Forgetting May 13
Our older citizens must let go and become like our younger ones who have no memory of — and no desire to remember, recognise or commemorate — May 13, 1969.
By P. Gunasegaram (The Star)
TWO days ago it was 40 years since one of Malaysia’s most infamous and ignoble events happened — the racial riots of May 13, 1969.
It rose out of a confluence of unfortunate factors fanned by politicians and threatened to rip apart racial harmony built over centuries of living together and understanding each other’s ways.
Overnight, it turned the world’s happiest Prime Minister – as Tunku Abdul Rahman called himself since the country gained independence in 1957 – into its saddest, and sent waves of fear through the public as the unimaginable happened and threatened to spread.
It started a wave of repressive laws under which Malaysians had to live, and the revival of more which had been used previously in the fight against the communist insurgency under the emergency of 1948-1960.
The politicians told us that, otherwise, there would be no peace.Until today, we are in a state of technical emergency.
It led to racial polarisation like it had never happened before in the country – even under the British – and took race-based politics and economics to heights that it had never climbed before, and one hopes, will never reach again.
The best thing would have been if it had never happened.
But it did and it hangs around our neck like a very weighty albatross – but not for all us, not by a long shot.
And these people will help us throw this thing off our necks too in time to come. I am sure of that.
I have this theory – a hypothesis really – which I tested in a very limited experiment about May 13.
You could say it’s almost a theory now, but not quite. But you can help by doing your own experiments. Before I reveal my theory, let me give you my experiment.
It was two days ago on May 13 that I was having dinner with my children when I started this experiment. I asked my 15-year-old daughter Shobna whether she knew what May 13 was all about.
The look in her eye indicated “here he goes again with one of his lectures after his question”. But gamely she said: “It’s some Merdeka thing, right?” Those of us at the table burst out laughing – we could not help it.
But I could see where she was coming from. Politicians have repeatedly over the decades – and even recently – referred to May 13, 1969, as a watershed and a turning point for Malaysia, almost glorifying it. And some of them were not even born then!
I asked Shobna to get her classmates to answer the same question.
Do you know what was May 13? Here was Diyana’s answer which came back quick as a flash – not quite but quick enough – via SMS. “No, but it is in the newspaper today (May 13).”
Nicola had a bit more information but not much more: “It was racial unrest between Malays and Chinese,” she tapped out. Pressed further, she replied: “I knew it was racial unrest but I don’t know why.”
My 18-year-old son Shivaendra knew a bit more – they were riots – but he could not say much more than that.
Back to my theory. Most Malaysians are below 40. In fact, a third of the population is below 15 years.
I could not locate the figures immediately on the Statistics Department website, but I would estimate that 70%-75% of Malay-sians were not born when May 13 happened.
And if you don’t really realise what’s happening around you until you are, say, 10 years old, perhaps 80%-85% of Malaysians don’t have solid memories of May 13!
In fact, our current Prime Minis-ter was a mere boy when it happened, probably around my daughter’s age now.
Which is good because he does not go around telling people “remember May 13, we don’t want it to happen again” because he can’t remember it himself, or not much of it.
The politics of that era is the realm of his predecessor’s predecessor, now a ripe 85, who was viewed as a young and upcoming Umno ultra at that time.
He played a key part in the ouster of our first prime minister Tunku, and he would like to think he did the same with the last prime minister.
But we digress. The point is that most of us Malaysians don’t have the baggage of May 13 because we, sorry, they were not even born then.
And therefore they don’t have that heavy load of acrimony and antagonism.
To this new generation of Malaysians, we are all Malaysians.Period.
Like our daughters and sons we will all be better off forgetting May 13 and cutting it out of our memory – forgiving, forgetting and reuniting. But with one caveat, history needs to be retold more accurately.
One 17-year-old in 1969 lived not more than three miles from the heart of the riots and the carnage on May 13.
He heard and remembered well the stories that were told and where the riots started from – and why. He remembers the climate of fear and intimidation.
Then as now, I remain convinced that May 13 was a conspiracy by those in power to stay in power, regain it and keep it by any means possible.
That Malaysians were not united enough to prevent the politicians from doing this to us – dividing us to their advantage – was the ultimate tragedy.
So what’s my theory, you ask.Well, it’s this: We older ones may not realise it, but there’s a new generation of Malaysians out there who don’t know May 13; and if you ask me that’s fantastic for the country.
They are more Malaysian than us, the old. errr, … older ones and won’t be as easily split.
That’s why increasing numbers of them speak with one voice.
That’s why there was March 8, 2008. That’s why race-based politics will fade and die. Anyone who ignores them – opposition or government – does so at his own peril.
Now, don’t tell me I did not warn you.
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