The 1947 Kedah Strike

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[Editor’s note : This article is an excerpt from Page 127-130, Colin Abraham, 2006, “The Finest Hour” : The Malaysian-MCP Peace Accord in Perspective, SIRD, Petaling Jaya.]

By Collin Abraham

Various contributory factors arising from their new found strength resulted in extensive strike action, and Kedah saw the most intensive disputes which began amongst Indian strikes were also supported by Chinese unionists. The climax of the situation was reached where the police opened fire on workers in one estate in Kedah. This incident clearly marked a watershed in labour relations and signalled more serious collusion between employers (and now) the security forces than had hitherto been the case.

For this reason it is important to analyse the details in the documentation of “The Findings of the Board of Inquiry into the Kedah Incidents”. The Board began its proceedings on the 18th June 1947 and the report of the findings was dated 1st August 1947. The contents provide insights of such significance in the context of this analysis so as to merit a separate chapter in this book, in lieu of which, some excerpts will also be included in Appendix 1.

The Board of Inquiry itself comprised the entire spectrum of legitimate representation among the different groups involved in the welfare plantation labour at the time. This consisted of the Malay Nationalist Party, the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Union, the All Malayan Rubber Workers Council, the Malayan Democratic Union, the Malayan Communist Party and the Malayan Indian Congress. The government for its part refused official representation and the Police regretted their inability to be present at the hearings. (The report stated that the Government could give no “official recognition or backing and that the Government could accept no responsibility for the Board’s proceedings.” By so doing it seems reasonable to suggest that the government hoped it could refuse to recognise the findings.

Because of the seriousness of the allegations of abuse of power by the labourers, the Board decided to inquire into all three incidents in Kedah namely at the Bukit Sembilan Estate, the Dublin Estate, and in the Bedong Incident. In all these incidents there was conclusive evidence of a strong police presence (and in one instance, Bedong, where there was a supposedly “unlawful assembly” demonstration against the consumption of toddy!), an additional full compliment of 100 strong troops (Gurkhas, Punjabis and Sikhs) who were armed with rifles, pistons, and bayonets took up positions with all due military precision in front of the picketers and onlookers. Immediately following the incident some of the labourers in European-owned estates were dismissed and required to vacate their quarters immediately (since accommodation was contingent on employment).

Likewise in the Bukit Sembilan incident while a labour strike was still in force, the police unable to locate and arrest a supposedly known strike leader, arrested and took away sixty-six other persons instead. They then “charged” the living quarters and attacked the other workers. Members of the Board of Inquiry visiting the estate, soon after the incident reported that they saw “about 25 women with badly swollen legs, arms, backs, head injuries, etc. They had no medical treatment whatsoever. Neither the management nor the police cared whether they lived or died.” The inevitable subsequent outcome was the dismissal of all these people from the estate.

In the Dublin estate incident, the issue concerned the holding of a union meeting of the Kulim Rubber Workers’ Union, which the Manager and the OSPC, had at short notice refused to allow. In fact the meeting was held to prepare for the celebration of May Day, but because of the short notice of refusal and the consequent inability to inform members on time, the meeting went ahead. In these circumstances, the manager felt that this was a good opportunity to take advantage of the situation so that the “appearance of a squad of police would have a good effect.” It subsequently transpired that while the assembly of labourers was proper and lawful, but it was decided that labour leaders residing outside the estate would be treated as trespassers, and the Police opened fire resulting in casualties.

The Board report noted, “It is quite incompatible to hold on the one hand that the law recognises Labour Unions and on the other invoke the aid of the Common Law of Trespass to prevent the formation and development of Labour Unions.” The report noted, “this is a deliberate and calculated attempt to break up Labour Unions.” and that “the action of the police was therefore unwarranted.”

In Bukit Sembilan, the treatment accorded to the labourers was such that the Board recorded, “In our opinion, this is the worst case of its kind that we have had the painful duty to investigate. It was premeditated, highly provocative, destructive and humiliating.”

By way of highlighting the issues arising from these incidents, the Board noted, “a common factor impinges itself on our consciousness, namely, a degree of co-operation that amounts to collusion between the vested interests on the one hand, and the government executive, and the police on the other, for the purpose of suppressing fundamental rights of the largest class of people in this country, namely LABOUR…Either the Government will have to take immediate steps to restore public confidence in its policies or create a suspicion in the minds of the public that the Government is developing tendencies akin to fascism.”

In the Bedong incident, it was noted that the Indians were especially targeted, because none of the other nationalities who formed the crowd were arrested though the charge was for “unlawful assembly.” In the Bukit Sembilan estate incident the Board noted, “A clear representation of recent indications (suggest) perfect co-ordination of action between planters and police…We are constrained to think that the whole incident was premeditated with a view of teaching labourers a lesson.”

Indeed, when it was suggested that the Police and planting industry should adopt a policy of reconciliation and consider legitimate labour demands, the Commissioner of Police responded that, “he did not wish the planting industry to do anything they considered detrimental to the interests of the industry.” This it seems was of particular importance considering that the Commissioner considered “labourers in Kedah were planning a move akin to a revolution, and that therefore such actions taken and to be taken by the Police would appear justified.”

Mention had been made earlier that colonial policy was particularly designed to deal forcefully with the Indians because they were the only organised proletariat that was capable of resorting to union strike action. Such action as has been noted directly negatively affects rubber exports and the profits accruing to the government revenues in Malaya and indeed, more importantly, as mentioned earlier to the contributions to the Sterling Bloc and the Dollar Arsenal. In the months leading to the Emergency therefore, these conflicts began to become more violent and it could be anticipated that the confrontation between the Communist-directed unions and the colonial state was likely to increase. Therefore in this situation it could once again be argued that the promulgation of the Emergency was intended to pre-empt such confrontation becoming uncontrollable.

Individual Indian union leaders were also in the forefront of militant anti-rubber industry activity. For instance the ex-MPAJA Communist union organiser, R.G. Balan initiated a new wave of strikes that resulted in “eight-five strikes within a period of six months” in Perak in 1948. His organising ability obviously caught the attention of the Special Branch and he was subsequently arrested.

In the meantime the confusion arising from the sudden declaration of the Emergency left many Indians belonging to unions and opposition groups that became defunct, completely “stranded”. In this confusion of 1948, many Indians were literally “waiting” to be arrested by being involved in activities against “law and order”.

This outcome in fact came to pass when one leading Indian union member, Veerasenan was shot and another Ganapathy initially arrested. Indeed, despite widespread protests at the latter’s arrest, locally and internationally, including an appeal from the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Nehru, Ganapathy was charged under the Emergency Regulations (for possessing a revolver) and hanged.

This unprecedented incident can be seen as a “case study” in the British determination to particularly suppress the labour unions concerned with the production of rubber. It is especially significant to repeat, that rubber at this time was of paramount importance because of the American insatiable demand for the manufacture of motorcar tyres, and powerful leaders like Ganapathy were, without doubt, working to undermine and disrupt production levels in the interests of the workers.

Moreover, being an international representative of organised labour, repressive action against him would serve to “teach a lesson” to those promoting strike action by withholding labour thereby disrupting much demanded rubber output.

Furthermore the charge of possession of a revolver calling for a mandatory death sentence was only enacted with the passing of the Emergency Regulation, and it was widely expected that this fact might at least have been taken into consideration for a pardon, as unanimously recommended by his supporters both locally and internationally (including the Prime Minister of India and at least one plantation manager.)


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