May 13 and beyond Part I and II
Dr Collin Abraham | May 29, 07
The May 13th race riots cannot be understood as an isolated event but as the cumulative convergence of historically determined disruptive political and social forces that were perpetuated and developed over a period of time.
These involved contributory and precipitating causes that have to do with the acquisition, discrimination and abuse of political power, and which came to a head in the post-independence period.
Indeed, in place of nation-building efforts, there was already the breakdown of law and order in Kuala Lumpur, such that May 13th itself has even been described at least by one observer as a “blessing in disguise” because it finally resulted in the lawless situation in Kuala Lumpur being brought under control. (Raja Petra: Malaysia Today, April 9, 2007).
The contributory causes need to be recognised. First, the root cause can be traced to the Federation of Malaya Agreement itself, the first piece of post-war legislation promulgated by the British colonial government which failed to provide any semblance of political stability because the constitutional status of the different racial groups was not negotiated in consultation with the legitimate representatives of the respective communities.
The innate characteristic of powerlessness was thereby initiated and allowed to be perpetuated right into the post-colonial period. The two groups most representative of the Malays, the Nationalist Party and the Islamic factions walked out of Umno and the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) which was the only party with predominant Chinese membership (that collaborated with the British in Force 136) was not invited to participate in the negotiations. Therefore it was the elitist Umno members’ interests that were promoted in the Agreement which was unrealistically (and of course conveniently) considered by the British as representing the Malay community as a whole.
But this was an erroneous perspective. The Malay rakyat that had hitherto been politically dormant under the feudal system in the pre-colonial period had become strongly nationalistic, first because of the defeat of the British by the Japanese and then by the promise the latter to give the Malays political independence. It an be asserted that it was this nationalistic fervour, and not Umno membership as such, that enabled the mass protest against the Malayan Union proposals. Indeed it can also be argued that it was this same national consciousness that forced the resignation of Onn Jaafar when he proposed opening Umno membership to non-Malays.
The possibility of losing political power to the Chinese was the other main concern of the rakyat which was also the fear of the Malay elite, but there was the other additional reason that the latter feared the Chinese were likely to encroach on their economic interests ( with British backing). But at the same time the elite groups also needed the Malay grassroots for political support to politically keep the Chinese at bay.
Therefore it would not be difficult in the situation of the victory parade after the 1969 general election where Chinese opposition parties were claiming to have defeated the Alliance and would “take over the government” for both groups to react fiercely particularly because the threat of the Chinese taking political power seemed to be becoming a reality.
It must be emphasised that this nationalist consciousness could be expected to have become reinforced and heightened by the fact the Malay working class, the peasantry, other low income groups as well as the lower middle class had yet to see any appreciable improvement in their social life since Merdeka, and yet the Chinese immigrants were now threatening to take over the government.
The call for the Malay youth therefore to attend the post-election rally, also from other parts of the country as well, was also intended as a demonstration against Umno leadership itself for allowing this static economic situation to continue. Therefore it would be expected that the gathering at the home of the Selangor Mentri Besar would also have included representatives of lower-middle class Malays as well as others acting as youth leaders.
A defining question in the collaboration and first coming together of Umno and MCA in the Alliance party to contest the KL municipal elections is nothing more than a case of false consciousness. It needs to be strongly emphasised that this so-called political accommodation was essentially a ‘fluke’ shot in the political arena. It was totally devoid of any notions of political theory or ideology. But it was conveniently accepted as a sufficient condition to work for political independence because it was intended to maintain the status quo and therefore serve the common interests of the British, the Malay ruling class, and the Chinese business class.
The Alliance party therefore ensured that the unequal and discriminatory colonial social structure was maintained at the expense of egalitarian policies for Malay rakyat and the Chinese working classes. Put simply it was a case of ‘each man for himself and God for all’ and it follows that the election process that offered the only known hope of effecting a change to bring about a more caring society for all had become a farce.
The situation of the working class Chinese community was also one of a continuous struggle to survive. Emerging from what is perhaps the most exploitative system of indentured labour in Malaya recorded in documentary evidence as the ‘pig trade’ and subjected to ‘vice’ items to earn revenue by the colonial government through opium, alcohol, gambling and prostitution, a small proportion managed to set them selves up as independent workers in the tin industry and related occupations subsequently. But with increasing population and denied access to land they turned to wage employment and pressed for better working conditions through trades unions. However because the unions had the support of the CPM they were suppressed and declared illegal. Moreover because of this and the lack of jobs for the Chinese educated many joined the CPM because they had to fight to survive.
What the Chinese lacked most was political power. Persuaded by the colonial government, their businessmen organised themselves to protect their economic interests, so from its very inception the MCA was a political party representing the towkay class. It is important to recognise that while the fledging party could have worked to build up the party and provide political and economic support for the Chinese community as a whole, the leaders instead chose to forge links with the Malay ruling class and thereby develop mutually beneficial interests as a class.
The Chinese providing the economic support to the Alliance Party through the provision of huge funds for election purposes and economic representation in their larger business consortiums for the Umno elite, and in return seeking political legitimacy through representation of more parliamentary seats of the Alliance party. Their indifference to the Chinese community is evidenced by one of the most ‘outrageous’ scenarios of MCA indifference in the failure to present the Chinese Memorandum to the British Government at the Mederka Conference to demand a place in the independent Malaya. The Chinese interests therefore were not presented to the British government. Instead according to a statement attributed to Tunku Abdul Rahman the Memorandum was thrown into the wastepaper basket!
What this means is that literally the ‘mass’ of Chinese were automatically alienated from the political process from Day 1 and therefore sought political representation through opposition parties such as the Labour Front and the DAP. In fact it can be argued that in effect the reduction of political power of the Alliance in the 1969 election was because of the rejection of MCA candidates by the Chinese. Because the opposition parties were ‘outside’ the normal conservative value system of being subservient to the political status quo as in the MCA the Chinese members were therefore free to express political dissent with regard to their marginalised political status with a minimum of restraint in the opposition parties
To add to this was the confidence they had gained from the entry of the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) of Singapore into the Malaysian political arena. The demand by PAP leader Lee Kuan Yew for a Malaysian Malaysia provided added emphasis to these Chinese to back the opposition parties with confidence and a sense of legitimacy. To them, Malaya belonged to all and as Malays are not necessarily the only indigenous community, they must necessarily accept the Chinese as equals in a power-sharing government.
1969 general election
On the eve of the 1969 polls and against this background there was the question of granting a police permit for a large funeral procession to go through the town centre for an opposition party (Labour Party) member who had been shot by the police. There are some conflicting accounts about the decision to grant this permit. Tunku Abdul Rahman told me that he was against a permit being issued because of the highly charged political climate.
But according to the Tunku the permit was finally issued by Abdul Razak Hussein (photo) when the latter was acting prime minister (after the Tunku had returned to his home town in Kedah for the weekend).Apparently pressure by Dr David Tan of the Labour Party convinced Razak that there was no legitimate reason why a permit should be withheld.
In one of the two long interviews I had with Tunku Abdul Rahman in Penang, (while 1 was teaching a race relations course at USM), the Tunku attached great importance to the funeral procession that was held on the eve of the general election. It was his strongly held view that this funeral procession sowed the seeds for the May 13th riots. The shooting of a Chinese opposition party member by a Malay policeman just days before the election, and the funeral procession being allowed to go through the KL town centre was, to the Tunku, a recipe for trouble.
According to the Tunku however, the decision to overrule him and grant the permit also had a personal dimension. He explained that while he was aware of a move by certain Umno leadership for him to step down as prime minister, no one had actually approached him to do so. He therefore felt that the permit approval against his earlier decision amounted to open criticism that he was no longer in touch with reality and should therefore resign.
There was also increasing concern among the Umno leadership at this time that certain MCA officials (and some Chinese businessmen as well) were moving in the inner circles among the Tunku’s close associates. Although it was agreed that this was purely in his private capacity it might nonetheless compromise the Tunku’s position as prime minister.
It is clear that the 1969 election results and victory parade were the two main precipitating factors leading to the race riots. It must be recognised at the outset that these were distinctly separate events and it is important to distinguish between the two.
In fact because the resulting race riots were the direct outcome of the aftermath of the victory parade itself, they will not be taken up for analysis here except to reiterate that the level of racial insults and threats to continued Malay government seen during the election campaign had in fact become too extreme even to mention.
The years of being in the political wilderness, and the expected revolution of rising expectations resulting in the revolution of rising frustrations, had taken their toll.
Once the spark of the fuse had been lit all hell broke loose and the only steps that could be taken were to try to bring the law and order situation back under control. For example at the height of the riots, Ismail Mohd Ali recorded that Abdul Razak Hussein (photo) wanted to drive down to the epicentre in his official car and directly call on the rioters to stop the bloodshed. Ismail’s response to Razak was simple and effective: “They will probably tear you to pieces.”
(It might not be out of place to seek a word of clarification as to whether the riots could be strictly termed as ‘race’ riots. Had they really been so, they would have spread to rural areas as well and Chinese shopkeepers and others in small-scale business scattered around the kampongs would have been massacred.)
In retrospect, the 1969 election campaign itself was the writing on the wall that there could be some racial trouble because of the strong ‘anti-racial’ tone of the entire campaign that according to Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah also extended to the candidates from PAS and Umno itself. And yet there were no attempts either by the Alliance government or the police to take pre-emptive steps to maintain law and order.
Even when the election results showed that the Umno-dominated Alliance had in fact suffered a major setback when it lost the two-thirds parliamentary majority that it had enjoyed since the inception of democracy, there seemed a lack of preparedness for any likely adverse outcomes.
Indeed, even with the opposition’s victory celebrations over the gain of Penang and Kelantan and when Perak and Selangor were on the brink of falling into their hands, and with Chinese and Indian demonstrators calling on the Malays to quit Kuala Lumpur, leaving the seat of government to the opposition, there is little evidence of police preparedness to face a deteriorating law and order situation.
The seriousness of the situation might be gauged from the following statement: “For the first 24 hour period, sections of the police force simply became demoralised due to the impact of widespread violence and the regular police forces are a key element in maintaining any long range security in this country.” (17th May 1969, Confidential to FCO, cited in Kua Kia Soong, May 13th p50)
As regards the tragic aftermath of the riots in terms of the deaths, casualties and untold suffering and misery of the victims there is little doubt that it was worse because of the undue delay on the part of the authorities to deal with the situation. The fact was that the political leaders were caught by surprise and hence even after three days of rioting there was still no directive from the government to the army to move in to control the situation. Neither were the army chiefs of staff able to initiate action on their own volition.
Indeed, in an informal discussion with one of the generals summoned by Razak and questioned as to why the army was failing to take prompt action, he was astonished to be told that the army was waiting for instructions!
It would seem very strange that such senior military officers who would have probably have been trained overseas including top British military institutions failed to grasp the seriousness of the law and order situation and to have acted accordingly. When I probed the matter further, the general‘s response was that the army was waiting for the police to withdraw from the scene so that it could be free to take such action it thought fit. It was only after Razak signed a directive that the army finally moved in.
There is no question therefore that the earlier colonial government, and the entire Alliance government should be held accountable for this tragic situation where ordinary law-abiding men, women and children were hounded like animals and died like dogs in the streets through no fault of their own.
It can be seen from the above analysis that the entire elite ruling class of both races were more concerned about maintaining their cosy neo-colonial status quo after independence while being themselves protected by the Anglo-Malaysian defence treaty against foreign aggression. This is all the more incriminating considering that that in my recent book I argued that neither Umno nor the MCA had a popular mandate to take over the Government from the British at the time of independence. (‘The Finest Hour”)
The question of the establishment of the National Operations Council (NOC) must also be recognised. Whatever else may be said about the usurpation of democratic powers by the military it must nonetheless be conceded that the law and order had been brought under control and the political situation was in hand.
Particularly to those with first-hand experience of the lawlessness in parts of KL controlled by gangsters and secret societies prior to the elections, and especially to those who saw their relatives being suddenly massacred and they themselves severely injured or being forced to become refugees, the NOC might be said to be a blessing in disguise.
Within two days the membership of the Council was announced but perhaps one of the greatest political tactical errors was the MCA’s decision not to accept any cabinet posts. While it was understandable that the party should abdicate from its traditional partnership with Umno in the Alliance, (because of the massive defeat of its candidates in the general election), withdrawal meant that Umno had a free hand to push ahead the bumiputera position in the New Economic Policy without Chinese opposition.
But the fact remains that while there was no policy to enhance a multiracial society under colonialism, indeed policies such as divide and rule were designed to ensure that integration did not take place. But even after Independence the continuation of political parties based on race essentially perpetuated the divisiveness of society along racial lines rather than to work towards integration.
It should be clear to readers therefore that our entire society in on a fault line and therefore we have no option but to get off it as soon as possible. With respect, it happens that both my recent books ‘The Naked Social Order’ and ‘The Finest Hour’ provide discussion and analysis on these vital questions and it is my considered opinion therefore that we need to reject the post-colonial social structure in its entirety once and for all and to seek an alternative model if we are to avoid racial conflicts in the future.
DR COLLIN ABRAHAM holds a doctorate degree in race relations from Oxford. Initially a civil servant attached to the welfare ministry, he later undertook research projects with the rural development ministry and economic planning unit. He was seconded to Universiti Sains Malaysia as associate professor in sociology and, more recently, visiting fellow. He is currently pro-tem president of the Malaysian Association of Social Impact Assessors.
Entry filed under: Facts on May 13.