A memorial for Malaysia

Never again: The writer calls for the Sungai Buloh May 13 cemetery to be gazetted as a national heritage and a special memorial space be built there to remind us the importance of racial unity. — Photos courtesy of Tajuddin Rasdi

As the 50th anniversary of the May 13 incident draws close, the writer urges Malaysians, especially the government of the day, to place race relations as its topmost priority. 

TO ME, May 13 was simply some obscure fact of history. In school, I barely paid attention to it because when it occurred, I was only in Primary One at St Marks Primary School in Butterworth.

What I do remember was that my father, who was a policeman, had rarely come home to spend the night with my mother and my other five siblings in our one-room police barrack in Prai. When he did come home, my father would carefully place his Sten machine gun and bullet magazines on our drawer dresser. He usually carried a pistol and the only other time I saw a machine gun was in our house in Kuala Muda in 1965 (during the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation) when I was merely three years old.

Over the years, May 13 became yet another date in Malaysia’s historical calendar for me.

Until one day when a colleague at UCSI University showed me pictures of a “forgotten” cemetery plot in Sungai Buloh, Selangor.

He said this was the mass grave of over 100 people who died during the May 13 riot in Kuala Lumpur (there is allegedly another cemetery in Gombak). He proceeded to show me slides of brown, weathered gravestones with mainly Chinese names – and to my surprise also of two with Malay names and two Indian names!

I was struck by the presence of the Muslim graves. How could that have happened, I wondered.

After the slideshow, I went home lost in thought over how the situation had been during those sombre days etched on the gravestones. Then it dawned on me what could have been the horrible scene of events.

Many who died in the May 13 riot were innocent bystanders. Children, women and the elderly. Some, like those whose names were marked on the gravestones, were probably walking home at night or eating at a stall or playing with his or her daughter when a mob with parangs, knives and keris ran berserk and started slashing everyone in their path. There were also reports of shootings by the army at curious people who were outside on their verandah during the enforced curfew.

I could imagine the horror if I were a parent during that time – just chatting with my wife over dinner of rice and chicken curry, while my son or daughter who was out walking was pounced upon by the mob or was shot for being outside of the house during the curfew.

How would I have known about my son’s or daughter’s death? There were very few houses with phones then as that was still a luxury item. There were no mobile phones or the Internet or social media that could reach us. The television was not reporting in real time. My daughter or son’s body would have had to be quickly buried with all the other bodies on the streets without any time for identification or contacting the next of kin as the messaging system was not as fast as today’s. They would be thrown into a lorry and carried to a secluded site and buried en masse.

Along with the date of death, the gravestones at the Sungai Buloh cemetery marked the names of those who had their identity cards with them. There were many graves that only had “Unidentified Chinese” on the headstone. In that scenario, when would my wife and I know about the death of our daughter or son? That thought chilled me to my bones so much that I had a sleepless night that day.

Sadly, in the present day, some politicians use May 13 as a threat to other races in their political speeches. There was even one who even said “Saya rindu Mei 13” (I miss May 13). He was remanded for a few days. I would have put him in a hole in Sungai Buloh for a few years for such an insensitive and horrible remark.

Then there are some who like to play the blame game for May 13. This is not helpful.

I think the nation should agree on three important undisputed facts; firstly, many people of all races died unnecessarily. Secondly, May 13 can be linked to the 1969 election, and thirdly, politicians of all races involved in racial incitements were to be blamed.

These are the only facts that we Malaysians must hold on to. Any other “facts” falls in a blame game scenario that would have meant that the lives lost were meaningless.

I strongly believe we need to give a meaning to posterity to all those who have died. And this can be done in two important ways.

Firstly, the government of the day and of the future of this country must place race relations as its topmost priority. This means revamping the way we teach our children and young adults. This mean putting up tough and no nonsense actions against those who “rindu Mei 13” and others who insult race or religion. This includes foreigners who disguise hatred with religious speeches. The government must also include a strong civilisational educational construct for all its civil servants so that they do not choose one race over the other in their service to the people.

Secondly, I would like to propose that the small May 13 cemetery in Sungai Buloh be gazetted as a national heritage site and a complex be designed to preserve and honour the dead for all future generations. The complex should include a large pavilion that can hold 200 seats overlooking the cemetery that can be used for all Members of Parliament and Members of State Assembly to come and pay their respects and remember the dead who were all innocent victims of hate speeches and rhetoric of others.

These legislatures should offer their own prayers and a common ikrar (oath) that may sound like “Kami bersumpah akan mentadbir Negara Malaysia ini dengan adil dan saksama agar peristiwa berdarah May 13 tidak akan berlaku lagi” (We swear to govern this country with justice and fairness for all so that such incidents as the May 13 will never occur again).

The complex should also house a gallery of the photographs of all the lives lost, contributed by the descendants and families of the deceased. Another room for special religious rituals should be provided for families to honour the dead. Finally, a special space for the Committee of National Unity should be provided as a permanent base for the most important role that the government has; to create harmony and peace among our citizens.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the incident, I call for a National Architectural Competition to be held to choose a design that would provide the spaces and express the grief and lessons learned from the days of May 13, 1969.

May our children and grand­children honour this site and the lessons learnt as a Memorial to Malaysia.

  • Professor Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi specialises in Islamic Architecture at the School of Architecture and Built Environment, UCSI University. He has published 48 books on architecture and writes regularly for news portals and newspapers.
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