While decades of socio-economic advances have lessened the likelihood of another racial riot, analysts say the threat of racial riots, although small, still exists.
On May 13, 1969, violence broke out between the Malays and the Chinese, sparked off by an election setback for the Malay-dominated ruling alliance. The riots lasted several weeks, with the death toll said to be 196.
Politicians often raise the tragic incident to cow Malaysians into maintaining the status quo – one that had seen the ruling government in power for 55 years.
But while analysts did not rule out the possibility of another racial riot, they said it would only occur if manufactured by certain quarters.
“The threat of May 13 repeating itself is real but only if there are people manipulating the incident,” Prof James Chin of Monash University told FMT.
“It is not likely to happen spontaneously,” he stressed, adding that unlike other countries, violence was not inherent in Malaysia’s political culture.
“There are lots of right-wing groups, for example, certain Malay groups – you know what I’m talking about – who will be happy to have such riots take place,” he said.
Analyst Ong Kian Ming echoed this sentiment, saying that the incumbent government might be desperate enough to orchestrate a riot if the results of the general election were not in their favour.
“There are efforts by some quarters to create this fear-mongering in order to achieve political ground.
“If this continues, it is possible that if the election results are close, the incumbent government may feel desperate enough to manufacture violence in order to hold on to power,” he said.
But the USCI lecturer said that if any group attempted to use violence as an excuse to stay in power, it would most likely backfire.
“The Malaysian electorate is more mature now. If the incumbent government uses these dirty tactics, it will only hasten their departure. There will certainly be a backlash,” he said.
Malaysia has changed
Ong cited the many changes between Malaysians today and those four decades ago as proof that it was unlikely that another racial riot would manifest itself on its own accord.
“The Malaysian electorate is much more mature compared to the electorate in 1969. We can see that in the 2008 general election, where there was a peaceful transfer of power in five states.
“I think that is a testament that Malaysians have matured politically and will not fall into the racial bait trap,” he said.
Ong also said the rise of the Malay middle class would also make Malays less likely to engage in violence with their Chinese counterparts.
“The Malay middle class is much larger compared to that of 1969 and they would have a lot more to lose if the racial riots were to take place.
“That means many will do all they can to prevent something like this happening,” he said.
He added that there now existed a strong middle ground in civil society which would decrease the likelihood of racial rioting, citing the recent Bersih 3.0 rally for free and fair elections as an example.
“The Bersih movement, in which Malaysians from all ethnic groups took part in it, carried on without any incidence of violence. It was only until the police fired tear gas that violence arose,” he pointed out.