Remembering 13 May

May 14, 2009 at 2:20 am Leave a comment

Nut Graph

may13IT’S been 40 years since the race riots of 13 May 1969. Every Malaysian is familiar with this date. We are told it was a bad time for Malaysia, a shameful chapter in our illustrious national history, an event we should fear recurring.

While state officials and politicians are happy to use 13 May as a cautionary shorthand, what really happened in 1969 is sketchy. Politicians rarely talk about the events surrounding 13 May. Neither do Malaysian history textbooks.

That may be the case, but some Malaysians are reclaiming 13 May. These citizens are finding ways to remember that fateful day so that the date can be a source of reconciliation and unity, rather than fear and hatred.

Couples in love

In January 2009, political historian Dr Farish Ahmad Noor began compiling stories of Malaysian inter-racial couples who were together from the 1940s onwards for a documentary project.

Farish Noor “I wanted to see what it was like to be an ethnically or religiously mixed couple on that fateful day, just to show that, even then, Malaysians were living and loving across ethnic and religious boundaries,” he explains in an e-mail interview.

Farish says he is still trying to get submissions, funding and assistance to get the project going. But regardless of the project’s success, Farish stresses the importance of supporting independent Malaysian projects “that wish to reclaim our history for ourselves.”

“Until today, the official history of 13 May is biased and one-sided,” Farish maintains. It is difficult to refute him. Dr Kua Kia Soong’s May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969 was, after all, seized by Home Ministry officials soon after its release.

“But that is no reason why Malaysians have to keep quiet and accept the hegemony of the state,” Farish adds. He points to the example of post-Apartheid South Africa. Through grassroots initiatives such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africans worked on the ground to reach democratic consensus, and inter-ethnic peace.

“This should teach us that the state, if it doesn’t register such developments and take them into account, can and will be bypassed by society in the long run,” Farish says.

Farish also believes that citizen-based efforts are empowering. According to him, Malaysians should not wait for “permission” to begin deconstructing their own history.

National reconciliation

K Haridas, vice-chairperson of the non-profit Initiatives of Change (IofC) Malaysia, points out that 13 May is resurrected as a campaign issue every general election, and plays into voters’ fear of tragedy. “This manipulation itself shows the need to deal with the ghosts of our past,” Haridas tells The Nut Graph.

In early March, participants of the IofC-organised Tools for Change conference took up the idea of making 13 May a “National Reconciliation Day”.

“The idea came from the question of promoting racial harmony, and bridging the divides we feel. 13 May is a significant, symbolic date for that. It would become a rallying point for integration,” Haridas explains.

The idea for a national reconciliation day takes after the Australian “National Sorry Day”, a symbolic date institutionalised by the Australian government to recognise past wrongs against the aboriginals so that healing could begin. It has been held annually since 1998.

For now, at least, a new Malaysian national holiday is a distant goal. IofC plans to start small — specifically with Creators of Peace (COP) Circles, a programme of women-driven community gatherings.

 “We believe in this idea of deep listening — that is, to listen without any judgment, and without interruption,” explains local COP co-ordinator Regina Morris. “When someone tells their story in such an environment, they feel a great sense of empowerment, and release.

“It’s all about building trust, which will take time and space,” Morris, a human resources consultant by trade, adds.

There is currently a 13-person COP group in the Klang Valley. “They are a diverse group of women, so there’s an opportunity to talk about racial integration and such issues,” Morris says.

Haridas hopes that this initial “cell” will divide into more groups, with individual participants becoming inspired enough to start their own groups. Eventually, the peace circles may accommodate people of both genders. “COP is a women’s initiative, but it doesn’t say that men are excluded,” Haridas says.

Morris says that the idea of a “Healing of Memories” circle — which would provide a safe space for people who lived through the 13 May violence to talk about their experiences — is on hold because it requires a separate framework from the COP Circles.

“But if we’ve gathered enough success with the peace circles, we can think of what’s next,” Morris adds.

Creative discussions

Malaysian art has also sporadically dealt with the shadow of 1969. Earliest, perhaps, was artist and critic Redza Piyadasa’s 1970 installation, May 13, 1969, which consisted of an upright coffin upon which the Malaysian flag was painted. More recently, in 2007, Five Arts Centre staged That Was The Year. It was a performance based on the Beth Yahp’s tale of “unrequited love” — both literally and figuratively — In 1969.

Visual artist Nadiah Bamadhaj has also produced two works that explicitly deal with 13 May. One, a digital print called Maybank in 1969, imposes a Menara Maybank-dominated skyline into iconic photographs of 1969-era burnt-out shophouses. Maybank was built in the early 1980s, an era where the government called upon architects to come up with more “culturally based” designs. These frequently translated into Malay cultural symbols and architectural references, Bamadhaj explains.

“Menara Maybank was built 11 years after the race riots,” she points out. “Though the keris symbolises many things, its dominating sign of violence and threat is inescapable. Keris monuments, in general, are a symbol of the government’s insensitivity to the events of 1969, and their refusal to participate in a full and genuine reconciliation with all communities involved in those events.”

The other work is also a digital print, part of the 147 Tahun Merdeka series that Bamadhaj produced in 2005, in collaboration with Tian Chua. The work features a piece of public sculpture, under the LRT station between Kampung Baru and Chow Kit, still under wraps. Banners flanking this effigy announce the “official unveiling” of a monument “to commemorate Malaysians of all ethnicities who died in the May 13 1969 massacre.”

147 Tahun Merdeka was envisioned as a look into Malaysia a hundred years into the future,” Bamadhaj, who now lives in Indonesia, says in a phone interview.

The artist does not overstate the influence her work has on wider Malaysian society. But while attention towards political issues within the arts is still limited to the urban middle-class, Bamadhaj believes it is a good place to start.

If things continue consistently, then there might actually be a chance that the spectres of our past may, finally, lose their ghoulish hold on us.

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