May 13 – redeeming the tragedy
Steve Oh | May 14, 09 6:18pm
The ghost of May 13 will not disappear just because Malaysians shy away from talking about it. Every nation has to deal with its past, no matter how painful, and only a reasoned approach upholding the truth and seeking reconciliation can expunge the nation of its sense of foreboding and repressed anger.
Many Malaysians may share many similar views with a Chinese like Bob Teoh of MySinchew and a Malay like Farish Noor in their recent writings on this subject as the 40th anniversary of this tragic day comes and passes into history once more.
History is like a prism and depending on how the light of interpretation shines on it reflects different rays of truth. There are always two sides to a story, as they say, and perhaps May 13 may have more than two and certainly not just the one that we are used to accept. They all make up the prism of truth and the virtue of looking at it truthfully is that as Bob Teoh wrote that the truth may “set you free.”
Some think May 13 was all part of a planned political coup. Others that it was triggered by Chinese chauvinism after strong electoral gains. Still there are those who still think it was a communist plot though this last idea has been largely discounted. And then as a national tragedy it did not touch many parts of the country as Farish Noor rightly pointed out.
The only certainty is that many innocent Malaysians, mostly Chinese, died, and in tragic and suspicious circumstances from bullet wounds, and the truth has yet to be properly established by an independent finding and accepted by all Malaysians.
For this reason a Truth and Redemption Commission to seek the truth and learn from the mistakes of the past and prevent a recurrence of the tragedy may be needed to heal the nation’s national psyche and emotional wounds though it is impossible to see that happening any time in the near future, especially under the status quo of an Umno-dominated government.
Tears flow in Australia
It is an ardent hope that civil society in the country will mature quicker than its present rate and most Malaysians will be able to face the past as well as the future with the self-confidence that all that is done to uncover the truth of May 13 is in the national interest and for no other motive than it must never happen again.
The deficiency of anecdotal hearsay is we tend to hear only one side of the story, usually from our side. We need to listen to the other side. And it is in weighing all the evidence that the truth can be established because this is the way of obtaining justice.
We all know that the South Africans had their Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a notable and commendable effort by any standard. Nelson Mandela was the man of the hour, he was pivotal in avoiding the retribution that often follow the turn of events in a country, when the slaves become the masters, by adopting a conciliatory and redemptive approach. His magnanimity toward his former white jailers and political enemies was the catalyst that enabled the country to experience peace.
In Australia, the predominantly white Australian government managed to garner enough courage to say ‘Sorry’ to the Aborigines of Australia, the original inhabitants of the country. PM Kevin Rudd in his typical penchant for spin was able bring tears to the eyes of many when he apologised for the sins of previous generations of European settlers, and governments which maltreated the first Australians, as Bob Teoh has also mentioned in his article.
It was a symbolic but poignant gesture and has once and for all removed the lingering anger and sense of injustice felt by the Aboriginal community and the justice-minded sections of the wider Australian society. That white Australia was guilty of genocide (even Chinese gold miners were murdered by jealous white miners) is an irrefutable historical fact.
I was there to witness the tears flowing down from the eyes of many Australians of Aboriginal descent as history’s bloody past is redeemed with a single word that former Australian leaders had not found the courage to utter. Perhaps in Malaysia there needs to be a similar repairing of the national psyche if also to remove the bogeyman of race that unscrupulous politicians like to exploit.
As May 13 fades into history it is worthwhile remembering that many who lived through it still feel its psychological effects. Thus the aversion to broach the subject more openly and broadly in the country even after 40 years! But that writers like Bob Teoh and Farish Noor are willing to approach it in a positive and constructive manner, and that a writer like Kua Kia Soong is prepared to diligently research the subject and produce a book, offers hope for the future. Many Malaysians are mature to handle other people’s ideas and opinions after all.
I am sure those who suffered more directly from its ravages, who lost loved ones, who were hurt physically and emotionally- they would prefer that the ghost is expunged by an act of justice that recognises the victims not as faceless statistic but victims of a terrible avoidable tragedy. Acts of injustice often can be healed by acts of justice. And only an official non-partisan commission can achieve that for all Malaysians.
When truth is honoured then indeed it will set the nation free from all the years of hearsay, half-truths, even lies. Then May 13 need not be used by unethical politicians who revisit our fears by reminding us of it as if it were some monster at their command that they can unleash on us, or be a tainted past that the people don’t really know how to deal with.
We all have anecdotes good and bad. Stories of Chinese helping Malays and sheltering them and vice versa during the times of madness are not uncommon. There are many witness accounts and all these need to be collected and corroborated while those people are still alive, without fear or favour.
There is much the country can gain from re-visiting that painful episode of the nation’s history if only that wounds may heal and important lessons learned. In any such conflict no one is entirely guilty or innocent and once the cycle of violence starts, what results is a mishmash of events and justice and the innocent bystanders often are the early victims, and who is right or wrong in the chaos becomes relative and difficult to establish with precision and fairness.
If May 13 has a positive lesson it is that it is not wrong, certainly not a crime to help those from the other race.
‘Truth never hurt a good cause’
I recall those dark May days vividly. I was then an older teenager and old enough to understand what was happening but unable to believe that it was all happening, as it was a time when school friends from all races were happily croaking our voices to imitate the Beatles’ “She Loves You..” and other pop love songs. It was difficult for the idea of a ‘racial war’ to sink in, as I helped my father tie his shoelaces as he prepared to visit the houses in the neighbourhood to ask the menfolk to protect the area from any attack.
Meanwhile, I was concerned for my friend’s family, he was away studying at MARA in Kuala Lumpur, so I checked that his parents and relatives were okay as they lived in a predominantly Chinese upper middle-class suburb not far from us. After all his elderly Malay father, a retired school principal, had asked me to call him ‘Bapa.’ Our families had bonded psychologically and emotionally and true friendship transcended race and religion.
In school race never mattered and even if we called someone in a racial manner it was all in innocuous jibe without any hint of serious malicious racism. The British may be guilty of a policy of ‘divide and rule’ but in school they taught us respect for one another and that is what a good education does for people.
In fact Penang had seen racial tension a month before May 13 and was put on curfew briefly. Sadly though despite the strong cordial relations between the Malays and Chinese, there were incidents of fighting, and I recall listening to a neighbour who had been at the fighting front report about the skirmishes. Fortunately it was nothing like in Kuala Lumpur, the epicentre of the mad bloodletting where official figures of deaths may have been under-declared.
It was while I was at university abroad where I met inter-state students that I learned more about what took place outside the island. “I was inside a cinema watching a movie when suddenly we heard loud banging on the doors and people panicked as attackers with parangs entered and started slashing the unwary patrons. I quickly ran out and escaped…” a university classmate related his story.
There are other stories from other friends and together they still form a muddled mosaic of what really took place besides sporadic incidents of violence.
It is such real account stories that we need to document before time erases people’s memories and accurate recollections and only a hazy picture remains, and when fiction manipulated by the unscrupulous replaces the truth. In his book May 13, author Kua Kia Soong proffers a credible and well-researched side of the story. And it is a properly constituted commission that ought to sift the wheat from the chaff, the fiction from the truth, that the truth may surface.
“Truth never hurt a good cause,” as I like to quote the late Mahatma Gandhi, and the truth will only strengthen the resolve of all patriotic citizens to rebuild their nation on a firmer footing that racial bigotry and political conspiracy failed.
A redemptive story
The Malaysian heritage has always been sound racial and religious harmony and one only needs to look back far enough into the past to see the success story of the island port of Penang and even its earlier sister port, Malacca, as places of healthy and harmonious multi-racial communities.
Bukit Cina in Malacca may be forgotten in the passage of time but those who know its origin will recall the gratitude of the Malacca ruler to the Chinese that he offered them a permanent place as a token of his appreciation. And when the ancient Chinese Emperor gave 500 princesses from the its imperial court to the Malacca sultan it was to seal the friendship between the two peoples.
The Malays and Chinese and the other races had gotten along well for a long time even if their ways of life prevented wholesale integration, the Chinese preferring to live in the urban areas even if some were successful rural folks, while the Malays stayed in the rural kampungs and the Indians had little choice but to stay in their estates surroundings and railway towns and urban centres.
Times have changed though and the intermingling of races may not be as widespread as we like but it is not as easy to form racial stereotypes as new generations of Malaysians in fast food joints and mega malls are difficult to differentiate save for those who wear religious attire.
But May 13 saw the death of innocence and only a truth commission of some sort may be able to heal the wounds and turn a tragedy into a lesson of triumph for all Malaysians. Still there is nothing to celebrate about those who died unfairly, painfully and tragically, unless their memory will help build a better today and tomorrow for the living.
And May 13 may yet be a redemptive story, tragic as it were, like all the other tragedies of human history, that have served to teach valuable lessons to future generations.
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