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Remembering 13 May

Interview with Hassan Muthalib, a witness to the events of 13 May 1969, as featured
on The Fairly Current Show. Lead pic on TNG home page is by Hassan,
depicting a Malay/Chinese Malaysian kampung the day after 13 May

IT’S been 40 years since the race riots of 13 May 1969. Every Malaysian is familiar with this date. We are told it was a bad time for Malaysia, a shameful chapter in our illustrious national history, an event we should fear recurring.

While state officials and politicians are happy to use 13 May as a cautionary shorthand, what really happened in 1969 is sketchy. Politicians rarely talk about the events surrounding 13 May. Neither do Malaysian history textbooks.

That may be the case, but some Malaysians are reclaiming 13 May. These citizens are finding ways to remember that fateful day so that the date can be a source of reconciliation and unity, rather than fear and hatred.

Couples in love

In January 2009, political historian Dr Farish Ahmad Noor began compiling stories of Malaysian inter-racial couples who were together from the 1940s onwards for a documentary project.

Dr Farish A Noor

Farish Noor (Pic by Danny Lim)


“I wanted to see what it was like to be an ethnically or religiously mixed couple on that fateful day, just to show that, even then, Malaysians were living and loving across ethnic and religious boundaries,” he explains in an e-mail interview.

Farish says he is still trying to get submissions, funding and assistance to get the project going. But regardless of the project’s success, Farish stresses the importance of supporting independent Malaysian projects “that wish to reclaim our history for ourselves.”

“Until today, the official history of 13 May is biased and one-sided,” Farish maintains. It is difficult to refute him. Dr Kua Kia Soong’s May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969 was, after all, seized by Home Ministry officials soon after its release.

“But that is no reason why Malaysians have to keep quiet and accept the hegemony of the state,” Farish adds. He points to the example of post-Apartheid South Africa. Through grassroots initiatives such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africans worked on the ground to reach democratic consensus, and inter-ethnic peace.

“This should teach us that the state, if it doesn’t register such developments and take them into account, can and will be bypassed by society in the long run,” Farish says.

Farish also believes that citizen-based efforts are empowering. According to him, Malaysians should not wait for “permission” to begin deconstructing their own history.

The day after: Curfew; the army takes over. Viewpoint from Hassan Muthalib's home; across the road is a Chinese Malaysian vicinity. 14 May 1969 (Pic by Hassan Muthalib)
The day after: Curfew; the army takes over. Viewpoint from Hassan Muthalib’s home;
across the road is a Chinese Malaysian vicinity. 14 May 1969 (Pic by Hassan Muthalib)

National reconciliation

K Haridas, vice-chairperson of the non-profit Initiatives of Change (IofC) Malaysia, points out that 13 May is resurrected as a campaign issue every general election, and plays into voters’ fear of tragedy. “This manipulation itself shows the need to deal with the ghosts of our past,” Haridas tells The Nut Graph.

In early March, participants of the IofC-organised Tools for Change conference took up the idea of making 13 May a “National Reconciliation Day”.

“The idea came from the question of promoting racial harmony, and bridging the divides we feel. 13 May is a significant, symbolic date for that. It would become a rallying point for integration,” Haridas explains.

The idea for a national reconciliation day takes after the Australian “National Sorry Day”, a symbolic date institutionalised by the Australian government to recognise past wrongs against the aboriginals so that healing could begin. It has been held annually since 1998.

For now, at least, a new Malaysian national holiday is a distant goal. IofC plans to start small — specifically with Creators of Peace (COP) Circles, a programme of women-driven community gatherings.

Regina Morris

Regina Morris (Pic courtesy of Regina Morris)


“We believe in this idea of deep listening — that is, to listen without any judgment, and without interruption,” explains local COP co-ordinator Regina Morris. “When someone tells their story in such an environment, they feel a great sense of empowerment, and release.

“It’s all about building trust, which will take time and space,” Morris, a human resources consultant by trade, adds.

There is currently a 13-person COP group in the Klang Valley. “They are a diverse group of women, so there’s an opportunity to talk about racial integration and such issues,” Morris says.

Haridas hopes that this initial “cell” will divide into more groups, with individual participants becoming inspired enough to start their own groups. Eventually, the peace circles may accommodate people of both genders. “COP is a women’s initiative, but it doesn’t say that men are excluded,” Haridas says.

Morris says that the idea of a “Healing of Memories” circle — which would provide a safe space for people who lived through the 13 May violence to talk about their experiences — is on hold because it requires a separate framework from the COP Circles.

“But if we’ve gathered enough success with the peace circles, we can think of what’s next,” Morris adds.

In the aftermath of 13 May: A Chinese/Malay Malaysian kampung off Hale Road in Kuala Lumpur; 14 May 1969 (Pic by Hassan Muthalib)
In the aftermath of 13 May: A Chinese/Malay Malaysian kampung off Hale Road in Kuala Lumpur;
14 May 1969 (Pic by Hassan Muthalib)

Creative discussions

Malaysian art has also sporadically dealt with the shadow of 1969. Earliest, perhaps, was artist and critic Redza Piyadasa’s 1970 installation, May 13, 1969, which consisted of an upright coffin upon which the Malaysian flag was painted. More recently, in 2007, Five Arts Centre staged That Was The Year. It was a performance based on the Beth Yahp’s tale of “unrequited love” — both literally and figuratively — In 1969.

Visual artist Nadiah Bamadhaj has also produced two works that explicitly deal with 13 May. One, a digital print called Maybank in 1969, imposes a Menara Maybank-dominated skyline into iconic photographs of 1969-era burnt-out shophouses. Maybank was built in the early 1980s, an era where the government called upon architects to come up with more “culturally based” designs. These frequently translated into Malay cultural symbols and architectural references, Bamadhaj explains.

“Menara Maybank was built 11 years after the race riots,” she points out. “Though the keris symbolises many things, its dominating sign of violence and threat is inescapable. Keris monuments, in general, are a symbol of the government’s insensitivity to the events of 1969, and their refusal to participate in a full and genuine reconciliation with all communities involved in those events.”

Hassan Muthalib (left) by the wreckage of a car in the Chinese/Malay Malaysian kampung, 14 May 1969 (Pic by Hassan Muthalib)
Hassan Muthalib (left) by the wreckage of a car in the Chinese/Malay Malaysian kampung,
14 May 1969 (Pic by Hassan Muthalib)

The other work is also a digital print, part of the 147 Tahun Merdeka series that Bamadhaj produced in 2005, in collaboration with Tian Chua. The work features a piece of public sculpture, under the LRT station between Kampung Baru and Chow Kit, still under wraps. Banners flanking this effigy announce the “official unveiling” of a monument “to commemorate Malaysians of all ethnicities who died in the May 13 1969 massacre.”

147 Tahun Merdeka was envisioned as a look into Malaysia a hundred years into the future,” Bamadhaj, who now lives in Indonesia, says in a phone interview.

The artist does not overstate the influence her work has on wider Malaysian society. But while attention towards political issues within the arts is still limited to the urban middle-class, Bamadhaj believes it is a good place to start.

If things continue consistently, then there might actually be a chance that the spectres of our past may, finally, lose their ghoulish hold on us.

See also:
A million 13 Mays
Surviving 13 May

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6 Responses to “Remembering 13 May”

  1. Main says:

    Reading what had happened at that time in school brought about the images of deaths,scores of them – mayhem if you will. It transpired in the mind with one thing blocking: keep it out of the way, forever.

  2. “CURMUDGEON”, Subang Jaya says:

    An important point needs to be made repeatedly, cannot be emphasised enough. All the young deconstructionists should seriously work on deconstructing that term, the perennial cliché, “13 May 1969 race riots”.

    Yes, what was played out, at large among the people who became involved as innocent bystanders and victims was a series of violent racial confrontations.

    But they were the outward manifestation of, or response to, something else: a regime crisis, a crisis of the Malaysian state, the electoral collapse of its initial post-1957 “governing formula”.

    People from all backgrounds had been told that, whatever their deep feelings, they must set them aside since only the Alliance formula could guarantee civil peace and political stability.

    Umno failed to convince one-half of the Malay [Malaysian] vote, the MCA did not win support from its base either. Suddenly people who had accepted the “only the Alliance can hold us all together” argument felt cruelly deceived.

    Confidence on all sides in the Alliance government, and its underlying logic, collapsed. The racial confrontations that erupted were, or expressed in its most extreme form, the enraged popular reaction to seeing the failure of the “no-other-way governing formula” before their eyes.

    Nothing else would work, the Alliance had insisted; now, it was clear, its way wouldn’t either.

    Neither Malay [Malaysians] nor non-Malay [Malaysians] felt that they could now really trust Umno to hold the centre together, Chinese [Malaysians] had no faith in the MCA to deliver Malay moderation, most Malay [Malaysians] lost faith in the MCA to manage its side of the coalition “deal”, and the MCA leadership also lost faith in its own ability to do so credibly and so withdrew from cabinet. Disintegration!

    The underlying cause and reality was a regime crisis. “Racial riots” were not the basic cause but the external response and manifestation of that regime crisis.

  3. Goldee says:

    130569 was indeeed a tragic day for all Malaysians. Malaysians in general felt very shameful and have learned a bitter lesson from the tragedy.

    Having said that it’s sad to hear from politicians who capitalised on the tragedy. Instead of inspiring people of the importance to live in harmony and peacefully as one nation, they would rather threathen yet another May 13 if the opposition parties come into power. It is indeed very sad that such threatening words come from none other than from our own leaders of our country.

    Do they really care for the people? Or is it that they are so capable that no other able people know how to rule the country?

    To my opinion, such leaders are just a selfish lot. Firstly, they do not know how to lose gracefully in GE. They must stay in power by hook or by crook.

    Why is it so important for them to stay in power? It’s all about money. money, money and nothing but easy money. Reading all the negative news like land scams and corruption cases one can imagine and figure out the reasons for politicians to stay in power.

  4. siburpat says:

    May 13th is an event which prompted me to run to Malaysia. It was a day of shame and disgrace, when I read the front page of both papers in Ottawa, Canada. It was a shame to read all the reasons put forward. Our news commanded the front page for about a week. The fact that neither the Chinese nor the Malays took the blame for the debacle gave me a feeling of disgrace and asked why we, Sarawakians, trusted “West Malaysians in the first place”. Thus for one solid month I could NOT tell anyone, “I am from Malaysia” for the shame as well as the fear that I could not answer their probing questions truthfully.

    Yet I am proud to be a Malaysian to-day despite the fact that the majority still want to be racially identified. The fact that each one of us are born into a race and identified as such is government-enforced where we are not given a choice, (only our parents did) but each one of us can decide to be truly Malaysians. Even with the barriers created by the words of “bin”, “binti”, “anak”,”s/o”,”a/l” or “a/p”, it can be overcome if we want it so.

    As time goes by, there will less and less “true racial” blooded Malaysians. More and more will be mixed blooded and more and more will be civilized as not to thirst for each other’s blood, at least until our population reaches 50 million. But wait a minute, even with the current population, there are already people who want it? Confusing indeed, but my point is let us find ways to lead to cool things down. Thanks to COP. As mothers, it is hoped that they have or will implant their ideas into all their own children first to be truly Malaysians.

    Let us thank all those who had worked hard to stop the blood bath then and pray for all the souls who were caught in the middle of our “political mess then” and died. May their souls rest in peace and seek peace for those who still mourn for them. It is an event we could not stop, but it is an event which we can all work together to ensure that it will not happen again.

    Peace be to all.

  5. smkr says:

    May 13 started with Singapore being too ambitious, leading to many opportunities that could be exploited by many evil politicians, racist in nature. We will declare this one more time. This new generation DO NOT WANT to inherit the May 13 tragedy. We do not want this anymore in our future so please don’t keep writing and keep bringing these evil stories into our future. We the new generation want a new beginning in a colourless and fair Malaysia and we will reject every politicians who use the racial card.

    We want a new future and May13 is the failure of our forefathers and they should be ashamed of themselves for creating such an evil past for us. Do not bring them into our future anymore with your past failures. We want a new future, fair and complete freedom from your May 13 failures. These are the sins of our forefathers and we do not wish to inherit them and they have nothing to do with us.

    If anyone wants to continue to harp on the racial card they should go together with others who love this game to a desolate island and sort them out among themselves. Just don’t do give us your failed inheritance by bringing them up again and again.

    Our forefathers should be an example for the today’s youth but they behave so notoriously without virtue and showed such hypocrisy. Shame on you, those who claimed to know more.


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