ON THE BEAT WITH WONG CHUN WAI
IT has been 39 years since May 13, 1969, when the country’s darkest history occurred. The racial riots have continued to remain a traumatic experience and a scar that won’t go away after almost four decades.
More than 60% of the country’s 26 million population, if not a little more, did not experience that shameful part of the nation’s journey, and yet it is still taboo to talk about it.
More than 54% of Malaysians are below 24 years old. Add another 10% who are probably between 30 and 40 years old, or slightly older, and we will find that for all these people, the incident is a distant memory.
The more elderly Malaysians prefer not to talk about it and even if they do, it is done in a guarded manner. As for the history textbooks in schools, it is an episode to be remembered through a few paragraphs but best not to be discussed openly.
For some opportunistic politicians, the May 13 tragedy is used to invoke fear among the people and to protect the politics of communalism.
Unfortunately, in our reluctance to talk about May 13 openly, the best of Malaysian stories, even in the worst of Malaysia, have not been narrated.
There have been many fantastic uplifting stories, where Malaysians of different races protected each other and these stories should be told.
I am 47 years old and was only in Standard Two when May 13 took place. My home then was at Kampung Melayu in Air Itam, where my parents still live. As the name suggests, it is a predominantly Malay area and while many flats have since been built, it was essentially a semi-urban village then.
The rows of terrace houses were the only ones occupied by Chinese and when the fights broke out, we were caught in a frightening situation. Although I was only eight years old then, I remember my father taking me to the fiery Gerakan rallies, where the eloquence of the speakers, especially the Gerakan founder the late Datuk Lim Ee Heong, mesmerised me.
On the eve of the 1969 election, my father carried me on his shoulders at the mammoth Gerakan rally in Esplanade so that I could get a good view of the stage, where the speakers stood. He would explain to me what the loud clapping was about whenever I seemed lost as to what the speakers were saying, which was often.
The crowd cheered when the opposition called on the voters to “sink the Alliance boat” at the Esplanade sea the next day.
I recalled Lim telling the voters in Hokkien that if the federal government refused to build the Penang bridge, “we will ask China” to build the bridge, as he built up the communal rhetoric.
Ironically, the Penang bridge was built by the South Koreans and the new one would be built by the Chinese.
History was created as the Gerakan was voted into power the next day.
In Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, which saw the opposition making sweeping gains, the same euphoria erupted and a victory procession soon took place, which sparked the start of the racial riots.
When news of these disturbances broke out, my family had to make a choice – move to my grandmother’s house in Chulia Street, a Chinese majority area, where we would be safe, or stay behind in Kampung Melayu.
I was too young to ask my father why he decided we should stay back but we all did – my parents and three brothers. We stored plenty of food but no weapons even though my father sold hardware, believing that nothing would happen to us.
After all, the many Malay friends who stayed in the village knew us; even those who did not know us personally would greet us as they passed by our home daily. They were friendly, if not helpful, Malay neighbours.
We were right. Nothing happened during the riots. Kampung Melayu was one of the safest places in Penang for the Chinese.
Like all curious children, I would peer through the window to see if any fights had taken place during curfew but all I saw were some Federal Reserve Unit officers on patrol. No action at all.
The police had sent Chinese FRU officers to our village, knowing their presence would make the minority population feel safe. When the curfew hours were lifted, we mingled with these policemen who were friendly. I was fascinated with the weapons, especially the gas canisters they carried.
But the Malay and Chinese neighbours also came out, assuring each other that all was well and that there was no reason to fear any racial clashes. At the nearby field, where I played football with the Malay boys, we talked about when we would start our games again, and when we should catch dragonflies and little fishes at the stream that passed through our village.
For many of us, May 13 was also a phase that interrupted the interaction of Malaysians. For the Malay, Chinese and Indian boys in Kampung Melayu, we just wanted to carry on with our games. We heard about the clashes from my parents and in our innocence, many of us wondered why.
Of course, there were also unluckier ones, who had to live through a more traumatic experience, where they saw fighting taking place and lives snatched away. It will not be easy for them to forget.
But for many Malaysians, now in their late 40s and mid-50s, May 13 is just a flicker in their memory. It’s time to have a proper closure, a lesson learnt and not to be used to create fear.