Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Overcoming the Spectre of May 13

Written by johnleemk on 3:21:48 am Apr 21, 2007.
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The events of May 13, 1969 have haunted Malaysian politics for decades. The brutal murder and massacre of at least two hundred people that day in Kuala Lumpur is something that remains taboo and painful to discuss today.

Taboo and painful, that is, unless you are the ruling Barisan Nasional regime and need to go fishing for votes by playing on people's fears. Thirty years after the events of May 13, BN leaders warned not so subtly that the racial riots could repeat themselves if they were not retained as the government.

The non-Malays are those most in fear of another May 13. On May 13, it was the Malays who rose up and slaughtered the non-Malays, mainly Chinese. There are Malays who pin the blame for the tragedy on the Chinese (especially the Chinese members of certain political parties), but the main and initial participators in the violence were unquestionably Malay.

Since the government has always been thought of as a Malay-dominated one, rather than a Malaysian one (there are even conspiracy theories suggesting that the government was behind the violence on May 13), any threats of another May 13 made by it have credibility.

What exactly would be the consequences of another May 13? After the initial rioting, two things can happen. The first is that a genocide on the scale of the Rwanda massacres in 1994 can occur; the second is that things can remain under control.

Unless the government openly lends its support to such butchery, it is unlikely that any sort of genocide can get under way; at the worst, we could be faced with several hundred deaths before the government gets things under control.

You might think that the government would not mind putting to death or deporting the millions of non-Malays in the country, but unless our leaders are all absolutely insane, it seems they would resist this temptation, for reasons to be discussed later.

What's to be feared is what would happen after the government gets things under control. As happened after May 13, the government would enact draconian and repressive laws that severely curtail freedom of speech and democracy for the sake of controlling "sensitive issues".

Moreover, because of the repeat of May 13's incidents, the government would claim further that Malaysians are not mature enough for democracy and public debate, and probably also make more hot air about the Malays not having enough the economy. (They probably have a decent share; they just can't divvy it up properly because the government's policies are skewed in favour of already rich Malays.)

Thus, new policies would be enacted to further oppress the non-Malays of Malaysia, and turn the country into an even worse version of the existing regime. Without the moderating hands of leaders like Tun Dr Ismail (the Deputy Prime Minister who, after the riots of May 13, rejected all attempts to turn the country into a dictatorship), another May 13 will guarantee the death of Malaysia as a democratic country.

But can this scenario actually play out? It's a plausible version of events, but such nightmares are, I would believe, not too probable. Chances are, the government would have no choice but to permit a peaceful transition of power after its defeat in an election.

Why do I say this? Because the government does not want to be an international pariah, and because, to a lesser extent, it does not want to be a domestic pariah.

Malaysia is not like Myanmar or Zimbabwe (at least, not yet). Unlike Myanmar, where the military regime refused to recognise the elections that installed an opposition government, or Zimbabwe, we are not isolated from the global economy.

Many major foreign multinationals have operations here, and our country is tied into the global economy by virtue of these. We also control the Malacca Straits, which is a major shipping lane.

The democracies of the free world do not want these waters falling into the hands of a government that would have no qualms about cooperating with other authoritarian dictatorships like China. Neither do the managers of foreign multinationals want to be participating in a country run by a government which does not recognise the results of elections, is an international pariah, and oppresses its own people.

The leaders of these countries and businesses would exert tremendous pressure on the Malaysian government to capitulate to the wishes of its people. Even if sabre-rattling from other countries does not solve the problem, economic pressure almost certainly will.

Many members of the ruling regime have interests in the businesses and multinationals that form the backbone of our economy. If the government does not gracefully give way, its members will find their own pockets hurting when multinationals pull out and government-linked companies without any consumers to buy their products collapse.

It's of course impossible to predict how the government may react to the election of a new government. It's not impossible for them to go crazy and instigate a racial riot, and then use this as an excuse to declare martial law. (Although technically we have been living in a state of emergency ever since May 13.)

But I would think that the odds are against this happening. And that is good enough for me to lend my support to efforts to throw out the corrupt regime that runs this country.

In the end, if you look at things, it comes down to two choices. Either you choose to support an effort to change things that will either result in immediate disaster or success, or choose to reject that effort, resulting in a disaster for the long run. The policies of the current regime are not sustainable, and are mainly predicated on easy oil money.

Don't let the spectre of May 13 cloud your thinking. Evaluate the political situation based on who would be the best government for the country, and not based on who would be least likely to start a sore loser's racial riot.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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