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Undoing the 13 May legacy

EVERY nation has its dark side of history. Some nations like Japan and Turkey do not have the courage to face their dark past — they would do anything to bury or alter history. Others like Germany, South Africa, and Australia bravely own up their historical sins — whether committed against other nations or their own people — so that they move on respectably.

It is therefore heartening to see how the 40th anniversary of the 13 May tragedy was commemorated this year. Every serious online media outfit published special features and analyses on it. The DAP’s Kampung Tunku state assemblyperson Lau Weng San even managed to attract a 3,000-strong multiethnic crowd to the forum From 513 to 1Malaysia: the future of Malaysian nation-building.

While the boldness to bid farewell to 13 May was clearly the outcome the 8 March 2008 elections, two months after the poll, Malaysians were still reserved in deconstructing the 13 May spectre. Back then, Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir even said the killings could be seen as a “blessing” for ushering in the New Economic Policy.

But the mood has changed drastically this year, not least thanks to Perak Coup Part I (6 February 2009) and Perak Coup Part II (7 May 2009). Within this context, 13 May this year saw more Malaysians calling for some form of Truth and Reconciliation Commission modelled after South Africa’s.

But, is this the beginning of the end for the 13 May legacy? To answer that, one must ask what the real 13 May legacy is.

In the aftermath of 13 May: A few days later, at the corner of Jalan Yap Ah Shak
and Hale Road in Kuala Lumpur (Pic by Hassan Muthalib)

Peaceful race-based politics?

To me, the answer is not the communal-based preferential policies that many — especially non-Malay-Muslim Malaysians — perceive, but the legitimatisation of violence.

One only needs to look into the history of Umno to understand that violence was not the defining characteristic of Malay-Muslim nationalism the ethno-nationalist party was born into.

Back then, the Malays were extremely disturbed with the idea of the Malayan Union. They worried that they would be sidelined in competition against non-Malays if the latter became equal citizens.

Did they take up arms? No, they opted for civil disobedience. Under the leadership of Umno founder Datuk Onn Jaafar, grandfather of current Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, the Malays wrapped a white cloth around their songkok as a sign of mourning (berkabung).

Responding to Umno’s call, many Malay civil servants boycotted the Malayan Union government by refusing to carry out their duties and attend official functions, including the inauguration of Sir Edward Gent as the Malayan Union governor.

Weren’t Umno “exciting disaffection against the government” as criminalised by the Sedition Act? You bet.

While the Sedition Act did not yet exist, had the then Inspector-General of Police (IGP) thought like current IGP Tan Sri Musa Hassan, Hishammuddin’s grandfather would surely have been locked up.

My precious (© New Line Cinema)
How and when did Umno Malays stop believing in peace and start believing in the threat of violence? I have no idea. Some may argue that it was the power of the state that corrupted Umno, much like the magical ring in The Lord of the Rings. After all, Umno believed in peaceful political expression until they controlled the state.

What is important to note is that back then, under British colonial rule, politics could be communal yet peaceful and civil.

Legitimatisation of violence

Many years later, we are taught to develop an irrational fear of ethnocentrism, which, we are made to believe, means violence.

We are so fearful of our differences and passionate to preserve each other’s identities that we believe reason will only yield to emotion; democracy will inevitably descend into commotion.

We do not believe we can passionately discuss bumiputera special privileges or mother tongue education and disagree with each other without taking up arms and slaughtering our opponents.

This is the legitimatisation of violence, more precisely ethnic violence.

On one side of the coin, we accept “running amok” as a human and natural response — a person therefore should not be blamed if he or she turns aggressive after being infuriated by another’s views.

On the other side, we worship a strong government that crushes any “extremist elements”. That was the pretext for 1987’s Operasi Lalang and subsequent arrests of Reformasi, Islamist and Hindraf activists.

Hindraf supporters during a September 2008 gathering

In other words, we condemn “extremists” — regardless of their strands — as irrational and inhuman, but we have no faith that reason and humanity will defeat the extremists’ arguments.

Not even education can save us — in fact, education makes university lecturers and students more dangerous that they need to be kept under extra surveillance.

Our only faith is in the state which is endowed with the legitimate use of violence to silence any dissent or unpleasant views. We support the government to throw anyone it can’t win over in debates into jail; and we believe we are the moderate lot.

Yes, deep down, under the spell of 13 May, we are the moderate worshippers of violence. We worship the more “moderate” and “reasonable” state violence over the “extreme” and “unpredictable” private and corporate violence in ethnic conflicts.

What’s the link to 13 May? Violence is worshipped because the mother of all violence in the 13 May ethnic riots is not allowed to be questioned and condemned.

Peace vs violence

And why is 13 May treated with such sacred fear? It is the very basis of Phase II of Umno’s rule in the name of Barisan Nasional (BN). 

Although BN was technically constituted only in 1974, Phase I of Umno rule through the Alliance ended effectively in 1969. Losing half the popular vote in the Peninsula, not unlike in 2008, Umno could have held on to power after 1969 but would probably have been held hostage by the East Malaysians.

Razak (Public domain)
Umno insider Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad revealed during the Petaling Jaya forum that Tun Abdul Razak indeed asked then Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Harun Idris to disperse the crowd gathered at his home on 13 May 1969. But Abdul Razak did so only after Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Khoon and Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu assured him that Gerakan would not form government with the DAP in Selangor.

Razak’s message to Harun that came half an hour too late was, “The good news is you will continue to run Selangor.”

The implication was quite clear: 13 May was not accidental. Razak would not have made that call without an assurance of opposition disunity. One hopes this revelation does not result in sedition charges against Abdullah Ahmad.

The core value of the soon-to-be-born BN, which still informed the Perak coup 40 years later, was quite clear: if staying in power means resorting to violence, then so be it. Citizens can either choose us, or choose violence.

So, how will we know that the 13 May legacy is truly buried? I don’t think any concession from Umno on the Public Service Department scholarships is the answer.

13 May is not about communalism, much the way rape is not about sex. Communalism can take a civil form, and democracy may not get rid of communalism completely. One ethnic community may not appreciate equality as others see it, but that’s fine as long as no one is silenced by force.

13 May is about violence. To bury the 13 May legacy is to bury our conscious and unconscious worship of violence and to rebirth our faith in reason and humanity. We may still quarrel passionately, but that’s fine as long as no one is taking up arms or eyeing the barracks.

New politics is therefore not a choice about equality versus communalism. It is about peace versus violence, democracy versus chaos. Peace should be the largest common denominator for all.

It’s time we bury all political forces that cling on to the cult of violence.

It’s time we have a new fear — the fear for authoritarianism, which is quintessentially violent.

See also: Six Words On… 13 May

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes an honest abandoning of our clandestine worship for violence, disguised as peace under authoritarianism, is the only way Malaysians can pay respect to the dead of 13 May 1969.

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6 Responses to “Undoing the 13 May legacy”

  1. dragonia says:

    Today, I learn that Dr Tan Chee Khoon and Dr Lim Chong Eu, in order to have peace in Malaysia, they sacrificed their political ambition of ruling Malaysia. Umno was too arrogant then and 40 years later they are now beyond control. I wish Dr Lim Chong Eu, who is still alive, with conscience would tell the whole truth about the whole tragedy, so that once and for all, we have a true episode and not many of those fabricated ones. Give justice to those who perished during the May 13 tragedy please.

  2. halftruth says:

    This article constitute half truth of what had transpired in 13 May 1969. Half truth is very dangerous – when will you learn to be truthful “equally”? There’s always two stories in everything. Yet, you choose to ignore this basic common sense. Wake up please. It’s takes two to TANGO.

  3. Hwa Shi-Hsia says:

    Required reading for Malaysians interested in social sciences: Donald Horowitz’s “The Deadly Ethnic Riot”.

  4. chinhuatw says:


    Which half? My points on May 13 are
    (a) It is not allowed to be examined, questioned and condemned.
    (b) Amuk-ing has been justified/rationalized on the ground of human nature. Its danger has then been used to justify authoritarianism.

    In no where have I said that the May 13 is caused by one particular community. My claim that Umno has given up peaceful expressions to advance its communal cause after 1946 is based on the repeated threat that May 13 would be repeated if certain demands/goals are not achieved.

    Do you know any instance that Umno mainstream politicians have unreservedly condemned the violence in May 13 and censured violence no matter what?

    Do you know any of them who have condemned the demonstration outside the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in 2000, the Article 11 coalition in 2006 and the Bar Council in 2007? (The latter two of course had the participation of PAS and PKR leaders and members too, but the two parties’ main leadership stayed away or even criticized them.)

    If you do, let’s publicize it. Malaysians would be delighted to know if Umno sincerely condemns all forms of violence – by state apparatus or private citizens.

    To me, the problem in Malaysian politics is really not about communalism (the inequality debate), but violence (that you-must-shut-up-because-I-feel-hurt mentality).

    This may not be shared by many who condemn the May 13 riots. Their contention is more with the outcome, just like Mukhriz would call it a “blessing” because of its outcome.

    As a liberal and a democrat, I will recognize at the most basic level the legitimacy of a policy I can consider morally wrong as long as the polity would allow me the right to exercise my conscience to question and lobby against it.

    On the other hand, a just policy imposed with force to silence its critics is more demeaning and inhuman because it defies reason, our greatest distinction as a species from others.

    That’s my FULL contention with the post-1969 Malaysian politics. I believe in reason and reject violence, the antithesis of May 13.

    It’s not about fair or not. It’s about peace versus violence.

    Chin Huat

  5. Kfc says:

    The 40th Anniversary of 13 May is a good time to lay the ghost of Ng Yat Sam to rest. 40 in Cantonese is Say Sat which means “must die”. I was 17 when it happened. I was living in Menglembu, Perak, a small town south of Ipoh. As far as I remember, no one died there but lots of rumours though. My older brother who was in KL on some business and on the 3rd day was escorted out of the city by some members of the army and drove home to Ipoh safely. Yes, there are both good and bad accounts of the actions of the military when they were sent into the city.

    As a nation we have been suffering from PTSS- Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome on a national basis since that time. Every 4 years or so, we get flashbacks from some of our politicians to intimidate and terrify us into voting them back into power again. And they will continue with this technique. Though it may not be so effective due to the 13 May generation dying off and people getting more educated and becoming middle class and therefore less likely to succumb to such tactics….. the possibility and danger exists and will remain unless as a nation we come to a closure of this tragedy of 13 May.

    Closure will be achieved when we go through the treatment exercise:

    We need to confront and accept everything that happened from every conceivable viewpoint. We need to grieve over every aspect of the human tragedy and let the people involved from all sides recall and share all their individual stories. We need to forgive each other and especially those identified to be the perpetrators.

    From the different accounts, it did not sound like a spontaneous outbreak of amok-ism but more like a planned attack to create havoc for political reasons. In such incidents, it is almost never done by the ordinary locals; usually by gangs recruited from elsewhere and led by a few locals with a clear agenda.

    We then need to resolve to learn all the lessons that we can to prevent such things happening again and then only, and only then can we move forward with light hearts and hope for the future for a Malaysia that has grown up and can take its place among the developed and mature countries of the world. Not developed materially only but also mentally and spiritually.

    Then “Malaysia Boleh” will no more be taken derogatively but solemnly and with confidence and a sense of true accomplishment.

    Yes. A Malaysian edition of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” is timely and will contribute to a genuine and authentic 1Malaysia and not a “play-play” one.

  6. kok pin says:

    Dear Chin Huat,

    I agree with your views. I would like to add to your point about the “don’t bring up issues that upset me” attitude.

    If we liken the country to be a family unit, with the members being the races. One member goes: “Don’t talk about the issue that hurt my feelings. Or else I hurt you.” While the other member might be seeing it as: “I want you to say sorry. Or else I continue my passive aggression.”

    The dominant one is in self-denial. He had sought to deal his faults, misfortunes and lack of success. He’s has anger towards himself. But he ends up masking it by projecting anger at others. After sometime, the anger projection becomes a habit that he forgets the deeper issue of why he is really angry.

    The passive aggressive one seeks to deal with being the responsible one, the one being blame as the scapegoat. Unfortunately he had settle on victim hood. And mask it up with passive anger projected on to the dominant one. This manifest as the youth hating the country and wanting to leave it as soon as possible.

    The family unit goes down hill as both members seek to sabotage each other. One actively. The other passively. Like it or not, all the members are part of the family. A good economy and living condition requires that all members contribute 100% to the country.

    True healing can only come when both members look at their own self denials. And own up it. And move on from there. It takes two to tango. Both members needs to change themselves.

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