Banishing the spectre of May 13

Recently, PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang (pic) issued a statement to the effect that reinstating local council elections would be a repeat of “past mistakes” and lead to another May 13 May incident. He was referring to the bloody race riots on May 13, 1969, by far the worst sectarian violence that our country has ever seen.

Hadi did not elaborate or explain why local council elections could lead to race riots. No facts, no anecdotal evidence, no in-depth arguments to support his contention. It is as if we are supposed to take what he said as a given.

The spectre of May 13 has long haunted us. Again and again, we are reminded of what happened that day. More than four decades have passed since then, yet we are constantly told not to challenge the status quo, rock the boat, and question and ask for certain things. Everything that is remotely racial, and even some that have nothing to do with race, such as local council elections, can and will lead to a repeat of May 13, it seems.

Learning and remembering history is important. "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it", is the famous saying of philosopher George Santayana. We must understand why the May 13 riot happened in order to ensure that we do not see a repeat of it.

But we must at the same time move on from May 13. What happened on that day must be seen in the context of its time. Malaysia was a nation in its infancy. Centuries of colonial rule had resulted in vast socio-economic inequalities, a situation which led to simmering racial tensions and culminated in sectarian violence in certain parts of the country. In many ways, the race riots of May 13 were almost inevitable.

The New Economic Policy (NEP), put in place as a result of the race riots, has to a certain extent been successful in reengineering our society. It has created a large Malay middle class and also, to a large degree, eliminated the traditional identification of race with economic status or occupation. Much criticism has been levelled against the NEP and its subsequent iterations, but at the same time, its success in some areas cannot be denied.

Malaysia in 1969 was different from the Malaysia of today. Yes, there are concerns now with increasing intolerance, especially when these displays of intolerance by some quarters have been met with “elegant silence” from our leaders. But at the same time, we are far more integrated than before.

A middle-class Malay family in the Klang Valley has far more in common with Chinese or Indian middle-class families in the same area compared with another Malay family in say, Kodiang, Kedah. Issues such as property prices, prices of essential goods and petrol, traffic jams, inflation and the like cut across ethnic lines. Everyone complains about taxes, tolls and traffic jams, regardless of skin colour.

As such, the likelihood of race riots is slim. At most, there may be isolated incidents, but nothing in the magnitude of May 13. This is despite the best efforts of some quarters within our society who constantly harp on racial and religious issues.

So why then, are we still suffering from the hangover of May 13? Why do politicians and personalities see fit to constantly bring up that fateful day? Why have we not moved on from what happened then?

The reality is that we have actually moved on. It is these politicians and personalities that want to keep bringing us back to that fateful day, for their own selfish purposes. Whether for fame, power, relevance or politics, May 13 has become a convenient tool for these people.

It is up to us to counter the constant summoning of this spectre. We must collectively, as Malaysians, rebuke these politicians and personalities whenever the race riot is used as a political tool. We must tell them that we are far too integrated, we have lived with each other for far too long and we have far too much to lose for us to shed the blood of our fellow Malaysians.

We must tell them, never again. Let us exorcise this spectre once and for all.
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