Mr Lai discusses his involvement in the Malaysian labor movement and the Chua Seng Pineapple Estate strike in 1966, for which he was later imprisoned.
Mr Lai begins with a brief mention of his childhood in Pontian, where the Malayan Communist Party’s (CPM) Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) had a strong presence since the Emergency. Pontian was a poor community with little infrastructure, and the poor soil quality diminished agricultural output. He was influenced by MNLA’s ideology and read leftist works. However, he notes that only the earlier labor uprisings from the 1930s-1950s were CPM-led, while those from the 1960s were unaffiliated.
He explains that the Chua Seng Pineapple Estate strike originated in a ruse by the British Special Branch, which recruited Malaysian and Indonesian youth into a “guerrilla unit”, allegedly led by Chin Peng, against Malaysia in the Konfrontasi dispute. Yet the Special Branch later opened fire against them when they landed in Pontian. The estate workers sheltered these guerrilla trainees as they were originally from the same village. Eventually, both the guerrillas and some workers were arrested by the Special Branch, until the workers’ leader offered a false confession to protect his colleagues, receiving life imprisonment. The event served as the political awakening for Mr Lai’s community.
The workers of the Chua Seng Pineapple Estate only organized the strike to demand better working conditions, lasting two years from 1966 to 1968; in which time the workers had to fend for themselves through ad-hoc jobs. Like the Bukit Asahan strike, they organized a long march, but learning from the experiences of their predecessors, they did not even hold placards or shout slogans. However, Mr Lai and his colleagues were still arrested and charged. The protesters even attacked the judge with eggs, with Mr Lai accusing the judiciary of merely carrying out the government’s anti-leftist agenda. Though he was only 19, he was sentenced to a month in prison like his adult colleagues, while those under 21 usually received only 2 weeks. The strike was put down by the Special Branch on the second anniversary of the strike, when members from Malaysia and Singapore, influenced by the Cultural Revolution, gathered to sing Maoist songs at a performance.
After his first incarceration, he was later detained for almost 10 years under false charges related to promoting the leftist cause in Malaysia. Mr Lai notes that while earlier cohorts of prisoners were indeed CPM members, he was not; merely participating in open leftist activism. He also saw a later group of prisoners from the 1970s who were conducting leftist operations underground. His recollections reveal greater diversity in the leftist movement not captured by traditional understandings of the Cold War.
Interview with Lai – A supporter of the Chuan Seng Pineapple Estate strike
Date: 6 Aug 2020
Place: Cheras, Selangor
Interviewee: Mr. Lai Interviewed by Pa Kuan Huai
The Interview was conducted in Mandarin Chinese. The transcript was translated into English.
Q: I am writing about labour movements in Malaya during the 1960s. Could you tell me about the Chuan Seng Pineapple Estate dispute?
A: Labour movements in the peninsula emerged since the 1930s, and were common until the 1950s. These movements were political and lead by the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). However, the labour movements in the 1960s were different. They were spontaneous. They were not led by CPM’s members.
I was born and raised in Pontian, Johor. There was a left leaning tradition there, ever since the emergence of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army. There were many Min Yuen active in the area. In school, I was influenced by study groups. We read leftist literature. Many of my peers joined the CPM in later years.
The Indonesian Konfrontasi against Malaysia was ongoing at that time. Some young people from Pontian joined anti-Malaysia guerrilla training in Indonesia. It claimed to be under Chin Peng’s command, but was actually a British ploy to trick these youths. In 1964, there was an incident which shook the whole town. Three squads of these anti-Malaysia guerrillas staged a landing in Pontian. One squad was killed by the army before their boat even reached land. Some of them were formerly Pontian fishermen. Another squad landed safely, but the Indonesian members defected once they landed. The remaining Pontian youths in the squad went to hide in the Chuan Seng Pineapple Estate. The estate workers saw them and decided to help them. This was soon found out by the Special Branch and they surrounded the estate. Most of the squad was captured, and more than ten workers were captured too. They were interrogated for having arms. In the end, the workers’ leader sacrificed himself. He confessed to prevent collective punishment on everyone. He was sentenced to lifetime imprisonment. This incident really affected everyone in the town and the estate. We were all very ordinary people, but this incident politicised us.
Q: How was the situation in the Chuan Seng Pineapple Estate?
A: The soil in Pontian was not fertile. It was a swamp area. The estate used to be a mangrove forest. Therefore, even water from wells were dirty and bitter. It was undrinkable. The workers could only drink rainwater. There were no roadlights and no transport services. Their children had to walk to school.
The strike lasted for five years and seven months. The workers had to support themselves by doing odd jobs outside. They tried to plant vegetables in the estate but it was not enough because the soil was not fertile. The union also asked other unions to offer their support.
Still, we had to get more attention on the strike. We planned a long march to do so. About more than hundred people joined the march, including many Pontian residents. Learning from the experiences of the Asahan workers, we did not hold any banners or shout any slogans to avoid getting stopped and detained by the police. It didn’t work – the riot police was already waiting for us outside of the town. We all got caught and put onto their trucks.
We were trialled for illegal gathering and demonstrating. In the court, we prepared really smelly eggs and threw them at the judge. He had to dodge and cover himself! It was the one and only riot in court in the whole history of Malaya. I represented the workers to speak in court. I didn’t know any English and Malay, so I spoke in Chinese. There was a translator there. “You’re all Abdul Rahman’s ‘running dogs’ (henchmen)!” I said. Everyone over 21 was sentenced to a month in prison, those under 21 but over 12 were sentenced to two weeks in prison. I was only 19, but I was sentenced to a month. After that month, I was put into detention for about 10 years.
Q: What were you charged for to be detained for such a long period?
A: I was detained under the Internal Security Act. They didn’t have to have any solid charges – they just simply gave me three or five charges and that was it. I don’t remember the charges clearly. The first one was involvement in subversive activity. Everyone was charged with that.
In the detention center, there were different kinds of detainees. The early batch were people who were actually from the CPM. The second batch was those detained in the 1960s. Most of us were involved in open and legal leftist activism. The third batch was those detained in the 1970s, who were involved in “underground” leftist activities. There was no more open and legal leftist activity by then.
Q: How did the Chuan Seng Pineapple Estate dispute end?
For the second anniversary of the strike, a large scale performance night was planned. Many people from other states and Singapore visited the estate. Many young people were interested in such issues because of the influence of the Cultural Revolution. Many leftist youths from Singapore came to the estate and joined the workers, influencing them. They would sing red songs together, and read Mao’s quotes together.
The Special Branch already heard of the event. They came to the estate the estate the night before the event and caught everyone. Singaporeans were deported. Malayans were detained.
The strike was to fight for better working conditions for the workers. However, the Special Branch saw it as a leftist strike. The Ministry of Home Affairs ordered the estate owner, a Singaporean firm, to not negotiate and give into the workers’ demands. In the end, the owner abandoned the estate.
Interviewer: Kuan Huai
Interviewee: Mr Lai
Mr Lai says the strike lasted five years and seven months, but he is actually referring to the full length of the dispute. Estate workers first sent their employer a letter on 27 May 1963 to request improved working conditions, to no avail even after three years. They officially went on strike on 28 June 1966. It was on the second anniversary of the strike in June 1968 that the Special Branch cracked down on them.
Min Yuen refers to the civilian branch of the Malayan National Liberation Army, which was the armed wing of the Malayan Communist Party.
Chin Peng was a Malaysian Communist politician and anti-colonial freedom fighter during the Malayan Emergency.
Konfrontasi was a territorial dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia, as the latter believed part of Malaysian lands belonged under a “Greater Indonesia”
To what extent can we consider Mr Lai (and his colleagues) actions as part of the Cold War?
How significant was Communist ideology in shaping protests in postwar Malaysia.
In light of Mr Lai’s testimony, consider the suggestion that Malaysia (and the larger world) was experiencing not one, but multiple different Cold Wars simultaneously in the postwar era.