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Surviving 13 May

PAUL Tan is director of studies at Genting Highlands’s Highlands International Boarding School. He studied in Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur, where his contemporaries included Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz and tycoon Tan Sri Dr Francis Yeoh. Fugitive blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin was his senior in school.

Paul Tan is also a survivor of 13 May 1969.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of 13 May, The Nut Graph did an exclusive interview with Tan in Petaling Jaya on 7 May 2009. Here are his memories, fears and dreams, for all Malaysians.

TNG: When 13 May 1969 happened, was there an indication that things would come to this? Did it come as a complete shock?

Tan: It was an utter and complete shock. Well, we were not that politically conscious anyway. We knew that DAP had won the KL seat and all that, but that was all. The media in those days were very limited. If we needed news, we’d listen to the radio. Even televisions were limited in number.

May 13 happened when I was 15 years old, Form Three at the time. I was just sitting behind the first shopping complex, if you like. A place called Selangor Emporium. The memory is very vivid because I was sitting at my brother’s fruit stall. The picture is still very clear, I was sitting on a stool near the big fridge where we kept the fruits.

A deserted street in KL after curfew, two days after 13 May (Straits Times Image)

I think around 4-something pm, for some strange reason, everything suddenly went quiet. I mean, that was a very busy part of KL. Lots of cars, people walking about. But within less than 10 minutes, suddenly the whole street went quiet. People closed (their) shops.

Out of the blue, someone said these words in Chinese, “The Malays are killing the Chinese.”

Within 10 minutes, our stall was closed and we ran upstairs. We lived on the fifth floor of a block of flats near there. And then news began to trickle in — there were fights in the Chow Kit area.

In the next few hours, we heard that there were people being killed. So everybody stayed indoors. And that night, we were really terrified.

Actually on the night of 13 May itself, my father and my three older brothers, who were already 20- and 30-plus, got together in a whole group of people. They said, “We need to protect ourselves.” Because from what we heard in the Kampung Baru area, the army came. We were told both the police and the army came, and instead of shooting at the perpetrators, they were shooting at our people.

Both the army and the police?

(Nods.) I actually have both an auntie and an uncle killed. On that evening itself. They had a shop [in Kampung Baru].

The most terrifying experience for me was three or four nights later. I was sleeping on a bunk bed. (Gestures.) My bunk bed is where I am and the window is where you are. At around 1am or 2am, I heard noises, people shouting. I got up and looked out the window. As soon as I did that, I heard the words, “Tembak! Tembak!”

Then I went to my parents and my auntie. They said, “They’re here.” That’s all they said.


They didn’t know. We were all indoors. And then within half an hour, we heard the banging of doors. We thought, “That’s it. Tonight is our final night.” My auntie and my mother were hysterical.

Soldiers ransacked homes during 13 May
(© Chris Eyles /

So it was like a siege?

(Nods.) The noises started on the eighth floor, and then the seventh, and then the sixth, and then the fifth. And then, fortunately, just before they got to our doorstep, my father came back. He said, “The soldiers are rounding up males.” Any males. So, if I wasn’t at home, if I was anywhere else, I would have been arrested.

After my father returned, the soldiers showed up. You know what they did once they got inside? They ransacked everything — cash, valuables.

These were the soldiers? Ransacking homes?

It was the soldiers who were banging on the doors all this while.

The next day we heard why they came. Apparently the day before, some of the young people who were guarding the flats from the balcony — because curfew was imposed — saw soldiers patrolling around. Some of them threw bottles at the soldiers. And that angered them.

You see, by that time, anyone who was Malay [Malaysian] living in our building was evacuated by the soldiers. In fact we were surprised, because on the second day, or third day, we couldn’t see our friends or neighbours. All the Malay [Malaysians] were taken away in army trucks.

After surviving 13 May, did your family continue to stay in the flat?

Yes. In fact, about three months later our Malay [Malaysian] neighbours came back.

Did things change when they came back?

No. We asked them, “Eh, where did you all go?” They told us, “Balik kampung.” And we didn’t question any further. Life resumed back to normal, I would say, after two months.

But did you talk about the horror to your Malay Malaysian neighbours?

No. I think we tried to suppress it as much as possible. We pretended it didn’t happen.

And they also pretended nothing happened?

Yes. Even in school things went back to normal. Except maybe one or two (Malay Malaysian) classmates who were quite radical and purposely agitated people. Saying, “May 13, May 13. You don’t try to be funny, ah?”

I can understand the radicals, but what I’m trying to grapple with is that this horrible thing happened. How could people go back to normal? This is what I’m thinking.

I think there was no avenue. You see, we were just told directly, indirectly, formally, informally, “It happened, it’s too bad. So you have to be careful because it could always happen again.” Those were the messages from the politicians. One of the major reasons why we could never forget is that every so often the politicians would remind us, “Be careful.”

They don’t let you forget. They remind you again and again and again.

Do you think something akin to South Africa‘s Truth and Reconciliation Commission would help?

I think that would be really great. Coming from all parties, especially from those who, like me, were directly affected.

Just acknowledge the pain and the suffering, as a nation, as a people. And then put it to rest. And determine that moving forward, we shall never, ever let this recur. That as Malaysians, this will never happen again.

But you know in any kind of conflict that people try to paint as a race or ethnic or religious conflict, you still hear amazing stories; such as in Bosnia you hear of Serbian families who sheltered or hid Muslim families and vice versa.

My third brother, a few years older than me, was working on Chow Kit Road in a mechanic’s shop. His boss told him to go home quickly since there was trouble and fighting in that area. He tried to go back to my uncle’s shop, which was — you know Coliseum cinema?


The Coliseum Cinema in 2007 (
Pic by two hundred percent / Wikimedia commons)

Coliseum car park, first bicycle shop. There were a lot of panicking people trying to reach home. So that evening there were actually Indian and Malay [Malaysians] needing a place to hide.

So your uncle, the Chinese Malaysian, protected Indian and Malay Malaysians?

Yes, because there was trouble. People were killing each other, so obviously they needed protection. But obviously there was a limit as to the number of people he could hide in his shop.

And did you hear more stories about Malay Malaysians who protected Chinese Malaysians and so on?

Yes. I think in the Kampung Baru area, I had distant family and friends who were helped by their Malay [Malaysian] friends.

So it makes you wonder where all the fighting came from. If so many people right in the thick of it were trying to protect each other, who started the violence? That’s the question we’re all asking now, right?

We heard a version at that time. You want to hear our version?

(Pic by Andrzej Gdula /

Sure! (Laughs)

It was (former Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri) Harun (Idris) — he was the instigator. Because eyewitnesses from that area saw, from the morning of 12 May 1969, there were many who came from the kampungs and gathered in his padang. At exactly the time that it happened, or slightly before that, eyewitnesses saw a group of them actually chanting — they were wearing red headbands — and then at around 4pm they charged out with their parangs. This is all from the people who were around there who had their families killed.

In this country we have a legacy of politics being equal to race and race being equal to politics. But what I’m hearing from you is that this is a post-1969 legacy. What you’re saying is that in your generation, this was definitely not the case.

Definitely not. In school, if we could afford the five-cent iced drink from the canteen, one cup would be shared among four or five friends. Multiracial. We would all take sips.

Even among your Malay-Muslim Malaysian friends? 

Yes! That’s what I mean — the whole group, we were all friends. Malay [Malaysians], Chinese [Malaysians], Indian [Malaysians], Sikh [Malaysians] — we would share from the same glass, no second thoughts. That was our upbringing, right through to secondary school. Many of us came from poor backgrounds — sharing was second nature. There was no second thought about it.

We all went to the same places to eat. If I were to eat pork, my other friends would just not touch it. They would order their own stuff.

After 8 March 2008, we’ve seen a lot of Barisan Nasional leaders and supporters defending ketuanan Melayu. And the implication is that if we challenge ketuanan Melayu, we could see a repeat of May 13. So as a survivor of May 13, what would be your response to them?

I am just delighted that Malaysian-ness is being revived in that sense. That there are so many people who, regardless of race, are saying, “Hey, forget about this issue. Don’t use it anymore. Let’s move on.” So to me that’s why there’s still that glimmer of hope that we can do it. People who use it are bankrupt. I was really delighted after March 8.

I really wish that we as a nation can reconcile, forget and move on, as truly one people.

See also:
A million 13 Mays
Remembering 13 May

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21 Responses to “Surviving 13 May”

  1. vincetan says:

    We the people must be prepared to face the possibility that Umno may instigate a racial riot if they lose the coming GE. Umno have shown they could take over Perak illegally with a one-sided judiciary system.

  2. Karcy says:

    Powerful interview.

  3. kong says:

    There is so much being done by all the higher authorities to shield our PM from the courts and justice. There is so much being done to cover the truth of what is really happening that we as a country are becoming one-eye blind and soon deaf to the pleas of the rakyat.
    The government in power will lose the moral right to govern. So much so whatever good the government seeks to do now will be perceived in a bad light by the man in the street. The police are now perceived to a big bully and corrupted. The good they intend will not come now as every step of the way, they create flip flops. Tt is inevitable that now we are going to witness the straw that will break the camel’s back.

  4. D Lim says:

    I was 10, and the account above is exactly what I know all this while although I was lucky to live far away from the cauldron of fire.

  5. fizlie says:

    Conflict of opinion is fine but to put the blame on Harun Idris for the massacre of May 13, that is way too much! Have you forgotten what Lim Kit Siang and the whole bunch of pro-DAP Chinese did? They sparked anger and those days they were really good at it. Lim Kit Siang still has the same flair until today.

    • alim says:

      Lim Kit Siang was in Sabah when the results were announced. Because of the curfew after the riots started, he could not get back to KL till a week after. So he had nothing to do with the riots. It is true that some participants in the opposition victory parade on May 12th were rude and reckless in their remarks concerning the Malays. But the fact remains that the violence that started the day after (on May 13th) was instigated by some UMNO leaders. It is obviously wrong to incite violence just because you have lost power, right?

  6. Zainal Abidin Othman says:

    We should have more of this exposure to compile the true history of May 13. Very much support the formation of the equivalent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Well done, Shanon Shah.

  7. vjonathan says:

    I can agree with Paul Tan as I was in Standard Five living in Sentul and I still love and can make very good capati as we lived on it throughout the weeks of the curfew (as our neighbor Mr Gill was the local Sikh Temple chairman and their garage had the Temple supply of wheat flour sacks stacked to the roof).

    Rice and basic staples were not available and the periods when it (the curfew) was lifted and we had the trucks bringing rice, canned sardines, curry chicken, beans and other basics (donated/sent by the Singapore government), these were pilfered and not available in the mad scrambles at the ‘distribution centers’. It always invokes memories in me when I see scenes on CNN, BBC and Network TV of women and children scrambling when UN Aid is being distributed in Somalia and other war torn, famine-stricken disaster areas.

    The most poignant memory that remains with me today of surviving May 13th 1969 is that of my father, the first man to take an Ambulance into KL to KLGH with a ‘victim’ under curfew a few days after the breakout of riots ’13/5/69′. Then being directed from there by the police holed up at KLGH to the residence of MB Datuk Harun which he described to us later as ‘ a scene out of a WW2 movie battlefield hospital’. He wished for us to never see all that he saw in the days/weeks after when he stayed out in the ambulance ferrying the injured/dead without returning home.

    For that sacrifice he was awarded the ‘Order of St. John’ by HRH Queen Elizabeth from Tun Hussein Onn.

    I agree fully and have used those very same words through the numerous occasions when our politicians put their ‘big feet in their big stupid mouths’ over these years. I’ve even commented in MT2Day articles to Paul Tan’s responses to yours that, “In this country we have a legacy of politics being equal to race and race being equal to politics. But what I’m hearing from you is that this is a post-1969 legacy. What you’re saying is that in your generation, this was definitely not the case.”

    “Even among your Malay-Muslim Malaysian friends?”

    I definitely agree 100% with all of Paul Tan’s responses to all the above and am thankful but sad at the same time that we didn’t have to grow up with all the hangups that our children/present young generation have to face in our homeland today.

    I’m not giving up as yet as I believe there’s hope yet for all of us Malaysians who have chosen to make this our home even if there were other choices we could have made.

    True blue blooded “Malaysians” – we can make it, God willing.

  8. Mohd Nor says:

    To all Malaysians, let’s forget those dark episodes. Pray for a prosperous Malaysia where we can cari makan, and happy sama-sama. .Koey teow satu.

  9. Sick & Tired says:

    Read from multiple reliable sources. It was at the end of the day, a coup against Tunku who was a true multi-racial Malaysian by a “select” group of people. We all know who they were and they went on to become M’sia’s most powerful. I hope God will have no mercy on them during judgment.

    I am convinced the reason for the coup was to put in place the NEP so that cronyism and nepotism could flourish. It’s all about the money.

  10. N Shashi Kala says:

    I once interviewed a senior doctor who was working at the KLGH at that time. He described to me the horror of the event from a medical point of view, and how the wounds on the first day were all from parang and metal rods. But from the second day onwards, they started to see multiple gunshot wounds on victims. He said the doctors had no experience dealing with such wounds, which were the result of high velocity rifles – from the soldiers. He said KLGH very quickly ran out of blood and because of the curfew, they had difficulty getting fresh supplies of not just blood, but even food. Anyway, he said, despite the dangers, most of the hospital staff stayed on in the hospital and did not desert their post to ensure the safety of their families.

  11. starlight says:

    Paul Tan’s experience as a young boy at school reminds me of my growing up. I remember with fondness growing up in Terengganu early in the 70s, where everybody could live life free from racial/religious issues. The Indian and Chinese spoke Malay fluently like the locals. Then we moved to Penang. My late brother and I suffered ‘culture shock’. We couldn’t be friends with anybody. What we saw was apparent racial polarization. It was tough, took us several years to get adjusted being neither Malay, Chinese or Indian. (Parents, one Chinese and one Pakistani.)

  12. Mustazar says:

    I was 12 at that time and was in Ipoh. Through the media we were informed that there would be a curfew i.e. don’t have to go to school. In Ipoh ‘perpaduan’ was already there. Racial sentiment was not high. Years after 13 May, I collected the pieces of the tragedy.

    My question is, who is the culprit who really initiated, started, planned, masterminded the whole incident? It’s political. It all began when there was a clash between Tunku Abdul Rahman and Dr Mahathir.

  13. Fikri Roslan says:

    You could interview a Malay living in KL at that time. Then you may get a different version of the story.

  14. GRex says:

    Very powerful interview. It’s an injustice to the deceased that this has not been properly and officially documented in our history.

    I tried to find something funny but it’s just too dark. This incident was a whole decade before I was born; yet it set the stage for total fear of expression.

    When I point my finger at the picture of a corrupt MB and my friend freaks out because he seriously think they will send the police after me, you know the fear has run too deep.

    That fear started right on that day. And you can’t talk about it. You can talk about fight club but you can’t talk about May 13. If there’s such thing as generational-mind-poison crime, this is it.

    This is a good start, but we deserve more than anecdotes. We need someone to go real deep into this and give us the truth, Michael Moore style.

  15. u-en says:

    My uncle and aunt were on duty at General Hospital on May 13 and in its aftermath, and there were stories of bodies piling up so high as to make a mockery of the government’s statistics.

    But I believe, as some others do, that May 13 should be turned into a national fun-filled festival; the kind of thing we advertise to tourists. And when they come here we tell them that the whole thing started with us killing each other.

    It’s better than guilt, blame, or even the truth. We oughtn’t forget it, but that shouldn’t stop us making the best of it either.

  16. Daniel says:

    I was in Standard One when it happened. I remember my mom came to my class and ‘retrieved’ me home. Much of what was going on then I knew through what my mom told us because they were adults and I was only a kid. One of the stories that she told me had a profound impact on my belief and trust in humanity. My mom tried to buy rice from her regular Chinese sundry shop but they refused to sell even though the stock was available. Fortunately, a former Malay neighbour loaned her some rice. We lived in a Malay majority squatter settlement prior to 13 May and we were the only Chinese family in that settlement. Just before 13 May, our family was relocated to another new village and almost all our immediate neighbours were Chinese. I hope this would give us a better insight of the past and a possible cure for the present.

  17. OldFogey says:

    It appears quite a few people still want to think that Lim Kit Siang and DAP were responsible for 13 May. To be fair, there was a lot of blame to go around, but the record should be set right for all those who were not around when it happened.

    The feeling of insecurity by the Malays started when Lee Kuan Yew of PAP (when Singapore was part of Malaysia) began campaigning in the 1964 general elections on the platform of “Malaysian Malaysia”. He used to draw humongous crowds (a sea of heads) everywhere he spoke, especially in KL. From the top of a lorry bed converted into a stage, he would mesmerize the crowd with his fluent and forceful speeches in Tamil, Malay, Chinese and English calling for a “Malaysian Malaysia”. Although the PAP did not fare very well in those elections, Devan Nair of the PAP won a big victory in the PJ (Bangsar?) constituency.

    The call of “Malaysian Malaysia” fired up the imagination of countless, otherwise apathetic, non-Malay voters. This rattled the Tunku and his ruling Alliance, especially the MCA with Tan Siew Sin at the head, because the PAP was clearly posing a strong challenge to the legitimacy of MCA as a representative of the Chinese population. Soon after, the Umno firebrand, Syed Jaafar Albar (father of Syed Hamid, former Minister of Home Affairs), went off to Singapore from his base in Johor and agitated the Malays of Singapore to the point where, during a Prophet Mohammad’s birthday procession in Singapore, the Malay crowd was fired up enough to attack and kill two innocent by-standing Singapore policemen. Naturally racial tension was heightened and the situation in Singapore was extremely grave. Not long after, in August 1965, the Tunku had Singapore excised from Malaysia, saying that he had “to remove the cancer”.

    The PAP in Malaysia, with Devan Nair as the secretary-general, had to change to DAP. The red rocket replaced the red lightning in the party symbol when the name change was made. The clarion call was, and still is, “Malaysian Malaysia”.

    Just before the 1969 general elections, Devan Nair quit and returned to Singapore. The new leader was Goh Hock Guan, an architect by profession. Lim Kit Siang, a school teacher in Malacca was a relatively unknown personality in the DAP whose power was centered in KL. The better know persons in the DAP were Lee Lam Thye and Fan Yew Teng.

    Leading up to the elections, all the opposition parties, including the DAP, PPP, PMIP (now PAS), UDP and the Socialist Front, joined in an Opposition Front to challenge the ruling Alliance Party. At every election rally (up to the night before the elections) all over KL and PJ, there were huge crowds of people listening to speeches by Goh Hock Guan, the Seenivasagam brothers, DR and SP (PPP), Dr Lim Chong Eu (UDP), Dr Tan Chee Koon and V David (both from Socialist Front) and others from PMIP, all sharing the same stage on the back of a lorry. It was an exciting time to a then-young man like me because the “Wind of Change” was imminent. One of the main election goals of the opposition front was to deny the Alliance Party a two-thirds majority in Parliament so that in the upcoming review of Malay Special Rights provision in the Federal Constitution it would not be extended beyond its soon-to-expire date (15 years after Merdeka).

    Tactically, the PMIP played the role of spoiler very well. They put candidates in Malay majority areas to split the Malay votes allowing the Oposition non-Malay candidates to win in some constituencies, which otherwise would have been impossible.

    To the horror of the ruling Alliance Party, not only was it denied the two-thirds majority, Penang was lost (Kelantan was retained by PMIP), and Perak and Selangor were hanging on the balance. Selangor had a 20-20 split in seats between the Alliance Party and the Opposition. Of course Harun Idris, the incumbent Mentri Besar of Selangor, was not at all happy to potentially lose his powerful and lucrative job.

    Adding to the unfolding high drama just after the elections, MCA announced that they had lost the mandate of the Chinese and they were going to withdraw from the Alliance Party. This was probably the “last straw that broke the camel’s back”. Whether or not Tun Razak and his gang planned it (as suggested by the Tunku), this was the perfect excuse for some drastic action if they wished to remain in power. Harun happened to be the man leading the charge. The rest was history.

    Getting back to the blame game, it was not the DAP supporters who went around town “insulting” the Malays. On the day after the elections, there was a long procession of little lorries that I followed in my car from Jalan Pantai to Jalan Bangsar which had red flags flying all over them and they had symbols of the seladang head (i.e. Socialist Front). The people on those lorries were mostly Indian youths and they very exuberant, shouting and banging on drums, garbage cans and the sides of the lorry wooden gates. I saw the procession heading into the city when I turned off towards Jalan Brickfields. Apparently, the same group created a nuisance of themselves when they passed a Police Station and elsewhere in the city and it is now understandable why many Malays were so deeply offended by the behavior of this group.

    I hope this view of events leading to 13 May will enlighten those who like to point fingers. Lim Kit Siang had nothing to do with it. He became prominent only after he returned from his law studies overseas, on a necessary exile following 13 May (during the period of emergency rule implemented by Tun Razak).

  18. dahi.ketiak says:

    Syabas. Let us move forward and build a united nation. Remember, we can use our votes to tell the ugly politicians on both sides of the political divide that times have changed.

  19. Billy says:

    I too accounted my ordeal on this fateful day in my blog “Malaysian First, Malaysian Last” at

  20. hoch Wong says:

    Powerful interview. Yes, we as a nation can reconcile. Malaysian Boleh! Let us Malaysians be truly one people and let not the politician tear us apart .

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