This month Malaysia commemorated the 50th anniversary of one of the darkest episodes of its post-independence history, a convulsion of racial violence that still haunts the multi-ethnic nation.
The bloody race riots of May 13, 1969, saw explosive communal clashes between ethnic Malays and Chinese break out in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, leaving hundreds dead and a then young nation traumatized.
Five decades on, the date still looms large in the national consciousness and weighs like an albatross on the generations that lived through the carnage where as many as 800 may had been killed in an orgy of racial violence.
Then as now, race relations remain a delicate matter and at the center of multi-ethnic Malaysia’s long-enduring but controversial social contract that favors the ethnic Malay majority over minority Chinese and Indians, a construct that emerged in the riots’ aftermath with the 1971 New Economic Policy (NEP).
Over the years, various politicians have evoked the episode’s sectarian violence as a warning, often in the lead up to elections, that any challenge to the special rights and constitutionally-ascribed privileges enjoyed by Malays would upset the nation’s delicate balance and possibly lead to new bloodshed.
As successive Malaysian governments pursued modernization and delivered rapid economic growth in recent decades, some argue that Malaysia has matured to the point where racial clashes on the mass scale of 1969 are unlikely to reoccur.
Indeed, when last year’s historic election delivered a peaceful transition of power from the long-ruling United National Malays Organization (UMNO)-led coalition to the reform-oriented, more multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan, threats of post-election racial violence failed to materialize.
Still, there are signs of fragility. Those came to the fore during violence and rioting last November over a land dispute involving the relocation of a Hindu temple on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur to make way for a property development. A young firefighter was killed in the melee.
Police claim a large group of Malay men were hired by the property developer to take control of the building. Clashes with Hindu devotees erupted soon after and dozens were arrested in connection with the fracas. The government acknowledged the sensitivity of the episode and maintained that it was an isolated incident rather than a race riot.
Some believe the best way to prevent a repeat of the dark events of 50 years ago is through a truth and reconciliation-based reexamination of what actually occurred on May 13, 1969.
Kua Kia Soong, a scholar and human rights activist, has urged the Pakatan Harapan government to declassify official documents on the riots now held in the vaults of the Cabinet and Special Branch police department.
Originally published in 2007, Kua’s widely-read book, May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969, offers a controversial account of the racial clashes based on confidential dispatches and memoranda from the British High Commission (BHC) and Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), among other sources.
The book caused a sensation when it was released for radically challenging the officially sanctioned version of events. A white paper on the riots published in October 1969 by Malaysia’s emergency administrative body had until 2001 been the sole document on the matter in the National Archives. Its veracity, however, continues to be widely questioned.
According to the account, communal rioting broke out spontaneously as a result of opposition party supporters displaying “provocative behaviors” during celebratory parades after the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP) – now a part of the ruling Harapan coalition – and other opposition parties outperformed in the 1969 polls, Malaysia’s third general election since achieving independence from Great Britain in 1957.
Kua, however, maintains the clashes were deliberately planned and organized to warrant the declaration of emergency rule that effectively resulted in a coup d’état against then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in favor of his deputy Abdul Razak Hussein, who assumed control following the unrest and clinched the premiership in 1970.
The author, whose book was recently republished to mark May 13’s 50th anniversary, describes a factional struggle within UMNO, the lynchpin of the then ruling Alliance party, pitting the traditional aristocratic Malay ruling class – the local custodians of British interests – against ascendant Malay state-capitalists who sought a deeper institutionalization of pro-Malay affirmative action policies.
Comprised of distinct ethno-communal parties with separate racial identities, like the UMNO-led Barisan Nastional (BN) coalition that succeeded it, the Alliance was Britain’s preferred post-independence formula for inter-communal political cooperation. Ahead of the 1969 polls, there were signs the Alliance would see its worst-ever electoral showing as incomes stagnated and discontent festered among workers, farmers and sections of the middle class.
Malaysia’s constitution, then as now, contained provisions safeguarding the special position of bumiputra – ethnic Malays and indigenous peoples – which some non-Malays resented and viewed as discriminatory. Malays comprised nearly 50% of the population at the time but largely languished in poverty and only held around 3% of the country’s wealth.
Against a backdrop of widening communal polarization, the results of the 1969 general elections shook the status quo and handed gains to ethnic Chinese-dominated opposition parties DAP and Gerakan, upsetting the Alliance edifice and leading to a hung parliament in the state of Selangor where celebratory parades featured provocative slogans and symbols such as a broom to “sweep out” the Malays.
Clashes between Malays and Chinese broke out that evening and spiraled into rioting and street fighting that rapidly spread across Kuala Lumpur as mobs armed with crude weapons attacked bystanders and set fire to Chinese and Indian shophouses, homes and vehicles. Chinese and Indians in turn attacked Malay-owned businesses and vehicles, and attempted to burn down UMNO’s headquarters.
Security officers were given a shoot-to-kill order and bodies brought to the general hospital were, according to a Malaysiakini report, “nearly all Chinese and almost all [had] gunshot wounds. Many were shot at close range.” As the causalities multiplied, numerous witness accounts suggest that security forces did not act impartially.
“In the past few days from our windows we have seen burnings, destruction on a wide scale, and bodies in rivers, fighting, machine gun fire on crowds and above all, a sense of fear and horror in what a week ago was a relatively happy city,” read a confidential BHC memorandum cited by Kua. “The people in this country are going to have to learn to live with each other all over again. It isn’t going to be easy.”
Emergency rule was proclaimed two days later on May 15, which suspended parliament and stopped elections from being held in the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. The National Operations Council (NOC), a caretaker administrative body, was soon formed with then deputy premier Razak appointed as director of operations by the Tunku.
The NOC curtailed media reporting and imposed repressive laws characteristic of the earlier emergency period of 1948-1960 when an undeclared war raged between guerrilla fighters of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) and the former British colonial government.
Following the riots, Tunku and other Malaysian leaders blamed the violence on communist agents, an attribution they shortly after admitted had been false.
British officials found the claims suspect from the start: “… to present what was evidently a racial clash as a violent communist revolt would be disbelieved in practically every overseas capital,” read one cable, while other declassified documents pointed to “individual instances of partiality by Malay military and police personnel against the Chinese.”
“For some three weeks now, we have been trying to assess the degree of communist involvement in the rioting which began on 13 May. The short answer is: none. Two large groups, who at the time of their mass arrest, were described as ‘communist terrorists’ have now been admitted by the police to be ordinary Chinese thugs,” read an FCO dispatch.
“To blame the disturbances on communist terrorists gave added justification for the assumption of authoritarian powers … [Tunku] was not prepared for political reasons to blame his own people… the government drew a veil over the undeniable fact that in this case the Malays were the chief aggressors,” noted confidential BHC documents.
Kua argues that the ascendance of Razak – the father of Malaysia’s sixth and recently ousted prime minister, Najib Razak – empowered a state-capitalist class that sought to establish Malay-centric economic, educational and cultural policies as law to remedy the vast inequality between the nation’s principal ethnic group and comparably prosperous ethnic minorities.
“Razak put much stress on the need to reaffirm the indefinite application of the entrenched special rights for Malays in the Constitution,” read a declassified telegram. “From all Razak had said it seemed he believed that any attempt at accommodation with the Chinese would cause the Malays to lose the ‘power-edge’ they maintained,” read a separate cable.
“The last few days have given further evidence that Razak and his immediate colleagues intend to retain the administration of the whole country firmly in their own hands,” noted one dispatch, with another stating Razak had “made it clear privately that he is completely in charge of the country.”
Widely censured for the unrest, the Tunku, known as the father of Malaysia’s independence, had little choice but to resign, which he did in September 1970.
The NEP was introduced in 1971 by Razak to address the economic and social imbalances that contributed to racial polarization through the imposition of state subsidies aimed at nurturing a professional Malay middle class, compulsory shareholdings and a strict permit and license system on large sections of the economy.
Tunku candidly accused UMNO leaders – including now incumbent Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – of “working with Razak to oust me, to take over my place” during a 1988 interview with his biographer. Mahathir was publicly critical of Tunku’s leadership and played a key role agitating for his resignation by squarely blaming him for the 1969 riots.
Mahathir was eventually sacked by Tunku but was later restored at Razak’s behest, re-entering the political fold as his education minister in 1974. The state-supported Malay business class envisaged by Razak would eventually emerge in earnest amid the heady economic growth of Mahathir’s first 1981-2003 premiership.
The NEP was originally meant to last two decades but has remained as a semi-permanent policy with race-based affirmative action measures still firmly in place, much to the chagrin of critics who argue that such measures have enriched the better-off through rent-seeking and patronage while doing little for the poorest Malay communities.
Having toppled Razak’s scandal-plagued son in last year’s watershed election, Mahathir is once more in control, though this time his coalition partners include those who have long called for the reform of race-based policies that fuel ethnically-specific crony capitalism in favor of needs-based policies aimed at uplifting low-income Malaysians regardless of race.
Predictably, attempts to ratify rights-related treaties by Mahathir’s reform-oriented coalition have met stiff resistance from UMNO and their supporters. Faced with the opposition’s potent ethno-nationalist populism, efforts to reform race-based affirmative action policies risk upsetting grassroots Malays that are an essential vote bank for the ruling coalition.
Likewise, sanctioning a re-examination of the May 13 tragedy carries the risk of handing the opposition further ammunition because a probe would almost certainly be construed as a challenge to the legitimacy of the post-1969 pro-Malay system that many in the community regard as fundamental to the survival and dominance of their ethnicity and faith.
Kua and others have called for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission to help Malaysians reconcile the events of 50 years ago, one modeled after South Africa’s post-apartheid hearings on human rights violations that occurred under white rule, which sought to promote national healing without prosecuting individuals for past crimes.
“Will study,” was Mahathir’s terse reply to reporters when asked about the possibility of setting up a May 13 commission earlier this month. Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin recently said there have been no formal requests to declassify official documents on the matter and stressed the government was focused on “the present and the future.”
“It’s clear that the trauma inflicted on the community is still there,” said Kua, who told Asia Times he has spent recent weeks organizing visits to the cemetery at Sungai Buloh, a verdant patch on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur where many of May 13’s victims lay. Numerous tombstones marked “Unidentified Chinese” protrude from the grassy plot.
“I didn’t realize the extent of the trauma on the families of victims. Many have not dared to go to pay their respects to the victims, some have gone there for the first time after 50 years,” he said. According to the NOC report, a total of 196 people died, though foreign and diplomatic sources put the number closer to 800.
“A truth and reconciliation commission is the most appropriate way to put all this behind us. Such a commission is intended to provide restorative and not retributive justice; it is not aimed at settling old scores or charging anyone for the crimes so there needn’t be fears of sensitivity. Getting to the truth and closure is just as important,” the author said.