Pan Malayan General Labour Unions

By Dr. Kua Kia Soong

When the British returned to Malaya, the CPM (Communist Party of Malaya) was legalized, since it had been the main ally of the British Military Administration Command during the war. The CPM made ‘Eight Proposals and Six Suggestions’ to the British Military Administration, calling for democratic freedoms and representative institutions leading to self-government. At the same time, the Peoples’ Committees, established by the MPAJA (Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army) in the towns and villages, were extended to incorporate all the national groups. Other front organizations were formed, including Women’s Associations and the New Democratic League; but of these, the GLU (General Labour Unions) were still the most important. There were based on geography rather than on occupation, and so embraced all trades and industries and, more importantly, transcended communal divisions.

The strength of the workers’ organizations was demonstrated in October 1946 when the CPM called a series of lightning strikes at the Sentul workshops, Batu Arang collieries, Lumut, Taiping, Ipoh, Parit Buntar, Sungei Siput, Raub, Kuala Lipis, all MPAJA strongholds. The strikes also extended to Singapore. Post-war economic conditions largely facilitated the formation of workers’ organizations:

“The demands put forward by labour spring not from any ordered political doctrines but from a genuine feeling of distress,”

Under the British Military Administration, rice shortage was exacerbated by graft and corruption, price manipulation and inefficiency. The socio-economic conditions were reflected in July 1947 in the ‘Report of the Wages Commission’ by the economist T.H. Silcock, Chairman of the Commission :

“…disappointment and disillusionment, shortages of supplies, lack of houses and amenities, high prices, low wages, and foment of new political ideas.”

The extent of the degradation was not merely owing to the economic conditions. Stenson has referred to strike demands at the time which included such provision for basic human dignity as, the right of estate workers to mount their bicycles from the place of work itself. Apparently, the had to push their cycles until they had passed the planter’s house before they could mount. The workers qualified their strike demands with the reminder that, “the real wage we are demanding today is much less than the real wage we were given in 1939.” And even the Strait Times admitted that the workers’ demands were reasonable.

To meet the challenge of the workers, the British Military Administration worked hand in glove with the employers, planters, and Agency Houses. In March 1946, the United Planting Association of Malaya (UPAM) urged the government to enforce the pre-war Societies Ordinance in order to control the unions. The mass struggles that followed forced the Administration to regard the workers’ demands more seriously.

The basic demands put forward by the GLU in October 1945 called for : the abolition of the contract of employment; an eight-hour day and six-day week; equal pay, regardless of sex or colour; and social insurance and compensation. The process of unionization continued to spread rapidly, and the strength of the unions was demonstrated to the workers as much as the employers. In December 1945, 18,000 municipal workers, rubber factory and brewery workers, bus and taxi drivers, as well as engineering workers were on strike. In 1946, an attempt by the British Military Administration to harass the workers by arresting a MPAJA militant, Soong Kwang, led to “the biggest stoppage of work since the reoccupation.”

Unionization had advanced more in Singapore than in the mainland, but by 1946, it had proceeded apace in the mainland too. A Pan-Malayan GLU (PMGLU) was formed in February 1946 and all sections of the working class were encouraged to join it. There was another show of force by the unions on 15 February that year, the anniversary of the fall of the Singapore. Seventeen people were killed in demonstrations in Johore. When a national trade union organization had been realized, Malay clerical workers and Indian plantation workers unions became some of the most militant. The post-war labour shortages had begun to attract more Malays into wage labour in the urban sector than previously; this was particularly evident at the Sentul workshops of the Malayan railways. The Indian workers were no longer content to accept pre-war labour conditions; they formed the Thondar Padai (Youth Corps), which heralded a new militancy among the Indian workers who had borne the brunt of much of the wage restraining measures.

But most importantly, the PMGLU provided a co-ordinating body for workers which helped to break the ‘divide-and-rule’ tactics of the British already noted, by putting forward collective demands. Its weekly paper, ‘Vanguard’, was printed in four languages and broadsheets, strike bulletins and other information were also distributed. In addition, the PMGLU concerned itself with local problems and rendered assistance such as strike relief, sympathy strikes, as well as protection against victimization. By April 1947, the PMGLU membership was 263,598 more than half the total labour force in Malaya, and 85 per cent of all the unions.

The wave of strikes continued into 1947. In March that year, dockers and tin smelters struck in Penang and thereby paralyzed the works. In subsequent months, strikes in Singapore continued unabated, while on the mainland, railway and estate workers also came out :

“The labour situation on rubber estates still gives grounds for uneasiness. There have been on average 27 strikes a week for the last seven weeks and the prospects for the immediate future do not appear to be bright.”

In most cases the workers won their demands for increased wages and better conditions. No longer were they prepared to suffer the indignities and paternalism of the preceding years. Stenson notes a strike by Chinese and Indian hospital workers because they objected to being referred to as ‘boy’. Elsewhere in Penang, municipal workers demanded the removal of the designation for ‘Coolie Lines Road’.

The British Military Administration used all the means it could muster to break the strikes, including the use of Japanese prisoners-of-war as well as British troops. It even recruited a Ceylonese military labour force, and in reversal of previous policy, began to use Malays to replace strikers. Left-wing newspapers were closed down and their editors imprisoned on charges of sedition. The post-war Labour Government’s policy of fostering “responsible” trade unionism was another method employed to combat the workers’ militancy. The local colonial administrators and employers began to call for a return to the paternalism of the pre-war days. But during the post-war period, the British could not ban trade unions as it would have contravened the 1940 Ordinance and risked international condemnation.

The defeat of the workers’ movement enabled the colonial power to affect the changeover to a neo-colony by handing over the political reins of government to traditional Malay ruling class and to its non-Malay capitalist allies. The communalist politics that overshadowed the independence maneuvers will be examined in the next chapter.

This article is excerpt from Dr. Kua Kia Soong’s book Patriots & Pretenders : The Malayan Peoples’ Independence Struggle, 2011, SUARAM. We have obtained the permission of the author to reproduce the content here.