Bloodshed; a high price to pay for peace and democracy. There are times when anger is righteous and its sole purpose is to push for better change. However, the events of 13th May 1969 prove to be a crude example of an unjust outburst of anger from disgruntled citizens of a multicultural nation trying to achieve harmony. Painted as a taboo, barely touched on in Sejarah (History) textbooks, the events of the darkest day in Malaysian history deserve to be remembered as a lesson in tolerance and respect towards every race in this country.
What Actually Happened on 13 May 1969?
The shocking events of 13 May 1969 occurred after Malaysia’s 3rd General Election that took place a few days earlier, on May 10th. An infant nation at the time, Malaysia was also facing communist insurgency and fragile race relations in the years prior to this election. Remnants of the Japanese occupation and British rule had seeded distrust among the interracial community. This resulted in a few smaller racial clashes though none were as significant as the violence that erupted on the evening of May 13th 1969.
Acts of Violence – a Timeline:
A few weeks before 10th May 1969 → Two party members – one from UMNO and a comunist-linked Labour Party respectively – were killed. The locations of these killings were Penang and Kuala Lumpur.
9th May 1969 → A funeral procession was held for the Labour Party member on the eve of voting day. Tensions were high as many believed the killings were racially motivated and provoked as a result of rumours that the Opposition Party was gaining more support than the Alliance.
10th May 1969 → 3rd General Election of Malaysia. The Alliance (made up of UMNO, MCA, and MIC, later known as Barisan Nasional) had previously boasted that it had already secured the two-thirds majority of the 144 seats in Dewan Rakyat.
*it should be noted that during this time, Sabah, Sarawak and Melaka Selatan were not part of this election
11th May 1969 → As the sun rose, the truth of the results had begun to dawn as well. The Alliance’s confidence was shattered with only 66 seats won in contrast to the initial 89 seats secured from the 1964 election. They had lost Penang, and nearly lost Perak, Selangor, Kedah and Terengganu. Results show that most of the seats were lost to the Chinese-dominated opposition parties like DAP and Gerakan. While they had not lost power completely, this still left the Alliance coalition feeling threatened.
In a meeting held by the Alliance coalition to assess their results, most of the representatives had blamed their loss on MCA who only had 13 victorious candidates out of 30 in the election. Later, this accusation would result in the MCA announcing its departure from the government at federal and state levels on the morning of 13th May. This was believed to stir more disgruntled Chinese supporters of the Opposition in the riots that would ensue.
11th – 12th May 1969 → The Opposition Party, surprised with the Alliance’s loss as well, carried out parades and processions in Kuala Lumpur to celebrate their win. Opposition supporters who had voted for DAP and Gerakan were reportedly shouting insults at the Malays living near the city. On May 12th, the Gerakan Party decided to hold their own demonstrations in the evening with permission for their 1000 party members. However, things soon got out of hand as word travelled to many who decided to participate in their own ‘processions’ without the supervision of the party leaders. The number grew to 4000 as people began to get out of control and hurled racial insults towards each other.
13th May 1969 → As word of these ‘parades’ got out, the UMNO Youth Party decided to hold a counter-procession out of anger in the evening of 13th May. At around 12pm that day, rumours that the UMNO rally might cause chaos had alarmed people. Weapons were secretly distributed among some Opposition Party members. At 6:20pm, around 5000 Malay youth had gathered clad with sticks, banners, some with even parangs and keris. This was when the killings began.
Tensions reached a boiling high amidst the setting sun as a massacre spewed on the Federal Highway seeing hundreds of Chinese and Indians killed. Vehicles set on fire, shootings, teargas thrown, beheadings – these were some of the few acts of violence that erupted like wildfire that very evening and continued for the next few hours. At 7:35pm, a State of Emergency was declared in Selangor with curfews announced over the radios. Soon after, with the fights still persisting, the police force were given shoot to kill orders.
14th May 1969 → Bodies upon bodies of lives lost in the riots began to pile up. The events of the previous night left many killed, injured and lost. In the haste of restoring order and bringing the chaos to a halt, the National Operations Council (NOC) was formed. In the coming weeks, smaller outbursts of violence continued but none could compare to the horrors of May 13.
July 1969 → Gradually, the curfews began to loosen in stages with effective police enforcement. As tensions cooled, it was hard for a nation to regain its balance after such a harrowing experience. Many people were affected by the violence that ensued and it had sent shockwaves of caution in an already fragile state of respite.
According to the National Operations Council report, a total of 196 deaths resulted from the riots along with 439 left injured and traumatised as well as 6000 people homeless. Out of the 196 deaths, 143 were Chinese. Despite this, many believe that the true number of deaths was closer to 800.
Why Did This Happen?
In an official assessment released by the NOC, it was concluded that these events occurred as a result of “racial politics”, communist influences and political parties that threatened Malay rights and privileges that were already set in stone by the Constitution.
The issue at heart was distrust among the races and mishandled anxiety of the possibility of a new emerging government. Scholars have also pointed out that the riots started as a form of retaliation to the rowdy ‘parades’ that were held for the Opposition’s win in the elections.
On June 24th 1969, Parliament was suspended as a result of all the conflict and tension that had ensued. Then prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, stepped down from power as he was disappointed to see the unity and harmony he worked so hard to see Malaysia achieve, merely collapse right under his watch. With the absence of the Parliament, the National Operations Council remained in power for the next 21 months, this time headed by Tun Abdul Razak.
In the months following this shift in power, Malaysia saw many policies being introduced and revised to prevent history from repeating itself. These include the Sedition Act 1948 (Revised 1969) which was revised to prohibit any form of speech or publication that stirs ‘feelings of ill-will and hostility between the races” and the creation of the Rukun Negara to instil unity among members of the public. The Petroleum Mining Act was also enforced on Sabah and Sarawak as a consequence of the country being under a State of Emergency. This stripped away their oil rights, empowering the federal government with more control over East Malaysia.
53 years later, the events of 13 May remain a hollow reminder of what it would cost if we traded our unifying peace for satisfactory individual interests. Countless literature depicting the events of the longest night have immortalised the social impact on the future generations of Malaysia. It’s hard to forget a wound so deep, so let’s allow the scars of history to teach us gratitude and protect the peace of this nation.
Written by: Hannah
Edited by: Jamie