The quiet night of 8th December 2013 would be remembered for years to come, as Singaporeans were shocked by the news of a riot erupting at Little India. Most expressed disbelief, as riots and violent strikes were almost unheard of in Singapore of the modern age.
According to reports, the Little India riots were sparked off by a fatal accident, in which a private bus knocked down and killed an Indian national at the junction of Race Course Road and Hampshire Road. More than 400 South Asian workers gathered and set fire to the ambulance that arrived at the scene. Beer bottles were thrown and windscreens smashed. A few police cars were overturned and burnt. In total, 25 emergency vehicles were damaged, and 39 policemen, Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) personnel and auxiliary officers were injured in the chaos.
The shocking riots reminded us of the 1950s and 1960s, the most chaotic and unstable period in the history of post-war Singapore.
11 December 1950 – Maria Hertogh Riot
During the Second World War, a Dutch girl named Maria Hertogh was adopted by an Indonesian family. She was given a new name in Nadra, and was converted into a Muslim. After the war, the Hertoghs returned to seek their parental rights over Maria.
When the custody of Maria Hertogh was ruled in favour to her biological Dutch parents, it caused uproar among the crowds waiting for the verdict outside the court. It soon became a full blown riot, as the Malays and Muslims felt that they were being discriminated. Many Europeans and Eurasians in Singapore were attacked by the rioters. By the third day, 18 had perished and more than 170 were injured.
6 February 1954 – The Straits Times Strike
Some 300 printing employees of The Straits Times company went on a strike on 6 February 1954, just after Chinese New Year, after a worker was deemed unfairly dismissed. The strike gave a blow to the company’s sales as the popular The Sunday Times publication was halted.
The Singapore Printing Employees’ Union (SPEU) intervened and negotiated with the workers, but when they returned to work the following week, as many as 250 of them found themselves still locked out of the company. Hence, they continued to strike until the management gave in and promised to provide better treatment and benefits. The workers ended their strike and returned to work on 22 February.
13 May 1954 – National Service Riots
The National Service Ordnance introduced by the colonial government in 1954 was rejected by the Chinese community who thought they were discriminated by the British. Believed to be incited by communist elements, some 500 Chinese middle students marched to the Government house in protest, resulting in a violent clash with the police. 26 were injured and 45 were arrested.
The situation, however, worsened in the following week, as more than 2,500 students locked themselves at Chung Cheng High School. Facing the massive demonstration by the students, the colonial government eventually backed down and “postponed” the bill.
12 May 1955 – Hock Lee Bus Riots
A violent riot happened on the 12th of May 1955 when the Chinese middle school students joined the dismissed workers of the bus companies in protests.
The bus workers had been demonstrating since late April by preventing the buses from leaving their garages. The two-day clashes with the police resulted in four deaths; two policemen, a journalist and a student, and a further 31 injuries.
The riot ended after the Hock Lee Bus Company agreed a settlement with the bus workers’ union.
24 October 1956 – Chinese Middle Schools Riots
When the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students Union (SCMSSU) was forced to close down in 1956, hundreds of students gathered and protested at the Chinese High School and Chung Cheng High School. On the 26th of October, the police forced their ways into the schools and dispersed the students using tear gas.
The angry students took to the streets, throwing stones at the police and overturning the cars. The government quickly implemented curfews and arrested more than 900 students. But the riots, by then, already caused 13 deaths and 100 injuries.
09 September 1961 – Robinson’s Strike
More than 200 Robinson’s workers put on a strike outside the famous departmental store at Raffles Place, accusing the management of unfair and abusive treatment. 32 were charged by the police for obstruction.
01 November 1961 – City Council Strike
Angered by the government’s non-recognition of their union, the City Council workers went on a strike, threatening to stop the water and electricity supplies, and garbage and nightsoil collections. The strike soon became a clash with the police, with a lorry and many bicycles smashed.
The strike ended after a week, with 22 workers arrested, but by then, there was a large accumulation of refuse and nightsoil in the city and rural areas.
22 April 1963 – City Hall Protest
Around 100 people marched to the City Hall, demanding to meet Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and protesting their unhappiness over the government’s arrest of left-wing politicians and trade unionists. The crowd attacked some of the policemen and journalists, before being forced to disperse by the police reinforcement.
12 July 1963 – Pulau Senang Riot
A penal reform experiment on Pulau Senang ended in disaster, when the 300 inmates on the island turned against their guards due to the “unfair” deportation of 13 detainees. Daniel Stanley Dutton, a police superintendent and the in-charge of the island prison, was killed along with three of his assistants.
The trial dragged for two years before 18 inmates were hanged for their roles in the riot.
01 January 1964 – Ice Cream Vendors’ Strike
When the two main ice cream suppliers Cold Storage Creameries and Fitzpatricks raised their prices, some 300 ice cream vendors went on a strike for two days.
21 July 1964 – Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday Riots
On the 21st of July 1964, tens of thousands of Malays gathered at Padang to celebrate Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday.
During their march to Geylang, the groups got into conflicts with the police, which worsened to riots by the evening. During the clashes, the marching Malays and the Chinese bystanders also got into verbal wars.
The riots claimed more than 400 injuries and 22 casualties. Thousands were arrested, while the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) of Malaysia and People’s Action Party (PAP) of Singapore blamed each other for the violence.
02 September 1964 – Racial Riots
When a Malay trishaw rider was stabbed to death at Geylang Serai, there were rumours that the murderers were Chinese secret society members. It quickly escalated into another racial riot between the Malays and Chinese. 12 were killed and over 100 were injured in the 5-day riot.
The two racial riots in 1964 represented the worst and most chaotic period in post-war Singapore.
30 April 1965 – May Day Demonstration
Top leaders of communist-linked unions gathered at Wayang Street to announce their defiance of police ban on their May Day Rally. The Special Forces quickly detained nine men, but it could not prevent 5,000 youths from gathering and protesting at various parts of Singapore, including the Farrer Park area, on the 1st of May. The protests soon turned into clashes with the police. Fortunately, there were no casualties and injuries, but a total of 271 people were arrested.
31 May 1969 – Racial Riots
The devastating effect of the 13 May Incident in Malaysia spilled over to a newly-independent Singapore two weeks later. At Kuala Lumpur, violent clashes had occurred between the Malaysian Malays and Malaysian Chinese.
Fueled by rumours, the Malay mobs and the Chinese triads in Singapore began attacking one another. The seven-day clashes left four people dead and some 80 injuries. The Internal Security Department (ISD) stepped in to quash the conflicts together with the police. Ethnic tensions remained high in the next few years but the authority was able to prevent such destructive riots from happening again.
23 December 1971 – Journalists’ Strike
More than 900 journalists and printing staff of The Straits Times and New Nation put up a strike for eight days to protest against poor bonus packages. The Straits Times‘ publication had to be stopped for a week, affecting the company’s revenues. The strike ended after the management agreed to increase the staff’s bonuses to two-and-a-half month.
20 years of chaos (1950-1969) were then followed by four decades of stability and progress. The Little India Riots were Singapore’s first major riots in more than 40 years. This unfortunate and unexpected incident served as a good reminder to us that social peace and harmony should never be taken for granted.
Published: 09 December 2013
Updated: 15 June 2021
A good reminder to all not to be complacent.
“Disperse Or We Fire” Riot troops 1950s
(Photo credit: Picture Archives Singapore)
Singapore’s then-named riot squad practicing drills in formation during the 1960s
Members of Singapore’s riot squad standing in formation in the 1960s, in a different set of uniform
A section of Singapore’s riot squad pose together with their shields for a group photograph 1960s
(Photo credit: Roy Danker)
Since you mentioned the ice cream vendor strike, which technically is not a riot. You should also mentioned the November 2012 SMRT bus driver strike at Woodland Dorm. Anyway…
On the 1964 Prophet Muhammad Birthday riot, my dad told me one of the incident that might have sparked the riot was when a pig’s head was thrown from the HDB corridor onto the procession which was along the road.
It was interesting to learn that there are few racial riots in the 60s. I always thought the racial riot was link to the hock lee bus riot.
I personally feel that most of the riots n strikes (exception to Maria Hertogh case) are very much driven by political than actual racial hatred.
The truths are most likely keep inside MHA, only time will tell, if they ever disclassify the file.
I really enjoy reading your articles about the lesser-known aspects of Singapore history – hope that you will keep it up for years to come 🙂
On a side note, I think there is a typo in the entry for the Pulau Senang Riot as noted above in the page.
Right now, it is “12 July 1967 – Pulau Senang Riot”, but I think that the corrected entry should be “12 July 1963” instead?
Keep up the good work!