In commemoration of the  first year anniversary of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, we share a memory by Mr James Desmond Howard Neill on his personal encounters with the late Mr Lee as well as the development of events right after the end of Japanese Occupation in Singapore.

The first time I saw Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), I was playing Chinese Checkers with the workers outside Hock Lee bus depot. One of them looked up and said our adviser had come. He [LKY] asked, “What are you doing here?” I told him I was there to try to settle the strike for the same reason as him and then I moved away.

I recognised him as the brilliant lawyer with a double first degree at Cambridge, and I heard he joined Laycock & Ong, which was a well-established law firm. He was also intending to set up his own law firm, anticipating a political career. He then appeared as the lawyer arguing the case for the workers at the Court of Inquiry set up by the government to settle the disputes and headed by Freddie Phua, the High Court judge.

Lim Yew Hock, Chief Minister of Singapore between 1956 – 1959. Picture Credit:

The court was one the side of the main block of government offices at the end of the Padang. I was sitting between Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan explaining to them in Hokkien what was being said by both sides and told the judge had ruled in favour of the right of the management to fix their own roster and times of working. Lim Chin Siong said in Hokkien “bo chap siow” (don’t care) and headed with the workers who were present in court down High Street towards Hock Lee bus depot. I was able to telephone the labour office to warn Lim Yew Hock, the Minister of Labour, of the impending troubles and was told that he was at David Marshall’s office nearby the court and was discussing with LKY, who was also visiting David Marshall after the case.

David Marshall, Singapore’s first elected Chief Minister from 1955 – 1956. Picture Credit: MITA

The day before, Lim Yew Hock, who decided to visit the workers site with David Marshall, had been jeered by workers who were largely from the Chinese schools involved in the riot that resulted in several deaths and the following morning’s workers delegation marched down at Havelock Road to express their thanks for efforts in trying to conciliate an agreement.

Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan, for about five years, dominated the industrial scene. Fong Swee Suan concentrated on the public buses other than the Singapore Traction Company (STC) who was under Devan Nair. But it was Lim Chin Siong who dominated the activities, and he had been returned as one of the four PAP candidates in an early election.

There was talk in the air of the Chinese Communists winning all Southeast Asia on the grounds of falling dominoes theory. I personally viewed the attacks on Singapore Harbour Board and the bus services as an inducement to the British to give up their authority in the area due to the paralysis of their entrepot trade and the immovability of the population to move freely.

I recognised him as the brilliant lawyer with a double first degree at Cambridge, and I heard he joined Laycock & Ong, which was a well-established law firm.

Shortly afterwards, my minister who had recently relieved David Marshall as Chief Minister asked me to take him down to visit the factories and shop workers union on top of the coffee shop in Middle Road. It was the headquarters of Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan’s activities. We drove down in my car. We climbed the stairs and were amazed at the activities in the room with dozens of young members of the various unions scribbling on a blackboard and otherwise indicating where their activities were that day. [After] both the minister and myself had seen enough and the minister reminded me that he wished to move to the gasometer at Kallang Basin as he had received advice about their complaints of the workers mostly from Hainan and their salaries. During our visit, the telephone rang with a message from the Minister of Education. Lim [Chin Siong] came from the telephone conversation and took me by the arm, and he, said, “Let’s go back to the office immediately.” On the way, he grabbed me by the shoulder and said: “Desmond, I am about to give orders that will save Singapore but will destroy my political life.”

It soon became apparent after an announcement came from the then Radio Singapore that the Chinese High School students were on strike, and the police were interested to restore peace and order. A phone call from a woman friend in Bentong, Pahang, Malaysia, urged my driver to go to the school to rescue her daughter. This was duly done by my driver who managed to break through all resistance and grabbed my friend’s daughter. Later that night, I decided to visit the Chinese High School site in Bukit Timah Road. There were several people walking around including S.R.Nathan, the future President of Singapore, and Anthony Schooling of Radio Singapore, who, once shared a bungalow with me.

Lim Chin Siong, a prominent left-wing political figure in the history of Singapore. Picture Credit: MITA

My last decade at Fraser & Neave (F&N) and the government was as the leading representative of employers on the working of the National Wages Council (NWC). We met LKY on several occasions at the Istana if there was an impasse of agreements. Initially, LKY expressed a resentment that the employers were not there in the names of Siemens and Glaxo but softened after a while. We were lucky in having Lim Chong Yah as our chairman of NWC Committee and brilliant economists from the government, such as Ngiam Tong Dow. On one occasion, LKY suggested that we all retire to a room to reach an agreement, and he would not let us out until we had done so. [It was] an exercise in extremism, which fortunately found the right conclusion in a short while.

Tripartism – the combination of government, employers and employees -was the hallmark of LKY’s economic policies. In 1970, all parties were summoned to the Istana and he let us know his intention of scrubbing the existing colonial laws relating to trade disputes with a new version. I sat with a member of our lawyers, Allen & Gledhill, and Devan Nair as we drafted our version of what was required.

JD.H.Neil story first appeared here on the Singapore Memory Project portal.

He was the Deputy Commissioner of Labour, Colonial Government of Singapore.
This memory is shared in commemoration of  Mr Lee Kuan Yew.  

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