen and buses. Two police officers died as a result, including Detective Corporal Yuen Yau Phang, who was burned to death when the car he was in was set alight by rioters, and Teo Bock Lan Andrew, a Constable with the Volunteer Special Constabulary, who was severely beaten by the rioters and succumbed to his injuries in hospital. Gene D. Symonds, an American press correspondent, was similarly beaten up, and died from his head injuries despite the best efforts of paramedics.
In total, two police officers, a student and an American press correspondent, Gene Symonds, died and many more were injured seriously. The student, a 16-year old from Chin Kang School, Chong Lon Chong, died from a gunshot wound to his lung, the bullet fired at random from the police in a radio car when rioters descended on them. In a Straits Times report, the student was shot one mile away from a hospital, but was paraded around for two and half-hours by the pro-Communist students to further inflame the crowd's emotion. He died before he could receive medical treatment. 31 others sustained injuries, 8 of them seriously.
The police managed to stop the violence by the next morning. Later, Hock Lee Bus Company and the SBWU signed a ruling issued by the Court of Inquiry. The strikers' jobs and pay were restored and they declared victory for their action. Because of the unexpected violence, public opinion became more critical towards the rioters. The then Chief Minister of Singapore, Lim Yew Hock, took advantage of this change of opinion and took action. He expelled student leaders involved in the rioting and closed down two schools where the most students had been involved.
The students were defiant. On 16 May 1955, about two thousand students forced their way into the two schools. Anxious parents, friends and supporters came daily to give students food, clothing and the pro-communists for the unrest saying, "The pattern of action of the demonstrators conform to Communist techniques." The British authorities were critical of Marshall for not taking tougher actions towards the rioters and strikers. They later rejected his proposal for independence in 1956, claiming that the local government was not able to manage internal security, and as a result Marshall resigned.