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Vol. 16, No. 4: OctoberDecember 1984
Michael A. Launius - The State and Industrial Labor in South Korea
Vivian Lin - Productivity First: Japanese Management Methods in
John A. Lent - The Restructuring of Mass Media in Malaysia and
Singapore: Pounding in the Coffins Nails?
Hans Borkent - Indonesian Sketches
Jim Warren - Living on the Razors Edge: The Rickshawmen of
Singapore Between Two Wars, 19191939
Stephen Vlastos - Teaching the Vietnam War: Objectivity in the
Jon Halliday - Further Bibliography of North Korea
Richard Levy - Mao, Maoism, and China. The Foundations of Mao
Zedongs Political Thought, 19171935, by Brantley Womack; and
Cult and Canon: The Origins and Development of State Maoism, by
Helmut Martin / A Review Essay
Tom Grunfeld - La Chine: La Question des Minorites en Chine, by
Charles Le Blanc and Dennis Helly, eds. / A Review
Elly van Gelderen - West-Papua: The Obliteration of a People, by
TAPOL ed. / A Review
Elaine Kurtenbach - Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea,
19421981, by Ben Kiernan and Chanthou Boua / A Review
Tom Grunfeld - Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the CIA, by Ralph
W. McGehee / A Review
BCAS/Critical AsianStudies
CCAS Statement of Purpose
Critical Asian Studies continues to be inspired by the statement of purpose
formulated in 1969 by its parent organization, the Committee of Concerned
Asian Scholars (CCAS). CCAS ceased to exist as an organization in 1979,
but the BCAS board decided in 1993 that the CCAS Statement of Purpose
should be published in our journal at least once a year.
We first came together in opposition to the brutal aggression of
the United States in Vietnam and to the complicity or silence of
our profession with regard to that policy. Those in the field of
Asian studies bear responsibility for the consequences of their
research and the political posture of their profession. We are
concerned about the present unwillingness of specialists to speak
out against the implications of an Asian policy committed to en-
suring American domination of much of Asia. We reject the le-
gitimacy of this aim, and attempt to change this policy. We
recognize that the present structure of the profession has often
perverted scholarship and alienated many people in the field.
The Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars seeks to develop a
humane and knowledgeable understanding of Asian societies
and their efforts to maintain cultural integrity and to confront
such problems as poverty, oppression, and imperialism. We real-
ize that to be students of other peoples, we must first understand
our relations to them.
CCAS wishes to create alternatives to the prevailing trends in
scholarship on Asia, which too often spring from a parochial
cultural perspective and serve selfish interests and expansion-
ism. Our organization is designed to function as a catalyst, a
communications network for both Asian and Western scholars, a
provider of central resources for local chapters, and a commu-
nity for the development of anti-imperialist research.
Passed, 2830 March 1969
Boston, Massachusetts
Vol. 16, No. 4/0ct.-Dec., 1984
MichaelA. Launius 2 The State and Industrial Labor in South Korea
Vivian Lin 12 Productivity First: Japanese Management Methods
in Singapore
JohnA. Lent 26 Restructuring of Mass Media in Malaysia and
Singapore-Pounding in the Coffin Nails?
Hans Borkent 36 Indonesian Sketches
Jim Warren 38 Living on the Razor's Edge: The Rickshawmen of
Singapore between Two Wars, 1919-1939
Stephen Vlastos 52 Teaching the Vietnam War: Objectivity
in the Classroom?
Jon Halliday 56 Further Bibliography on North Korea
Richard Levy 58 Mao, Maoism and China; The Foundations of
MaoZedong's Political Thought, 1917-1935,
by Brantley Womack, and Cult and Canon:
The Origins and Development of-State Maoism,
by Helmut Martin/review essay
Tom Grunfeld 64 La Chine: La Question des Minorites en Chine,
by Charles Le Blanc and Denise Helly, eds.lreview
Elly van Gelderen 66 West-Papua: The Obliteration ofa People,
by TAPOL, ed.lreview
Elaine Kurtenbach 68 Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942-1981,
by Ben Kiernan and Chan thou Boua/review
Tom Grunfeld 70 Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the CIA,
by Ralph W. McGehee/review
72 List of Books To Review
Hans Borkent: INDOC, Leiden,The Netherlands John A. Lent: School of Communications, Temple University,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Tom Grunfeld: Department of History, SUNY IEmpire State
College, New York, New York
Richard Levy: Writer on China, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
Jon Halliday: Writer on Japan and Korea, London, England Vivian Lin: Transnational Corporations Research Project, Uni
versity of Sydney, Balmain, NSW, Australia
Elaine Kurtenbach: East-West Center, University of Hawaii,
Honolulu, Hawaii Elly van Gelderen: Westmount, Quebec, Canada
Michael A. Launius: Department of Political Science, College Stephen Vlastos: Department of History, University of Iowa,
of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota Iowa City, Iowa
Jim Warren: School of Social Inquiry, Murdoch University,
Murdoch, W A, Australia'
The cover illustrations and the fine drawings of Indonesia appearing
throughout this issue are by Hans Borken! 1984, Leiden, The Netherlands
The State and Industrial Labor in South Korea
by Michael A. Launius
In recent years a growing awareness has emerged in the
field of modem Korean studies of the role that the state has
played in the dramatic economic growth and social transforma
tion of South Korea. I Increasingly, the literature has come to
focus on specific strategies and policies through which the state
has pursued such developmental goals as increased industrial
production, social stability and enhanced national security.
This essay seeks to contribute to that growing body of literature
through examination of the political and economic conse
quences of state policies directed toward the industrial labor
movement, particularly organized labor represented by the
country's unions. Most studies have heretofore left out
discussion of organized labor's role in and contribution to the
Korean "economic miracle" and this study may shed some light
onto why that has been the case. *
The State in South Korea
As a newly industrializing country (NIC) and one of the
"little dragons" of East Asia (along with Taiwan, Hong Kong,
and Singapore), South Korea has adopted strategies emphasiz
ing industrial expansion and diversification, export promotion,
the introduction of advanced-level technologies and the
inducement of large-scale capital imports in an attempt to
telescope development into as short a time span as possible.
In the Korean context, these strategies have been orchestrated
by a strong and interventionist stale, one manifestly interested
* An earl ier version of this paper was presented at the 35th Annual Meeting
of the Association for Asian Studies, March 25-27, 1983 in San Francisco.
I. Han Sung-joo, "Power, Dependence, and Representation in South Korea,"
Paper presented at the APSA annual meeting, 1977; L.L. Wade and B.S.
Kim, Economic Development of South Korea: The Political Economy of
Success (New York: Praeger, 1978); Parvez Hasan and D.C. Rao, Korea:
Policylssuesfor Long-Term Development (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1979).
in carrying out a kind of political and economic revolution
from above.
The architect of this state was Park Chung-hee,
who drew his inspiration from late-industrializing countries
like Prussia, Egypt, Turkey, and especially from the example
of Meiji Japan. Park had served as an officer in the Japanese
colonial army during its occupation of Korea and northern
China and had seen with his own eyes the industrial and
infrastructural development wrought by the Japanese during
their brief tenure in Korea and Manchuria. One indication of
the impact that model made on Park was his appropriation of
the term Yushin ("revitalizing reform" from the Japanese ishin,
renovation) for his reform of Korea's political and economic
system in 1972. Yushin was to be Korea's version of the Meiji
Restoration (Ishin), the symbol of the sweeping changes from
above that facilitated Japan's rapid modernization. Under the
rubric of these Yushin reforms Park amassed sweeping powers
for the presidency. He reduced and diluted the powers of the
National Assembly, debilitated his own political party (the
Democratic Republican Party-DRP), muzzled the press, and
emasculated the labor movement-all in the name of national
stability and security.
The striking similarities between Japan of the 1930s and
Korea in the 1960s and 1970s originated in the mutual desire
to create and sustain what the Meiji Japanese referred to as
Fukoku Kyohei-Iiterally a "rich country and powerful
military."3 In the Korean context, economic and social policies
are usually designed to complement policies aimed at securing
stability and national defense. And development with stability
2. Ellen Kay Trimberger, Revolution From Above (New Brunswick:
Transaction Books, 1978).
3. Kim Jai-hyup, The Garrison State in Pre-War Japan and Post-War Korea:
A Comparative Analysis of Military Politics (Washington, D.C.: University
Press of America, 1978).
means the creation of a political system wherein the makers
of public policy can act autonomously, that is, free from the
interference and demands of non-elite classes. To borrow
Cardoso's terminology, the Korean state is a pact of
domination, an alliance or coalition of elites which exercises
hegemony over the rest of society. 4 It is essentially the
authoritarian state described by O'Donnell-comprehensive in
the scope of its authority, interventionist in society'S affairs,
penetrating in its intrusiveness, repressive in limiting political
participation, highly bureaucratized, dependent upon techno
cratic planners, and highly reliant upon foreign sources of
In short, it is a bureaucratic-authoritarian state
constituted as a coalition of the military, technocrats, civil
bureaucrats, and big business interests very much tied to foreign
economic and political supports.
In November 1979 Park Chung-hee was assassinated by
his own chief of intelligence Kim Jae-gyu who, according to
testimony given at his trial, was acting to prevent further
bloodshed and instability arising from the suppression of
student and worker protests by the Park regime. Park's
successor, Choi Kyu-ha made promises to scrap the Yushin
constitution and reform measures were underway when he was
overthrown in a coup d'etat led by general Chun Doo-hwan in
May, 1980. Chun moved quickly to quell dissent by declaring
martial law, dissolving the National Assembly, arresting
opposition politicians, dissolving political parties, and purging
government agencies, universities, and trade unions of
potential opposition. In October 1980 a new constitution was
implemented replacing the Yushin constitution of October
1972, and in March 1981 Chun was inaugurated president of
the new Fifth Republic with a single term of seven years. In
March 1981 the new (and essentially powerless) National
Assembly was elected and dominated by Chun's Democratic
Justice Party (DJP). Two "official" opposition parties also
occupy seats in the National Assembly but most Koreans
consider them to be "Sakura" parties, shams set up by the
regime to give the appearance of a viable opposition.
While differences between the Park and Chun regimes do
exist, the character and structure of the state remains
fundamentally the same. It is still a pact of domination
representing the interests of the elite classes and exercises its
authority essentially independently of constraints from civil
society. This authoritarian, elite rule has had far-reaching
consequences for Korean society as a whole as well as for one
class in particular, industrial labor.
Economic Performance
Between 1962 and 1983 the GNP of South Korea rose
from $2.3 to $75 billion. Recent optimistic projections
anticipate a GNP of $100 billion by 1988 (the year that Korea
plans to host the Olympic games) and the achievement of
advanced nation status by the end of this decade. GNP per
4. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, "On the Characterization of Authoritarian
Regimes in Latin America," in The New Authoritarianism in Latin America,
David Collier, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979). p. 38.
5. Guillermo O'Donnell, "Corporatism and the Question of the State," in
Authoritarianism and Corporatism in Latin America, James M. Malloy, ed.
(Pittsburg: Pittsburg University Press, 1977), p. 54.
capita during the period rose from $87 to $1,800.
Even during
the global economic downturn of the late I 970s and early 1980s
South Korea averaged rates of GNP growth of 5-6% per annum
and, fueled by the recent economic recovery in the advanced
industrial countries, the nation registered an impressive 9.3
percent GNP growth in 1983.
Organized industrial labor is viewed by the
state as a potential threat to the continued success
of growth and to national solidarity in
the face of the perceived military threat from
North Korea. Mechanisms for structuring and
manipulating industrial workers for state pur
poses are, therefore, quite early in the
various labor laws.
Sectoral shares of the GNP have changed significantly
with mining and manufacturing accounting for over 31 percent
in 1981 versus 16.2 percent in 1962. The growth rate of this
sector leads all others with an average annual rate of 15.5
percent from 1962 to 1981. Even more spectacularly, the value
of manufactured exports rose from $15.31 million in 1962 to
$24.4 billion in 1983.
Almost 93 percent of exports are
manufactured goods and they account for roughly one-third of
total GNP as of 1983. The roughly 50 percent of manufacturing
production which is exported is an indication of the tremendous
aggregate growth and structural transformation of the economy
fueled by labor-intensive consumer durables and heavy and
chemical industry products.
Being tightly tied to the international market means
vulnerability to fluctuations in the economies of the importing
countries, particularly Japan and the United States. When their
economies are booming, Korean exports swell, but when they
experience recession, as was the case in the late 1970s and
early 1980s, Korean exports fall and the economy as a whole
may contract. Until quite recently Korean exports were rather
sluggish, growing only 1.2 percent in 1982 ($220 million)
while the economy as a whole grew 5.4 percent.
Good harvests
and government deficit spending accounted for much of the
growth recorded in this period. While the economy rebounded
in 1983, led by increased exports to the U.S. and Middle East,
the emphasis began to shift from light industrial goods to heavy
and chemical industry products. Exports of goods in the latter
category jumped by 30 percent over 1982 totals to account for
6. Bank of Korea, Principle Economic Indicators, No.9, 1984. (Seoul: Bank
of Korea, 1984), p. 4.
7. Korea Development Institute, KDI Quarterly Economic Outlook, Spring,
1984. (Seoul, KDI, 1984). p. 4.
8. Ibid. p. 10.
9. Economic Planning Board, Major Statistics on Korean Economy: 1982
(Seoul: EPB, 1982). pp. 3-4; and Economic Planning Board, Economic
Bulletin, February 10, 1983. p. II.
over 50 percent of total manufactured exports, while exports
in the former category grew by only 1.7 percent to account for
less than 40 percent of total manufactured exports. 1(' These
figures seem to suggest that South Korea is indeed making the
transition from concentrating on light industry exports to
concentrating on heavy and chemical exports, a pledge often
made by the late president Park.
The success of this export surge has led to some
unexpected problems. Increasingly, in the United States and
Western Europe, South Korean exports are viewed as
threatening domestic industries and political pressures are
rising for protectionist measures." Concerned that they will be
made to pay the price for Japan's huge trade surplus with the
U. S. and Europe, the Koreans sent a high-powered trade
delegation to the U.S. in March 1984 to lobby for Korean
exports and negotiate contracts for the potential purchase of
$1 billion worth of U.S. goods. Led by former Prime Minister
Nam Duck-woo (currently head of the Korea Traders
Association) the mission was to convince Americans that Korea
is different from other countries, such as Japan and Taiwan.
Said Nam, "The crucial thrust is for us to maintain our share
in the U.S. market ... we depend more than anything else
on access to the international markets" in order to support South
Korea's economic health, military capabilities and to service
the foreign debt. 12 Nam went on to say:
Without exports, we cannot pay back the debt. ... So if the
United States curbs Korea's exports, that's surely against the
interest of the American banking industry, because they have the
heavy exposure in Korea.... You should have, you know, enough
of a lesson from the experience in Latin America."
Exports to the U.S. market are likely to continue to grow
considering the economic diplomacy of Dr. Nam and the entry
into the American market of such Korean products as
automobiles (both Hyundai Industries and Daewoo plan to
begin exporting cars to the U.S. within the next two years).
Sluggish exports may indeed aggravate Korea's debt
situation. Korea is the largest borrower in Asia and the world's
fourth largest debtor, with a total outstanding debt of $40 billion
as of I983-almost 60 percent of GNP. The debt-service ratio
in past years has hovered around 14 percent; 13.8 percent in
1981,15.5 percent in 1982, and 13 percent in 1983.14 Foreign
exchange and gold reserves are only about $2.3 billion so Korea
is continually pushed to keep the exports flowing in order to
earn valuable foreign exchange to service the debt. This
necessity drives Korean businesses deeper into the battle to
undercut the prices of competitors by accepting very thin profit
margins and perhaps even engaging in "dumping" practices. 15
This shaky debt situation has yet to discourage lenders,
however, due to the excellent past record of Korea in making
10. KDI, KDI Quarterly Economic Outlook, op. cit. p. II.
II. James B. Treece, "South Korea is Irked by Its Image as a Second Japan,"
in The Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly, April 23, 1984. p. 6.
12. Hobart Rowan, "Korea: Fears of a U.S. Backlash," in The Washington
Post National Weekly Edition, March 26, 1984. p. 10.
13. Ibid.
14. Business Week, December 27, 1982, p. 24; and Peter Truell, "Lending
to Asia is Expected to Slow for the Rest of 1984," in The Asian Wall Street
Journal Weekly, March 19, 1984. p. 12.
15. Ibid.
its scheduled payments.
While relatively small in comparison to foreign loans,
foreign direct investment has been important to South Korean
development. Between 1962 and 1982 over $1.4 billion in
foreign equity investment was made, the lion's share from
Japan (47.1 percent) and the U.S. (29 percent). 16 By the end
of 1983 roughly one-third of this total had been repatriated in
the form of profits or divestiture. About two-thirds of this $1.4
billion was invested in manufacturing industries (mainly
chemicals, electric, and electronics industries) and the rest in
social overhead capital projects. Ii Multinational capital has
invested in Korea primarily to take advantage of the relatively
low wages paid to skilled and disciplined workers. ,. One
foreign corporate executive in Seoul was recently ljuoted as
saying, "It is in our own sellish interest to have a strong
government that controls the ,tudellls and labor ,0 that
everything will blossom and grow and we can continue to make
profits."'" Needless to say the same could be said of Korean
businesses in the export game. Sta\l' manipulation of Industrial
labor in general and organized labor in particular has been
instrumental in keeping high wage,. strikes, collective
bargaining procedures and other "inefficiencies" from jeopard
izing export competitiveness, foreign exchange earnings, and
corporate profits, whether foreign or domestic.
The non-worker backgrounds of many
leaders, long terms of office, corrupt connections
with government officials and ruling party politi
cians, and incestuous relationships with manage
ment were so pronounced that rank and file dis
satisfaction with union leadership exploded after
the assassination of president Park in 1979.
Another practice that Korea has appropriated from the
Japanese experience is reliance upon giant general trading
companies (GTCs or chonghap sangsa in Korean) to lead the
export surge to realize maximum efficiency in penetrating and
exploiting overseas markets. These GTCs are usuaIly the
overseas marketing arms of the giant business and industrial
groups (chaebOL) which dominate Korea's domestic economy.
These chaebOL, and the men who own them (only recently has
the government pressured them towards becoming joint-stock
operations), have risen to great wealth and prominence with
the success of export-led industrialization. They are the shock
troops of the export drive and the titans of the domestic business
sector. In 1981 the annual turnover of the top thirty groups
16. Korea Herald, February 6, 1983. p. 3
17. Ibid.
18. R. Edward-Eamest Johnston, A Survey of Foreign Investment Climate in
Korea (Seoul: Korea Traders Association, 1982).
19. Far Eastern Economic Review, November 12, 1982, p. 40.
accounted for 60 percent of total GNP; Hyundai led with 8.2
percent, Sunkyong was next with 7.4 percent, and Samsung
was third with 5.7 percene
In the same year, the top 3.4
percent of business enterprises accounted for 68. I percent of
total sales whereas the combined sales of the 31 ,465
small-medium enterprises, which represented 96.6 percent of
total businesses, was only 31.9 percent, 21 The share of total
exports accruing to Korean GTCs was 43 percent in 1981, 58
percent in 1982, and 52 percent in 1983.
Political Consequences for Industrial Labor
Organized industrial labor is viewed by the state as a
potential threat to the continued success of economic growth
and to national solidarity in the face of the perceived military
threat from North Korea. Mechanisms for structuring and
manipulating industrial workers for state purposes are,
therefore, reflected quite clearly in the various labor laws. The
principle laws affecting the industrial labor movement are the
Labor Union Law, the Labor Dispute Adjustment Law, the
Labor Committee Law, the Labor Standard Law and the
Labor-Management Council Law.
The Labor Union Law is important for three reasons. First,
it is through this law that the unions are rendered dependent
upon the state for legal recognition and the right to formally
represent worker interests. The government reserves the right
to remove the leadership of any union or decertify any union
"when a union violates the law or an order concerning labor
or is considered likely to harm public benefits."24 The activist
garment workers union at the sprawling Peace Market
(Pyunghwa Sijang) located in the East Gate area of Seoul was
dissolved because the government objected to the role played
by the Urban Industrial Mission-a pro-union, Christian
organization-in its founding and operations. Likewise, in
1980 the government intervened to remove and eventually
imprison officers of the local mine workers union following a
rampage by hundreds of angry miners in the town of Sabuk in
Kangwon province's coal mining region. The miners in the
town, located about two hours East of Seoul, became enraged
over what they considered to be a "sweetheart" contract
negotiated between a corrupt union president and the mine
owners. It took the government several days to restore order
in the town.
Second, this law prevents unions from forming, cooperat
ing with or contributing money to any political party. A Labor
Party is therefore technically impossible. By way of contrast,
employer organizations, such as the Federation of Korean
Industries, the Korea Traders Association, and the Korean
Chamber of Commerce and Industry are encouraged, if not
compelled, to contribute large sums of money to political
parties (especially to "government" parties such as the
Democratic Republican Party under Park and now the
Democratic Justice Party under Chun), as are all private
20. Korea Herald, October 21, 1982. p. 6.
21. Korea Times, September 13, 1981. p. 7.
22. Korea Herald. February 6. 1983. op. cit. and Korea Herald. January 7.
1984. p. 6.
23. Ministry of Labor. Labor Laws of Korea (Seoul: MOL, 1981).
24. Ibid. p. 22.
businesses of any size. The impact of this law is to split
industrial unions from opposition political parties and leave
only government sanctioned institutions-the Ministry of
Labor, the various labor committees, and the labor-management
council system-as vehicles for the representation of worker
Third, the law has altered the organization of the union
system from one based upon the West German model of
national-level, industrial federations to one based upon
individual local unions at the plant or enterprise level. Many
union officials have expressed the opinion that this law
seriously damages the power and solidarity of the union
movement, for now rather poorly educated and inexperienced
local-level union officers must confront more skilled manage
ment representatives without the aid of professional negotiators
from the national federations (San Byul No Cho). There is no
longer industry-wide contract negotiating between representa
tives of the manufacturer's associations ofthe various industries
and union federations, as was usually the case before the Chun
regime revised the law.
For example, it had become the practice of the Federation
of Korean Textile Workers Unions to bargain in the Spring
with the Korea Spinners' Association for industry-wide wage
settlements but, with the revision of the law in late 1980, each
union local had to bargain separately with their respective plant
managements. The result was that negotiations dragged on for
months and many contracts were not settled until late Summer
or early Fall of 1981.
With all collective bargaining carried out by the union
locals, the national federations and the umbrella Federation of
Korean Trade Unions (FKTU or No Chong) have been rendered
impotent as organizers of worker interests. The labor movement
has lost potentially powerful and useful institutional bases for
class solidarity and input into the policy processes ofthe state.
Before the revision of the labor laws in 1980, the national
federations and the FKTU often served to mobilize and
manipulate industrial workers within a framework of
sanctioned, coopted and ineffectual activities. The organization
of worker interests within such institutions had the dual
advantages for the regime of regulating union activities while
projecting an image of support for a modem, albeit paternal,
system of labor organization. One student of Korea's industrial
relations has noted that the FK.TU tended to be
a symbol of potential union power in society and politics ...
largely a prestige image for the few unionists who have made it
to the top. Likewise. one may find traces that the Federation also
functions as a channel through which potential control from above
can maintain paternal direction over the largest single organization
in society. 25
In addition, abuse of office by union officials has been a
real problem at all levels, but especially within the FKTU and
national federations.'" The non-worker backgrounds of many
leaders, long terms of office, corrupt connections with
25. Park Young-ki, Labor and Industrial Relations in Korea: System and
Practice (Seoul: Institute for Labor and Management. Sogang University Press,
1979). p. 50.
26. Cho Suk-choon. "The Korean Labor Union Organizations and the
Administration of Labor Affairs," in the Korean Journal of Public
Administration, vol. 20. no. 2, 1982.
government officials and ruling party politicians, and incestuous
relationships with management were so pronounced that rank
and file dissatisfaction with union leadership exploded after the
assassination of president Park in 1979.
With the imposition of martial law in May 1980, thousands
of union members, both officers and rank and file, were purged
from their organizations. This included senior officers of the
FKTU and most of the presidents of the then 16 national
federations. The most activist and independent officers were
sent to rectification camps operated by the military where their
thinking was purified by liberal doses of calisthenics. One such
man, the ex-president of a Seoul chemical workers local, stated
that "The government always says that we are communists just
because we try to get our rights. We're not communists. We
don't have any sympathy for North Korea. All we want is
justice and the chance to live a decent life. "28 He, and others
like him, are barred from holding union office in the future.
Those who cooperate with the state, however, may benefit
handsomely. For instance, the president of the FKTU at the
time of the military's coup d'etat, Chung Han-joo, was
promoted eventually to the position of Minister of Labor.
Labor disputes not settled through the
sanctioned committee system are often handled
by more formidable institutions for inducing
compliance like the National Police, the Agency
for National Security Planning (ANSP
formally the Korean Central Intelligence
Agency, KCIA), as well as thugs hired by the
management to intimidate workers.
The revisions of the Labor Union Law by the Chun regime
which have reduced the role of the FKTU and the national
federations indicate a certain ambivalence over the utility of
these organizations as vehicles for controlling or coopting the
industrial labor movement. At the close of the Park era these
organizations were increasingly the targets of constituent
dissatisfaction. During the short five-month interval between
the collapse of the Park regime and the assumption of power
by the Chun government, it seemed as if reform-minded leaders
close to the rank and file might be able to take over the FKTU
and most, if not all, of the 16 national federations. In the hands
of leaders responsive to the interests and demands of their
memberships, these federations could have been crucial in
mobilizing labor's support behind a new politics in South
Korea. For example, their support of the New Democratic Party
(NDP) and such opposition leaders as Kim Dae-jung or Kim
Young-sam (which seems likely) could have helped to dissolve
the bureaucratic-authoritarian system in favor of something
more progressive and democratically open. The Chun govern
ment therefore seems content to leave these national Federations
in limbo for the time being, neither strengthened nor abolished.
They are capable of being resuscitated if found necessary for
future purposes.
The Labor Dispute Adjustment Law essentially makes the
worker's ultimate weapon-the strike-illegal, and prescribes
lengthy procedures for government conciliation and mediation
of disputes. These procedures make it very time-consuming
and costly for workers to down tools. Its most recent revision
prohibits interference by third parties in union affairs. The law
states that "persons other than an employee who has actual
employment relations with the employer, or persons other than
having legitimate authority under law, shall not engage in an
act of interference, in a dispute, for the purpose of
manipUlating, instigating, or any other act to influence the
parties concerned. "29 This prohibits linkages between workers
and student groups or activist church organizations like the
Urban Industrial Mission or the Young Christian Workers.
Such a prohibition reflects the government's effort to
stamp out the influence of activist Christian groups, especially
the UIM. It represents yet another example of the state's efforts
to isolate labor interests by prohibiting the formation of
coalitions that cut across the fabric of Korean society. Having
isolated as well weakened organized labor, the state has gone
on to create avenues through which labor interests must be
channeled. The representation of worker interests thus becomes
dependent upon the largesse of institutions created and
manipulated by the state.
The Labor Committee Law and the Labor-Management
Council Law promote the cooptation of labor interests into
mechanisms controlled by the state. The Labor Committee Law
establishes a hierarchical series of provincial and special-city
(Seoul, Pusan, and Taegu) committees subordinate to a national
committee in the nation's capital. These are "tripartite" panels
with equal numbers of representatives from management,
labor, and the public interest (that is, the government). They
provide a venue for the conciliation or mediation of labor
disputes which cannot be settled through plant-level negotia
tions. Obviously, the crucial swing vote is exercised by the
so-called public-interest representatives appointed by the
government. While the rulings of these committees sometimes
support the union's position, the important point is the degree
to which the unions are dependent upon the goodwill of the
government for the advancement of their interests.
Labor disputes not settled through the sanctioned commit
tee system are often handled by more institutions
for inducing compliance like the National Police, the Agency
for National Security Planning (ANSP-formally the Korean
Central Intelligence Agency, KCIA), as well as thugs hired by
the management to intimidate workers. Official statistics
concerning labor disputes purport to show that such incidents
have declined with the revision of the law-from 407 in 1980,
to 186 in 1981, to only 57 in 1982.30 These figures are suspect,
for on October 3, 1980 the Korea Times reported that 897 labor
disputes had occurred in the first five months of 1980 alone,
more than twice the 427 recorded in all of 1979.
' Many people
29. MOL, lAbor lAws of Korea, op. cit. p. 35.
27. Korea Times, May 10 & 14, 1980. 30. The Far Eastern Economic Review, October 29, 1982, p. 17.
28. Personal interview with union activist in Seoul, July 1981. 31. Korea Times, October 3, 1980, p. 6.
knowledgeable about labor affairs in South Korea admit that
disputes, including illegal strikes, often go unreported and
unrecorded in the controlled media and official publications.
One officer at a government-funded labor welfare agency
admitted that "there are dozens of strikes going on right now
[early 1981] that you will never hear about because the
government doesn't want you to."32
Sanctions directed against unionists who defy government
restrictions are often harsh. In 1978 four union officials
including a vice-president and a general secretary of the textile
workers national federation were arrested and jailed following
demonstrations at the Kukje Weaving Company protesting
unfair labor practices and the rigging of local union elections.
In August 1979, a public demonstration and sit-in by women
workers of the Y. H. Company, an exporter of wigs, was broken
up by police, resulting in many injuries, the jailing of several
of the young women, and the death of another. This incident
contributed greatly to student and worker protests which
culminated in the downfall of the Park regime later that year.
In April 1980, the estimated 3500 coal miners at Sabuk,
Kangwon province, angered by the sweetheart contract
negotiated by their local president rioted and took over the
town for several days. The leaders of the takeover were arrested
andjailed. Within weeks, the military declared martial law and
the interim government of president Choi Kyu-ha was
In August 1980, the newly installed Chun regime purged
the presidents of 11 of the national federations as well as an
FKTU vice-president on charges of corruption and replaced
them with handpicked successors. In February 1981, 11
garment workers from the Peace Market (Pyunghwa Sijang)
complex in Seoul were arrested and jailed for staging an illegal
sit-in demonstration at the offices of the Asian-American Free
Labor Institute (an AFL-CIO funded group) to protests the
government's decertification of their union.
In 1982 job
actions against both the foreign-owned Control Data/Korea
Company and the domestically-owned Wounpoong Industrial
Company resulted in the dismissal, beating, and arrest of
hundreds of male and female workers. In the Control
DatalKorea case The Far Eastern Economic Review noted that
"the government does not want trade unionism to be a factor
which could discourage future foreign investors."34 Control
Data closed its operation in Korea. In the Wounpoong case
about 650 workers, mostly female, were staging a sit-in to
protest against layoffs and the mistreatment of women union
officers by company-hired thugs. According to one source,
At 6 p.m. on the third day, plain-clothes policemen were sent in
on the pretext of evacuating those workers who had collapsed.
About 250 workers were dragged out of the factory. Fifty-eight
of them were taken to a hospital with injuries incurred during the
confrontation, which took place while uniformed police stood by.
The next day the remaining workers were forced out by tear gas. 35
Examples of management and government collusion in such
32. Personal interview with an official ofthe Korea Labor Welfare Corporation
in Seoul, November 980.
33. Korea Times, February 6, 1981, p. 8.
34. Far Eastern Economic Review, October 29, 1982, op. cit.
35. Ibid.
disciplining of labor unions are legion.
The most controversial piece of legislation controlling or
manipulating industrial labor is the new Labor-Management
Council Law, which requires all places of business to establish
councils made up of an equal number of representatives from
labor and management. The stated goal is to "seek peace in
industry and make a contribution to the development of the
national economy" through cooperation and understanding
between employer and employee.
Such councils, located in
each plant, are to confer on all matters except wages, but
unionists are suspicious that they will not limit themselves to
non-wage matters. Critics charge that the councils are really
intended to supplant the unions where they already exist and
inhibit their founding in plants without unions. It should be
noted that most of the big chaebOL firms are not unionized.
The council system fits in nicely with elite notions of
proper labor-management relations. Recently, the head of the
Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry was quoted as
saying, "In Korean management, superiors strive to be fair and
good to their subordinates while subordinates express loyalty
to their superiors regardless of reward. . . . This implies that
the ties between management and labor are like family
relationships, not so-called 'labor contracts.' "37 And in
February 1983, the Minister of Labor addressed a joint meeting
of union and management officials at which he
told the meeting that productive and cooperative labor-management
relations should become the driving force for the country's second
economic take-off and the foundation for a "great, advanced
Korea." The nation's chief policymaker in labor affairs said that
both labor and management should fulfill their responsibility before
advocating their rights. "Mutual trust and respect should become
the basis for cooperative ... relations. Productive labor-manage
ment relations will be helpful not only for the individual
development but also for the prosperity of the nation as a whole. "38
Management that conceives of its employees as its subordinate
children is unlikely to treat them as legitimate equals at the
council table. Likewise, a government that values responsibility
over rights is unlikely to allow the council system to tilt too
much in favor of worker interests if that is seen as jeopardizing
the competitiveness of Korean exports and the economic
success of the nation as a whole. In addition, workers aware
of the government's disposition toward cooperation and
stability as well as government propensities to intervene on
behalf of management interests are unlikely to believe that they
can effectively achieve their goals through the council system.
Following the revision of the labor laws in 1980, union
membership dropped precipitously from a peak of 1,119,572
as of July 1980, to 922,317 by the end of February 1981-a
decline of over 197,000 members or 17 percent. Federations
losing the most membership were the Automobile and
Transport Workers (80,000), the Seamens' (54,000), and the
Chemical Workers (13,000).39 Since many firms in these
36. MOL, Labor Laws of Korea, op. cit. p. 5.
37. Korea Herald, January 13, 1983. p. S.
38. Korea Herald, February I, 1983. p. 3.
39. Federation of Korean Trade Unions, Activities Report: 1980 (&lop Pogo:
1980), (Seoul: FKTU, 1981) p. 316; and FKTU, "Outline of the FKTU," an
unpublished briefing document (May 28, 1981).
industries are small, enterprise-level unions are essentially
unworkable. In a context where small unions are prohibited
from negotiating industry-wide contracts, union membership
carries with it few benefits.
This decline also reflects a profound demoralization of
union memberships that accompanied the implementation of
the Chun regime's labor policies. Most reform-minded and
progressive union officers, as well as rank and file members,
felt frustrated and disillusioned. Many dedicated and earnest
people have left the unions and many who remain can
accomplish little without cultivating the goodwill of bureau
crats, the security agencies, and the politicians of the ruling
Democratic Justice Party.
Many outside of the formal union movement, those in
religious or student organizations, are also discouraged by the
current situation. One long-time Korea resident and labor
advocate recently told me, "With the crack-down at the
Wounpoong plant, the government has destroyed the last
independent union in Korea."4O If that is so, then the
suppression of organized industrial labor is virtually complete.
Material Consequences
Large and rapid increases in GNP have been accompanied
by growing inequality in the distribution of income. Table 1
displays the slippage of the GINI index during the period of
most dramatic GNP growth and increase in the industrial
workforce-1965-1980. In fact, the GINI index probably
Table 1
Distribution of Household Income, 1965-1980
Income Group 1965 1970 1976 1980
Bottom 40% 19.34 19.63 16.85 16.06
Top 20% 41.81 41.62 45.34 45.39
GINIIndex .344 .332 .381 .389
Sources: Choo, Hakchung and Kim, Daemo, "Probable Size Distribution of
Income in Korea: Over Time and by Sectors" (Seoul: Korea Develop
ment Institute, 1978) for 1965-1976 data; Economic Planning Board,
SociallndicatorsofKorea, 1981. (Seoul: EPB, 1981) for 1980data.
understates the unequal distribution of income and wealth since
government statistics omit wealthy households" and it is
generally perceived that corporate incomes are higher than
reported and that profits from real estate speculation and
kerb-market lending usually evade recording and taxation. The
profits from this often illegal and therefore "hidden" economy
40. Personal correspondence with foreign-resident labor activist in Seoul,
December 1982.
accrue primarily to the upper and middle classes, skewing the
de facto distribution of wealth heavily in their favor. The Chang
Young-ja scandal involving over $900 million in kerb-market
loans to several large corporations in 1982 and the controversies
surrounding the troubles of the Myungsung and Hyosung
business groups in 1983 are indicative of the significance of
this hidden economy. It has been estimated that the kerb-market
accounts for as much as 33 percent of total commercial loans
in the Korean economy. In short, there "is evidence that South
Korean society is becoming more unequal. As company profits
have increased during the 1970s, those in the higher levels of
business appear to have benefited disproportionately. "42
Such growing inequality has not gone unnoticed by
workers. One unionist noted that as workers "witnessed the
rapid industrial development of the nation during the 1970s,
their endurance came to an end. A quiet change of opinion
spread among laborers: poverty is not our destiny and society
should be held responsible for it. "43 She went on to say,
now was the time when balanced distribution of wealth between
employers and employees should be carried out in all fairness amid
social efforts to erase the absurdities of the past. Over the last
decade, industries were one-sidedly encouraged with various
administrative favors by the government while laborers were forced
to reserve their right for the economic development of the nation. 44
Shortly after this statement appeared in the press, the military
seized power and subsequent censorship prohibited the
circulation of such opinions. And while the Chun regime
evinces greater interest in promoting growth with equity, a
noted economist with an intimate knowledge of Korean
economic and social affairs has posited that such incremental
attempts at redistribution probably will not work without basic
structural change in the political economy. 45
In 1980, the International Labor Organization (ILO) found
that Koreans worked the longest hours per week of any nation
surveyed-men employed in industry 52.8 hours and women
Yet, a study by Sogang University's Institute for Labor
and Management found that "80% of wage earners are below
the tax exemption point. Even according to a Korea
Development Institute [KDI] survey, in 1980 the [monthly]
minimum cost of living [for a family of five] was 270,000
won, while 30% of wage earners received less than 70,000
won, 56.1 % less than 200,000 won."47 Controlling for inflation
(23.3 percent in 1981 and 6 percent in 1982), KDI estimated
that the minimum income necessary for a family of five would
rise to 355,000 won, but the statistics ofthe Ministry of Labor
show that the average monthly income of the industrial worker
stood at 245,981 as of March 1983.
The FKTU conducted
its own survey in 1982 and reported that the minimum necessary
income for a family of 4.4 members was 431,130 won, while
42. South magazine, October, 1982. p. 29.
43. Korea Times, April 30, 1980, p. 3.
44. Ibid.
45. Irma Adelman and Sherman Robinson, Income Distribution Policy in
Developing Countries: The Case ofKorea (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
46. Hankook llbo (Hawaii Edition), February 4, 1982. p. 1.
41. Choi Sung-iI, "South Korea Under Park Chung Hee: Development or
47. Lee Kyu-chang, Survey and Analysis ofCollective Bargaining Agreements
Decay?" a review essay in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Vol.
(Seoul: Sogang University Press, 1980). p. 103.
15, No.2, 1983, p. 71. 48. Korea Herald, December 14, 1982, p. 3, and March 22, 1983, p. 5.
the average wages paid to its membership was 247,759 won.
In February 1983, the Korea Herald quoted figures from a
1981 KDI-Economic Planning Board survey stating that
wages paid to workers in the manufacturing sector averaged
209,641, the lowest of any economic sector. After 20 years of
the economic miracle and the doubling of real industrial
incomes, the average worker cannot support a family on a
single income.
Table 2
Average Monthly Wage in
Selected Industries-1980
Industry (inwon)* Days Hours
Coal Mining 215,480 24.6 175.1
Textiles 121,193 25.6 239.7
Wearing Apparel 97,489 24.0 242.6
Wood Products 142,732 24.7 235.4
Chemicals 174,932 24.8 228.7
Iron & Steel 203,130 25.2 239.5
Machinery 180,274 24.1 221.2
* (630 won=$1)
Source: Ministry of Labor. Yearbook of Labor Statistics. 1981 (Seoul: MOL.
1981), pp. 135-160.
This is not because the Korean worker is unproductive.
When increases in labor productivity are compared to increases
in real wages, labor productivity between 1971 and 1981 rose
at the average annual rate of II. 12 percent while real wages
rose at a rate of 7.81 percent. Even during the recession of
1980-81, a period when real wages fell, labor productivity
recorded impressive gains. 50 In order to promote corporate
profitability, wage increases have been systematically held far
below productivity increases. It is also noteworthy that at a
time of rapid wage increases, Korea's export surge was
continuing unabated. This suggests that rising wages in and of
themselves do not necessarily damage export performance so
much as the profit margins of Korean firms (often notoriously
slim). Wage suppression allows greater accumulation of
surplus profits to accrue to management, which may then
reinvest in plant expansion, payout dividends, or "donate"
large sums to the Democratic Justice Party or the national
government for defense or public interest programs. Such
allocations are more in line with the goals of the bureaucratic
authoritarian state than the enrichment of the working class.
Table 3
Comparative Increase in Labor Productivity
and Real Wages, 1971-1981
Year Labor Productivity Real Wages
1971 9.7 2.4
1972 8.7 2.0
1973 8.8 14.3
1974 11.4 8.8
1975 11.6 1.4
1976 7.5 16.8
1977 10.4 21.5
1978 12.0 17.4
1979 15.8 8.4
1980 10.7 -4.7
1981 15.8 -2.6
Source: Economic Planning Board, Major Statistics ofKorean Economy. 1982
(Seoul: EPB. 1982). p. 175.
Wage increases have been tempered by the effects of
inflation. Inflation averaged II. 2 percent between 1968 and
1973, 18.5 percent between 1974 and 1980, 23 percent in
1981, and 6 percent in 1982.
The projected inflation rate for
1983 was between 8- 10 percent, while wage increases were
officially held to around 6 percent. While wages have trailed
inflation, they can of course at times contribute to it. In the
Korean case, high rates of inflation have been more a product
of increased factor and commodity prices for imports, inflation
in the advanced industrial countries, and the Korean govern
ment's overstimulation of growth, than rising labor costs.
State policies toward industrial labor also sustain, if not
aggravate, traditional inequalities in Korean society. One
example is the wage disparity between male and female workers
in the manufacturing sector-a disparity that mirrors economic
inequalities across the whole of Korean society. Women
comprise about 50 percent of the industrial workforce and often
account for a much higher percentage in certain industries
(textiles, electronics, and chemicals) as well as in certain
geographic locations (for example, the Kuro and Kumi
industrial estates) where they may constitute 70 percent or more
of the workforce. These mostly young female workers tend to
be paid far less than their male counterparts. In 1978, a year
when the average wage in the manufacturing sector was 88,000
won per month, a survey of women workers at the Kuro and
Kumi industrial estates (the two largest in Korea) found the
average woman worker's wage to be 55,906 won, an amount
corresponding to just 57 percent of the average worker's
49. Hankook llbo (Hawaii edition). February 16. 1983. p. 1.
50. EPB. Major Statistics. op. cit. p. 175. 51. Far Eastern Economic Review. December 10. 1982. p. 68.
monthly household income for 1978.
The surveyor's conclu
sion was that "female labor takes on the characteristics of
short-term economic activity of a family income complemen
tary nature. At the present level of their wages, there is no
way their family financial needs can be met. "53
Yet, it is precisely these women who are crucial to the
country's export-led development strategy. Fortune magazine
recently noted that as Korea moves to challenge Japan's
position in international trade,
The competition should be interesting, pitting advanced technology
against low wages. By Japanese standards Korean production
methods are primitive. At Matsushita's three-year old VCR [video
recorder] plant in Osaka, robots do 80% of the work. At Samsung's
VCR plant in Suwon, only three months old, the work is done by
young women whose small incomes are supplemented by [U.S.]
ten-cent meals at the company cafeteria and free lodging in the
company dormitories.
Whether Samsung's women can outperform Matsushita's
robots will depend largely on Samsung's ability to keep their wages
in check."
Holding wages in check is all too often done by the busting
of unions at such places as the Peace Market, Wounpoong,
and Control Data/Korea, where the memberships are over
whelmingly female. It should also be noted that it has been
these young women workers who have led the labor
movement's struggle against exploitation in Korea. The Y.H.,
Control Data/Korea, and Wounpoong incidents all verify this
Sadly enough, many Koreans call these young women
who are in manufacturing industries "Kong Soonie." (Soonie
is a common name amongst country girls and "Kong" is derived
form the Sino-Korean character for labor; in other words
"Soonie the Worker" -a Korean version of America's "Rosie
the Riveter.") This term reflects the rural peasant origins of
most of these young women as well as the fact that most of
Korean society looks down upon them. This is unfair and ironic
in that it is these women who are, in great part, responsible
for the Korean economic miracle.
The material consequences of the Korean model of
development thus appear to be increased ineqUality of income
and wealth in addition to artificially low incomes for industrial
workers. What improvement for workers has occurred has been
more the result of government largesse at times of high inflation
than of the organized power of working-class organizations
such as unions. The unions' subordination to and dependency
upon the state result in both political and economic disadvan
tages for Korean workers.
Understanding the role of the state and the context within
which policy is made contributes toward a realization of why
52. Un Cho and Hagen Koo, "Economic Development and Women's Work
in a Newly Industrializing Country: The Case of Korea," in Development and
Change, Vol. 14, 1983; and Sun Joo Oh, "The Living Conditions of Female
Workers in Korea: Centering Around the Kuro and Kumi Industrial
Complexes," in Korea Observer, Vol. XIV, No.2, Summer, 1982. p. 194.
53. Sun Joo Oh, op. cit.
54. Lee Smith, "Korea's Challenge to Japan," in Fortune, February 6, 1984.
certain policies have certain consequences for specific classes
in Korean society. In Korea the policy process is not an open
one and the labor policy has always been particularly sensitive
and closed. The heavy controls placed upon labor and unions
by the emergency decrees of the Park regime have been revised
and strengthened under Chun's Fifth Republic. This revision
was carried out under the auspices of a special committee of
the Legislative Council, a hand-picked body of societal
"representatives" which succeeded the military-dominated
Special Committee for National Security Matters (SCNSM or
Kuk Po Oui) in 1980. This committee was charged with
revising the labor laws, but its five members consisted of an
economics professor (a former Park-appointed congressman),
the president of the FKTU (afterward appointed Minister of
Labor by president Chun), a provincial newspaper publisher,
an official of the Sungkyunkwan (a Confucian studies
institution affiliated with the Samsung industrial group), and a
former committee . chairman of the SCNSM. In reality this
committee merely approved revisions already worked out by
the technocrats and security advisors of the new president's
staff in the executive mansion. The special committee and the
Legislative Council did not so much make policy as lend an
aura of legitimacy and an illusion of societal input to policies
originating at the highest levels of the new regime.
All of the "legislation" produced by the Legislative council
was put into effect before the new National Assembly was
elected in 1981. And the new legislators were prohibited from
rejecting any of the laws produced by the Legislative Council.
Such was the process that produced the current laws.
Not all of the problems of the industrial labor movement
can be attributed to non-labor sources. One labor activist once
told me that "the problem with the labor union movement is
the unions themselves. "55 He was referring to the co-opted,
corrupt and ill-advised ways in which organized industrial labor
has tended to operate in recent times. He may have been
blaming the victim in this case, for the problem lies not so
much in what the unions have made of themselves, but what
the state has made of the unions. The state has, through its
policy of repression and manipulation, produced the kind of
system that it desires-one which is disciplined and productive
without endangering stability, social order, and the national
The state elites believe that a free and independent labor
movement would constitute a threat to the established social
order. They are probably correct, for as long as it remains
repressed and frustrated it will continue-as the events of
1979-80 have demonstrated-to be a volatile force in Korean
society. But this will be because of the state's policies, not in
spite of them. *
55. Personal interview with labor union activist in Seoul, August 1981.
Howard N. Higginbotham
Culture Learning Institute/East- West Center
Are Western therapeutic methods sufficiently sensitive to These and other questions are answered in this comprehen
Asian cultures? Do socioeconomic barriers limit the feasi sive study of the mental health systems of Taiwan, Thai
bility of psychiatry's full development in Southeast Asia? land, and the Philippines. $25.00, paper
Michael P. Hamnett, Amarjit Singh, Douglas]. Porter, and Krishna Kumar
Culture Learning Institute/East-- West Center
This pioneer study examines the process and ethics of authors explore an alternative approach that is integrative
cross-national social-science research, especially as it in and consistent through all levels of concern-ideological,
volves scholars from Western industrialized countries and theoretical, and practical. $15.00, paper
their collaborators and subjects from the Third World. The
Productivity First: Japanese Management
Methods in Singapore
by Vivian Lin
National development strategies in many Third-World
countries in recent years have tended to emphasize a number
of Japanese-pioneered patterns, among them management
methods and export-oriented industrialization. Both have been
seen as crucial to Japan's rise as an industrial power; and,
during the past decade, export-oriented industrialization has
been behind the rise of the Asian "Gang of Four"-South
Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore.
The recent surge of interest in the theory and practice of
Japanese management comes from all comers of the capitalist
world: corporations aiming for higher productivity, labor wish
ing for life-time job security, governments interested in consul
tative processes, radicals advocating greater workplace partici
pation, and liberals desiring more enlightened corporations.
Several academic and popular works on Japanese management
have all become paper-back best-sellers.'
Admiration for Japanese management methods, which are
often viewed as a coherent if not monolithic system, exists for
a variety of reasons. The job security conferred by life-time
employment is often cited, as is the company loyalty that this
apparently produces. Furthermore, the conventional wisdom is
that Japan has become a strong competitor with other advanced
industrialized countries largely because of high productivity
and better product quality produced by Japanese management
methods. In short, those management methods have been re
sponsible for Japan's post-war economic "miracle." Many
countries, both industrialized and developing, are promoting
Japanese management methods as a central element in national
I. See, for instance, Theory Z by William Ouchi and The Art of Japanese
Management by Richard Pascale and Anthony Athos.
development strategies. 2
Japanese management methods and export-oriented indus
trialization (EO!) together are seen by governments and inter
national organizations as a model of national development that
benefits governments, corporations, and workers. However,
the supposed worker welfare orientation of the Japanese man
agement system, either in Japan or within the context of EOI,
is not universally accepted. 3
2. Hideo Inohara, "Japanese Personnel Management in Europe," Euro-Asia
Business Review, 2, 2, 1983, pp. 7-10.
3. Controversy around Japanese management theory has been largely directed
at its appropriateness for other cultures. The recent survey in Euro-Asia
Business Review exemplifies the discussion on the cultural conflicts of Japanese
firms operating in western countries. [Hideo Inohara, op. cit. I However,
detailed critical studies in the English language on how the workers within
that system fare are still limited, especially with regards to the impact on
workers' health. Anecdotal evidence ["Report on the Japanese 'Miracle':
Working Conditions of the Toyota Factory ," International Journal of Health
Services, 11,3,1981, pp. 471-472; Tse, Christina, Letters toa Friend, Centre
for the Progress of Peoples, Hong Kong, 1982] has shown that workplace
paternalism in Japan is highly authoritarian and controlling, that participation
is a myth, and that workers are under constant, if subtle, pressure to perform
and produce to their physical and mental limits. Personal accounts from
Japanese workers reveal the harassment and pressure by management and
union officials that lie behind the apparently harmonious relationship. These
accounts also show the dehumanization of labor under conditions of high
efficiency and rationalization in production. [Azuma Yoshiji, "Nissan
Worker's Diary: The Kangaroo Courts," AMPO, 13, 2, 1981, pp. 52-55;
Yamaka Junko, "Beyond Despair: One Autoworker's Season in Hell," AMPO,
13, I, 1981, pp. 54-59.) One seminal study on the labor process in Japanese
firms shows that, in fact, the system is bureaucratic and hierarchical, with
women wage laborers firmly at the bottom. [Wendy Smith, "The Impact of
Japanese Foreign Investment and Management Style on Women Industrial
Workers in Malaysia," paper presented at Conference on Women in the Urban
and Industrial Workers in Malaysia," paper presented at Conference on Women
In this article Japanese management methods used in a
Japanese assembly finn in Singapore are examined in tenns of
their impact on workers' well-being. specifically their health.
The relationship between management methods and health is
studied in the context of a country which is not only an example
par excellence of export-oriented industrialization but also one
that is a leading proponent of Japanese management strategies.
It might be expected that health would be accorded a high
priority in any system that claims to place emphasis on worker
welfare. for health is fundamental not only to well-being but
also to productivity. The health of the workforce and the occu
pational health practices at the workplace. then, provide insights
into the reality of a management system, as well as into the
larger socio-economic structure of society. The present
exploratory study seeks to provide such insights and to stimulate
further research.
This study looks at the off-shore TV assembly plant in
Singapore of one Japanese electronics company. The data
comes from responses to a structured, close-ended survey ques
tionnaire of a 20 percent snowball sample ofthe 130 production
workers at the plant. S In-depth interviews were also conducted
with workers regarding management practices as well as health
and safety conditions and concerns. The survey was bilingual
(English/Chinese, English/Malay) and included questions on
sociodemographic characteristics, workplace environment, job
design, health services utilization and preferences, symptomatic
complaintS (both physical and psychological), and lifestyles.
Nearly all questions were factual. Workers completed the sur
vey in their own time.
Due to the nature of the sampling and the fact that only
one finn in the industry was surveyed, the study can be no
more than exploratory. 6 Although the results discussed here
in the Urban and Industrial Workforce in Asia. Manila. 1982.] Another
collection of articles has shown that life and work in life in Japan are far from
the c1ich6s of groupism and lifetime employment. [David Plath, (ed.>, Work
and Lifecourse in Japan, SUNY Press, Albany, 1983.] Empirical studies of
the true impact of these management strategies in Japan are limited, to say
nothing of the effects of their transplantation to other areas.
4. Recent studies on the health effects of social networks [L.F. Berkman and
S.L. Syme, "Social Networks, Host Resistance, and Mortality: A Nine-Year
Follow-Up Study of Alameda County Residents," American Journal of
Epidemiology, 109, 2, 1979; B.H. Kaplan, J. Cassel, and S. Gore, "Social
Support and Health," Medical Care (Supplement), IS, 5, 1977] and of
unemployment [Harvey Brenner, Estimating the Social Costs of National
Economic Policy, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1976;
S. Cobb and S.V. Kasl, The Consequences of Job Loss, DHEW (NIOSH)
Publication No. ;77-224, 1977] seem to suggest that the Japanese management
system may in fact pmrnote health. Yet the critical studies cited above reveal
the work environment to be quite stressful as well. In the race for growth and
productivity, accidents are the results of labor intensity rather than carelessness,
and ill workers are made to press on with work rather than rest. [Yamaka
Junko, op. cit.] This study pmvides further empirical evidence relating
ill-health to the organization of work.
5. The study was initiated after workers from the factory so requested. The
contact was made at a community center. While the sample pmbably does not
include those who speak on behalf of management, it is unlikely that the
sample is limited to a single clique insofar as the sample covered different
production lines, different ethnic groups, as well as 20 percent of the workers.
Because the workers were quite unaware of potential occupational hazards, it
is, furthermore, unlikely that they would have given answers in a deliberate
manner intended to create findings.
6. The author was gathering data on semiconductor workers in Singapore
and Malaysia when the present study was commissioned. Because the
are largely descriptive, the interpretation of the data was aided
by access to several of the tapes of management lectures to
Because of the sensitive nature of the research, it
was not possible to obtain a tour of the plant, interviews with
management, or access to company records.
Workers say job stress at Company Z is
experienced in many ways, including production
quotas and factory discipline. Above all else they
identify as the sources of stress the constant em
phasis on productivity, the condescending and
paternalistic attitudes of management, and pres
sures, both subtle and authoritarian, to conform
to desired behavior.
The Context: Export-Oriented
Industrialization in Singapore
International organizations and developing countries
which are searching for solutions to the problems of economic
development have given much attention to EO!. 8 It has been
claimed that the proliferation of labor-intensive factories pro
ducing for the world-market in the four Asian "economic mira
cle" nations is responsible for their growth in GNP, rise in
standard of living, decline in infant mortality, and relatively
low unemployment rates.
Because of the dominance of the
electronics industry in the manufacturing sectors of those coun
tries, the development of that industry has been promoted as
the centerpiece of any industrialization strategy. Singapore is
considered to be a prime example of successful EO!.
An island at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula, Singapore
was historically a trading post and was settled by waves of
immigrants and traders. Its status as an entrepot during British
colonial rule meant that. while its commercial and service sector
infrastructure was well developed, there was very little manu
facturing at the time of self-government in 1959. When it
became an independent city-state in 1965 and the British bases
were closed, the ruling party, People's Action Party (PAP),
found itself governing a territory with an unbalanced economic
structure and a politically restless population with an unemploy
manufacturing process is central to occupational health, the other firms (a total
of 900 workers) in the larger study cannot be used in conjunction. Since data
analysis is not yet complete for the larger study, the present survey must
necessarily stand alone. While Singapore government has conducted one
morbidity survey in 1977 and publishes annual health statistics, the detail
reported here does not exist in the national statistics which are at a high level
of aggregation.
7. A worker-informant was able to record the weekly lectures given by
management to the entire assembly of workers. The tapes made available to
the researcher provides first-hand knowledge of the management process.
8. Eddy Lee, (ed.), Export-Led Industrialization and Development, Interna
tional Labor OrganizationlARTEP, Bangkok, 1981.
9. Peter Chen, (ed.>, Singapore Development Policies and Trends, Oxford
University Press, Singapore, 1983.
Table 1
Union Membership and Work Stoppages
in Singapore, 1962-71
Union Work Days
Year Unions Membership Stoppages Lost
1962 122 189,000 88 165,100
1966 108 141,900 14 44,700
1971 100 124,350 2 5,500
ment rate of over 10 percent. Realizing that the economy lacked
natural resources, the Singaporean leaders embarked upon a
policy of EOI, based on direct foreign investment in labor-in
tensive industries. From the viewpoint of PAP leaders, the
rationale was simple and logical. Singapore had no hinterland
and few resources besides its people, many of whom were
unemployed workers and politically active. At the same time,
Singapore was a long-time free port, with good infrastructure
and service facilities. If transnational corporations (TNCs)
could be attracted, they would provide instant jobs, access to
world markets, and bring in new technology as well as manage
ment know-how. To implement such a strategy successfully
required consolidation of political power, which, in tum, meant
both an effective industrial-bureaucratic network and a range
of social programs.
Central to the industrialization program was the creation
of the Economic Development Board, which provided financial
and technical services to foreign investors. The Pioneer Indus
tries Ordinance and the Economic Expansion Incentives Act
provided a host of tax holidays and other financial incentives
for investors. Jurong Town Corporation was set up in 1968 to
develop industrial estates and associated facilities and to operate
the shipyards. The Development Bank of Singapore was set
up also in 1968.
Labor was also forced to make its contribution to the
favorable investment climate. Between the amendments to the
Employment and Industrial Relations Act (1968) and active
political suppression ("Operation Cold Storage"), the left
leadership and the labor unions were brought under control.
The Ministry of Labor statistics, in Table 1, show the decline
of the Singapore trade union movement.!O Today, only 20.5
percent of the workforce are unionized. There have been no
work stoppages since 1977, when one strike occurred. Wage
levels and raises are now regulated by the National Wages
Council, a tripartite group.
At the same time, the government embarked upon a
massive program of public housing, with the creation of the
Housing and Development Board to build and manage new
housing estates of high-rise flats and new towns. The population
was dispersed into these new developments, with deliberate
mixing of ethnic groups. The Family Planning and Population
Board was set up to promote population control, with a variety
of positive and negative incentives. In addition, an efficient
and reliable bus service was set up. Domestic savings for public
expenditure were mobilized through the Post Office Savings
Bank and through contributions to the Central Provident Fund,
a paycheck-deduction scheme for social security.
In terms of social policy, the Singaporean government has
also played a strong role. Seventy percent of the population
have been settled in low-rent high-rise flats, public transporta
tion is inexpensive and convenient, and hospitals are heavily
subsidized. To prevent population growth among the lower
socioeconomic strata, a variety of negative incentives have
been introduced, including compulsory sterilization after two
children for any "foreign guest workers"!! making less than
$1,000 (US $450) per month who marry Singaporeans after
working for less than five years. Employers of "foreign guest
workers" are required to send their employees for semi-annual
blood and urine tests for venereal disease and pregnancy.
Occupational health has recently come to government attention
since productivity losses due to accidents and illnesses can be
quite costly. Mandatory training courses have been instituted
for certifying factory safety officers and for doctors who are
contracted by factory management to perform medical
examinations of workers. Having successfully reduced infant
and maternal mortality rates and the prevalence of infectious
diseases, the Singaporean government has now turned actively
toward combating rising health care costs, chronic diseases,
and occupational injuries.
The industrialization strategy adopted by Singapore
coincided with the time of rapid expansion of TNCs and the
competition among TNCs for offshore manufacturing locations.
A host of tax holidays and other incentives, plus low wage
costs, proved attractive for transnational corporations seeking
new locations for their manufacturing operations. Throughout
the 1970s, large amounts of foreign investment-primarily
from the U.S., Japan, and EEC-based companies-flowed into
11. Singapore has historically been a destination for migrant labor. Under
10. All statistics used in the paper come from official government publications, British colonialism, Chinese and Indian workers were brought in under
mostly from the Yearbook of Statistics. The national health statistics are from contract. Today, Malaysians and other Southeast Asian workers are also
the last National Health Survey conducted in 1978. allowed in on two-year renewable contracts, as "foreign guest workers."
Light industries were located near housing estates, in the
hope that women would be drawn into the manufacturing sector
in large numbers. Such a strategy proved successful. By 1974,
the workforce was concentrated in three low-skill industries:
(l) electronics assembly plants (employing 24 percent of the
manufacturing labor force), (2) textiles (16 percent), and
(3) wood and wood products (II percent). Female participation
in the labor force also increased from 31 percent to 49 percent,
with most of that growth in the manufacturing sector.
Integration with the world market via these industries meant
rapid growth in terms of value added, output, and employment.
Singapore's 9.4 percent annual real growth between 1969-79
has put it on the world map as another "economic miracle."
The manufacturing sector grew rapidly, with the elec
tronics industry being a major contributor. Electronics is now
the largest employer in Singapore's manufacturing sector. In
1981, there were 185 establishments of "Electronic Products
and Components" employing 69,358 workers. Since at least
1972, there have been constant increases in output, value
added, and direct export in the industry. Compared with other
industries in Singapore, the electronics industry is first in
numbers employed, second in direct exports, value added, and
output, seventh in sales, and eighth in number of establish
ments. Of the 185 firms, 97 employ over 100 workers and 105
are wholly foreign-owned. In the semiconductor industry,
women account for 81 .5 percent of the total workforce although
they make up 91 percent of the production workers. The jobs
in which women are concentrated tend to be those that pay
poorly, impart few skills, and provide few promotion
The Japanese management system is similar
in essence to management practices in private
enterprises elsewhere in seeking to control every
aspect of the organization of work for the goal
of productivity and profit. The expansion of
Japanese capital into Southeast Asia in search of
profits follows the same general laws that Ameri
can capital does.
Although the economy is dominated by TNCs, the
government has played a strong and important role in directing
affairs in all aspects of Singapore society. Having developed
into a corporatist state, the government seeks the opinions of
leaders in the corporate world and labor unions in all major
policy issues.
In recent years, Singapore has faced increasing competi
tion from other low-wage countries in the region for
labor-intensive industries. Presently, the government has
embarked upon a "Second Industrial Revolution" to upgrade
the level of technology and labor skills. Consequently, the
National Wages Council raised wages by 20 percent per annum
for several consecutive years, forcing some of the factories to
automate or to relocate. At the same time, the government is
actively promoting Japanese management, bringing in noted
speakers from abroad as well as introducing house unions and
quality control circles. The government believes that inculcat
ing the Japanese notion of company loyalty may prevent
workers job-hopping for marginal increases in pay.
The "success" of Singapore-as measured by conven
tional indices of economic development and in the eyes of
international organizers-lies not only in its ability to attract
foreign investment, but also in the ability of its rulers to control
all aspects of society for the attainment of whatever objectives
the government has defined. Such is the context in which
workers experience daily the fruits of national development
Organization of Production at Company Z
The company under study, Z, is a subsidiary of a company
by the same name in Japan. While the parent is neither one of
the oldest nor one of the largest electronics firms in Japan, it
operates six plants in that country, one in Taiwan, one in South
Korea, and one in Singapore, plus trading offices in the U.S.
and Western Europe. Serving both the international market and
the domestic markets of those countries where production
facilities are located, Company Z mainly manufactures TVs
on contract from large brand names. In other words, the TV s
made by Company Z are sold to consumers under a number
of other brand names.
Three years ago, Company Z established its operations in
Singapore in an industrial estate near residential and shopping
districts. The reasons for moving into Singapore were: (1) to
break into the local market (TV being an important leisure
activity in Singapore), (2) to obtain cheap labor (wages being
considerably less than in Japan), and (3) to avoid export quotas
into the U.S. (which are more favorable for products from
Singapore than from Japan). Since output in the Singapore
plant has been larger than in plants elsewhere, the Singapore
operation has been expanding rapidly. In March 1983, the total
workforce there was nearly 180, of whom 130 were in
production, and the company is still recruiting more production
Like most other businesses in Singapore, Company Z runs
a 5
/z-day week, and like other small manufacturing operations
there, it operates only one 8-hour shift per day. The production
process is divided into three lines. The first, the "sub line,"
handles and organizes all the accessories that will be used by
the other two lines in the assembly process, while the second,
the "mount line," inspects all parts of the printed circuit board
including tuning, alignment, soldering, and quality control.
The "final line" assembles and tests the final product.
Eighty percent of the workforce at Company Z is female,
but the women are concentrated in production and clerical
positions. Among the production workers, the majority is
Chinese. (In the manufacturing sector in Singapore, 73.7
percent of the workforce is Chinese.) Although the proportion
of Chinese in the company is less than in the population as a
whole, it is greater than in most other electronics companies.
Since Company Z makes no effort to recruit "foreign guest
workers," there are only about 10 non-Singaporeans among
the operators and all of them are from Malaysia.
Management staff at Company Z are all Chinese and
Japanese males. The Japanese hold the top management
positions-managing director, two administrators for trading
and personnel, and one engineer. The second line comprising
two supervisors and one personnel officer is entirely Chinese.
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Each production line has a line leader, usually a long-service
employee (and Chinese) promoted from among the production
workers. There is no union at Company Z. The average monthly
labor turnover rate is over 10 percent.
Management Policies and Practices
To work as an operator for Company Z, one must have
completed primary school, although many of the workers have
some secondary schooling. The starting pay (prior to
deductions for the Central Provident Fund) for operators in
1983 was S$250 (US$120) per month. 12 While the minimum
qualifications for Company Z are comparable to those in other
electronics firms, the starting pay is slightly less. As in other
firms, all operators are monthly rated, though a daily rate an
be deducted for absenteeism. An annual appraisal system
makes annual increments possible, although none of the
workers was aware of the basis of the increment. Additional
pay, including time-and-a-half for overtime and a 13th month
bonus at the year's end, is also given according to Singapore's
Labor Laws.
Company benefits are also comparable to those in other
Singaporean firms. A panel of doctors is appointed by the
company and workers can be fully reimbursed for medical care
rendered by them. Medical Certificates for absence are
recognized only from these doctors and from government
clinics. The Company also organizes social activities, such as
picnics, and an annual dinner and dance (including a beauty
contest). Other supposed benefits include air conditioning, free
uniforms, and free safety equipment.
Differences in benefits from other firms are largely due
to size and location. Because the workforce is relatively small
there is no clinic on company premises, and because the factory
is located near a hawker center no canteen is provided. Because
most workers live close by, the company does not provide any
transportation services or subsidies.
In terms of management style, there are similarities as
well as differences with other TNCs operating in Singapore.
Workers who have worked in other firms feel that Company
Z makes a more active effort to instill company loyalty and to
use peer pressure to makes its employees conscious that it is
a Japanese firm. The loyalty is instilled primarily through
"Monday Assemblies." Each Monday, before work com
mences, the entire workforce is gathered and a 15-minute
lecture is given by the personnel officer. The topics generally
revolve around such issues as productivity and work attitudes.
Peer pressure is used to bring attention to those who deviate
from the desired behavior; be it tardiness or poor product
quality, the offense is made known publicly. These practices
are quite similar to those described in factories in Japan, \3 but
have not been common in plants elsewhere in the world.
Company Z, however, is not fundamentally different from
other firms in its attitude toward production targets, factory
discipline, and attitudes toward unionization.
12. CPF is, in essence, a social security scheme. Currently, the average
deductions from a worker's pay check are close to 25 percent of the basic pay.
13. A woricer-informant was able to record the weekly lectures given by
management to the entire assembly of woricers. The tapes made available to
the researcher provide first-hand knowledge of the management process.
In the area of health and safety, aside from providing
protective gear and free medical care by appointed doctors,
Company Z has set up a safety committee. Its structure is in
conformity with Singapore Labor Laws, but its activities are
at the discretion of the committee chair, as the law does not
stipulate the committee's activities. Thus, it is a management
prerogative to give whatever priority and attention to
occupational health and safety it likes.
Workers and Their Health
Of the 23 respondents to the survey, two were technicians
and the rest were spread across all three production lines. Their
socia-demographic characteristics (see Table 2), roughly
Table 2
Survey Results
Age: mean = 22; mode = 20
Sex: 21 females, 2 males
Marital Status: 19 single, 3 married
Religion: 10 BuddhistiTaoist, 7 Muslim, 4 Christian
Ethnicity: 14 Chinese, 5 Malay, 4 Indian
Citizenship: 19 Singaporean, 4 Malaysian
Education: mean=9.4 years; mode = 10 years
Income: mean = S$344/month; mode = S$300/month
mirror those ofthe electronics workforce in Singapore-young,
predominantly female, mostly single, racially mixed, with
some secondary school education, and not making very much
money. 14
In the electronics industry in Singapore, the average
monthly wage in 1980 was S$290 for assembler and S$340
for tester with 95 percent of the workers being below age 40.
The minimum education requirement is six years of primary
school, although those having secondary education and
knowledge of English receive preference in employment.
The living situation of the respondents from Company Z
is also comparable to others in the same socio-economic strata:
95 percent live with their families, 94 percent live in flats, and
61 percent own those flats. (In 1980,72 percent of Singapore's
population lived in public housing, all high-rise flats.) The
average size of household is 5.9 persons, while the average
number of people sharing a bedroom with the respondent is
2.7. (The mean size of household in government-owned flats
is about 5.)
Like other factory workers in Singapore, they seek
employment close to their homes. Twenty-six percent can walk
14. See review of women factory woricers in free trade zones of Asia in article
of same tide by Vivian Lin in E. Utrecht (ed.), Free Trade Zones in Asia and
the Pacific. Transnational Corporation Research Project, Sydney University;
1984 (forthcoming).
to work in less than twenty minutes, while another 34 percent
can take a less-than-twenty-minute bus ride.
The average length of employment at Company Z is two
years. For 56 percent of the respondents, the job at Company
Z is their first. Those who have worked before have held jobs
as an electronics maintenance technician, cashier, clerk, textile
operator, children's home worker, play school worker,
electronics quality control inspector, and housekeeper. Previous
job experience ranges from one month to fourteen years, with
the mode being two years. Because Company Z operates only
one shift, four respondents actually hold down second jobs, as
sales assistant, nurse, clerk, and caterer.
As far as working conditions go, the respondents
complained of different things, mainly heat and noise.
52% felt it was too noisy (70% of this group needed to raise
their voice in order to converse), the main problem being
identified as a combination of high frequency and mechanical
75% complained of inadequate air conditioning being
responsible for heat and poor ventilation.
Three persons felt the floor was dusty, one person found the
TV sets too glaring, while another person found the soldering
smell to be strong and unpleasant.
The respondents found their work to be pressured and largely
100% felt they had to work fast and 75% felt that they
worked under time pressure, while 52% stated that they
regularly had difficulties achieving targets.
58% found the work monotonous.
55% agreed that the job was closely supervised, and 66%
did not receive help from supervisors in getting their tasks
Workers report wearing gloves and rubber shoes given by
management for personal protection, although few were
knowledgeable about the materials with which they came into
contact. One person was concerned about using hexane as a
solvent while ten others wondered about potential radiation
exposure from TV sets. Safety does appear to be a problem,
as 84 percent of the respondents have had some type of injury
since working at Company Z. Among others, there were six
reports of burns, six of cuts, and six of electrical shocks. Most
of the injuries were found on the final line, and were variously
attributed to the speed of work, fatigue, carelessness, and
nature of the job.
In the month previous to the survey, nine out of 20
respondents reported seeing a doctor. Their complaints
included: colds, flu, sore eyes, diarrhea, stomach pain, leg
pain, and "abdomen overstrain." (In the general population,
the most common problems presented in primary clinics and
hospitals are: acute respiratory infections, arthritis and
rheumatism, hypertension, and skin disorder.) The nine people
concerned were evenly distributed across the three production
lines. Among them, however, only three took sick leave (for
a total of four days) for their illnesses. Sixty percent of the
respondents expressed a preference to see private, non
company-appointed doctors, while another 25 percent preferred
receiving care at government clinics. None admitting to seeing
traditional healers or taking herbal medicine. Some self-medi
cation does occur; two reported taking aspirin for aches and
pains while two others took iron/poor-blood pills in the month
previous to the survey.
An overall picture of health complaints emerges when a
longer retrospective view is taken. In the six months previous
to the survey, nine out of 21 respondents reported the following
illness-related experiences: 5-gastrointestinal (pain,
diarrhea); 3-eyes (sore, strain); 2-skin (rashes, dryness);
I-respiratory (difficulty in breathing); I-kidney infection.
Among them, only one person reported multiple complaints.
The eye complaints were all from those working on the final
When asked about prolonged symptomatic complaints
experienced since starting to work in the electronics industry,
nineteen out of 21 respondents reported as follows: 10-fatigue/
weakness; 5-blurred vision; 5-skin rashes and dryness;
5-backaches; 4-pain in hand, wrist, and arm; 4-gastric
pain; 4-chronic cough; 4-chronic running nose; 4-waking
up without cause; 3-difficulties falling asleep; 3-shortness
of breath; 3-frequent colds; 3-frequent headaches.
Of these respondents, thirteen reported multiple com
plaints. It is apparent that the main problems are about the
eyes, skin, and gastrointestinal system, while additional
complaints are found in the respiratory and musculoskeletal
systems. The musculoskeletal problems, frequent headaches,
and vision complaints were concentrated on the final line, while
the skin problems, coughs, and running noses were found on
the mount line. In terms of psychological well-being, a number
of complaints were also reported. Fourteen out of 20
respondents stated that, in the week previous to the survey,
they were bothered by the following: 5-upset stomach;
5-feeling no interest and bored; 4-frequent headaches;
4-feeling low in energy; 2-worried or stewing about things;
2-tense or keyed up; 2-crying easily; 2-poor appetite;
2-difficulties falling asleep.
Eight of these respondents suffered multiple complaints.
Those who mentioned low energy and lack of interest were
concentrated on the mount line, while the frequent headaches
and upset stomaches were concentrated on the final line.
The complaints electronic workers report are often
clustered in particular production lines. These findings are
similar to those reported in journalistic accounts and to
preliminary evidence gathered by other studies. IS
Given such a range of health complaints, it is necessary
to probe the extent to which they are related to lifestyle or
behavioral factors. In the group of respondents there were no
smokers and only two had smoked previously, while there was
only one person who admitted to consuming alcohol on a
15. Rachael Grossman, "Women's Place in the Integrated Circuit," Southeast
Asia Chronicle No. 66,1979, pp. 2-17; Struggling to Survive: Women Workers
in Asia, Christian Conference of Asia, Hong-Kong, 1981; Linda Lim, "Women
Workers in Multinational Corporations: The Case of Electronics Industry in
Malaysia and Singapore," Occasional Papcers in Women's Studies, University
of Michigan, 1978; Myrna Blake and Chatri Moonstan, "Women and
Transnational Corporations (The Electronics Industry)-Thailand," East-West
Center, University of Hawaii, no date; "Urban Services for Young Workers
in Penang," Progress Report for IORC Participatory Urban Services Meeting,
School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, 1982; Global Electronics
Newsletter, No. 19, reported on two studies conducted in Hong Kong in 1981
by the Electronics Industry Employees General Union and by the Kwung Tong
Community Health Project.
regular basis. Smoking and drinking appear to be neither coping
mechanisms nor sources of health problems. In terms of
caffeine intake, 80 percent did report regular use of coffee,
tea, or cola, but the mean consumption for each of these sources
of caffeine was 1.6 cups or less, and the mode for each was
only 1. Very few consumed all three beverages daily. The three
most common ways of spending time outside of work, in rank
order, were housework, shopping, and sleeping. As for food
habits, an important influence on health, 80 percent of the
respondents stated that they did have three regular meals within
the previous 24 hours. More than half of these meals were
purchased, most likely from hawkers, and they were therefore
high in carbohydrate content and unbalanced in food groups.
The nine persons who reported snacking in between meals
mostly purchased packaged food, that is, "junk food." Of the
major lifestyle influences on health, then, only food lacking in
nutrition or food improperly prepared could possibly contribute
to health problems. However, among those respondents
complaining of gastrointestinal troubles, there was no consistent
relationship with or distinctive pattern of frequency of food
intake or source of food.
The "success" of the management system in
Singapore, as measured by worker productivity
and as practiced in Company Z, does not lie in
the loyalty or security of the workers, who largely
feel neither loyal nor secure and do not wish to
work under such conditions for any length of
time if they can help it.
It is possible that subjective factors, such as personal
happiness and a sense of being in control, might affect their
health. When asked about satisfaction with their lives in
general, 62 percent reported "very satisfied" or "somewhat
satisfied." Yet, when it came to satisfaction with the job, 58
percent reported "somewhat dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied."
The problem with the job is implicit in workers' replies to the
question, "Under what circumstances would you leave your
present job?" Eleven answered for "better pay" and five
answered for "better working conditions," while only a
smattering chose personal reasons, like further schooling or
children (although none of the respondents had children) of
their own.
The conditions of work clearly pose some problems but
it must be asked to what extent these problems lie in the physical
work environment or in the social organization of work. A
closer analysis will show that each is responsible for different
kinds of problems.
Job Hazards and Health
To begin with, one worker related that the safety hazards
are "obvious even to the laymen." He said that all emergency
doors are locked (although supervisors and line leaders do have
keys) and that other doors and corridors are often blocked by
such materials as boxes and garbage heaped in various stacks
and piles due to shortage of space. The problem of
housekeeping becomes acute in the frequent power blackouts
that occur.
High voltage hazards, as evidenced by the number of
electrical shocks experienced by the workers, are also a
problem. Workers claim that one can simply be near the
equipment and be burnt without touching it. On one occasion
a woman worker fainted after being shocked and had to be
taken away by ambulance. The voltage problem appears to be
exacerbated by the fact that the air conditioning is set by
executive order to save energy at 28C (81F). The heat and
the humidity not only create a field of high electrical potential,
but are also the sources of workers' complaints that the factory
is too hot and poorly ventilated.
The factory safety committee is made up of management
appointed members who are not given any training in health
and safety. They have little capability or incentive to do much
to correct health hazards. One Monday Assembly lecture
suggested that accidents are the fault of workers and due to
their own carelessness rather than company negligence. Thus,
the committee is embarking upon a "safety first" campaign,
for which each committee member must come up with an idea
of what to do. It is likely that they will hold a poster contest
stressing the importance of safety in production. It is said that
once a transformer burned and no one knew how to use the
fire extinguisher.
Evidently, the factory inspector from the Ministry of
Labor has made two visits and found irregularities on both
occasions. According to a technician, despite company efforts
to clean up before the inspection, Company Z was cited on
one visit for not having ventilation ducts above the soldering
area on the mount line and on the other for having electrical
wires running all over passage ways.
In terms of other work-related health problems, the skin
complaints immediately come to attention, for occupationally
related skin diseases are most common. Of course, causal
relationships are difficult to establish firmly due to the small
sample and the absence of a control group. Nevertheless, on
the basis of previous reports
it would seem important to take
a closer look at the solvents that are being used. The fact that
the skin problems appear to be concentrated on the mount line
where hexane is used also suggests closer examination is
needed. Since the literature has also reported dermatitis due to
glue used by electronics assembly workers dealing with PCBs, 17
further investigation is warranted here as well.
As far as the eye problems are concerned, there have been
anecdotal reports of eye strain and blurred vision related to
microscope work among electronics workers, 18 but at Company
Z no microscope work is involved. An interview with workers
in another factory doing similar tests and inspections indicated
that the various meters used in testing and inspections can be
quite taxing on the eyes, partly due to screen brightness and
16. "Urban Services for Young Workers in Penang," op. cit.; Global Elec
tronics Newslener No. 19, op. cit.
17. C.D. Calnan, "Cyanoacrylate Dermatitis," Contact Dermatitis, 5, 1979.
pp. 165-167.
18. Rachael Grossman, op. cit.; Struggling to Survive, op. cit.; Linda Lim,
op. cit.; Myrna Blake and Chatri Moonstan, op. cit.
contrast and partly due to the speed at which the work must
be performed. 19 So, it does appear that this is another problem
at Company Z, especially since the eye complaints are
concentrated on the final line.
The respiratory complaints also deserve closer attention.
While such problems can have multiple causes, the literature
has reported reduced lung functions as well as occupational
asthma among electronic workers exposed to soldering fumes. 20
It is quite conceivable that the problems experienced by workers
at Company Z have the same cause, particularly in the light
of the citation of the company for poor ventilation in the
soldering area.
Ergonomic problems are an additional area in need of
further investigation. Most of the workers at Company Z stated
they had to sit continuously throughout the period of work and
many reported having to perform small, repetitive hand
motions. The complaints of backaches and of pain in hand,
wrist, and arm may well be related to improper design of work
stations and to the speed of the assembly line. The fact that
these musculoskeletal complaints are concentrated in the final
assembly area suggests as much.
Flu-like symptoms and similar more subjective complaints
are more difficult to decipher. Problems of fatigue, frequent
headaches, frequent colds, gastric pain, diarrhea, and sleeping
difficulties can all be due to physical agents, seasonal changes,
food intake, and stress-related causes. Here, only specUlation
is possible, given the nature of the study design.
Since the climate in Singapore is tropical all year-round,
frequent colds are unlikely to be related to seasonal changes.
On the other hand, exposure to some chemical and physical
agents at the workplace can result in flu-like symptoms. Thus,
physical environment-related etiology cannot be ruled out. Poor
nutritional intake can increase host susceptibility, while the
intake of improperly prepared food or of particular types of
food, for example hot and spicy food, can be related to
gastrointestinal problems. Gastrointestinal complaints can also
be stress-related. The discussion below provides good reason
to suspect stress as a causative factor.
Sleeping problems are a recognized phenomenon for shift
workers, but Company Z operates only one shift. Overtime,
while frequent, is not sufficiently regular to disrupt circadian
rhythms for most workers. Two other possible causes need to
be considered: working second jobs and stress on or off the
job. Those respondents holding down two jobs did not
consistently report sleeping problems.
Fatigue and weakness, another common complaint, can
be a consequence of insufficient sleep, but it can also be a
result of insufficient food intake as well as chemical exposure.
Given the fact that most of the workers are women and that
an overwhelming number of them must spend their spare time
on housework, the double burden of wage labor and unpaid
household labor cannot be ignored as having important
19. This interview was one of 100 interviews the author conducted as part of
the larger study in Singapore and Malaysia.
20. P.S. Burge, et aI., "Occupational Asthma in an Electronics Factory,"
Thoras. 34, I, 1979, pp. 13-18; W.H. Perks, etal . "Work-Related Respiratory
Disease in Employees Leaving an Electronics Factory," Thorax. 34, I, 1979,
pp. 19-22; P.S. Burge, et aI., "Occupational Asthma in an Electronics Factory:
A Case Control Study to Evaluate Biologic Factors," Thorax. 34, I, 1979,
pp. 300-307.
consequences for health and well-being. That workers prefer
to spend a great deal of their spare time sleeping attests to their
The range of subjective symptoms reported, coupled with
psychological complaints, suggests that stress is an important
factor behind the ill-health of the workers. Since the complaints
are so widespread, job-stress might be more important than
personal problems. The social organization of work, that is,
Japanese management methods, therefore deserves closer
attention. Although some aspects of Japanese management
differ little from practices in other companies, certain other
aspects do create a unique work environment that can be quite
Japanese Management as a Job Hazard
Workers say job stress at Company Z is experienced in
many ways, including production quotas and factory discipline.
Above all else they identify as the sources of stress the constant
emphasis on productivity, the condescending and paternalistic
attitudes of management, and pressures, both subtle and
authoritarian, to conform to desired behavior.
As stated previously, the workers have found the work
pace to be fast and the production targets difficult to achieve.
Until 1983, Company Z's daily production target was 600 TV
sets, when the target in its Japan plants (with slightly fewer
workers) was 450 for the same model. The target at an European
firm in Singapore producing a comparable product was 200,
according to a worker who has worked in both factories. In
1983, the target for Company Z's Singapore plant was raised
to 815, since a newly introduced model was slightly easier to
assemble. In the Monday Assembly22 announcing the target
increase, the personnel officer stated:
In 1983, the factory will run more. We have to keep up quality
and quantity. Many Japanese experts have left and we will use all
those tools and know-how they left behind. We must put into
practice all the experience of Japanese experts. If we don't keep
up, we'll fall behind in Singapore and in the world. To keep up,
we must increase production by 15 percent. Our target per day
will be 800 sets and the time for each set is 30 seconds. In 1983,
we will produce 18,000-20,000 sets per month. Closely related
to increased production is reduction ofcost. The only way to export
is with good quality, cheap sets. In order to do so, we will reduce
cost by 10 percent, by producing faster with the same manpower.
Also related is quality control. In 1982, our rejects from
random checking amounted to 5.5-6 percent. Five or six sets out
of 100 is not good-imagine the buyer with 1,000-3,000 sets.
5.5-6 percent is not acceptable in 1983. Only 4 percent and below
is acceptable. So, we are reducing our QC [quality control] target
by 1.5 percent. So, we must work closely and give more feedback
between and among operations. Regardless of your values, we
have to stick together to be in the black. If information from the
boss is followed closely, we'll make it through 1983. We sincerely
request you put in your best, but your best must be better than
1982. This is 1983, whatever efforts must be increased by 110
percent so to produce more and better.
21. There also exists an unspoken resentment towards the Japanese because
of the brutality of Japanese occupation during the Second World War,
particularly in their treatment of the Chinese.
22. All Monday Assembly quotes are either taken verbatim from tapes or are
slightly edited for ftow and length.
The new quota has evidently never been reached,
according to a worker informant. Workers are often scolded
by supervisors for not reaching the target, yet they receive little
assistance in completing their work. It is interesting to note
that more people on the final line complained of working under
time-pressure and more of them also complained of frequent
headaches and upset stomachs. It is also on that line that more
accidents have occurred.
To produce as much as possible, workers must work up
until the last minute before official "knock-off' time and have
to clean up their work stations on unpaid time. In contrast,
workers in the American and European firms in Singapore start
to tidy up work stations ahead of time in order to leave by
official "knock-off' time. When business is good, overtime
can be frequent and workers may be asked to stay and work
continuously around the clock. The result is that, at times,
workers have put in 24-hour days. When combined with the
next day's shift, that adds up to a continuous 32-hour work
period. Although this is strictly speaking illegal in Singapore,
no one has dared to speak up. In theory it is possible to refuse
overtime, but in practice it is difficult to say "no" to supervisors
who often tell workers that it is their "responsibility to finish,
due to the high number of rejects" and so forth. Although
conversation on the line is allowed, the speed of work means
there is little opportunity to move around. This may contribute
to the problems of backaches. It is said that on one day a
supervisor actually stood outside the ladies' room and asked
each operator her reason for entering and then timed her. These
sorts of production pressures become even greater during
periods of high labor turnover, when there is either a shortage
of workers or new people who are not yet able to work fast
enough. Those who stay do manage to adjust to the fast yet
monotonous work pace, but many new people find it difficult
to tolerate both the speed and the monotony. Hence, turnover
is high and the result is a tight work schedule.
The focus on productivity is also constantly on the lips
of supervisors. Monday Assemblies have repeatedly em
phasized these slogans:
Remembering the target is 800-we're close but not quite
Aiming the arrow at 800.
Punctuality is part of productivity. we will check on
punctuality at lunch time and tea break.
Recreation committee is formed because we must get to
know each other better in order to achieve higher
productivity goals.
When it fails to gain worker commitment to productivity
goals, management also tries the company loyalty approach.
To begin with, the line leaders and technicians are separated
out and required to attend meetings before work (at 7:30 a.m.)
every other day. At these sessions, they are told of management
plans on the production schedule, with the evident intention
of making them feel important. They are not involved, of
course, in helping to make the actual decisions regarding
production plants. The production operators, on the other hand,
are told during Monday Assemblies:
Working here means making a long term career; we must form
fellowship. Ifwe know each other better, we can form a better team.
You are here half of your time. Consider the factory as a second
home. Do you best in keeping the place clean, tidy, and properly
stacked; don't wait for the factory cleaners to tidy up.
In 1982, when the sign-up for the company barbecue was
poor, the supervisors went around encouraging each individual
to attend by saying, "It's all for you." Additional subtle pressure
was also applied. For instance, "I signed pennission for your
leave request."
More blatant pressure is applied at other times. For those
who makes mistakes, signs are put above their work stations
stating so. The attendance record-leaves, absences, tardi
ness-of each person is also displayed on the wall for public
viewing. Naturally, everyone does take great interest and
curiosity in the affairs of others.
More frequently, straight authoritarian paternalism is
used. Workers have been lectured during various Monday
Assemblies on all aspects of their work environment.
The notice board is there for workers so there is no reason why,
once an announcement is up, workers are unaware of it. Even if
you do not read English, it is a worker's responsibility to find out
what the announcements are from other workers.
As for reimbursement for doctors, we don't want receipts from
your brother, sister, and parents.
A love note graffiti has been discovered. Vandalism is the number
one crime. When people are caught publicly, they go behind bars
straight away. If any of us catch you writing, we'll get you a love
letter straight away-get out within 24 hours! Remember this is
not the place to write. If you need a piece of paper to write on,
please ask. This is a production line, not child's play.
The only thing more important than production schedule is
discipline. After all our efforts and trouble to put up toilet paper,
now that is being abused. After washing your hands, you use toilet
paper to clean your hands. The supply of toilet paper is strictly
for toilet use. If you can't follow this discipline, I feel sad for
you. If the abuse goes on, the supply will have to be stopped. We
don't want to have to do it, but it's up to you. So, if you see
others abuse, inform us, report the abuse. Or the privilege will be
taken away for all. We don't care how much paper is used per
day, as long as it's used properly.
On an individual level, these same attitudes are also
encountered. A worker infonnant related that he was
reprimanded for sitting down during one Monday Assembly.
When he failed to stand after being gestured at rudely by the
supervisor, he was told to see the personnel officer for "not
taking friendly advice." Technicians often have to take
insulting shouted orders from top management but operators
do not, because top management does not even talk to operators.
With social relations as they are between management and
workers, few workers see Company Z as a place of long-tenn
employment. In the absence of an effective labor organization,
the workers' ability to take collective action is limited. The
high labor turnover rate is indicative of their individual
responses to the oppressive situation.
The prevailing attitude
appears to be to work from day to day. A wide difference
exists between the satisfaction people feel about their lives in
general and the dissatisfaction they feel about their jobs. For
some, the deep resentment about "being treated like children"
by management has turned to anger and frustration that find
23. There have been numerous reports in Singapore. Malaysia, Indonesia,
and U.S.A. of workers fainting en masse, a fonn of mass psychogenic illness
or mass hysteria. The exact cause of such a phenomenon has been debated,
but it is generally accepted that oppressive working conditions play a role.
This has not occurred at Company Z, however.
few outlets for expression. This kind of job stress might be a
significant contributor to the ill-health of the workers.
Worker Well-Being under
Japanese Management Reconsidered
This paper has focused on the question of how the patterns
of worker health and illness are influenced by the work
environment, with the aim of arriving at a better understanding
of the Japanese management system and where worker
well-being fits into that system. The experience of this
electronics company in Singapore also gives some clues as to
the effects of a development strategy based on EOI and high
technology, as well as the specific course of corporatism in
Singapore. The results clearly call into question the appropriate
ness and desirability of Japanese management methods either
for EOI development strategies or for workplace democratiza
The Japanese management system is similar in essence to
management practices in private enterprises elsewhere in
seeking to control every aspect of the organization of work for
the goal of productivity and profit. The expansion of Japanese
capital into Southeast Asia in search of profits follows the same
general laws that American capi tal does. 24 In regard to workers,
the ends of both are lower wages and higher productivity, while
stress on loyalty, the Monday Assemblies and the like are
simply the distinctive means that Japanese management uses
to accomplish those ends. Japanese management in Company
Z does stand out, however, as being particularly authoritarian
and hierarchical, even if not fundamentally different from other
capitalist enterprises. Such "Japanese" features as company
loyalty and consultative processes hide the strict control that
is fundamental to the system. While some have suggested that
these controls might be congruent with the authoritarianism
inherent in some Asian cultures,2s the workers in Company Z
experience the Japanese management system as oppressive and
The authoritarian and paternalistic methods employed by
the Japanese management are not only features of advanced
capitalism but also linked to Confucian traditions of Asia. As
Yoshio Sugimoto puts it, "What is called Japan's unique
groupism is, in fact, part of an authoritarian political system.
Systematic control by management and officialdom is a
characteristic of Japanese society. "26 The "success" of the
management system in Singapore, as measured by worker
productivity and as practiced in Company Z, does not lie in
the loyalty or security of the workers, who largely feel neither
loyal nor secure and do not wish to work under such conditions
for any length of time if they can help it. Rather, factors external
to the attitudes of the workforce are crucial to the "success"
of that management system.
In Singapore, paternalism was already an aspect of the
traditional family finn, to which has been added the Taylorist
tradition of the twentieth century, the authoritarianism of the
24. See special issue of Southeast Asia Chronicle. No. 88, February 1983,
titled "Japan in Southeat Asia: Co-Prosperity?"
25. Hideo Inohara, op. cit.
26. Yoshio Sugimoto, "Idealized View of Modern Japan Avoids Dealing with
Problems," The Asia Record. May 1982.
corporatist state, and now the Japanese management system.
Authority and social control are daily experienced on the shop
floor and away from work. The position of women in society
continues to be one of subservience, and their lack of education
also places them low on the societal hierarchy. Although a low
unemployment rate means it has been relatively easy to find
another job, being fired and having to job-hunt is still not a
pleasant experience. 27 For the Malaysians in particular, losing
their job also means losing their work pennit and the visa.
Thus, despite dissatisfaction, workers, especially women, find
it difficult to speak up for their rights.
The effective de-politicization of the Singaporean citizen
over the past fifteen years is also an important factor. Most
Singaporeans would prefer to mind their own business and not
get involved in anything political, especially given the
experience of labor activists in the 1960s. The ultimate
expression of that de-politicization is in the common Singa
porean attitude that the only important part of any job is the
money. This materialism, a key reason for Singapore's
successful capitalist development, is, on the one hand, a
continuation of the old immigrant work ethic, on the other, the
very "moral degradation" about which the government is so
concerned. Japanese management theory is one solution that
the government has used to counter the so-called declining
moral standards of the nation. If the situation at Company Z
is at all representative, the Japanese solution does not work.
Singapore's government has taken an active role, at least
recently, in occupational health. However, the implementation
of policies, especially at the plant level, is limited by a lack
of awareness, of trained manpower, and of political will.
Furthennore, awareness of occupational health problems has
been fostered only some years after industrialization was well
under way. For other countries desiring to embark upon a
similar path of development, a crucial consideration would be
to assess the health impact of particular projects or industriali
zation strategies, and then to plan accordingly for both effective
policy development and policy implementation.
The technical and political issues facing developing
countries are interrelated. The main questions to be considered
before the adoption of any particular "solution" to national
development or industrial democracy problemse is what will
be the human price and who will pay. In the case of Singapore,
workers' health has suffered under EOI and the importation of
Japanese management methods. The "well-tuned hannony" of
the standard image of Japanese management-labor relations
would seem to be nothing more than an "artificial rationality. "28
Perhaps it is that very image that has allowed Japan to
accomplish, unnoticed, much in the way of capitalist
exploitation in Southeast Asia.29
The situation in Company Z clearly suggests that: (I) occu
pational health is accorded no priority in the Japanese
management system, (2) workers suffer a variety of health
complaints that stem from both safety hazards and the neglect
of health as well as the social organization of production, and
27. It is rumored that two fonner workers had been sacked by Company Z
for attempts at unionization.
28. John Junkennan, "Blue Sky Management: The Kawasaki Story," Working
Papers, 10, 3, May/June 1983, pp. 28-36.
29. Southeast Asia Chronicle, No. 88, op. cit.
(3). certain features of the Japanese management system are
particularly stressful and induce health complaints. Under EOI
and Japanese management methods, productivity is the
overriding concern, rather than welfare of workers. The specific
occupational hazards arise not merely from the technical
requirements of production, but largely from the way in which
the authoritarian social organization of work detennines the
work process. It is clear that when productivity takes priority
over all else, occupational health and safety are distinctly minor
concerns, if not ignored altogether. *
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Restructuring of Mass Media in Malaysia and Singapore
Pounding in the Coffin Nails?
by John A. Lent
In much of the Third World, open and forthright
government relationships with the mass media can be a seasonal
phenomenon-the season of the visit of an international body,
especially one dealing with human rights; the season of an
extravaganza that brings in thousands of visitors, such as
international sports and beauty pageants; the season of courting
international trade; the season of a new government attempting
to impress Westerners that things will be different.
Both in Malaysia and Singapore, better government-media
dialogue seemed on the horizon as the 1980s dawned.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, as a new head
of government, spoke openly and allowed the press to uncover
high-level corruption in government. I The result was the New
Straits Times and The Star made investigative reporting and
consumer-oriented journalism regular features.
At the same
time, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew seemed to be mellowing;
some believed because of a sense of confidence he felt after
many social reforms, others thought because of Singapore's
desire to be an international clearing house for information.
Whatever the reason, journalists did not take advantage of the
lull, partly because they did not know where to draw the line,
and partly because of an embedded tradition of self censorship.'
In neither case did the press tolerance last long. The
structures of the mass media operations in both states do not
allow for long-term openness. In the early 1970s, both Malaysia
and Singapore "fine-tuned" their mass media the better to serve
I. See Jiwa Pena. "Uphill Task for Malaysian Journalists," Index on
Censorship, 3: 1983, pp. 33-34: K. Das, "A Tough Guy Takes Over," Far
Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong), Oct. 30,1981, pp. 30-35.
2. John W. English, "Malaysia: Chilling Press Freedom," IPI Report, Aug.
1982, p. 5.
3. "The Media Get the Message," Asiaweek (Hong Kong), June 20, 1980, p.
national ideologies and interests. In Singapore, this was
accomplished through a "purge" of three dailies, arrests of
journalists, development of an ownership structure favoring
local (and often, ruling political party) interests, and amend
ments to press legislation. Malaysia's experience during that
time included strengthening printing press and sedition
legislation, admonishing and arresting journalists and linking
dailies to the ruling coalition through holding companies of
individual political parties. By the beginning of the 1980s, the
remaining vestiges of press freedom in Malaysia and Singapore
were at death's door. Writing in 1983, under a pseudonym,
one Malaysian journalist said:
Reporters exercise self-censorship to protect themselves from
being dubbed 'anti-government,' sub-editors rewrite to tone down
controversial issues, news editors try to tum a deaf ear to the
people's grievances. And though all this is done for the sake of
'national interest,' and 'racial harmony,' everyone is aware that
the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen, and tension
between Malays and non-Malays is aggravated as a result of unfair
government policy.'
During the past three years, In Malaysia and Singapore the
coffin lid has been virtually nailed shut on freedom of the press
as both states further tightened ownership, management or
control of mass media. This was done by replacing long-estab
lished, family-operated newspapers with a new set of
government dailies (as in Singapore), by putting corporate
control of newspaper groups in the hands of those close to
government (as in Malaysia) and by instituting legislative and
other controls over the distribution of foreign news (as in
4. Pena, op. cit.
Ownership/Management Reshuffles
Press critics traditionally have looked searchingly at
legislation for clues to a government's attitude towards the
press. Of course, part of the answer lies there, but often
overlooked are what can be more subtle means of control by
ownership and management. Malaysia and Singapore are
characterized by mass media that are under the stewardship of
the government or ruling political parties. In both countries,
the media were restructured in 1982-83 to increase government
control through ownership and management.
In Malaysia, when a Printing Press Amendment in 1974
called for majority local ownership in mass media, newspaper
organizations scrambled to restructure their equity ratio. One
paper, Tamil Murasu, could not find Malaysian partners and
died, after resisting the efforts of Tamil-speaking, Malaysian
politicians to get the paper at bottom prices.' Others not already
under political party sway, sought support from one of the
political components of the ruling Barisan Nasional (National
Front)-most often, United Malays National Organization
(UMNO) or Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA). The Star,
a successful English-language tabloid, its Chinese-language
sister, Malayan Thung Pau (renamed Tong Bao), and Star
Publications magazines, were bought in 1977 by Huaren
Holdings, an investment subsidiary of MCA (see Figure I). The
party's total share, including small stakes held by Multi-Purpose
Holdings and KM Cooperative (both dominated by MCA
members) is 75 percent. The New Straits Times Press (three
dailies plus magazines) and the Utusan Group (two dailies plus
magazines) are both tied by ownership and management to
UMNO through a complicated network of nominee companies
and individuals affiliated with UMNO. The Chinese dailies,
Nanyang Siang Pau and Sin Chew lit Poh, have been strongly
associated with MCA and UMNO; Tong Bao is owned by
MCA, and National Echo until its recent death, was owned by
Tan Koon Swan, key MCA figure until his recent expulsion
from the party, and managing director of the MCA-dominated
Multi-Purpose Holdings. Tan also has interests in Shin Min
Daily News, a daily in the fierce Chinese-language market.
Chinese dailies face a bleak future as the government refuses
to grant licenses for new papers and discourages Chinese
publishers from diversifying into the Malay-language field.
Also, the Tamil-dailies are said to be in the "stable" of
leaders of another major Barisan Nasional partner, Malaysian
Indian Congress (MIC). In an intra-party squabble in late 1983,
MIC President Samy Vellu sharply criticized the party president
and a vice president for not laying "down the restrictions when
it comes to the newspapers under their control"-Tami Osai
and Thinamani. The third Tamil daily, the Tamil nesan is
owned by relatives of Samy Vellu's wife.'
The New Straits Times underwent a major management
reshuffle in late 1983, resulting in a number of politically-moti
vated appointments. The changes occurred after Fleet Holdings
(an UMNO firm) and its arm, Fleet Group, which owns 55.9
5. See Joe Fernandez. 'The Writing Is on the Wall ... in Bahasa." Media
(Hong Kong), Ol'1. 1979, pp, 18-22.
6, "Kuala Lumpur Counterpunch," A.I'iaweek. May 13. 1983. p. 53.
7. See Jeffrey Segal, "Publish and Be Damned," Far Eastern Economic
Re\'iew. Sept. 10, 1982, pp. 92, 94. Also. "Battle of the Tamil Dailies,"
A.I'iaweek, Oct. 7. 1983, p. 64.
percent of the New Straits Times, experienced important
management shifts. The result is that since July 1982, both
Fleet companies have been chaired by Kedah MP Daim
Zainuddin, also chairman of Rakyat First Merchant Bankers
and of Peremba, investment subsidiary of the state-owned
Urban Development Corporation. Daim, reportedly a close
advisor of Mahathir, recently bought 51 percent of the local
operation of Banque de I'Indochine et de Suez. Daim's name,
along with that of Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam, cropped
up regularly as the political and economic source for a Bahasa
Malaysia daily, Harian Nasional, started January 1984, by
KhaIid Jafri, owner of the Tinta Press. In the restructure, five
of the seven-member New Straits Times' board were dropped
and a new board of four members was appointed. Retained
were Datuk Junus Sudin and former editor-in-chief Tan Sri
Lee Siew Yee. Junus, an associate of Finance Minister Tunku
Razaleigh Hamzah, was retained because of contractual ties.
During the past three years, in Malaysia and
Singapore the coffin lid has been virtually nailed
shut on freedom of the press as both states further
tightened ownership, management or control of
mass media.
The two new appointees were considered politically chosen.
Azzat Kamaludin, a lawyer, holds a minor UMNO post; his
brother is the deputy prime minister's political secretary. Salim
Cassim, a doctor, has a seat on the board of Kea Discount
House, alongside banker Datuk Azman Hashim, who, in turn,
sat on the Fleet Holdings board until recently. Although the
government has said the moves were to improve efficiency,
critics believe otherwise, saying they were efforts on the part
of Mahathir to seat more sympathetic figures at the paper's
helm and to strengthen the role of Daim, who is involved in
day-to-day decisions at the New Straits Times. H In early 1984,
the Fleet group increased its holdings in the New Straits Times,
when the 20 percent held by Singapore's Straits Times was sold.
At least one source claimed the newspapers become
propaganda organs for the parties that own them, especially
during elections." National Echo apparently was more blatant
than others, being accused of giving embarrassingly large
amounts of space to speeches of owner Tan Koon Swan. In
1981, the managing director of the Echo was forced to resign
after the paper carried a political report damaging to the MCA.
Singapore's restructure of media in 1982-83 was even
more sweeping, encompassing the folding of three newspapers,
and the establishment of a new company of three dailies, among
other changes (see Figure 2). It was the biggest shakeup of the
press since 1971, when Lee Kuan Yew arrested four senior
8. Ibid.
9. Pena, op. cit.
Daily News
New Nation- - -Singapore Monitor Ltd.
(formed by govt., 1982)
Lbecomes subsidiary of-Singapore News and
Publications Ltd.
Figure 1
Political Links of Some Malaysian Dailies
Barisan Nasional

Huaren Holdings Multi Purpose Holdings ., Fleet Holdings
chaired by <: I
Tal Koon Swan Daim Zainuddin "Fleet Group
Star Publications National Echo Shin Min Nel Straits Times
(The Star, Tong Bao, (deceased) Daily News (New Straits Times,
magazines) Malay Mail, Berita
Harian, Business
Times, etc.)
Figure 2
Reorganization of Singapore Press, 1982-83
Shin Min - - - - - Straits Times Press
Nanyang Siang Pau Sin Chew lit Poh
Singapore Press Holdings
executives of the Nanyang Siang Pau, closed the Eastern Sun
and the Herald and generally changed the course of journalism
in Singapore. 10 The legislation used for the 1982-83 changes
was promulgated in 1974, when the Newspaper and Printing
Press Act was amended to mandate two classes of shares in
newspapers-ordinary and management. Management shares,
carrying more voting power, can be owned only by those
approved by the Ministry of Culture. The law, which permitted
government to be a newspaper owner, forced the press to
become public corporations and broke up large share ownership
by families and individuals. A 1977 amendment allowed no
person to have more than three percent of the ordinary stock
issued by a newspaper.
The 1982 shakeup resulted after the first opposition
member in sixteen years was elected to Parliament. Some
writers believed the government wanted to lessen the
preeminence of Straits Times Press, which had become a giant
corporation and which the government believed had shown
sympathy to the opposition. Another source said the administra
tion had been upset with the news industry for years, especially
with the Straits Times, which it accused of a preoccupation
with profits at the expense of the editorial product. I I He added:
Contrary to accepted opinion among outsiders, the Lee administra
tion has not been happy with the paper's long-standing habit of
filling its pages with endless government speeches often reprinted
with an embarrassing number of inaccuracies. 12
The restructure, called "rationalisation of media" by govern
ment, was considered the first phase of a "far-reaching
reorganisation that will change the shape of the industry"
much as the educational system and Monetary Authority of
Singapore were revamped.
In fall 1981, the government threatened to put two civil
servants in top positions in the Straits Times Press, but instead,
appointed a former director of the Security and Intelligence
Division as chairman. Then, in early 1982, a new government
proposed company, Singapore Monitor Ltd., was started for
the purpose of publishing a morning competitor for the Straits
Times. It was financed by three local banks, one of which,
Overseas Union Bank, was allowed to have 30 percent of the
shares despite the 1977 ruling. The government allowed this
percentage to "provide strong management backing" for the
new holding company. To avoid a circulation battle, Straits
Times Press was prepared to seII its New Nation. However,
by mid-1982, the government announced that Straits Times
Press would lend the name New Nation to Singapore Monitor
Ltd., in exchange for a three-year guarantee that the latter
would not publish a morning paper. Simultaneously, archrivals
10. See John A. Lent, "Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore Media: 'Protecting
the People,' " Index on Censorship, Autumn 1975, pp. 321-340.
II. Later, Peter Lim, editor-in-chief of Straits Times, said the government
consistently put pressure on the group to switch from mainly popular to serious,
more purposeful journalism. Lim added that Straits Times Group journalists
were "said by Government to be unable or unwilling to get their facts straights;
and, sometimes, the facts were correct but the angling of the story tended to
distort; and, even when the story was accurate, the headline was wrong or
misleading." He warned that Singapore journalists cannot forget that the
government has the power to remove them through managers approved by the
authorities (Asiaweek, April 8, 1983, p. 69).
12. Patrick Smith, "Pressed into Wedlock," Far Eastern Economic Review,
April 23, 1982, p. 102.
Nanyang Siang Pau and Sing Chew lit Poh, the leading Chinese
dailies, were merged into a single holding company, caIIed
Singapore News and Publications Ltd., of which Singapore
Monitor Ltd. is a subsidiary. Senior government officials were
appointed to manage Singapore News and Publications Ltd. 13
Sin Chew lit Poh and Nanyang Siang Pau were published
separately until March 1983, when they were replaced by two
new dailies under the Singapore News and Publications Ltd.
umbrella-Lian He Zao Bao (United Morning News) and Lian
He Wan Bao (United Evening News). The third paper in this
group is the Singapore Monitor, a new English-language
tabloid. 14 Meanwhile, Straits Times Press, given an option to
publish its own Chinese daily, purchased 45 percent of Shin
Min Daily News. Thus, the government seemed to envision two
newspaper groups, each publishing Chinese and English dailies,
complementing rather than competing with each other. 15 In
mid-1984, the government's real plans became a reality when
the Straits Times Press, its sister, Times Publishing, and
Singapore News and Publication Ltd. merged to form the largest
industrial group and sixth largest listed company in Singapore.
The new company, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH),
capitalized at US$660 million, could become a "world-class
player in the high-technology information and communications
industry," Far Eastern Economic Review (July 26, 1984) re
ported. Directors of the three companies said the reason for
merging was to save millions by averting "a long and hard
circulation struggle." One legislator believed the purpose was
to make the press an "obeisant official mouthpiece along the
lines of the Soviet Union's Pravda or China's People's Daily."
Restrictive press legislation in the two states
has similarities. Both states license newspapers
annually, both have the right to detain journalists
without trial under internal security laws and
both have strong sedition acts. Most feared in
both countries are the internal security laws.
13. In their separate forms, Sin Chew Jit Poh and NanYang Siang Pau had
indirect government management and ownership. The government-controlled
Development Bank of Singapore owned Sin Chew and Nanyang shares and a
DBS appointee sat on both dailies' boards. Banking officials have had stakes
in most newspapers. The Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation has Straits
Times and Times Publishing stock; United Overseas Bank chairman Wee Chow
Yaw sat as chair of Sin Chew Jit Poh board and Overseas Union Bank's Lien
Ying Chow chaired Nanyang's board.
14. "In Singapore, an 'Odd Couple' Weds," Asiaweek, April 8, 1983, p. 69.
15. See Patrick Smith, "A Merger's Paper Value," Far Eastern Economic
Review, Aug. 6, 1982, p. 66; Smith, op. cit.; "No Chinese Remedy for Poor
Circulation," Asiaweek, Oct. 2, 1982, p. 38; "Shake-up and Merger in
Singapore," Asiaweek, May 7, 1982, p. 20.
The authorities said the reorganization was necessary
because of "stagnant and lately declining" readership of
Chinese papers,16 and a shortage of journalists; which made it
impractical for the Straits Times and Monitor to compete in
the morning market. Opponents of the government disagreed,
saying the changes were politically motivated because the
government feared free competition would mean a livelier and
more dangerous journalism.
Increased governmental intervention in newspaper man
agement was expected as the Straits Times Press grew
immensely in corporate and political power. By 1980, Straits
Times' expansionism had engulfed whole or parts of properties
(mostly mass media oriented) in England, Tahiti, New
Caledonia, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand,
Brunei, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the United States, with
hopes of acquiring others in Indonesia, Philippines and Sri
Lanka. Among newspapers, the group had the dailies Straits
Times, New Nation (until its recent demise), Business Times,
Berita Harian and Berita Minggu in Singapore; Borneo Bulletin
in Brunei; 45 percent of Shin Min Daily News in Singapore;
20 percent of New Straits Times in Malaysia; a small holding
in South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, and 49 percent
of the Bangkok Post. Straits Times Press also has a ten percent
interest in the Asian Wall Street Journal, which, in tum, owns
three percent of Straits Times Press and a subsidiary, New
Nation Publishing Ltd. The conglomerate also owns large
percentages of book publishing firms in five countries and
numerous non-media properties. In fact, the company had
diversified into books, magazines and distribution abroad
because it did not want to get into political tangles at home. 17
Broadcasting in both countries, owned and controlled by
the government nearly from the outset, is being restructured,
with hints of a lessening of government influence. In Malaysia,
top government officials have indicated that perhaps the time
has come to hand over to private firms such systems as radio,
television and telephone. In 1982, Radio Television Malaysia
was to have been separated into two media under one
director-general. The following year, Malaysia's first private
television station, Sistem Television Malaysia Bhd., was
established with programming scheduled for early 1985. Ties
to the ruling political coalition were evident in that the license
for the new station was awarded to the Fleet group, with an
invitation extended to the Utusan Melayu group to be a partner.
Both have strong links to the UMNO.
Recognized as a major tool in developing national unity
and consciousness in this multi-ethnic and multi-lingual
16. At first glance, one is apt to challenge this statement. The number of
literate Chinese-speaking people in Singapore is large and has not been
saturated by newspapers yet. At least one of the two affected Chinese dailies,
Sin Chew Jit Poh was very profitable at the beginning of the decade. In 1979
the paper reported profits of $4.34 million, with more expected in 1980 (Straits
Times (Singapore), Aug. 20, 1980, p. 18). But, beginning in 1980, Nanyang
Siang Pau and Sin Chew Jit Poh engaged in a bitter, and perhaps fatal,
circulation war when the former launched an evening, Chinese-language daily,
Koui Bao.
17. See John A. Lent, "ASEAN Mass Communications and Cultural
Submission," Media, Culture and Society, April 1982, pp. 171-189; Andy
McCue, "Singapore Publishing Empire Spreading into New Regions-and
Undertakings," Asian Wall Street Journal (Hong Kong), July 14, 1980, p. 22;
Quek Peck Lim, "Spreading a Net Across the Pacific," Straits Times, Aug.
12, 1980, p. 6.
society, broadcasting is used to disseminate government
policies and programs for maximum understanding. A result
is that Malaysian television has come in for regular attack for
poor quality of production and low standards of presentation
and techniques, and audiences have substituted imported video
cassettes for Television Malaysia programming. Information
Minister Adib Adam complained in 1982 that the loss of
Television Malaysia's audience to video might "hamper
government efforts to disseminate national aspirations and
values and channel information to the people." He launched a
crackdown on video shows in coffee houses, restaurants, and
other public places and increased the import duty on tapes, and
at the same time recommended that Television Malaysia strive
for more quality programs emphasizing multi-racial features.
In June 1982, the Ministry of Information started a trust fund
with revenue drawn from advertisers to upgrade programs and
stimulate better scripts. Two months later, the ministry
announced plans to develop a panel of consultants to select
and purchase foreign films for television,19 and in 1983, it
decided to enlist greater participation of the private sector in
Radio Television Malaysia and ministry activities. Advertisers
on the radio and television networks were required to produce
commercials, posters or billboards for government projects as
a precondition to their being allotted commercial airtime. 20
Other means have been tried to obtain audiences for
government programs, including interrupting popular foreign
dramas and comedies with local development and news
Perhaps recognizing that much of what passed as
developmental information on Radio Television Malaysia was
propaganda for officialdom, the government in 1981 directed
broadcasting to reduce its coverage of activities of ministers
and to give more time to developmental projects. Direct
political controls exist in Malaysian broadcasting, and along
with security of tenure of staffs, red tape and bureaucracy,
have hindered creativity.
In 1980, Radio Television Singapore was restructured,
becoming a statutory board under the name Singapore
Broadcasting Corporation (SBC). The board, an autonomous
body rather than a full-fledged government department, is made
up of seven members from the private and public sectors, one
of whom is the Minister of Culture who serves as chair. The
decision to reshape broadcasting was to relieve restrictions on
finances, inadequate facilities and staff shortages, to end the
civil service mentality and to develop better quality shows.
Singaporean broadcasting is used to promote government aims,
especially those oriented around Lee Kuan Yew's many
campaigns. A strict censorship code discourages television
showing of illicit sex, nudity, gambling, excessive violence,
"hippieism," drug abuse, scenes offensive to religious and
racial sensitivities, and even skate boarding, which the
government considers dangerous to children. Radio censors
rock music that encourages disrespect for authority or drug
18. "Video Boom: Govt To Act," The Star (Penang), Aug. 21, 1982, p. I.
See also: "Malaysia," IPI Report, Dec. 1982, 1>. 14; Ainuddin Dahlan,
"Lost-Millions in Govt Revenue," The Star, Aug. 22, 1982, p. 3.
19. New Straits Times (Kuala Lumpur), Aug. 2, 1982.
20. "Advertisers To Help Govt," AMCB (Singapore), June 1983, p. 5.
21. Barry Newman, "Prime-Time Puffery: Malaysian Government Decides
What's on TV: News ofIts Own Feats," Wall Street Journal, Dec. 5,1980, p. I.
taking. A 1982 government report on censorship takes a
cautious line, stating there is no need for major changes in
existing policy but leaving the door open for gradual
liberalization. For example, the report recommended that an
advisory panel be created to keep censors in touch with public
attitudes and that censors take note of the context of a film
before making wholesale cuts.
The restructuring of mass media in Malaysia
and Singapore can only benefit the govern
ments-as newspapers are purchased by ruling
parties or merged, thus concentrating vehicles of
public opinion into fewer hands; as government
officials reshuffle newspaper managements and
appoint managers and editors; or as a national
news service such as Bernama is given sole dis
tributorship of foreign news.
Legislative Controls
Restrictive press legislation in the two states has
similarities. Both states license newspapers annually, both have
the right to detain journalists without trial under internal
security laws and both have strong sedition acts. Most feared
in both countries are the internal security laws. In Malaysia,
the Internal Security Act prohibits the printing or possession
of any material which may lead to violence, cause public
disorder or promote hostility between races.
These, and other laws, have been used to hinder journalists
in Malaysia and Singapore. When The Star was critical in
1982, it and its sister, Malayan Thung Pau, were kept in
suspense until the last moment concerning license renewal.
When a West Malaysian correspondent for a regional magazine
was too strong in his writing, the Immigration Act was trotted
out to bar him from East Malaysia. In Singapore, through the
use of the Essential Information (Control of Publications and
Safeguarding of Information) Regulation, the government
decides what is fit to publish. For example, it was used in 1969
to prevent public discussion in the press of the government's
decision to abolish trial by jury for capital offenses.
A ruling
by the Malaysian High Court in 1982 virtually did away with
parliamentary privilege. The court ruled that Parliament has a
right to limit freedom of speech in the House to "minimise
racial explosions. "23
22. See John A. Lent, "True (7) Confessions-TV in Malaysia and
Singapore," Index on Censorship, March/April 1978, pp. 9-18; Amnesty
International, "Report of an Amnesty International Mission to Singapore, 30
November to 5 December 1978," London: Amnesty International Publications,
1980, p. 41.
23. K. Das, "Malaysian Court Rules on Freedom of Speech," Far Eastern
Economic Review, April 23, 1982, p. 8.
In 1984, a bill (National Printing) designed to stop foreign
mass media from distorting or exploiting any Malaysian issue
was debated in Parliament. Under the bill, the printers will be
liable for any news items they print which are distributed in
Malaysia. A deposit will be paid to the government by printers
before their publications can be distributed. The bill, expected
to be approved, provides the authorities with far-ranging
powers to ban indefinitely the importation and distribution of
anything it deems "undesirable."
The only suspended newspaper (barring papers that died
during Singapore's 1982-83 changes) in the two states recently
was Tamil Malar. The seventeen-year old, Tamil-language
daily was closed by the Malaysian government in 1980 for
publishing an article considered insulting to Islam. The article,
a commentary on Hinduism written thirty years before and sent
to Malar by the son of the Hindu priest-author, implied that
polygamy (practiced by Moslems) could spread venereal
disease. The reaction was swift. News vendors refused to sell
Malar and riot squads were deployed when about 2,500
protestors gathered in Penang. Despite a page one apology,
the paper's publisher, multi-millionaire Armugam Pillay had
his license revoked.
In September 1983, a bilingual monthly
of social analysis, Nadi [nsan, was banned after three warnings
during the year. The official reason for the ban was that Nadi
[nsan published articles detrimental to diplomatic relationships
between Malaysia and its neighbors. Previously the December
1982 issue had been banned.
Although newspapers are not regularly suspended, specific
issues or parts of them (especially of foreign media) are
censored or banned in both states. The same applies to books,
movies, radio and television programs. For example, in
October 1982, Malaysian police confiscated thousands of
proscribed books from newsagents and bookshops in Kuala
Lumpur and elsewhere. Called prejudicial to national interest,
the titles included Karl Marx, Marquis de Sade and best sellers
by Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace.
Of arrested journalists during the past decade, probably
the cause celebre was the case of Samad Ismail, managing
editor of Malaysia's New Straits Times. Along with another
editor of the New Straits Times Group and two Singaporean
editors, Samad was arrested in June 1976 under the Internal
Security Act for "communist activities." Never brought to trial,
he was imprisoned over four and a half years, despite a televised
confession he made in 1976.
Upon his release in February
1981, after another televised confession, Samad was said by
Home Minister Ghazali Shafie to have responded satisfactorily
to rehabilitation and "turned over a new leaf."26 In his second
confession, Samad said he used media by presenting news
24. See K. Das, "The Misused Power of the Pen," Far Eastern Economic
Review, Dec. 5, 1980, pp. 24-25; "Islam Offended," Asiaweek, Dec. 12,
1980, p. 16.
25. See Lent, "True (7) Confessions ... ," op. cit. The television confession
is common in both Malaysia and Singapore as one precondition for release
from political detention. In its report on Singapore, Amnesty International
wrote that confessions are not substitutes for open and fair trials. It added:
"The practice of imputing gUilt by such means, through media controlled by
the government instead of establishing the validity of evidence through normal
legal procedures, violates elementary rules of law." (Amnesty International,
op. cit., p. 5.
26. "The Freeing of Samad Ismail," Asiaweek, Feb. 13, 1981, p. 19.
unfavorable to government to undermine its credibility and by The staff is now officially barred from the Information
highlighting controversies. He said his televised statement was Ministry, as well as from many official press conferences and
voluntary and that he was neither coerced nor induced to declare
it publicly. 27 Apparently, Malaysian officials are quick to
forgive and forget. Within six months Samad was working on
The Star and by November 1982 he had been appointed by the
Deputy Prime Minister to be editorial advisor to the New Straits
Times, a post that makes him answerable only to the chairman
of the group, Daim Zainuddin.
Two other arrests of journalists in Malaysia give clues
concerning the role of the press. One was the arrest of Alan
Lee of Business Times (a New Straits Times newspaper), who
1 in 1980 was found guilty under the Securities Industry Act of
writing false, misleading information on a security. Observers
of the trial thought Lee should not have been the sole defendant,
I but that his publisher should also have stood trial. The court
president ruled otherwise, stunning journalists when he said,
"If publishers are made liable for such reports, publishing of
newspapers will have to stop." During the two-year trial, the
New Straits Times refused to assist Lee, claiming he no longer
was an employee of the group. 28
The most recent arrests were in October 1981, when first
a senior journalist and then the publisher of bi-weekly Waran
were accused of being involved in allowing their paper to be
used by communists and publishing material from the outlawed
Communist Party of Malaysia and from the Soviet Embassy.
The arrests were the first setbacks for what some viewed as
the liberal policy of Mahathir. They came as an aftermath of
the arrest of a Soviet spy in the prime minister's office. The
senior journalist was released after eight months and allowed
to return to his profession; the publisher was detained 24 days.
Accessibility and Coverage
One writer pointed out that Malaysian officials "routinely
limit access to sources, refuse to comment and run a tight ship
so information leaks are rare, even though rumours run
rampant. "29 In fact, Malaysian journalists have had at least two
serious incidents in 1983 concerning denial of access to
government sources. The Star claimed officials barred the paper
from Angkasapuri (Information Ministry complex housing
Radio Television Malaysia) for ten months in 1982-83,
presumably because of an expose of RTM producers who
demanded sex from budding actresses.
The government
denied the charge, to which The Star responded with a front
page editorial, stating in part,
Ours is a government of laws, not of men. The distinction must
remain clear. However, if such clarity exists only in rhetoric and
not in substance, then the government would look an ass-as it
has been made to look for ten months.
Three days later, a Star reporter was banned from Angkasapuri.
27. "Journalist, Freed from Detention, Repents Past Communist Activities,"
Malaysian Digest, Feb. 28,1981, p. 2.
28. See "Publishing Ain't So Risky After All," Asiaweek, April II, 1980, p.
29. English, op. cit.
30. Another source believed the government squeeze on The Star's editorial
coverage resulted from the paper's analytical, pre-election coverage of April
1981. (Segal, op. cit.).
About the same time as The Star incident, Sabah Chief
Minister Harris Salleh banned representatives of the New Straits
Times and Bernama, the national news agency, from official
functions and briefings and from receiving official handouts.
Harris charged the New Straits Times and Bernama had
distorted Sabah government statements and in the process
weakened already tenuous relations between Sabah and the
federal government. Through fear of harming relations more,
Bernarna and New Straits Times editors and the Information
Minister downplayed the issue. Harris allowed the daily access
after a Kuala Lumpur senior editor met with him.32
Group editor of the Straits Times, Peter Lim, believed the
Singaporean press had more access to government in 1980 than
previously. He reported that senior civil servants and
administrators were more approachable and that tolerance of a
more critical press was evident in some government circles. 33
After 1982-83, the situation has probably deteriorated.
By now, the presses of Malaysia and Singapore should
know exactly what government expects of them (or be
completely confused by the inundation of messages), for over
the years ministers have continually gone to the lectern to
exhort them. This has been especially true in Malaysia. In
1981, the Minister of Information told newspapers to tone down
their use of sex and other pornographic influences which corrupt
youth and erode national identity. In late 1981, Deputy Prime
Minister Musa Hitam warned mass media to be alert to being
used by communist fronts, subversive elements and anti-nation
als. At about the same time, a Deputy Education Minister said
the press should play down the profit motive and stress guiding
people toward development, On another occasion, at an
exclusive press briefing, Mahathir told editors to play down
speculations of corruption in the military; at separate briefings,
the Deputy Prime Minister told them not to highlight new
curriculum where there was evidence that government had tried
to curb Chinese education. 3.
Some of these exhortations are used as trial balloons, In
June 1982, Information Minister Adib Adam said he might ask
mass media to formulate their own set of principles, to regulate
themselves. A similar proposal was suggested in the early
I 970s. At the same time Adib proposed that all international
news agencies channel their news to their local clients only
through Bernama, the national news agency. This role for
Bernama has been tossed about since at least 1972, Apparently
not receiving much criticism of the idea, the Information
Minister announced in July 1983 that it would go into effect
in May 1984. This time senior editors of leading dailies voiced
strong opposition, the Malaysian Newspaper Publishers
Association saying the move would have "wide implications
on the free flow of news." Others felt Bernama could abuse
the role. The government explained that Bernama could earn
additional money as sole distributor, and also would help small
31. "Kuala Lumpur Countcrpunch," op. cit.
32. "A Tiff Over Banned Newsmen," Asiaweek, April 22, 1983, p. 18.
33. "The Media Get the Message," op. cit.
34. Pena, op. cit.
papers which could not afford international wire services.)5
One source was less than confident of Bernama's new role,
claiming the agency did not know whether "to serve as a bona
fide news agency for the local press or a government
information office, which grinds out a boring agenda of
ministers' activities. "10 The Bernama proposal was expected to
be implemented in mid-1984. Meanwhile, the government
intimated that Bernama may be sold off to private investors.
The New Straits Times, among other media, has been
criticized in the same vein concerning its coverage. One source
said the New Straits Times is
more dedicated to l'hronicling every movement and pronouncement
of the than giving the public the truth. As an
'unofficial' extension of the political system, the Times' tone
always sound advOl:ative. It so frequently reports speeches of min
telling the populace to 'buck up and work hard' that its
preachiness becomes a paternalistic insult. J7
A survey of NelV Straits Times' content in October 1976,
showed that in the 30 issues, 28 reports of government projects
were played up, compared to only one report of criticism of a
government report. Still other surveys showed the New Straits
Times distorted reports of demonstrations to avoid mentioning
peasant demands and to promote fear about demonstrations;
handled elections in a pro-government fashion; legitimated
those in power; determined who can speak and the views that
are credible; promoted a male, adult world, ignoring political
views of women and youth; emphasized urban life in a 70
percent ruralized society; represented anti-working class views;
and portrayed the world from a Western, capitalistic perspec
tive. )K
Because of the ownership and control of many Malaysian
newspapers by components of the ruling National Front,
election coverage is very lopsided. The opposition is almost
ignored, issues are obscured and new proposals of projects
announced by incumbents are featured.
The opposition was
placed in an extremely disadvantageous position during the
1982 election, for the campaign period was shortened to fifteen
days and public rallies were ruled out. Although both sides
were affected, the opposition suffered most because, as the
president of Aliran wrote, government parties used the
state-owned radio-TV for
their electoral campaign in a manner that has no parallel in the
past. The pages of the national dailies-most of which are owned
and controlled by some group or other involved with the
front-were transformed into paeans of praise for the ruling
coalition. If the opposition managed to snatch the headlines once
in a while, it was only because of some internal squabbles,
defections and the like which served to discredit them further.
There was hardly any news on their manifestos, their programmes
or their leaders :'<1
35. "A New Role for Bernama." Asiaweek. July 22. 1983, p. 33.
36. "Malaysia." IPI Report, Dec. 1982, p. 14.
37 English, op. cit.
38. Alex Seow. "New Straits Times: The News Machine," Fijar (London),
Oct. 1980, pp. 10-14.
39. English, op. cit.
40. Chandra Muzaffar. "Wanted: A Loyal Opposif.ion," Far Eastern Economic
Review, April 23. 1982. pp, 38-39.
More recently UMNO has exercised influence over the
daily operations of both the New Straits Times and Utusan
groups. After the battle for the deputy presidency of UMNO
between rivals Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah
and Deputy Premier Musa Hitam, the eventual winner, the two
groups through their newspapers played up Musa and relegated
Razaleigh to the inside pages.
Similar types of coverage of government exist in
Singapore. And, as in Malaysia, officials have, from time to
time, harassed journalists to write it the government way.
Writing in 1980, Straits Times Editor Peter Lim said the
situation had become better than previously:
At one time there were almost daily calls from ministers telling
us what or what not to print, and scolding us for something that
had been said. That practice started to taper off about two years
ago and now it hardly happens at all.
The situation changed in 1982-83 when several editors
were harshly criticized and "persuaded" to stop news coverage
of the political opposition. Unlike the 1971 squeeze on the
press, when editors were accused of writing subversively,
during the 1982 crackdown the government said coverage was
inaccurate mainly because of untrained journalists:
For years
press coverage has been hampered by self-censorship. For
example, when Amnesty International issued its 1980 report
on a mission to Singapore, in which the government fared very
poorly, newspapers only gave the government reaction with
barely a hint of what the allegations were.
The restructuring of mass media in Malaysia and
Singapore can only benefit the governments-as newspapers
are purchased by ruling parties or merged, thus concentrating
vehicles of -public opinion into fewer hands; as government
officials reshuffle newspaper managements and appoint manag
ers and editors; or as a national news service such as Bernama
is given sole distributorship of foreign news. If print media
increasingly become propaganda outlets for the administrations,
they are apt to be accused by the public of being boring and
less than credible. Broadcasting systems, tightly controlled by
the governments, have already faced those charges and are in
the midst of their own restructuring, slightly in the opposite
direction, inviting more participation from the private sector.
Although Singapore and Malaysia experienced liberal
periods at the beginning of the 1980s, they were seasonal-in
the case of Singapore, probably to create a climate to attract
entrepreneurs for the state's bid to be a regional clearinghouse
for information; in the case of Malaysia, possibly to flush out
problems in the civil service for a new administration. To
understand longer-term roles envisioned for media, perhaps a
re-reading of Lee Kuan Yew's many attacks on the press or
Mahathir's unsolicited New Straits Times article on press
freedom would be instructive. In the latter article, written just
41. "The Media Get the Message," op. cit.
42. Colin Campbell, "Singapore, Citing Unity, Again Reins in the Press,"
New York Times, July 20, 1982, p. A-2; see also, "Singapore's Editors Face
Tighter Controls," IPI Report, Sept. 1982. Lim of the Straits Times agreed
in part that the journalists are untrained, saying the Straits Times is not bold
because it has a young staff which is not sure of itself.
before he took office, Mahathir said journalists have no
mandate to influence national life because they are not elected.
"Radical Teacher'. activist perspective confronts the real issues of classroom and
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by Hans Borkent*

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Living on the Razor's Edge:
The Rickshawmen of Singapore
between Two Wars, 1919-1939
by Jim Warren
This article' reconstructs the world of the rickshaw pullers
of Singapore in the period from 1918 to 1939, examines the
nature of their interaction and experience with the city, and
the causes and effects of colonial policy and practice on their
working and personal lives. There has been increasing
recognition of the need to focus research on the urban work
place, labor and the everyday problems of the coolie class
under colonial rule in Southeast Asia. Such efforts, if they are
to be meaningful, must be posed, theoretically and empirically,
against a background of real life. This approach raises grave
historiographical problems, for historians, I ike anthropologists,
have tended "to graze in the fields,"2 focusing their primary
attention on rural societies of Southeast Asia. Considerable
work has been done on peasant based movements and,
opposition to colonial rule, but hardly any historical research
has been conducted on the urban laboring class, of which the
rickshaw coolies of Singapore formed a part.
The tidewater colonial capitals of the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries created new modes of human experience
for immigrant Asians, but especially for singkeh, the Chinese
newcomers to Singapore.' At the end of the nineteenth century
I. This article represents work in progress that is based on a trilogy I am
currently researching and writing on the Chinese laboring classes in Singapore.
The initial volume. Rickshaw Coolie. A People's History of Singapore. is to
be published next year. The other two volumes are provisionally titled The
Social Evil: Prostitution and Venereal Disease in Colonial Singapore and
Chillese Silicide in Singapore, 1 8 8 3 ~ / 9 3 9 . I want to thank the former Registrar
General. Mr. Khoo Oon Soo. and the staff of the Subordinate Courts Library
for their kind cooperation and assistance in facilitating my researches with the
Coroner's Records.
2. The language of the late Maurice Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979), p. 40 I.
3. An immigrant on landing in Singapore was called a Sin-kheh, or a new
man, or newcomer by the Teochiu, and Sin-hak by the Cantonese.
Singapore rapidly developed as a commercial center and an
entrepot port dominated by import and export firms and banks,
and serviced Britain's imperial expansion and trade-oriented
economy in Southeast Asia. This development had a profound
impact upon every aspect of economic and social relationships,
but it was most marked in the labor nexus, in the segregation
and extreme overcrowding of the lower-class Chinese who, as
rickshaw pullers, coal coolies, and stevedores provided the
sinews of empire and helped to shape the expansion of
Linked to the structural changes in Singapore's economy
was the social impact of mass migration on colonial Singapore,
especially on work, behavior, values and feelings of the
Chinese laborers. There was an increasing disparity between
the ever-burgeoning Chinese population and the city's ability
to deal with growth and change. Singapore's administrators
consistently chose alternatives that minimized planning costs
but created social conditions which inevitably forced rickshaw
men over the poverty line. Despite these problems Singapore,
especially at the peak of its growth around 1900, often seemed
a place of hope and betterment compared to the countryside
of China and the treaty ports.
In order to understand the impact of colonial policy and
practice in the lives of the rickshaw coolies, it is important to
describe and analyze the key social relationships within the
Chinese community between puller and owner, and between
the rickshawmen and the Europeans who were administrators,
magistrates, and coroners. The study of British policies and
attitudes with respect to rickshaw coolies will enable us not
only to penetrate the myth of the foulness of the rickshaw
quarters, of the pullers' supposed propensity to vice and
criminality, but also to understand how and why this myth was
The sources for this slice of Singapore History-the life
and struggle of the rickshawmen in the inter-war years and the
circumstances surrounding their ongms and demise-are
mainly official reports and documents, contemporary social
description, contemporary statistical analyses, photographs,
and oral history, "tales heard by the eyes." In these sources
an astonishing range of facts exist on all the factors at work
In Chinese coolie society, encompassing not only the relative
size of the population and the birth, marriage and death rates
but also statistics on accidental and violent deaths and suicide,
figures for morbidity and mortality from circulatory, respiratory
and sexually transmitted diseases, surveys by colonial social
investigators on the nature of urban housing, on migration and
the colonial economy, and. several studies of changes in the
economy, amount and consumption of opium. These records
can go a long way' towards reconstructing coolie life in a
Chinese city outside China and demonstrating how labor,
capital and the state came into conflict with one another.
Among the most important and interesting of these source
materials are the Coroner's Records for Colonial Singapore,
1883-1890. Neglected in a storeroom ofthe Subordinate Court,
these certificates, inquests and inquiries are a source of special
interest to historians of the urban poor.4
These records bring the rickshaw coolies, their clansmen,
kinsmen and women of a forgotten past into the historical
forefront. They provide empirical evidence on age, sex, marital
status, address, place of birth, occupation, length of time in
Singapore, diet, dress, sickness, and death. The causes of death
often depict the deprivation experienced in pulling a rickshaw.
Much also can be learned about housing, health, and poverty,
and the almost hopeless struggle to survive in times of recession
and depression.
On Leaving China
The rapid increase in the 1880s and 1890s in the number
of immigrating Chinese workers was the single most important
demographic and social development in Singapore's history.
Between 1880 and 1940, during the c o l o ~ i a l period, millions
left the two adjacent provinces of Fukien and Kwangtung in
Southeastern China by sea, bound for the nanyang. These men,
mostly under indenture, sailed from Swatow, Amoy and Hong
Kong to Singapore. Hong Kong was the starting point of the
4. When the door was unlocked for me, after several months of fruitless
searching, to a clean dry room in the modern Subordinate Courts Building, I
gained access to a collection of several hundred unclassified bound and unbound
volumes stacked on the floor against a wall to the height of three to four feet.
The records had been moved several times from one repository to another
under British rule and again as late as 1975, and this had resulted in a certain
amount of damage and loss on each occasion. Most of the volumes of inquests
and inquiries and bundles of Coroner's views lying at the bottom of a heap
or stack had suffered due to dampness. In addition to this, there had been, of
course, the ravages of white ants. Not sure where to start without a check list
or guide, I began to rummage among the stacks closest to me and soon sensed
the historiographical possibilities these documents offered for the study of
ordinary Chinese men and women. As I randomly located and read the first
inquest statements of rickshaw pullers and their kin, finding expressions of
their personal grief, of pain and frustration, of the misery that colonial rule
and the depression had inllicted on them, of an extreme structural poverty
reflected in the incidence, of the causes and meaning of suicide, and of life's
small pleasures like a special meal of chicken, rice wine and noodles shared
with friends. I realized that the contents of this repository would yield up with
skill and patience the living testimony of Chinese people who did not know
how to express themselves in print and who did not have access to people
with power.
scheduled sailings of the passenger steamers and sailing vessels
of firms like Syme Muir and Co. and Jardine and Matheson &
Co. and principal port of call for competing German, Danish
and Dutch sailing lines. There were also junks going to the
nanyang, from harbors small and large all along the China
coast. 5
Wives of rickshaw pullers faced a basic con
tradiction in Singapore at that time: their posi
tion was central to the social and economic sur
vival of the family unit but they could not fulfill
the social role of wife and mother and the
economic role of worker at one and the same
time within the framework of the elemental
Many of these peasants were driven out by periodic poor
harvests, flood-caused famines in all parts of South China and
by the rising price of rice.
They were also forced out by local
conditions of overpopulation and the policies of landlords. For
many survival meant escape from the impoverished domestic
economy. Understandably, a multitude of singkeh left Fukien
and K wangtung in search of better prospects. They were
indigent, barely knowing the written characters of their own
language, but they carried with them the compass of culture,
a will and a burning ambition. Their dream was one of hard
work, a decent livelihood, and a return in some comfort to
home and hearth in China.
The immigration of singkeh stamped an indelible image
on Singapore. It was a coolie town, with a heterogeneous
Chinese workforce, a disproportionate ratio of male to female,
and an abnormal age structure. At the tum of the century
Chinese males constituted over 72 percent of the total
population. Most of these men were either single or had left
their wives and children behind. Alone, indebted, jobless on
arrival, they accounted for almost all the able-bodied men of
the working population. They were aged between 15 and 59.
There were few women (except for prostitutes), children, or
old men among the Singapore Chinese in this period. A far
more noticeable feature of this population in the early part of
the century was the rate of return to China. Singkeh had come
to do manual labor, to build, but not to stay. In the late 1890s
5. Many emigrants still relied on the traditional mode of emigration from
South China to the Nanyang during the transition period from sailing junks to
steam navigation at the end of the nineteenth century. The bows of the Amoy
junks were painted green, while those from Swatow were varnished red. Hence,
the emigrant ships were popularly called the Green junks and the Red junks.
Ta Chen, Emigrant Communities in South China. A Study of Overseas
Migration and Its Influence on Standards of Living and Social Change (New
York: Secretariat, Institute of Pacific Relations, 1940), p. 261.
6. Straits Settlement Annual Report, Chinese Protectorate, 1910, p. 173; 1911,
p. 173; Joyce Ee, "Chinese Migration to Singapore, 1896--1941" Journal of
Southeast Asian History. II (911), p. 34.
"jinrikisha Station" in Sago Lane
only about 10 percent of the Singapore Chinese were locally
born. The average length of time spent in the city by those
who immigrated was about seven years. Later, conditions were
more favorable when compared to those in China, especially
in the I 920s, and an increasing number of this immigrant
transient community would settle in Singapore.
After arrival in Singapore, the newcomers joined forces
within regionally based ethnic and sub-ethnic groups to carve
out an economic niche for themselves. Initially, secret societies
and later on speech groups sought to protect the occupational
monopolies of particular sub-ethnic groups in various trades
and occupations, such as the Hengwah, Hockchia and Foochow
in rickshaw pulling. The role that the secret societies and
voluntary associations played in economic and social relations
among Singapore's rickshawmen was absolutely crucial. Their
primary function was to provide financial assistance, social
welfare and security for their members. As far as Singapore
was concerned, solidarity among rickshaw pullers was forged
on the anvil of the society they knew in China. Native place
particularism and a network of voluntary associations helped
to attract overseas sojourners into Singapore, where through
their associations they maintained special ties with the
homeland as kinsmen and clansmen, and pursued special
occupational interests like rickshaw pulling.
The rickshaw was invented in Japan in 1869.' Originally
called jinrickshaw from the characters meaning man-powered
carriage, the "jin" was dropped from the term at the tum of
the century and "rickshaw" came into general use.
7. Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society, p. 243.
8. john K. Fairbank. Edwin O. Reischauer and Albert M. Craig. East Asia.
Tradition and Transformation (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1973). pp.
524-525: "Economic Study of the Peking Ricsha Puller," China Economic
Monthly. 3. 6 (June. 1926) p. 253.
9. The invention of the rickshaw has been credited to at least three different
men; an American missionary named Jonothan Gable. Akiha Daisuki and an
out of work samurai called Yiisuke Tzumi. Rickshaws were first called
jin-riki-sha. which literally means "man-power carriages." Phonetically the
IX ..
'" <U

rickshaw became a modem form of transport throughout Asia
in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The
rickshaw combined new technology-superior western-styled
wheels-with cheap, seemingly indefatigable Asian labor. The
two-wheeled wooden carriage was unquestionably an improve
ment over the Chinese invented wheel barrow, the sedan chair,
and animal drawn vehicles. It is, after all, easier to pull a
passenger along at a rapid pace than to carry or push him over
a distance. Rickshaws, which required only one man, largely
superseded sedan chairs, which required the labor of at least
two, except in China's mountain resorts and in hilly Hong
The rickshaw spread across Asia and became the most
popular way of getting around for most Asians. It soon became
a familiar sight in the streets of larger cities like Yokohama,
Peking, Shanghai, Rangoon and Calcutta. The rickshaw first
made its appearance in Peking in 1886 and twelve years later
appeared on the streets for public hire. 10 It was introduced into
Calcutta by members of its Chinese community for carriage of
goods around 1900. They later came into use for passenger
service in 1914, and "Chinese rickshawalas awaiting custom
at the roadside were a familiar part of the Chowringhee
scene. "II Rickshaws also found their way to South Africa where
they became part of the urban landscape in Durban for many
The rickshaw was tried out for public transport in
Singapore in 1880. The first consignment came from Shanghai
but they were imported from Japan the following year. They
proved to be an immediate success. The apparently unheralded
arrival of the rickshaw marked the beginning of a noticeable
change in the traffic on Singapore's streets. Within a year of
word is derived from the Japanese characters jin for man, riki meaning energy
or strength, and sha for carriage. In Hokkien the word rickshaw is kan-cha
(pull carriage). Malay Mail, 27 April, 1965,
10, "Economic Study of the Peking Ricsha Puller," p, 253.
II. Rickshaws in Calcutta, UNNA YAN in association with T, H, Thomas
(Calcutta: UNNAYAN, 1981), p. I.
Rickshaw puller taking meal at food hawker's (c. 1905)
its advent, over a thousand of these two-wheeled carriages
were to be found plying for hire in the streets and alleyways
of the city. Rickshaws were the pride of the road at the turn
of the century. By 1924 the actual number of rickshaws active
was estimated at 28,800. An inexpensive and convenient mode
t of transport around town, it was patronized by people from all
walks of life including school children, shoppers, hawkers,
prostitutes, colonial officials and the indigent.
Most rickshawmen had been peasants in Fukien and
Kwangtung. The pattern of their lives in village China was
shaped by mud, rice and an old system of proprietory land
f owning. The life of the tenant farmer was locked in an endless
struggle with nature-in planting and harvesting rice, digging
canals and dikes, embanking rivers-and with landlords and
enemies. Hengwah and Hockchia peasants had little hope of
ever owning land, not even an acre of it. The selection of
rickshaw pulling was not necessarily a personal choice. The
economic and political conditions in Fukien and K wangtung
provinces compelled these men to go far afield in preference
to slow starvation in their homeland. Hengwah and Hockchia
kin followed one another forming a chain, pushed from behind
by wretched conditions in China and drawn ahead by the
~ remarkable economic activity of colonial Singapore, eventually
linked to jobs as rickshaw pullers.
Estimates of the number of rickshaw pullers plying for
f hire on the streets between 1918 and 1939 vary. Pullers
themselves supplied hardly any information on their numbers
I in discussions with officials or on the rare occasions when they
were directly questioned by special commissions or boards of
inquiry. The figures derived from the owners with a vested
interest in the industry were not always based on the same
calculus as that of officials, and discrepancies exist in the
estimated number of men who earned their living by pulling
rickshaws. The official statistics of the Jinrikisha Department
were calculated on the assumption that there were two coolies
to every rickshaw, and very often three by 1918.
It was
commonplace for words like "about," "approximately," "over"
and "exceeds" to be used in official reports to estimate the size
of this transient workforce. Any reduction in the number of
men who earned their living by pulling rickshaws was often 4 t
attributed to fewer coolies arriving from China. In 1918 there
were still over 20,000 but the numbers were coming down. 13
The coolies were not emigrating from China in the same force
as they had ten years earlier owing to the expensive passage,
low exchange value of Singapore currency, and the high cost
of living. Nevertheless, by 1921, the number of rickshaws on
the streets had increased from 8022 to 9244.14 All the pullers
were still China-born with practically no Singapore-born
coming into this kind of work.15 Even during the 1930s the
vast majority of them still started fresh from China.
The Crisis in Pay, Food and Lodging
Because rickshaw rides were cheap, monthly income was
fairly low as well, according to the Hockchia rickshaw owner,
Lee Choon.
The rickshaw hire was twenty cents during the
day and twenty-five to thirty cents during the night, which did
not leave the puller very much. 17 A rickshaw coolie could make
about one dollar a day (or $24 a month) in 1924.
He had to
12. Housing Commission Report, Singapore, 1918, evidence of Mr. Hooper,
p. B91. There were at least 15,000 rickshaw pullers in Singapore by 1897.
From that year on until 1917 the coolies were roughly estimated to number
over 20,000.
13. Ibid.
14. Singapore Municipal Annual Report, linrickisha Department, 1919, p.
15. British Malayan Opium Commission, p. B-28.
16. Ibid., evidence of Lee Choon, p. C-47.
17. British Malayan Opium Commission, evidence of Lee Choon, p. C-47.
18. In 1908 the wages of an ordinary coolie were forty-five to fifty cents a
day, a day laborer in the tin mines earned seventy cents and one dollar a day
was the most a coal coolie ever earned. A rickshaw puller's earnings stabilized
at about one dollar a day by 1924, but the inexperienced and opium addicts
were fortunate if they could net forty cents to buy food and chandu (prepared
opium). Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States Opium Commission,
1908, pp. 32, 279; Proceedings of the Committee Appointed by His Excellency
the Governor and High Commissioner to Inquire into Matters relating to the
use of Opium in British Malaya (Singapore: Government Printing Office,
1924), pp. B-29, C-47.
buy food out of that, for which a puller spent about thirty cents
a day. That left him forty to fifty cents to buy clothes, send
money to China, pay the prostitute, and buy opium, if he
smoked. Very few pullers made more than $20 a month,
however. Since the cost of living was from $12 to $14 a month,
the puller could count on $6 to $8 clear to either remit or fritter
away on opium, daughters of joy, and gambling.
Food cost less at home, even compared to the simple
inexpensive meals eaten outside. While the average per capita
monthly food expenditure was somewhat higher when the
rickshaw men ate out, there were many who were loath to take
the time to bargain in the market and cook at home, as the
time and money saved in being the cook had to be balanced
against time lost in real wages from pulling the rickshaw.
Approximately 25-40 percent of the puller's daily income was
spent on food. Because the rickshawmen often earned irregular
incomes they tended to live on a day to day basis. Thus they
were forced to buy foodstuffs daily in small quantities from
fresh food hawkers who lived close by. Their low incomes
forced pullers to purchase primarily rice and vegetables.
Naturally, for many, except the really poor among them, it
made sense to pay a little extra to eat a meal with a bit of meat
or fish at a stall on a regular basis where the hawker could also
extend credit to his regular customers.
It was difficult enough to work so hard, but to go hungry
on top of that was a reality of life for rickshawmen in Singapore
by the 1920s. A few cents really counted at the tum of the
century. At that time a puller could eat well and still pay his
rickshaw hire.
A cup of coffee with milk was three cents in a coffee shop and
two cents from a hawker .... On the five footway, satay twice
the size of that sold today and better in quality sold at two cents
a stick; Kui-teow cost three cents for a large plateful. A big cupful
of Hokkien mee, sufficientto satisfy one for a day, costten cents. ,.
However, by 1918 the wages of rickshaw men had fallen at
least 20 percent behind the increased cost of living. This was
particularly noticeable with regard to the pattern of purchasing
and consumption of food. The increase in the cost of the food,
mostly condiments (soya sauce, sesame oil, vinegar) or
preserved food from China, was enormous. Salted cabbage,
for instance, which was one of the main vegetables, increased
from fifty cents to nearly three dollars per kilo. As a
consequence offalling wages, rising prices for basic necessities,
and acceptance of lower nutritional levels, many of the pullers
classified as offenders for being "physically weak," "decrepit"
or "ragged and dirty" were, in fact, suffering from malnutrition
-a malnutrition that was virtually non-existent among pullers
two decades earlier. It was for these really poor men who found
it difficult to muster the strength day after day to earn enough
to get a reasonable meal that some wealthy "Babas" used to
place pots of weak tea at the edge of the five footway in front
of their houses.
Two bowls, one filled with water and the other containing empty
Chinese teacups, gave the weary rickshaw pullers ... the
opportunity of refreshing themselves with a drink whenever they
walked past the homes of those Babas. The bowl of water was for
19. John Cuylenburg, Singapore through Sunshine and Shadow (Singapore:
them to wash the cups after they had their drink. This gesture of
offering relief to hardship suffered by the less fortunate stemmed
from the advice given to the Babas by priests, in whom they had
great faith. 20
Food became more expensive and difficult to obtain by
the 1920s, as did housing. Singapore with its free port status
was presented as a model of administrative and economic
success for other colonial powers and the rest of the region,
yet, the vast majority of its Chinese inhabitants including the
rickshaw pullers lived in dire poverty. The large common
lodging houses used by the pullers ought to have been called
"Dickensian." Upward of 30,000 rickshawmen lived in
lodgings during the 1920s most of which had neither running
water nor toilets nor bathrooms. According to official
The difficulties of poor wives were acute in
a society where women were considered generally
to be little better than "pieces of meat put on the
table for men to slice." Inequality in the family
combined with the wretched existence of living
in a tenement cubicle with several small children
where all were likely to suffer serious illnesses
drove women to commit suicide. Their acts must
be interpreted as an outcry against the cruelties
of Singapore life in the late 1920s and 30s.
Municipal figures, each Chinese Singapore resident had only
a tiny amount of living space. The area of some cage-like
cubicles or rooms was as little as 60 sq. ft. per man. Some
rickshaw men slept on the five footway or in the alleyway at
the back, preferring that to soaring rents and the grimness of
what was intended to be the basic accommodation for their
kind. Sometimes when space was at a premium men slept three
ways in a room-on the wooden tiers, on the floor, and on
cots,-or even, for the poorest, on the same bed with another
puller. In Peking in the 1920s rickshaw firms accommodated
on average 10.5 men for each room, although one case was
found where 16 men were living together. 21 By 1921 living
space in Singapore was at such a premium that 16 men living
in one room was common.
A principal cause of the shortage of housing by 1918 was
the proliferation of cubicles in most public lodging houses in
Chinatown, and elsewhere. Property owners found it more
profitable to subdivide their tenements rather than construct
new housing. Large houses were sub-divided into a honeycomb
of temporary single rooms, or cubicles without separate
kitchens and a common living area. This resulted in the worst
sort of overcrowding imaginable. Because of the demand, a
poor rickshawman could not afford to pay more than a share
of the rent of a lodging house cubicle. Some rickshawmen did
20. Felix Chia, The Babas (Singapore: Times Book International, 1980), p. 48.
Heinemann, 1981), p. 48. 21. "Economic Study of the Peking Ricsha Puller," pp. 253-265.
New Rickshaw Station for licensing & inspection (c. 1906)
not even have a share of a cubicle, they occupied "bunk space"
in the narrow corridors of the lodging houses. Some ended up
occupying these "spaces" for years.
The difference in the amount of rent rickshaw men paid
before the First World War and after was dramatic. The effect
of changes between 1919 and 1921 in the use of buildings from
residential to shophouse and godown (warehouse), was to
concentrate more and more men in less space. Thus for the
year 1908, 1918 and 1921, a house in China Street had 20, 42
and 65 tenants and another in Macao Street 20, 27 and 49
respectively. Between 1908 and 1918 the rent increased by 40
percent while in 1923 it was 135 percent higher than 1908.
It was a plain fact throughout the 1920s and 1930s that there
was not enough lodging to house the number of rickshaw
pullers. The supply of housing did not nearly approach the
demand in the inter-war years, and thus there was no way to reduce
the landlord's ability to force the men to pay exorbitant rents.
Neither the private sector nor the colonial government were
prepared to shoulder the expense of increased residential
construction to ease the situation for the rickshaw pullers. The
immensity of the problem and the cost was all too apparent to
the colonial government: it simply said no. In the 1930s the
government studiously ignored the housing problem and the
vexed question of inordinate rents. This urban overcrowding
of Singapore was largely a British failure.
By 1908 rickshaw coolies were already paying twice as
much to rent a first-class rickshaw as a second-class one.
Thereafter the first-class half-day rent was to remain higher
than the second-class, whole-day rent. By 1919 the daily
takings of the pullers were estimated to be not less than 20,000
dollars. 23 The rental system made owners rich, and pullers
hard-driven, exploited and poor. As long as the ownership of
rickshaws was concentrated in the hands of small capitalists
22. No. 57, Report of a Committee appointed to consider the alleged shortage
of houses, 3 September, 1923, in Colonial Office 275/109.
there was no means for the puller to increase earnings, to save,
or to purchase a rickshaw, except to run harder and longer.
Pulling like that could kill.
The prosperity of Singapore resulted from high trade levels
in the marketing and distributing of primary products like sugar,
copra, rubber and tin. It was a cruel irony for the puller that
prosperity gave rise to the bad years with problems of acute
overcrowding in the inner city, soaring rents, rice shortages,
and falling fares. In 1919 Singapore was entering a period of
sustained prosperity based on soaring trade levels in primary
products. Singapore was fast becoming a major center for trade
in primary products, but it was strapped for warehouse space.
Something had to give. The boarding houses for pullers were
rapidly stripped and turned into godowns for bulk storage of
rice, copra and sugar. Not only were owners demanding more
for hiring out rickshaws, but housing rents were also rising,
even while pullers were being evicted from their lodgings near
the waterfront.
Putting Down the Shafts
The Hengwah men of Tanjong Pagar were the first to put
down the shafts. They were considered by the British to be the
most truculent group a m ~ m g the pullers. They lived in one of
the most dangerous districts, an area where their tenement
houses were being confiscated in the interests of the commercial
growth of Singapore. 24 The Hengwah men confronted City Hall
demanding that the Municipal Commissioner double the
rickshaw fares. But before the sanction of the Commissioners
for increased fares could be obtained, notices were posted on
the walls of various rickshaw depots in Rochore Road, Muar
Road, Victoria Street and Bain Street calling for a strike and
a fare of fifteen cents per mile.
Notice to inform our relatives and others that as things are getting
dearer day by day and we the rikisha pullers find it very difficult
to cope with the present high cost of living. The pullers of Kampong
Glam and town sections have held a meeting and are now able to
state that the fares from the 14 February 1920 would be raised to
fifteen cents per mile. On the 13th instant pullers of both Kampong
Glam and town are not to ply for hire. In conclusion we appeal
for unity. 2S
The rickshawmen wanted immediate action on the matter of
raising the fare, but the Municipal Commissioners caught
somewhat off guard by the radical nature of the demand were
not prepared to sit in conclave on such short notice to consider
doubling the rates. They wanted at least a day to deliberate,
and to have the last say on the matter. The psychology of the
moment demanded time, for the sake of prestige. Their
procrastination was a mistake. The lightning strike began on
the 13th of February, with notices ordering the pullers not to
ply for hire. For three days the majority of the public was
inconvenienced by heavy downpours which held people up for
work and dispelled the argument of some municipal officials
24. Singapore faced four major rickshaw strikes in this century in 1903,
1919-1920, 1935 and 1938. The anatomy of each of these strikes is somewhat
different, but rent capital, public authority, and the world economy were all
distinctive factors, in differing combinations. In all of these strikes the
Hengwah rickshaw coolies of the waterfront area were to playa decisive role.
23. Singapore Municipal Annual Report, Jinrikisha Department, 1919, p. I-E. 25. Singapore Free Press, 16 February 1920.

Rlck.haw T.n.....nt

Chin Broth.l.
~ Japan Broth.l.
Pollc. Station
Rlckahaw Station
that "walking was always conducive to heaIth."26
Striking pullers stopped other pullers from plying for hire,
especially on main thoroughfares and in the rickshaw districts
themselves. Quite a number of cases of assault were reported
in the Rochore section alone which the strikers had sealed off.
There were not more than a hundred hire rickshaws operating
in the Rochore, Kampong Kapor and Tanjong Pagar neighbor
hoods, pulled only by desperate needier men, mostly opium
Another notice was posted the following day in the
various depots, calling for rickshawmen to stand firm, to unite
and to continue the strike:
This is to notify one and all that the reason we did not go out for
hire yesterday (Friday) was due to the Municipality not raising the
rikisha fares. Those pullers who are not ashamed of themselves
courtesy of lim Warren
and go out to hire today (Saturday) will be assaulted and their
rikishas damaged. We would not care, what nationality their
passengers are. We ask our people not to create any disturbance,
but to wait and not go out for hire till the fares are raised and
lastiy we plead for unity. 2.
Once again streets like Rochore Road, Victoria Street and
Bencoolen Street came under police guard in case of threat,
intimidation and violence to the public by the striking pullers.
With the exception of privately owned rickshaws and pullers
who received a monthly wage, the rickshaw men had been
enjoined to keep off the roads and they did. Singapore's streets
looked strangely empty without them.
The roads were noticeable yesterday for the dearth of rikishas upon
which so many depend for bringing them to work and which enable
others to carry out their daily round of duties in town. Although
26. Ibid., 17 February 1920.
27. Ibid., 16 February 1920. 28. Ibid.
there was the usual number of motor cars about, yet the streets
did not wear their wanted busy aspect, as when the two-wheeled,
man drawn conveyance plied about for hire or carried passengers,
the men between the shafts racing with one another and shouting
to people to get out of the way. One also missed the long queues
in Raffles Place, outside Johnston's Pier, and round the fountain
in Raffles Square, and was led to think that it was either a Sunday
or some holiday but that the offices were open. The news of the
men coming out [striking] was in the air the previous evening but
not so widespread as to warn people to get away early the next
morning in order to foot it and be in at business time.29
Public feeling was particularly hostile towards the pullers
for striking on the very same day that their demand had been
put to the Commissioners.
There had been no period of
grace-no time to arbitrate properly, all sense of decorum was
lost, and the Commissioners could not possibly avoid looking
foolish. The pullers lightning-like action alienated what little
public support there had been in favor of raising the rate before
the strike. An angry commercial community recognized much
to its chagrin that Singapore did not run an efficient tram service
through all the principal parts of the town so people could go
about their business. Instead, Singapore was dependent on the
By the late 1920s the hard facts on wages
and living conditions were grim-food and rent
for the rickshaw accounted for almost three
quarters of all that the poorest pullers spent
daily, and food meant mostly rice and vegetables.
As income continued to decline during the 19305,
so pullers ate less, and they ate worse, living on
credit. Health worsened and debts mounted.
The question of increasing the fares was brought up at the
Commissioners meeting on the afternoon of the 13th of
February and it was decided to allow an increase from five to
seven cents for every half mile, but the Commissioners insisted
on the pullers' unconditional return to work, after which the
terms would be announced. 31 By recommending to put up the
fare for the mile from ten to fourteen cents the pullers' demand
had been practically met, and the status conscious Commission
ers, who could not afford to be laughed at, refused to inform
the public of the exact nature of their decision straight away.
The strike continued much to the dismay of the public. The
Commissioners refused to convey the impression that they had
yielded to the terms as a result of the strike, fearing pullers
would take advantage of the precedent in the future whenever
they felt the need for more pay.
29. Ibid., 14 February 1920.
30. Ibid., 16 February 1920.
31. Ibid.
Outside the chambers of the municipal building, Mr.
Hooper, the Registrar of Rickshaws, was at pains to counter
a general view of the rickshaw puller as poverty stricken and
an object of humanitarian pity. He gave some hypothetical
figures on the earnings of men who had regular work at night
pulling rickshaws in the brothel quarters to "open the eyes of
those who talk ignorantly. "32 But there was ample evidence in
current reports and boards of inquiry that a puller's monthly
earnings were significantly lower and progressively declining
in real terms, despite gross takings at the rate of $1 .50 to $2.00
per day. The strike bore testimony to that harsh fact-a
dwindling income and standard of living. It was left up to Mr.
Hooper (who had more experience than anybody else with
pullers' protests and demonstrations) and several prominent
owners to deliver the terms and obtain a return to work. Then,
and only then, could the lines of the Commissioners'
recommendations be announced. The "government's" position
was explained to the strikers by him and the numbers of
rickshaws gradually increased on the roads over the course of
the next couple of days as the pullers began to sense the reality
of the situation. Within a week the last few pullers who held
out-not surprisingly, coming from the dock area where the
strike had first begun-had again taken to the shafts. The
deadlock had been completely broken. The rickshaw strike was
over.33 The pullers had won, but the clearcut settlement had to
be presented without humiliation. The tacit recommendation
of the Commissioners for increased fares was approved by the
Governor in Council on the 3rd of March. 34
The strike of 1920 had revealed to the authorities that the
pullers, who had been well organized, knew the value of the
strike weapon and were prepared to use it on a moment's notice.
Pullers united into a powerful force had wielded it successfully
on this occasion against the city fathers. Coming together from
all parts of the city, speaking different dialects and originating
from different parts of Kwangtung and Fukien provinces, but
all sharing a common purpose, the pullers acted to change their
overcrowded, unhygienic, destitute condition under colonial
rule. To be unafraid to strike against British authority and the
Towkays was an explicit political act. It was a powerful
message. And it was to be adopted on a far wider scale by
rickshawmen in the depression-ridden 1930s in Singapore to
combat colonial authority and rent capital in an effort to save
Marriage and the Elemental Family
In the 1890s, peasants facing poverty and deprivation in
China could not keep their growing families fed. Among the
rickshawmen in Singapore, many had decided to migrate
temporarily from counties near Foochow. 35 By the mid 1920s
they had begun to put down roots for future generations. The
tendency to establish elemental families
and settle perma
32. Ibid., 18 February 1920.
33. Ibid., 19 February 1920,
34. Singapore Municipal Annual Report, Jinrikisha Department, 1921, p. 5.
35. See, for example, Singapore Municipal Annual Report 1898, p. 102; for
1900, p. 30; Low Ngiong Ing., Chinese Jetsam on a Tropic Shore (Singapore:
Eastern Universities Press, 1974), p. 73.
36. Despite the more pervasive pattern of a bachelor society with village links
Upstairs of rickshaw tenement house (1907)
nently in Singapore came about because large numbers of single
Chinese women started to flood into the city from war-tom
China and because the British began to adopt a more relaxed
attitude toward female immigration. A gradual but perceptible
change in the nature of the rickshawmen's society began to
take place with the coming of more women. Fate in the form
of wives represented a break with the sojourning past, with
China, and what remained of "village China" in Victoria Street,
Queen Street and other like neighborhoods. For some men of
this generation there was no longer any reason to go back to
their village despite improved means of transportation. But
there was also a more immediate, deeper and even more
profound break with village ties and clansmen in the local
rickshaw houses: a married couple could not live in the pang
keng of a rickshaw house-force of circumstance and privacy
to China, between 10 and 15 percent of rickshaw pullers had families with
them in Singapore by the I 920s. These simple or elemental families were
developed on rather short notice-a decade or two at most-from the 1920s
onwards, and faced serious demographic and social problems right from the
start. They were in form and size the exact opposite of the large, joint family
in China. The simple or elemental family in Singapore among rickshaw coolies
was never likely to be larger than six or seven souls, and could be reduced in
the case of childless couples to two or even dissolution, when a husband or
wife was left in the aftermath of an accident or suicide. Some households
could from time to time include a grandmother, who child minded, and the
occasional guest, a nephew or person with the same surname and coming from
the same village, newly arrived in Singapore.
required them to find a cubicle elsewhere. A different pattern
of living arrangement went along. with being married that
increased physical and social isolation. Cubicle living forced
couples to be more highly individualized and privatized in their
dealings with other tenants along a corridor.
In these low status families interpersonal relationships
were of a different sort than in the traditional joint extended
family. The structure of these new families with their elemental
ties were characterized by a striking lack of convention and by
"poverty and powerlessness."31 A rickshawman as a father was
not a strong patriarch because he had few if any resources at
his disposal. He could not hope to have more than one son
grow to manhood, yet there was no way he could make his
grown son stay with him as in China. Brothers who married
had to stand by their families and could not readily lend support
to one another in face of crushing poverty and hard work. The
demography and economy of rickshaw families insured that
they remained elemental in structure and organization, small
scale in size, of low status, therefore weak.
The attitude of married rickshaw men and their spouses
towards birth control and family size was of crucial importance
to their way of life. Rickshaw pullers and their wives faced
economic crisis in the depression, were themselves victims
isolated in private cubicles, and did not generally desire large
families. After marriage some form of contraception was
deemed socially acceptable and necessary among rickshaw
couples. Tragically, a rickshaw household rich in children was
a household ruined, for the father could not possibly hope to
feed all of them and bring them up. The small number of
children in the families of,rickshaw pullers was also the result
of the high rate of mortalitYamong infants and pre-school age
children. Living in the cubicles of the tenement houses of
Chinatown had a terrible effect on newly born Chinese children.
Tragedy's alien face was a weary young rickshaw mother.
Many of them were malnourished and cubicle bound from
morning to night, especially if they already had one young
child at the breast. Early marriage and early death of children
were very much part of Sim Kwee Geok's life. She married
in Singapore when she was twenty and lived with her husband
up to her death at which time she was six months pregnant.
She had been pregnant the year before too, but her new born
child only lived a few days.38 Children like Sim Kwee Geok's
suffered sometimes for weeks in the dark, cramped oven-like
cubicles and the horror of malnutrition and infection were a
brutal reality for most of them. Chinese infant mortality was
well above a level which was considered normal for Singapore
in the inter-war years. The cause of death of new born Chinese
children was usually linked to some form of gastro-intestinal
disease or beri-beri. 39
In the elemental family the wife was apt to possess more
strength of character as an individual than she might in the
joint extended family, because relations were limited to
husbands and wives and on occasion wives and mothers. She
was the matriarch and had sole responsibility for the activities
and concerns of the family, that is, co-ordinating the domestic
37. Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society, pp. 235-236.
38. Singapore Coroners Inquest and Inquiry of Sim Kwee Geok in no. 619,
39. Singapore Municipal Annual Report, 1938, p. 10; 1939, p. 0-55.
economy, housekeeping and child rearing. But these women,
who were married to pullers during the 1920s were cut off
economically and legally from their own families. Once
married a woman's interests were bound up entirely with her
husband and his people. The working out of social ties within
the elemental family often meant that a wife's sole source of
security and hope for a future was her husband. Brides from
China rarely lived out their lives among kin, except when their
brothers or fathers were rickshaw pullers. It was a lonely way
to spend a life-time, isolated from most other members of the
husband's household also living in China, and trapped in a
cubicle with a young family to rear.
Since rickshaw pullers were among the lowest paid workers
in Singapore, frequently women worked until they had children.
From the Coroner's Records it is obvious too that their desire
to work grew as their marriages were placed under increasing
pressure during the Depression. Wives of rickshaw pullers
faced a basic contradiction in Singapore at that time: their
position was central to the social and economic survival of the
family unit but they could not fulfill the social role of wife and
mother and the economic role of worker at one and the same
time within the framework of the elemental family. Rickshaw
family units began to crumble under the strain because the
woman's role as wife and mother had to be fulfilled at the
expense of working to help meet the consumption needs of the
family. Children meant an increase in the necessary labor
within the home and an increase in household expenditure. The
cost of living continued to climb while the families' existing
income was at the mercy of currency fluctuations, and future
capacity to earn waned.
Rickshawmen who were married constituted a small
percentage of the total and lived in coolie lodging houses with
far from homogeneous populations. Under such circumstances,
payment of rent was more difficult, as families could not crowd
into cramped dormitory quarters in the big compound houses,
nor sleep in shifts, to reduce rent. The lives of the rickshawmen
and their families were bounded by the cubicles they lived in.
In one spartan-like cubicle,
dark, confined, insanitary, and without comfort may live a family
of seven or more persons. Many of them sleep on the floor, often
under the bed. Their possessions are in boxes, placed on shelves
to leave the floor free for sleeping. Their food, including the
remains of their last meal, is kept in tiny cupboards, which hang
from the rafters. Their clothes hang on walls, or from racks.
There were no windows and no means of light in many of the
cubicles. The lodging houses were densely packed, the heat
and humidity almost unbearable at times, and visibility was
rarely more than a few steps along the narrow passage. Within
this cell-like atmosphere rickshaw men and their families
struggled to bring some sense of quality to their lives and make
their cubicle surroundings more tolerable. There was a simple
poignancy about the potted flowers and herbs with which they
decorated the window ledges and doors of those miserable
lodging houses.
The rickshawmen' s elemental family tended to break
down in the face of the nightmare attempt to scrape a living
in the Singapore streets. Witness the death of Sim Kwee Geok,
the 35 year old wife of rickshawman Lim lin San. After
quarrelling with her husband over financial matters, and
depressed by the recent death of her infant child, she drank a
quantity of liquid caustic soda while six months pregnant. 41
Lack of cash to meet the total monthly expenses offamilies
(even with the earnings of the wife) short of borrowing from
friends or pawnshops led to breakdown of marriage and family
life, ultimately to despair and death. In the cases revealed in
the Coroner's Records the collapse of the elemental family
reached unquestionable intensity. In them husbands and wives
share their grief, dreams and nightmares, and allow the
40. Barrington Kaye, Upper Nankin Street Singapore. A Sociological Study
of Chinese Households Living in a Densely Populated Area (Singapore:
University of Malaya Press, 1961), p. 2.
41. Singapore Coroner's Inquest and Inquiry of Sim Kwee Geok in no. 619,
Rickshaw stand in front of Raffles Hotel (1921)
Traffic on New Market Road in 1930,
historian of society to weave a tapestry of the agony of the
underside of Singapore in the 1920s and early 1930s. These
are the voices of the dead, recounting the details of problems
that were tearing their families apart. Rickshaw pullers were
very poor indeed between 1918 and 1921. Men were working
for next to nothing, everything they needed-food, lodging,
rickshaws-was too high and in short supply, everything that
is, except eligible illiterate women from China to marry. It
was not an era in which a rickshawman could realistically
expect to provide a woman with a proper home and family,
yet, at the very same time, events in China had initiated a
period of unprecedented female immigration to the nanyang
and Singapore which was not to end until the Second World
War. One puller knew that marriage could finish rickshawmen,
and he painted a dismal picture of the condition of married
pullers at the end of 1920.
But how could he take care of a family when he depended on
pulling a rickshaw for his living. He knew about his long-suffering
brothers in the mixed courtyards. The men pulled rickshaws, the
women sewed, the children scavanged. . .. They gnawed on
watermelon rinds dug out of garbage heaps . . . and they all went
to get handouts of rice gruel. . . .42
Poverty unleashed the violent demons of domestic
discord. Marriages stretched thin and died in disputes over
family expenses and actual expenditures. Lee Ah Toh, a
Hengwah rickshaw puller, heard his sister arguing with her
husband about some money. He lived in the same building in
an upstairs cubicle, occupying a small cubicle at the rear of
the first floor with his sister, brother-in-law, and eleven year
old son. Lee Ah Toh remonstrated with her and the matter was
settled. He did not realise that his taking his brother-in-Iaw's
part against his sister would 'hilVe fatal 'consequences. Herr
husband, Tan Moon Heng, then went out with his brother-in
law to a tea shop opposite the lodging house. By the time they
came back three hours later Ler Cho Wing had hung herself
over twenty cents, having become very depressed and
concerned about the consequences of her husband's spendthrift
behavior. Obviously, the death is attributable to their poverty.
Tan Moon Heng described the sequence of events leading to
his wife's suicide.
On the 10th July 1935 at 5 pm I returned home after pulling my
rickshaw for two hours. I went to our room. My wife was there.
I found she had been paid one dollar being repayment of a loan
to someone. I took twenty cents of this one dollar and bought a
durian. . . . My wife scolded me for taking the money and
threatened to throw the rest away. I went out again to a nearby
teashop with my brother-in-law. I returned home again after 8 pm.
. . . that evening she accused me of spending money too free I y . ,
In a similar case Gian Yeow Sun's husband refused to allow
her to work as a hawker and she became upset about it. Her
husband was concerned that she would be arrested for hawking
without a license. She stopped selling cakes about a week
before her death.
We did not quarrel about it. I am in regular employment myself.
I do not know of any other reason [apart from wanting to be
hawker] why my wife should commit suicide. I gave her all my
earnings. She enjoyed good health and behaved normally. She did
not threaten to take her own life. She was quite happy and joked
with me on the night before her death. 44
Of the 31 cases of suicide among rickshaw coolies known
to us from the Coroner's inquests, 26 occurred between 1921
and 1939. All six recorded cases of suicide of wives of rickshaw
pullers took place in the desperate years between 1929 and
43. Singapore Coroners Inquest and Inquiry of Ler Cho Wing in no. 303,
42. Lao She, Rickshaw (the novel Lo-To Hsiang Tsu) translated by Jean M. 44. Singapore Coroners Inquest and Inquiry of Gian Yeow Sun in no. 319.
James (Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1979), p. 61.
1935.45 They reveal the broken and heretofore forgotten lives
of pullers and their families in close fearful touch with a world
depression. The same problems that were responsible for
increased poverty and the collapse of low status families by
strangling the puller's traditional sources of income also led to
suicide. The difficulties of poor wives were acute in a society
where women were considered generally to be little better than
"pieces of meat put on the table for men to slice." Inequality
in the family combined with the wretched existence of living
in a tenement cubicle with several small children and where
all were likely to suffer serious illnesses drove women to
commit suicide. Their acts must be interpreted as an outcry
against the cruelties ofSingapore life in the late 1920s and 30s.
Suicide was an indication of the grave social effect of the
economic blight of the 1920s and 30s on rickshawmen and
their families, but the immediate cause of suicide among
rickshawmen in the recession-depression times was loss of
work. Rickshawmen, especially middle-aged ones in the 35
to 40 age bracket, had a strong identification with their
vocation and way of life. If they lost their job through illness,
or through violent injury or accident, they frequently suffered
a loss of personal esteem, felt they were failures in the minds
of their kindred, and had nothing to live for. About half the
suicides in the Coroner's inquests were men aged 35 to 45
years of age, and they were over-whelmingly single. The
decision to kill themselves seems to have been preceded by
just that loss of personal self-esteem and of self-identity. The
rise in suicide among men over 40 was exceptionally sharp,
and definitely higher than in most other coolie occupations. As
rickshaw men became older the chances of killing themselves
increased. They realized that there was now no possibility of
ever owning a rickshaw, and thus they were sliding downhill
in a narrowing circle of poverty and debt, waiting for the end.
They kept on hiring rickshaws because it brought them more
money than hawking or pig rearing, but inside they knew the
dream of their youth was dying, as so would they shortly.
Although the rickshaw was central to the work and life
of Hengwah, Hockchia and Hockchew immigrants and
ownership of one was their ray of hope, the investment required
to become an owner remained beyond the means of most of
the men. The market value of the Japanese-made rickshaw rose
from $38 at the end of the nineteenth century to $90 in 1917.
In that same year the cost of new vehicles jumped from $90
to $160 for first class and from $45 to $75 for second class.46
The dramatic price rise was principally due to the war and high
freight rates prevailing, but the price never came down again
45. At first glance, the number of notifiable cases of suicide among rickshaw
pullers would appear to be demographically insignificant, only affecting several
hundred people at most, as compared to the massive statistics available on all
deaths in the colonial records. To make that assumption, however, would be
to commit a serious fallacy. The very few cases of suicide of rickshaw pullers
can tell us much about the complexities of life and its patterns and about the
social problem of thousands of pullers and tens of thousands of other poor
Chinese who survived. Their deaths epitomized the plight of other Chinese
who were the victims of colonial and municipal policies of unemployment,
suffered high death rates from such infectious diseases as cholera and
tuberculosis, and were hurt by the withdrawal of most funds and support for
social welfare. The statements of those who came to the inquests of deaths
labelled as suicide rise with unforgettable force above much of the illusion of
the writing in Singapore's colonial/nationalist historical genre.
to pre-war levels. By 1921 the cost of new Japanese rickshaws
had risen to $180 and in consequence rickshaws were being
made locally but, as was the case in the past, these proved
inferior to those imported.
Often after a lifetime of trying to
save money to buy their own vehicle, pullers still did not have
enough capital to settle their daily living expenses and debts,
let alone purchase even a second-hand rickshaw.
In order not to mortgage their dreams and land in debt
bachelors accepted a low standard of living and depended upon
kin and clansmen. They shared rented rooms in filthy
overcrowded tenements or "rickshaw houses" from landlords
who, in many instances, were primarily rickshaw owners
besides being proprietors of coolie lodges. By the late 1920s
the hard facts on wages and living conditions were grim-food
and rent for the rickshaw accounted for almost three-quarters
of all that the poorest pullers spent daily, and food meant
mostly rice and vegetables. As income continued to decline
during the 1930s, so pullers ate less, and they ate worse, living
on credit. Health worsened and debts mounted.
The Abolition Campaign
By the 1920s, the British felt that the rickshaw was a
challenge to their development policy and to the showcase
image of Singapore as a "modern city." The demand for
rickshaw transport throughout the interwar years continued,
nevertheless, as did the harsh social conditions for the pullers.
The British refused to encourage the trade, at times ignoring
it, and then opposing it with a vengeance at the height of the
depression. In the decade the rickshaw first appeared traffic
was made up of bullock carts, gharries, and steam trams, but
by the early 1930s street traffic was thoroughly mechnical,
faster, more congested, and obviously more dangerous. There
were no gharries left and a bullock cart was a rare sight.
Omnibuses and trolley buses replaced electric trams in the main
part of the city, and swiftly moving motor vehicles,
automobiles and lorries, had spread rapidly. There were still
plenty of rickshaws but the downward trend had begun.
Rickshaws were now considered to be a public "nuisance" and .
a "traffic hazard" and were gradually being excluded from the
streets. By the mid 1920s officials believed that rickshaws were
an uneconomical, slow and hazardous mode of conveyance,
and that they would ultimately have to go to improve the flow
of public transport. From this time on the city's roads were
restricted to motorized transport. The official argument was
that rickshaws were slow moving and snarled the flow of other
The rationale was all wrong. The plain fact was that the
rickshaws were far more maneuverable in dense traffic than
any motor vehicle, they rarely broke down like the trams and
buses, and handled most of the short distance trips on the small
congested streets and alley ways off the main roads where
motorized public transport could not penetrate. There were no
similar restrictions in these years on private cars and taxis
despite an appalling increase in motor vehicle traffic accidents.
The planners were not to be deterred. The systematic removal
of rickshaws as "slow-moving vehicles" began in 1928, but it
did not improve the traffic situation on the main roads. From
46. Singapore MuniCipal Annual Report, Jinrikisha Department, p. 8. 47. Singapore Municipal Annual Report, Jinrikisha Department, 1921.
this time onward the future of the rickshaw coolie was bleak.
The Rickshaw Department began to withdraw licenses while
at the same time neither issuing new ones nor renewing expired
ones. This sudden removal of thousands of rickshaws and the
services they provided caused disruption among those living
at the lowest income levels, who had to count every cent, for
there was no alternative system of transport except to walk.
For the rickshaw pullers the reductions over the next five
years meant unemployment, reduced incomes, or being forced
to return to the rural poverty and unrest of Southeast China.
On several occasions government officials had publicly stated
that they would prefer to remove rickshaws from Singapore
streets completely. Singapore's urban expansions continued in
face of the world Depression. Urban planners believed that the
march of progress was inexorable, that the antiquated rickshaw
had to make way for modern motorized transport. The
government restricted their numbers to a license quota of 4,000
and banned their movements in certain parts of the city. Social
reformers joined in urging a ban on rickshaws for humanitarian
reasons, but this would remove 90 percent of the transport used
by poorer Singaporeans. The rickshaw pullers and the users
school children, invalids, the elderly and commuters for whom
rickshaws were an essential service-were hurt badly.
By the late 1920s officials confidently predicted that the
rickshaw was on the way out. Singapore was a "modern city,"
a trading and financial powerhouse with powerful old firms,
financial institutions, thousands of little businesses and full of
fast moving vehicles. Rickshaws, symbolically, were an
unpleasant reminder of constant poverty, and the straining and
sweating Chinese labor behind it all. People were in a hurry
and the rickshaw no longer held a special place.
With admirable clarity the 1930s demonstrated the ways
in which the growing deprivation of the rickshawmen and their
families was further aggravated by the policies of a government
bent on gradually abolishing rickshaws in the interests of the
motor car. The question of control and eventual abolition of
rickshaws first came up in 1927 when the Commissioners
decided that unfit pullers and singkeh should be removed from
the roads to prevent traffic congestion and in the interests of
safety. It was hardly incidental that these men were also
considered by Europeans to be eyesores on the streets. In 1928
the reduction of rickshaws by a stipulated percentage every
year had begun, but not all pullers had time to seek another
occupation before the full force of the slump hit Singapore.
By 1931 there were no opportunities except hawking for
out-of-work pullers. By 1935 this weeding out process based
on automatic annual reductions had already resulted in a drop
from 9,000 to 4,000 vehicles for public hire.
The experience of the rickshaw pullers was in the inter-war
years one of confrontation with the government and rickshaw
owners, then "temporary peace" through mediation and
settlement, then resistance and strikes. The cycle repeated
itself several times before culminating in the coolie's display
of solidarity in the strike of 1938 when the authorities and
owners sought to end their way of life. The rickshaw puller's
future had been threatened before by owners, government
officials and planners but now they were fighting for survival.
As more rickshaws were pulled off the streets in an effort to
restrict their numbers the owners raised the rental fee. In 1938
a life and death struggle with the owners erupted over the rental
fee and manipulation of the puller's contribution to the China
Relief Fund to assist their countrymen who were then in "deep
water and scorching fire. "SO When the wage demands of the
rickshaw pullers were not met they closed ranks, demonstrating
against the owners and smashing their rickshaws.
The 1938 rickshaw strike, which began on the 4th of
October and lasted till the 14th of November, was the longest
of its kind. Yet, despite its success, it seemed in the end only
to hasten the cry for the abolition of rickshaws altogether.
During the five weeks that both sides stubbornly held out, a
large section of the travelling public suffered, particularly the
elderly and children, who had to walk to school for a change.
But Singapore was learning to do without rickshaws. The strike
led to a large increase in the number of bicycles registered,
which only pushed along the demise of the rickshaw.
Unlike past strikes the small community of Europeans did
not appear to be very seriously affected by or even care about
the absence of rickshaw transportation by then. But the question
of the strike action of the rickshawmen was an altogether
different matter. The Europeans on the whole did not have any
sympathy or respect whatsoever for the pullers and their cause.
They were just coolies, disobedient coolies, who had defied
Crown law and, once again, disturbed the city's peace and
prosperity. Although the pullers had organized themselves,
albeit temporarily, into a Rickshawmen' s Association to seek
redress for owner exploitation, they were unable to draw such
cases to the attention of the authorities, who refused to take
the issue seriously, except in regard to the use of the strike.
The pullers had stopped work because of owner exploita
tion, hard times, and the issue of the manipulation of the
monthly donation to the China Relief Fund and had expected
the Chinese public to rally to their cause. But the mass of
Chinese in Singapore remained apathetic, even hostile at times,
refusing to support them openly. The government condemned
the stoppage; the owners refused to sit down and negotiate a
prompt settlement. The owners relied on time, once all hope
of a quick resolution faded, intending to starve the pullers into
submission. They were backed by the force of colonial law,
for the police constantly assisted by patrolling affected areas,
protecting their rickshaws, and arresting strikers. The govern
ment and owner opposition did not diminish the pullers'
strength or resolution, but magnified it.
Despite a massive display of support and sacrifice from
fellow pullers, the rickshawmen had little reason for optimism.
Throughout the strike arbitration by various individuals and
groups had failed. The pullers lost tens of thousands of dollars,
and many were reduced to hunger and destitution and were
forced to take advantage of the government offer of
repatriation. Furthermore, as a result of the policies of rickshaw
abolitionists, the vast majority of vehicles remained firmly in
the hands of a small number of Towkays. Finally, and perhaps,
most importantly, the rickshaw strike did not succeed in
48. Singapore Free Press, 23 February 1935.
50. The Heng Wah People and their Development in Various Transport
49. Ibid. Trades, p. 38.
reaching beyond the confines of puller politics and community
to touch the concerns of other Chinese coolies in a joint struggle
to confront the power and prejudice of a colonial system that
was overwhelming them. In the end Singapore was saved the
"humiliation" of a general strike generated by the coolies'
struggle against oppression and injustice. 51 The pullers did
obtain a considerable reduction in the rates of hire for their
rickshaws, but the 1938 strike did not change anything else
the owners endured.
The rickshaw coolies in Singapore during the inter-war
years were victims of the changing structure of Singapore
society. The economic growth of Singapore under colonial rule
did not exist for them. For the rickshawmen in the 1920s
especially the setting was a city in decay. Singapore had one
of the highest growth rates, but also one of the highest death
rates and some of the worst health conditions and housing of
any city of comparable size in Asia. Rickshawmen and their
families suffered accidents, the violence of congested areas
and sudden attacks of illness while living in the slums of a
coolie town in the depression. The government measures and
fines against the rickshawmen made the city richer, but the
pullers' world of work pulsed with hunger, poverty, rush and
death. Then, in that furious time that stood between the two
wars rickshaws and the men who pulled them were pencilled
into the margins of Singapore's future. The puller's mad chase
after a vision of life with hope that enabled him to endure
almost anything in Singapore was halted by a deliberate policy
of abolition.
Examination of the major decisions made by the colonial
government of Singapore in regard to housing, water supply,
waste disposal and sewerage from the 1880s through the 1930s,
shows the city's rulers consistently chose alternatives that
minimized costs at the expense of the coolie population. The
51. One of the underlying reasons for the failure of other Singapore coolies,
including some Hokkien groups of pullers, to rally behind the rickshaw coolies
in 1938 was the heterogeneity of Singapore Chinese society with its numerous
speech groups and surname "c1anship" ties each with a distinctive version of
culture deriving from southeast China. Cultural differences among these
communities reflected a lack of solidarity which surfaced behind closed doors
and affected their strategy with respect to the strike. Ho Swee Bee, an elderly
clan leader from Duxton Road, pointed to clan resistance to the strike as a
root cause for the failure of Singapore's coolie class to unite.
From what I saw of the rickshaw pullers south of the river around Duxton
Road, those who supported the strike were few, very few. The reason for
this being that most of the hokien pullers were clan oriented. That is why
so few responded to the efforts of the labor organisers north of the Singapore
River. On the other side of the river, the rickshawmen were united; the
rickshaw owners were even afraid to venture out on the street for fear of
being attacked. But south of the river, in the Duxton Road area, on this
side, it was completely different. As I have just said, the reason why those
of us in Duxton Road did not aggressively support the strike was because
of our clan relationships. That is why the response from this side of the
river [was not ideal]. Rickshaw pullers from north of the river wanted
desperately to recruit people from Duxton Road for the strike but there
was no way for them to do this because of the clan relationships. The
growing militancy and organisations of the rickshawmen north of the river
was perceived as a sort of threat to the clans and as such made them
unacceptable to enter our territory to recruit for the strike.
Interview with Ho Swee Bee, Archive and Oral History Department,
tragedy was that these policies made the rickshawmen and their
families vulnerable to disease, left the pullers with very ill kin
with the only option of standing helplessly and hopelessly by.
They were well aware that their medical problems were not
just disease, but due to the social and physical environment of
the city and the government policies that undermined their well
being. They felt the need to change things, but their failure to
do so led some of them to lives which gave their kinsmen and
clansmen anxiety. They quarreled over rent, contracted
tuberculosis or syphilis, or gambled away their savings. They
cried out in anger and shame as the vision that was planted in
China swept them up and spat them out, as circumstances drove
them to the point of suicide.
Through the means of the rickshaw as their source of
livelihood and the institution of marriage, men and women
from China strove to create a better life in Singapore with
families, but their future was foreclosed by colonial policy and
practice and terminated in the Depression. The rickshawmen
and their families in the inter-war years could hardly take
satisfaction for their individual efforts and sufferings in the
glory of Singapore's future. They were consumed by trying to
earn a living pulling a rickshaw in Singapore during those two
decades of the great economic growth and crisis. *

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Teaching the Vietnam War: Objectivity in the Classroom?
by Stephen Vlastos*
Why does the issue of objectivity impose itself so
forcefully when we teach the history of the Vietnam war? What
fonus of discourse do students (and most Americans) believe
to be inherently objective? What is the rhetoric of this
"objective" discourse and how does it function? These are some
of the questions I began to ask after teaching a course on the
Vietnam war to undergraduates and after observing how the
media, which profoundly shape students' expectations, use and
misuse the rhetoric of objectivity.
Unlike my other courses on Asian history, teaching the
Vietnam war has brought me face to face with the issue of
objectivity in the classroom. Even when I consciously adopted
a neutral classroom posture and assigned texts which presented
mainstream interpretations of the war, at least some students
questioned the objectivity of the course, in their own minds if
not openly in the class.
There are some obvious reasons why students are
concerned about the objectivity of courses on the Vietnam war.
Although nearly a decade has passed since the war ended,
Vietnam is still a politically charged issue and its lessons are
publicly debated. Particularly now that the Reagan Administra
tion is engaged in new interventions in Central America, the
question of whether the Vietnam war was a noble cause which
could have succeeded if the military had been given a free
hand, as President Reagan has proclaimed, or a moral
catastrophy and terrible miscalculation, as some prominent
Democrats argue, is again front-page news. Moreover,
undisputable facts about the war-America's first defeat and
documented atrocities committed by American soldiers-chal
lenge students' fundamental myths of national omnipotence
and goodness. They are naturally on guard.
Yet there is a third reason, one that I have only recently
come to understand, which is located in the generation gap
* Acknowledgments to Mary Ann Rasmussen and Sheldon Pollock for their
generous advice and assistance.
that exists in most classrooms. With the exception of returning
and "non-traditional" students, undergraduates are too young
to remember the Vietnam war. Well before they graduated
from grammar school, the South Vietnamese army had been
routed and the country reunited under Communist rule. For
this generation of college students, the Vietnam war and all
that is associated with it is secondhand knowledge. In contrast, .
their teachers are likely to be veterans of the "war at home" if
not also the war fought in Vietnam, people for whom Vietnam
was a turning point in the development of political, moral, and
social consciousness. For the "Vietnam war" generation, the
political became personal and the personal political, an
experience not necessarily limited to an age group as such, but
most pronounced among those Americans whose political
consciousness was first shaped by the war.
Thus, there are good reasons why students feel that courses
on the Vietnam war are not likely to be purely academic. How,
they rightly wonder, can the teacher whose self-understanding
is tied to a particular political and moral view of the war be
open-minded? In the interest of self-validation, will not he or
she tell only one side? And these suspicions are not groundless.
Here we encounter the special burden that teaching the
Vietnam war entails. Unless students' concerns about objectiv
ity are addressed openly in the classroom, many will simply
repeat what they feel the teacher wants to hear in the hope of
getting a higher grade and soon forget what they "learned."
Under these circumstances the teacher will have failed to
promote the kind of critical thinking that is, I believe, the goal
of liberal arts education. In the worst instances, the classroom
experience will only have reinforced students' cynicism.
One strategy that a teacher may employ to allay students'
fears is to give the appearance of complete neutrality. This can
be done by assuming a classroom posture of studied disinterest,
cloaking personal feelings, playing the devil's advocate, and,
most of all, never showing emotion. The teacher may also
structure the curriculum to further the impression of objectivity.
Texts which are cautious, dispassionate, and ideologically
mainstream are read as "history," while ideologically left or
right texts are read as (mere) interpretation. Finally, he or she
must be sure to present "both sides" of every controversial
topic-here we have the hawk position, here the dove; let the
best side win.
Embodying as it does conspicuous components of balance
and fair play, such an approach will probably convince students
that the course is indeed objective. After all, isn't this how
"Nightline" and the "MacNeil Lehrer Newshour" are struc
But I would argue that all that is achieved here is the
appearance of objectivity, for the teacher has unwittingly taken
on the role of the television news anchor man, the putatively
disinterested analyst whose "objective" responses are set
against the manifestly interested views of people with
identifiable political affiliations. In fact by adopting this pose
the teacher will have accepted, sanctioned, and re-inforced that
spurious distinction between fact and interpretation that is based
on the style and rhetoric of discourse rather than its substance.
Interpretations are disguised but not eliminated, for by
providing students with two or more texts incorporating
opposing points of view, the teacher is, in effect, saying, these
are the meaningful statements and sentiments. By defining in
this way the terms of significant discourse, the teacher is still
imposing his or her own interpretation, although this may not
be the intention and surely will not be apparent to students.
But the larger purposes of liberal arts education will again be
subverted. The teacher has reinforced students' culturally
conditioned belief that presenting "both sides" of the issue is
the very essence of free intellectual inquiry. Moreover-and
this is critically important-the teacher appears as a disin
terested referee or arbiter, and his or her own voice as
determinant of the discourse will escape scrutiny.
How the conventions of objective discourse are used and
misused can be shown by analyzing a lengthy and influential
essay by Fox Butterfield titled "The New Vietnam Scholarship"
which appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine
February 13, 1983. Butterfield, as I discovered when he
interviewed me in the fall of 1982, has opinions about the war
as strong and committed as my own and is very well informed.
However, in his essay Butterfield does not forewarn the reader
of any journalistic purposes or of the moral, political, and
intellectual assumptions that inform his understanding of the
war. On the contrary, he employs various rhetorical strategies
which induce his audience to assume authorial neutrality and
accept the claim that the "new scholarship" on the Vietnam
war is value-free.
The "new" Vietnam scholarship is more objective,
Butterfield implies, because it is not influenced by political
sentiment. The scholars he interviews are described as "looking
afresh" at the war and "working quietly"; for most of them,
their purpose is "not to prove whether the Vietnam war was
or was not a noble cause ... but to find out what really
happened.'" Thus, the reader is encouraged to regard them as
disinterested social scientists concerned only about the facts,
a perception reinforced by Butterfield's claim, which serves as
the subtitle of the article, that their findings challenge the old
passions and the most cherished beliefs of both the left and the
I. New York Times Sunday Magazine, "The New Vietnam Scholarship," by
Fox Butterfield, Feburary 13, 1983, pp. 26-27.
right. The reader is further disarmed by the format: Butterfield
interviews roughly equal numbers of hawks and doves and
allows both to speak in the text, which creates the impression
that the author himself is disinterested. Moreover, because all
but the authorial voice are identified as belonging to people
with institutional affiliations, if not acknowledged political
allegiances, when the author speaks we unconsciously credit
him with ojectivity. In fact, a critical reading of Butterfield's
essay reveals him to be no less susceptible to value-laden
interpretation than those politically committed scholars whose
writings on the Vietnam war are compared unfavorably to the
"new scholarship."
Although nearly a decade has passed since
the war ended, Vietnam is still a politically
charged issue and its lessons are publicly
debated. Particularly now that the Reagan Ad
ministration is engaged in new interventions in
Central America, the question of whether the
Vietnam war was a noble cause which could have
succeeded if the military had been given a free
hand, as President Reagan has proclaimed, or a
moral catastrophe and terrible miscalculation,
as some prominent Democrats argue, is again
front-page news.
A prominent theme in Butterfield's article is the
illegitimacy of the revolutionary war in the south; and to
devalue the communist victory, he characterizes those who
resisted the United States and the Saigon regime as fanantical.
Specifically, Butterfield notes that North Vietnam sustained
very high casualty rates, reported to be three percent of the
population. Next he quotes Professor John Mueller, a political
scientist at the University of Rochester, who asserts that this
proves that "the North Vietnamese were fanatics who would
have continued the war for as long as needed to win"; while
Butterfield reminds the reader that "The Japanese, whom the
Americans regard as true fanatics, [lost] 1.4 %. "2
There are several interesting points to be made here. First,
Mueller is introduced as one of the "new" scholars; hence the
reader is predisposed to accept his assertions as objective.
Secondly, the attribution of fanaticism appears to be based on
facts, not value judgments. But can the inference of fanaticism
be drawn from the facts alone? When is the willingness to
sustain very high loss of life in pursuit of national policy
fanatical? When heroic? Would Mueller characterize French
losses in World War I, which on a yearly basis were not much
lower, or Russian casualties sustained in the defeat of Nazi
Germany, which were higher, as fanatical? Would he describe
Lincoln and his generals as fanatically dedicated to conquering
the American South, remembering the terrible carnage of the
2. Ibid. p. 60.
final campaigns? And why, finally, impute fanaticism to the
side that suffered such great loss of life, rather than to the side
that inflicted it? It is clear that Mueller and Butterfield believe
that the Vietnamese communists showed excessive and
uncritical devotion to their cause; however, the operative
criteria in their attribution of fanaticism are value judgments
and not facts. Could it be that the main difference between the
"new" and "old" scholarship is ideological rather than
What lessons students learn from studying
the history of the Vietnam war may depend less
on the truth claims of the texts they read than
on their values and their openness to new ideas.
If students are concerned about the objectivity of courses
on the Vietnam war, ifthere are valid reasons for their concern,
and if my critique of popular conceptions of objectivity is
correct, what specifically should the teacher do?
Three strategies are called for, I believe. First, epis
temological issues must be addressed directly and made an
integral part of the course. If students understand how
interpretation enters into every reconstruction of the past, and
are also shown that not all interpretations warrant equal claims
on the truth, they will be better prepared to evaluate what they
hear and read, both in the classroom and outside. Second, the
teacher should make explicit the assumptions which inform his
or her own interpretation of the Vietnam war and, further, the
implications for present American foreign policy. After all,
what teacher or writer on the Vietnam war does not have his
or her agenda of "lessons"; and if so, doesn't the course or
book become propaganda if the audience is not forewarned?
Third, having, as it were, deconstructed one's own discourse,
the teacher should ask students to do the same for a variety of
texts. It is here that assigning texts which include a broad
spectrum of interpretation is entirely justified, for the course
should examine radical, mainstream, and conservative dis
course and analyze the strategies each employs.
The implications of exposing the hollowness of conven
tional conceptions of objective historical discourse are by no
means politically neutral. What I have referred to as culturally
sanctioned forms of objective discourse are inherently conser
vative, for the dominant political and cultural norms of
American society are presumed to be neutral and value free,
unlike critical discourse which is "ideological." If nothing else,
the approach I suggest will show the actual boundaries of
"non-ideological" discourse on the Vietnam war. As Noam
Chomsky has pointed out, even liberal critics of the war
invariably characterized United States political and military
actions in Indochina as "involvement" or perhaps intervention.
For even though the United States government sent over three
million soldiers into South Vietnam and dropped more
explosives than had been detonated in all of World War II, a
writer surrenders all intellectual credibility to pronounce these
to be "acts of aggression."3
Whether teaching the Vietnam war in the way I have
suggested in fact changes students' political consciousness is
an entirely different question. What lessons students learn from
studying the history of the Vietnam war may depend less on
the truth claims of the texts they read than on their values and
their openness to new ideas. In Hayden White's apt phrase,
each discourse has its own "ethical implications."4 The most
college teachers can do in their public role is to teach a method
that uncovers the values that inform historical discourse.
3. Noam Chomsky, Towards a New Cold War (New York: Pantheon, 1982),
p. 11.
4. Hayden White, Tropics ofDiscourse (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1978), p. 22.
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Further Bibliography on North Korea
by Jon Halliday
This list mainly comprises books and articles which have
been published since my previous bibliography on North Korea
in Bulletin Asian Scholars. vol. II, no. 4 (1979).
It also contains some items published earlier than 1979 which
have only since come to my attention, for instance, the
photographic book, Coreenes, by Chris Marker (item 49).
The list contains only items which have come to my
attention. * It is not the result of a systematic search. I have
sometimes abbreviated the full name of North Korea to
"DPRK" in the titles. Korean names are given in the form in
which they appear in the source cited. Occasional comments
and clarifications are contained in square brackets.
Completion date: August 31, 1984.
I. American Friends Service Committee. Report ofAFSC Delegation /0 North
Korea. September 1980.
2. An Tai-sung, North Korea: A Political Handbook (Wilmington, Del.:
Scholarly Resources Inc., 1983).
3. Andreyev. V., and Beryozkin, N., "How the DPRK Deals with Social
Questions," Far Eastern Affairs [FEAI (Moscow), no. I, 1981.
4. Ashurov. N., and Alexeyev, V., "Soviet-Korean Cooperation," FEA, no.
I. 1979.
5. Andreyev, V., and Osipov. V., "USSR-DPRK: Mutually Beneficial
Cooperation," FEA, no. 4, 1983.
6. Andrianov, V., and Melnikov. V., "Fruitful Cooperation Between the
USSR and the DPRK," FEA. no. 2. 1984.
7. Ashurov. N., and Alexeyev, V., "Soviet-Korean Cooperation," FEA, no.
I. 1979.
8. Brillouet, A .. "RPDC: une premiere analyse du second plan septennal
1978-84," Rel'lle d' eludes ('omparl/til'es Est-Ouest (Paris), vol. 9, no. 3 (1978).
9. Brillouet, A .. "The 6th Congress of the KWP," ibid., 12,3 (1981).
* My thanks to Bruce Cumings and Aidan Foster-Carter for additional
10. Buzo, Adrian, "North Korea-Yesterday and Today," Transactions of
the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, vol. 56 (1981).
II. Bunge, Frederica M., ed., North Korea: A Country Study (U.S.
Government, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., 1981).
12. Chung, Chin 0., P'yongyang Between Peking and Moscow: North
Korea's InvoLvement in the Sino-Soviet Dispute, 1958-1975 (University of
Alabama Pres, 1978).
13. Chung, Chong-Shik, and Kim, Gahb-chol, North Korean Communism:
A Comparative Analysis (Seoul: Research Center for Peace and Unification,
14. Cumings, Bruce, The Origins of the Korean War: Liberation and the
Emergence of Separate Regimes 1945-1947 (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1981).
15. Cumings, Bruce, "Corporatism in North Korea." Journal of Korean
Studies (Seattle), 4 (1982-83).
16. Doublet, Maxime, "L'option non alignee de la Coree du Nord" [on 6th
Congress of the KWPI, Le Monde Diplomatique (Paris), Dec. 1980.
17. DPRK. Development ofAgriculture in Korea (Pyongyang: FLPH, 1983).
18. Ginsburgs, George, "North Korea and Partners Practice Regional
Self-Reliance," Pacific Community (Tokyo), 8, 1 (Oct. 1976).
19. Ginsburgs, George, "Soviet Development Grants and Aid to North Korea,
1945-1980," Asia Pacific Community (Tokyo), 18 (Fall 1982).
20. Glebova, M., and Mikheyev, V., "Some Aspects of Economic
Development of the DPRK," FEA, I, 1983.
21. Gryaznov, G[ennadyl V., Straite/' stva Material'no-tekhnicheskoy hazy
Sotsializma v KNDR (The Construction of the Material-Technical Base of
Socialism in the DPRK) (Moscow: Nauka, 1979).
22. Halliday, Jon, "The North Korean Enigma," New Left Review, 127 (1981);
revised abbreviated version in Gordon White, Robin Murray and Christine
White, eds., Revolutionary Socialist Development in the Third World
(Brighton: Harvester Press [U.K.I and University of Kentucky Press [U.S.A.I.
23. Halliday, Jon. "The North Korean Model: Gaps and Questions." World
Development, 9. 9/10 (1981).
24. Hendry, Peter, "Waiting ... and changing" [on agriculture in the DPRK
and China]. Ceres (Rome. FAO), 16, 4 (July-Aug. 1983).
25. Hyun. Peter, Darkness at Dawn: A North Korean Diary (Seoul: Hanjin
Publishing Co., 1981).
26. Institute for North Korean Studies, The Son Also Rises (Seoul: Institute
for North Korean Studies, 1980) [reprints of articles about the 6th Congress
of the KWP from the international press].
27. JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization), China Newsletter, no. 36
(Jan.-Feb. 1982) [full details of DPRK-China trade].
28. Juttka-Reisse, Rosemarie, Agrarpolitik und Kimilsungismus in der Demo
kratischen Volksrepublik Korea, {Agrarian Policy and Kimilsung-ism in the
DPRK] (Meisenheim: Anton Hain, 1979).
29. Kho, David, "The Political Economy of the DPRK in the post-1958
Period," Journal of Contemporary Asia, 12,3 (1982).
30. Kihl, Young Whan, "North Korea: A Reevaluation," Current History,
April 1982.
31. Kim Chin-Wu, "Linguistics and Language Policies in North Korea," Kore
an Studies (Hawaii), 2 (1980).
32. Kim, c.l. Eugene, and Koh, B.C., eds., Journey to North Korea: Personal
Perceptions (Berkeley, CA: Institute for East Asian Studies, 1983).
33. Kim, I1pyong K., and Lee, Dong-bok, "After Kim: Who and What in
North Korea," World Affairs, 142,4 (Spring 1980).
34. Kim II Sung, Selected Works (Pyongyang: FLPH), 20 volumes in English
35. Kim, Jung-Gun, NK: Government & Politics in the DPRK (Boulder:
Westview, 1977).
36. Kim, Kie-Taek, and Kaulins, Andis, The Foreign Policies and Foreign
Trade of the German Democratic Republic and the Korean Democratic
People's Republic (Kiel: German Korea Studies Group, 1979).
37. Kim, Samuel S., "Research on Korean Communism: Promise versus Per
formance," World Politics (Princeton), 32, 2 (Jan. 1980).
38. Kim San, "North Korea: No Deviant Thoughts," Index on Censorship
(London) no. 2, 1984.
39. Kim Sun II, "Testimonios: Una Vision del Problema Coreano," Estudios
de Asia y Africa (Mexico), 36 (1978).
40. Kim, Young-Soo, and Biissen, Friedrich, eds., Korea and Germany: The
Status and Future Prospects of Divided Nations (Kiel: German Korea Studies
Group, 1979).
41. Koh, Byung Chul, "Political Leadership in North Korea: Toward a Con
ceptual Understanding of Kim II Sung's Leadership Behavior," Korean Studies,
2 (1980)
42. Korea and World Affairs (Seoul), 6,4 (Winter 1982)
43. Korea Herald (Seoul), "Pyongnang Pingpong Diplomacy" -What
Achieved and Not Achieved (Seoul, Korea Herald, 1979) [collection of inter
national press articles].
44. Korean Review (Pyongyang: FLPH, 1982) [useful small encyclopedia of
45. Kurnitzky, Horst, "Chollima Korea" (Seoul, Public Relations Association
of Korea, n.d.) [English-language version of article originally in Kursbuch
(W. Germany) 30 (1972), item D 19 in bibliography in BCAS, 11,4].
46. Lee, Pong, "The Korean People's Democratic Republic," in Peter Wiles,
ed., The New Communist Third World: An Essay in Political Economy (New
York: SI. Martin's Press, 1982).
47. Lim Un, The Founding ofa Dynasty in North Korea: An Authentic Biogra
phy ofKim II-song (Japan: Jiyii-sha, 1982). [Authenticity unsure; needs evalua
48. McCormack, Gavan, "North Korea: Kimilsungism-Path to Socialism?"
Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 13,4 (1981).
49. Marker, Chris, Coreennes (Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1959) [stunning photo
graphic book on North Korea in 1958; title is to be understood as "pieces
inspired by Korea"].
50. Moseyev, V., and Shubnikov, N., "Sixth Congress of the Workers' Party
of Korea; Results and Perspectives," FEA, 2, 1981.
51. Murillo, Eduardo, "North Korean Hell," Jiyu (Tokyo), June 1980.
52. National Unification Board, A Comparative Study of South and North
Korea (Seoul: National Unification Board, 1982).
53. North Korea Seen from Abroad (Seoul: Korea Herald or Korea Information
Service; P.O. Box 523, Seoul, 1976, 1977 and[?] 1978).
54. Oguri Keitaro, "Naked Face of North Korea," Korea-Scope, June-July
1979 (available from: International Human Rights Office, P.O. Box 1986,
Indianapolis, Indiana 46206, USA).
55. Park, Kwong-sang, "North Korea Under Kim Chong-il ," Journal ofNorth
east Asian Studies, 1,2 (June 1982).
56. Picht, Helga, report on 30th anniversary symposium on the DPRK, Hum
boldt University, Berlin, GDR, Asien Afrika Latein-Amerika (Berlin, GDR),
7, I (1979).
57. Pons, Philippe, "La Coree du Nord au-dela du decor," Le Monde, Feb.
17-19, 1981 [and in English in Asahi Evening News, Tokyo].
58. Rinser, Luise, Nordkoreanisches Reisetagebuch, {North Korean Travel
Diary] (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1983, revised ed.) [naive diary by W. German
writer about 3 trips to DPRK].
59. Sasse, Werner, "North Korean Language Policy Since the Division of
Korea," Koreanische Studien (Kiel, W. Germany), 4, I (Jan. 1979).
60. Scalapino, Robert A., "Korean Dynamics," Problems of Communism,
Nov.-Dec. 1981.
61. Scalapino, Robert A., and Kim, Jun-yop, eds., North Korea Today:
Strategic and Domestic Issues (Berkeley, CA: Institute for East Asian Studies,
62. Shin, Jung Hyun, Japanese-North Korean Relations: Linkage Politics in
the Regional System ofEast Asia (Seoul: Kyunghee University Press, 1981).
63. Shinn, Rinn-Sup, "North Korea in 1982: Continuing Revolution Under
Kim John II," Asian Survey, 23, I (Jan. 1983).
64. Suh, Dae-Sook, "Records Seized by U.S. Military Forces in Korea,"
Korean Studies, 2, 1980.
65. White, Gordon, "North Korean Juche: The Political Economy of Self-Reii
ance," in Manfred Bienefeld and Martin Godfrey, eds., The Struggle for
Development: National Strategies in an International Context (New York:
John Wiley, 1982).
66. Wiles, Peter, "North Korea: Isolation and the Cult of Personality under
Communism," Asian Perspective, (Seoul) 5, 2 (Fall-Winter 1981).
67. Yang, Sung Chul, "The Kim II Sung Cult in North Korea," Korea and
World Affairs, 4, 1 (Spring 1980).
68. Yun Ki-bong, North Korea As I Knew It (Seoul: Buk-han Research Insti
tute) [difficult to evaluate].
Some Neglected Sources on North Korea
in the Immediate Post-1945 Period
I. Texts in Amerasia:
I. Tralin, Hankum, "Land Reform in North Korea," vol. II, no. 2 (Feb.
1947): 55-61 [this includes the full text of the March 5, 1946, decree on land
reform (article originally in Zenei (Tokyo), May 1946)].
2. Lee Se-youl, "A Picture of North Korea's Industry," ibid.: 61-62 [author
was a professor at Seoul University who made a personal inspection of factories
in North Korea in March 1946].
3. Kim 000 Yong, "Labor Legislation in North Korea," vol. 11, no. 5 (May
1947), 156-160 [this includes the full text of the June 24, 1946, Labour Law
(article originally in Zenei (Tokyo), Jan. 1947)].
II. Other:
4. Gayn, Mark, Japan Diary (Tokyo: Tuttle, 1981 reprint), pp. 378-384 [brief
description of journey through Soviet-occupied area to U.S. outpost on the
Ongjin peninsula, October 1946].
5. Gitovich, Aleksandr, and Bursov, Boris, Mi Videli Koreyu {We Saw Korea]
(Leningrad: "Molodaya Gvardiva," 1948) [in Russian]; with photos [includes
an encounter with Kim II Sung].
6. Mirov, Z., "Zhivaya Legenda" [Living Legend], Komsomolskava Pravda,
Oct. 23, 1946 [includes an interview with Kim II Sung].
7. Pauley, Edwin W., Report on Japanese Assets in Soviet-Occupied Korea
to the President of the United States (Washington, D.C., 1946) [interesting
account of inspection visit May 29-June 4, 1946, by team headed by Pauley;
good photos].
8. Strong, Anna Louise, Inside North Korea: An Eye-Witness Report (Mont
rose, Calif., n.d. [1951] =revised ed. of 1949 original) [includes an interview
with Kim \I Sung]. Much of the material in this booklet had been published
earlier in four articles in Soviet Russia Today (New York):
(i) "First Report from North Korea," Ocl. 1947;
(ii) "Land Reform in North Korea," Nov. 1947;
(iii) "Industrial Workers in North Korea," Feb. 1948;
(iv) "Korea-The Two Zones," Dec. 1948.
9. Washburn, John N., "Russia Looks at Northern Korea," Pacific Affairs.
vol. 20, no. 2 (June 1947) [contains many useful references to Soviet sources
on the period after the Japanese defeat].
Mao, Maoism and China:
A Review Essay
by Richard Levy
In the years since Mao's death, his thought has been
undergoing a constant reappraisal both inside and outside of
China. Both Womack and Martin's works can be seen as part
of this re-evaluation, although their foci and standpoints are
quite different. In tracing the evolution of Mao's thought from
1917 to 1935, Womack attempts to demonstrate how and why
Mao's thought cannot be understood out of context while
Martin, on the other hand, attempts to demonstrate how and
why the various elements within the Chinese Communist Party
(CCP) have tried to do just that in post-Liberation China. In
the process, both works provide insight into Mao's understand
ing of the relationship between leaders and led and the
transformation ofthis paradigm during Mao's lifetime and after.
The purpose of Womack's book is "to draw upon the
practical nature of Mao's writings and their political context
in order to produce an interpretation of his early political
thought in vivo" and then to use this interpretation of Mao's
thought to demonstrate how it "forms the accepted framework
of assumptions for [all post-Liberation] Chinese Communist
politics." To accomplish this goal, Womack leads the reader
chronologically through the development of Mao's early
political thought, ending with a concluding chapter in which
he pulls together the evidence he has presented to solidify his
Both the strengths and weaknesses of the chronological
approach are readily apparent in Womack's book. It gives the
reader a feeling for how Mao's political thought developed in
relation to actual events, rather than imposing an ahistorical
ex post facto coherency on this thought as thematic approaches
tend to do. Although Womack does offer us numerous useful
insights on a number of issues which not only were critical for
China's revolution but also continue to be critical for
revolutionary theory in general-namely, what are the relations
between various contradictions in society; how can the masses
be mobilized to resolve these contradictions; and what kind of
leadership is necessary and possible for such mass movements?
POLITICAL THOUGHT, 1917-1935, by
Brantley Womack. Honolulu: University Press
of Hawaii, 1982, xviii, 238 pages; and CULT
Martin. Armonk, N.Y.; M.E. Sharpe, Inc.,
1982, xi, 233 pages.
-his chronological approach seems to limit him to presenting
smatterings of these themes rather than cohesive summaries or
analyses of them.
Among those elements in Mao's thought which Womack
is willing to characterize as stable throughout the entire period,
two stand out clearly. The first is the dominance of practice
over theory. Mao chose the specific social contradictions which
he focused on not in response to an abstract theoretical
hierarchy of issues, but in response to the need for political
(and personal) survival imposed on him and his political allies
by these particular contradictions. The second is Mao's recog
nition that the key to successful national revolution was the
struggle in the villages over issues of daily survival such as
land and production, rather than alliances with different war
lords or different strata of the national bourgeoisie or even the
military conquest of different areas.
Once having recognized the centrality of the struggle in
the villages, Mao then needed to analyze society to determine
the primary force of the revolution, its potential allies, possible
means of alliance building and, finally, the need for and
methods of leadership of such a movement. Below I will
summarize and critique the frequently insightful and sometimes
contentious analysis of Mao's evolution which Womack
presents as he carefully documents the historical situations out
of which Mao's political thought developed.
Class Analysis, Allies and Alliances
Having determined by the early 1920s the centrality of
the social issue-the struggle within the villages-to the
greater issue of national revolution, Mao was forced to develop
a model of class analysis in order to distinguish clearly between
friends and enemies. Throughout the book, as he traces Mao's
works and thought on class analysis, Womack suggests that
Mao's class analysis focused more on analyzing misery in order
to determine revolutionary potential than on analyzing
economics or the relations of production. I would argue instead
that in doing class analysis during this period, Mao first
analyzed class in terms of the individual's (or more frequently
the family's) location in the production process-thus deter
mining long-term collective economic interests. Then, given
his position that analysis must be a guide to action if it is to
be useful, he moved on to the next step, the analysis of the
more temporary and variable relations within and among the
classes,-stratification of classes according to their level of
prosperity/misery; which classes or strata held political power;
distance from urban centers. This allowed him to determine
the immediate revolutionary potential of the various classes
and strata.
With friends and enemies clarified by class analysis, Mao
now needed to determine who the potential allies of the
proletariat and the poor peasants were and how to build
alliances with theOl. In analyzing these issues Womack is at
his best. He first traces Mao's evolution from an early anarchist
and basically pacifist orientation relying on notions of
spontaneity, groups, and consensus rather than classes and
unequal relations, to a more class based, long-term notion of
revolution requiring organized leadership. Womack then helps
clarify the circumstances under which Mao came to hold that
class struggle polarizes all involved in it, that there can be no
long-term middle group of pacifist position, and that,
consequently, every effort should be made to make one's
alliance as broad as possible (p. 47). By clarifying Mao's
implicit notion that "if there is a force present which could, if
alienated, prevent mobilization of popular power, their
nonalienation becomes a decisive guideline," Womack not only
helps the reader to understand the significance of the by-now
almost trivialized Maoist notion of building an alliance of the
"overwhelming majority," but also provides a solid basis for
understanding how this analysis of alliance building was
intricately linked to land reform policies and the related
struggles within the Party during this period.
As he traces the history of Mao's practice and thought on
the issues of mass mobilization and alliance building, Womack
brings to light early manifestations of a number of related
themes which would reappear in different forms in Mao's
thought throughout his lifetime.
He points out Mao's tendency to generalize success from
a single example (p. 118), a practice which recurred in Mao's
practice and thought repeatedly during the collectivization
campaign of the mid-fifties, the Great Leap Forward and the
Cultural Revolution, frequently with serious consequences. He
highlights and explains Mao's notion for building on the weak,
rather than on the strong, in mobilizing the masses-namely
that it allows the greatest rates of progress and minimizes the
harm from small mistakes (pp. 100, 163, 169). In later years
the notion of building on the weak would be generalized to
include economic practices as well, by such methods as
increasing investment in the poorest areas and transferring
skilled personnel from more advanced to more backward areas.
There were numerous integrated economic, political and
ideological goals for these practices, for instance developing
models of rapid change for people with the least hope, reducing
the need for localities with grain deficits to draw on central
reserves by making them self-sufficient, and reducing the
chances of polarization. However, because "building on the
weak" does not produce the most rapid economic payoffs (equal
investments in areas with higher productivity would lead to
more rapid increases in economic production, although at the
expense of possible stratification and polarization), this
approach has been widely criticized by Western scholars and
economists and rejected by the present leadership of the
Chinese government and party.
Womack also makes a useful and well documented
analysis of Mao's defense of "excesses" during a revolution,
a theme which first appeared during Mao's analysis of the
Hunan peasant movement in 1927 (which Womack analyzes
here) and reappeared during the cooperativization movement,
the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Womack
demonstrates how Mao was forced by criticism within the Party
to articulate and defend his analysis of the necessity of
"excesses"-namely that "excesses" are intrinsic to revolutions
(although not, as he said, to dinner parties); that "excesses"
are often exaggerated by those who have been their targets and
by those who oppose them; and finally, and most importantly,
that critiques of "excesses" usually reflect deeper differences. I
In this case, they reflected differences over whether the key
issue in the revolution at this time was resolution of the village
struggles (Mao's position) or the maintenance of the KMT-CCP
alliance and the unity of the forces of the Northern Expedition
(the position of Chen Duxiu and the majority of the Central
Committee). Understanding this perspective provides an
important insight for those wishing to analyze Mao's later
political practices and thought and the many "excesses"
associated with them.
Revolutionary Leadership
Womack also touches upon another critical issue in
revolutionary theory and practice which has yet to be fully
resolved either theoretically or practically by any revolutionary
group-that of the relationship between the leaders and the led
within the revolution. In this discussion Womack points out
the tension between Mao's adherence to the Leninist notion of
a vanguard party and his own notion of going outside the Party
to guarantee that it is serving the masses. Unfortunately
Womack's chronological approach and his decision to focus
discussion of the leadership issues (pp. 101-108) primarily on
three methods of eliciting the cooperation necessary for
mobilization (identification, rewards and sanctions) with only
a passing reference to the key issue of class leave his otherwise
insightful and analytical comments somewhat isolated and
difficult to pull together.
Womack begins by tracing the transformation of Mao's
early notions on leadership from a belief in a spontaneous,
unified mass uprising catalyzed by leadership with a mission
of enlightenment to a more Leninist notion of leadership based
on the recognition that the long-term nature of the struggle
between antagonistic classes required dedicated to leadership
based on a superior analysis of society. In treating Mao's
attempts to resolve the conflicts between mass mobilization
and a Leninist party, Womack clearly pinpoints the two key
I. This is true despite the many analyses which attempt to artificially separate
"excesses" from the otherwise "correct" policies, because "excesses" are
merely the logical extensions of the basic policies in specific situations. More
recently, the "excesses" at My Lai and at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps
in Lebanon are not separable from the basic aggressive and interventionist
policies which spawned them.
contradictions which Mao faced and his basic method for
attempting to handle them. One contradiction was between the
elitism inherent in the assumption of superior knowledge of
society based on Marxist theory and Mao's never ending
emphasis on concrete investigation if the Party was to
understand the actual immediate needs of those they were trying
to lead. The second was the contradiction of the Party as a
centralized organization trying to maximize a local mobilization
which was inherently anti-centralist. The basic method Mao
chose for handling these contradictions was the mass campaign.
Womack emphasizes that throughout the twenties and
thirties Mao insisted that the Party must be an organization
which could evoke the maximum strength and participation of
the masses and offer correct policies to facilitate the deepening
of the revolution rather than an organization which attempts to
dominate or supplant the masses or their representative
organizations (pp. 66, 129-131). The notion Mao laid out
during this period is very similar to the understanding of the
limits of Party leadership which Robert Marks has recently
described in his articles on social revolution in a South China
county.2 Womack also adroitly demonstrates the ways in which
the centralist aspects of the party can dominate the "facilitator
of mass mobilization" model of leadership put forward by Mao.
In describing the 1932 election movement and the 1932-1933
Land Investigation movement in Jiangxi, he clearly portrays
this dilemma of demanding that the very party organization
which was being criticized for commandism, bureaucratism
and separation from the masses actively mobilize the masses
in order to overcome its isolation from them (pp. 160-161). In
his discussion of Mao's summary of the Jiangxi experience,
he touches on another critical structural contradiction in Mao's
leadership model-the organizational weakness of mass
organizations vis-a-vis the Party which makes it difficult for
mass organizations to influence the Party when there are
meaningful disagreements or criticisms (p. 175). Unfortunately
instead of linking the reader to recent works of such theorists
as Bettelheim, Poulantzas, LaClau, Mouffe and Rowbotham
on the issue of leadership,' Womack summarizes Mao's
position with the generalization that "Party leadership must
prevail in clashes with mass organizations but it must reform
them rather than simply dissolving peasant organizations that
are troublesome."
Mao's method of handling these contradictions-mass
campaigns-is perhaps the most distinctive and controversial
element of his thought and practice. His life-long commitment
to mass campaigns as the means of developing "a real dialectic
2. Robert B. Marks, "Class Relations and the Origins of Rural Revolution in
a South China County," Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Vol. IS, No.
I Jan.-Feb. 1983:36-49.
3. See for example Bettelheim's series on Class Struggles in the USSR (N. Y.:
Monthly Review Press, 1971) and On the Transition to Socialism, with Paul
M. Sweezy;, (N.Y.: Monthly Review Press, 1971); Nicos Poulantzas, State
Power and Socialism (London: New Left Books, 1980) and Political Power
and Social Classes (London: New Left Books, 1973); Emesto LaClau, Politics
and Ideology in Marxist Theory (London: New Left Books, 1978); "Interview
with Emesto LaClau and Chantal Mouffe," in Socialist Review No. 66:91-113;
and Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright, Beyond the
Fragments (Boston: Allyson Publications, 1979). The Rowbotham work most
directly challenges the notion of the vanguard party and the exclusive focus
on class at the expense of other key issues, such as sexual/gender issues and
racial issues.
of leaders and led" (p. 173) has separated him not only from
bourgeois politicians and analysts but also from a large part of
the socialist and communist movements throughout the world.
The key to understanding Mao's emphasis on campaigns
lies, as Womack points out, in recognizing his position that
politics, economics and ideology are inseparable and that
campaigns qualitatively transform the patterns of political
participation of different strata within the villages and
throughout society. 4 Womack's discussion of the differences
between a traditionally organized army "in service to the
revolution" and a "revolutionary army" which has transformed
its internal political and social structures and unified its political
tasks with its own military support structures provides an
excellent example of how such an approach can push a
revolution forward (p. 130). Womack also provides another
excellent example of the utility of this approach when he first
explains how land reform cadres in the late 1940s had to educate
villagers to a consciousness of class-by demonstrating that
past oppression should be blamed on the landlord (Mr. Chen)
rather than on Mr. Chen (the landlord) and then argues that "a
modem revolutionary movement attempting to use the
peasantry as its main force would have their political education
as its central task-not the replacement of one ideology by
another but an original conceptualization of politics by the
villagers" (p. 125). Although it is something of a minor point,
this example could be improved had Womack broken with the
old "ideology Ibelief system" dichotomy, in which ideologies
are seen as overt, systematic and dogmatic and belief systems
seen as spontaneous and flexible, and recognized the incorpora
tion of politics into the world view of the peasants as the
replacement of one world view (ideology) with another. 5
Generalizing from Womack's discussion and other data
on Mao's life and political thought, it is possible to clarify his
notion of the means by which campaigns could develop this
dialectic between leaders and led. The Party, basing itself on
information gathered by local party cadres and acting as the
vanguard of the revolution on the basis of its ability to use
Marxism to correctly analyze society, would systematically
analyze the empirical data to grasp the key contradiction(s) in
society. It would then put forward policies which would help
to resolve these contradictions in a manner which requires the
masses themselves to be part of the process of resolving the
contradiction. To the extent that the Party has correctly
identified the key contradiction and correctly analyzed the
interests of the classes and strata involved, the campaign will
be a success-if the opposed strata cannot organize successfully
to block such a resolution of the contradiction. To the extent
that the analysis is incorrect and/or the contradiction(s) are not
important enough to the targeted classes and strata for them to
become wholeheartedly involved in the campaign, it will fail.
4. In short, the traditionally politically disenfranchised strata in society, i.e.,
the poorest, the least educated, would have greater opportunities to participate
politically than during non-campaign periods.
5. For a clear presentation of the "ideology/belief system" dichotomy, see
Zbigniew Brzezinski and Samuel Huntington, Political Power: USA/USSR
(New York: Viking, 1965), ch. I. The alternative notion, in which ideology
is understood as the perceived relationship of the individual to the world in
which s/he lives, in other words, as the person's world view-regardless of
how it is institutionalized-is set out of the writings of Louis Althusser and
many other contemporary Marxist theorists.
Eventually, as patterns of political participation change and as
the masses become increasingly able to analyze and transform
society on their own, the need for central initiation of mass
campaigns would decrease and the basis for a self-governing
society would have been developed.
Since Mao's death, however, the two positions which
formed the theoretical underpinning to his support of
campaigns-the unity of politics, economics and ideology and
the commitment to changing patterns of political participation
-have been strongly criticized and largely rejected in China.
Theoretically, the Party has criticized the notion of the unity
of politics and economics as a "feudal" practice. Organization
ally it has criticized this notion by introducing increasing
division of responsibilities which has in fact undermined the
Party's ability to launch the type of campaigns which Mao led.
And in the economic, political and ideological spheres, the
post-Mao leadership has made it clear that it prefers to maintain,
if not strengthen, the pre-Cultural Revolution patterns of
political participation by emphasizing and rewarding the
participation of the most educated, most specialized and most
economically productive in order to modernize the economy
as rapidly as possible.
From the 1920s and 1930s to the Cultural Revolution
Womack's book in large part achieves its objective of
placing Mao's early political thought in context, thereby
cautioning the reader against generalizing Mao's later thought
and practice from his earlier development without carefully
analyzing the changed circumstances. At the same time it
provides the reader with an important starting point for
analyzing some of these later actions. Understanding Mao's
early appreciation and apprehension of the tendency of a
centralized party organizationally to suppress lower level party
and mass organizations' ideas and criticisms helps to
understand his later tendency to go outside the Party leadership
for support for key policies. He did this in July 1955 by calling
together the secretaries of the provincial, municipal and district
Party committees to overcome a Central Committee majority
which was opposed to his cooperativization policy, and he did
it again in the Cultural Revolution by mobilizing large sectors
of the population to outmaneuver the central Party apparatus
(at least temporarily). On the other hand, Womack also
highlights certain discrepancies between Mao's early and later
6. The understanding of campaigns put forward here is not unique, although
it is rarely stated so clearly. Whether mass campaigns were able to achieve
these lofty goals is a related issue which Womack discusses briefly. For studies
on how campaigns have been organized and what they have achieved in
concrete situations, see Marc Selden, The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China,
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971) and Charles Cell, Revolution at
Work: Mass Mobilization Campaigns in China, (New York: Academic Press,
There is some evidence in Mao's later theoretical writings to suggest that
his later criticism of such alienating practices as the work of class enemies
was based on an understanding that such errors were bourgeois practices
reflecting and necessitated by existing economic, political and social practices
rather than bourgeois practices consciously initiated by individual class
enemies. However, both the Cultural Revolution practice of individualizing
such errors and attributing them to conscious antagonistic decisions by those
individuals, and Mao's weak and still basically individual-oriented analysis of
bureaucratism reveal the limits of his analysis of this issue and of his ability
10 put some of his more sophisticated practices into action.
practices. He points out that in criticizing incorrect government
and party practices which tended to alienate the leadership from
the masses, he did so without attributing these actions to class
enemies as he did during the Cultural Revolution. How the
transformation from this earlier position to the latter occurred
is beyond the scope of both Womack's book and of this review,'
although in his conclusion Womack points out:
The historic significance of Mao's revolutionary paradigm is
that it broke the bottleneck of modem Chinese history by de
veloping a political paradigm appropriate to Chinese conditions
and yet cognizant of the trans formative potential evident in the
modem West. ... The effectiveness of such a paradigm results
from its appropriateness to existing conditions, but its success
changes those conditions and undermines its own appropriate
ness .... The second ... limitation is caused by the structural
problems that emerge when a practical paradigm becomes au
thoritative (pp. 220-221).
It is at this point that Martin's book takes over,
documenting how these limitations, particularly the second
one, affected Mao's revolutionary paradigm. Martin sheds light
on the inadequacy of the model which Mao proposed for the
further development of this paradigm, a paradigm described
by Womack as one in which there were no guarantees of
freedom of speech in the Western sense, "but a forum where
one had the freedom to risk his political future on the conviction
that his contribution would eventually be judged a 'fragrant
flower' rather than a 'poisonous weed' " (p. 204).
Martin's History of the Canonization of
Mao's Thought
Martin's book is basically a chronology of events relating
to the treatment of Mao's thought in China, with the major
focus on the period after Mao's death. The purpose of the book
is to trace the process by which "Maoism," or Mao's thought,
was transformed from a practical paradigm (although it is
doubtful whether Martin would call Mao's paradigm "practi
cal") into an ossified canon and to show how such canonization
allowed the post-Mao leadership to use Mao's canonized
thought to support their own, basically different policies.
7. A more useful structural analysis of bureaucratism is offered by Charles
Bettelheim. He argues that bureaucracy (in the sense of a social practice that
blocks effective political-economic development and ipso facto alienates the
leadership from the masses) occurs when administrative subordination goes
beyond what is socially useful and begins to substitute relations of
administrative subordination for economic relations which could better be
adapted to the actual situation by more informed local level cadres and/or
workers. In other words, when administrative structures attempt to make
decisions for which they do not have adequate information and when, in an
attempt to monopolize control, they substitute vertical control for horizontal
communication between units, information tends to become more abstract (in
the obfuscating sense) and/or more arbitrary, thus blocking effective decision
making. Moreover, when such incorrect decisions and/or data collected and
put forward by this bureaucratic structure are challenged by the lower levels,
the upper levels, in order to protect these very decision making rights, fall
back on a wide array of administrative sanctions to protect themselves from
these criticisms, thus further widening the gap between themselves and both
the lower levels and the actually necessary information. In such an analysis,
bureaucratism is seen as a structural, ratherthan individual, phenomenon which
can only be eliminated through a basic, if gradual, transformation of society
based on an analysis of the overall social process of production. See C.
Bettelheim, The Transition to Socialist Economy, (Sussex: Harvester Press,
1975), particularly pp. 62-91.
Martin focuses on the transfonnation of the content of
Mao's thought after his death and gives but brief treatment of
the pre-1976 canonization of his thought. Martin's best work
comes in documenting the specific methods by which the
present leadership of the CCP and their allies have transfonned
the content of Mao's thought to support their own policies.
For example, he demonstrates how the post-Mao leadership
selectively quoted from Mao to support their own positions
and how they struggled with Mao's supporters over the
selections and editing of documents for the new volumes of
Mao's Selected Works. He clarifies the various indirect methods
of undercutting Mao's stature which have been initiated since
his death. Other leaders have been allowed privileges
previously reserved for Mao alone. Their calligraphy has been
popularized, their poems published and even Selected Works
of various leaders, including Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi and, most
recently, Deng Xiaoping, have been published." Martin also
chronicles the various "immunity fonnulas" which the Party
leadership developed to allow more direct criticisms of Maoist
policies while exempting Mao personally from criticisms and,
eventually, the ways in which these "immunity fonnulas" were
abandoned in favor of direct criticism of Mao. Such direct
criticism of Mao created problems for the leadership and they
had to devise the methods to limit and control criticism. Martin
distinguishes this process of criticizing Mao from Khrushchev's
"de-Stalinization" in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, pointing
out in the process the new fonn of criticism and inner-Party
struggle-in which criticism need not spell the immediate
downfall of an official-which seems to be developing under
the new leadership.
However, for all its utility in helping to organize and
clarify this important history, Martin's book suffers from two
basic flaws. First, throughout the book, he omits infonnation
in his summaries of events in a manner which reveals a clear
bias toward exaggerating the ultra-leftism of Mao's political
thought and practice. For example, in discussing Lin Biao's
role in "absolutizing" Mao Thought, he links Lin's glorification
of Mao's Thought to the creation of Maoist splinter parties
throughout the world, ignoring the fact that these splinter
parties had been developing and had been supported and
encouraged by the CCP as a whole since the Sino-Soviet
polemics of the early 1960s (p. 30). On pages 107-108, without
any critical comment, Martin quotes a speech by a cadre in
Tiananmen Square in November 1978 criticizing Mao's policy
of "leaning towards one [the Soviet, socialist] side" and Mao's
unwillingness to establish relations with the U. S., as a result
of which "over twenty years were lost." Even if the cadre were
not aware of the efforts of Mao and the CCP to establish
relations with the U.S. in the mid and late 1940s and of the
U.S. policy of "rolling back" communism during the 1950s,
Martin should be. And it would seem to be his responsibility
to provide this history if he were to use this quote, rather than
implicitly supporting the insinuation that the failure to establish
relations was predominantly Mao's or even China's responsibil
ity alone. Elsewhere Martin falls into the common trap of
8. The publication of the Selected Works of various leaders has been carried
to the point where, on a recent trip to China, when watching the news about
the publication of Deng's Selected Works, I overheard someone at the next
table say "Even he has Selected Works too now, huh?!"
portraying Mao as the initiator of the anti-rightist campaign
which followed the strong criticism of the CCP which emerged
during the 1957 Hundred Flowers Campaign. This ignores
MacFarquahr's research which shows that not only did Mao
not initiate the anti-rightist campaign, but that he was attacked
by Peng Zheng," a leading member of the present leadership
coalition, as a "rightist" for giving the critics too much space
Second, as with other "Kremlinological" or "Beijingologi
cal" studies, Martin's work focuses almost exclusively on the
struggles of the top leadership. It tends to ignore the remainder
of society and the relationship between the various leadership
groupings, their social bases and the basic political, economic
and ideological issues facing the Chinese people. Despite these
weaknesses, Martin's work is still a useful micro-analysis of
leadership behavior which provides further insight both into
the machinations of the past and present leadership of the CCP
in dealing with the issue of Mao's thought and into the
continuing unwillingness of the present leadership to com
pletely rectify its method of dealing with the history of the
Chinese Revolution.
In conclusion, both Womack's and Martin's books
contribute valuable infonnation on the relationship between
Mao's thought and the Chinese Revolution. Although both
provide detailed historical data, the contrast between the two
is very noticeable. Where Womack stresses the links between
Mao's thought and the key social contradictions facing the CCP
and the Chinese Revolution, Martin focuses more narrowly on
the leadership struggle over the control of Mao's legacy. Where
Womack also deals with the issue of the relationships between
leaders and led, Martin deals with the issue only implicitly.
Where Womack occassionally delves into theoretical issues,
Martin prefers to remain solely on historical turf. And where
Martin tends to at least implicitly support the present
leadership's criticisms of Mao's ultra-leftism, Womack tends
to give Mao the benefit of the doubt where ambiguous
interpretations of his thought and action are possible. For the
China scholar both are valuable reading, but for the general
reader Womack's book is more comprehensible. Hopefully
both can serve to infonn readers about different aspects of
Mao's role in the Chinese Revolution and spur on both activists
and scholars to undertake more analyses not only of Mao's
personal interventions in Chinese history, but also of the lessons
that can be drawn from these interventions which might help
in advancing the Chinese Revolution and other revolutions
around the world.
9. Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, (New
York: Columbia University Press), 1974.
rvwS '82
Chinese Education
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Drawn from Chinese newspapers, journals and books, the issues range from lower
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Sample Issue Contents
Physics, Chemistry. and Mathematics Education in China
A Discussion on the Compilation and Use of the Newly Complied Junior High
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Earnestly Study the High School Physics Syllabus for the FullTime Ten--Year
School System (Trial Draft) and Strive to I"""""" the Quality of Teaching
Strive to Improve the Quality of Physics Teaching in High School to Meet the
Needs of the Four Modernizations
Problems and Solutions for the 1978 Physics Competitive Examination for High
School Students of Beijing Municipality
A Brief Introduction to Reforms In High School Physics T-=hing In Foreign
Effectively Strengthen the Teaching of Basic Concepts of Chemistry
Strive to Realize the Modernlzetion of the Content of High School Chemistry
Thoughts After Studying the High School Chemistry Syllabus for FullTlme Ter>
Ve.r School SysIam (Trial Droft)
A Brief Introduction to the Chemistry Textbook (Trial Edition' For the First
Year of Senior High School In the FullTlme TenVeer School System
Lay. Solid Foundetlon and Mowo Forward Steadily
Thoughts on Writing and Editing Volume II of the Newly Edited Junior High
School Mathematics
Strengthen the Foundation and Improve the Quality to Realize the Four
Contents: Selected Textbooks
Primary School Mathematics
Junior High School Mathematics
Analytical Geometry
Advanced Algebra
First Issue: Spring 1968
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wrap-around cover in full color by Karen Kerney. People's
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DenniS Banks (facing camera), organizer of The longest Run. embraces Harlan Skye May 28,
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Anick/SyracuCultural Workers.
by Tom Grunfeld
In 1978, at the Center for East Asian Studies of the
University of Montreal, a multidisciplinary group of faculty
and graduate students was established for the purpose of
conducting research into China's minority nationalities. The
group included Denise Helly (anthropology), Chang Weipenn
(economy/demography), Lucien Divod (political philosophy),
Jacques Lamontagne (comparative education), Robert Sevigny
(sociology), and Louis Veilleux (geography).
It was decided to study three groups: the Uygurs in
southwest Xinjiang, the Kazaks in northwest Xinjiang, and the
Miao in northwest Guangxi. These groups were chosen because
it was felt their different characteristics and differing social
organizations prior to 1949 would allow for useful comparisons.
In addition, their location-in sensitive border areas-give
them particular geopolitical importance as well as economic
importance in China's current drive to achieve the "four
modernizations. "
This volume is the group's first contribution (although the
second in a series published by the University of Montreal
entitled Recherches sur l' Asie de l' Est). Specifically, the
scholars aim to study six aspects of each of the minorities cited
above. This includes examining the geographic, demographic,
ethnic, and linguistic distribution of each minority; their
traditional socio-economic states; their cultural and ideological
traditions; how they were regarded by the Chinese Communist
Party (CCP) prior to 1949; the minority people's responses and
reactions to the CCP revolution; and the subsequent class
transformation which was carried out after 1949.
These are all highly commendable goals and their first
volume reflects a concerted effort to reach those lofty heights.
Unfortunately it falls somewhat short, though it is indeed a
good beginning. The apparent reason for this shortcoming is
the paucity of primary source materials. In the West, as well
as in China, the serious study of the history and culture of
ethnic minorities is in its infancy. In China there were only a
relative handful of students of minority life during the 1950s
and early 196Os. As with so much else, these studies ceased
La Chine: La Question des Minorites en Chine.
Orientations Generales, by Charles Le Blanc and
Denise Helly, eds. Montreal: Cahiers de Centre
d'etudes de I' Asie de I'Est, Universite de
Montreal, 1981, 236 pp.
altogether with the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution and are
only now starting up again. Sadly, there are very few scholars
from the minority groups themselves and their training is
moving far too slowly.
In spite of these difficulties this volume is a welcome
addition to the literature with each contribution offering the
reader something different. It begins, quite appropriately, with
several charts and maps identifying the 55 ethnic minorities,
their population, their linguistic characteristics, and where they
reside in China. This is followed by a translation of a speech
by China's preeminent anthropologist, Fei Xiaotong, entitled
"Ethnic Identification in China." Given in September 1978 to
a meeting of the Chinese People's Consultative Conference,
the speech was published in English in the first issue of Social
Sciences in China (March 1980). This is an important
introduction to any study of China's minorities because it
addresses the perplexing problem of how the Chinese are
identifying and labeling ethnicity.
The next chapter is an abridged translation of a study
conducted in 1956 by eight Chinese cadres in Xiaheleke county,
a uygur domicile in Xinjiang. It is a very good account of the
class structure, land ownership, social customs, and economy
complete with charts and statistical tables. The study originally
appeared in a collection entitled Minzu Yanjiu Gongzuo de
Yuejin (Great Progress in Minority Research). I was particularly
pleased to see this translation, since during the 1950s a number
of field studies were done and published in collec;tions like
this one as well as in the journals Minzu Tuanjie (Nationalities
Unity) and Minzu Yanjuiu (Nationalities Studies). These studies
have been largely ignored by scholars outside of China to the
detriment of us all, for later articles published in the 1960s and
1970s were less scholarly efforts than polemics.
What follows next is an article by Divod and Chang on
the economy of the Uygurs prior to 1949 and its socialist
transformation in the 1950s. Admitting that the sources
available are "rare and fragmentary," the authors nevertheless
provide a solid, basic sketch of the social and economic
characteristics of a Uygur district near Khotan. This article is
of particular value to those unfamiliar with the economic
situation of the minorities in Xinjiang.
Another translation follows, this one from Jinri Guangxi
Shaoshu Minzu (The National Minorities of Guangxi Today)
which was published in 1978. Here we find a description of
Miaoling, a mountainous region of northern Guangxi inhabited
by the Miao people (there are 3 million Miao in China and
another Y2 million in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma).
Written in the jargon of the Cultural Revolution, its value is
limited because it is so heavily polemical and because so much
of the information published during that period has now been
repudiated. Nonetheless, it provides a good comparison with
the earlier translation in Chapter 2 and demonstrates the value
of those neglected earlier studies.
The next contribution is somewhat different in that it is a
translation and analysis of four myths from the oral tradition
of the Miao people. Taken from a second century Taoist book,
Huainan Zi (Master Huainan's Book), it tells the tale of an
animal trainer and the Lady Gua. According to translator Le
Blanc this is the oldest origin myth in written Chinese tradition.
The remainder of the volume-more than half-is devoted
to a study by Denise Helly on "The Communist Party and the
Ethnic Question. The Case of Xinjiang, 1920-1959." This is
intended to provide an overview of the CCP's minority policy
in light of larger historical events of the period by focusing on
the situations of the Kazaks and Uygurs of Xinjiang.
While there is little new here for the reader of previous
studies by Jack Chen, Donald McMillen, and Allen Whiting,
it is valuable for its succinctness. I have not come across a
better short introduction, although Helly has in some instances
too readily accepted Chinese sources. She underplays the
complexities of the Han-minority relationship, particularly the
hostility of the minorities towards the Han due to centuries-old
prejudice and, more recently, some wrongheaded policies. One
of the many examples I can offer of the latter was the
unwillingness of the government to grant some measure of
actual autonomy to the minorities rather than the "mere
formality" (the words used by the Chinese press) it turned out
to be in practice.
A more critical reading of the sources might have led to
further research and the avoidance of a number of historical
errors. On Tibet, for example, the Dalai Lama did not "escape"
to Sikkim in 1950 (p. 172). He never left Tibet at the time.
Nor did the anti-Han rebellions in Tibet begin in 1957 (p. 173);
they began only weeks after the arrival of the People's
Liberation Army in late 1950 and became full-blown in early
Whatever its shortcomings this volume is an important
step in furthering our understanding of the non-Han peoples
of China and an excellent departure for additional work. We
are promised that the group at the Universite de Montreal in
the future will offer us studies on the social mobility of the
non-Hans in Xinjiang, the relationship between the regional
Xinjiang and the Chinese national economies, the status of the
Hui (Chinese Muslims) before and after 1949, and much more.
I for one am anxiously awaiting the future volumes. *
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by Elly van Gelderen
This book deals with the appalling situation that exists on
West-Papua, as it does in much of Indonesia, and is meant to
"publicise a much-neglected situation of human rights abuse
and [to] help provide the West Papuan people with urgently
needed sympathy and support" (7). It gives a short overview
of the country's history and of the UN New York Agreement
of 1962 and the 1969 Act of Free Choice. It discusses the
destruction of the Papuan community by economic exploitation
and deliberate action, human rights abuses, the Papuan
liberation movement (OPM) and the military campaigns by the
Indonesian military forces against the OPM.
West Papua' (named Irian Jaya by Indonesia) was
inhabited by Melanesians in the coastal areas and non-Melane
sian speaking groups in the highlands that appear to represent
the most ancient cultural legacy in this part of the Pacific. The
island was explored by the Spanish, Portuguese, French and
British, but it was the Dutch who established outposts. The
island was divided between Britain and the Netherlands in
1848. By the beginning of this century, it was known that the
island had oil resources, but exploitation was not begun until
1936. The Japanese occupied the island during the Second
World War and after the Allied forces (accompanied by
geological teams who found nickel, copper, cobalt and
chromite) regained West New Guinea, the Dutch returned.
There was strong opposition to the Dutch presence by Indonesia
who wanted to incorporate West Papua. The Dutch attitude to
Papuan independence had been ambivalent: on the one hand,
the Dutch were willing to hold elections in West Papua (30)
I. Throughout, I use West Papua, rather than Irian Jaya, as the latter is the
Indonesian name. I want to thank Kevin Hewison for suggestions.
PEOPLE. London: TAPOL, 1983. 114pp., $4.50
plus mailing. TAPOL, 8a Treport St., London
and have Papuans participate in government,
but on the other
hand, they had a patronizing concern with the primitiveness
and the "absence of culture" in the people.
The U.S. was
strongly in favor of a solution favorable to Indonesia and made
the Dutch agree to the 1962 New York Agreement, which was
reached without the presence of any Papuans. The agreement,
which was immediately ratified by the UN General Assembly,
specified that six years after Indonesia would take over, the
people of West Papua would be able to choose by the Act of
Free Choice to stay with Indonesia or to become independent.
From 1963 to 1967, however, no UN representative was present
to keep informed on the situation there.
In 1969, Suharto, the Indonesian president who replaced
Sukarno in 1965, announced that the Act of Free Choice would
take place. This was an improvement on his predecessor
Sukarno as Sukarno had declared in November 1962 that it
was not necessary to have an Act of Free Choice (28).5 A UN
representative, Ortiz Sanz, was appointed to observe the Act,
but the conclusions to his report were ignored by the UN (one
of the recommendations was to have Indonesian troop
withdrawal before the plebiscite). Rather than follow the
suggestion made _by Ortiz Sanz of one man-one vote, the
2. Van der Kroef, J.M. (1968) "West New Guinea: The Uncertain Future,"
in: Asian Survey, August, 694.
3. Toekomstige Ontwikkeling van Nieuw-Guinea: Rapport van de Interdepan
mentale Commissie. (1953) Den Haag: Staatsdrukkerij, e.g., 18-19.
4. Van der Kroef, op. cit., 691.
5. Ibid., 969 and May, B. (1978) The Indonesian Tragedy. London: Routledge
and Kegan Paul, 195.
Indonesian government decided that local representatives (their
number was t025) were the ones who were to vote in the
plebiscite as most of the Papuans were deemed too simple to
vote (30). The t025 voted unanimously not to become
independent. There was no doubt that they were intimidated
(31-2).6 Although the UN team during and before the voting
did not have planes, interpreters
or an adequate staff,8 the UN
approved the results.
The third chapter deals with the economic exploitation of
the country and how the people "benefit" from this exploitation.
For instance, in 1976 exports amounted to $350 million,
whereas imports were $1 million. Most of the exports were oil
and minerals. Initially, West Papuans were needed to work,
but their numbers were steadily reduced and all supervisory
staff was non-native. More so than with the oil, the exploitation
of minerals and lumber involved the dislocation and resettle
ment of local inhabitants. This resulted in uprisings by the
population and reprisals by the military. A major incident (38)
was the cutting of the copper-concentrate pipeline in Tembaga
pura in 1977. The military attacked with two OV -to Bronco
bombers (low-flying, slow-moving anti-guerrilla aircraft) and
burned down some villages.
Resettlement and dislocation of people occur in an
arbitrary way not only because of mineral exploitation, but
also because of a systematic transmigration of Javanese and
others. Transmigration or "Javanization" is important politi
cally ''to help crush rebellions on outer islands" (52). The
number of immigrants is estimated at between 300,000 and 1
million (54) and Vice President A. Malik is quoted as saying
that 9 million will be settled. TAPOL (5) mentions that West
Papua itself has 1 million inhabitants, but OPM has claimed
2.3 million. The newcomers are settled in the fertile parts,
whereas the West Papuans are relocated away from their land.
Apart from this influx, there is a systematic scheme to disperse
the Papuans (one Papuan family to every 9 Javanese is the
goal) (62), to make them dress "properly" and to teach them
to speak Indonesian. What do the West Papuans gain by all
this? Health services for Papuans have been described by a
doctor as "alarming" (66). And the destruction of forests for
timber has had such a terrible effect on food production that
in July and August 1982, 112 people died from starvation and
3000 were at risk (68).
In May 1963, the UN left and that is when human rights
violations started to occur. In October 1965, the KOPKAMTIB
came into existence and this organization-which operates all
over Indonesia-arrests, detains and even kills people it sees
as a threat to security. Mass killings of villagers take place
after every guerrilla attack. From 1962 to 1969, it is estimated
that 30,000 people were killed (74) and in 1981, 13,000 people
are said to have died in operation "cleansweep" (75). Since
1962, 100,000-150,000 are believed to have died (6), which
is a lot "better," percentage-wise, than the record in East Timor.
1be anti-slavery society reported that 200,000 West Papuans
have been murdered since 1962.9 Deaths in detention (for
example, by pumping water into a cell until the prisoner
drowns) (76), disappearances and extrajudicial killings are but
a few of the humnan rights violations. Most political prisoners
are arrested for suspected sympathies with OPM, the movement
fighting for self-determination but few are charged or tried and
if tried the trials do not accord with internationally established
For the West Papuans, two options are left: fight or flee.
The third option, to inform the world so it can put pressure on
Indonesia to respect the rights of the people of West Papua,
has, as in the case of East Timor, failed. As to the fighting,
the OPM is said to have control over a quarter of the country
and it is claimed that 30,000 people are active in it (100). They
can survive because they are not dependent on a particular
piece of land but live on roots and plants and move around a
lot. TAPOL's discussion of the OPM is simplistic. It is
presented as a unified guerrilla movement and its ideology and
disputes are not dealt with. May'O talks about tribal unity in
fighting non-Papuans, but certainly does not make the
movement seem unified. II May ascribes the rise of OPM to a
"belief in some kind of cosmic justice"12 for which OPM
became a symbol.
Many have had to flee the country. At first, Papua New
Guinea (hence PNG, the Eastern part ofthe island) was willing
to grant asylum to West Papuans. In 1979, under Australian
and Indonesian pressure this policy changed. People qualifying
as Refugees under UN standards were sent back since the UN
Refugee official (92) was Australian and did not want to alienate
Indonesia. More recently, in April 1984, Namaliu (the foreign
minister of PNG) went to Jakarta to ask whether refugees
coming to PNG were not forced off their land undeto.
transmigration policies and whether they would be harmed on
coming back to West Papua. It is not yet clear what will happen
to the several hundreds of refugees that came in the spring of
1984: they could be sent back, given asylum in PNG or sent
to a third country. Other countries like Vanuatu and the
Netherlands are no longer willing (with a few exceptions) to
accept West Papuans, presumably for reasons similar to those
The similarities with East Timor are striking and range
from bombing raids made with OV-to Bronco airplanes
supplied by the U.S. to systematic genocide. Neither country
is culturally or logically part of Indonesia. It has been claimed
by Indonesia that historically West Papua is a part of Indonesia
because it belonged to the Dutch possessions there, something
that cannot be said of East Timor which belonged to Portugal.
The book claims that the situation on West Papua is even
less known than that on East Timor (97). A small indication
of how little the world knows or cares about West Papua is
that the Carnegie Peace Prize (awarded in January 1984 in The
Hague) could be given to Van Royen, one of the Dutch
negotiators instrumental in bringing about the 1%2 New York
Agreement. One reason then for this book is to familiarize the
world with the situation on West Papua. The other is to stress
what the world can forget and how international safeguards
... clln faiteven under UN auspices when particular interests are
at stake.
6. Ibid., 189 and 192-3.
7. Ibid., 188 and 199. 10. May, op. cit., 175.
8. Ibid., 197. II. Ibid., 180-1.
9. Geneva: Reuters, 9 August 1983.
12. Ibid., 182.
by Elaine Kurtenbach
Ben Kiernan and Chanthou Boua, in collaboration with
numerous Khmer people, have produced a unique, scholarly
volume about Kampuchea that endeavors to answer the critical
question of "why?" What are the events that precipitated the
rule of the Khmer Rouge and why did they tum against their
own people? This book is a collection of well-documented
essays, arranged in chronological order, that examines the
long-term, endemic conditions that resulted in Kampuchea's
dark age of 1975-79. Much of the work was translated from
original Khmer sources, and two of the Kampuchean writers,
"'Hou Yuon and Hu Nim, were prominent socialists who were
executed by the Khmer Rouge after 1975. Well-known and
sometimes obscure events are described through the eyes of
witnesses interviewed in Kampuchea, Thailand, Australia and
France. This book is not a diatribe against the unspeakable
horrors that befell the Kampuchean people. The facts have
their own grim eloquence.
The book is composed of three main sections. Part I is
an introduction to the peasantry of Kampuchea; their social life
and land tenure patterns. The Khmer authors demonstrate that
Kampuchean peasants were commonly deprived of most of the
value of their major produce-rice. Rice is the staple food,
and Kampuchea was a net exporter of rice. By all logic, it
should have been quite inexpensive due to its relative
abundance. Yet, purchasing rice accounted for 50 to 60 percent
of the household budget of a Kampuchean peasant family. The
economic livelihood of the peasants, ever precarious, was
further eroded by colonial exploitation. Peasants were con
sequently vulnerable to economic, hence political manipula
tion. This argument is documented with case studies and
detailed surveys of various regions throughout the country. The
overall conclusion is that far from living in a homogenous,
harmonious rustic Buddhistic sanctuary, the Kampuchean rural
population was divided into various economic groups that were
interdependent but not responsible for the welfare of the local
people. Underlying tensions became increasingly manifest as
the pressures of taxation, warfare and debt produced a
"politically significant" landless peasant class. All political
activists manipulated these social and economic cleavages
eventually to the profound disadvantage of the peasants.
The second section of the book outlines the political
struggles in Kampuchea from 1942 to 1970. The narratives of
political conflict reveal the disagreements between anti-colonial
Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942-1981
by Ben Kiernan and Chanthou Boua. Armonk,
NY: ME. Sharpe, and London: Zed Press,
1982. Hardcover $35.00, paper $14.95.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
and anti-royalist leftist opposition groups that existed since the
1940s. Alternative plans did exist regarding the correct course
for Kampuchea's independent development. However, the
natural evolution of a national development plan was
consistently obstructed by foreign interference. A constructive
proposal is described by Hou Yuon in Chapter 6, "Solving
Rural Problems: A Socialist Program to Safeguard the Nation."
This plan called for the voluntary development of peasant
cooperatives to eliminate the middlemen who absorbed up to
half of the value of the produce. The plan never got off the
ground, for it would have appropriated the wealth that
supported the royalist government, among other reasons. Yet,
it is almost meaningless to speak of political development of
the peasants in Kampuchea.
This work goes further than any other study is describing
the relationships between the peasants, who would perhaps
have remained uninvolved in politics had circumstances
permitted, and political powers in Kampuchea. The chasm
between sociological inquiry and the political analysis still
remains wide. This section of the political history of
Kampuchea has as its main subjects of study the Khmer
Issareks, Prince Sihanouk, Lon Nol and Pol Pot. Considering
the paucity of information about Khmer society, this study is
indispensable, but it does raise more questions than it can
To cite a lengthy example, a critical problem in studying
Kampuchea lies in defining the power base of any political
group or politician (Sihanouk) in a given period of time.
Intellectuals alienated by political repression and often
espousing worthy ideals for a free Kampuchea developed
opposition bases in the hinterlands. They necessarily drafted
their soldiers from the dispossessed. Landless peasants, young
teenagers, and even guerrilla leaders from Thailand peopled
the ranks of the Khmer Rouge. Their years of suffering in
guerrilla warfare left indelible psychological damage, filling
the soldiers with "uncontrollable hatred" for the people who
had tormented them, and even for the people who had simply
led normal lives during their long struggle.
The peasants, true to their religious beliefs and culture,
appeared to show a constant loyalty to the "God-king," "Prince
Sihanouk. In Chapter 8, 'The 1970 Peasant Uprisings Against
Lon Nol," Kiernan produces evidence that although the
peasants may have appeared loyal to Sihanouk, they were not
necessarily inclined to demonstrate for his return to power.
This is a key issue in gauging the degree of support for the
Prince, as well as the politicization of the rural population.
W.E. Willmott has challenged Kiernan's thesis, suggesting
that his own evidence "indicates that the return of Sihanouk
was the single issue around which the KCP could organize
mass demonstrations.'"
The issue is more complex. The peasant population has
been the source both of the communist troops and the National
Army under Lon Nol. The relations between the local people
and political factions is automatically complicated by family
ties. In general, however, the peasants were at the disposal of
those who carried arms. Whenever possible, they continued to
farm and to dodge artillery fire and bombing. For them, the
key issue was to provide subsistence for themselves and to
hope for peace. When the Khmer Rouge were driven away by
the Vietnamese or the National Army, only those who feared
punishment for past involvement with the Khmer Rouge
followed them into the jungle. Those who could remltined
behind, generally passive.
As for Sihanouk, Kiernan points out that in 1970 when
he was overthrown, there were pro-Sihanouk demonstrations
only in two areas where the revolutionary forces were
particularly strong, Kompong Cham and Takeo-Kampot. The
support for the Prince was "rather passive" and had its political
limitations, according to Kiernan. This is unremarkable.
Although Sihanouk had managed to hold his position for many
years as the national liberator and figurehead, his image was
hardly unsullied. Sihanouk, perhaps with no better alternative,
allied himself with the lions most likely to safeguard
Kampuchea's sovereignty. He did condone the shipment of
supplies to Vietnamese communist troops through the port at
Sihanoukville. Viet Minh troops were camped along the
sparsely inhabited border regions. Sihanouk was the figurehead
not only of the traditional Buddhist culture, but also of an elite,
corrupted regime in Phnom Penh.
Kiernan quotes a commentator who wrote that "It is almost
as if Sihanouk's portrait were more important than the man
himself, suggesting that these people demonstrated their loyalty
to a traditional source of power rather than a man." Peasants,
despite their pride in tradition and religious beliefs, are practical
people. They would scarcely be compelled to actively fight to
restore the King any more than they would actively resist the
new leader, unless forced to do so.
Nonetheless, the predisposition of the peasants to favor
the rule of a populist traditional ruler was based on
well-founded intuition. Lon Nol had already established a
gruesome reputation during the Samlaut Rebellion in 1967
1968. He brought the final rain of destruction down on the
heads of the peasants, first by driving the Viet Minh deeper
into densely populated regions of Kampuchea and subsequently
by inviting the ARVN into Kampuchea, whereupon they
"swept through southeastern Kampuchea as far as Kompong
Spen and Kompong Chhnang during June and July 1970,
'pillaging, burning, raping' " as they went.
The Americans
followed in 1972-1973 with merciless bombing, allegedly
aimed at the Vietnamese but landing more often than not on
innocent villages. The natural result of this bombardment was
that many peasants fled to the Khmer Rouge. Those who
remained behind among the ruins naturally considered
Sihanouk to be the most likely savior from the inferno. Yet,
even if, as Willmott suggests, the return of Sihanouk to power
was the single issue around whicl1 the KCP could organize
mass demonstrations,1 this is no evidence of a true politiciza
tion of the peasants. It is a case of the mighty exploiting the
psychological propensities of the peasants in order to obtain
passive tolerance.
In the third section, an essay by Kiernan and testimonies
from people who survived the rule of the Khmer Rouge provide
some first-hand insight into those dark years. The interesting
fact that emerges is that the impact of Pol Pot's rule varied
over time and distance. The regime took power in 1975 with
savage vengeance. It embarked on an understandably ambitious
program to reconstruct the countryside according to its own
revolutionary specifications, as well as to salvage the rice
harvests. A guerrilla army, however, is not necessarily
well-prepared to carry out the tasks of governing. Rival leaders,
with differing opinions on how to conduct the revolution, posed
a threat to the monolithic rule of the Angkar or "organization."
The tasks of ruling and fighting against the Vietnamese and
opposition forces strained the resources of the regime and this
pressure weighed heaviest upon the people. Those peasants
who had enjoyed relatively favorable treatment in the early
years of 1975-1976 could not avoid the pressure any more
than the tormented former urbanites could. In 1977 and 1978
grain was removed from communal storehouses and trucked
to unknown destinations, just as it had been swallowed by
taxes in the bygone "feudal" days. The peasants suffered.
Everyone suffered.
This book does not offer an academic explanation for the
manipulation of the peasants of Kampuchea. The lack of any
artificial intellectual framework contributes to its straight
forwardness. The reader can closely examine a range of topics,
from land tenure to military strategy to revolutionary songs.
This work is therefore useful to scholars and laymen in all
fields of social studies.
Kiernan and Boua do not in any sense apologize for the
cruelty of the Pol Pot regime. Their evidence demonstrates that
this inhumanity was matched in kind, if not in degree, by the
French, by troops under Sihanouk and particularly by Lon Nol.
The capacity of a society to involute, to tum against itself, is
beyond reason, but certainly not unique to the Kampucheans.
None of the political and military leaders who so deftly and
forcefully manipulated the people of Kampuchea can claim a
moral superiority. This is particularly true of the Americans
who turned parts of tropical Kampuchea into a wasteland and
facilitated Pol Pot's takeover.
Kiernan's conclusion, "Kampuchea Stumbles to its Feet,"
is an optimistic one. Under Vietnamese occupation, Kam
puchea is staging a slow cultural and economic revival. Sadly,
forces are waiting in the wings to knock it right off its feet.
We can only hope that the experiences and "cultural
renaissance" in Kampuchea will have supplied the peasants
with a better ability to discern and direct their own future.
1. W.E. Willmott, "Analytic Errors of the Kampuchean Communist Party,"
Pacific Affairs 54:2, Summer 1981, p. 225.
2. Ibid. 3. Ibid.
by Tom Grunfeld
If you can't tell by the title you only have to go as far as
the dedication to become aware of the inclination of this book,
for it
is dedicated to all those hurt by CIA covert operations. It is
especially dedicated to the Vietnamese and the Americans who
served in Vietnam.
Ralph McGehee was the perfect candidate for CIA
employment. A third generation Louisianan, McGehee grew
up during the Depression in a relatively secure environment
(his father worked as a janitor) in a lower middle class
neighborhood of Chicago. Young Ralph made the high school
honor list and was elected class president before going on to
Notre Dame where he graduated cum laude (even while playing
on three championship football teams). As he himself admits,
he "was raised to believe in the American dream-the
Protestant work ethic, truth, justice, freedom," and the divinely
inspired mission of the United States to defeat the world-wide
communist conspiracy.
In 1952 McGehee was recruited to the CIA and spent the
next 25 years slowly seeing his ideals challenged; at first they
slowly frayed at the edges, but by the end they were destroyed.
He finally left the agency in 1977 with bitterness and anger.
McGehee is only the most recent of a growing number of
ex-CIA employees who have witnessed their illusions shattered
and consequently have tried to warn their fellow citizens of
what they perceive are the dangers of the CIA. Like Victor
Marchetti, Philip Agee, Frank Snepp, and John Stockwell
before him, McGehee had his difficulties with the agency over
his book. He voluntarily submitted the final manuscript for
approval and clearance, but only after protracted disputes (all
explained in a fascinating appendix which should be required
reading for anyone interested in the CIA) was the book allowed
to be printed with minor deletions-all of which are clearly
delineated in the text.
McGehee's career with the CIA was confined exclusively
to Asia; first working on the China desk in Langley, Virginia,
Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the CIA, by Ralph
W. McGehee. New York: Sheridan Square
Publications, Inc., 1983, 231 pp., $7.95.
and then working in the field in Taiwan, Thailand, and
Vietnam. Perhaps because of the secrecy agreement he signed
with the CIA, or perhaps because McGehee did not wish to
compromise himself, the book contains no revelations or
scoops about CIA activities. Most of what is discussed
concerning major CIA operations comes from secondary
sources and from previous autobiographies by former agents.
Nevertheless, for readers inclined to dislike the CIA and
its activities this book will be more grist for the mill coming
as it does from someone with a quarter of a century's personal
experience. And indeed that is McGehee's stated intent as to
how the book should be used. He sees it as a weapon, for he
concludes that his experiences have proven to him that rather
than being an intelligence gathering arm of the government,
the CIA in actuality is "the covert action arm of the Presidency"
which gathers intelligence only as it fits and supports the covert
activities it engages in. On a personal note, McGehee also
wanted to write his story to try and understand his experiences,
separating the reality that he experienced with the ". . .
fairy-tale world I was led to believe in."
While the book may not produce any new "smoking guns"
I would strongly recommend it for the personal aspects of CIA
life that it tells us about. The most interesting to me concerned
the effects on family life when one member has pledged not
to tell anyone-not even his or her spouse-anything about
hislher livelihood. McGehee could not tell his wife who he
worked for, what he did, where he went, or even when he
would be back. The strains of this rather unrealistic demand
are dealt with honestly and in a disarming fashion. McGehee
chronicles his growing realization that his wife's role is not
simply to stay at home, take care of the kids, lie on his behalf,
and not ask any questions. It becomes clear that feminism has
had its effects on Ralph McGehee.
Another strength of the book is McGehee's willingness
to let us in on the relationships within the agency itself as well
as chronicling the human foibles of some of its employees.
These relationships-between trainees, between junior em
ployees and their superiors, between the different branches of
the agency-put a more human and realistic face on the whole
bureaucracy which many of us on the outside tend to feel is
wholly cool and calculating. Of equal interest were the
descriptions of relationships between the agents and the local
liaisons which in some cases proved disastrous, some just
hilarious, and in some ominously friendly (Ray Cline, former
CIA station chief in Taiwan, was so friendly with Chiang
Ching-kuo and his wife that the couple was frequently seen in
the CIA club playing the slot machines).
While I generally agree with McGehee's conclusions I
found myself disturbed by parts of his story. McGehee
inexplicably fails to mention that the CIA does indeed have an
intelligence gathering function through the use of thousands of
employees who read all publicly available materials, materials
gathered through electronic eavesdropping, and from monitored
radio and television broadcasts. This is often directed at
countries in which the CIA is presumably not currently involved
in covert operations (for example, Canada and Britain) but is
gathered for future possibilities of covert activities as well as
to aid the U.S. government in its decision making. These
intelligence gatherers undoubtedly lead more mundane lives
than the agents in the field yet they also must make moral and
political judgements concerning the uses to which the fruits of
their labor are used. In an imperfect world every nation requires
some form of intelligence gathering, so that is not the issue.
The issue, I believe, is who benefits from this information,
who suffers as a result of its being gathered and who controls
its use. None of this is discussed by McGehee.
McGehee's frequent anecdotes of agency blunders and
short-sightedness was another aspect of McGehee's story I
found disturbing. These ranged from an inefficient filing system
that was not properly cross-indexed to the abandonment of
effective programs because their success would have con
tradicted previous CIA claims that there was no problem to
begin with. And then there was the entrepreneurial agent in
Saigon who convinced the CIA he had a network of spies
throughout China and who, for "millions of dollars a year"
supplied the CIA with information which after three years they
discovered he had been getting by clipping articles from the
local Chinese press.
My reaction to the first few of these was a smile and a
sense of gratitude that there now existed some corrective to
the widely held belief of CIA omnipotence. Yet, as they
continued with only passing mention of the CIA's "successes"
my unease increased, for out of context these blunders would
lead us to believe that the world has little to fear of the CIA
for it would probably trip over its own shoelaces on its way
to the next coup d'etat. For most of the nations of the world
this is sadly untrue.
This lack of balance could present problems, particularly
if the reader is relatively unfamiliar with CIA activities over
the past 35 years. So, if someone asks me to recommend a
single book on the CIA this would not be the one I would cite.
Yet for those initiated in the skullduggery' and counter
revolutionary activities of the agency this account of a personal
What are Manists doing in American universities? '!bey teach, work on WIlvssIty
committes, write boob. '!bey ..wya-in f...,inating w.ys-m.... culture, American
Imperialism, capitalist eccmomlcs, bourgeois history, folk culture, art. cinem. But have
Marxist critics of IOCiety loBI their ..J voices of opporItion In the hallowed baIls of
Acadmne? Is Manilm becoming JeIf-deltructiv-ely nspectabIe? Or do we haw what JOllIe
think is an MabIisbed &Del influential Left Academy? Is Manism, rop.....nted by pro
fe.Irs especially .t powerful universities, vigorously .t work where it is .-ded? Is the
WIivenIty, worIr:pIace th.t produca cultural oommodities, being sIgnlficand)' ebanpd
by Marxists-or are they being ebanpd by it?
Humanities in Society
..._.opeciDl double law
Marxists and the University
Robert M. Maniquis, Guest Editor
Ellen Scbrecker, "The Missing Gener.tion: Academics &Del the Communist Party from
the Depression to the Cold War"
Wlllter Cohen and Peter HohendahI, "Marxist Literary Critics: Problems .nd Proposals"
Gene BeIl-Villada, "Invisible Anti-Manism: What H.ppens When American Academics
Read Latin-American Leftists..
LeIIie R.bine, "Searching for the ConnectIons: Marxist-Feminists .nd Women', Studies..
Carl Boggs, "The Intellectullls and Socilll Movements: Some Reflections on Academic
Ben Agger and Allen R.cblin, "Left-Wing Scholarship: Current Contradictions of
Academic Production"
Robert M. Maniquis, "PucIIl', Bet, Totalities, &Del Guerilla Criticism"
Fredric JamMOD, "Science venus Ideology"
This issue will be avallable for flO. Upcoming issues of Humoniliel in Soclety will deIIl
with SeoWity, VioIoace, -l'oraocnPbY; Race, a.., _ Culture; and lJterary East
Wert Emigration. The following recent issues are also available:
ReIipoa _ PoIltics (the influence of religion on American politics, currendy
&Del historically, te)
Foucault _ Criticlll 1'b.ry: n... V_ of I>Ucoune Analysis (applications of
Foucault', thought to various disciplines, flO)
MIlitarism &Del War (an interdisciplinary study of the history of war, the
nuclear arms ra<e, and the economic _ morIIl CIJDIIICIIM!I'C of warfare, $10)
n... PoIltics of lJteracy (a re-examination of today', literacy "crisis," te)
PsyebouIIlysis &Del IDterpretation (flO)
For. tsl one-year subocription to this q.-terly or for individual issues, make out checks
to HtmIIJfIUieIr in Soc/eIy and oend to Scott Giantvalley, Managing Editor, Center for the
Humanities, THH 326, University of Southern California, Los Auples CA 90089-0350.
Make checks payable to:
Reproductive Rights National Network
17 Murray Street
New York, New York 10007
odyssey should be read. o$8 Regular 0 $12 Supporting 0 $--Sustaining
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Books to Review
The following review copies have arrived at the office of the
Bulletin. /fyou are interested in reading and reviewing one or
more of them, write to Joe Moore, BCAS, P.O. Box R,
Berthoud, Colorado 80513. This brief list contains only books
that have arrived since the last issue. Please refer to that list as
well for other books currently available from BCAS.
Asian Coalition of Human Rights Organizations (ed), Human Rights Activism
in Asia (New York: Council on International and Public Affairs, 1984).
Bhabani. Sen Gupta (ed), Soviet Perspectives of Contemporary Asia (Atlantic
Highlands: Humanities Press, 1984).
Links No. 19, "Reclaiming the Earth: Development and the Environment,"
Third World First, March 1984.
Amnesty International (ed), China: Violations of Human Rights (umdon:
Amnesty International, 1984).
John DeFrancis, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (Honolulu: Univ.
of Hawaii Press, 1984).
Harry Harding (ed), China's Foreign Relations in the 1980s (New Haven:
Yale Univ. Press, 1984).
Alan Jenkins & Cathy Grant, "A Teaching Guide to Films on the People's
Republic of China," Discussion Paper in Geography No. 21, Oxford
Polytechnic, 1984.
Martin J. Haigh. "Soil Erosion and Soil Conservation Research in India: An
Annotated Bibliography," Discussion Paper in Geography No. 17, Oxford
Polytechnic, 1982.
Janet Hunter, compiler, Concise Dictionary of Modern Japanese History
(Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984).
Sharon Minichiello, Retreat from Reform: Patterns of Political Behavior in
Interwar Japan (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1984).
J. V. Neustupny and Y. Sugimoto (eds) , Papers of the Japanese Studies Centre
Clayton, VIC, Australia: Japanese Studies Centre).
I. Sugimoto & Mouer, Japanese Society
2. Freiberg, Women in Mizoguchi Films
3. Henderson, Joint Ventures and Investments in Japan
4. Sugimoto, Shimada & Levine, Industrial Relations in Japan
5. Tsurumi, Japanese Conceptions of Asia
6. Mackie, Japanese Children and Politenss
7. Stockwin, The Rights and Lefts of Japanese Politics
8. Sheard, Auto Production Systems in Japan
9. Sibatani, Environment, Man, Science and Technology in Japan
10. Matsuzawa, Japanese Fascism and the Tenno Imperial State
II. Hidaka, Democracy and the "Control State" in Japan
12. Marriott, English Discourse of Japanese Women in Melbourne
13. Neustupny, Communicating with the Japanese
Frank Joseph Shulman (ed), Doctoral Dissertations on Japan and on Korea,
1969-1979: An Annotated Bibliography of Studies in Western Languages
(Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1982).
H. Paul Varley, Japanese Culture (3rd ed) (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press,
Carmel Budiardjo and Liem Soei Libng, The War Against East Timor (London:
Zed Books, 1984).
David K. Wyatt, Thailand: A Short History (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press,

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