Ex-union leader recounts The Straits Times strike in ’70s

Two days before Christmas in 1971, a group of journalists from The Straits Times, including Clement Mesenas, chairman of the Singapore National Union of Journalists (SNUJ), banded together to organise a strike that saw 2,000 employees taking part.

They were upset with their low pay and lack of opportunities for job advancement. There was also discontent with the British management which seemed out of touch with the reporters and the working class.

In 1971, the Employment Act was already in place in Singapore, so going on strike was no easy feat, but the journalists had the unspoken nod of support from then-Labour Minister Ong Pang Boon.

Mesenas’s book, ‘The Last Great Strike’, which was launched at The Arts House yesterday evening, is his personal account of how he and his friends managed to shut down The Straits Times for eight days.

Offering political insight, priceless anecdotes and an account of the strike that has seldom been told, the book also gives a rare glimpse into old-school journalism, when the editor was once Wee Kim Wee, who later became Singapore’s fourth President.

Here, Mesenas answers some questions. (Quotes edited for length.)

Q. What prompted you to write the book?

A. Quite simply, it was a story that needed to be told. And at my age, the longer I put it off, the more difficult it might become. As it was, I struggled to put events in the proper chronological sequence and hopefully, with factual accuracy.

But friends, who also saw the need to tell this story, helped prod this capricious memory of mine to flesh out the details.

I hope they enjoyed the experience – and the debate over endless cups of coffee – to help me write this book. It is the collective effort of friends like Victor Ng, Yeo Toon Joo, Gerry de Silva, Jeffrey Low and, last but not least, Peter Lim.

Q. What drove the journalists to go on strike then?

A. When one is driven into a corner, one has no choice but to turn round and fight back – like a covering dog – fangs bared and snarling. I say this with tongue in cheek.

But journalists in the ’60s and ’70s were rather a downtrodden lot, drawing poor wages and working long hours to get a newspaper out. The Straits Times has always been a profitable enterprise and journalists felt they were not being fairly compensated for their efforts in helping the company make its profits.

The vendors who delivered the newspapers were treated better, we felt. They got an annual dinner hosted by the big boss himself. The printers, another downtrodden lot, felt they were no better than indentured workers. But when they got a higher bonus quantum than the journalists in 1971, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In those days, the right to strike was seen as the last resort on the part of aggrieved workers.

Workers from The Straits Times stood in the blazing sun as they began an eight-day strike on 23 December 1971 (Photo: Marshall Cavendish)

Q. There was talk the authorities made use of the SNUJ to control the paper and the media. Can you tell us more?

A. In the early ’70s, the media in Singapore was starting to shed its colonial hangover and striving to project Singapore as a newly developing country and a good place of investment for multinational corporations.

Some wise folk today say the Government saw an opportunity to hasten the process of instituting developmental journalism by helping the journalists mount a strike that in turn would hasten the dismantling of the colonial infrastructure in The Straits Times. Who knows? The journalists, including me, never had such thoughts during the strike, only the need to strive for justice and a better deal.

Q. You had encountered then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in your work. Can you share with us an anecdote of him that is not in the book?

A. I mentioned two incidents in the book – how he was very fastidious and wanted to be seen at his sartorial best, and how sycophantic grassroots leaders used to fan the air at constituency dinners to clear the remnants of my cigarette fumes just before he arrived. Other anecdotes should remain untold for the moment.

Members of the Singapore National Union of Journalists and the Singapore Printing Employees Union were part of the strike. Workers from Times House on Kim Seng Road and Times Printers on Thomson Road marched out of their offices and refused to work (Photo: Marshall Cavendish)

Q. The release of your book coincides with the recent SMRT bus drivers’ strike. What’s your take on that?

A. One, that parity of treatment of employees working under the same roof should be a cornerstone of company policy. Otherwise, unrest will result.

Two, there should be readily available avenues for resolution of disputes or brewing issues.

Three, all workers should be represented and management should understand that it is also in their interest that they talk with elected union officials to resolve issues, rather than deal ad hoc with disgruntled individuals. In this respect, management should help workers organise themselves.

Fourth, workers must be treated as human beings. Management should not forget: Treat your workers well and they will work hard with gratitude and care for the company.

Q.  Have things really improved much for journalists here since 1971?

A .Yes, the arrival of computerised operations mean that journalists can now, for example, work from home or from any desk other than the one in the office. That allows for better work-life balance, in a way.

Such connectivity can only make journalists more efficient, more productive and better able, I hope, at ferreting out the facts as quickly as possible.

Q.  There’s so much talk these days about new media reporting and new styles of journalism. Do these new approaches erode or help the practice?

A. As I said, the ability to tell things simply and clearly eludes many journalists even on the best of days. Writing is hard work, let’s make no bones about it.

There is also this fear of not wanting to offend, this need to self-censor which invariably spoils the telling of a good story.

Tell it like it is, I maintain. But write with the versatility and the diplomatic grace that comes with the confident use of the language. We have to work harder and smarter to achieve this level of proficiency. Having editors who have the courage of their convictions also helps.

More on the author:

Clement Mesenas started work at The Straits Times in 1968, rising to be its deputy chief sub-editor before he left to start his own publishing business.

In 1979, he became the managing editor of Kuwait’s leading English newspaper, Kuwait Times. He was also deputy editor of Gulf News and covered the Iraq-Iran war, the Lebanese civil war and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In 2000, he returned to Singapore and joined MediaCorp’s TODAY newspaper.

Married with four children, he retired in 2011, but still publishes community magazines and is involved in a digital media project on the Filipino diaspora.

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