May 13, 1969: Truth and reconciliation

Closure: ‘A bringing to an end; aconclusion... A feeling of finality orresolution, especially after a traumaticexperience,’ ( Well, May 13,1969, was truly a traumatic experience forMalaysia. Yet 39 years later, there is stillno proper closure. Instead, the incident hashaunted the nation these past fourdecades. Just the mention of ‘May 13’invokes shudders and nervous glances. It isour national ‘code’ for violent racialmeltdown, especially among the oldergeneration. Isn’t it time to finally breakthe code?

WHEN news of the March 8 general election results broke, Opposition supporters were understandably jubilant at what was their best showing in the nation’s 51-year history. Yet, the sentiment on the ground was very much one of restraint. Supporters were urged not to go out and celebrate, but rather to maintain a low profile.

The reason for such caution: The racial riots of May 13, 1969, of course.

Kampung Baru in Kuala Lumpur was the gathering point for a counter victory march on May 13, 1969.

Truly, those were dark and terrible days. My father, a retired diplomat, told me that after the riots, many prophets of doom even predicted the end of the then newly-formed Malaysia.

According to a Time magazine report on May 23, 1969, ”Malaysia’s proud experiment in constructing a multiracial society exploded in the streets of Kuala Lumpur last week. Malay mobs, wearing white headbands signifying an alliance with death, and brandishing swords and daggers, surged into Chinese areas in the capital, burning, looting and killing. In retaliation, Chinese, sometimes aided by Indians, armed themselves with pistols and shotguns and struck at Malay kampongs. Huge pillars of smoke rose skyward as houses, shops and autos burned.”

That was an outsider view of what happened. Yet, almost four decades later, that is the same graphic image associated with May 13 – violence, mayhem, killing – which haunts Malaysians.

As a nation we have not moved or completely healed from the incident simply because we have been afraid. As PKR information chief Tian Chua opined in an interview with StarMag: “In Malaysia, we grow up and live in a culture of fear in the shadow of May 13. That fear has been built into our political system and has remained a part of our psychology.”

That fear is, in part, rooted in ignorance: no one has been able to come up with a full and authoritative account of what happened.

Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul AmriBaharuddin

What's known are the facts. In a nutshell, a day after the May 10, 1969 general election which saw sweeping gains for the Opposition, thousands of Chinese marched through Kuala Lumpur, parading through predominantly Malay areas hurling insults.

Umno Youth members then gathered at Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Harun Idris’s residence in Kampung Baru in KL on May 13 for their own counter victory celebration since the Alliance had maintained its majority in Parliament, albeit a reduced one, and had retained Selangor with the support of the single independent assemblyman.

That led to outbreaks of violence in parts of Kuala Lumpur that continued over the following days. Houses, shops, vehicles were torched, people killed and injured. Official figures put the death toll at less than 200 but many commentators put the figures at between 800 and 1,000.

On the day the riots broke out, Star Deputy Op-Ed Editor Johan Fernandez , then 21, was watching a movie in the heart of KL.

“Suddenly the screen went red and the words ‘Emergency Declared’ in large black letters were flashed. There was a mad rush to lock the cinema gates just as an armed gang tried to break in.

At first I joined many who were hiding in the toilets but I didn’t want to die there so I walked out again just as the gang broke through, ready to kill. But I heard them say among themselves that they weren’t targeting my race, so I plucked up my courage and walked out of the hall. I know that people were killed after I left.

“I took refuge in a nearby police station for about five or six days until the killings stopped.”

Many Malaysians living in KL at that time have similar tales to tell or know of someone who suffered losses.

After so many years, the question that is often murmured or thought about is: Can another May 13 recur? Certainly it was considered a possibility after the March 8 general election as the results bore an uncanny resemblance to that of 1969.

Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Khoo Kay Kim says that the circumstances surrounding May 13 were different.

“I believe that this time around there was a greater determination to preserve the peace. I think the security forces were a little confused in 1969, which is why (then Home Minister) Tun Dr Ismail had to bring in the Sarawak rangers.”

Dr Kua Kia Soong

Given Malaysia’s status then as a young nation with developing ethnic relations it was easy for politicians to exploit the divide, adds Dr Khoo.

“A focal point of May 13 was communal divisions. Even though the Alliance had lost Kelantan to PAS, many contests were largely pitched as Malay versus non-Malay. It was the non-Malay vote that swung very sharply to the then Opposition parties of Gerakan, DAP and PPP.

“In the case of March 8, the support for the Pakatan Rakyat parties came from all three major races so the situation therefore was far less explosive.”

The historical background

Many tumultuous events happened in the years leading to May 13. Malaya gained independence in 1957 against the backdrop of a guerrilla war conducted by the Communist Party of Malaya (the Emergency which lasted from 1948-1960).

In 1963, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak joined Malaya to form Malaysia, against the objections of the Filipino and Indonesian governments of the day. Indonesian President Sukarno was particularly incensed and carried out underground military action during this period (known as the Konfrontasi).

Meanwhile in Brunei, an election was held but its results nullified when the leftist Parti Rakyat Brunei (which advocated union with Indonesia) swept all the seats, resulting in the brief Brunei Revolt.

In 1965 Singapore seceded from Malaysia, thanks in part to two separate rounds of race riots in 1964 (on July 21 and Sept 3) during which nearly 50 people died in Sino-Malay clashes.

Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Khoo Kay Kim

Dr Khoo explains: “During that time when Singapore was part of Malaysia, Chinese outnumbered Malays. This led the Malays to fear displacement in their own homeland. The brand of politics that Lee Kuan Yew practised further frightened the Malays. The Sino-Malay riots of 1964 were a big thing and one reason why Tunku took steps to cut Singapore off.”

The 1969 general elections were therefore conducted under highly emotional charged circumstances.

The theories

In May 13 Before And After, a book penned by Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman within months of the riots, he laid blame largely on communist agitators as well as their leftist sympathisers within the Labour Party of Malaya. LPM chose to boycott the 1969 general election but nonetheless showed off their strength at the funeral march of a member, Lim Soon Seng (who was killed in a clash with police), held in Kepong on May 9.

Tunku also accused supporters of two opposition parties fighting their first general election – Gerakan (a multi-racial party which included former Labour Party leaders Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Koon and Dr V. David) and the DAP (a splinter party of Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party) – with carrying out provocative celebrations in Malay areas like Kampung Baru.

Other factors cited by Tunku in his book are the power struggle within Umno itself and the emergence of Malay “ultras”.

Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, founding director of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Ethnic Studies, says the most common misconception about May 13 is that it was caused by a single factor.

“In reality, it was the result of multiple factors. Like the movie Vantage Point which presents eight viewpoints from eight persons on one event (the attempt to assassinate a US President), there can be many vantage points to May 13: official, personal and even conspiratorial ones,” he adds.

Dr Kua Kia Soong, author of May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969 released last year, is of the view that the May 13 riots were not a spontaneous uprising but an orchestrated coup against Tunku by disaffected members of his own party.

Former Inspector-General of police Tun Hanif Omar, in his Sunday Star column on June 3, 2007, rejected this claim.

He pointed out that the National Operations Council (NOC) Report, The May 13, 1969 Incidents, gave other reasons why and how the outbreak started and its consequences.

“Is the NOC Report accurate without touching on the plot to topple Tunku? To me it is. The unhappiness that some Umno members had with Tunku by 1969 was real but it did not feature as a cause of the May 13 incident.

“The incident, however, sharpened the unhappiness of the Malays with Tunku and fuelled the movement to replace him with his deputy, Tun Abdul Razak.

“As the coordinator of the Special Branch investigations into the incident, and having read all the statements from eye-witnesses which formed the basis of the NOC Report, I am convinced of its accuracy,” wrote Hanif.

Still, what Ahmad Mustapha Hassan ,who was an Umno Youth exco committee member at the time, saw first-hand seems to lend some credence to the Tunku conspiracy theory.

He explains: “I was part of the Umno Youth committee that held a meeting on the morning of May 13 and our plan was clear. We would hold a counter victory celebration, to remind people that even though we had a smaller majority we were still victorious.

“However, when we assembled at the Selangor Mentri Besar’s house shocking incidents happened. We were handed headbands and weapons were produced. It was definite that there were some elements in Umno who were opposed to Tunku’s leadership and who had come with an ulterior motive and planned something more sinister.”

In his book, The Unmaking of Malaysia, Ahmad describes his grief and horror at the events that unfolded: “I witnessed a killing of an innocent coffee shop boy. ... We were unaware and unprepared for such a situation ... A crazy mob had taken over ... and I and fellow Umno Youth (members) were helpless.”

Ahmad, who went on to serve as press secretary to Prime Ministers Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, believes the attacks “appeared to be planned by some group because hidden weapons and headbands were distributed” but maintains he does not know who was responsible.

It is Dr Kua’s contention that unless “the truth is out”, there can be no real national unity. But Hanif countered that what happened in 1969 “was too ‘ancient’ an animosity to be allowed to hold national unity to ransom.”

In an interview last week, Dr Kua argues that “May 13 is part of our history and is consistently trotted out by politicians who want to play the racial card, to show us what will happen if the privileges of the ruling class are threatened. We need to have a process of truth and reconciliation. This is what happened in South Africa after apartheid; it doesn’t bring back the dead, but it lets the healing process begin.

“At the moment the blame is put largely on the back of the Opposition, but questions must be asked about the role of the military, the police and certain ruling party officials who represented the emerging capitalist class. We don’t need to trot out the gory details which will inflame passions, but the truth must not be covered up.”

DAP veteran leader Lim Kit Siang, who was detained under the Internal Security Act for more than a year after the riots, agrees, adding that 40 years is not too late to discuss what happened.

“We should stop sweeping it under the carpet. May 13 is a ghost that must be exorcised. As long as it remains a hidden, censored part of history then it hinders our maturing as a people and a nation, and will continue to haunt us.”

This desire for closure is shared by others.

In a letter to The Star, (Bury ghost of May 13 once and for all, March 27) Lt Kol (R) Mohd Idris Hassan took to task a “seasoned politician” for appearing on TV and ”saying that if the Opposition parties continue to fan communal sentiments, another May 13 will happen, adding with a raised index finger ‘Dan jangan salahkan kami’ (Then don’t blame us).”

Mohd Idris went on to say “please spare us the threat of another dreadful May 13” and that “After 39 years, it is time to bury deep the ghost of May 13 once for all, so that it never raises its ugly head again.”

He added: “For one, it is a well-flogged threat used by some politicians for their own agenda, and two, it does not work any more. All it does is that it raises painful memories of the black chapter in our history of our otherwise harmonious relations between all races.

“On that fateful day, I was a young officer serving in the army. I witnessed first-hand the carnage as it unfolded. People were attacked because they were of the wrong race, at the wrong place at the wrong time. Everyone suffered.”

Responding to Mohd Idris’ letter, another reader, Daniel K.C. Lim, wrote that “rather than trying to decipher the truth from the official version, if one exists, or from listening to unofficial or underground versions, or simply putting every rumour on hold until living memories fade away and are replaced by mere myths and legends, why not have the events of May 13, 1969, properly and definitively recorded and reviewed?

“Reconciliation must start first with the truth; only then will we be able to lay matters well to rest once and for all.”

Teoh Feh Leong, a 55-year-old engineer, feels that closure can only come through acknowledgement and forgiveness.

“We don’t know anything about what happened because the Government has closed this entire chapter of our history. The incident happened too far back for us to hate or incite anger anymore. But we need to know what happened factually, accurately, once and for all.

“Our young Malaysians have no idea what’s May 13 while the older people remain bitter. Unless we acknowledge and confess to what happened, the spirit of May 13 will continue to be present each time the Malays feel threatened or when the Chinese feel cheated or outraged. It will never end.”

Among the younger generation, May 13 may hold little fear for them but there is a certain curiosity about it.

Abby Wong, 38, merchandising manager for a KL leading bookstore believes that was what fuelled the good sales of Dr Kua’s book.

“It sold like hot cakes when it came out last year. Most of the buyers were working adults in their 30s. When I asked them how they knew about it since there was little publicity in the press, they told me they found out about it on the Internet and were curious to know more.

“I remember one buyer described the book as ‘Valuable history at a cheap price’ as it was sold at only RM20,” says Wong.

Student Chak Tze Chin, 23, says she heard stories of it from her grandmother.

“She still thinks there can be another May 13 incident so during the last general election, she advised me to stay home. To me, it’s important to understand past events so that we can work together better in the future.”

To Diana Afandi, May 13 is often used to remind the people of Malaysia not to stir up racial tensions. “But now, it is used so widely for political parties and leaders to pursue their objectives. I remember being nervous when I heard the stories from my parents and I am still worried now,” said the 21-year-old student.

Other flashpoints

Perhaps what should be made known is that May 13 was not the only major racial clash in the country’s history.

Dr Khoo explains: “The first racial riots were in August-September 1945 and were caused by the Communist Party of Malaya going around punishing Chinese and Indian collaborators after the Japanese Occupation ended. But when they punished the Malays, especially the Banjaris in the Batu Pahat area, they fought back. And this spread to other Banjari areas like Batu Kikir in Negri Sembilan and Sungai Manik in Perak.”

Prof Shamsul agrees: “May 13 has been given special attention in our media, history books and realpolitik, but the Sino-Malay ethnic riots in 1945 were bigger and bloodier. They were more widespread and continued for a longer period (for two weeks with a toll estimated at more than 2,000 lives).

“Why is this conflict never mentioned every time we talk about racial riots in Malaysia? It reminds me of what French historian Ernest Renan once said: ‘History is about remembering and forgetting.’

“It is historical, therapeutic and awareness-raising to talk and analyse these conflicts (between 1945 and 1969) in a rational and reasoned manner, and not use it as a threat to incite racial hatred or fulfil an ethnicised political agenda.”

Observes Dr Khoo: “People try not to talk about May 13 because they don’t know how to handle it. You cannot start by blaming one side or another. The procession through Kampung Baru was certainly unfortunate, but it did not justify such a wave of killings.

“After 1969 we became vulnerable. Each race is told that it is somebody else’s fault. We expect our leaders to play a part in defusing tensions, but instead there are many who thrive on constantly fuelling the fears of the people.”

Moving on

Still there are positive signs of a maturing society, such as how the March 8 general election results were accepted without any violence.

Admits Dr Kua, “The recent elections just put paid to my theory that such riots might recur if the government lost its two-thirds majority.”

Dr Khoo concludes: May 13 is not just a story. It tells about our society and its relationships. We must reach a stage where we understand each other’s fears, where cultural diversity is accepted and not be the cause of conflict.

“Everybody should also realise, especially our politicians, that you can never solve sensitive issues by confrontation.

“People should be reminded that Barisan Nasional was formed after May 13 after the Alliance Party (of Umno, MCA and MIC) was broadened to include former opposition parties, the reason being that the huge coalition would help reduce inflammatory politicking.

“Ethnic champions should always be disapproved of in a multi-ethnic society.”

Timeline 1969-1973


Late April – campaigning period sees clashes in Penang with anUmno worker killed.

May 9 – Funeral of Labour Party member in Kepong turns into showof strength by leftists.

May 10 – General Election is held resulting in Alliance Party losingits two-thirds majority, as well as the state legistatures of Kelantanand Penang. Perak and Selangor state assemblies are hung.

May 11&12 – Supporters of Gerakan and DAP go on victory processions,during which racial taunts are made.

May 13 – Umno organises counter procession beginning at the residenceof Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Harun Idris. Racial killingsbegin. Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman addresses the nation.Curfew imposed in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.

May 14 – State of Emergency declared as retaliatory killings continue.Officially 196 people are killed during this period, but unofficialestimates put the figure closer to 800-1,000.

May 16 – National Operations Council headed by Deputy PrimeMinister Tun Abdul Razak is appointed by Yang-Di-Pertuan Agong tocarry out executive duties in place of suspended Parliament. Tun DrIsmail is appointed Minister of Internal Security.

June 28 – Five people are killed in Malay-Indian clashes in KL.

1970June/July – Elections in Sabah and Sarawak are held.

1971Feb 21 –Parliament reconvened and National Operations Council dissolved.New Economic Policy launched to ensure a more equitable distributionof wealth among the races.


January – Gerakan and PPP agree to work with Alliance in runningPenang and Perak state governments respectively.

1973January – PAS joins the Alliance, leading to formalisation of newcoalition as Barisan Nasional.

  • Source: May 13 Before And After; May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969; Wikipedia

Related Stories:Choosing to live or die together One day in 1969 Driving into trouble Helping in the aftermath The shot that changed her life

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