Comment: May 13, 1969: Serving the nation in its darkest hour

September 26, 2008 at 9:19 am 1 comment

Sunday, 11 May 2008 01:34pm

©New Sunday Times (Used by permission)
by Kamaruddin Mohd Jamal

Serving the nation in its darkest hour
Food supplies being distributed after the May 13 incident. The presence of the police and armed forces was vital in ensuring that all communities were kept safe and had enough food, water and medicines.


DESPITE current ripples in the political climate, the country remains totally secure and peaceful, compared with May 13 exactly 39 years ago. Let us keep it that way.

May 13, 1969, will always be remembered as the blackest day in our post-independence history. Much water has passed under the bridge since then and we would like to think that we are that much wiser, as a people and a nation, because of it.

This event, as such, must never be in any way slanted or distorted, especially given its polarised complexion.

The truth can be so easily desecrated, especially when written retrospectively against the comfort of present-day peace and harmony, void of the reality of the time, and given an unbridled interpretation based on third-party random personal glimpses and snatches of fleeting partial observations.

In the book, The Reluctant Politician – Tun Dr Ismail and His Time (Ooi Kee Beng, 2007), the author fleetingly, but tellingly, singled out a quote from a letter of one Eric Griffith-Jones to Dr Ismail on the performance of the army during the May 13 disturbance in these words:
“However, he added as a private message to Ismail that the army is reported by the same sources to have been responsible for excessive force against the Chinese – it does seem on the best information that I have that the Malay Regiment rather lost its head.”

This quote, which had seemed somewhat unnecessarily sneaked in, was really quite unfortunate.

Throughout its history, the Royal Malay Regiment and the army in general, had never acted with any political, religious or racial agenda.

The quote is most damning for the RMR and casts aspersions on its integrity and professionalism. It is an affront to the sacrifices of its officers and soldiers who had dutifully and unfailingly served in defence of the country for the last 75 years.

To be fair to the officers and soldiers of the RMR, and the army in general, we need to put this quote into proper perspective.

The circumstances were such that, as a last resort, the responsibility to salvage and restore law and order was formally and officially handed over by the government to the military – a situation of near-anarchy when violence, ignited by the flame of distrust, fear and hatred, was running wild, threatening to spread and engulf the entire country.

It was an extreme situation the country had never before seen or experienced, which needed a swift and firm response that few understood, expected, or were ready to accept.

In executing the mandate and responsibility given to them under this extremely volatile and fast deteriorating condition, the army had to exercise the needed firmness by uncompromisingly going by the book, guided always by the key principles of impartiality, prevention and minimum force, as dictated in their operating procedures.

They had very clear guidelines for their roles and the various steps they needed to take at each stage under varying escalating scenarios; and, they operated by those guidelines, completing the job and handing back the responsibility to the government within four months.

The issue of excessive force clearly would not arise, except in the eyes of those who did not wish to fully understand or appreciate the gravity of the situation.

Unwavering firmness under such grave conditions was necessary and unavoidable.

Nevertheless, the assertions of excessive force and the implied lack of impartiality had, indeed, been made.

One such accusation included a very threatening incident on the morning of the third day when the RMR troops were accused of excessive force – but this time against the Malays in Kampung Baru.

The accusation and threat was made to my face, the face of a RMR officer, by a large crowd of aggressive and belligerent Malay youths.

So much for the implied lack of impartiality, when they were similarly accused by both Chinese and Malays for their actions.

And what about the other facets of their activities outside the more confrontational law-and-order enforcement roles?

Despite their uncompromising firmness in handling certain situations, the compassionate and humane face was more the norm rather than the exception.

Far from being callous, RMR officers and soldiers, and their comrades of other races from the other units, were always at hand round the clock, ready to assist anyone and everyone in every way necessary with the utmost care and compassion, and in a fair and consistent manner at all times, and towards all.

In the Chinese area of Jalan Chow Kit, for which the 5th Battalion RMR was responsible, the procedures and conduct were no different than in the Malay area of Kampung Baru or elsewhere.

The following are some examples of their conduct and activities involving the Chinese residents of the Jalan Chow Kit area that may, perhaps, help make this point.

– The residents there were advised, like elsewhere in similar situations, to remain indoors and to display a piece of white cloth or some signs if they needed food or whatever kind of help.

Apart from the security patrols, soldiers would make their daily rounds at regular intervals to provide food, water and medicines as needed, and help to resolve whatever concerns the residents had.

– In one case, the residents of an enclave in the area were trapped in their shop-lots with little food and had wanted to abandon their shops to seek safety elsewhere.

The Commanding Officer of the battalion (CO) advised them not to do so, saying that these were their homes and that they should stay put.

To allay their fears, he ordered soldiers with fixed bayonets to remain on guard in the general area on a continuous basis, with orders to ensure the safety of the residents and their properties and, if necessary, to open fire on anyone threatening them.

– In another instance, a young curfew-breaker, caught by patrolling soldiers, petrified and near-incoherent, managed to stutter that he was sending food to his grandmother.

When informed of this, the CO himself accompanied the boy to a room and met the grandmother, chair-bound and half-blind! It seemed that the boy had been taking risks daily to visit and care for his grandmother.

They waited until she had finished her meal and then four of the RMR soldiers carried the woman in her chair to the CO’s Landrover to be sent to a nearby four-storey building for safety and to be better looked after.

Upon reaching the building, these Malay soldiers again lifted the Chinese lady and carried her upstairs, amid approving loud cheers and claps from the residents.

– There were numerous other such routine acts and activities carried out daily by the soldiers throughout the period they were there that gained the trust and confidence of the residents and provided them a measure of comfort during those difficult days.

This trust and confidence could be best summed up by the fact that when it was thought that the Chow Kit area had improved sufficiently to be handed back to the police, and preparations were made accordingly, the residents appealed to Tun Abdul Razak for the 5th Battalion to stay on; and, this appeal was granted.

– When finally it was time for the battalion to pull out, the Jalan Chow Kit Goodwill Committee organised a goodwill gathering with officers of the battalion in Jalan Raja Laut. Cheng Eng Hock, the chairman of the committee, presented a scroll to the CO with notes of thanks and appreciation to the battalion for helping the residents, and for looking after the area during the period of disturbances.

– The battalion, in turn, organised a reciprocal goodwill tea party the following Saturday at the Sultan Sulaiman Club. The residents of both the Chow Kit area and Kampung Baru were invited, and they turned up in full force – Malays, Chinese, and Indians.

These examples may not mean anything to those bent on seeing and reporting only the perceived negative sides but they serve to illustrate the many different sides of this same equation, one that should never be made to seem so conclusively and conveniently simple.

Neither are they meant to eulogise the RMR battalion involved, or the army in general.

They are simply to point out that in discharging their responsibilities during this very sensitive and difficult period, they had to carry out many different roles – some pleasant, others less so, and some outright painful – but always by the book.

The regiment had acted with the same professionalism and dedication, precisely as they were trained and prepared, entrusted and mandated, committed solely to ensuring the well-being of the nation.

And, at the very least, their contributions should be impartially and fairly judged.

*Major (R) Datuk Kamaruddin Mohd Jamal is the president of the Royal Malay Regiment Officers Club.


Entry filed under: Comment.

May 13, 1969: Truth and reconciliation The Star says… It need not remain a black day

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. cyril gabriel  |  October 24, 2011 at 3:18 am

    I have just read the book : MEMALI A POLICEMAN REMEMBERS
    and I am touched with what the 5th Bn RMR did as recounted by Major (Rtd) Datuk Kamaruddin. The onerous duty expected of both the Armed Forces and Police personnel deployed is unfortunately seldom realised but accusations of partiality are sadly easily made.
    I served in the Police Force and witnessed at first-hand the 13th May 1969 riots in Singapore (fortunately it was contained before it could escalate). I know what it is like when the odds you face are against you and when the public’s demands upon you can be overwhelming and it becomes a real challenge to maintain your professional judgment in an evolving situation.


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