Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Moderating Reinterpretations of May 13

Written by johnleemk on 2:00:37 pm May 17, 2007.
Categories: ,

The racial riots that broke out on 13 May 1969 continue to haunt Malaysia. Even though the 38th anniversary of the riots recently passed, there was no commemoration, no mourning — virtually no recognition of the significance of this date.

This denial is obviously undesirable. It allows extreme reinterpretations of the event to flourish — some reinterpretations being so drastic that they throw common sense out the window altogether.

Of course, part of the problem lies in the fact that hardly anyone believes the official version of events. Officially, only 196 people were killed in the riots, but hardly any other source gives such a low figure; numbers as high as 10,000 have been bandied about, and even credible sources like Time have estimated that 2,000 people perished.

For this reason, it is common for people to deny the official version — the official version of an event the establishment would rather forget, because it exposes so many things that are wrong with our country.

One of the most common reinterpretations suggests that May 13 was a coup by radical Malay politicians to impose a totalitarian Malay regime, throwing out the idea of paying even lip service to the ideal that Malaysia is for Malaysians.

Now, there is substantial evidence to indicate that May 13 is a conspiracy. Loads of it, in fact; I think very few political scientists acquainted with the situation believe that May 13 just happened. (Considering the riots arose spontaneously in several different areas within the span of 45 minutes, it's difficult to reach such a conclusion.)

The problem with this reinterpretation of events is that it is often carried too far. The official version, for example, would have it that we were divided by racial differences accentuated by the economic gap between the Malay and Chinese communities.

So, the unofficial extremist version — which is propounded by many educated people — is that no such differences existed; despite the economic gap, May 13 only happened because it was stirred up by conspirators in the government/UMNO. We can throw out policies like the New Economic Policy, meant to erase the identification of race with economic function, because they are predicated on a false reality.

This thinking could be true. But to deny that it is impossible to have a united nation with such glaring income disparities — be they intra- or interracial — is to succumb to the same sort of denial that the establishment has deluded itself with.

Moreover, prominent commentators like Raja Petra Kamarudin and Bakri Musa have suggested that May 13 would have occurred at some point eventually. Raja Petra points out that many of the areas where the rioting broke out where dominated by racial gangs and secret societies.

Bakri, like many political scientists, suggests that the income disparity would have eventually triggered bouts of violence anyway. This is corroborated by the fact that small-scale riots did occur on more than one occasion in West Malaysia during the 1960s; few political scientists insist that economic disparities or racial sensitivities had nothing to do with the riots.

May 13 is a horrifying and horrible event because it is a very uncomfortable and ambiguous incident. There are no heroes in this saga; only villains of varying degrees.

After all, the rioting broke out initially outside the house of Harun Idris, then the Selangor Menteri Besar, because he had organised an UMNO rally. And in the days leading up to the riots, the predominantly Chinese opposition parties hurled ethnic slurs like nobody's business, proclaiming Kuala Lumpur to belong to the Chinese, and telling the Malays to "balik kampung".

In the wake of May 13, no politician could claim to have his hands clean. Only the unsung Malaysian heroes who put aside ethnic differences can stake any claim to the moral high ground.

We cannot afford to let extremist interpretations of this incident, be they the delusional establishment version or just illogical antiestablishment version, take root. May 13 is a Malaysian tragedy, and one with far more complex lessons than "The opposition/Chinese/government/Malays/NEP/Malaysian Malaysia are always wrong/right."


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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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