The scale of the response to my book, May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969, published in 2007, was so overwhelming that it took the public and the author by surprise.
The book certainly struck a chord among Malaysians longing for release of years of pent-up emotion around this dark episode in Malaysian history, an episode that had soured ethnic relations ever since.
I have now republished a 50th-anniversary edition of the book with a new preface on the contemporary political scenario in Malaysia.
The main thesis of this book is that the orchestrated pogrom against the ethnic Chinese in Kuala Lumpur in 1969 was actually an attempt by the emergent Malay state capitalist class to create a situation to justify the coup d’etat against then prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in the state of emergency that followed.
At the same time, this new ruling class set out to warn all challenges to the status quo that any questioning of “Malay Dominance” (Ketuanan Melayu) thereafter would face possible “May 13” bloodletting.
As recently as July 2014, Muhyiddin Yassin, then deputy prime minister, did just that.
The evidence supporting the book’s central thesis clearly explodes the myth created by the Malaysian state that the May 13 incident was a spontaneous riot between “the Malays” and “the Chinese” following the 1969 general election, caused by “insensitive provocation by the Chinese-based opposition”.
How many and who were the victims of May 13?
We owe it to those who perished during the pogrom to at least register their unfortunate demise and grant some reparation to their loved ones. Where are the mass graves, besides those at Sungai Buluh? There are other stories about corpses being tarred to conceal their ethnic identities, corroborated by doctors working at Kuala Lumpur hospitals at the time.
As at Wang Kelian recently, their bodies should be exhumed and identified and the cause of death determined, considering so many were tarred and buried without ceremony.
These are facts that a Truth & Reconciliation Commission can uncover about events at that time through listening to testimonies from victims’ families and friends; doctors and nurses on duty at hospitals; Red Cross staff who played an important role then; policemen and soldiers on duty; politicians and journalists who covered the event; and of course our ubiquitous Special Branch.
Public institutions such as hospitals, the police and Special Branch should be made to open their files to the commission as a basis for restoring truth and reconciliation.
Time to declassify our own May 13 secrets
Perhaps now that the supposedly “new” PH government is in power, it is time to act like a mature and enlightened democracy and declassify the official secrets in the vaults of the Cabinet and the Special Branch. We will then be able to get to the full story of the May 13 incident now that it is already 50 years since it happened.
Official records in the UK are declassified after 30 years and that is how I was able to research the May 13 documents.
So, is the government and our historians interested in what really happened in May 1969 — who started the violence; who were the “hidden hands” alluded to in Said Zahari’s immortal poem on the incident; how many casualties there were really?
Or are they more interested in the status quo and peddling the same old ghost story that we no longer believe in?
The reason the publication of this book created such a sensation was that many Malaysians do not find the official versions credible.
The official statistics on the casualties during May 13 are the least credible of all. I may not have been there but my brother-in-law was a professor at the then University Hospital at the time and my brother was a medical student at University of Malaya, too.
A neighbour, who was a medical student at the time, had to help deal with the bodies.
Since the publication of this book, I have received many more eye-witness accounts and they all confirm that the number of bodies, many of which were tarred to conceal their ethnicity, certainly exceeded the official figures. The documents in the book testify as much to this fact.
And what has happened to the Freedom of Information Act promised by PH in their GE14 manifesto? Will we be able to ask for information on May 13 if and when this FoI Act is legislated? Only time will tell…
May 13 Truth & Reconciliation Commission
For Malaysians to thoroughly exorcise the May 13 ghost, we need to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to uncover the culprits responsible for orchestrating the pogrom; to identify and document the victims and to pay respects to all those who lost their lives; to hear the testimonies of the police, the army, hospital staff and participants, as well as to hear from all those who were traumatised during those weeks in 1969.
Compared to South Africa’s acrimonious and long saga of apartheid rule, Malaysia’s May 13 incident will not incur the same time and effort that the South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission went through.
South Africa’s truth commission was established by the new South African government in 1995 to help bring about a reconciliation of its people by uncovering the truth about human rights violations that had occurred during the period of apartheid.
Its emphasis was on getting to the truth and not on prosecuting individuals for past crimes.
The commission was open to the public and allowed victims or their loved ones to tell their story. These documented accounts then became public record, which helps deter the possibility of any denial of the history.
In 1999, Rwanda began its National Unity and Reconciliation Commission in order to work towards a reconciliation of the conflicting parties involved in the Rwandan civil war and the Rwandan genocide, with the eventual goal of reunifying the country’s citizens.
Isn’t it time for a May 13 truth and reconciliation commission to finally put to rest the ghost of May 13, to have the courage to record and confront our real history, just as Germany has done for its part in the last war, and to bring about meaningful reconciliation of our peoples once and for all?
A monument to May 13 victims
A newly-restored World War 2 monument in Kedah recently sparked anger after a sign described three Japanese soldiers honoured as “heroes”.
The Japanese occupation of Malaya during the war was marked by brutality and unspeakable atrocities, especially against the ethnic Chinese in Malaya and Singapore.
Now, 50 years on from the May 13 incident, imagine the powerful impact it would have if the government of the day were to use this anniversary as an opportunity to remember its past and honour the victims of the pogrom.
A monument to the victims of May 13 would more than ever stand for the fundamental importance of human rights, and against the racist violence that was responsible for the pogrom.
If we are truly to become a nation at peace with itself, the symbolic value of such a monument can no longer be ignored.
Umno remains political force
Admittedly, Umno remains a political force that will continue to harp on “Malay supremacy” since it remains one of the biggest parties in the federal Parliament.
After BN lost Penang in the 2008 general election, Penang Umno retaliated by taking to the streets of Seberang Jaya in the hundreds chanting “Hidup Melayu” with provocative banners, including one asking if the state’s ruling coalition wanted another May 13.
One leader added, “If we lose our patience, please don’t blame us.” Once again, they had let the cat out of the bag. Such a response by Umno, among others, merely confirms the thesis of my book that the May 13 pogrom in 1969 had been orchestrated.
Since the 14th general election in 2018 and the survival of Umno and PAS as the choice of the majority of Malay voters, the prime minister has once again been pandering to Malay supremacist demands.
The recent flip-flops over the ratification of the International Convention on the Eradication of Racial Discrimination and the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court are alarming signs of the lack of commitment to human rights by the ruling Pakatan Harapan government.
Article 7 of the ICC is particularly relevant for bringing to justice those responsible for “crimes against humanity”, such as that which happened on May 13 in Malaysia or the anti-Chinese pogroms in Indonesia in 1965 and 1998.
Today, the opponents of ICERD are so emboldened that they can openly declare that they will unleash May 13 if the government goes ahead with the ratification of the convention!
It reminds us of the prelude to Operation Lallang in 1987 when Umno Youth threatened to hold a 500,000-strong rally in Kuala Lumpur against the Chinese educationists who were protesting against unqualified administrators being sent to Chinese schools.
Instead of acting against the organisers of this threat, we the civil society members were arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act.
Since there is no political will expressed by the new government to ratify ICERD, it looks like we are stuck with the never-ending, racially-defined economic, social and cultural policies for some time yet.
For a start, how could there be any political will when the prime minister himself is the leader of a racially-based party meant exclusively for “Pribumis”?
Aside from the PM’s race-based party, the other supposedly “democratic” and “multi-ethnic” component parties of the PH coalition have failed the Malaysian people in the same way that MCA and MIC failed them by condoning the racial discrimination of the previous BN administration.
By failing to ratify the ICERD, the new PH government can carry on with all the racially-discriminatory policies and measures that we have seen in the past, especially since 1971, notably the APs (approved permits) scandal and the crony capitalism all these years, the abuse of the quota system, especially the apartheid “Bumis Only” policy at UiTM. These are the real legacies of the May 13 incident.
May 13 will remain a spectre haunting the Malaysian collective conscience as long as racism and racial discrimination are not outlawed in our society.
Sadly, without any indication that the current government will launch a truth and reconciliation commission, or even erect a memorial to those who perished in order to lay this ghost to rest, this book remains as relevant today as it was in 2007.
Kia Kua Soong is adviser to Suaram.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.