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May 13, That Time of Year. May 12, 2007

Posted by Tim in Malaysia, Thoughts.

In his introduction for The Malay Dilemma Revisited, M. Bakri Musa comments that every nation has its day of infamy permanently etched in its collective memory:

The French have July 14, 1789, Bastille Day; the Americans, July 1, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg. Both events had their share of gory and grizzly moments that indelibly stained their nations’ histories. For Malaysia, it is May 13, 1969…

But unlike Bastille Day or the Battle of Gettysburg which is memorialized by their respective citizenries, Malaysians have no wish to acknowledge, let alone remember, that infamous day in May.

It’s that day soon. The newspapers will probably be running articles with Minister X telling us to “remember May 13” and remind us that only the Government can bring stability. Toss in stock assertions about “unquestionable Malay rights” and “the social contract that everyone agreed on” and you have our annual dose of political laxative.

The average Malaysian student will not be able to tell you what happened on May 13. I went looking through a few bookstores to confirm this: none of the SPM/STPM textbooks or workbooks elaborate on it. It is invariably referred to as “Peristiwa May 13“, a bogeyman vaguely connected with “perusuhan kaum” but with no specifics.

These days, though, you can look it up online – Wikipedia has an excellent entry, TIME has archived harrowing articles from May 23 and July 18 of that fateful year. A cursory search for “Malaysia ‘May 13’ 1969” on Google Books and Google Scholar returns about 400 results each.

A new book will also be released tomorrow by Dr Kua Kia Soong of New Era College, based on recently declassified information in London. According to him, the official version of May 13 is “nonsense”, the events before and after part of a conspiracy to overthrow the Tunku and establish Malay dominance. Of course, we can’t pass a judgement on the book until we actually read and analyze it. But that it would be plausible at all reflects on the implausibilities in the official version.

Admission of Failure? Or Another Agenda?

May 13 is treated like a blank cheque that endorses the Government. But shouldn’t the Government’s boast be that we are moving away from what happened on May 13? That we are on the way to narrowing the economic disparity between races, that we are a people matured enough to see more than colour? Constantly invoking May 13 is basically admitting that the Government has failed us, that we are all no better off, economically or socially, than we were in 1969.

Constantly implying that the Malays are ready to run amok, all this brandishing of kerises – this sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Monkey see, monkey do” becomes “Monkey listen, monkey do”. We all remember the furore last year over the calculation of Bumi-held equity. But the mind-boggling question is: shouldn’t the Government be proud if they succeeded in increasing the share of bumi equity? Was that not a main goal of the NEP?


Why do we have affirmative action? It is because the Malays need it, or because they have the right to it? The difference is everything.

I am all for the former – and not because the underprivileged are Malays; because they are Malaysian. This is a target that we can all aspire to, and a noble one. The latter is a dead end – yes, excellent for gathering votes in the short term by essentially doing the same thing as what the British did long ago – divide us along racial lines to make us manageable, and quoting Khoo Boon Teik’s conclusion in his analysis of ethnicity in Malaysia: “thrive on inequalities, chiefly by insistently imagining the fortune of one ethnic community to be the deprivation of another.”

Will it still make sense decades, centuries from now to invoke “ketuanan” Melayu, this “us” versus “them” mentality? In 2169 will we still have not moved on from 1969, still shamelessly saying “this is what we all agreed on“, or, like DPM Najib, conjure 400 years of imaginary “national debt”?

If the answer is “no”, then we are a doomed people indeed; if it’s “yes”, surely we could start now and avoid generations of Malaysians being told that their race divides them or that their favour comes from accidents of geography or birth; “all equal, but some more equal than others.” An article from The Age that was widely circulated some time back challenged: “it’s time Malaysia grew up”. Looking at the first serious survey of racism where not even half of us identify themselves as Malaysians first, we have not grown up.

In the run-up to the U.S. Presidential elections we see among the candidates a woman, an Italian (or two), an African-American, an Irishman, a Croatian. Yet anyone from the U.S. reading that last sentence would immediately correct me: race, religion, and gender are irrelevant; they are American, no matter where their ancestors came from. Is it too naive to imagine a time when we too will select our politicians based on the issues they stand for rather than the colour of their skin, when we view our Constitution with reverence, not fear?

We need to learn from May 13, not use it as an excuse; or we’ll be left grasping at history while the world leaves us behind.



1. Wilz - May 12, 2007

Most definitely your best post yet.

2. andrew - May 13, 2007

i have to agree.

love your research! great links. muacks muacks. :)

3. andrew - May 13, 2007

According to the survey, 58 percent of Malays, 63 percent of Chinese and 43 percent of Indians polled agreed that ”in general, most Malays are lazy.”

Meanwhile, 71 percent of Malays, 60 percent of Chinese and 47 percent of Indians agree that ”in general, most Chinese are greedy.” Sixty-four percent of Malays, 58 percent of Chinese and 20 percent of Indians agreed that ”in general, most Indians cannot be trusted.”

there’s a problem here though.

if i believe that in general, most people are greedy, lazy, and cannot be trusted, i would’ve answered yes to all those questions, even if i didn’t mean to stereotype.

the questions need to be reworked.

4. Tim - May 13, 2007

Well… misanthropy is worse than “mere” racism I’d say! I have to say that those stereotypes are spot on – not accurate per se, but those really are the kind of “observations” that people pass down.

The statistic that really stood out for me is that 42% of us don’t consider ourselves Malaysian first.

5. Hizami - May 19, 2007

Most excellent thoughts you have! Hope to see many more I do :) Thank you for a wonderful post – it’s good to remember May 13, so that we can take the tragedy back from our current cadre of opportunistic politicians, who do their best to hijack it every year and legitimise racial paranoia… a future Malaysia which cares not about race, but about need – a difficult future to create, but with people like you in the vanguard, we may yet get somewhere :)

PS. Thank you for your rejection of Rehman Rashid’s apathetic journalism – it’s apparent he’s fallen further than I thought from the days of The Malaysian Journey – which I enjoyed very much… ‘apathetic journalism’… ludicrous.

6. Tim - May 20, 2007

Welcome – and here I was thinking no one liked it :P. We are all the “vanguard” though: if BN is going to change, it’ll be our votes that force them to.

7. Why I am voting against BN « think it out* - March 6, 2008

[…] many rich Chinese? They must be taking the Malay share, so slap on bumi quotas. As I penned last May, we MUST stop telling Malaysians to identify themselves by race. That is the only way we will move […]

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