Founding PAP member, left-wing union activist Fong Swee Suan dies

Mr Fong left the PAP in 1961, along with other leftists in the party, to form the now-defunct opposition party, Barisan Sosialis.
Mr Fong left the PAP in 1961, along with other leftists in the party, to form the now-defunct opposition party, Barisan Sosialis.ST FILE PHOTO

Fong Swee Suan, 85, died last Saturday; he was suffering from liver cirrhosis

Former leftist trade unionist and political detainee Fong Swee Suan, a founding member of the People's Action Party (PAP), died last Saturday at the age of 85. He was suffering from liver cirrhosis and had been in and out of hospital for treatment over the past three months.

His death came just two days after the anniversary of Operation Coldstore, a security swoop in which more than 110 leftists were arrested on Feb 2, 1963. They included Mr Fong, who had two years earlier left the PAP with other leftists in the party to form the now-defunct opposition party, Barisan Sosialis.

As he was born in Johor, Mr Fong was sent back to Malaya, where he spent 4-1/2 years in jail, detained without trial under the Internal Security Act.

He went into business after his release and returned to Singapore much later in the late 1990s, to retire with his wife and their three children, a daughter and two sons, who had all grown up and were educated here.

Elder son Otto Fong, 48, an author and cartoonist, said yesterday that his father, who had been unable to walk since late last year, moved to his four-room flat in Bukit Purmei just before the Chinese New Year celebrations a week ago to be closer to the Singapore General Hospital.

He added: "I came home after a walk on Saturday afternoon and found my father unconscious. I called the ambulance right away. It arrived later and (medics) pronounced him dead at around 5pm."

The late Mr Fong's wife of 56 years, Madam Chen Poh Cheng, 80, said: "My husband lived a long and fulfilling life. He is now free from suffering in the afterlife."

The third of seven children of a laundry man and his farmer wife in Senggarang near Batu Pahat in Johor, the late Mr Fong received his early Chinese education in his home town before persuading an elder brother to allow him to study at the former Chinese High School in Bukit Timah in 1949.

There, he met another student from Johor, Lim Chin Siong, who at 16 was two years his junior.

They became good friends and together were involved in anti-colonial activities that included boycotting examinations in protest against changes to the education system in Chinese schools then. That resulted in their expulsions from the school, along with 106 other students in 1951. Both continued their struggle against the British colonialists in the trade unions. Mr Fong worked briefly as a clerk and later as a bus conductor before becoming secretary-general of the Singapore Bus Workers' Union in 1953.

The duo, who became prominent leftist union leaders, were later roped in by then lawyer Lee Kuan Yew, who needed Chinese-educated leaders like them to help him form the PAP in 1954 in order to get support from the majority Chinese- speaking population. Mr Fong became one of the 14 convenors of the party when it was inaugurated in November that year.

Mr Fong came into prominence during the Hock Lee Bus Company strike the following year that he led with Mr Lim.

The strike over the company's sacking of more than 200 unionised workers ended in a riot that resulted in four people being killed.

Earlier official accounts of the incident had put the blame on the leftist union leaders till the publication of Mr Fong's memoirs in 2007, when he clarified that it was Gurkha policemen who first used jets of high-pressure water to disperse the striking bus workers, injuring many of them and starting the clashes between policemen and the workers along with the middle-school students who came to support them.

The memoirs in Chinese were also packed with his recollections of events leading to the formation of the PAP and of why he and other leftist leaders left the party to form Barisan Sosialis, as well as stories of his childhood, his years in prison and his retirement in Singapore.

"Of course, I was responsible for the strike but it didn't mean that I caused the riot," he also told the authors of Men In White, the book of untold stories of the PAP published two years later in 2009.

For leading the strike and causing the 1955 Hock Lee Bus riot, Mr Fong, together with some union leaders and students, was arrested.

He was detained for about 45 days before his release due to public pressure.

But he was re-arrested a year later in an anti-leftist operation when the Lim Yew Hock government arrested more than 200 pro-communist and leftist union leaders, including several others from the PAP.

They were Lim Chin Siong, who was then PAP legislative asssemblyman for Bukit Timah, S. Woodhull, Devan Nair, James Puthucheary, Chen Say Jame, Chan Chiaw Thor and Tan Chong Kin.

The eight PAP leaders, including Mr Fong, were released only after the party won the 1959 general election in a landslide victory to form the government.

Mr Fong, like the other leftist leaders such as Mr Lim, were given posts as political secretaries in the new PAP government led by Mr Lee as prime minister and his other non-leftist members.

The leftist leaders and Mr Lee's non-leftist group began to clash over many issues and their differences over Singapore's merger to form Malaysia led to a split in the party.

Thirteen leftist PAP legislative assemblymen and other leaders, including Mr Fong and Mr Lim, left to form Barisan Sosialis in 1961.

Almost all of the eight PAP leftist leaders released in 1959, except for Mr Chan Chiaw Thor, have passed on with Mr Fong's demise. His close friend and comrade, Mr Lim Chin Siong, died of a heart attack years ago in 1996, aged 63.

Several of Mr Fong's leftist comrades from the PAP and Barisan contacted yesterday were not surprised by news of his death.

Mr Goh Boon Toh, 85, also a former trade unionist and PAP leader, said: "I had heard he was in poor health for some time and last visited him at his Bukit Panjang home a few years ago. I will remember him as a dedicated and committed union leader."

Mr Lim Chin Joo, 80, a retired lawyer and former Chinese middle school student activist who is the younger brother of Mr Lim Chin Siong, said he met Mr Fong and his wife at Pei Chun Chinese Independent School in Johor last June when a building put up in memory of his elder brother was completed.

"He looked weak and his wife said it would be the last time he could travel to Johor," he recalled.

He added: "To me, Mr Fong belongs to the pioneer generation of Singapore political leaders who were selfless and dedicated to their cause though they were not very highly educated. They contributed significantly to Singapore's political development, especially in the 1950s and early 1960s."

Mr Fong's son, Otto, said he too was proud of his father's role in Singapore's politics during the period. He added: "I was born after he left politics in the early 1960s, and so I know him better as a great father and loving husband who doted on his four grandchildren."

Mr Fong's wake is being held at the Cherish Hall at Mount Vernon Sanctuary. The funeral will take place tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2017, with the headline 'Founding PAP member, left-wing union activist dies'. Print Edition | Subscribe