Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Learn the Right Lessons From May 13

Written by johnleemk on 2:46:32 pm May 22, 2007.
Categories: ,

In an earlier article on being careful about extremist interpretations of the events of 13 May 1969, I wrote that there are more complex lessons to be learned from May 13 than the simplistic drivel many people — especially those in the establishment — would have us swallow.

One lesson I am particularly fond of is that our old paradigms which insist on associating race with socioeconomic function had to go. At this point, the revisionists will point out that the riots were not caused by interethnic income disparities, but by a conspiracy in either the government or UMNO.

This may be very well true — but as (I think) Bakri Musa pointed out, if the riots had not occurred then, they would have broken out sooner or later. No country can go on with half its citizens being economic slaves to another, and the other half being political slaves to the latter.

Another lesson which many in the opposition seem to quietly accept but also quietly ignore is that there is no excuse for acting like pigheaded racists. The opposition parties' rallies may not have caused the riot, but they sure as hell weren't calculated to nurture national unity either.

(I mean, really, what possessed those insane buggers? The Chinese were complaining about being treated as second-class citizens in their own country, but then they went and yelled that Kuala Lumpur now belonged to the Chinese, and that the Malays should "balik kampung".)

Having said that, these are just two of many morals which I'm sure can be scooped from the debris and ruin (metaphorically speaking, since the literal debris was cleaned up long ago) left behind by the riots.

But there is one lesson we sure as hell shouldn't be taking — the idea that Malaysians are too mentally immature to handle freedom of speech, or worse, the truth.

Not too long ago, based on declassified British documents, former politician and social activist Kua Kia Soong released a book on the May 13 riots, blaming figures in the establishment for orchestrating the riots as a coup.

This controversial interpretation of the evidence may very well be true, and there is certainly a strong prima facie case. Naturally, the government's response has been to announce that it will be considering banning the book.

Recently, to my surprise, I read a blog comment by a seemingly well-educated Malaysian who said something to the effect of Malaysians not being mature enough to handle freedom of speech or the truth about the riots, and that Kua's book should indeed be banned.

Now, this is really the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. In the first place, there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech. As even many foreign activists campaigning against things like the Sedition Act have pointed out, the Act serves no purpose because any act to overtly stir up racial hatred would already be an offense of incitement. The Sedition Act thus becomes redundant for the purpose of stilling racial enmities.

Moreover, trying to plaster over the country's defects is one of the most possibly stupid things we can do. This "You can't handle the truth!" thinking is totally irrational, because I really fail to see how denying reality will make things any better. (As I've noted before, by knowing the unpleasant truth, we can at least have a starting point for turning it into something better.)

And really, who exactly is going to start rioting in the streets or beating up people from other races because they read Kua's book? How are Kua's allegations damaging to racial unity at all?

If anything, I imagine they would improve it, since if they are true, then the riots were not instigated by angry racial sentiments, but by politicians' greed. The truth then is that Malaysians are not so stupid as to start riots because they don't like someone else's skin colour.

But let's say Kua is wrong. What then? Think about it for a moment. Do you know anyone, anyone at all, who if you said "Hey, actually UMNO started the May 13 riots lah, those stupid buggers", would start raping women of the other race and burning down houses? I didn't think so.

We've allowed ourselves to become dominated by a climate of fear. But the fact is, despite our horrible immaturity (which is impossible to deny), the vast majority of Malaysians are far too docile to contemplate the cold-blooded murder and rape of others — especially over something as race.

Any actual racial riot which does occur will be because of irresponsible demagogues who brainwash the public, rather than because of actual public sentiment. Such incitement is easy to catch, Sedition Act or no Sedition Act. And, fortunately for us, there is no way revisiting the events of May 13 (unless that revisiting is to cast all the blame on one race alone — which ironically is what the official version of events does indirectly by blaming the mostly Chinese opposition) can constitute incitement, because Malaysians just aren't that stupid.

There are lessons to be learnt from May 13. It's time to step out from the shadow of its spectre, and enter into the light of truth.

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