May 13, never again: The 1969 riots that changed Malaysia | Malaysiakini

May 13, never again

The 1969 riots that changed Malaysia

( Published on May 13, 2019 )

Editor's note:

The following article includes troubling details of the deadly riots on May 13, 1969. This dark episode of history is so painful that it is shrouded in secrecy and taboo.

We tell this story today - 50 years to the day - for generations of Malaysians born after the riots. May it serve as a lesson for today and our collective future.

In 1969, Malaysia was a young nation facing a communist insurgency and fragile race relations.

The Japanese occupation and British rule fostered communal distrust and saw several smaller ethnic clashes.

In weeks before polling day on May 10, two party workers were killed in Penang and federal capital Kuala Lumpur. One was from Umno, another from the communist-linked Labour Party.

A funeral procession involving thousands was held for the Labour Party worker in KL on eve of polling. Tensions were high.

Newspaper clipping: Selangor, Perak to poll again?

Source: The Straits Times newspaper, May 1969

Early results showed the Alliance lost much ground to Chinese-dominated opposition parties DAP and Gerakan. In Selangor - where KL was located - the assembly was hung.

Pages from the book 'May 13: Before and After' by Malaysia's first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj

On May 11 and 12, opposition parties paraded in KL and hurled racist jibes against Malays. Outraged, Umno Youth decided to hold a counter-procession on May 13 at dusk.

The illustration below shows what happened that day:

(Locations are an approximate based on the current map.)

Tan Choong Cheng (left) and Abdul Rahman Mohd Noor (right) witnessed rioters attacking unsuspecting bystanders in the Kampung Baru area. Rahman was 21, Tan only 17.

© Hassan Muthalib
Shophouses at Jalan Campbell, which connected to Jalan TAR, and along Jalan Yap Ah Shak, neighbouring Kampung Baru, were razed.

Curfew is announced on the radio at 7.45pm.

Source: SPH
Photographer unknown

Capitol Theatre was one of several theatres along Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman attacked.

The General Hospital (in the background) is located about 1km from the riot hotspots.

Source: Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj

Cars damaged during the riot on Jalan Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur

Source: Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj

Overturned vehicle on fire at Jalan Raja Muda, where the riot started.

Source: Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj

Gutted shophouses on Jalan Campbell

Source: National Archives of Malaysia, 2007/0050685

Kuala Lumpur under curfew

These photographs were taken on May 15 by the then Agong Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah, who ventured into the streets with his camera after signing the emergency orders.

The clock on the Sultan Abdul Samad building on Jalan Raja, shows it is afternoon but the streets are deserted due to a curfew in Kuala Lumpur. / Source: Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah.

Batu Road, now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, during curfew on May 15. It was one of the main sites of carnage on May 13. / Source: Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah

Jalan Bukit Bintang - a bustling street for shopping and entertainment to this day - was deserted on May 15, 1969 after Kuala Lumpur was placed on lockdown / Source: Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah

The top left corner of the photograph indicates that this was near Hotel Odeon in Pudu. Not a soul was in sight during curfew on May 15, 1969. / Source: Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Ismail.

Power Shift

On June 24, Parliament was suspended and the National Operations Council was established with Abdul Razak Hussein in charge. Power had shifted from PM Tunku Abdul Rahman to Razak.

In 1971, Parliament reconvened, with Razak as prime minister. Some scholars argue this showed the riots were part of a coup d'etat.

Razak, seated in the middle, led the National Operations Council.

Razak believed unity could only be achieved with fair distribution of wealth. The bumiputera (Malays and indigenous groups) were the majority but owned just 2.4 percent of equity.

This led to the National Economic Policy in 1971, using affirmative action to grow bumiputera ownership. The ethos of that policy remains to this day.

Razak shakes the Tunku's hand at the latter's farewell party in Parliament on September 23, 1970. / Source: Jabatan Penerangan Malaysia

The riots not only changed policies but left prolonged trauma on many who witnessed, survived and lost loved ones in the riots.

Malaysia is not alone in dealing with historical trauma. South Africa held truth and reconciliation hearings to move towards forgiveness post-Apartheid, while Germany took the punitive route to seek justice against Nazi criminality.

Malaysia can learn from how other nations overcame trauma, experts say, but must find a way that suits the country's unique circumstances. Half a century on, Malaysia must find a way to heal and move forward.

(Read more)

Source: Sławomir Gajowniczek

May 13 stories

Malaysiakini has collected the accounts of the May 13 tragedy.