How Five Malayan Tigers risked their freedom for basic workers’ rights

The Five Tigers in the 1960s. Back row, from left to right: Zheng Wen Jie, Chen Shu Jing, Chen Shu Fen, Loh Siew Hong. Front row left: Luo Mu Lan. (Pic courtesy of Por Heong Hong)

PETALING JAYA: The Five Tigers were ready to go to prison if they had to.

These five courageous women had joined the Labour Party of Malaya to learn to read and write and ended up leading the perilous fight for social justice.

Now, according to a new documentary, they wonder why many of the rights they fought for are still denied, and why modern Malaysians are not taking to the streets in protest.

In the years leading up to the country’s independence, the anti-colonial, left-wing Labour Party of Malaya was formed in Penang following the then-British government’s call to enact local elections across the country.

The Five Tigers and other Labour Party activists at a congress of the Penang women’s wing branch. (Pic courtesy of Por Heong Hong)

Back when calls for better workers’ rights and equal pay had barely made a dent in the country, the Labour Party consistently took to the streets in protest and to make their demands for change heard loud and clear.

While the party was active between 1952 and 1969, hundreds of its members were detained without trial, with many languishing in jail long after the government disbanded it.

At the time, many members had not been to school as they came from a life of hardship. They were desperate for an education and then real change in Malaya.

Three of the Five Tigers, including Por Heong Hong’s mother, Loh Siew Hong, catching up on old times at a cafe in Penang. (Pic courtesy of Por Heong Hong)

Enticed by literacy programmes and community engagement by the Labour Party, Zheng Wen Jie, Chen Shu Jing, Chen Shu Fen, Loh Siew Hong and Luo Mu Lan from George Town became active members.

Distributing party publications and propaganda materials to the public during rallies hosted by the party’s Penang chapter, the five women quickly became a source of inspiration to many.

They adopted the name “Five Tigers” from the popular 1964 Chinese film of the same name. Now a new documentary, also titled “Five Tigers”, celebrates their historic but largely forgotten struggles.

Known for their strong leadership, they inspired the party’s younger members to rally against, among other issues, the government’s banning of the local council system in the 1960s and the US invasion of Vietnam, as academic Por Heong Hong, Loh’s daughter, told FMT.

“After joining the party, they became literate and soon started teaching new recruits how to read and write.

“They were undeterred by the risks they took in standing up for what they believed in, and in so doing sparked a sense of political consciousness in the younger generation,” the 43-year-old explained.

Chan Seong Foong.

In the short film, Por, along with film-makers Chan Seong Foong and Victor Chin, have highlighted the trials Loh and her four friends went through.

Chin, the film’s co-director, believes the butterfly effects from their activism and courage impacted the historic 14th general election results six decades later.

“Their message was that through collective participation, change is possible.”

The spirit of their activism, according to Chin, 70, led to the Bersih rallies, and recently the student protests at the gates of the education ministry, all signs that their work has not been in vain.

But he questioned whether the protesters against Education Minister Maszlee Malik’s appointment as president of International Islamic University Malaysia were really ready to deal with the repercussions of voicing their concerns.

Victor Chin.

Chin said the Five Tigers didn’t care about the lack of “democratic space” often cited by activists when their plans are thwarted, saying that at one point they took to the streets because they were fed up with the parliamentary system.

“Remember that many of the opportunities we have now are because of the Five Tigers.”

“Five Tigers” producer Chan maintains that a change of powers is not the same as having achieved real change, saying pressing issues of today have yet to be resolved despite being fought for tooth and nail by the Labour Party.

For example, she questioned why the low minimum wage level, which currently stands at RM1,050 nationwide, has yet to be solved even though the issue has been repeatedly raised since the time of the Five Tigers.

“It’s a shame that despite fighting for over 60 years, the workers of today still suffer slave wages,” said Chin.

“Where are the labour unions? They should be on the streets. Parti Sosialis Malaysia is the only organisation still fighting for the people and rallying their members to take to the streets.”

Por Heong Hong.

For Por, unionisation of workers’ groups today is almost nonexistent. She pointed out that back then the government was scared of union groups. She called on more young people to speak out and challenge the system today.

Producer Chan, 57, maintains that the fight for equality these days is sometimes more abstract than in the 1960s when the struggle was to put food on the table.

“They questioned why men were paid more than women, too. These are all problems we still see today. Why?”

Although the Five Tigers, now in their 70s and 80s, have since mellowed, Por said her mother is still proactive and keeps tabs on the politics of the day.

“Of course they’re not organising rallies now, but they still read the newspapers every day and they know what’s happening in the country. They’re still very politically active.

“They still vote and participate,” she said, adding that she had to keep her mother away from Bersih rallies given her frail age and the use of tear gas, which she said would have been dangerous for her.

The film-makers said the Five Tigers were visibly proud as they reflected on the inspiring May 9 results. Perhaps that upheaval is a sign that the current generation is finally ready to bare its claws in the pursuit of social justice.

“When it comes to achieving change, everyone has a choice: to be passive or active. That’s why the Tigers are still engaged and making an effort to be informed about current affairs,” said Chan.

“We wanted to make this film to validate the history and contributions of the Labour Party in the politics of Malaysia. It’s a narrative that is often forgotten, but which shaped our country in its early years.”

“These heroes went up against the British and Malayan governments to demand simple civic justice,” said Chin. “Many of them went to prison. They should be given a medal for the work that they did.”

“Five Tigers” is part of the FreedomFilmFest international documentary film festival now being held at PJ Live Arts, Petaling Jaya until Oct 6. Full details can be found at their website: https://freedomfilm.my/

FreedomFilmFest will visit Georgetown, Muar, Johor Bahru, Manjung, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu and Singapore in November and December. See Travelling Festival dates at: https://freedomfilm.my/festival/fff2018/travelling-festival/