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Articles, Commentaries, History, The Edge

Putting May 13 to Rest

By Ooi Kee Beng

For The Edge, May 28, 2012

Undoubtedly, the self-image of a nation includes the memory of key events from the past. These may include those whose impact on the course of events was so strong that no narrative, either by historians or by the layman, can ignore them. And then there are those whose impact is less obvious, and whose place in the national imagination is more political than historical; more symbolic than iconic.

Thus, for Americans, the depiction of George Washington crossing the Delaware projects ideas of resilience, righteousness, conviction, and final victory. It also conveys pride that all those who wish to see themselves as Americans can imbibe and through it, feel a sense of common belonging. The Chinese Communist Party has always used images of the Long March of 1934-35 to good effect to convey heroism and hardiness on the part of survivors of those who escaped Kuomintang ambushes.

Not only countries, but movements as well, use historical moments to visualise ambitions and ideals, often with the help of charismatic personalities. The civil rights movement in America had Martin Luther King Jr announcing his dreams on 28 August 1963 to the crowd outside the Lincoln Memorial, and Alberto Korda’s photograph of Ernesto “Che” Guevara quickly became a seductive image in the minds of revolutionary urban youth, of the idealistic activist doomed to glorious failure.

Malaysian independence is inevitably associated with the film clips of Tengku Abdul Rahman declaring “Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!”. The sight of the Tengku raising his hand in triumph served not only to immortalise the occasion, but also to express the oneness of the country forever more. As an instrument for stimulating and sustaining sentiments of unity and community among Malaysians, that moment remains unsurpassed.


Malaysians do not have many more figures or occasions to feel collectively proud about. Even Malaysian sportsmen or sportswomen of today, no matter how successful on the world stage, do not enjoy unreserved cheer from all segments of society the way Malaysian badminton players and footballers used to in the early years of nationhood.

In that sense, the Malaysian nation-building project has been failing. Without a doubt, the Petronas Twin Towers in the heart of Kuala Lumpur do generate a sense of identity and pride even among critics of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed.

But that has a hard time trying to overshadow former Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein waving a drawn keris in public three years in a row at the UMNO general assembly; or Malaysian riot police using tear gas and water cannons on demonstrators in Kuala Lumpur.

The promise that the triumphant raising of the Tengku arm in 1957 held is definitely not reflected in the indignant raising of the keris by Hishammuddin in 2007. Somewhere in between, the project of creating national unity went seriously off track.

Between those years, the greatest outbreak of violence was on May 13, 1969. And it is perhaps the divisive ghosts that appeared after that event that haunts the nation and keeps one citizen separate from the other.

Like a pusher wishing to sell a drug to the unwitting first-time user, the significance of May 13 was repeatedly hard-sold by the post-1969 political establishment to a confused and cowed citizenry. The trauma became an imagination based on narratives more than on actual experience.

The lived experience of daily life as individuals is not something that can be drowned out, deleted or diluted by historical images and narratives. And that is perhaps where some hope lies for Malaysia to get over May 13. Giant demonstrations such as Bersih 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0, in which all ethnicities participate in support of something technical like electoral reforms and not something touchy like ethnic rights; and where the opponent is the impersonal state promise to have a cathartic effect on the population of Kuala Lumpur, where the riots of May 13 took place.

Admittedly, May 13 should not be trivialised. However, it was very much a Selangor event and not a Malaysian trauma as such. The subsequent measures treated it like a national disaster and forced Malaysians to imagine the riots as something essential to the country’s DNA, and thus, something within Malaysians which they themselves must always fear.

However, new young minds contain other ghosts and other traumas that are more personally experienced, such as being treated unfairly by bad governance, being taken for fools by the government or any political party, being kept poor while others prosper unjustly. These are more real than old narratives.

To be sure, Poverty and the lack of social mobility are traumas that traverse the generational gap much more easily than images of chaos from 43 years ago. In short, Malaysians today deal with traumas that are more real to them than those imposed on them by images of May 13.



About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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