May 13, 1969

In the beginning

There are two key events that have changed the course of Malaysian history. The first was the attempted creation of the Malayan Union by the British colonialists. The second is the infamous May 13, 1969. Both are closely inter-twined as the first galvanised the different Malay communities in Peninsular Malaya (Malaya) to form the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) which spearheaded the fight against the Malayan Union and had the profound impact of predisposing Malaysia towards racial politics, which ultimately led to the May 13, 1969 race riots and the continuing conundrum Malaysia faces in race-relations (read here).

The British colonialists must also be held responsible for Malaysia’s race-based politics. In their attempts to protect British strategic and economic interests, they favoured Malaya’s capitalist elite who preferred the race based approach to politics against the more universal class based political parties which were seen as direct threats to British interests (read here).

What actually happened?

To date, there are two general accepted versions of what transpired. The official version, the government white paper, of May 13, provides what is now the mainstream view of the events (available here). The paper claims that the predominantly Malaysian Chinese opposition parties were infiltrated by communists elements and were the cause of the riots. It appears that the white paper also attempts to justify the race riots by arguing from a historical perspective, beginning with the Malayan Union to the existing conditions and issues affecting Malaya then that led to the race riots i.e. that the Malays were alienated in their own land.

This maybe considered biased as:

(i) it does not discuss the role that UMNO played in raising racial tensions, not only in Malaya but also in Singapore – who had experienced race riots earlier in 1964 (read here);

(ii) The fact that the Chinese majority opposition parties were involved in masterminding May 13 has not been proven. The white paper itself does not provide substantive evidence. Furthermore, the fact that the government  used The Internal Securities Act (ISA) – which does not require bringing the accused to a court of law – against opposition leaders substantiates allegations that UMNO either masterminded May 13 or was taking advantage of it by deposing opposition leaders who at the 1969 general election had a real chance of forming government.

Dr. Kua Kia Soong’s, “Declassified Documents on the Malaysian riots of 1969” provides the other general view, which argues that UMNO played a key role in May 13 (read here and here). This has ofcourse has been challenged by many in UMNO. A general rebuttal (in a non-academic way) is represented by a blogger called Jebat Must Die (read here).

The truth may lie in between. Several eminent public intellectuals such as Emeritus Prof. Khoo Kay Kim attributes it to the prevailing conditions in Malaysia at that time. (read here, here and here).

However, one thing became very clear after May 13. Any attempt to challenge UMNO would be met with the strongest response – legitimately or illegitimately. May 13 established the concept of Malay supremacy through the blood of hundreds if not thousands of Malaysians, especially of Chinese heritage (Read here). This led to most non – Malays having no options but to accept UMNO hegemony (Ketuanan Melayu/Malay Supremacy) or leave Malaysia (read here). Many choose to migrate – a trend which has continued as a result of systematic discrimination against the non – Malays (read here and here).

The Democratic Action Party (DAP) which choose not to join the newly expanded Alliance – now called Barisan Nasional - and opted to remain as opposition. Being the largest opposition and with links to the PAP, the DAP became the natural target of UMNO and blame was placed on them systematically as the cause of May 13, 1969 (Read here). UMNO has since maintained 2/3 majority in Parliament – effectively changing the Constitution and system of government to suit its need.

UMNO/Malay supremacy continues but it is now challenged more by political parties dominated by Malays themselves, first by PAS (read here), then by Tengku Razaleigh and Semangat 46 in 1988 (read here)  but most potently through Anwar Ibrahim after Reformasi in 1999 through PKR (read here).

Moving forward?

It is now 42 years since May 13 but it is never far from the minds of Malaysians as UMNO raises it time and again (read here ) to remind Malaysians that only UMNO can guarantee stability (read here and here).

Most Malaysians want to understand what actually happened, to discuss it in a civilised manner and to come to intelligent solutions that will remove the root causes that created the environment for this terrible incident.

Will UMNO allow this?

Here are some other worthwhile views on how Malaysia can move forward as a nation.

  1. Dr. MK Rajakumar, Towards a nation of cultured people (read here)
  2. Dr. Kua Kia Soong, Remedies for race-based politics (read here)
  3. Nazry Bahrawi, Will Malaysia ever be colour-blind (read here )