In this group interview, former labour activists Wu, Yang and Lin recount their experiences of the Asahan rubber estate labour dispute, discussing the issues which created labour discontent, their experiences of organizing the strike, how the dispute was eventually settled, and their experiences in prison.
Wu begins by highlighting his initial reluctance to become a union leader for fear of losing his job. However, he later turned down a lucrative job offer from the British managers of the Bukit Asahan rubber estate to enter the labor movement after his brother was killed by British troops for his involvement with the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army. He recalls how his friend in the guerrilla movement refused to ambush the British troops, and how Velu, and Indian labor leader kept visiting him with recruitment forms for the United Malayan Estate Workers Union (UMEWU).
The Bukit Asahan Rubber Estate faced a range of issues, such as a sudden and uninformed change in the method for measuring the amount of latex collected creating additional inefficiency; and how workers were initially not paid for having to apply a chemical to the trees to stimulate greater latex output. The UMEWU successfully negotiated against these changes, attracting not only Chinese and Indian membership, but co-opting their Malay colleagues as well, across all political affiliations. All races received equal pay. All three men also recall fights between the workers and British managers over failed negotiations at times, with Yang even bringing in a crate of bottled drinks to use as a weapon if the situation deteriorated.
They then discuss the Bukit Asahan Estate Strike, which began on 25 February 1967, for the reinstatement of 17 dismissed Indian workers, in response to the Labour Minister’s suggestion that the workers display their strength. When workers probed the union’s resources and ability to finance the strike, Wu admits to have altered the accounts to present a stronger financial picture so that the strike could proceed. The UMEWU also conducted door-to-door fundraising and drew supporters from the Labour Party, including university students from Singapore, and inspired a simultaneous strike at the Terjang Estate.
Strikers used various strategies to disrupt the work of the estate, such as hiding nails in the trunks of the rubber trees so that the knives used to release the latex would be blunted by the metal nails, or by riding around the premises on motorcycles with lit cigarettes to spread smoke and create small fires. These efforts impeded the response by the fire service, and while little damage was done, the workflow of the estate was sabotaged. The police attempted to end the dispute by declaring an emergency, but the workers rejected this on the grounds that only the monarch could do so. The protesters then changed tactics, organizing the Long March to meet the Prime Minister, who eventually acceded to their requests.
There were also strike-breakers and dissidents within the union’s ranks who attempted to sabotage or defy the strike, but this was minimal. On one occasion, an Indian worker attacked these strike breakers and was charged, but later received legal representation from labor lawyer Karam Singh, who later represented the union leaders as well.
For their organization of the strike, both the labor leaders and their lawyer were detained for various lengths of time without trial. In prison, Karam Singh encouraged his former clients to reject being treated as criminals, with Lin even failing to attend his mother’s funeral because he refused to be handcuffed. Wu also participated in a hunger strike with other prisoners, which was ended when authorities sent them to hospital. These reflections suggest that the bipolarity of the Cold War did not shape ground realities in Malaysia to the extent that traditional understandings suggest.
25th Sept 2019, 11am – 2pm at a coffee stall at Asahan Town
Wu: A local union leader and rubber tapper at the Asahan rubber estate in the 1960s.He was detained without trial for four years for his involvement in the strike.
Yang: A leading labour activist and rubber tapper at the Asahan rubber estate in the 1960s.
Lin: A major leader in the United Malayan Estate Workers Union (UMEWU) in the 1960s, he played a leading role in the Asahan Estate dispute. He was detained without trial for ten years for his labour activism.
The group interview was conducted in Mandarin Chinese. The transcript was then translated into English.
Interview conducted by: Pa Kuan Huai
Perspective from a local union leader Wu at the time of strike
Joining the United Malayan Estate Workers Union (UMEWU)
Wu: It was because of you that I went to jail!
Lin chuckled in response.
Wu: Nobody wanted to become a union leader. You know why? Because the union leader will be the first person to lose his job! I was not afraid to lose my job. I would go to the next estate to look for a job! Do you know what the Asahan British estate managers offered me? Fifty thousand ringgit and a ticket to Sabah! I would have become a multi-millionaire by now had I taken up their offer! Much richer than you!
My brother was killed in the anti-Japanese war. He was a member of the MPAJA (Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army). When he joined the guerrilla force, he was not afraid to die. During the Emergency when the British army came to Asahan to suppress the people, I asked my guerrilla friend to ambush them. He refused. What is the use of a guerrilla force that did not attack when faced with the enemy!
When I became a union leader, I was not afraid to fight!
Velu (a union leader from UMEWU) came to my house every day at 2:00pm. He brought 500 forms for workers to sign up to join his union. I threw them all into the dustbin! Still he kept coming every day. So I told Yang he was serious.
Issues at the Asahan Estate
Q: There was an incident about the introduction of a new measuring gauge in determining the weight of the latex. What happened?
Lin: The old method was to take some latex and mix it with a chemical, let it coagulate, dry and then weigh it the following day. From this sample, one can calculate the amount of latex collected. The new method was to place a “weighing rod (磅针)” (a form of hydrometer) into the latex. If the latex was too thick, the measuring rod would get stuck in the latex. Sometimes the rod would float on the latex. It did not work well.
Wu: We preferred the old method although with the new method the calculation can be done straight away. On the day the measuring rod was introduced, I went to the office to demand to see the new measuring rod. The clerk showed it to me. I threw the rod on the floor and stepped on it. The clerk then asked the supervisor to come in. He asked me why I damaged the measuring rod. I answered that he did not inform me and asked our prior agreement to use the new method. He agreed that he was wrong.
Q: Did workers from different races got paid differently?
Wu: No. The pay is the same.
Q: Did all races join the union? Any difference in the membership numbers among the different races?
Wu: We represent all races. It was not an easy achievement but we succeeded in leading all different races. Almost all Indian and Chinese workers joined the union. About half of the Malay workers joined the union. The Malay workers supported us because we fought for the benefit of all workers. Previously, the workers had to apply a chemical to each rubber tree to make the tree produce more latex. Workers were not paid for this extra work. We successfully negotiated with the managers to pay for this extra work. For each batch of 250 trees, we asked to be paid RM4.00. The Malay workers were happy with this outcome. They joined the union.
Lin: Some workers were members of the MIC (Malayan Indian Congress) and UMNO (United Malay National Organisation).
Wu: That’s where you were wrong. We did not care about which political party a member belongs to. We wanted workers to be united.
Q: There was some fights with the estate managers.
Wu: Yes. There was a crowd of workers waiting outside the manager’s room when two union members went into negotiate with the managers. We could see that the manager and assistant manager were still acting very high and mighty as usual. They did not see the union leaders as equals and were not keen to negotiate. A fight broke out inside the room. The managers were big sized British men. Workers rushed into the room from outside. Yang brought a crate of bottled soft drinks to the negotiation room.
Yang: I brought them just in case a fight would break out. One of the union leaders hit the manager with a bottle.
Wu: The managers escaped from the room and fled to the police station.
Lin: The estate managers were British veterans. They were big and strong. Once, three Indian workers fought the manager but they lost.
Wu: The strike started on 25th Feb 1967. The main reason for the strike was the sacking of 17 workers. Our only condition to end the strike was to reinstate the sacked workers.
Lin: We went to meet the Minister of Labour Manickavasagam. He told us, “You orang tidak tunjuk kuat, macam mana say boleh runding dengan majikan.” (“Your people have not shown your strength, how do you expect me to negotiate with the employer?”) He challenged us to show our strength. So we had no other choice but to organise a strike.
Wu: Before the strike started, workers demanded to see how much money the union had to support the strike. We only had RM10,000 in the bank. I added another 1 in front of amount, that added up to RM110,000. We then showed the bank book to the workers. This gave them confidence that we had enough money to sustain the strike. The estate managers delayed settlement of the dispute as they thought that the union would not have enough fund to sustain the strike. We went on a fund raising campaign. We went from door to door in other towns to collect donations. In Seremban, a household we visited gave us 5 cents. They thought we were beggars.
An Indian worker suggested to me to stop the “strike breakers” or otherwise the strike would fail. One Indian worker assaulted three strike breakers. When charged in court, he was represented by lawyer Karam Singh (of the Parti Rakyat). He lost the case on the second trial and was fined RM200. Some workers defied the strike to continue work, but there was not many of them. They were not so important.
Lin: There are methods to disrupt their work. Small nails were inserted into the tapping track of the tree and hidden by hardened latex. When the tapping knife hit the nail, its sharp edge would be dented. With the knife damaged, they could not continue work. Two workers also stuffed matches inside cigarettes, lit the cigarettes and threw them on the ground while riding a motorcycle around the estates. Soon the estate was engulfed in smoke. The fire brigade engines could not get through the narrow paths to put out the smouldering fires. Not a lot of damage was done, but work could not be continued.
Wu: The Labour Party mobilised support to ensure the strike could continue. Many labour Party members came to support the strike. A bus load of students from Nanyang University Singapore came to Asahan to support us. However these supporters were assaulted by the FRU (Federal Reserve Unit, riot police). Rajah the president of UMEWU was injured. So were other union leaders and members. The police then declared Asahan to be under emergency. Karam Singh came to Asahan to tell the police that only The Yang Di Pertuan Agong (The King) had the right to declare a state of emergency. The police had to withdraw their order. By then the strike had reached an impasse. We had to draw more publicity and support for the strike. We decided to start the Long March from Asahan to Kuala Lumpur to meet with the Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Raman.
Meeting with the Prime Minister Tengku Abdul Rahman
Wu: After a long and arduous march to Kuala Lumpur which saw many leaders and workers arrested daily, the strike had received attention and support from various trade unions, political parties and the people throughout the country. At the meeting with the Tunku, he asked us, “Who asked you to strike?” Yang answered, “The Minister of Labour Manickavasagam. He asked us to show our strength so that he can negotiate with the employer!” The Tunku then said, “Then ask the Minister of Labour to settle the strike!”
Lin: it was the Tunku who called the UMEWU for the meeting. At the meeting he promised to settle the Asahan strike. We then asked him to settle the Teriang Estate strike in Pahang. Their workers had organised a simultaneous joint strike with the Asahan workers. The Tunku said, “Teriang itu kecil sehaja. Boleh diselesai.” (“Teriang is a small matter. It can be settled.”) The meeting lasted for one hour. When we came out from the meeting, we were surrounded by reporters asking what had been achieved.
Wu: The Minister of Labour then came to Asahan Estate to meet up with the British managers. They then called a meeting at the Meeting Hall of Asahan town. The managers agreed to reinstate all the sacked workers. The strike was over. The strike lasted 75 days. However, the Federal Reserve Unit (riot police) went to Teriang Estate and severely beat up the workers, arrested them and suppressed the strike.
Lin: On hindsight, I suspect the Asahan strike was personally resolved by the Tunku because the British did not want the strike to spread to other British owned estates in the country. Also the Tricontinental Conference to be held soon was to raise the topic of continual British domination of economic power in its former colonies. The British could have wanted to avoid the embarrassment of a long strike against a British owned interest in Malaysia. On the contrary, the Teriang Estate had been mortgaged to a local bank. The strike was brutally suppressed.
The Prison Hunger Strike
Wu: I was not afraid to go to prison but I was very afraid of the hunger strike in prison. In the first few days, I felt very hungry. After a few days, I did not feel hungry at all. Later on, I came to have no feelings. I saw others became very thin when we took showers. I could not see my own weight loss. But I could see that the tummies of other prisoners had become flat. Their ribs were showing. In the last three days, we refused to drink water. People were just lying on the floor in the corridor. My consciousness was fluctuating. I saw the doctor came to put his fingers over the nostrils of hunger strikers to see if they were still breathing. The doctor then said he would not continue his duty as he feared we will soon die and he would not want to be held responsible for our death. Another doctor took over. The hunger strikers were sent to hospital and put on drips. Once on drip, I felt much better. The hunger strike was a protest over being handcuffed when we visited doctors in hospital or when visiting our ill mothers and relatives.
Lin: I refused to be handcuffed to attend my mother's funeral. I was transferred from prison to the police station at my hometown Kajang to attend my mother’s funeral. At the police station, the police refused to take off my handcuffs. I refused to leave the police station with the handcuffs on. I did not attend my mother's funeral.
Wu: We were not criminals. We refused to be handcuffed. While in prison, Karam Singh encouraged us to walk about freely as we were not criminals. I said to Karam, "You kata tunjuk kuat. Kita tunjuk kuat, kita masuk ke sini!" ("You told us to show our strength. We did, and here we are!") Karam had big legs. During football games, he would somehow kicked other players' legs. We all avoided tackling him!
Lin: During the long march, another union leader and myself were arrested and produced at the law courts. Karam was at the court attending to another case. He saw us and asked us who our lawyer was. We told him we were unrepresented. He exclaimed, "Mana boleh union leaders tidak ada lawyer!" ("It should not be that union leaders do not have lawyers to represent them!") He promptly applied to have himself represent us!
Interviewer: Kuan Huai
Interviewee: Lin, Wu and Yang
Wu subsequently joined the UMEWU after reading a letter from the Labour Party supporting the union.
These political parties formed the ruling coalition.
Karam Singh was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act for four years. Wu was similarly detained for four years while Lin was detained for ten years.
To what extent were labor uprisings such as the Bukit Asahan Estate Strike part of the Cold War? Is it more accurate to characterize it as a domestic conflict?
What other global realities shaped the conditions that led to the strike, and the labor movement in Malaysia more broadly
Given your responses to the previous two questions, consider what they suggest about the nature of the Cold War Era in Malaysia and Asia in general