PAUL Tan is director of studies at Genting Highlands’s Highlands International Boarding School. He studied in Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur, where his contemporaries included Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz and tycoon Tan Sri Dr Francis Yeoh. Fugitive blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin was his senior in school.
Paul Tan is also a survivor of 13 May 1969.
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of 13 May, The Nut Graph did an exclusive interview with Tan in Petaling Jaya on 7 May 2009. Here are his memories, fears and dreams, for all Malaysians.
TNG: When 13 May 1969 happened, was there an indication that things would come to this? Did it come as a complete shock?
Tan: It was an utter and complete shock. Well, we were not that politically conscious anyway. We knew that DAP had won the KL seat and all that, but that was all. The media in those days were very limited. If we needed news, we’d listen to the radio. Even televisions were limited in number.
May 13 happened when I was 15 years old, Form Three at the time. I was just sitting behind the first shopping complex, if you like. A place called Selangor Emporium. The memory is very vivid because I was sitting at my brother’s fruit stall. The picture is still very clear, I was sitting on a stool near the big fridge where we kept the fruits.
A deserted street in KL after curfew, two days after 13 May (Straits Times Image)
I think around 4-something pm, for some strange reason, everything suddenly went quiet. I mean, that was a very busy part of KL. Lots of cars, people walking about. But within less than 10 minutes, suddenly the whole street went quiet. People closed (their) shops.
Out of the blue, someone said these words in Chinese, “The Malays are killing the Chinese.”
Within 10 minutes, our stall was closed and we ran upstairs. We lived on the fifth floor of a block of flats near there. And then news began to trickle in — there were fights in the Chow Kit area.
In the next few hours, we heard that there were people being killed. So everybody stayed indoors. And that night, we were really terrified.
Actually on the night of 13 May itself, my father and my three older brothers, who were already 20- and 30-plus, got together in a whole group of people. They said, “We need to protect ourselves.” Because from what we heard in the Kampung Baru area, the army came. We were told both the police and the army came, and instead of shooting at the perpetrators, they were shooting at our people.
Both the army and the police?
(Nods.) I actually have both an auntie and an uncle killed. On that evening itself. They had a shop [in Kampung Baru].
The most terrifying experience for me was three or four nights later. I was sleeping on a bunk bed. (Gestures.) My bunk bed is where I am and the window is where you are. At around 1am or 2am, I heard noises, people shouting. I got up and looked out the window. As soon as I did that, I heard the words, “Tembak! Tembak!”
Then I went to my parents and my auntie. They said, “They’re here.” That’s all they said.
They didn’t know. We were all indoors. And then within half an hour, we heard the banging of doors. We thought, “That’s it. Tonight is our final night.” My auntie and my mother were hysterical.
Soldiers ransacked homes during 13 May
(© Chris Eyles / sxc.hu)
So it was like a siege?
(Nods.) The noises started on the eighth floor, and then the seventh, and then the sixth, and then the fifth. And then, fortunately, just before they got to our doorstep, my father came back. He said, “The soldiers are rounding up males.” Any males. So, if I wasn’t at home, if I was anywhere else, I would have been arrested.
After my father returned, the soldiers showed up. You know what they did once they got inside? They ransacked everything — cash, valuables.
These were the soldiers? Ransacking homes?
It was the soldiers who were banging on the doors all this while.
The next day we heard why they came. Apparently the day before, some of the young people who were guarding the flats from the balcony — because curfew was imposed — saw soldiers patrolling around. Some of them threw bottles at the soldiers. And that angered them.
You see, by that time, anyone who was Malay [Malaysian] living in our building was evacuated by the soldiers. In fact we were surprised, because on the second day, or third day, we couldn’t see our friends or neighbours. All the Malay [Malaysians] were taken away in army trucks.
After surviving 13 May, did your family continue to stay in the flat?
Yes. In fact, about three months later our Malay [Malaysian] neighbours came back.
Did things change when they came back?
No. We asked them, “Eh, where did you all go?” They told us, “Balik kampung.” And we didn’t question any further. Life resumed back to normal, I would say, after two months.
But did you talk about the horror to your Malay Malaysian neighbours?
No. I think we tried to suppress it as much as possible. We pretended it didn’t happen.
And they also pretended nothing happened?
Yes. Even in school things went back to normal. Except maybe one or two (Malay Malaysian) classmates who were quite radical and purposely agitated people. Saying, “May 13, May 13. You don’t try to be funny, ah?”
I can understand the radicals, but what I’m trying to grapple with is that this horrible thing happened. How could people go back to normal? This is what I’m thinking.
I think there was no avenue. You see, we were just told directly, indirectly, formally, informally, “It happened, it’s too bad. So you have to be careful because it could always happen again.” Those were the messages from the politicians. One of the major reasons why we could never forget is that every so often the politicians would remind us, “Be careful.”
They don’t let you forget. They remind you again and again and again.
I think that would be really great. Coming from all parties, especially from those who, like me, were directly affected.
Just acknowledge the pain and the suffering, as a nation, as a people. And then put it to rest. And determine that moving forward, we shall never, ever let this recur. That as Malaysians, this will never happen again.
But you know in any kind of conflict that people try to paint as a race or ethnic or religious conflict, you still hear amazing stories; such as in Bosnia you hear of Serbian families who sheltered or hid Muslim families and vice versa.
My third brother, a few years older than me, was working on Chow Kit Road in a mechanic’s shop. His boss told him to go home quickly since there was trouble and fighting in that area. He tried to go back to my uncle’s shop, which was — you know Coliseum cinema?
The Coliseum Cinema in 2007 (Pic by two hundred percent / Wikimedia commons)
Coliseum car park, first bicycle shop. There were a lot of panicking people trying to reach home. So that evening there were actually Indian and Malay [Malaysians] needing a place to hide.
So your uncle, the Chinese Malaysian, protected Indian and Malay Malaysians?
Yes, because there was trouble. People were killing each other, so obviously they needed protection. But obviously there was a limit as to the number of people he could hide in his shop.
And did you hear more stories about Malay Malaysians who protected Chinese Malaysians and so on?
Yes. I think in the Kampung Baru area, I had distant family and friends who were helped by their Malay [Malaysian] friends.
So it makes you wonder where all the fighting came from. If so many people right in the thick of it were trying to protect each other, who started the violence? That’s the question we’re all asking now, right?
We heard a version at that time. You want to hear our version?
(Pic by Andrzej Gdula / sxc.hu)
It was (former Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri) Harun (Idris) — he was the instigator. Because eyewitnesses from that area saw, from the morning of 12 May 1969, there were many who came from the kampungs and gathered in his padang. At exactly the time that it happened, or slightly before that, eyewitnesses saw a group of them actually chanting — they were wearing red headbands — and then at around 4pm they charged out with their parangs. This is all from the people who were around there who had their families killed.
In this country we have a legacy of politics being equal to race and race being equal to politics. But what I’m hearing from you is that this is a post-1969 legacy. What you’re saying is that in your generation, this was definitely not the case.
Definitely not. In school, if we could afford the five-cent iced drink from the canteen, one cup would be shared among four or five friends. Multiracial. We would all take sips.
Even among your Malay-Muslim Malaysian friends?
Yes! That’s what I mean — the whole group, we were all friends. Malay [Malaysians], Chinese [Malaysians], Indian [Malaysians], Sikh [Malaysians] — we would share from the same glass, no second thoughts. That was our upbringing, right through to secondary school. Many of us came from poor backgrounds — sharing was second nature. There was no second thought about it.
We all went to the same places to eat. If I were to eat pork, my other friends would just not touch it. They would order their own stuff.
After 8 March 2008, we’ve seen a lot of Barisan Nasional leaders and supporters defending ketuanan Melayu. And the implication is that if we challenge ketuanan Melayu, we could see a repeat of May 13. So as a survivor of May 13, what would be your response to them?
I am just delighted that Malaysian-ness is being revived in that sense. That there are so many people who, regardless of race, are saying, “Hey, forget about this issue. Don’t use it anymore. Let’s move on.” So to me that’s why there’s still that glimmer of hope that we can do it. People who use it are bankrupt. I was really delighted after March 8.
I really wish that we as a nation can reconcile, forget and move on, as truly one people.