The Day Malaysia Fell Apart – A Series of Malaysian Insider May 13 Essays

May 13, 2009 at 8:32 am Leave a comment

A race to make Malaysia colour-blind

By Melissa Loovi

KUALA LUMPUR, May 13 — Does May 13 mean anything anymore? The Malaysian Insider spoke to six young Malaysians to find out what they think about May 13, race relations and how things can be improved.

Jerral Khor, 29, runs his own events and advertising company. Although born in Penang, Jerral has mostly lived in Kuala Lumpur and is a free-thinker in a Buddhist/Taoist family. He is a “computer geek” who also loves reading, TV and chilling at home.

Jerral says May 13 was a black mark on our history. — Pictures by Choo Choy May

Q: Have you heard about May 13, 1969?

A: Yes, I have. (Pauses for a while.) It was definitely a black mark on our history. In our history books, it is only accorded a few lines but politicians use it as a tool when it suits their needs.

My parents lived through the ordeal in Penang. During the riots, my grandma actually sheltered a Malay guy for several days. But my parents rarely spoke about May 13 or anything else that was political. They kept politics out of my life so I could make up my own mind as an adult.

I know there are many conspiracy theories about this day but I think the theories are just that, because people love conspiracies. From my travels to predominantly-Malay Kedah and Kelantan, I find the people there are far friendlier than in Chinese areas like Cheras or Jinjang.

Q: Have you heard of the New Economic Policy (NEP)? Do you know that it was put into place right after May 13?

A: Yes, I have. I think May 13 was merely a tool towards realising the NEP because the crisis allowed the powers-that-be to use the policy to their advantage. They claim to be helping a particular race but after so many years, have they actually learned to fish?

Worse still, the NEP also means that even someone who is purchasing a RM4 million mansion is entitled to the housing discount while there are poor people of all races who continue to struggle. When I look at the situation, I think the NEP is meant to keep people dependant on the government so that it will continue to have power.

Q: Does race matter to you? Do you have friends of different races?

A: It doesn’t really. I actually grew up with more Malay and Indian friends because of the fact that I don’t speak Chinese dialects fluently. That made it hard for me to be friends with most of the Chinese kids in school. Nowadays though, I have a number of Chinese friends too because English is more commonly spoken.

Race isn’t an issue because generally my group of friends gets along but occasionally there may be small differences among us. The important thing is, we don’t see colour when we are around each other. We feel comfortable enough with each other that we can crack jokes knowing we won’t offend one another.

Q: What do you think of the relations between the various races in Malaysia? How can it be improved?

A: On the surface it looks like we all get along very well, and this is what they love to harp on in our tourism advertisements. But we all know that isn’t really true because racism is still there. I’ve never had direct racial confrontations but I know people who have and it’s painful for them.

For race relations to be improved, I firmly think race-based schools are not good as they create mental barriers at such a young, impressionable age. Even moral and agama (Islamic) classes create unnecessary segregation of kids.

Fariq Halim, 31, is managing director of a franchising consultancy in Damansara, Kuala Lumpur. Fariq’s father was a diplomat so his childhood was spent abroad, mostly at the United Nations’ international school in New York before he decided at 13 to go to a boarding school in Kelantan. Fariq loves rock ‘n’ roll, sci-fi and Formula 1.

Q: Have you heard about May 13, 1969?

A: Yes, it was a massive low point in Malaysia’s history. Racial tensions were at its worst and skin colour mattered as it was the thing used to determine who belonged here. I don’t know the whole story but I think a lot of it is just propaganda used to divide people.

It was perpetrated by politicians who had their own agenda and just that small group was enough to create a domino effect that changed the entire country. There was a time before when you could regularly see all three races sitting together for coffee. But today that doesn’t really happen.

Q: Have you heard of the New Economic Policy (NEP)? Do you know that it was put into place right after May 13?

A: Yes, the original essence of the policy was good but now it’s gotten screwed up. It was meant to give the Malays a leg-up which was fine back then because the Malays at the time did now know their potential. But the problem is that the other races were sidelined. The Chinese reacted to it well by just working harder but the Indian community fell behind.

So the NEP hasn’t reached its goals due to the inefficiency of the administration. Yes, Bumiputeras now have more but it tends to make them more dependent and less competitive, especially if they were to move to another country where there are no longer policies like the NEP.

Still, I don’t think we should just remove the NEP altogether. It just shouldn’t provide too many privileges because the Malays must understand that only hard work can help them to achieve what they want. The NEP should also benefit other races.

Q: Does race matter to you? Do you have friends of different races?

A: Of course I wouldn’t want to see my race disappear but I don’t consciously think about race when it comes to everyday things like business or friendship. My group of friends is definitely multiracial and I love that about them. It makes our friendship so much more interesting.

Actually, when I was in boarding school in Kelantan, my first friend was an Indian boy because he was the only one who spoke English there! It had nothing to do with his race but the teachers told me to make friends with Malays instead.

I think they wanted to narrow my friendships to make me more rigid; it was a form of brainwashing. But I was always the kind who would be friends with anyone, as long as we could speak a common language.

Q: What do you think of the relations between the various races in Malaysia? How can it be improved?

A: It can definitely be improved because we need to learn to see eye-to-eye. We shouldn’t assume the other race has an agenda towards us. Essentially, racist behaviour comes from fear for your own race and then it can spread easily.

I myself have not been a direct victim of racism but I have heard stories of how it happens to Malays in a Chinese-dominated company. If we want to remove racism, it would have to wait for Star Trek to happen! (laughs)

But honestly, there will always be elements of racism in all cultures but we can and should move away from that slowly. Things can definitely improve but we first need better people. At this point, politics is dirtier than pornography!

Rachel says the NEP was created just to shut people up

Rachel Lai is a 24-year-old communications student living in Bandar Utama, Kuala Lumpur. She enjoys listening to eclectic music, performing in local theatre, and watching movies.

Q: Have you heard about May 13, 1969?

A: Yes, I have heard many different stories from so many viewpoints. My dad gave me the Chinese perspective as he grew up in Cheras but I also heard other versions of events from friends at school and at college. I kept asking people because I realised my dad didn’t really like telling me about it. What I know from him is that the Malays were angry that the opposition parties who were mainly Chinese had won because they were parading it too much. My dad also says it is a lot gorier than what is told today.

Q: Have you heard of the New Economic Policy (NEP)? Do you know that it was put into place right after May 13?

A: Yes, I think the NEP was created just to shut people up but the policies didn’t actually solve the problems, except maybe temporarily. So there is one race that perceives it as their right but what about the other races? So while the NEP appeared to solve problems, it may actually have made things worse because it made people keep quiet. People became afraid to talk about things because they were considered sensitive.

I’m curious about why the minorities are okay with the policy. How did they learn to live with it?

Q: Does race matter to you? Do you have friends of different races?

A: No, it doesn’t matter. Race is just a social construct created by man so that we can label each other. Within my context, race has never been an issue because I have no rules for who I mix with. Granted, there are times when I need to find a compromise; say for example if I’m with a Hindu, I wouldn’t go somewhere that only serves beef. But it’s not a big deal to me because my friendships are richer this way.

Q: What do you think of the relations between the various races in Malaysia? How can it be improved?

A: Overall, I do think people prefer to stick with their own race, whether in school, university, work or anywhere else. We are aware that the other races exist but we aren’t very interested in getting to know them. I think it’s related to our comfort zones.

To improve the situation, we’d have to start in schools, or even in kindergarten. Education is definitely the key but that involves the parents as well. If the parents teach racist behaviour to their children then it will just become a never-ending cycle of racism. Children are also very easily influenced by what their parents say. If a child tells his mother about a new friend of a different race and the parent responds negatively, it could make the child believe there is something wrong with that particular race.

Differences will always be there so I doubt it’s possible to completely remove it. But that’s the thing – what’s so wrong about being different? Why can’t we learn to celebrate the differences rather than merely ‘tolerate’ each other, like what we are taught in school?

Justin says he’s just not that interested in politics.

Maria Justin, also 24, recently started working as a network support engineer. A passionate “techie”, he loves computers, cars, chess as well as books.

Q: Have you heard about May 13, 1969?

A: Yes, I know there’s a political thing that happened that day but honestly, the first thing that comes to mind is my best friend as that is his birthday. It is also Mother Mary’s birthday which is why we celebrate Mother’s Day around this time every year.

But yes, back to May 13. I know there was racial conflict going on in Brickfields and Klang as that is where my family is from. I heard that the Klang River was filled with blood but I don’t know if that’s just exaggerated.

To be honest, I don’t know much about local history because I’ve never looked into it even though I am really interested in European mythology. I guess I don’t find it relevant because I don’t look at things like race anyway. Perhaps knowledge of it could prevent it from reoccurring but I am a simple guy so it just doesn’t affect me. Honestly, I doubt such a thing would happen again.

I guess I’m just not that interested in politics. In fact, I don’t read the newspapers!

Q: Have you heard of the New Economic Policy (NEP)? Do you know that it was put into place right after May 13?

A: I’ve heard of it but I don’t really know what it is. (The NEP is explained to him briefly). Okay, so then my question about NEP would be, what is a Bumiputera? There are indigenous people who often do not qualify even though they are literally “sons of the earth” as they’ve lived here longer than the Malays or Chinese or Indians. In the US, all citizens are American, once they’ve obtained citizenship. So why is it so difficult over here?

Decades ago it is understandable but 40 years is a real stretch — that’s a longer lifespan than a pet! We live in a different world today so we need to adjust to it, as a country.

Q: Does race matter to you? Do you have friends of different races?

A: I think it’s important to know your own ethnicity but we should never use race to judge people. My friends are of all sorts of races because I don’t look at that when I befriend someone. It’s just a matter of clicking with someone you find interesting.

Q: What do you think of the relations between the various races in Malaysia? How can it be improved?

A: People definitely still live in clusters. Klang, for example, is predominantly Indian while Penang is mostly Chinese. Even though Peninsular Malaysia is so diversified and better educated, Sabah and Sarawak are more integrated as a people. Maybe it’s because we are in such a rush over here with emails and mobile devices while they have more time to communicate face-to-face.

When people are more laidback, they are less judgmental. Even on the east coast, you can see that chilled-out atmosphere, but over here we are so competitive and we are always in a rush, so we forget the smaller stuff.

From travelling to places like Germany and Australia, I’ve noticed that things are freer there compared to Malaysia. For example, over here a Hindu would notice and possibly pass judgment if he saw another Hindu eating a beef burger. Things like that are so unnecessary.

To improve the situation, we should stop hiding whatever that is happening. Let people understand the root and they will be able to move on. Parents also play a very important role in helping their children to be colour blind.

Putri Sofia says it is sad that May 13 happened.

Putri Sofia is a 22-year-old law student from Sitiawan, Perak. She is learning to play the guitar and loves cats, art and the beach.

Q: Have you heard about May 13, 1969?

A: Yes, I know about the riots which resulted from the Chinese having too much economic power after Malaysia was formed. They paraded after winning big in the ’69 election and this angered the Malays.

It is sad that it happened. I think the Malays were too caught up in Malay supremacy while the Chinese were caught up with economic power. But today it is not like that. Looking at the last elections, people voted not on race but on who can do the job. I mean, an Indian woman  contested under PAS! That speaks volumes and I don’t think May 13 will happen again.

This is why I hate politics because politicians only care about their cronies and they play issues of race and religion to try and win votes. But that’s a wrong perception because we are not stupid anymore! You can try to con us with your manifestos but we won’t be fooled.

Q: Have you heard of the New Economic Policy (NEP)? Do you know that it was put into place right after May 13?

I think the Malays recognise that they don’t need Ketuanan Melayu anymore. We need to work globally with all races. The NEP may benefit some Malays but what about the other races? Even though I’m Malay and I’ve benefited from it, I’ve seen too many who misuse it. So I disagree with the NEP.

My Chinese friend says the NEP has made the Chinese work harder and so they’ve actually benefited from it! The housing discount for rich Malays is laughable. We must revamp these policies. The government needs to show that they really want to help all Malaysians.

It is not right that some of my Malay friends with bad results can study in universities while Chinese friends with perfect results can’t get in. Even when Bumiputera students score badly, their scholarships are not taken away.

So it’s just not fair — all races need an education so that they can support their families. Malaysia is not just for Malays. We always promote our country as multicultural to the world so we must implement that in our education and politics.

Q: Does race matter to you? Do you have friends of different races?

Not really. We do look at culture to see what is taboo for a certain race but it is not really important. What I look for in people is their ethics and how they get things done. Actually, I have more friends of other races than Malay friends! My friends don’t look at race either and we can discuss things like May 13 without any problems.

That’s actually why I left my previous university — it was only Malay students and I wanted the competitiveness of having other races. The Chinese are so hardworking that it makes me a better student.

Also, in my previous college, just speaking English was enough reason for people to label me as “sombong” (arrogant). So it was very close-minded there, which is why I think many Malays are not doing well. I am so thankful that my parents raised me to see beyond those things.

Q: What do you think of the relations between the various races in Malaysia? How can it be improved?

A: In my faculty we mix around as that is what my lecturers encourage. But on campus, I can see it is segregated. There are clusters and even the clubs are based on race which can be unhealthy. In happens in our schools as well. But I do think we are slowly getting better.

To improve, teachers and parents must play their part. The education system should include subjects that focus on ethnic relations so that it becomes internalised in young people. It’s not enough to just have kids memorise facts about Malaysia for an objective exam.

Racism definitely still exists in our country. I want to believe we can move beyond it through respect for different cultures and religions and it’s not impossible to achieve. Society must be willing to change their attitude collectively and we should because it’s for our future as a nation.

Kanmani says the NEP should be removed to make it fair for all.

S. Kanmani, 24, is a purchasing assistant from Setapak, Kuala Lumpur. She lists her favourite things to do as sleeping, watching movies at home and spending time with her family.

Q: Have you heard about May 13, 1969?

A: I just know that something violent, like riots, happened and it had a serious impact on our country. People are scared to talk about what really happened, even now. I asked my grandma about it become attending this interview and she told me it was a very scary time. She and her sisters were just hiding in their home during the riots.

I also remember learning about it in History class. But I have forgotten about it until you asked me. It doesn’t have a direct influence to my life because it happened so many years ago!

Q: Have you heard of the New Economic Policy (NEP)? Do you know that it was put into place right after May 13?

(She said no at first but she understood the Malay name for it.) What I know about it is that in the university I applied to, I couldn’t get the course that I wanted even though the Malay students who scored lower grades could get in. So in the end, I did not further my studies and I started working instead.

I think that they are stealing from the other races using the NEP. The world is globalised now so they should remove such policies to make it fair for all. With the university quotas, the Chinese can still survive because they can afford private universities but most Indians cannot.

I’ve heard phrases like “Satu Bangsa, Satu Malaysia” on the TV and I really think they should practice that, not just say it.

Q: Does race matter to you? Do you have friends of different races?

A: No, I was raised by my mom in such a way that race doesn’t matter. I have friends of different races and it’s all fair and square to me. My group enjoys exchanging cultures with each other and if there are sensitive issues, we will respect each other.

For example, the issue of Hindraf is sensitive because one Malay friend is against it while the Indians support it so we just agree to disagree. There is no point getting upset so we just respect each other’s beliefs.

Q: What do you think of the relations between the various races in Malaysia? How can it be improved?

A: I’ve thought about this before. When we’re studying, it’s not so obvious but in the working world, people are clustered together by race. I think they feel more comfortable with their own kind. I don’t think it’s deliberate racism but it is hard to find people who like to mix.

I think it should come naturally, from the heart. If you try to teach people, it won’t last. As children we can be taught to get along, but as adults it must come naturally.

Malaysia has come a long way since May 13

By Neville Spykerman

KUALA LUMPUR, May 13 — Will history repeat itself ? Not likely, according to Tawfik Ismail.

The eldest son of Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, who played a pivotal role in curbing the racial violence in 1969 and was instrumental in healing the nation, believes Malaysians have come a long way since those dark days.

“Like my father I am an optimist” said the 58-year-old Johor-based entrepreneur.

His father was asked to return to government after the May 10 general election in 1969 and was reappointed Home Minister on June 12 the same year.

Tawfik said in the aftermath of May 13 his father put down “rules of engagement to tone down the fire among political leaders”.

The rules prevented politicians from raising what were deemed as sensitive issues.

Tawfik said the Hansard of that time will show very robust debates in Parliament.

“Political leaders were quite unrestrained and insults were traded very freely.”

Press freedom to report on the riots was also curbed at the time and Tawfik recollects writing a letter to his father from Australia to express his unhappiness with the government’s move.

Tawfik said his father took the letter to a press conference and told reporters “even my son does not agree with me”.

With hindsight, Tawfik said the remedies invoked by his father were the “medicine of the time”.

However, the medicine of that time is no longer so effective today.

He said the Bersih demonstration in 2007 and more recent protests against the on-going Perak crisis did not lead to violence.

Tawfik said the people are also aware of the consequences of taking to the streets as in the case of Thailand and are content to watch the politicians do the fighting.

People are better informed due to new media and the government needs to reassess its role.

The Umno member said while nothing seems to have changed in the ruling party, the March 8 general election last year was proof there is a multi-racial streak which has benefited the opposition.

He said Malaysia was evolving in the right direction despite the racial politics and rhetoric.

The Malays now realise they are living in a bigger world and are aware of their place compared to before.

They are not buying into the increased rhetoric by politicians.

He said the ruling party had been going in the wrong direction ever since the old Umno was dissolved.

“I can’t even convince my 19-year-son to join the party.”

His son vowed never to join Umno after attending one meeting because he could not stomach the rhetoric.

As for non-Malays they are just as committed to Malaysia.

“There has been no mass exodus out of the country.”

As for the New Economic Policy which came about after May 13, Tawfik said he did not see the necessity to extend it.

He said the targeted 30 per cent involvement for Bumiputeras was based on an expanding or growing market but this had been misinterpreted as 30 per cent of shares or equity.

“The NEP is a handicap which reflects on our ability to progress.”

Tawfik said his father’s last speech at Universiti Sains Malaysia in 1973, published in the book “The Reluctant Politician”, spelled out the purpose of the policy.

“The application of the New Economic Policy will change from time to time to suit the situation and the circumstances and the geographical settings. But its aim and its fundamentals are the same and that is to close the gap between rural and urban, to destroy poverty without regard to background or race.”

Dr Ismail died on Aug 2, 1973.



Debra Chong

KUALA LUMPUR, May 13 — Thirty-one-year-old Mohamed Rahmat was making his victory circuit among the Chinese villages in Johor Baru to thank them for voting him in as the new Johor Baru Barat MP when he got the news. An aide had rushed up to him and whispered that curfew had just been announced in the capital. There were very few details. He only knew that riots had broken out in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

He immediately called off the rest of the day’s plans. Rushing to the nearest telephone, he called his wife Salbiah Abdul Hamid at their home in Section 5, Petaling Jaya. The political secretary to then-Transport Minister Tun Sardon Zubir instructed her to head to his office in Kampung Baru and take his official car home. He was worried it may get damaged in the commotion.

Mohamed believes that current problems in country are due to the problems facing the Indians.

Mohamed rushed about trying to find his way home to Salbiah and their three-year-old son Nur Jazlan, whom he had left behind alone. He was frantic, having remembered a Chinese assistant in KL who had asked permission to leave work early because he wanted to join a street tea-party in town, which started at 4.30pm.

But all flights out to KL were full, including the ones that departed from Singapore. It was hours before he managed to hop on board a specially-arranged Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA) flight, after forking out $200 for a first-class seat.

“It was the only ticket left,” a much older, much calmer Mohamed smiled in recollection, as he shared his memories of that frantic day 40 years ago when Malaysia fell into anarchy.

The year was 1969. It was three days after the general election, which saw a surprise upset for the Alliance Party under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj.

The three-party national alliance had lost Penang and Perak to the opposition and was stuck in a stalemate in Selangor, in addition to failing to recover Kelantan from the clutches of Islamic party PAS, a mere 12 years after independence.

It was a very emotional time. Inter-racial relations were stretched thin because of a whole load of socio-political issues, Mohamed noted. It did not take much for blood to be spilled. It was the darkest chapter in the infant nation’s history, so dark pictures and news reports of the May 13, 1969 racial blood bath continue to be kept under lock and key.

“Nobody anticipated it at all. It just happened,” said Mohamed, now 71 and fondly known as Tok Mat, Malaysia’s longest-serving and best known Information Minister.

He remembers the two weeks the curfew lasted as being a very frightening time, even though soldiers had been posted at his gate to watch over his nuclear family.

He is of mixed blood (his father is Javanese and his mother ethnic Chinese) and his wife, who considers herself Malay-Muslim, having been raised as one by her adopted family, was born Chinese and looked it.

“Race relations is a time bomb in this country,” Mohamed quipped, while digging into a salted beef sandwich and a bowl of mushroom soup over a late lunch here yesterday.

“We can’t get rid of racial profiling. The cycle of racial conflict will not end until and unless we can see ourselves as Malaysians first,” he added.

He may have retired from active government service, but the former Umno secretary-general had been a key player in shaping party and government politics in the past, including the ouster of Tunku Abdul Rahman as Umno president and prime minister.

He remains wholly alert to present-day political events, keeping both ears close the ground.

Referring to the tensions brewing in Perak over the standoff between the two mentris besar and two assembly speakers, Mohamed warns of a likely sequel to the May 13 incident almost half a century ago.

“We may meander to it if not careful,” he said, pointing to the May 7 Perak assembly sitting which saw violence take place inside the assembly chambers with the forced removal of V. Sivakumar as speaker.

Mohamed noted an uncanny resemblance in the recent state of affairs following last year’s general election to those that trailed the 1969 general election.

Just like then, the country is now split into two very clear groups: those that are pro-Barisan Nasional (BN) and those who are pro-opposition. And just like then, the majority of the Malay electorate today voted not so much in support of the opposition as against the ruling party, to teach the government of the day a lesson.

Mohamed added that from the social perspective, the race problems today mirrored that of 1969. On the surface, the tensions appear to be between the Malays and Chinese, but actually, the two communities had been stirred up by the Indians, just like now with the Hindraf movement.

“The problem then, as now, remains the same. The Indian problem is lack of education and unemployment. When they are unhappy, they will create problems for society,” the veteran Umno leader said.

“The government must do something for them if it want to avoid such problems,” he stressed.

But immediately after, he sighed. He readily acknowledged that it was unlikely another large-scale racial conflict could be avoided. Mohamed seemed to view that it was inevitable, and needed to be vented to enable society to move on.

“History always repeats itself,” he said.

“Semua mudah lupa,” he added, referring to the rakyat’s failure to identify themselves as Malaysians first even after 50 years of Rukun Negara, which was a formula that had been created to combat the widening gap among the races.

“We must have radical change,” Mohamed insisted, to put an end to the endless cycle of racial conflict.

“We need an overhauling of the government and party,” he said bluntly.

He explained that there was an urgent need to provide the populace with leadership they could genuinely look up to as civil society had rejected the present crop of community leaders.

Pointing to BN’s Indian-based party leader Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu, Mohamed remarked: “Samy Vellu is a selfish man.”

Asked if he believed Datuk Seri Najib Razak was capable of gluing the splintering races together, Mohamed said the sixth prime minister’s 1 Malaysia concept holds great promise to unite Malaysians of different races, to feel “Malaysian”.

Right now, he thinks that Najib is just throwing up the idea and testing the waters to see the response. Mohamed feels the public should allow him more time as it would take more than the conventional first 100-day-rule for the formula to take effect.

During his 16-year term as information minister, Mohamed came up with several unity campaigns as well, notably the “Setia Sama Rakyat” (Semarak for short) campaign, which enveloped all races rather than focused on one particular ethnic group.

“I’d look at it this way. Now all want to join PAS, PKR, because they can get posts,” he said, noting the internal quibbling between the ulama and non-ulama factions for the top posts in PAS.

“Everybody is scrambling for power. Everyone wants to be the people’s champion. But really they are just greedy. There is no stable situation all around,” he said.

Forty May 13s later — Praba Ganesan

KUALA LUMPUR, May 13 — I’ve spent many of my formative years being told why my life in this country has been shaped by May 13. And today will be its 40th anniversary.

Seventy per cent of the country at least will not have a living memory of it, and those who do have only the bits from their personal experiences. The rest of us have to do with what our parents tell us.

For my parents, it was grabbing my toddler brother and taking their Vespa back to the Sungai Besi camp, where they resided. My dad was not asked to participate in the military’s role in bringing law and order back to KL as, according to him, “all non-Malays were asked not to”. What that means, and if that is true, is all up to who you talk to, and how they feel about the event.

So Malaysia’s race policy, and we are one of the few countries in the world to have an explicit race policy for almost every facet of our daily lives, has been based on a series of events that most Malaysians don’t have an objective knowledge of.

Juxtapose it with America. The civil war tore through the heart of the union, and in many senses underlined fundamental differences. The south was not willing to give up its past, and the present is always about looking back to that period through different lenses. However, a large portion of the facts are known, even if the motives, purpose and harm never quantified.

The south attacked Fort Sumter in April 1861, and the various battles saw high attrition rates on both sides. To some, Abraham Lincoln is the seal of the union, or a man who ended state rights.

Some are facts, and some need a little interpretation, and the debate goes on.

Malaysia’s defining moment had no facts disclosed, and little to interpret, with debate on it disallowed.

So why are we surprised that we are such a dysfunctional nation?

An expatriate pointed to me last week that he had never seen a country so openly racist. I think he was referring to all of us, not any particular race.

People here can make summary judgments on people just based on colour and background.

As an Indian, I can be a well-educated and cultured person from Sri Lankan Tamil stock, all with English education and civil service experience. Or I am the child of general workers, with an odd way of speaking Malay, bereft of good English and looking always for things to steal.

Trust a snake more than me, they’ll say — especially if you ask Perak executive councillor Hamidah Osman from Umno.

The diversity forced by a globalised world has allowed for more categories, but categories still.

What is this event, May 13, then to me, or any of my countrymen?

If the argument is murder, pillaging and violence are repugnant, the argument is well made.

But you don’t need a specific act of violence to rationalise the dangers of mob violence.

Then the idea would be about social redistribution. No one when financially oppressed is a stable member of society.

True, a man with a great need for a means of life is on the edge. Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean stole to feed his dying family, and lived a life to explain himself.

Unemployed thousands in KL would be more likely to grab your handbags and run because being caught is less of an issue than going poor.

But the principle of alleviating all men from the burden of penury is synonymous with all noble intents to build a society of equals. It is not predicated on one group being needy. The needy are a group of people with only one commonality, a lack of things.

That is how you recognise them.

Single mothers in this country are needy. Many of them Malay. Giving their husbands handy contracts will not improve the lives of the children they had, for instance. And neither is it OK to give state support to the widow of a millionaire.

It is weird, to say the least, that generations of Malaysians have always been reminded of May 13, with absolutely no opportunity to talk about it, or exchange ideas pertaining to it with their teachers.

I am sure it is not fun, fun, fun talking about the civil rights movement in the old south, in Birmingham, where they beat blacks wholesale. Being that 12-year-old white kid talking and discussing the brutality of white policemen on their black brethren. That today’s police would be black and white. That every time a black person is killed by a police bullet, race is the theme.

No period of pain will be easy to pass, but without talking about it, how do you pass it?

Umno has an infallibility complex. Therefore it cannot talk about its past without having the precondition of having a monopoly over truth, or writing that truth.

So in some ways, this country cannot move forward with Umno at the helm.

When hate fills the hearts of men, only one voice speaks for them, the language of destruction. It takes a life of its own. It does not define society, it merely explains its frailties.

Societies do not become better because they deny their frailties but because they muster the courage to face them.

So May 13, this May 13, the 40th time we will recollect it, perhaps we need to recollect it with some honesty. That all our hands have blood on them, and the blood of a brother is unacceptable. Above that we have greater things binding us than dividing us, and that talking about our common pain is not a blame game.

Then my country will away walk from the memory of violence, and a cleansing begins

Praba Ganesan heads Balairakyat and his writings can be found at

The maturing of Malaysian society — K. Kesavapany

MAY 13 — This is the time of the year when one of the most traumatic episodes in Malaysia’s history — the May 13, 1969 racial riots — is remembered. Given the numerous and intimate links between the two countries, this remembrance is as relevant to Singaporeans as it is to Malaysians. Let us not forget that multiracial Singapore experienced a similar tragic event, albeit on a smaller scale, in 1964.

What happened on that day 40 years ago today? There was a victory parade coursing through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, organised by jubilant non-Malay opposition parties that had done well in the May 11 general election. The parade’s triumphalist tone clearly irked the Malays and raised the temperatures.

The tenuous situation of the Selangor state government further aggravated the situation. The ruling Alliance and the opposition had won an equal number of seats in the state legislature, creating an impasse as to who could be the mentri besar.

The incumbent Datuk Harun Idris and his Umno supporters decided to hold a counter victory celebration on May 13. In the tinderbox atmosphere, with rumours of racial clashes circulating freely, it was only a matter of time before Kuala Lumpur was enveloped in flames. Riots broke out and about 200 people, according to official figures, were killed. A nationwide curfew was imposed, a state of emergency was declared and thousands were arrested. Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman stepped aside to allow for the formation of the National Operations Council headed by his deputy, Tun Abdul Razak.

The May 13 riots shattered the Tunku’s cherished image of an idyllic, “happy” and harmonious Malaysia and presaged not only his departure from the political scene but also a radical reformulation of national policies. The dislodging of the Tunku saw the emergence of Umno’s “young Turks” — among them, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Tun Musa Hitam and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. Eventually, these individuals found places in Razak’s Cabinet.

The May 13 episode underscored the ethnic, social and economic disparities of Malaysian society at that point in time. The vast majority of Malays were economically backward and they blamed the Tunku’s government for not improving their condition after 12 years of independence. The Tunku’s detractors also upbraided him for allowing foreigners to remain in control of important sectors of the Malaysian economy.

Thus Razak promulgated the New Economic Policy (NEP), with the twin objectives of eradicating poverty regardless of race and the elimination of ethnic identification with economic functions. The NEP was to be premised on balancing growth with equity so the redistribution of wealth to Bumiputeras would not impinge on the legitimate rights of the non-Bumiputeras.

May 13 also led to the enactment of the Sedition Act, which proscribed all discussion of sensitive issues such as the status of the sultans, the special position of the Bumiputeras and the citizenship rights of non-Malays.

More importantly, May 13 is recognised as the watershed event when Malay supremacy (or “Ketuanan Melayu”) became entrenched in Malaysian society. This in practice meant the ascendance of Umno as the premier political party within the coalition of ethnic parties. The tripartite Alliance structure of Umno-MCA-MIC under the Tunku was replaced by the Barisan Nasional, which had many more parties but which effectively meant the end of the Tunku’s “consociational” formula of ethnic bargaining.

Because of Umno’s ascendancy, the identity markers of Malays, such as language and culture, were promoted in official policy. English-medium schools were converted into Malay-medium national schools. This policy was also implemented at the tertiary level.

The legacy of May 13 as described above may be said to have remained largely unquestioned for nearly 40 years. In recent years, however, it has been contested by increasing numbers of Malays. The perceived and real abuse of the NEP by vested interests has disillusioned many. PAS has criticised the NEP for its ethnic discrimination, which it says is against the tenets of Islam.

This challenging of the legitimacy of the NEP suddenly gained prominence after the March 2008 general election. Umno and its allies experienced their worst electoral setback since May 1969, losing their two-thirds parliamentary majority and losing control of five state governments. The BN lost ground to a multi-ethnic coalition of opposition parties.

This new multi-ethnic coalition has distanced itself from the discriminatory aspects of the NEP. The Malaysian Economic Agenda of the opposition calls for its dismantling. It takes issue with the NEP’s ethnic-based formula and has proposed instead an income-based criterion for the redistribution of wealth.

Within Umno, Malay leaders such as Tengku Razaleigh and former de facto law minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, who has since resigned from the party, have also questioned the wisdom of retaining the NEP in its present form. Captains of industry such as Datuk Nazir Razak (a son of Razak and brother of current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak) have said that the NEP was inimical to the competitiveness of the Malaysian economy.

The Prime Minister himself is cognizant of the need to ditch certain elements of the NEP that have impeded foreign investment. He recently removed the 30 per cent Bumiputera quota for selected service sectors. The fact that Malay elites from the government and opposition are now prepared to advocate the abandonment of certain elements of the NEP indicates a rising confidence among Malays in their capacity to compete on an even playing field.

Despite Umno’s recent electoral setbacks, there has been no hint of a reassertion of Ketuanan Melayu. Even the unfolding spectacle of political confusion in Perak has not led to any ethnic violence. Indeed, no emergency law has been invoked to quell or meet current political challenges.

All these point to a maturing of Malaysian society. — The Straits Times


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A book to unite Malaysians A One Malaysia, not several

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