Thursday, 24 January 2008

Let's Learn From the Past

Brave New World (The Star)
31 May 2007

"We need to learn from the past because it affects the present and, more importantly, if we are to move forward."


I have just read Kua Kia Soong’s latest book, May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969. As with Kua’s earlier works, it is written in a passionate style that drives the narrative forward with a sense of urgency, so much so that reading it was a pleasure. A rather brief pleasure, I might add, as it is a pretty slim volume.

I think that this is an important book. It raises issues and questions that challenge the “official” story of the riots and it adds new information that is vital if we as a nation are ever to truly understand that horrible period of our history.

However, I also think that it is not as sensational as the hype may lead one to believe.

The central thesis of Kua’s book is that the May 13 riots were planned by Tun Abdul Razak and the Malay capitalist class of the time in order to destabilise the country and overthrow the aristocratic ruling class symbolised by the Tunku.

Once this was achieved, they then had a free hand to set their own “Malay Agenda”, which saw an entrenchment of special treatment for the Malays, their own grip on power, and through that, ample opportunity for them to make lots and lots of money.

There certainly appears to be very strong secondary evidence that the thugs who went on a rampage were organised, and the rise of the Malay capitalist class may well have been the result of the May 13 riots, but I am afraid I can’t see the evidence to show that it was all part of a larger conspiracy involving the second most powerful man in the country at the time.

This is for two main reasons. Firstly, the “declassified documents” were largely press reports and opinions from diplomatic circles. These by themselves are valuable in the sense that they give a perspective on the riots that is at odds with the official line that we have been fed over the past 38 years. But, they are just that, the eyewitness accounts and opinions of various individuals.

The accounts must be taken seriously but the conclusions that one makes from those accounts as well as the conclusions of some of the individuals quoted (that there was a major conspiracy behind the riots) hardly amount to solid evidence of the fact.

The second reason for my doubts is the recent book by Ooi Kee Beng, The Reluctant Politician, based on the personal memoirs of Tun Dr Ismail. In his diaries, Ismail described Razak’s reaction to May 13 as one of befuddlement, confusion and fear. Not exactly the reaction of a man who had planned the whole thing from the start.

Of course, this is my personal opinion and we can argue about whose is better until the cows come home, but the point is that until we can get our hands on more concrete evidence, the theory that a high-level-conspiracy-planned May 13 has to remain just that – a theory.

Even so, the book is still of great importance. The accounts of journalists at the time point to a degree of organisation amongst the Malay thugs who gathered in Kampung Baru. The success of the opposition may have been a cause of unhappiness and distress, but the violence that followed does not look as though it was a spontaneous act that was out of control. This has tremendous resonance to us today.

The way May 13 is portrayed by those in power is that it could “just happen”. This threat of sudden violence has worked wonders in cowing the general populace. Threaten Malay privileges, and violence will “just happen”. This book shows that violence does not “just happen”. On such a large scale, it needs two things: planning and the poor performance of the security forces.

Planning seems to have occurred with thugs being summoned to and organised at Harun Idris’ house in Kampung Baru, the main source of the violence (please note, I do not contend that there was no planning; what I questioned above was just how far back and how high up the planning went).

And the security forces did not seem to have done their work well to crush the violence before it spread. In particular, the military was accused of not enforcing the law (curfew) fairly. This may have been the result of incompetence or, as the book contends, inherent racism within the military itself.

The book has used previously classified documents to help us see a new dimension to the tragedy. And it is indeed a tragedy – in particular for the Chinese community of this country who suffered the most deaths and who were the most targeted in the security clampdown that followed; and in general to all of us for it was a shameful period in our history.

Kua has taken a step towards uncovering what really happened on May 13, 1969. There have been calls here and there that we should let the past remain where it is. I do not agree. The past affects the present and we need to have a clearer picture of it in order to move forward.

We need to get as close as possible to the truth in order for us to be free of the spectre of that day. In that sense, I pray that this book will not be banned or anything dumb like that, and that we use it as a stepping-stone to get a truly independent inquiry started.

At the end of the day, what I can see is that the so-called lessons that the ruling party wishes us to learn from May 13 are not really the lessons we should be learning from it. The lesson is not how easily violence can occur if the Malaysian people “step out of line”; the lesson to me is that violence can occur if those in power feel they can get something from it and if they forget that their responsibility is to us, all of us.

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