Original film title in Malay: Mogok
English title: On Strike
Directed by K. M. Basker
Written by Jamil Sulong
Starring: Ahmad Mahmud, Saadiah, S. Kadarisman, Daeng Idris
Produced by Malay Film Productions (Shaw Bros.)
Year of release: 1957
National Carbon (Union Carbide) factory at Hillview Road
Shaw Brothers’ Film Studios (8, Jalan Ampas)
Shaw’s Villa (440A, Upper East Coast Road)
Railway level crossing at Gombak Drive(?)
Merdeka Bridge, City Hall
Workers at an Eveready battery factory are disgruntled because their wages are low compared to a neighbouring factory. The factory manager (S. Kadarisman) exploits the workers’ rising discontent by colluding with a traitor within the workers’ ranks. Together, they create dismal working conditions and make use of every opportunity and incident to instigate a strike, to sour industrial relations in a bid to close the factory down so that they can coerce the benevolent but incapacitated proprietor to hand over ownership.
Set in contemporary 1950s Singapore – in a climate of highly active (left-wing) trade unions, strikes and ‘go-slows’; when anti-capitalist and anti-colonial sentiments were very intense – Mogok appeared to be a plea to blue-collar workers to be aware of strike instigators within their ranks and a reminder to employers to be conscious of their workers’ welfare. The film seemed to be a call for industrial harmony so that everyone got to keep his or her job, and the status quo could be maintained. A workers’ revolution was out of the picture. This was hardly surprising since the Shaw Brothers had funded the studio film and would had been advocates for peaceful industrial relations themselves. In fact, the Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Productions studio had experienced industrial unrest just a few months before the production of Mogok. But, more on this later.
Owner-employee relations at the Eveready-batteries-making National Carbon (Union Carbide) factory must be pretty cordial, to allow a film crew to enter their manufacturing premises at Hillview Road to shoot a movie about workers on strike. Wouldn’t the filming of impassioned, albeit fictional, calls to “Mogok! Mogok!” (Strike! Strike!) arouse the real factory workers there to rise against their bosses-capitalists themselves? As we found out, National Carbon had already been “initiated” to a workers’ strike, one that went on for a month in April-May 1952. With experience came better management, we guess. And the owners of National Carbon probably felt secure enough in 1957 – that they had treated their employees well enough – for the filming of a “strike” movie to take place in their factory. Besides, it might even serve as free publicity and advertisement for their Eveready products. The “black cat nine lives” logo was displayed distinctly behind a thank-you message that appeared in the film.
Though the National Carbon kindly offered their factory interiors as context for the film’s narrative, they weren’t about ready to feature in the movie the exteriors of their manufacturing plant at Hillview Road. For that, the Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Productions filming crew returned to the convenience of their very own studio grounds at Jalan Ampas, off Balestier Road. First built in the 1940s and refurbished with new buildings in the 1950s, the still-extant studio complex at No. 8 Jalan Ampas, is an endearing testament to the golden era of Malay film production in Singapore during the 1950s-60s. Many movies (even Chinese ones) were shot there, and the complex itself was featured in films such as P. Ramlee’s Seniman Bujang Lapok (1961), where ‘Jalan Ampas’ was portrayed as itself, a dream factory. Mogok, on the other hand, depicted ‘Jalan Ampas’ as a (battery) factory with picketing workers gathered at the entrance holding placards and banners with fiery messages (“We strike to protest because our bosses suck blood!”), the proceedings seemingly peaceful and watched over by policemen.
For the above scenes from Mogok, we find it rather amusing that the producers of the film would ask the Jalan Ampas studio staff to act as picketers at none other than the place they were actually working in. Was it a rehearsal for the real thing? Was it an opportunity for the Shaw Brothers employees to vent their frustrations and air their grievances, albeit within the imagined world of a film narrative? It was strange that Run Run Shaw would even accept and produce a “strike” film, with him knowing full well that his workers were unhappy with their meagre wages and long working hours.
In fact, the film workers union (PERSAMA; Persatuan Artiste Malaya; P Ramlee and Jamil Sulong, the scriptwriter of Mogok were leaders of the union) was organized well enough to approach Shaw Brothers’ executives to request for a pay rise in February 1957. Some of the workers had been receiving the same salary for the past ten years. The Shaw management responded by firing three PERSAMA members from Malay Film Productions Ltd (MFP). Omar Rojik, who acted as the manager’s accomplice in Mogok, was among the three. When protests continued, more vocal agitators, among them S. Kadarisman, who acted as the conniving factory manager in Mogok, were also fired in March 1957.
Then, a strike was called on 16 March 1957. More than 120 MFP employees picketed the Jalan Ampas studios. Film actors, such as Ahmad Mahmud, who acted as the union leader in Mogok, picketed the Queens Cinema in Geylang. Following continuing protests and the eventual two days of negotiations under the auspices of Malay politicians, the strike finally ended in 7 April 1957. The five dismissed employees were rehired and the demand for overtime pay dropped. There was eventually a compromise between the Shaw management and PERSAMA. And Mogok was made subsequently (the movie was released in July 1957), perhaps as an indirect way of remembering the unrest, and a declaration of sorts that things had returned to the norm in the film studio (thus the “happy ending” of a rational union leader saving the kind factory-owner at the film’s conclusion.)
Elsewhere in the film, the Shaw brothers’ seafront villa at 440A, Upper East Coast Road had acted as the factory owner’s house. A railway level crossing was featured as well, speculated to be the one formerly located at Gombak Drive (previously Lorong 4 Bukit Gombak), And perhaps to position the film narrative firmly in the ‘present’ (of 1957; Singapore was already on the roadmap to full internal self-governance in 1959), the film also included brief shots of the City Hall and the newly-opened Merdeka Bridge (August 1956).
1. Amir Muhammad, 120 Malay Movies (pp. 116-118). Petaling Jaya: Matahari Books, 2010.
2. Timothy P. Barnard, ‘The Shaw Brothers’ Malay Films’, in Poshek Fu (ed.), China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema (pp. 154-173). University of Illinois, 2008.
3. ‘Mogok kerana mahu chepat jadi kaya’. Berita Harian. 12 July 1957, p. 6.
4. Toh Hun Ping, ‘Singapore: City of the Imagination’, in Lorenzo Codelli (ed.), World Film Locations: Singapore (pp. 6-7). Bristol: Intellect Books, 2014.
5. City Hall. Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board, 2004.
6. Merdeka Bridge. Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board, 2005.
© 1957 Malay Film Productions
© 2012, 2014 Toh Hun Ping