Lin Yu recalls his childhood and how he became involved with labour activism; particularly, his role during the Bukit Asahan strike (in 1967), which was the peak of his labour activism in Malaysia.
Former labor activist Lin Yu recalls his childhood experiences of poverty and the mistreatment of laborers by British plantation supervisors in Malaya, which seeded anti-colonial sentiments within him. He and his colleagues entered labor activism in the 1960s to fill the vacuum created by the retreat of Malayan Communist Party (CPM) guerrillas. They formed the United Malayan Estate Workers’ Union (UMEWU) as a counter-organization to other pro-colonial organizations, to better the lives of estate workers. The UMEWU organized the Asahan Estate Strike in response to the dismissal of 17 Indian workers; and later conducted a long march to the capital to meet the Malaysian Prime Minister. Ultimately, the workers were reinstated.
Born on a farm near Kajang in Malaysia, Lin did not receive an education until age 10, when he expressed his desire to study, as schools did not admit students any older. As his family could not afford it, he financed his own education by selling fried pastries to tin miners at Sungei1 Chua. As a child, he worked on the farm near the jungle, and was once used by the CPM as a child courier to deliver a letter of threat to an anti-communist leader. He also remembers having to flee his village when a British agent was killed, and recalls later seeing it ablaze from afar. A British estate manager had also hit his sister over a disagreement about the amount of latex she had collected in the rubber plantation.
These experiences seeded anti-colonial sentiments in Lin; and after the retreat of the CPM forces during the Malayan Emergency, he and his peers joined the labor movement. Lin explains that the politics of that era were polarized between pro-colonial and anti-colonial organizations. He traveled to Singapore to learn to organize trade unions.
Lin’s organization was not CPM-affiliated, and built membership across ethnic communities. After much struggle, the leadership even got their union successfully registered as a legal organization. The UMEWU was designed as an alternative and counter to the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) and the National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW). Members like Lin, and their supporters, found employment or business opportunities outside the UMEWU, for it did not pay salaries; but funded the union’s operations with their savings.
UMEWU organized the Bukit Asahan Estate strike in 1967, with the support of the Malayan Labour Party (MLP) to demand the reinstatement of 17 Indian workers fired by British managers. Families of estate workers camped out before the Government House for weeks, without spurring any government intervention on their behalf, which drained the union’s financial resources. The management also unsuccessfully attempted to sow discord and sabotage the strike by preferentially bribing Malay supporters of the strike with cigarettes and an additional allowance. However, Malay numbers were small, and the strike soon garnered nationwide support, allowing it to be sustained. Ultimately, the strikers were able to meet Prime Minister Abdul Razak and have the dismissed workers reinstated. Yet, Lin was later detained for 11 years as a suspected Communist organizer.
Interview of a labour activist - Lin
Biography: Lin, in his 80s, was a national trade union leader in the 1960s.
The interview was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and later transcribed and translated into English.
When I was almost ten years old, I learnt that I have to go to school or would have to skip schooling forever. Schools would not admit any new student beyond the age of 10. I told my father that I wished to go to school but was told that he had no money to send me to school. I went to seek help from my relatives. They asked me to sell you tiao (oil fried pastry) to the tin miners at Sungai Chua, Kajang. I managed to collect some money to attend school.
Our farm was located far away, near the edge of the jungle. I had to work at the farm since I was young. At the farm, I often met guerrilla fighters from the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). I was a “little devil” (prankster). I was asked by the CPM guerrilla fighters to deliver a letter to a local anti-communist leader who was organising anti-communist rallies and events in the area. It was a threatening letter. After receiving the letter, he didn’t appear in the town for years. Later I learnt that he re-emerged as a Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) leader and often claimed that he had escaped an assassination attempt by the CPM.
One day there was a great commotion in our village. A British agent was killed in the village. Everyone was in a state of panic. My father gathered us and took what we could and fled to a relative’s house in a nearby village. Everyone was afraid that the British troops would soon arrive to seek revenge. A few hours later, we could see smoke billowing from our village. Soon the whole village was on fire. We lost everything. We had to stay at our relative’s house.
Joining the Trade Union
Q: What made you want to participate in labour activism?
I disliked the British a great deal. When I was young, I saw the British estate manager hit my sister with his walking stick. My sister was about 20 years old. She was a very strong-willed person. On that day, she was arguing with an Indian estate supervisor over the weight of the latex she had collected in the morning. Both did not give in. They shouted at each other. The estate manager was passing by and saw them quarrelling. He began to hit my sister with his walking stick. He hit her many times on her back. There were armed guards in the estate carrying guns. The estate manager would hit any worker with his stick if he saw those disobeying orders. I had seen him hitting Indian workers too.
I became part of an underground organisation. When the CPM guerrillas withdrew during the Emergency, we were told to be on standby. We waited for a few years. Nothing happened. After that, a few of us got together. We decided that we had to act, to do something. We held many discussions. The leftists had the practice of holding discussions to assess the situation. We decided that we had to go into the farming villages. That meant we had to work with the rubber estate workers, the majority of whom were Indian estate workers. I went to Singapore to learn how to organise trade unions. Trade unions were active in Singapore. Penang also had some trade unions.
Q: Was joining the trade unions a CPM directive? Were you a CPM member?
There was no CPM directive. The guerrillas had withdrew. I was not in the CPM. All our activities and our leadership in the unions were legal and in the open. We tried to register new trade unions but failed many times. Our registrations were rejected by the authority. Then we decided to seek help from the Trade Union Advisory Bureau. There we met Ganamy and Daim (who was later to become Tun Daim, the Finance Minister under the premiership of Tun Dr. Mahathir). They were English educated so we conversed in Malay. The office was new and well equipped with many telecommunication machines including a telex machine and a printing machine.
The Advisory Board also had members from the Labour Party and Parti Rakyat which had formed the Socialist Front. There was a political wave at that time, many leftists had joined the Labour Party and had taken over the leadership of the party. There were two main streams during those times; the rightists who supported colonial presence and the leftists who opposed it. The division in society then was different from now.
Since there is little chance of us registering a new trade union with the government, our plan was to take over an existing union. We began to train union activists.
United Malayan Estate Workers’ Union (UMEWU)
The UMEWU was formed because of the political rivalry within the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC). Tun Sambanthan the president of MIC encouraged the formation of the UMEWU to counter the strong hold and influence the NUPW (National Union of Plantation Workers) wielded over the Indian estate workers. He helped in the formation of the UMEWU. This union had its head office at Seremban. It did not have many members. We joined the union and suggested moving its head office to Kuala Lumpur. However the union had owed the landlord arrears for the rental of its office. The debt amounted to RM300. We managed to pay up the debt and relocated its office to KL.
Q: How did you manage to maintain your own livelihood while you were working in the union which did not pay a salary?
Most of us found some work outside of our union activities. I worked and earned enough to carry on union work. Then I engaged in business and managed to save about RM7,000. At that time an acre of rubber estate cost about RM350. When the Asahan estate strike started, my savings went to support the strike.
Background of the Asahan Estate strike
The Asahan Estate dispute was quite simple. The British managers had sacked 17 workers. The local union protested and demanded the reinstatement of the sacked workers. These sacked workers and their families had no place to stay. They would have to stay at an Indian temple (for free). The temple was only a shed with a simple roof but without walls. They would also face difficulties in finding new work.
We went to Asahan Estate to meet up with its local union leader Wu. At first he did not trust us. He accused us of being a “yellow union” who did not care for the workers but only work to benefit ourselves as union officers. We presented a letter from the Labour Party to state the party’s recognition and support for our union. From then on, Wu joined our union.
There were 7,000 workers with their households in the Asahan Estate. Most workers did not trust us. They trusted the President of MIC, Tun Sambanthan, who also held the post of Minister of Works, Posts and Telecommunication. They also wanted to get help from the Chief Minister of Negeri Sembilan Dato Ghafar Baba. We arranged a bus to ferry 40 workers and their families to camp at Padang Merdeka (Independence Square) opposite the Federal Government House where Tun Sambanthan had his office. The workers appealed to the Minister to intervene on their behalf. Every week another busload of workers and their families would replace the previous batch at the campsite. At a meeting with the Minister of Labour, Manickavasagam, our representative were told, “Kalau kamu orang tidak tujuk kuat, macam mana saya nak runding dengan majikan?” (“If your people do not show your strength, how can I negotiate with the employers (on your behalf)?”After weeks of encampment and protests, the workers were still not able to get the Minister to resolve their grievances. The Chief Minister Ghafar Baba had also visited the Estate but no resolution was reached.
At the first workers’ meeting, the workers voted against the strike. After weeks of encampment in front of the Government House and getting no help from the Ministers, more than 95% of the workers voted to go on strike.
When the strike started, Asahan had 7,000 workers plus their dependent family members. Each day workers and their families had to be provided with food. For Malay workers who joined the strike, they were given special treatment of receiving money to buy cigarettes and an allowance in addition to food supply. This was kept secret from the knowledge of Indian and Chinese workers. The estate management paid Malay workers to break the strike. Less than 50% of the Malay workers joined the strike. Most of the Chinese and Indian workers joined the strike.
There was a severe financial strain to sustain the strike. The Muar Labour Party Branch collected RM4,000 to support the strike. A doctor consistently donated to the strike whenever we sought his help. The Asahan estate management knew our union faced financial shortage and hence tried to draw out the dispute, so that we would eventually not be able to support the strike and had to give in. To overcome this challenge, we had to escalate our struggle. We went on to organise a long march from Bukit Asahan to Kuala Lumpur. As our struggle gathered more publicity, more donations were collected from all over the country. Hence, the strike could go on.
We organised the long march from Bukit Asahan to the capital, where we wanted to meet the Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. He didn’t want to meet us at first because he thought our union was being used by communists. Nevertheless, eventually he invited us to meet him. It was probably because our long march had garnered national attention.
In the end, the Asahan estate dispute was settled. All the sacked workers were reinstated.
I was imprisoned for 11 years after the Asahan estate dispute was settled and ended. There was no trial as I was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA). They accused me of “organising communist activities such as the May 1st Labour Day”.
Interviewer: Kuan Huai
Sungei is the Malay word for river.
To what extent were the struggles of the UMEWU part of the Cold War? Is it better understood as a domestic conflict?
What other regional and global realities do Lin’s recollections reflect?
Consider the role of ethnic politics and the politicization of race in Malaysia’s Cold War experience.
How does Lin’s testimony illustrate the imagined nature of the Cold War in decolonized Malaysia? Who imagined such a Cold War reality for Malaysia?