May 13 Essays by John Lee

October 3, 2008 at 5:37 am Leave a comment

Moderating Reinterpretations of May 13

Written by johnleemk on 2:00:37 pm May 17, 2007.

The racial riots that broke out on 13 May 1969 continue to haunt Malaysia. Even though the 38th anniversary of the riots recently passed, there was no commemoration, no mourning — virtually no recognition of the significance of this date.

This denial is obviously undesirable. It allows extreme reinterpretations of the event to flourish — some reinterpretations being so drastic that they throw common sense out the window altogether.

Of course, part of the problem lies in the fact that hardly anyone believes the official version of events. Officially, only 196 people were killed in the riots, but hardly any other source gives such a low figure; numbers as high as 10,000 have been bandied about, and even credible sources like Time have estimated that 2,000 people perished.

For this reason, it is common for people to deny the official version — the official version of an event the establishment would rather forget, because it exposes so many things that are wrong with our country.

One of the most common reinterpretations suggests that May 13 was a coup by radical Malay politicians to impose a totalitarian Malay regime, throwing out the idea of paying even lip service to the ideal that Malaysia is for Malaysians.

Now, there is substantial evidence to indicate that May 13 is a conspiracy. Loads of it, in fact; I think very few political scientists acquainted with the situation believe that May 13 just happened. (Considering the riots arose spontaneously in several different areas within the span of 45 minutes, it’s difficult to reach such a conclusion.)

The problem with this reinterpretation of events is that it is often carried too far. The official version, for example, would have it that we were divided by racial differences accentuated by the economic gap between the Malay and Chinese communities.

So, the unofficial extremist version — which is propounded by many educated people — is that no such differences existed; despite the economic gap, May 13 only happened because it was stirred up by conspirators in the government/UMNO. We can throw out policies like the New Economic Policy, meant to erase the identification of race with economic function, because they are predicated on a false reality.

This thinking could be true. But to deny that it is impossible to have a united nation with such glaring income disparities — be they intra- or interracial — is to succumb to the same sort of denial that the establishment has deluded itself with.

Moreover, prominent commentators like Raja Petra Kamarudin and Bakri Musa have suggested that May 13 would have occurred at some point eventually. Raja Petra points out that many of the areas where the rioting broke out where dominated by racial gangs and secret societies.

Bakri, like many political scientists, suggests that the income disparity would have eventually triggered bouts of violence anyway. This is corroborated by the fact that small-scale riots did occur on more than one occasion in West Malaysia during the 1960s; few political scientists insist that economic disparities or racial sensitivities had nothing to do with the riots.

May 13 is a horrifying and horrible event because it is a very uncomfortable and ambiguous incident. There are no heroes in this saga; only villains of varying degrees.

After all, the rioting broke out initially outside the house of Harun Idris, then the Selangor Menteri Besar, because he had organised an UMNO rally. And in the days leading up to the riots, the predominantly Chinese opposition parties hurled ethnic slurs like nobody’s business, proclaiming Kuala Lumpur to belong to the Chinese, and telling the Malays to “balik kampung”.

In the wake of May 13, no politician could claim to have his hands clean. Only the unsung Malaysian heroes who put aside ethnic differences can stake any claim to the moral high ground.

We cannot afford to let extremist interpretations of this incident, be they the delusional establishment version or just illogical antiestablishment version, take root. May 13 is a Malaysian tragedy, and one with far more complex lessons than “The  opposition/Chinesegovernment/Malays/NEP/Malaysian Malaysia are always wrong/right.”

Learn the Right Lessons From May 13

Written by johnleemk on 2:46:32 pm May 22, 2007.

In an earlier article on being careful about extremist interpretations of the events of 13 May 1969, I wrote that there are more complex lessons to be learned from May 13 than the simplistic drivel many people — especially those in the establishment — would have us swallow.

One lesson I am particularly fond of is that our old paradigms which insist on associating race with socioeconomic function had to go. At this point, the revisionists will point out that the riots were not caused by interethnic income disparities, but by a conspiracy in either the government or UMNO.

This may be very well true — but as (I think) Bakri Musa pointed out, if the riots had not occurred then, they would have broken out sooner or later. No country can go on with half its citizens being economic slaves to another, and the other half being political slaves to the latter.

Another lesson which many in the opposition seem to quietly accept but also quietly ignore is that there is no excuse for acting like pigheaded racists. The opposition parties’ rallies may not have caused the riot, but they sure as hell weren’t calculated to nurture national unity either.

(I mean, really, what possessed those insane buggers? The Chinese were complaining about being treated as second-class citizens in their own country, but then they went and yelled that Kuala Lumpur now belonged to the Chinese, and that the Malays should “balik kampung”.)

Having said that, these are just two of many morals which I’m sure can be scooped from the debris and ruin (metaphorically speaking, since the literal debris was cleaned up long ago) left behind by the riots.

But there is one lesson we sure as hell shouldn’t be taking — the idea that Malaysians are too mentally immature to handle freedom of speech, or worse, the truth.

Not too long ago, based on declassified British documents, former politician and social activist Kua Kia Soong released a book on the May 13 riots, blaming figures in the establishment for orchestrating the riots as a coup.

This controversial interpretation of the evidence may very well be true, and there is certainly a strong prima facie case. Naturally, the government’s response has been to announce that it will be considering banning the book.

Recently, to my surprise, I read a blog comment by a seemingly well-educated Malaysian who said something to the effect of Malaysians not being mature enough to handle freedom of speech or the truth about the riots, and that Kua’s book should indeed be banned.

Now, this is really the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. In the first place, there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech. As even many foreign activists campaigning against things like the Sedition Act have pointed out, the Act serves no purpose because any act to overtly stir up racial hatred would already be an offense of incitement. The Sedition Act thus becomes redundant for the purpose of stilling racial enmities.

Moreover, trying to plaster over the country’s defects is one of the most possibly stupid things we can do. This “You can’t handle the truth!” thinking is totally irrational, because I really fail to see how denying reality will make things any better. (As I’ve noted before, by knowing the unpleasant truth, we can at least have a starting point for turning it into something better.)

And really, who exactly is going to start rioting in the streets or beating up people from other races because they read Kua’s book? How are Kua’s allegations damaging to racial unity at all?

If anything, I imagine they would improve it, since if they are true, then the riots were not instigated by angry racial sentiments, but by politicians’ greed. The truth then is that Malaysians are not so stupid as to start riots because they don’t like someone else’s skin colour.

But let’s say Kua is wrong. What then? Think about it for a moment. Do you know anyone, anyone at all, who if you said “Hey, actually UMNO started the May 13 riots lah, those stupid buggers”, would start raping women of the other race and burning down houses? I didn’t think so.

We’ve allowed ourselves to become dominated by a climate of fear. But the fact is, despite our horrible immaturity (which is impossible to deny), the vast majority of Malaysians are far too docile to contemplate the cold-blooded murder and rape of others — especially over something as race.

Any actual racial riot which does occur will be because of irresponsible demagogues who brainwash the public, rather than because of actual public sentiment. Such incitement is easy to catch, Sedition Act or no Sedition Act. And, fortunately for us, there is no way revisiting the events of May 13 (unless that revisiting is to cast all the blame on one race alone — which ironically is what the official version of events does indirectly by blaming the mostly Chinese opposition) can constitute incitement, because Malaysians just aren’t that stupid.

There are lessons to be learnt from May 13. It’s time to step out from the shadow of its spectre, and enter into the light of truth.

Overcoming the Spectre of May 13

Written by johnleemk on 3:21:48 am Apr 21, 2007.

The events of May 13, 1969 have haunted Malaysian politics for decades. The brutal murder and massacre of at least two hundred people that day in Kuala Lumpur is something that remains taboo and painful to discuss today.

Taboo and painful, that is, unless you are the ruling Barisan Nasional regime and need to go fishing for votes by playing on people’s fears. Thirty years after the events of May 13, BN leaders warned not so subtly that the racial riots could repeat themselves if they were not retained as the government.

The non-Malays are those most in fear of another May 13. On May 13, it was the Malays who rose up and slaughtered the non-Malays, mainly Chinese. There are Malays who pin the blame for the tragedy on the Chinese (especially the Chinese members of certain political parties), but the main and initial participators in the violence were unquestionably Malay.

Since the government has always been thought of as a Malay-dominated one, rather than a Malaysian one (there are even conspiracy theories suggesting that the government was behind the violence on May 13), any threats of another May 13 made by it have credibility.

What exactly would be the consequences of another May 13? After the initial rioting, two things can happen. The first is that a genocide on the scale of the Rwanda massacres in 1994 can occur; the second is that things can remain under control.

Unless the government openly lends its support to such butchery, it is unlikely that any sort of genocide can get under way; at the worst, we could be faced with several hundred deaths before the government gets things under control.

You might think that the government would not mind putting to death or deporting the millions of non-Malays in the country, but unless our leaders are all absolutely insane, it seems they would resist this temptation, for reasons to be discussed later.

What’s to be feared is what would happen after the government gets things under control. As happened after May 13, the government would enact draconian and repressive laws that severely curtail freedom of speech and democracy for the sake of controlling “sensitive issues”.

Moreover, because of the repeat of May 13’s incidents, the government would claim further that Malaysians are not mature enough for democracy and public debate, and probably also make more hot air about the Malays not having enough the economy. (They probably have a decent share; they just can’t divvy it up properly because the government’s policies are skewed in favour of already rich Malays.)

Thus, new policies would be enacted to further oppress the non-Malays of Malaysia, and turn the country into an even worse version of the existing regime. Without the moderating hands of leaders like Tun Dr Ismail (the Deputy Prime Minister who, after the riots of May 13, rejected all attempts to turn the country into a dictatorship), another May 13 will guarantee the death of Malaysia as a democratic country.

But can this scenario actually play out? It’s a plausible version of events, but such nightmares are, I would believe, not too probable. Chances are, the government would have no choice but to permit a peaceful transition of power after its defeat in an election.

Why do I say this? Because the government does not want to be an international pariah, and because, to a lesser extent, it does not want to be a domestic pariah.

Malaysia is not like Myanmar or Zimbabwe (at least, not yet). Unlike Myanmar, where the military regime refused to recognise the elections that installed an opposition government, or Zimbabwe, we are not isolated from the global economy.

Many major foreign multinationals have operations here, and our country is tied into the global economy by virtue of these. We also control the Malacca Straits, which is a major shipping lane.

The democracies of the free world do not want these waters falling into the hands of a government that would have no qualms about cooperating with other authoritarian dictatorships like China. Neither do the managers of foreign multinationals want to be participating in a country run by a government which does not recognise the results of elections, is an international pariah, and oppresses its own people.

The leaders of these countries and businesses would exert tremendous pressure on the Malaysian government to capitulate to the wishes of its people. Even if sabre-rattling from other countries does not solve the problem, economic pressure almost certainly will.

Many members of the ruling regime have interests in the businesses and multinationals that form the backbone of our economy. If the government does not gracefully give way, its members will find their own pockets hurting when multinationals pull out and government-linked companies without any consumers to buy their products collapse.

It’s of course impossible to predict how the government may react to the election of a new government. It’s not impossible for them to go crazy and instigate a racial riot, and then use this as an excuse to declare martial law. (Although technically we have been living in a state of emergency ever since May 13.)

But I would think that the odds are against this happening. And that is good enough for me to lend my support to efforts to throw out the corrupt regime that runs this country.

In the end, if you look at things, it comes down to two choices. Either you choose to support an effort to change things that will either result in immediate disaster or success, or choose to reject that effort, resulting in a disaster for the long run. The policies of the current regime are not sustainable, and are mainly predicated on easy oil money.

Don’t let the spectre of May 13 cloud your thinking. Evaluate the political situation based on who would be the best government for the country, and not based on who would be least likely to start a sore loser’s racial riot

Why May 13 Compels Us to Vote Opposition

Written by johnleemk on 12:52:02 am Mar 6, 2008.


In Malaysia, almost every election is replete with threats, veiled or explicit, of a repeat of what happened on May 13, 1969. The events of that horrible day are seared into our national consciousness. Nobody wants to see another case of armed mobs chopping off the limbs of innocents in Kuala Lumpur movie theatres, or bear witness to the indiscriminate rape of women. Nobody wants to see our beloved capital city aflame, leaving thousands homeless at the hands of vicious arsonists.

If this wasn’t Malaysia, it would be easy to think that whoever threatens violence to win votes would not do very well come polling day. Governments that threaten the killing, rape and assault of their own people rarely survive very long under any fair democratic process. But Malaysia seems to be an exception.

This is not even a question of a rigged electoral process. Despite phantom voters, I don’t think anyone would deny that, save for the 1969 elections, the majority of Malaysians have supported and voted for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. For some reason, promising terrorism in the event of a loss is a sure way to win. The obvious conclusion is that we really do believe another May 13 Incident will break out if we do not return BN to power. But why is this?

Who does BN think will start the violence? Its paid-off Mat Rempit gangsters? It sure as hell won’t be ordinary Malaysians. Look around you. Can any of us seriously believe that the Malaysians we see around us will whip out a parang and start chopping limbs off if BN loses the elections?

What is remarkable is that despite the civility of most BN grassroots supporters, BN themselves (to say nothing of their entourage of occasionally violent youths) seem to assume the worst of Malaysians. They assume we are still so racial in our thinking that if BN loses power, Malaysians will start killing people who don’t belong to their race. They assume we are nothing more than violent, immature thugs who will murder and terrorise if only we are given the right excuse. Does anyone at all seriously take this as the truth?

If you actually believe this is the case, you have to assume that your Chinese neighbour, the Indian who makes your roti canai at the mamak, and the Malay pak cik who drinks teh tarik down at the warung will whip out machetes and start killing each other at a moment’s notice. This is beyond ludicrous; anyone who actually believes it should be certified as mentally insane.

The threat of May 13 should of course worry us all — but only because it comes from none other than our government. If the ruling party truly has our interests at heart, why do they threaten and blackmail us with the spectre of May 13? If this is a government that looks after our welfare, why do they have so little respect for the people who elect them? Do we not have a right to elect the party which we believe will govern us best?

If Barisan Nasional truly cares about the people of Malaysia, it will let them be free to choose who will govern their country. A government worthy of the Malaysian people is a government that does not threaten violence so it can remain in power. That government is not the Barisan Nasional administration — a government which has made its living off threats of violence against the people of Malaysia ever since time immemorial.

It is not the opposition parties who have brandished a keris at the people of Malaysia; it is not Anwar Ibrahim who has threatened to bathe his keris in Malaysian blood. It is not Lim Kit Siang or Abdul Hadi Awang who have said they will bathe in blood to defend their race or religion. No — only in Barisan Nasional do you find such antics. If you really want to avoid yet another May 13, if you really want to avoid the threat of more racial violence hanging over your head, do the right thing, and vote for the opposition.


Entry filed under: Comment.

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