KUALA LUMPUR, May 13 — Fifty-four years ago, on this date, a racially-charged incident began in Kampung Baru here in what is widely believed to be the initial outbreak of violence of the May 13 riots of 1969.
The violence continued for several days, prompting a state of emergency, with the official government report on the matter recording 196 deaths — though alternative sources estimated a much higher casualty count, possibly reaching into the thousands.
The incident has since played a pivotal part in Malaysian politics, and survivors of the event have had to endure its lasting impact, which has shaped their collective memory of the nation.
In the interest of moving towards a more united Malaysia, Malay Mail engaged with two social scientists and an activist to explore their thoughts on what could bring harmony, peace and reconciliation among all Malaysians.
Syaza said that it was crucial to recognise that peace comes from understanding that every human being deserves to live with dignity — including minorities and the disenfranchised. — Picture by Devan Manuel
Mutual respect: Beyond tolerance
Syaza Syukri, associate professor of political science at International Islamic University Malaysia said that Malaysians have always emphasised “tolerance”, though it falls short of what is needed.
“People like to say, especially Malays as the so-called ‘original’ people, are ‘tolerant’ of others.
“But tolerance merely means we accept the situation. It is not active participation and respect for other cultures and traditions.
“A harmonious Malaysia would be when all of us learn to respect the differences and diversity and not merely ‘tolerating’.
“How to reach that point? It starts at home and then at school. And there has to be political and social will to want this version of Malaysia.” she said.
Syaza added that it was crucial to recognise that peace comes from understanding that every human being deserves to live with dignity — including minorities and the disenfranchised.
She also said that there are underlying issues contributing to what may appear as racism among Malays residing in rural areas, who often times have larger priorities than extensive economic or social change.
She said these issues primarily arise from inadequate government policies that fail to protect the Malays and others in the working class, and from being fed a perception that “others” are in control of the economy and generating disharmony within the country.
“As for the Malays, living with dignity is as simple as having a secure job that allows them to put food on the table for their family, not having to worry if they get sick, and having a life beyond working for 12 hours straight for minimum wage,” she said, adding that many even work for less than minimum wage.
Munirah called on leaders to promote an alternative narrative that recognises the ‘reality’ of socio-economic class differences, rather than perpetuating the ‘myth’ of ethnic and religious divisions. ― Picture by Farhan Najib
Challenging identity politics
S. Munirah Alatas, formerly an assistant professor at the National University of Malaysia (UKM), raised concerns on the phenomenon known as “identity politics” — politics that prioritises the concerns and interests of specific social identity groups.
“Malay political parties must move away from ‘spinning’ the argument that, if they are not in power, it means all Malays in society will lose power, be dominated, manipulated, threatened and controlled by non-Malays.
“This is a dated colonial narrative of intimidation, and domination, and does not belong in an independent, multi-ethnic, post-colonial country like Malaysia.
“If anything, our ethnic diversity has been the nation’s asset, not a burden,” said Munirah, who is now a visiting professor at the political science department of Indonesian International Islamic University.
She said that a narrative of “the end of Muslims and Islam in Malaysia” is not supported by empirical evidence of a widespread organised agenda to convert Malays and Muslims to other religions or to otherwise wipe out Islam.
“If anything, the threat to the Malays and Islam in Malaysia is internal.
“Extremist irrational thinking about the religion by oppressive and narrow-minded religious leaders are threatening the rational, accommodative, moderate and sophisticated philosophy of Islam which permits Muslims to live harmoniously in a diverse society,” she said.
Munirah called on leaders to promote an alternative narrative that recognises the “reality” of socio-economic class differences, rather than perpetuating the “myth” of ethnic and religious divisions.
She added that corruption, a prominent issue raised by the current government, is primarily influenced by moral and socio-economic factors rather than ethnicity or religion.
Additionally, she urged the younger leaders within the current unity government to consistently challenge outdated and harmful narratives and called for the media and civil society to consistently reject any connection between ethnicity and religion, with corruption.
Reparations and moving forward
Munirah said that the country also needs a sense of closure on the May 13 racial riots, with a shift towards the concept of “survivor’s justice” instead of “victim’s justice”.
“Our leaders must adopt the “civilised” approach, and come to some form of compromise. It will not help by blaming any community for the 1969 killings.
“Instead, it is dignified to acknowledge all the survivors.
“Why not erect a memorial commemorating the event, and recognising the survivors.
“‘Commemorating’ a historical tragedy does not mean ‘celebrating’ it. It is a humane gesture our leaders can do for survivors and all Malaysians,” she said.
She said that discussions about the episode of racial violence should move beyond “which group started it and why” and instead should centre around different perspectives to promote a unifying understanding of those historical events.
“Ultimately, the aim of focusing on ‘perspectives’ is to achieve closure, in the hope that society will become more mature and empathetic about our diversity, without altering the facts, or remaining silent about historical events.
“When we recall the violent episode in our history, we as a society must highlight that both communities (mainly the Chinese and Malays) are “survivors”,” she said.
Ryan Chua, programme director at Pusat Komas, a human rights-related non-governmental organisation (NGO) said that moving forward would be best facilitated by establishing a National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission.
He described the commission as an independent body to mediate and resolve tensions and animosity between ethnic and racial groups as well as to investigate instigators.
“A National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission will perform the functions of drafting guidelines and organising constructive programmes towards achieving unity, conducting mediation processes to resolve community-level disputes, and advising the government on laws and policies to prevent the use of hate speech.
“Should the need to resolve the May 13 incident arise, the commission may use their powers to investigate claims and complaints of the victims of the May 13 incident and even conduct reconciliation processes for the persons involved,” he said.
To note, on August 5, 2020, then national unity minister Datuk Halimah Mohamed Sadique said that a bill for a National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission would not be continued as existing laws were deemed sufficient to handle issues related to religion and race.
Since then, on March 21 this year, the Malaysian Bar too revived its call for the establishment of such a commission.