In this second interview, Lin discusses his later experiences in the Malaysian labor movement in the 1960s-70s, from the February 13 Demonstration, the split of the Socialist Front, and how his experiences were affected by the Cultural Revolution.
Lin begins by discussing the Socialist Front’s first demonstration on February 13 1965. Inspired by the revolution in China, the labor movement launched a “Criticize the Right” Campaign, which the Demonstration was a part of. Protesters gathered before the Socialist Front Headquarters, but had to resort to hurling projectiles after the police used tear gas. The crowd dispersed by the afternoon. Even one of the Labour Party leaders, Dr Tan Chee Khoon, who represented the party in Parliament, assisted the police to disperse the crowd by addressing the protesters and explaining that their actions were illegal.
The Socialist Front was also plagued by internal divisions, as their Malay colleagues were opposed to granting equal status to the Chinese and Tamil languages as official languages of Malaysia. This caused the party to split into its former component parties, the Parti Rakyat and the Labour Party. However, different chapters of the parties in various states responded differently to this ethnic tension, with the Penang section of the Socialist Front asking its non-indigenous members to leave Parti Rakyat and join the Labour Party; while the Selangor section’s Chinese membership, like Lin, chose to remain in the party and continue working alongside their Malay colleagues.
Throughout his time in the UMEWU, Lin believed in a moderate approach, of working within the established structures to quickly address the workers’ grievances. However, this led him to face disputes and challenges in his activist career. As the Secretary of the United Malayan Estate Workers Union (UMEWU), Lin was tasked to arrange legal aid for members charged in court. Though he had engaged a leftist lawyer, Mr Lim Kean Siew, who was the Labour Party’s Secretary General, Mr Lim withdrew from the case at the last minute, claiming to be overseas. However, Lin visited and found him in his office, after which he sought legal representation for the members from Mr Lim’s brother, Lim Kean Chye. Lim Kean Siew eventually defected to the rival Malayan Chinese Association. Later, while in prison, Lin was accused by fellow imprisoned labor activists of having pro-establishment sympathies, due to his moderate approach, to which he responded by branding them ultra-leftists.
Oral Interview with Lin Yu
Date: 10 August 2020
Place: Sungai Ruang, Pahang, Malaysia.
Interviewee: Lin Yu Interviewed by Pa Kuan Huai
The Interview was conducted in Mandarin Chinese. The transcript was translated into English.
13 February 1965 Demonstration at Kuala Lumpur
Background: The 13 February 1965 demonstration in Kuala Lumpur was held by Socialist Front members to demand the release of all political prisoners including Ahmad Boestamam, the chairman of Socialist Front and Parti Rakyat, who was detained two years ago on the same day. They also protested against tax raises and the proposed national service to defend against the Indonesian Konfrontasi.
Lin Yu: February 13 was our first demonstration. We had no prior experience so we did not know what to expect. In the morning we gathered near the Headquarters of Socialist Front in Kuala Lumpur before the demonstration was to start. We were hungry so we went to have some food. We folded our banners and place them on the floor near the tables. After we had finished our meal, we proceeded to hold the street demonstration.
The police was facing us. They looked uncertain as to what to do next. We continued to march. Then the police fired tear gas at us. It was the first time we were hit by the tear gas. Wah! We did not know the gas could be so stinging and hurting to the eyes and nose. When I picked up the tear gas canister, my hand began to blister as it was so hot. Then we got hold of whatever we could find; stones, bottles etc to hurl at the police. More tear gas was fired at us. We fought on in that manner until late in the afternoon. By 4:00pm we began to disperse.
Split of the Socialist Front
Background: The Socialist Front was formed in 1957 by the coalition of the Labour Party and the Parti Rakyat. The labour Party had a mainly urban-based Chinese working class membership while the Parti Rakyat had a predominantly rural-based Malay peasant membership. In some areas, the Parti Rakyat also had a sizable rural Chinese membership.
Lin Yu: The campaign to legislate the Chinese and the Tamil languages as official languages was subjected to much debate within the Socialist Front. The Malay friends would not agree to have these two languages placed on the same status with the Malay language. I had discussed this issue with Chen Fu Xing (The Deputy Secretary-General of the Labour Party) when we were both under detention at the Batu Gajah prison. Chen Fu Xing could see the reasons of our argument.
When the split of the Socialist Front came, the Parti Rakyat in Selangor held discussions to decide the next course of action. We decided we must not leave the Party. We still had tasks and duties to continue working with our Malay Leftist friends. A Malay Parti Rakyat leader asked why we had to discuss this language issue when we were not yet in the government to have to make this policy decision. So the Parti Rakyat in Selangor retained most of its Chinese members. This was different from Penang where the Socialist Front leaders asked its members to leave the Parti Rakyat to join the Labour Party.
The Ultra-Left and the effects of the Cultural Revolution
Background: After the abolition of the Local Council Elections by the Alliance Government in 1965, the Socialist Front lost their political power base at the local town councils where they had won full control or had gained popular support. When Socialist Front members were losing trusts in the democratic process, they soon resonated with calls for mass agitation of the public. This development coincided with the spread of Cultural Revolution which had diffused into the local leftist movements through mass media and printed materials.
Lin Yu: the Cultural Revolution imparted a great influence on the leftist movement. It also brought about much destructive effects.
I can understand why the movement started the “Criticise the Rightists Campaign”. On the 13 February 1965 demonstration in Kuala Lumpur, the police brought Dr. Tan Chee Khoon onto their open-top jeep and he used a loudhailer to broadcast to the demonstrating crowd. (Dr. Tan Chee Khoon was a Member of Parliament representing the Labour Party in Kuala Lumpur). Dr. Tan said that the demonstrators were violating certain regulations forbidding public demonstrations. Our actions were thus illegal. He urged us to stop the demonstration and disperse.
Another issue involved the Secretary-General of the Labour Party Mr. Lim Kean Siew. As the Secretary of the United Malayan Estate Workers Union (UMEWU), I had the duty to help the seven union members who were charged in court. In general, union members believed in getting famous lawyers to negotiate with the employers instead of taking collective actions in industrial disputes. We contacted Mr. Lim for help as he was a leader of the Labour Party. He agreed to represent the union members who were charged. When the cases were about to come up for trial, we contacted Mr. Lim again. He told us that he could not take up the cases as he was abroad. We drove up to Penang to meet up with the Labour Party Penang Branch Secretary. He took us to meet Mr. Lim in his office. We then realised Mr. Lim had lied to us. We rushed into his room. We held him to account and scolded him for lying and being irresponsible. He disappeared very quickly. We then went to meet his elder brother Mr. Lim Kean Chye. Kean Chye said his brother had created a problem again. He had earlier on advised his younger brother not to make too many statements during the Hartal event. Kean Chye agreed to take up the cases of the workers. Kean Siew later joined the Malaysian Chinese Association, a major partner of the ruling Alliance Coalition. He had committed political opportunism.
I was also accused of being a Rightist. During my imprisonment, some fellow political prisoners criticised my role in the UMEWU. They accused the UMEWU was a right-leaning “yellow” trade union. My role was that of a fire-fighter putting out the flame of revolution. I believed we had to solve the problems the workers faced. Such problems as their livelihood, the exploitation they face etc. Since they branded me a Right-roader, I countered and branded them as ultra-leftists.
Interviewer: Kuan Huai
To what extent were the struggles of the UMEWU part of the Cold War? Is it better understood as a domestic conflict?
What does the divisiveness within the Malayan labor movement suggest about the nature of Malaysia’s Cold War?
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?