The Truth Shall Set You Free – A series of essays by Bob Teoh of Sin Chew

May 15, 2009 at 12:37 am 1 comment

The truth forty years later

 may132009-05-12 17:47

THIS MORNING as I was paying for a book on May 13, a woman who was also at the payment counter eyed my book and asked: “Does this book tell the truth?”

“What’s truth?” I replied only to realise the Freudian slip a moment too late. I quickly switched the conversation back to her.

“Where were you on May 13?”

She said she was eight years old then.

“All I know of May 13 then was that we didn’t have to go to school for many days,” she said and left, obviously not wanting to be engaged in a discourse on May 13 with a stranger.

All schools were closed for many days following the May 13 racial clashes as the country was placed under an emergency rule.

There are lots of facts about May 13. But that’s the truth? We have grown accustomed to truth being a post-modern proposition where truthfulness itself is determined by the seeker alone. In the ultimate, truth really doesn’t matter as it is relative. So we are contend to live with half-truths and untruths.

So why do I bother about May 13? The date is the watershed that defines the life in Malaysia beyond politics before and after that tragic day. It’s as significant as Aug 31 – Merdeka Day, or Sept 16 – Malaysia Day. Yet May 13 has been played down in our national psyche as “The May 13 Incident.”

It’s ridiculous to reduce the national tragedy into a plain proper noun as if it’s a conspiracy to bury our past, warts and all.

Associated with May 13 is yet another cliché – sensitive. Mention the word May 13 in polite company and the likely response would be “Shsssh! It’s sensitive.” I became a journalist only after May 13. In every newspaper that I have worked for this cliché has hounded us like a plague. Invariably, no one wants to talk or write about May 13.

Why? Because, if one got your facts wrong, everyone gets into big trouble. Even if the facts are right, the truth of the matter is another question altogether. So the wisest thing for a journo to write about is the proven formula – sex, crime, scandals, gossips and safe don’t-rock-the-boat conversation pieces. But what about the truth? Who cares.

May 13 is not merely an incident. Ratnam and Milne in their joint article, “The 1969 Parliamentary Election in West Malaysia,” published in the Pacific Affairs journal in 1970, pointed out that: “The 1969 election in Malaya was followed by riots, bloodshed, the partial breaking up of the ruling Alliance government, and by the suspension of parliamentary rule.”

Thus May 13 a more than an incident. It was a national tragedy of unprecedented proportions.

Many of us would rather forget May 13. Why open old wounds? If we are afraid to look at them, will we be bold and honest enough to find ways to heal them and bring them to a closure? I doubt so. We will forever be living in the shadow of the valley of death of our collective nightmare that we have conveniently term as an incident – The May 13 Incident.

For better or for worse, May 13 is part of our history. When we forget our story, then as a nation, as a people, we begin to forget who we are. We end up as nation without a destiny, without hope. Our national redemption begins with recalling our stories for the sake of our future generations. I am a story teller. I will tell you another story tomorrow. About May 13. (By BOB TEOH/MySinchew)

Only the truth will set us free

 2009-05-13 12:16

WE NEED TO close the wounds of May 13 so that we can open a new and brave chapter of our journey–of one Malaysia where all Malaysians can live in peace and as equals among brethren.

Forty years ago today, our nation was at war with itself. At 7.20 p.m., the Deputy Prime Minister who was also the Minister of Home Affairs, Abdul Razak Hussein, declared a curfew in Selangor and the capital city. Within four hours, the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong declared a nationwide state of emergency. On 16 May, the country was under an emergency rule.

Forty six days later, another racial clash in Kuala Lumpur occurred. The official death toll rose to 186. By 8 October, the official numbers rose to 196 deaths (Chinese: 143, Malays: 24 and Indians: 13, unidentifiable: 15; Injured: 439, and 9,143 were arrested (Chinese: 5,126, Malay: 2,077, Indian: 1,874 and the rest included Pakistanis, Europeans, Thais and Singaporeans).

The then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman subsequently resigned and his deputy took over.

These are the facts made up of cold faceless statistics. But what’s the truth? The stark truth is each of this data had a name and a face to it before their lives were snuffed out by the fires of May 13. The naked truth is that the dead left behind loved ones, families, relatives, colleagues and friends in bereavement. The sad truth is that the loss and the pain remain for the living.

It is of little purpose to figure out the demographics of death. Regardless of whether the dead were Chinese, Malays, Indians or lain lain lagi or the plainly unidentified, they all died 40 years ago this day. All were unfortunate victims of a nation at war with itself. That’s the tragic truth.

The simple truth is that ours was then a newly independent country groping along an uncharted path towards nation hood. In times such as this, countries do find themselves fighting their own shadows. This is not uncommon in human history.

Take for instance, the American Civil War (1861–1865), which was the deadliest war in American history, causing 620,000 soldier deaths and an undetermined number of civilian casualties. It, however, managed to overcome that tragedy to become the world’s richest and most powerful nation over time. But first the American nation had to bring the wounds of its past to a close through a difficult and painful process of reconciliation and atonement.

So is the case for Australia, where European settlement commenced in 1788 and quickly declared the island continent Terra Nullis or no man’s land. By this means, the rightful Aboriginal tribal population was not only deprived of their land but their numbers were also cruelly decimated.

The wounds festered on for a long time until the country was ready to embark on a journey of reconciliation and atonement on 13 February last year where its new Premeir Kevin Rudd formally tabled a apology in Parliament. It was two centuries late. But it’s a case of better late than never.

“The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future,” Rudd said in making the apology.

“We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

“There comes a time in the history of nations when their peoples must become fully reconciled to their past if they are to go forward with confidence to embrace their future. Our nation, Australia, has reached such a time,” he said.

Have we reached such a time too? Do we have the confidence to embrace the future? The fact behind May 13 forty years ago is that our race-based politics went wrong. Terribly wrong. The then Alliance ruling coalition lost badly at the 1969 general elections. Its popularity plummeted by 10.1 percent over the previous poll in 1964 to only 48.4 percent. This meant that the opposition parties actually won the popular vote with 51.6 percent.

The ruling party barely managed to keep its two-thirds majority in Parliament. The opposition parties managed to keep Kelantan and won Penang while Selangor and Perak were hung in limbo. May 13 followed.

The ruling coalition now known as Barisan Nasional has since then been in complete control until last year’s general elections where a 1969 situation emerged. In fact, it fared even more badly. Barisan lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament and Kedah, Penang,Perak, and Selangor fell to the opposition while Kelantan remained safely in its fold. But there was no repeat of May 13. But it was not because no one tried to create one. Indeed this points to a maturing of our political process. But we cannot afford to cling on to our race-based incendiary politics as it can only serve to provide fodder for another May 13.

We continue to live from day to day and from crisis to crisis. Forty years on, we have yet to bury the ghost of May 13. Old wounds cannot be allowed to remain unhealed. The nation needs to go through the painful process of reconciliation and atonement to redeem ourselves. We can either continue to bury our heads with unuseful facts of May 13 or we can seek the truth about it. And the truth will indeed set us free. That’s a liberating proposition. The choice remains with each of us to make the difference. (By BOB TEOH/MySinchew)

The critical 30 minutes

2009-05-14 16:41

WHILE WE remember the 40th anniversary of the May 13 tragedy, we should move on. It’s time for closure of the sad, very sad incident. The tragic and vicious incident need not have happened had Tun Razak’s message to Datuk Harun Idris, the Mentri Besar of Selangor, reached him 30 minutes earlier or had Tan Sri David Tan Chee Khoon and Tun Lim Chong Eu spoken to Razak 30 minutes earlier relaying their decision not to cooperate with DAP to form the state government of Selangor nor to work together in Perak and elsewhere.

I was beside Razak when he took the calls from them late past tea time on the fateful evening of May 13. I recall clearly what Razak told Harun,”…the good news is you will continue to run Selangor. Chee Khoon and Chong Eu had just spoken to me that they want status quo preserved. So tell the people gathering at your house to disperse.”

Harun thanked Razak and asked him to convey his gratitude to the two statesmen. Between five and ten minutes after that Harun rang Razak to say that it was too late. As he was persuading them to disperse news reached the crowd that clashes had begun in Chow Kit Road and surroundings and beyond.

Razak asked Harun to calm the gathering and urged him, in strong terms, to attempt his best to stop the clashes from escalating. The rest, as they say, is history. Though Harun and I were not on good political terms, I must be fair. I think he did try, but by then, to no avail.

I left for home about maghrib. I informed Musa Hitam what had happened and he asked his family to rush to my house in Jalan Bukit Bintang, a very Chinese area, and there was no trouble. I assured my Chinese neighbours and they, in turn, assured me we would work together maintain peace and confront whoever the outside trouble makers would be. Thank God, the troubles were localised.

This is just speculation. Had communications then been as good and advanced as today, I think the two things could have occurred: race riots would not have started or they could have been more brutal and widespread.

When the Pakatak Ralyat coalition unseated the BN govenrments in Selangor, Perak, Penang and Kedah last 8 March, there was no tensions, perhaps because every one was in a state of shock but plausibly, too, the incoming governments of PKR, DAP and PAS like the defeated ones, were also interracial.

The PKR, DAP and PAS alliance should be preserved. The PKR is about the nearest thing to being a genuine multi-racial party. There shall never be another May 13 like incident if the ruling coalition and the Pakatan share power or are perceived to be sharing power fairly and the government, whether Federal or State, observes the Constitution scrupulously, implements government policies justly without fear or favour where talent is not only recognised but rewarded irrespective of race or religion.

The public as well as the private sector must display and reflect that of the society we live in, not what we want it to be. The Bumiputra must accept unequivocally the others are co-owners of this country as much as the others must also accept, recognise, and acknowledge unequivocally the Bumipiutra as the biggest demographic group and growing, therefore deserves more entitlements, though not at the expense of fair play.

I am not a soothsayer nor a prophet of doom. I strive to tell what I perceive to be the truth. It does not seem the future of democracy in our nation is bright. A genuine two-party system is at last evolving after five decades of Merdeka.

If the Pakatan Rakyat state governments deliver what they promised and the Barisan stays cohesive and the rakyat see the bond or linkage is sustained, the alliance can be potentially potent.

However, having said that, please make no mistake of misjudging Najib. He is no Badawi; they are from different educational and social background. Najib is Tun Razak’s son. He is more familiar with the viles of Malaysian voters; he is postively more Machiavellian, positively more able and aware than his predecessor who was badly advised by his family, cronies and toadies in government and the media.

If Najib performs well and the economy recovers, he is a tough nut to crack. His 1 Malaysia is good and if he is not distracted, and properly advised, you all will face a tough time. You must at least be well prepared and ready.

Najib may falter, which I think is not impossible, for he is not infallible. I am also very conscious how fallible I can be.

In politics, a week is a long time and logic doesn’t always work. Always work hard and one must also do what one feels is right. The correct and sensible thing to do is to ensure that all Malaysians are treated justly in the public as well as the private sector. Our deomocracy can only flourish if we have a strong, free and independent media. Our future is very bright if Najib can deliver what he promises and the Pakatan fulfil its pledges. We aren’t going to achieve what we desire. Worse if a nation is perceived to be not transparent, unjust and draconian. Let me repeat; a strong, free and independent media is critical for the future of Malaysian democracy.

The future of 1 Malaysia looks well if the PM can deliver what he promises and if the economy thrives. This can be done if we reconcile the past which none should forget with the present we must face, and the future we cannot avoid.

Whatever, the electoral test is in the next general elections. Najib has done well so far-challenging the rakyat’s mindsets, that we are getting more colour blind, that the society wants equality for all. The question is can he deliver or do Malaysians believe he is a reformer?

Najibis a pragmatist, a realist, devoid of any ideology. He faces many crucial challenges, realities and new pains especially in Perak. It seems change is imminent, but some people seem unaware of this.

If any country is perceived to be unstable that would not be good for foreign investment or trade. In 2008, the ruling party polled just 51 per cent of the popular votes. In the Peninsula, it was below 50 per cent, I think it was 49 per cent. I stand corrected.

The story next time, unless Najib could reverse the trend, isn’t likely to be very different from that of 2008, actually, it could be worse. The Pakatan will remain a force to be reckoned with, at least in 2012 or 2013 and in the future too.

All what Najib is trying to accomplish will be for naught if the country goes back to the days when political and social dissenters couldn’t speak freely and peaceful protests are squelched and media managed and muzzled.

I do hope Najib means what he says-more political and media openess. I think a real political battle which vaguely approximates the best tradition has just begun; a personal battle between Najib and Anwar, BN and Pakatan; DAP and MCA and Gerakan; the MIC, PPP and Hindraf; Umno and PAS and the PKR bumiputra. The BN can no longer boast it can now be itensely relaxed as previously.

The outcome of which will decide the nature and feature of Malaysian nationhood. In the last analysis, who wins or loses, will be decided by the voters’ perception of Najib and Anwar, their ideals and visions. (By ABDULLAH AHMAD/MySinchew)

(A former Parliamentarian and ambassador, ABDULLAH AHMAD was an aide to Tun Razak. He was previously NST group editor-in-chief and now a political anaylst and writer. This is the text of his speech at a forum on Wednesday 13 May in Petaling Jaya.)

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Nyah kamu, 13 Mei 1969! Forgetting May 13

1 Comment Add your own

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