May 13: How do we remember the darkest day in Malaysian history?

May 13: How do we remember the darkest day in Malaysian history?
MAY 13: We must learn from the past to protect the future.
KUALA LUMPUR: In 1969, exactly 45 years ago, the blood of different races was spilt in the city streets. The Chinese and Malays clashed in riots that resulted in the killing of at least 196 people, if not more.

Today, on its anniversary, we again ask ourselves: how should we remember the 'darkest day in Malaysian history'?

Some continue to use it as a tool for fear and hatred but some want to forge unity and reconciliation with it. Some want to rediscover history events and expand its prominence in textbooks while others just want to hide it or forget it entirely.

The people Astro AWANI spoke to – an economist, a former police man, an academic-cum-activist and a politician – all agreed on one thing: we must learn from the past to protect the future.

'Fear of another May 13'

“Nothing is stopping it from happening again,” warned Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, who now heads the Inclusive Development Committee of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC).

Unless the country’s leaders “take action”, the situation in the country might, in his opinion, again spiral into unrest, one that perhaps would be class-based rather than race-based.

The former government officer said, firstly, the incident should be recognised as a fact of history and not “pushed under the carpet”, with genuine research to “find out more of the truth and why and how it happened”.

For him, the root cause of May 13 was the “perceived imbalance and unfairness between races”.
Today in Malaysia, said Ramon, the situation has become worse, and it was not just between the races (inter-racial) but intra-racial.

“Even between the Malays, income disparity has widened. The Malays are asking: what am I getting? Where is the money going? Is that right or fair? Is that religious? Is that Islamic? Is that true Malay nationalism? Or is it used to exploit the masses? The Indians and Chinese say the same thing also.”

The head of the ASLI Centre of Public Policy Studies said the country cannot have “short-sighted politicians" who want to exploit race and religion to benefit themselves, or those who promote corruption and cronyism and discriminatory religious policies.

‘Ride the boat properly, don’t let it sink’

Even as Ramon spoke of those who would stand by to allow riots to happen, a former top cop reminded of those who would sacrifice themselves to prevent them.

Tan Sri Zaman Khan, who was a district police chief in Butterworth at the time, said what impressed him most on that fateful day was the dedication of his men, despite having to work round-the-clock.

“It was a Monday. Our boys were dead tired but they responded and came out. My God, they stood on duty,” said Zaman, who said he received reports of only nine attempted arson and no loss of life during his watch.

May 13, said Zaman, would always be remembered with gloom as he realised that things “would not be good for the country” when people voted along ethnic and racial lines in Penang.

“When the Alliance, the BN then, lost the whole of Penang, the voting trend clearly showed a racial divide,” he said. The concept of “give and take” by the Alliance then, he felt, was the best concept for the nation to prosper.

Zaman said whenever he recounts his experience of May 13 to his children and grandchildren, he would always remind them to “ride the boat properly” or else it might sink.

“Don’t rock the boat. I don’t think we should all keep quiet. We should demand our rights, (but) we have to respect one another. There is a book called the constitution, we should abide by it, and we should never resort to violence,” he said.

Zaman said it was not fair for some Chinese and Indians to feel like second class citizens, noting that many “own skyscrapers and ride Mercedes”.

“Things may not be 100 percent equal but we must remember the boat must go somewhere. Let us paddle our boats in a proper way. Don’t treat others as second or third class citizens,” he said.

‘Ketuanan Melayu became louder after May 13’

Remembering May 13, for academician and activist Dr Wong Chin Huat, was to understand the simple lesson that inter-ethnic inequality makes democracy untenable.

“In 1946 when British prepared Malaya for decolonisation, a question was posed: whether common citizenship and cultural diversity is compatible?

“If you answer ‘Yes’, it will lead to a Malaysian Malaysia. When you say ‘No’, it will be 'ketuanan Melayu'. On May 13, it is a critical point where Malaysia became a one-party state after this 'ketuanan Melayu' gained ground. Democracy was reversed.”

Wong said today “inequality still persists” in Malaysia and the people are still "made to believe that every problem in this country is one between the Malay/Muslims versus the non-Malays/Muslim divide”.

“It is time for us to break from this 1946 hangover and 1969 dark history to forge a common future where no one is excluded because of group membership or physical condition,” he said.

'New generation, new politics'

For DAP’s Bukit Bendera MP Zairil Khir Johari, May 13 was a “line” that created a dichotomy in Malaysian history, splitting two generation of Malaysians.

“There are the pre-69 and post-69. If you look at politics today, pre-69 still think and act in the racial framework, but post-69 brings new politics”

Zairil said May 13 should be remembered as as a lesson of how race can be used as a tool of violent mobilisation, but the incident should not be dwelt upon.

“It is in the past, the context no longer exists. To the post-69 generation, May13 is just a historical event. As with all events, we must learn from the mistakes and not repeat them. But beyond that, it shouldn't cast a shadow over us. That is the burden of the pre-69 generation."

He said the “post- 69 generation” must move beyond ethno-religious nationalism as 21st century politics demands that socio-eoconomic polcies that deal with increasing rapid urbanisation, rising inflation, corruption and poor governance.

"These are issues that affect all Malaysians and no amount of raced based policies will solve any of them."