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A million 13 Mays

AND so once again, we are on the cusp of the fateful day of 13 May. Tomorrow, we will be joined together in a state of national mourning over the passing of what many have described as Malaysia’s golden years.

Year in, year out, Malaysians are reminded of the tragic events of 13 May 1969, and made to repent for the sins of our forefathers and foremothers. Like a restless ghost, we cannot get past this date without a sense of foreboding and the fear that one day, the past will revisit the present in no uncertain terms.

To add to our fear, the country’s leaders (though they tend to be those on one side of the political fence) are wont to resurrect May 1969 whenever it suits them most, and to frame the event in a decidedly jaundiced aspect. We are told time and again that to demand political freedom, the right to speak, the right to believe, the right to love, will lead us down the path that ends in the impasse of communal bloodshed and violence.

But does it and will it?


(Pic by ilco / sxc.hu)
A magic trick

History conceals a deep conceit that we historians often try to hide, like magicians with their bag of tricks. The historian’s craft is to collect the disparate facts of history and assemble the broken body of the past as if it were a cohesive whole: all pretty and prettified.

And even when the history that is put together is not exactly a candidate for the town hall beauty pageant, we nonetheless present it to be something that is wholesome, sutured and complete. The trick is to play the card of linearity and determinism, and to give the false impression that there was only one path that could have been followed.

Let me let you in on a trade secret: we historians know for a fact that history is contingent, confused, complex and multifarious. We simply dress it up in the garb of cohesion to let lay readers think that it is miraculously endowed with fixity and teleology.

The fiction of 13 May

The exact history of 13 May 1969 is one such history, and for too long we have entertained the polite fiction that this tragic story had only one beginning and therefore only one conclusion. That lie has to be exposed, debunked and deconstructed for the instrumental fiction that it is.

The fact is, whatever happened on 13 May 1969 was not a nationwide experience. Indeed, there are enough anecdotal accounts to suggest that whole swathes of Malaysia remained unaffected by the violence that took place in the urban areas of the peninsula’s west coast. If you don’t believe me, take the next flight to East Malaysia where I grew up as a kid, and ask fellow Malaysians there what it was like for them on the day, and how many of them were moved by the events in Kuala Lumpur.

We also forget that behind the facade of ethnic and racial compartmentalisation that has become the leitmotif of the 13 May disturbances were real private and isolated histories that ran counter-current.

How many of us have asked the obvious question: what was it like to be an ethnically and religiously mixed couple then, in May 1969, when the frontiers of race and religion were suddenly raised and guarded? Though no official census has been done thus far, one is intuitively certain of the fact that ethnic and religious relations were far more friendly, cordial and real then compared with now.

Indeed, here lies the dirty trick that belies the conceit of history: with each passing year as the ghost of 13 May 1969 is conjured back to life again and again, we are in fact distancing ourselves from the reality of a multi-culty Malaysia that was more authentic, peaceful, loving and comfortable with itself compared with today’s segregated and exclusivist Malaysia.

For the ghost story of 13 May, instrumentalised as it has been by the right-wing communitarians in our midst, has been the script and template for the divided and segregated Malaysia we know now.

13 May was not the result of racial conflict, but rather the blueprint for further racial and religious polarisation. The sleight of hand of history is the magic gesture that has erased this simple fact from us, and we — now duped — continue to gawk at the same old trick that has been played on us on a yearly basis.


All the colourful Malaysian people (Pic by Bangash Khan)

Revisiting 13 May

Revisiting 13 May 1969 therefore has to begin from the other entry point of the multiracial, complex and plural Malaysia that was, but is now in danger of waning.

Rather than write about the violence and mayhem that ensued, we need to retrace, redeem and reactivate the manifold histories of inter-ethnic and inter-religious dialogue, relationships and love that were real and genuine then. There were and there remain a million 13 Mays that we need to recover. We should not let this date be singularly defined by one and only one event above all.

This is how we challenge, overcome and eventually deconstruct the hegemony of power and official historiography. For too long, we have been held captive by a singular and totalising account of history that admits no contenders and no other alternatives.

As a historian activist, I would rather write about the stories of all mixed, hybrid couples who were making love and whispering sweet nothings to each other on the night of 13 May, who were — thankfully, perhaps — unaware of the nastiness happening elsewhere.

Sadly, many of these truly Malaysian relationships were tried and broken in the years that followed thanks to the racialisation of Malaysian politics. But for their sake, and for the sake of those millions of Malaysians who lived and loved together across the frontiers of race and religion then, let us not deny their past (and ours) by buying into to the hegemonic account of 13 May perpetuated by communitarian doomsayers in our midst.

Malaysian history is much richer, more colourful and certainly a happier story than that. Even if some of our politicians want to dwell only on tales of blood and gore, we — the Malaysian public — can and must reclaim our history for ourselves again.


Dr Farish A Noor is one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org subaltern history site, where this essay also appears. On 13 May 1969, he was two years old and eating a birthday cake shaped like an aeroplane. 

See also:
Surviving 13 May
Remembering 13 May

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11 Responses to “A million 13 Mays”

  1. wt says:

    To kill someone living in the name of the dead one for revenge is an excuse to satisfy one’s own emotions. This is the lust of hate which brings evil; but to protect and to love the ones that are still living is more worth it.

    Hope brings strength, strength means good but hurt brings hate, hate brings power but love brings more. (My own views of emotions.)

  2. BornMalaysian says:

    Dear Farish, how about the politicians, community leaders and opinion shapers like yourself propose that May 13 becomes a public holiday in Malaysia, called Unity Day, a special day that celebrates all things Malaysian. A day of celebration of Malaysian culture, art, innovations, talks by Malaysian experts, concerts, movies, exhibitions, food fairs, etc. A day for Malaysians to reaffirm their commitment to 1Malaysia. A day for reflection on the lessons of history so that we can move forward together as one. A day for all Malaysians to mingle, interact and celebrate our unique cultural diversity. It could even become a tourist attraction like Oktoberfest in Germany! I hope that I will live long enough to see Unity Day take place in Malaysia.

    Happy May 13!

    P.S. Studies show that racial discrimination is largely caused by lack of education and lack of interaction between people of different racial and cultural backgrounds. Studies show that people with neighbours of a different race and culture are much less likely to be racists.

  3. D Lim says:

    You lucky ‘boy’ eating a cake at that time! I am older than you Farish, but I lived in a state where we were told that our late Sultan (oh, I hail from the now infamous Ipoh) did not allow the problems to spill over to Perak. I was a young girl and that story told by many (non-Malays) to their children, spurred a feeling of gratitude and loyalty to the late monarch. Don’t underestimate the powerful acts of goodwill, kindness and justice.

    Back to May 13. Yes, indeed, to many East Malaysians, May 13 is just another date. Recently, my East Malaysian friend (anyway, she wasn’t even born at that time) asked me about the incident. They were flabbergasted that it even happened.

    I have heard many stories of how and why it happened although I believe history books in Malaysia only tell the side of the story of politicians, the way they want it to be believed. And I agree absolutely with you, Farish, that race relations and bonding between a multi-religious and cultural society took a downturn after the incident. We have been reminded time and again, the foolishness to talk about racial rights if we don’t want blood to be shed. We are reminded again and again we are all very different. Kids now understand the meaning of racial discrimination from a very young age. Sometimes they ask questions we adults cannot answer because mankind is too complicated and selfish.

    Some politicians see the way to rule is to divide. They forget a country divided will fall some day. They forget to preach understanding and respect of differences. They forget the lessons learned from young will remain with us forever. Just like the story of the late Sultan protecting the minorities from the fire from the south. I never forgot the story told to me by my parents and teachers. Truly, I miss him!

  4. Ben says:

    Farish,

    You seem misled by your own agenda or even influenced by communist ideas. Better get your facts right, so many lives have changed due to this incident.

  5. dewi syazli says:

    Farish must understand in depth about history before he writes about the future. Are Farish’s facts reliable?

    Read this>> http://jebatmustdie.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/may-13th-1969-the-correct-view-part-1/#comment-6015

  6. Eric says:

    @dewi syazli
    Hello there, time to wake up. Farish is a qualified academic, with lecturing experience in famous institutes in both Europe and Asia. Jebatmustdie, by contrast, is Umno-aligned and has no academic credentials whatsoever.

    Now I understand what Rais meant by blogs are spreading lies.

  7. Eric says:

    @Ben
    Did you even read Farish’s column? Which facts do you accuse Farish of getting wrong? What communist ideas?

    Can you state and support your accusations for all to see whether Farish has his own dangerous agenda and is leaning on communism?

  8. Mickey says:

    May 13 is a reminder of what can go wrong. Things can always go wrong when people lack judgment, or break under pressure.

    It’s good that such incidence took place, because if such things erupts again today, with the “help” from internet, telecommunications things can get really worst

    We can see riots in LA, India, Sri Lanka, northern Ireland, Africa, etc. Post 69, Malaysia had been peaceful. Up to the reformasi period where street demos has been on the rise. Thank you Anwar.

  9. carlos says:

    Eric (Posted: 13 May 09 : 4.25PM)

    You don’t have to be an academician to tell the truth. On the other hand, academician Dr Kua Kia Soong’s book, May 13, is misleading and failed to dissect the truth. Instead, it theorised the event as a coup d’etat by Tun Razak. Does not make any sense at all.

  10. Beerat says:

    You were lucky, Farish. At least you celebrated your birthday with a cake. Me, I spent my days underneath a bed with my mother and a parang, while the crowd went berserk outside the house.

  11. Eric says:

    @carlos
    “You don’t have to be an academician to tell the truth.”

    Agreed. Yet better an academic than some strongly racist anonymous blogger and whose funding has yet to be asserted, right?

    “On the other hand, academician Dr Kua Kia Soong’s book, May 13, is misleading and failed to dissect the truth. Instead, it theorised the event as a coup d’etat by Tun Razak. Does not make any sense at all.”

    Well, rather than simply asserting, do demonstrate why. Just based on what you said, funny that the supposed coup instigator benefited from it, isn’t it? Is it just a coincidence? Have I watched too many thrillers?

    You have all rights to deny what Dr Farish or Dr Kua say. Only BN can use the Sedition Act anyway, right? But you can only do this with proven points, not baseless assertions like “Does not make any sense at all.”


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