May 13, 1969: Truth and reconciliation
|Sunday, 11 May 2008 10:56am|
©The Sunday Star (Used by permission)
• Choosing to live or die together
Closure: ‘A bringing to an end; a conclusion… A feeling of finality or resolution, especially after a traumatic experience,’ (Answers.com). Well, May 13, 1969, was truly a traumatic experience for Malaysia. Yet 39 years later, there is still no proper closure. Instead, the incident has haunted the nation these past four decades. Just the mention of ‘May 13’ invokes shudders and nervous glances. It is our national ‘code’ for violent racial meltdown, especially among the older generation. Isn’t it time to finally break the code?
WHEN news of the March 8 general election results broke, Opposition supporters were understandably jubilant at what was their best showing in the nation’s 51-year history. Yet, the sentiment on the ground was very much one of restraint. Supporters were urged not to go out and celebrate, but rather to maintain a low profile.
The reason for such caution: The racial riots of May 13, 1969, of course.
Truly, those were dark and terrible days. My father, a retired diplomat, told me that after the riots, many prophets of doom even predicted the end of the then newly-formed Malaysia.
According to a Time magazine report on May 23, 1969, ”Malaysia’s proud experiment in constructing a multiracial society exploded in the streets of Kuala Lumpur last week. Malay mobs, wearing white headbands signifying an alliance with death, and brandishing swords and daggers, surged into Chinese areas in the capital, burning, looting and killing. In retaliation, Chinese, sometimes aided by Indians, armed themselves with pistols and shotguns and struck at Malay kampongs. Huge pillars of smoke rose skyward as houses, shops and autos burned.”
That was an outsider view of what happened. Yet, almost four decades later, that is the same graphic image associated with May 13 – violence, mayhem, killing – which haunts Malaysians.
As a nation we have not moved or completely healed from the incident simply because we have been afraid. As PKR information chief Tian Chua opined in an interview with StarMag: “In Malaysia, we grow up and live in a culture of fear in the shadow of May 13. That fear has been built into our political system and has remained a part of our psychology.”
That fear is, in part, rooted in ignorance: no one has been able to come up with a full and authoritative account of what happened.
What’s known are the facts. In a nutshell, a day after the May 10, 1969 general election which saw sweeping gains for the Opposition, thousands of Chinese marched through Kuala Lumpur, parading through predominantly Malay areas hurling insults.
Umno Youth members then gathered at Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Harun Idris’s residence in Kampung Baru in KL on May 13 for their own counter victory celebration since the Alliance had maintained its majority in Parliament, albeit a reduced one, and had retained Selangor with the support of the single independent assemblyman.
That led to outbreaks of violence in parts of Kuala Lumpur that continued over the following days. Houses, shops, vehicles were torched, people killed and injured. Official figures put the death toll at less than 200 but many commentators put the figures at between 800 and 1,000.
On the day the riots broke out, Star Deputy Op-Ed Editor Johan Fernandez , then 21, was watching a movie in the heart of KL.
“Suddenly the screen went red and the words ‘Emergency Declared’ in large black letters were flashed. There was a mad rush to lock the cinema gates just as an armed gang tried to break in.
At first I joined many who were hiding in the toilets but I didn’t want to die there so I walked out again just as the gang broke through, ready to kill. But I heard them say among themselves that they weren’t targeting my race, so I plucked up my courage and walked out of the hall. I know that people were killed after I left.
“I took refuge in a nearby police station for about five or six days until the killings stopped.”
Many Malaysians living in KL at that time have similar tales to tell or know of someone who suffered losses.
After so many years, the question that is often murmured or thought about is: Can another May 13 recur? Certainly it was considered a possibility after the March 8 general election as the results bore an uncanny resemblance to that of 1969.
Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Khoo Kay Kim says that the circumstances surrounding May 13 were different.
“I believe that this time around there was a greater determination to preserve the peace. I think the security forces were a little confused in 1969, which is why (then Home Minister) Tun Dr Ismail had to bring in the Sarawak rangers.”
Given Malaysia’s status then as a young nation with developing ethnic relations it was easy for politicians to exploit the divide, adds Dr Khoo.
“A focal point of May 13 was communal divisions. Even though the Alliance had lost Kelantan to PAS, many contests were largely pitched as Malay versus non-Malay. It was the non-Malay vote that swung very sharply to the then Opposition parties of Gerakan, DAP and PPP.
“In the case of March 8, the support for the Pakatan Rakyat parties came from all three major races so the situation therefore was far less explosive.”
The historical background
Many tumultuous events happened in the years leading to May 13. Malaya gained independence in 1957 against the backdrop of a guerrilla war conducted by the Communist Party of Malaya (the Emergency which lasted from 1948-1960).
In 1963, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak joined Malaya to form Malaysia, against the objections of the Filipino and Indonesian governments of the day. Indonesian President Sukarno was particularly incensed and carried out underground military action during this period (known as the Konfrontasi).
Meanwhile in Brunei, an election was held but its results nullified when the leftist Parti Rakyat Brunei (which advocated union with Indonesia) swept all the seats, resulting in the brief Brunei Revolt.
In 1965 Singapore seceded from Malaysia, thanks in part to two separate rounds of race riots in 1964 (on July 21 and Sept 3) during which nearly 50 people died in Sino-Malay clashes.
Dr Khoo explains: “During that time when Singapore was part of Malaysia, Chinese outnumbered Malays. This led the Malays to fear displacement in their own homeland. The brand of politics that Lee Kuan Yew practised further frightened the Malays. The Sino-Malay riots of 1964 were a big thing and one reason why Tunku took steps to cut Singapore off.”
The 1969 general elections were therefore conducted under highly emotional charged circumstances.
In May 13 Before And After, a book penned by Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman within months of the riots, he laid blame largely on communist agitators as well as their leftist sympathisers within the Labour Party of Malaya. LPM chose to boycott the 1969 general election but nonetheless showed off their strength at the funeral march of a member, Lim Soon Seng (who was killed in a clash with police), held in Kepong on May 9.
Tunku also accused supporters of two opposition parties fighting their first general election – Gerakan (a multi-racial party which included former Labour Party leaders Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Koon and Dr V. David) and the DAP (a splinter party of Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party) – with carrying out provocative celebrations in Malay areas like Kampung Baru.
Other factors cited by Tunku in his book are the power struggle within Umno itself and the emergence of Malay “ultras”.
Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, founding director of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Ethnic Studies, says the most common misconception about May 13 is that it was caused by a single factor.
“In reality, it was the result of multiple factors. Like the movie Vantage Point which presents eight viewpoints from eight persons on one event (the attempt to assassinate a US President), there can be many vantage points to May 13: official, personal and even conspiratorial ones,” he adds.
Dr Kua Kia Soong, author of May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969 released last year, is of the view that the May 13 riots were not a spontaneous uprising but an orchestrated coup against Tunku by disaffected members of his own party.
Former Inspector-General of police Tun Hanif Omar, in his Sunday Star column on June 3, 2007, rejected this claim.
He pointed out that the National Operations Council (NOC) Report, The May 13, 1969 Incidents, gave other reasons why and how the outbreak started and its consequences.
“Is the NOC Report accurate without touching on the plot to topple Tunku? To me it is. The unhappiness that some Umno members had with Tunku by 1969 was real but it did not feature as a cause of the May 13 incident.
“The incident, however, sharpened the unhappiness of the Malays with Tunku and fuelled the movement to replace him with his deputy, Tun Abdul Razak.
“As the coordinator of the Special Branch investigations into the incident, and having read all the statements from eye-witnesses which formed the basis of the NOC Report, I am convinced of its accuracy,” wrote Hanif.
Still, what Ahmad Mustapha Hassan ,who was an Umno Youth exco committee member at the time, saw first-hand seems to lend some credence to the Tunku conspiracy theory.
He explains: “I was part of the Umno Youth committee that held a meeting on the morning of May 13 and our plan was clear. We would hold a counter victory celebration, to remind people that even though we had a smaller majority we were still victorious.
“However, when we assembled at the Selangor Mentri Besar’s house shocking incidents happened. We were handed headbands and weapons were produced. It was definite that there were some elements in Umno who were opposed to Tunku’s leadership and who had come with an ulterior motive and planned something more sinister.”
In his book, The Unmaking of Malaysia, Ahmad describes his grief and horror at the events that unfolded: “I witnessed a killing of an innocent coffee shop boy. … We were unaware and unprepared for such a situation … A crazy mob had taken over … and I and fellow Umno Youth (members) were helpless.”
Ahmad, who went on to serve as press secretary to Prime Ministers Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, believes the attacks “appeared to be planned by some group because hidden weapons and headbands were distributed” but maintains he does not know who was responsible.
It is Dr Kua’s contention that unless “the truth is out”, there can be no real national unity. But Hanif countered that what happened in 1969 “was too ‘ancient’ an animosity to be allowed to hold national unity to ransom.”
In an interview last week, Dr Kua argues that “May 13 is part of our history and is consistently trotted out by politicians who want to play the racial card, to show us what will happen if the privileges of the ruling class are threatened. We need to have a process of truth and reconciliation. This is what happened in South Africa after apartheid; it doesn’t bring back the dead, but it lets the healing process begin.
“At the moment the blame is put largely on the back of the Opposition, but questions must be asked about the role of the military, the police and certain ruling party officials who represented the emerging capitalist class. We don’t need to trot out the gory details which will inflame passions, but the truth must not be covered up.”
DAP veteran leader Lim Kit Siang, who was detained under the Internal Security Act for more than a year after the riots, agrees, adding that 40 years is not too late to discuss what happened.
“We should stop sweeping it under the carpet. May 13 is a ghost that must be exorcised. As long as it remains a hidden, censored part of history then it hinders our maturing as a people and a nation, and will continue to haunt us.”
This desire for closure is shared by others.
In a letter to The Star, (Bury ghost of May 13 once and for all, March 27) Lt Kol (R) Mohd Idris Hassan took to task a “seasoned politician” for appearing on TV and ”saying that if the Opposition parties continue to fan communal sentiments, another May 13 will happen, adding with a raised index finger ‘Dan jangan salahkan kami’ (Then don’t blame us).”
Mohd Idris went on to say “please spare us the threat of another dreadful May 13” and that “After 39 years, it is time to bury deep the ghost of May 13 once for all, so that it never raises its ugly head again.”
He added: “For one, it is a well-flogged threat used by some politicians for their own agenda, and two, it does not work any more. All it does is that it raises painful memories of the black chapter in our history of our otherwise harmonious relations between all races.
“On that fateful day, I was a young officer serving in the army. I witnessed first-hand the carnage as it unfolded. People were attacked because they were of the wrong race, at the wrong place at the wrong time. Everyone suffered.”
Responding to Mohd Idris’ letter, another reader, Daniel K.C. Lim, wrote that “rather than trying to decipher the truth from the official version, if one exists, or from listening to unofficial or underground versions, or simply putting every rumour on hold until living memories fade away and are replaced by mere myths and legends, why not have the events of May 13, 1969, properly and definitively recorded and reviewed?
“Reconciliation must start first with the truth; only then will we be able to lay matters well to rest once and for all.”
Teoh Feh Leong, a 55-year-old engineer, feels that closure can only come through acknowledgement and forgiveness.
“We don’t know anything about what happened because the Government has closed this entire chapter of our history. The incident happened too far back for us to hate or incite anger anymore. But we need to know what happened factually, accurately, once and for all.
“Our young Malaysians have no idea what’s May 13 while the older people remain bitter. Unless we acknowledge and confess to what happened, the spirit of May 13 will continue to be present each time the Malays feel threatened or when the Chinese feel cheated or outraged. It will never end.”
Among the younger generation, May 13 may hold little fear for them but there is a certain curiosity about it.
Abby Wong, 38, merchandising manager for a KL leading bookstore believes that was what fuelled the good sales of Dr Kua’s book.
“It sold like hot cakes when it came out last year. Most of the buyers were working adults in their 30s. When I asked them how they knew about it since there was little publicity in the press, they told me they found out about it on the Internet and were curious to know more.
“I remember one buyer described the book as ‘Valuable history at a cheap price’ as it was sold at only RM20,” says Wong.
Student Chak Tze Chin, 23, says she heard stories of it from her grandmother.
“She still thinks there can be another May 13 incident so during the last general election, she advised me to stay home. To me, it’s important to understand past events so that we can work together better in the future.”
To Diana Afandi, May 13 is often used to remind the people of Malaysia not to stir up racial tensions. “But now, it is used so widely for political parties and leaders to pursue their objectives. I remember being nervous when I heard the stories from my parents and I am still worried now,” said the 21-year-old student.
Perhaps what should be made known is that May 13 was not the only major racial clash in the country’s history.
Dr Khoo explains: “The first racial riots were in August-September 1945 and were caused by the Communist Party of Malaya going around punishing Chinese and Indian collaborators after the Japanese Occupation ended. But when they punished the Malays, especially the Banjaris in the Batu Pahat area, they fought back. And this spread to other Banjari areas like Batu Kikir in Negri Sembilan and Sungai Manik in Perak.”
Prof Shamsul agrees: “May 13 has been given special attention in our media, history books and realpolitik, but the Sino-Malay ethnic riots in 1945 were bigger and bloodier. They were more widespread and continued for a longer period (for two weeks with a toll estimated at more than 2,000 lives).
“Why is this conflict never mentioned every time we talk about racial riots in Malaysia? It reminds me of what French historian Ernest Renan once said: ‘History is about remembering and forgetting.’
“It is historical, therapeutic and awareness-raising to talk and analyse these conflicts (between 1945 and 1969) in a rational and reasoned manner, and not use it as a threat to incite racial hatred or fulfil an ethnicised political agenda.”
Observes Dr Khoo: “People try not to talk about May 13 because they don’t know how to handle it. You cannot start by blaming one side or another. The procession through Kampung Baru was certainly unfortunate, but it did not justify such a wave of killings.
“After 1969 we became vulnerable. Each race is told that it is somebody else’s fault. We expect our leaders to play a part in defusing tensions, but instead there are many who thrive on constantly fuelling the fears of the people.”
Still there are positive signs of a maturing society, such as how the March 8 general election results were accepted without any violence.
Admits Dr Kua, “The recent elections just put paid to my theory that such riots might recur if the government lost its two-thirds majority.”
Dr Khoo concludes: May 13 is not just a story. It tells about our society and its relationships. We must reach a stage where we understand each other’s fears, where cultural diversity is accepted and not be the cause of conflict.
“Everybody should also realise, especially our politicians, that you can never solve sensitive issues by confrontation.
“People should be reminded that Barisan Nasional was formed after May 13 after the Alliance Party (of Umno, MCA and MIC) was broadened to include former opposition parties, the reason being that the huge coalition would help reduce inflammatory politicking.
“Ethnic champions should always be disapproved of in a multi-ethnic society.”
Late April – campaigning period sees clashes in Penang with an Umno worker killed.
May 9 – Funeral of Labour Party member in Kepong turns into show of strength by leftists.
May 10 – General Election is held resulting in Alliance Party losing its two-thirds majority, as well as the state legistatures of Kelantan and Penang. Perak and Selangor state assemblies are hung.
May 11&12 – Supporters of Gerakan and DAP go on victory processions, during which racial taunts are made.
May 13 – Umno organises counter procession beginning at the residence of Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Harun Idris. Racial killings begin. Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman addresses the nation. Curfew imposed in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.
May 14 – State of Emergency declared as retaliatory killings continue. Officially 196 people are killed during this period, but unofficial estimates put the figure closer to 800-1,000.
May 16 – National Operations Council headed by Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak is appointed by Yang-Di-Pertuan Agong to carry out executive duties in place of suspended Parliament. Tun Dr Ismail is appointed Minister of Internal Security.
June 28 – Five people are killed in Malay-Indian clashes in KL.
1970 June/July – Elections in Sabah and Sarawak are held.
1971 Feb 21 –Parliament reconvened and National Operations Council dissolved. New Economic Policy launched to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth among the races.
January – Gerakan and PPP agree to work with Alliance in running Penang and Perak state governments respectively.
1973 January – PAS joins the Alliance, leading to formalisation of new coalition as Barisan Nasional.
• Source: May 13 Before And After; May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969; Wikipedia
Choosing to live or die together
by Datuk Mahadev Shankar
MAY 13, 1969. On that day I had finished with a case at Court Hill and returned home a little earlier than usual. My wife and children were out and got back just before sunset.
By twilight, all hell had broken loose. A shouting mob seemed to be coming from the junction of Princess Road (now Jalan Raja Muda) and Circular Road (Jalan Pekeliling and Jalan Tun Abdul Razak) which was less than half a mile from our house on the corner of Jalan Gurney Dua and Satu.
We were well within earshot of the commotion. We were out on our badminton court when a young Malay, face ravaged with shock, ran past us, intermittently stopping to catch his breath and then run on.
The panic he radiated was very contagious. A few moments later, my neighbour Tuan Haji Ahmad shouted from across the road that a riot was in progress at the Princess Road junction and that we should immediately get back indoors.
Soon afterwards as the darkness set in, we saw red tongues of flame crowned with black smoke go up from the direction of Datuk Kramat. From town there was a red glow in the sky of fires burning. The acrid smell of smoke was coming from everywhere. Fearing the worst, we locked ourselves in and huddled around the TV set. Then I heard this high-pitched wail: “Tolong, buka pintu, tolong. buka pintu!” (Please open the door!)
A diminutive woman with a babe in arms was desperately yelling for shelter, obviously not having had much luck with the houses nearer the Gurney Road (now Jalan Semarak) junction. Without a second thought, I ran out, unlocked the gate and let her in. She was wide-eyed with terror and the baby was bawling away.
Once inside, she slunk into a corner in our dining room and just sat there huddled with her baby. It was now evident that she was Chinese, spoke no English, and was quite unwilling to engage in any conversation except to plead in bazaar Malay that she would give us no trouble and that she would leave the next day.
Our attention soon shifted from her to the TV set. A very distraught Tunku Abdul Rahman came on to tell us that a curfew had to be declared because of racial riots between the Malays and the Chinese, caused by the over-exuberance of some elements celebrating their election victories. He gave brief details of irresponsible provocations, skirmishes and fatalities. He stressed the need for calm whilst the security services restored law and order.
I remember his parting words to us that night, “Marilah kita hidup atau mati sekarang” (Let us choose to live or die now). As my attention once again shifted to the tiny woman and her tinier baby, let me confess, to my shame, that the thought crossed my mind that living in a predominantly Malay area, I had now put my whole family in peril by harbouring this Chinese woman. It was evident from the TV broadcasts that her race had become the target of blind racial hatred.
None of us were in the mood to eat anything. We all just sat and waited, not knowing quite what to expect. Hours later there was a loud banging at our gate accompanied by a male voice shouting. I realised then my moment of truth had arrived
In that half-light, I saw the most enormous Malay man I had ever set eyes on. With great trepidation I asked him what he wanted.
“You have got my wife and child in your house and I have come for them,” he said in English.
Still suspicious I asked him, “Before I say anything, can you describe your wife?”
“Yes, yes, I know you ask because I am a Malay. My wife is Chinese and she is very small and my baby is only a few months old. Can I now please come in?”
I immediately unlocked the gate.
In he came and we witnessed the most touching family reunion. He thanked us profusely and without further ado they were on their way. In the excitement we did not ask his name or address.
If that baby who sheltered in our house that fateful night has survived life’s vicissitudes, he would be 49 today. All the major ethnic races which compose our lucky nation were fully represented in our house that evening when the Almighty brought us together for a short while.
With our hopes for racial unity so much in the forefront of our minds, may I leave it to my readers to ask themselves whether there is a point here for all of us. Folded into our experience of the night of May 13, 1969, was there not the glue that binds all of us with the message that we must love each other or die?
Datuk Mahadev Shankar, a lawyer in 1969, retired as a Court of Appeal Judge in 1997. The full version of this article was first printed in The Sun on Aug 22, 2007.
One day in 1969
by Ho Kay Tat
IT was around 4pm, May 13, 1969. I was taking my usual leisurely walk home from St John’s Primary School on Bukit Nanas in Kuala Lumpur to nearby Kampung Baru. It seemed like any other day except that we were let off early. I didn’t know why, but as a 10-year-old I didn’t care.
On the bridge that divided the then Jalan Ampang commercial heart of KL (where British trading houses like Inchape and Wearne Brothers were located) from Kampung Baru, I saw my mother.
Surprised, I asked: “What are you doing here?”
She grabbed my hand and said: “I was going to take you back from school. Hurry, hurry, go home. There is going to be trouble.”
After seeing me home, my mother, who by then was in a state of panic, rushed to the other end of Kampung Baru to get my sister from the Jalan Temerloh school near where Istana Budaya is today.
I had no clue what was happening. Some of our neighbours had already packed and left. I remember my father telling someone off: “Spread rumours and I will report you to the police. There won’t be trouble. Just stay home.”
When my mother returned, she told everyone there were hundreds of people out on the streets at the Jalan Raja Muda/TPCA stadium junction but there was no trouble yet.
We were seven Chinese families living in four wooden houses just off the bank of the Gombak river, surrounded by Malay homes. Across the river, where the Renaissance Hotel now stands, was a small Chinese enclave where most of the Chinese in the area lived.
Born and bred in Kampung Baru, my five older siblings and I are first generation Malaysians. Our parents and our paternal grandmother who lived with us came from China after the War.
Kampung Baru was where I learnt to catch spiders, play guli-guli, watch joget at Malay weddings, enjoy sambal belacan and eat with my hands. My best friend was Atan, a chubby boy who lived just opposite us. I spent hours playing with him, ate and slept over at his house.
For a 10-year-old, it was bliss, although we were dead poor and all six of us slept in one room with our parents.
But our world would be shattered that one day in 1969.
By dusk, all but two families had left, including the family living in the same house with us. We decided to go indoors. Just as we were locking up, one of my sisters said, “Let’s go over and join Kimi Chi.”
Those words saved our lives.
Kimi Chi, our nickname for her, was a kind woman in her early 30s and we treated her like an older sister.
When we went over, she and her family – husband, amah, three kids, including a baby – were about to hide themselves in a Malay house separated by a narrow lane from hers. Fearing trouble, the makcik and her family had decided to leave but not before suggesting that we take shelter in her house.
The Malay houses were all on stilts. The Chinese homes were not and would be easily identified as all of them had altars in front.
Virtually minutes after we entered the house, they came, scores of them. They had come from the direction of Gurney Road using the riverbank. Soon, we could hear them smashing things up in Kimi Chi’s house.
This went on for a while and throughout that first night people were running up and down that lane shouting. We heard many gunshots from a distance.
I was not scared initially because I didn’t know what was happening. I thought it was just some bad hats running wild. But the adults and older kids knew it was more serious than that. It was a racial clash – sparked by politics and bankrupt politicians – and we were caught in the heart of it.
Throughout the time we spent in hiding, we had only water and biscuits. Amah would quietly boil water to make milk for the baby. I was mostly hiding under the bed together with the other males. The women had decided that the attackers, if they were to break in, would go after the males first so we should be hidden away. We spoke rarely and only in whispers for fear of being heard.
There were two close calls. One evening we heard two men talking outside the house. The baby cried. One man said: “What’s that”? The other replied: “Just a cat!”
Another time, someone said they should check the house. From their footsteps we knew they came right to the door, but stopped when one of them said: “Rumah Melayu-lah.”
After three or four nights in hiding we started to wonder how we were going to get out safely.
Then one afternoon, we heard light knocks on the side of the wooden house from outside and a male voice said softly in Malay:
“Hello, is there anyone inside?”
We maintained silence.
He knocked a few times again and said: “Hello, don’t be afraid, I am a soldier. If you are in there, please knock back.”
“Don’t be scared, I am here to help you.”
Was he genuine? We were truly frightened.
Finally, out of desperation, someone answered him.
“Yes, we are inside.”
Within hours, the good soldier, who later told us he had heard the baby cry, brought in a rescue team.
We were taken to an army camp where we stayed for a few weeks. On the way there, I could see burnt cars and there were still scores of people with weapons roaming the streets. At one point, they tried to stop the army truck to check who was inside.
The army camp was luxury compared to our next place – the refugee centre at the Shaw Road flats school opposite Victoria Institution. There we slept on floors or desks combined into makeshift beds. There were at least 40 to 50 people crammed into each classroom. From the school we could see soldiers patrolling the streets, and an armoured car was positioned all the time at the roundabout (now an underpass) opposite.
It was a couple of months before we were relocated to a low cost flat to enable us to return to normal life and for me, school. I remember my school friends – Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians – asking me what happened on my first day back at school. They knew I was a victim by the tattered donated school shirt I wore.
Almost four decades have passed and, as someone who went through the horror, I say it is now time for us to exorcise the ghosts of that one day in May, 1969.
The people, regardless of race and faith, are ready. In fact, the people were never the problem. There were many instances of one race helping others during the riots. Mine was only one of them.
May 13, 1969, was about politicians, politics and power.
So, are our politicians ready for a fresh start?
Ho Kay Tat is editor-in-chief of The Edge.
Driving into trouble
by Datuk Abdul Wahab Majid
WE had just launched the Malaysian news agency, Bernama.
I joined on March 15 to head the Malay editorial, recruited from Nanyang Siang Pau where I was a reporter.
On May 13, I noted how the atmosphere seemed bleak on the streets. There were rumours of disturbances and some people were seen sharpening parangs on Jalan Raja Muda, KL.
I had to attend a cocktail reception at the American information attache’s residence in Jalan Conlay that evening with my wife. People were talking about the tense situation. Around 9pm, we left. My car was running low on fuel and I was trying to locate a petrol station.
Around the Pekeliling flats and Petaling Street area, people were scrambling around kelam-kabut. Many petrol stations were closed.
As we turned into the road near the Information Ministry, I realised there was no streetlights but there was a roadblock ahead.
Seconds later, a flowerpot was hurled through the window. The broken pieces cut my wife’s lip.
Suddenly I saw several chaps wielding parangs running towards our car. They were shouting Allahu Akhbar (God is great). I quickly rolled down my window and shouted the same and they stopped.
I was fortunate to be given curfew passes so I could move about freely. We organised communal cooking at the Bernama building for the 100-odd staff.
I bought food for my Chinese and Scandinavian neighbours who could not leave their homes. My late mother-in-law grew vegetables in our backyard so we had sweet potatoes.
I saw few clashes on the streets. The police and military ensured order was restored. No particular group of people was allowed to attack another, and if it happened, it was dealt with immediately.
The hot spots of Batu Road (now Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman) and Gurney Road (Jalan Semarak) were under constant watch. Of course, it was very tense for the first two weeks.
To me, May 13 is a lesson for everyone. Nobody can benefit from such an incident, especially those who had perpetrated and incited the ill feelings that started it. – as told to CHIN MUI YOON
Datuk Abdul Wahab Majid, 74, was Bernama news editor in 1969.
Helping in the aftermath
by C. Kamalantran
Once home, I was glued to the television as the incident unfolded. I wanted to help since many were made homeless after their houses were burnt down. In the aftermath of May 13, the Malays were temporarily sheltered at Stadium Negara while the Chinese were at Stadium Merdeka.
The Education Department gave me two months off. I volunteered at the Emergency Relief Centre under (the retired judge) Datuk Mahadev Shankar.
We distributed blankets, gas stoves, rice, sugar and milk powder and rehabilitated the victims to the new Pekeliling Flats along Jalan Hang Tuah. Many of the families were living in Princess Road’s (now Jalan Raja Muda) mixed community. Their faces spoke of their shock at the horror of what had happened. Many were caught by surprise and were devastated.
I helped record their statements and assembled information on their family members who were killed, injured or missing. I heard many stories of how Malay families helped to shelter the Chinese running from the frenzied mobs chasing them. One man hid in the drain for three days before a Malay helped to hide him in his home. – as told to CHIN MUI YOON
C. Kamalantran, 72, is a retired English teacher.
The shot that changed her life
by Lee Hung Poh
Everyone old enough to remember it has tales to tell. Here are the stories – sad, touching and inspiring – of five individuals who lived through May 13.
I WAS 17 when a bullet changed my whole life. I started working at 13 as my family was poor and there were 10 of us. On that day, I went to work at the F&N factory in Sungei Besi, Kuala Lumpur.
Around 7pm, factory workers arriving for their shift spoke of fights in the streets. I decided to go home. After dinner, I stood at the doorway to see what was happening. Many people were standing outside their houses. We heard shouts and then a police patrol car came by and the men inside started firing shots at our houses.
I saw two bullets hitting our walls. Another bullet hit my sister’s shoulder. I felt a sharp pain in my stomach and the impact threw me to the floor. I could hear my sisters screaming, “Ah Poh chung cheung!” (Ah Poh has been shot!).
I bled so much that it looked as though a pail of blood had spilled across the floor. Neighbours grabbed a passing car and sent me to the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital.
I was semi-conscious when I reached the hospital. I was sent to a room where there were many dead or badly wounded people. Nobody attended to me until the pain was so great I managed to scream, “Hoi toe!” (Surgery!).
I heard a voice saying, “She is still alive” and then I was wheeled to the operating room.
The bullet had entered through the right side of my belly and exited across the left side of my back. It had cut through the L345 bone of my vertebrae, which controls movement of the lower body.
The doctors told me I would be paralysed for life.
My stomach wound required 21 stitches. A few days later, it became infected and I went for a second surgery. I had over 10 surgeries and suffered from bedsores.
The real damage was not visible. I could not laugh or shout because any exertion caused incontinence. I was terrified to go out and had low self esteem. Fever broke out frequently and the pain in my legs was so intense that only morphine helped.
I constantly thought of my future. What would I do? Who would want me? My parents cried constantly. In those days, it was shameful to be a cripple.
My father and I were very close; he was badly affected by what happened to me. He started drinking heavily. He’d sit on my bed and cry.
The next year, a disabled organisation held a fund-raising campaign to send me to China for treatment. The Star did a story on me and helped raise RM3,000 for the trip.
I carried all my hope to China. But I returned without any.
Acupuncture helped strengthen my legs which were as thin as matchsticks. But after 10 months in Beijing, I did not even recover 50% of what I’d hope for. I was so disappointed that during the five-day boat trip back to Malaysia, I’d thought of jumping overboard. I had little education and no skills. What could I do for my future?
Then in 1972 a doctor at a Hong Kong Hospital heard about my story and invited me for treatment. I took a RM500 loan to fly to Hong Kong. A metal rod was inserted into my back to enable to stand. But to this day I am unable to walk unaided.
I discovered later that the doctor had performed the surgery for free. I will always be grateful to him for his kindness.
When I came home, I learnt that my home had been demolished and my family scattered. I was determined to be independent. I set up a stall selling fruits along the five-foot way in Sungei Besi. I also sold popcorn and soya bean along Jalan Hang Tuah and sewed clothes and curtains at night.
After 10 years, I saved enough money to open a small sundry shop in Taman Segar, Cheras, with a friend.
I even got my driver’s licence and I deliver goods in my secondhand Proton. A few years later, I bought a nearby flat.
My father died in 1979. In 1996, my mother moved in to live with me until her death last year.
They say time heals but it’s not true. Every year on May 13, I feel the need to hide in my room. I just can’t face this date.
Today I live independently. I have many friends. I harbour a dream of visiting Venice, a city built on water!
But I do feel bitter –there has been no acknowledgement of what happened to me. But then, no one can give me back my health, or my years. What can ever compensate what I’ve lost? – as told to CHIN MUI YOON
Lee Hung Poh, 57, lives in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur