EVERY nation has its dark side of history. Some nations like Japan and Turkey do not have the courage to face their dark past — they would do anything to bury or alter history. Others like Germany, South Africa, and Australia bravely own up their historical sins — whether committed against other nations or their own people — so that they move on respectably.
It is therefore heartening to see how the 40th anniversary of the 13 May tragedy was commemorated this year. Every serious online media outfit published special features and analyses on it. The DAP’s Kampung Tunku state assemblyperson Lau Weng San even managed to attract a 3,000-strong multiethnic crowd to the forum From 513 to 1Malaysia: the future of Malaysian nation-building.
While the boldness to bid farewell to 13 May was clearly the outcome the 8 March 2008 elections, two months after the poll, Malaysians were still reserved in deconstructing the 13 May spectre. Back then, Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir even said the killings could be seen as a “blessing” for ushering in the New Economic Policy.
But the mood has changed drastically this year, not least thanks to Perak Coup Part I (6 February 2009) and Perak Coup Part II (7 May 2009). Within this context, 13 May this year saw more Malaysians calling for some form of Truth and Reconciliation Commission modelled after South Africa’s.
But, is this the beginning of the end for the 13 May legacy? To answer that, one must ask what the real 13 May legacy is.
In the aftermath of 13 May: A few days later, at the corner of Jalan Yap Ah Shak
and Hale Road in Kuala Lumpur (Pic by Hassan Muthalib)
Peaceful race-based politics?
To me, the answer is not the communal-based preferential policies that many — especially non-Malay-Muslim Malaysians — perceive, but the legitimatisation of violence.
One only needs to look into the history of Umno to understand that violence was not the defining characteristic of Malay-Muslim nationalism the ethno-nationalist party was born into.
Back then, the Malays were extremely disturbed with the idea of the Malayan Union. They worried that they would be sidelined in competition against non-Malays if the latter became equal citizens.
Did they take up arms? No, they opted for civil disobedience. Under the leadership of Umno founder Datuk Onn Jaafar, grandfather of current Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, the Malays wrapped a white cloth around their songkok as a sign of mourning (berkabung).
Responding to Umno’s call, many Malay civil servants boycotted the Malayan Union government by refusing to carry out their duties and attend official functions, including the inauguration of Sir Edward Gent as the Malayan Union governor.
Weren’t Umno “exciting disaffection against the government” as criminalised by the Sedition Act? You bet.
While the Sedition Act did not yet exist, had the then Inspector-General of Police (IGP) thought like current IGP Tan Sri Musa Hassan, Hishammuddin’s grandfather would surely have been locked up.
My precious (© New Line Cinema) How and when did Umno Malays stop believing in peace and start believing in the threat of violence? I have no idea. Some may argue that it was the power of the state that corrupted Umno, much like the magical ring in The Lord of the Rings. After all, Umno believed in peaceful political expression until they controlled the state.
What is important to note is that back then, under British colonial rule, politics could be communal yet peaceful and civil.
Legitimatisation of violence
Many years later, we are taught to develop an irrational fear of ethnocentrism, which, we are made to believe, means violence.
We are so fearful of our differences and passionate to preserve each other’s identities that we believe reason will only yield to emotion; democracy will inevitably descend into commotion.
We do not believe we can passionately discuss bumiputera special privileges or mother tongue education and disagree with each other without taking up arms and slaughtering our opponents.
This is the legitimatisation of violence, more precisely ethnic violence.
On one side of the coin, we accept “running amok” as a human and natural response — a person therefore should not be blamed if he or she turns aggressive after being infuriated by another’s views.
On the other side, we worship a strong government that crushes any “extremist elements”. That was the pretext for 1987’s Operasi Lalang and subsequent arrests of Reformasi, Islamist and Hindraf activists.
Hindraf supporters during a September 2008 gathering
In other words, we condemn “extremists” — regardless of their strands — as irrational and inhuman, but we have no faith that reason and humanity will defeat the extremists’ arguments.
Not even education can save us — in fact, education makes university lecturers and students more dangerous that they need to be kept under extra surveillance.
Our only faith is in the state which is endowed with the legitimate use of violence to silence any dissent or unpleasant views. We support the government to throw anyone it can’t win over in debates into jail; and we believe we are the moderate lot.
Yes, deep down, under the spell of 13 May, we are the moderate worshippers of violence. We worship the more “moderate” and “reasonable” state violence over the “extreme” and “unpredictable” private and corporate violence in ethnic conflicts.
What’s the link to 13 May? Violence is worshipped because the mother of all violence in the 13 May ethnic riots is not allowed to be questioned and condemned.
Peace vs violence
And why is 13 May treated with such sacred fear? It is the very basis of Phase II of Umno’s rule in the name of Barisan Nasional (BN).
Although BN was technically constituted only in 1974, Phase I of Umno rule through the Alliance ended effectively in 1969. Losing half the popular vote in the Peninsula, not unlike in 2008, Umno could have held on to power after 1969 but would probably have been held hostage by the East Malaysians.
Razak (Public domain) Umno insider Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad revealed during the Petaling Jaya forum that Tun Abdul Razak indeed asked then Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Harun Idris to disperse the crowd gathered at his home on 13 May 1969. But Abdul Razak did so only after Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Khoon and Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu assured him that Gerakan would not form government with the DAP in Selangor.
Razak’s message to Harun that came half an hour too late was, “The good news is you will continue to run Selangor.”
The implication was quite clear: 13 May was not accidental. Razak would not have made that call without an assurance of opposition disunity. One hopes this revelation does not result in sedition charges against Abdullah Ahmad.
The core value of the soon-to-be-born BN, which still informed the Perak coup 40 years later, was quite clear: if staying in power means resorting to violence, then so be it. Citizens can either choose us, or choose violence.
So, how will we know that the 13 May legacy is truly buried? I don’t think any concession from Umno on the Public Service Department scholarships is the answer.
13 May is not about communalism, much the way rape is not about sex. Communalism can take a civil form, and democracy may not get rid of communalism completely. One ethnic community may not appreciate equality as others see it, but that’s fine as long as no one is silenced by force.
13 May is about violence. To bury the 13 May legacy is to bury our conscious and unconscious worship of violence and to rebirth our faith in reason and humanity. We may still quarrel passionately, but that’s fine as long as no one is taking up arms or eyeing the barracks.
New politics is therefore not a choice about equality versus communalism. It is about peace versus violence, democracy versus chaos. Peace should be the largest common denominator for all.
It’s time we bury all political forces that cling on to the cult of violence.
It’s time we have a new fear — the fear for authoritarianism, which is quintessentially violent.
See also: Six Words On… 13 May
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes an honest abandoning of our clandestine worship for violence, disguised as peace under authoritarianism, is the only way Malaysians can pay respect to the dead of 13 May 1969.