THE LAST GREAT STRIKE by Clement Mesenas / Review

 


THE LAST GREAT STRIKE
Clement Mesenas
Marshall Cavendish Editions
$21.40 at Popular Bookstore
 
Singaporeans of an older generation might remember this incident (I certainly did not, as I was only six-years-old then), and given the hot topic of the SMRT bus drivers’ industrial action that has been dominating the front pages of dailies today, this blow-by-blow account of the 1971 The Straits Times journalists strike could not have come at a better time.
 
On 23 December 1971, two thousand unionised employees of The Straits Times held an 8-day sit-in, dealing a crippling blow to the might and prestige of Singapore’s leading broadsheet. The 6-year-old nation had just gained its independence, the British army had left, but its dominant English daily was still in the hands of a cabal of colonials, whose lavish expatriate lifestyle, stiff-upper-lip and high-handed ways were out of touch with its local employees.
 
 
How it all came to a head is eerily similar to the SMRT Chinese nationals’ complaints of today – poor working conditions (lack of typewriters being particularly rankling), poor pay ($400 a month (!!!) for young journalists), lack of bonuses (aha!), the unsympathetic and uncaring attitude of management (aha again!), and loss of human dignity (triple aha!). 
 
The action was led by a group of journalists of the SNUJ (Singapore National Union of Journalists) referred to as the Young Turks (of whom the author was one), who given their straitened circumstances, had little to lose anyway. Not always supported by their seniors, who were either stricken by resigned obeisance or aiming for management positions themselves, they forged their way into history. Well co-ordinated and quietly aided by the government and NTUC (those were the days when there was much suspicion between mass media and City Hall, but now it is strictly controlled), the strikers dealt a series of calculated blows.    
 
First, their work-to-rule routine (just do the minimum, nothing more and only less) starved The New Nation, the afternoon tabloid. Then they delayed production of the papers, before escalating to a full-scale strike, with demonstrations, marches, slogans, placards and sabotage of equipment (the symbolic cutting of typewriter ribbons), mostly peaceful and quietly observed by the police.
 
 
 
So there were no papers for a staggering eight days, and any news of the action was under-reported or hushed up in the media. It was a sobering moment for Singapore, a developing nation anxious to court foreign investment by maintaining a pristine and squeaky clean image of law and order. Nobody was charged by the police, the ancien régime of the Brits had been brought to its knees (and soon to be replaced by locals), and manpower and work reforms were later put in place. A positive outcome, one supposes.
 
Mesenas cuts to the chase in the opening chapter, and the story unfolds as rapidly as labour relations deteriorate. His account of the events and its dramatis personae are breezy, and this book can be read in a single uninterrupted sitting. One clearly sides the journos as heroes of the day, but it would have been also interesting to hear from the side of their antagonists, the late and hard-nosed ST managing director A.C. Simmons, general manager Ronald Scott (roundly jeered by the strikers), or the unpopular personnel manager Rubin Haja Mohiddeen (still alive and kicking as the High Commissioner to New Zealand).  
 
 
Also interesting is Mesenas’s memories of early 1970s Singapore (some of which I do remember) and the antiquated processes which went into producing the morning papers before the days of cellular phones, computers, electronic mail and the Internet. It was also curious to note that the paper operated from two cities, Singaporeand Kuala Lumpur, and a physical exchange of flongs (printing moulds) would take place midway in Batu Pahat (Johore) at seven every evening!      
 
Some proofreading might have helped so that veteran journo Sit Yin Fong's name does not appear as Sit Ying Fong. And I believe that the beer garden of Tivoli (a popular meeting place at a now-demolished building called The International) was located where The Paragon stands now, rather than Lucky Plaza.   
 
There is a Machiavellian twist at the end of the story, which I shall leave for the reader to find out for himself or herself. As for the present, this absorbing piece of Singaporehistory may now be referred to as “The Previous Last Great Strike”.
 
The dramatic photographs are from the book. Buy it!