Remembering and reimagining May 13: 50 years later

50 years. That’s how long Dr Lim Teck Ghee has kept his experiences of May 13, 1969 out of the public eye. Though his voice was calm and his words measured, they were underscored by a grave and profound terror that silenced the crowded hall of Gerakbudaya that night. He was one of three panelists at the screening of The Star R.AGE’s documentary May 13: 50 Years Later and discussion hosted by Imagined Malaysia.

“Tonight is the first time that I’m publicly speaking about my memories from that day – from those days of shame and infamy. May 13 not only scarred our national psyche to the core, but it has, for me, recurred frequently in my dreams and my nightmares,” he said.

An acclaimed writer and academician who has worked with the World Bank and United Nations, Lim was working as a graduate student at the National Archives in Petaling Jaya Old Town at the time, staying near Jalan Gasing with his wife. The couple would typically go out for supper together near University Malaya or at Satellite Restaurant.

“That night, we stayed back and heard the sound of drums beating loudly. They must have been coming across from Kampung Kerinchi. There were gunshots. And a lot of smoke. There was a burnt smell around the area.

“Those memories of drums beating – they are exaggerated because the drums beat for close to two months – all through May and all through June; in the evening, in the middle of the night, in the early morning. Because we were so close to Kampung Kerinchi, we never knew if there was going to be a crossing over of the violence,” he said.

From left to right: Dr Kua Kia Soong, Dr Lim Teck Ghee and Dr Diana Wong

This atmosphere of constant fear was not something Lim experienced alone. For the next few months, motorists along the Federal Highway would u-turn in panic every time traffic built up. This was after learning that a lot of the killings had happened along the highway, he shared. 

On top of that, the fear was exacerbated by word-of-mouth rumours in those days before text messaging and social media. Like Lim, many survivors of the May 13 riots have kept their memories to themselves. 

However, to mark the 50th anniversary of the incident, The Star R.AGE followed the footsteps of five survivors of the riots through Kuala Lumpur. 

For several of these interviewees, they were retracing their steps for the first time in 50 years. Many had avoided returning to the scenes of violence and trauma that they’d once experienced, and silently reflected on their memories before bravely recounting them in  the series of short documentaries filmed by R.AGE journalists.  

The Birth of the Bumiputera Agenda

To Dr Kua Kia Soong, author of May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969, this was not the first time he has listened to witnesses being unable to come to terms with the bloodshed of that day. 

He recounted a recent film screening of a movie about relatives visiting the Sungai Buloh Cemetery, which is a mass grave of over 100 people who lost their lives on May 13. One of these first-time visitors was a man whose eight family members passed away from asphyxiation as their were trapped on the upper story of their burning home. He had survived by jumping into a monsoon drain below.

“The fright, the terror is not just something that we feel. The victims themselves could not find the courage or motivation to go and visit the graves of their families,” Kua said.

Unfortunately, not all of the graves are marked and the identities of many of the dead remain a mystery until today.

“It’s been 50 years after May 13 and we’re still quibbling over who died. Some people think we’re asking for the moon when we ask to know exactly who they were. But in the case of Wang Kelian, we exhumed the bodies, found out who died and why they died. That’s the least you can do for a human being,” he said.

However, much of the federal investigation into the events on May 13 which were published by the National Operations Council (NOC) seems to have been rushed, lopsided and lacking key details. Kua questioned why there had not been deeper national inquiry into the bloody events of that day. 

He highlighted the retractions of statements from both Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first prime minister, as well as the NOC regarding the involvement of the Communist Party of Malaya and the Labour Party in the events May 13.

“Many people, including foreign journalists and foreign high commissions, had the idea that it was an orchestrated programme and that the security forces were not impartial,” Kua said.

He argued that his doctoral thesis – that May 13 was an attempt by the emergent state capitalist class to take control of the country and a coup against the aristocratic class headed by the Tunku – was not his conclusion alone. 

“You know Harun was one of those – Harun, Mahathir, Ghazali Shafie – who were all working with Razak to oust me, to take over my place…” Tunku Abdul Rahman had told journalist K Das, whose interviews with the nation’s first prime minister had been edited by Kua and published as The Tunku Tapes

What’s more is that the change in race relations and Malaysia’s ‘social contract’ as a result of May 13’s events had never been publicly addressed, Kua highlighted.

“The bumiputera agenda was formulated just a week after May 13. Bumiputera-ism was the ideology of the ruling class at the time,” he said.

In fact, the concept of bumiputera itself was not even in the Federal Constitution, Kua pointed out, noting that Article 153, which granted the Yang di-Pertuan Agong the responsibility for safeguarding the ‘special position’ of the Malays and had been amended in 1971 to include the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak, did not explicitly enshrine the concept of bumiputera or even ‘ketuanan Melayu.’

“The important thing is that status quo, the so-called social contract as we knew it, changed (with the) amendment of Article 153 of the Federal Constitution. And yet we no longer talk about it,” Kua said.

It was interesting to note, he added that the country’s police and armed forces were now more than 95% bumiputera.

“Looking at the eve of May 13, in 1968, the police division 1 (was) 45% Malay, 32% Chinese and 22% Indian,” he pointed out.

There had also been a significant change in the racial composition of the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) or riot police. “At that time it was almost 100% Chinese in the FRU in Batu Pahat. After May 13, they’d all resigned,” Kua noted.

“Reconciliation, not retribution”

What is still needed, both Lim and Kua emphasised, is a truth and reconciliation effort regarding that blackened day in Malaysia’s history.

“When we talk about reconciliation, people still ask us why we’re trying to dig up old bones (so to speak). But reconciliation – as has happened in South Africa and Rwanda – is about restorative justice. Nobody needs to be afraid of retribution (or) about being charged. The idea is to try to heal relations. The victims and their families are still so traumatised that they need to be healed,” Kua said.

But the third panellist of the night, Dr Diana Wong, stressed that a willingness to talk and an openness to conversation is necessary to achieve that truth and reconciliation as a nation.

Her comments came after one young member of the audience, Aiman, shared his connection to the May 13th riot growing up in a conservative Malay family. While his father would dismiss the subject, his mother recalls her own father telling the ”girls to hide in their mother’s house while the men guarded it because something was happening.”

“So there was no real conversation about what really happened. And I think those are the kinds of conversations that are missing from my generation because I feel that the textbooks don’t really say much,” Aiman said.

He opined that the impact of not understanding the implications of May 13 go “far beyond what my generation realises”, explaining that he had friends who held various beliefs about bumiputera entitlement.

“I think it’s important for our generation to talk about it and to understand how much that moment in history, and the lack of understanding (of it), actually affected our whole generation and our strength in diversity,” Aiman said.

Wong concurred with this view.

“In this moment, what we are beginning to remember, beginning to talk. The most important thing are these conversations, (which) are not going to be easy.

“We should provide the space as much as possible for conversation without closing it preemptively,” she said.

Wong also highlighted the current discussion of May 13 as an important moment in national history, as for the first time, it seems both the young and elderly are interested in the event.

“It seems to me that for the for the first time, we are collectively talking about May 13. I think shows that we are really at a critical and important transformative moment…what does it mean (to academicians and activists) that we have reached a time and place in our national history when we feel across generations that we can talk about this most traumatic event?” she said.

However, one has to be cognisant of the fact that Malaysia’s youth are only able to remember May 13 through the collective memories of their parents and families, among other sources.

“We have to recognise that memories are divergent. If they are not immediate, they are mediated. And if they are mediated, the question arises as to who the mediators (of these memories) are and what are they are mediating,” she added.

“Be brave, stand up and be counted”

For Cindy, another audience member, it was her mother’s memories and fears of May 13 that shaped her own life.

“My dad was working with Standard Chartered at the time and his bosses drove him home, so he was alright. But I spent more time at home with my mother, who would constantly tell me stories of what she went through,” Cindy shared.

“It wasn’t anything extreme or violent that happened to her, but the point is that all that fear was projected onto me throughout my life. So even though I didn’t go through (May 13), I grew up worrying,” she said. 

On the other hand, audience member TK Lim had been a student in Australia on that fateful day. As an active member of the student association, he had been told by another student on that day that they had “the funds and weaponry to start a revolution in Malaysia”.

“We went to the Malaysia hall, where there were a lot of communist materials and pamphlets. Then I realised that maybe there’s some truth in the official reason for the cause of May 13 (being) communism. But I was a student, I didn’t know what was happening,” he shared.

Choi, who had been a freshman at Universiti Malaya, recalled how he had be at a freshers party on the evening of May 13. 

“We were all dressed in our best and told to go to University Hospital to donate blood because there had been some rioting. And we organised ourselves into vigilante groups to keep watch the whole night. Whether you were Malay, Chinese, whichever – it didn’t matter,” he recounted.

Pausing to look at the crowd, his voice swelled with emotion.

“What I see, is so many young faces (that look) like my daughter who just graduated. She asked me, “Dad, what happened?” I told her that… my generation allowed this to happen.” 

“For 50 years, we allowed this racial and religious dialogue to dominate our lives. Tonight, I ask this of the young people here: what is the Malaysia we want?” Choi told the audience.

“Malaysia is yours today,” he added. “I told my daughter, you and your friends decide what you want. Be brave – to the young people here today – be brave, stand up and be counted.”

Photos / Video by Kalash Nanda Kumar