The 13 May 1969 incident remains a dark mark in Malaysian history to this day. The racial riots which happened after the 1969 Malaysian general election led to a state of national emergency or “Darurat” by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on May 15.
The events also caused significant changes in the country, which included the first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman stepping down.
In the wake of the 13 May riots, a caretaker government – the National Operations Council (NOC) – was formed and chaired by Tun Haji Abdul Razak bin Dato’ Hussein.
As George Santayana once said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Here are five things every Malaysian should know about the aftermath of the 13 May incident.
1.The birth of Rukunegara
After the 13 May incident, Malaysian racial balance and interrelations were fragile.
So the Malaysian government sought ways to foster unity among its people, one of the ways was by introducing the Rukunegara, Malaysia’s declaration of national philosophy instituted by royal proclamation:
WHEREAS OUR COUNTRY, MALAYSIA nurtures the ambitions of:
– Achieving a more perfect unity amongst the whole of her society;
– Preserving a democratic way of life;
– Creating a just society where the prosperity of the country can be enjoyed together in a fair and equitable manner;
– Guaranteeing a liberal approach towards her rich and varied cultural traditions; and
– Building a progressive society that will make use of science and modern technology.
WE, HER PEOPLE, pledge our united efforts to attain these ends guided by these principles:
– BELIEF IN GOD
– LOYALTY TO KING AND COUNTRY
– THE SUPREMACY OF THE CONSTITUTION
– THE RULE OF LAW
– COURTESY AND MORALITY
2.The introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP)
Following the 13 May incident, the new Economic Policy was announced in The Second Malaysia Plan. Over the years, many have criticised NEP as an inefficient system as it believed to be promoting a laid-back attitude among the Bumiputeras.
Apart from that, some of the policies in NEP such as Bumiputera quotas in ownership of public company stock and housing sold exclusively to Bumiputeras were viewed as discriminatory.
Nonetheless, NOC in the beginning had justified the need for NEP, especially after 13 May, stating, “National Unity is unattainable without greater equity and balance among Malaysia’s social and ethnic groups in their participation in the development of the country and in the sharing of the benefits from modernisation and economic growth. National Unity cannot be fostered if vast sections of the population remain poor and if sufficient productive employment opportunities are not created for the expanding labour force.”
3. The 13 May racial riots did not happen in Sabah and Sarawak, but some believed that these two Borneo states paid an even heftier price.
While Sabah and Sarawak did not see riots happening in their streets, the two East Malaysian states were nonetheless affected.
According to Zainnal Ajamain, political analyst and author of The Queen’s Obligation, many ordinances and gazettes were issued when Parliament was suspended during the state of emergency.
During this period, Zainnal believed the laws used to take the Bornean states’ wealth included the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance No. 7, 1969, the Continental Shelf Act 1966, and the Petroleum Mining Act 1966.
He cited one example which was Sabah and Sarawak territorial waters being reduced from 350 miles to 3 nautical miles through the new ordinances and gazettes.
Explaining more on the matter, the political analyst stated: “By virtue of the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance No. 7 1969, the Continental Shelf Act 1966 of Sabah and Sarawak was owned by the federal state. The emergency ordinance limited the territorial waters so that whatever was beyond three nautical miles now belonged to the federal government.”
Since it was in a state of emergency, nothing that the federal government does can be challenged as unconstitutional.
Parliament only reconvened on Feb 20, 1971.
4.The number of dead to this day are still in dispute
Malaysia records the official number of casualties during the 13 May riots as 196; with 143 Chinese, 25 Malay, 13 Indian and 15 undetermined.
But Western media and other observers estimated the number up to ten times as many people had died with three quarters of the casualties were Chinese.
John J. Helbie who was working as a political officer at the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur during the 13 May riots said the government casualty figures had not been an accurate account.
In a 1996 interview, Helbie shared his experience saying, “There was an AP (Associated Press) stringer in Kuala Lumpur whom we knew. Of course, in the best of journalistic traditions, he was out in the streets. Within hours he knew enough, for example, to check several of the local hospitals and find out something about casualties. The casualty figure came in slowly. The government casualty figures were never honest. We knew that from the diverse reports we were receiving.”
He continued, “This is not uncommon in situations where governments don’t want to admit the degree of disorder that has occurred and their inability to handle the situation. It was clear that the government had lost control. The police were totally outnumbered and didn’t have the resources to deal with the situations.”
5.The cause behind the riots remain in debate
On Oct 9, 1969, the NOC released a report cited racial politics as the primary cause of the 13 May incident.
Additionally, the government pointed its finger at opposition parties for creating tensions after the 1969 elections.
The most controversial cause believed to be the reason behind the 13 May riots was based on declassified documents, which have become available at the Public Record Office at London.
Scholar Dr Kua Kia Soong even published a book May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969 based on these records.
He challenged the Malaysian government’s official cause of the 13 May incident.
Dr Kua stated that the “ascendant state capitalist class” in ruling party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), had intentionally started the riot. This move, Kua stated, was backed by the police and army as a coup d’etat to topple the Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to implement the new Malay Agenda.
According to one British Foreign Office document dated May 15, 1969, it succinctly ‘concludes that the riots were organised to formalise Malay dominance, sideline the Chinese and shelve the Tunku government’.
Meanwhile Tunku Abdul Rahman blamed opposition parties for the violence. He also blamed the influence of Communists, believing the incidents were sparked off by Chinese Communist youths.
As for the Malays who engaged in the violence, Tunku Abdul Rahman said they were merely responding to intolerable provocations.
Meanwhile, current day Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad on May 14 this year said that the government would study the request to declassify the official report on the May 13 1969 racial riots.