The untold story of how a strike closed down The Straits Times

Singapore Showbiz

'The Last Great Strike' is a riveting tale of how a group of young journalists fought for their rights.

BOOK REVIEW

When you sit down with journalists you can be sure the war stories of being down in the trenches will run aplenty.

And in the case of Clement Mesenas and Victor Ng, they have quite the story to tell. Both spearheaded a landmark movement, calling for a strike at The Straits Times – in a call to action which brought the wheels of a mammoth machinery to a grinding halt for eight long days. This was an invective for change that was buoyed on the shoulders of a people with an indomitable spirit – who took their battle cry to the streets and shouted to the rafters.

The actions of a spirited group, with the purported support of key backstage, almost shadow, players in government, were especially game-changing in its impact; it shaped the trajectory of the nation in a real sense, moving forward. Mesenas and Ng, along with their comrade-in-arms, hit the ground running and didn’t look back in the march towards progress, all in the name of parity. And you can read all about it in Mesenas’ page-turner of a book ‘The Last Great Strike’.

The story is a well-paced, categorical yet nuanced tale of courage and conviction meeting the idealism of youth, all set in the chaotic times of the early seventies. Speaking to the facts while tapping into the intense emotions that were undoubtedly swirling around in the atmosphere at the time, ‘The Last Great Strike’ is a veritable dissection of the coup d'état that took place. It is a cover-to-cover read that will allow readers to glean insight into the machinations at play.

The narrative, as written by Mesenas – who was one of the protestors at the forefront of the movement – is a thoughtful and no-holds-barred account of the dynamics that played out between the then largely-British management of The Straits Times and the local journalists on whose backs the responsibility of producing the news for a daily broadsheet rested.

On one side, there was the increasingly anachronistic reminder of colonial times past and on the other, a band of weary, worthy warriors who were willing to fight for terms which would be indicative of the hard work they put in while on the beat.

The book starts out with former Labour Minister Ong Pang Boon throwing down the gauntlet with the words: “...gentleman, let’s plan a strike.” From thereon, it is a riveting read, taking you back to a time where those in the strike were brow-beaten and not unsullied, but far from capitulating.

Collective effort

For Mesenas, the strike was borne by the collective effort of many, with a few at the forefront. He says the time was nigh to right the imbalance that was existing towards the journalists in the organisation.

“Do you think our cause was right? I mean, we were fighting on a very simple issue: parity of benefits for people working under the same rule. The issue was so simple, that the printers were offered bonuses higher than what we were offered. So we thought, how can that be? We are all working under the same roof, we all help to make the profits of the company and so therefore, treatment must be equitable. This was the issue, but how do you examine this simple issue against the company’s outlook? The company actually couldn’t care a damn about us.”

In talking with Mesenas and Ng, you make an interesting discovery: these are two men who may speak softly, but are willing to carry a big stick when necessary.

Mesenas is an esteemed journalist who has covered the Iran-Iraq war, as well as Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, when based in the Middle East.

Ng himself, as a key player and former journalist who was present at the interview to provide critical detail on the goings-on of the strike, is cut from the same cloth.

Idealism of youth

For Ng, the idealism of youth was a factor in the decision to go forward.

“I think they (The Straits Times) were used to giving journalists short-shrift. You don’t like it, go – we will just find another new group and carry on. I think at that point in time, we only knew that it was unfair and we were quite ready for the strike. Because we were all young, we had never failed, we had never been harassed or persecuted in any way.”

When speaking about the struggle, both men are quick to point out that it was always all in the name of parity, without the heavy expectations that unrealistic idealism might lend itself to such a cause – although there were underlying issues that were of concern to many. However, rose-tinted glasses were off and set aside when taking part in the strike – and even now, when looking back on the past.

This realism, to the author, was critical. It would be the reason why they would keep pushing forward in dire circumstances.

“I mean, it was eight terrible days, mind you. To swing the vote, to get people to share – all those things were such euphoric experiences. We were talking to people who were 40 years old and above. Don’t forget they were all a ‘hardened’ lot and they were completely brow-beaten, all had given up hope. Here we were, young kids trying to tell them look, this is the way to go – fight. Finally people agreed and said yes, we are with you. But as the days went by, we became quite worried. Who’s going to pay the salaries, how do you feed 1500 people everyday? You can’t keep them in the picket lines unless you are able to feed them, give them water to drink. These were real challenges to us.”

In a nutshell, ‘The Last Great Strike’ is about journalists who took on the formidable, relatively archaic yet anarchic management of The Straits Times in order to redress what they strongly felt was the lack of a level playing field for all the critical players. As a collective, Mesenas and his team were seeking acceptable terms.

David vs Goliath

Driven to the wall, a cornered animal will fight. In broad strokes, this is picture of the eternal struggle of the everyman taking on those in ivory towers, the struggle between the haves and the have-nots. It is almost the quintessential tale of biblical proportions – with David standing up to Goliath, in the proverbial battle between the establishment and the disenfranchised. All in an unwavering quest for equity, and ultimately, equality.

Ng says a call for change is not a negative thing, and can be integral to moving forward. The current-day context of protests is symptomatic of changes that need to be addressed when it comes to all parties truly having a vested interest and stake in Singapore.

“These are the little stories – and that is what builds love for your country, love for the community. Because there is no one homogenous story, it cannot be...  You don’t build a country by giving facts and figures, you know? You build nationalism and patriotism by sharing common stories, common tears, common fears, common laughter. And the bumps in the road are just as significant as the successes.”

To Mesenas, this story needed to be told. He says although the timing coincided with protests of late, the story itself is immemorial.

“I’ve been practicing journalism for 40 years, earning my living, taking care of my family. And I’ve worked in under even harsher regimes in the Gulf. But still, you mellow with age, and in the end you lose your courage, you know? And you make compromises for the sake of your family. I don’t feel too bad about it. But I always look forward to the time when journalists will say facts are facts. The art of saying it nicely will come to some. So that it doesn’t ruffle the feathers of the powers that be. Say what you got to say, and say it in a way where it’s palatable.”

The Last Great Strike’ is a compelling story of journalists and their supporters rolling up their sleeves and coming to the table to negotiate in a time of heightened tensions and strong differences of opinion. To paraphrase an old adage, if you do not know your history, you are destined to repeat it. Especially in these times of diverse paths intersecting, maybe more so than ever, we are at a crossroads where a lesson learnt can be the way forward. The book is an insightful tale of unusual courage displayed by a people pushed to the brink, and who fought their way back, all in the name of fair play.

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