Malaysiana: Rumination on May 13

Some context for non-Malaysians
On May 13, 1969, riots broke out on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. These were racialized riots, between the majority Malay and minority-but-still-sizeable Chinese factions, a result of racial and religious fractioning between political parties of the people. Malaysia was still a very young country at the time, and had not really had much time yet to grow used to its multi-cultural identity now that the overwhelming British influence was gone. I would still argue that the Malaysian identity is still in flux; cultures take a long time to change and syncretize with each other. 

Since then, May 13 has become a force under which we have all rallied to do away with race-based politics, with a certain degree of success. We recognize now that we are Malaysians - born, bred, raised in similar environments and contexts, with a shared history (that can also be called propaganda), in a particular cultural context that is similar but not quite exactly the same with neighbouring nations.

Unfortunately, it seems also seems to have become a weapon for those who have privileges they want to maintain. Do not question the status quo, because it will, as it inevitably does, lead to questioning the current state of equality between races, which will lead to discussing the racial discrimination faced on institutional levels, which will lead to anger of many individuals, who will go on to cite the many different incidents of racism they or their friends or their friends' friends have gone through, and it all ends up in this unproductive black hole of people getting mutually angry at each other and ending up with harsh generalizations.

Malaysia's Identity Crisis
Part of this is because of the growing pains of trying to be a single community, building a single identity, when our history is made of several nations amalgamating into one entity. Our society is made of several different communities, some of whom have been here for generations, some who have just migrated, all of whom are learning how to get along. 

Malaysia is not in a homogenous cultural state. Unlike many countries where, despite regional differences, there are enough similarities between them all to create a cohesive identity, Malaysia is made of many communities. All of them have different ideas on what religion looks like, how government should be run, what makes the qualities of a good leader, what our values are, how power and wealth should be distributed. Throw in the fact that each group has their own elite and own power structures, and it's a messy conglomerate of inequality.

When I think about being Malaysian, I think about what I was taught then, and what I know now. What I was taught then was that Malaysians are friendly and tolerant. We love good food and we are hard workers. Durian was our national fruit. The hibiscus, bunga raya, is the national flower. We are multi-cultural and multi-racial and we still get along.

What I know now is that these are superficial statements. Many people from other countries are friendly and tolerant. Many other countries also have thriving food traditions and their citizens are also hard workers. Yes, the love of durian appears to be specific to Malaysia, and no other country claims the hibiscus as the national flower, but seriously, a fruit and a flower are not exactly a solid basis for identity. We are multi-cultural and multi-racial, but what the hell does that even mean?

Identity is more than the values we hold, the trappings of culture, the shared history and the life under the same shared political system. When someone says, "I'm not [Malay/Chinese/Indian/Eurasian], I am MALAYSIAN," what do they mean? I thought I knew, because "Malaysian" is supposed to be our uniting identity.

Yet, knowing what we do of the discriminatory policies upheld by institutions, knowing what we do of how prejudices structure our very lives, knowing how for many of us, we stick to 'our own kind,' what is the label "Malaysian" supposed to mean?

When I ponder this question, I go back to May 13.

Recognizing May 13
Figuring out the precise causes of May 13 is a nebulous quest. Partly because I have no access to history books that might shed light, and many such history books would be tightly controlled by the government. Partly because there are few reports of the incident, few first-hand accounts. Partly because discussion of it is suppressed. Partly because a lot of us would like to forget it ever happened, because it is such a taint on our history, a stain, a shame.

I think about May 13 every now and then, with and without prompting from politicians who use it as a threat over our heads. But especially when they do, because why do they use it as a threat? What is so powerful about May 13 that its repeat is something to shy from? It seemed to me that May 13 is frightening because it is so imminent. Because the politicians have the power to somehow summon demons inside us to rise up that will make us take to the streets and attack people who look like they belong to a different racial group.

I've been thinking about May 13 ever since I began to understand the divisive effects of the NEP. I don't think too long on the subject because I can't get very far, what with the lack of information I have.

May 13 broke out because we did not understand that politicians want our votes to serve their purposes. May 13 broke out because we did not understand that we are different peoples coming together. Yes, one nation, but yes, many identities.
May 13 broke out because we did not care to have a deep understanding of each other, because we were convinced of each other's foreignness, or similarity, and when we discovered there were some things we clashed on, and we still had to live with each other, we didn't know how to react.
May 13 broke out and fractured us because we were afraid of understanding each other because we thought it meant we had to give up something of ourselves.
May 13 broke out because we saw each other in pain, and we were scared that to approach each other meant we, too, would feel that pain.
May 13 broke out because we were pushed and pulled by forces that had power over our daily lives, and we reacted without grasping the whole picture.
May 13 broke out because we failed to communicate.
May 13 broke out because we failed to speak out.

May 13 broke out because we failed to recognize our capacity for prejudice, violence, and hatred.

Our Capacity for Division
Because I'm sure others will be able to talk more on the other things I mentioned, I want to focus on the latter.

I hate rapists. I hate racists. I hate casual misogyny and I hate microaggressions.

I hate these people because they make me angry. And this anger is borne from a place of fear: these are the people who can affect my life - as a woman, a rapist can strip me of my sense of personal and physical security. As a minority in the countries I live in, both Malaysia and Canada, I am a visible minority and racists have the power to prevent me from things that I have a right to: respect, good service, employment, justice. Casual misogyny allows the former to thrive, and microaggressions, that insidious type of discrimination which is hard to identify, is a manifestation of the latter. And worse still, I can identify neither rapist nor racist on first sight. This breeds anxiety, which leads to anger that I cannot live securely, and so I hate them, because not only to they deprive me of this security, but also others like me. What right do these people have to deprive me and those like me of this basic right to self-assurance?

And that is why I have sympathy for the rioters of 1969. The rhetoric of the times stripped them of their sense of the security that life would go on as usual, fueled by the fear that they would lose what they currently had, which was already not much.

When I was a child, I was taught not to show weakness. I was taught that to cry was "shame, shame" because somehow or another, I was a grown-up, and grown-ups do not cry. Crying is for babies and toddlers who cannot speak. I was also told not to be scared. Only scaredy-cats are scared. I suspect this is also true for many of my peers and elders.

So when I was frustrated at my lack of understanding, or frustrated at someone else's lack of understanding me, I lashed out. This would often lead to me thrashing my own room, dumping everything on the floor, after which a process would begin wherein I would start to clean out things I didn't need anymore. Since I was denied an emotional and mental clearinghouse, I made do with a physical one. If I had not lived in relative privilege and comfort, I probably would have turned out to be a violent child.

Anyone has this capacity to turn out violent. Abuse people long enough and they will either withdraw or lash out. Deny them proper, non-harmful avenues of expression, take away from them what they feel are their rights and privileges, tell them they are worth less than what they truly are or feel themselves to be - this will lead to ill-will on all sides.

When there is ill-will on all sides... there will be divisions, as we thus refuse to correspond and cooperate, because who wants to cooperate with someone that pisses us off?

Severed From Other Malaysians
Growing up, I could not speak much besides English. This means my Malay could stand for improvement, and my Chinese is only worth for ta-pau. Sometimes if I talk in Malay too long, I end up swallowing my words. I've been told I sound like a Kelantanese. And of course, I speak no Tamil.

Nonetheless, the lack of proficiency in any of these languages means I am cut off from much of Malaysia's population, my own countrymen. I associate only with a specific subset of the upper-middle-class which has been taught that English is the best medium for communication. It means I miss a great deal of connotations and implications in many conversations with other Malaysians who speak something other than English.

It means that growing up, I had very few friends who were not Chinese.

This is significant, because Malays are 50% of the population, and Indians are 5%, yet 98% of my friends growing up were all Chinese. Is it something as simple as 'birds of a feather'? I want to say so, but somehow, I doubt it is. Because we're supposed to be Malaysian, right? I used to think our major points of disagreement were only religious and political.

Yet, I was a supporter of UMNO. When I took Tasawwur Islam for SPM, I sat by myself, the only Chinese student in an all-Malay, all-Muslim class. I did not make friends with my classmates, because there was still something inescapably different - our contexts were different. Our cultures were different. They had their own friends, and I was not one of them.

When younger, I might have chalked it up to my individualism which made it very difficult for me to make friends in the first place. I was a bit anti-social, and quite awkward. Even today, I don't relate to very many people easily. Yet the point remains: there was a gulf between myself and my Malay classmates, most of whom were middle-class like myself, that I could not cross, even between those who spoke English. This was similar for myself with Indian schoolmates. I could only speak to a select few: they tended to speak English, as well.

Between myself and Chinese classmates, the gulf was not just language, but also money. Money talks, yes, it does! Moreso when negotiating friendships between the haves and have-nots. I doubt this problem stems from May 13, but it is still part of the socio-economic landscape of our country.

The Obstacles to Being Malaysian
So what does "Malaysian" mean? I still don't know, although I've been away from Malaysia long enough to know that whatever it means, I'm one.

What I do know is that Malaysia, like many other nations, is a construct, and for us, a colonial one - we came together because we had to, forced into a single Federation through British influence. When we absorbed Sarawak and Sabah, we became even more of a construct. "Malaysian" as a fixed identity is a national identity - there is no single cultural nor racial identity attached to this concept.

As such, under this construct, anyone who identifies as Malaysian deserves the same rights all around. We all deserve the same opportunities, the same access to education and funding.

Unfortunately, our national identity is riddled with questions and interference from our other identities: how much does being Chinese influence our identities as Malaysian? Malay? Indian? Racially, it is not quite so simple - being Malaysian-Chinese carries its own burdens and privileges. As one, I am a step up from being Malaysian-Indian, several steps up from being an Indonesian migrant, a step away from being a regular middle-class Malaysian-Malay, and together, we are several steps down under the Malaysian elite. And let us be honest - the regular Malay citizen has more in common with another regular Chinese citizen than with the politicians of UMNO.

What about religion? I, for one, am grateful that I have been able to celebrate Wesak Day with other Buddhists, although I do not identify as Buddhist anymore. We built a beautiful temple in SS13 with our own money. Most of us can practise our religion with relatively little fuss. I personally love the call to prayer at 5am (yes, I am quite aware that most non-Muslims do not share this sentiment). Yet when Christians wish to translate their faith into Malay, the national language, in itself a pastiche of various languages, a word becomes the spark that lights jealousy on the part of Malay-Muslims, who want to horde the language of their faith for themselves. Why would such religious possessiveness drive people to hurt others born in the same country? Of course, it is insecurity, because being a Malaysian-Muslim is not quite the same as being a Middle-Eastern Muslim. Then again, there's not much that is the same between a Saudi-Muslim, an American-Muslim, a Chinese-Muslim, and a Palestinian-Muslim besides the basic tenets of the faith.

What about education? A rural student will be very different from one going to some cosmopolitan private school. While the examinations are standardized, are we all really learning the same thing? I am upper-middle-class; I went to tuition, I took piano lessons, I go shopping, I have Internet access. The poorer student who has no extra money to pay a tutor to help him or her understand schoolwork is not going to be very much like me. And yet we are both Malaysian... because we are born in the same country. But are we the same? We are not: I am privileged and will have more opportunities than s/he will.

These are not the only things which mark us as different within our own country. These are all true things that divide us all.

May 13 did not divide us. May 13 was only a manifestation of the divisions that already existed and continue to exist today. Every day, people live their own private May 13s - when a prospective employee is denied a job because he or she is the wrong race, for example. When a scholarship consistently favours a certain type of student, despite purporting to be based on academic scores alone. When a person is ostracized for speaking differently, marking them as the odd one out from the rest of the group they supposedly belong to. When a citizen feels compelled to leave the country of their birth.

Also, a little May 13 is inflicted on us every time a part of the Malaysian elite has decided that we lower-caste folks are getting too uppity for their liking.

It has been a little over 30 years since 1969. I hesitate to say that the nation has matured; we haven't yet had much of a history as Malaysia. I don't care what the history books say: Tanah Melayu may have been around since the medieval times, but Malaysia itself is still fresh and new. We have gone down the route of capitalism (and without the free market, to boot!) and industrialization, but we have forgotten the fact that all these things are remnants of the colonial history that has sought to render us objects and commodities.

The Malaysian elite are the heirs of our former masters. They use fear and intimidation to silence the common Malaysian into silent fear. Their tools are a police force, the laws they can manipulate and re-interpret, and a religious authourity from which they moralize and pontificate.

Audre Lorde, a black American woman who wrote on the oppression she faced in her own country, once wrote, "the master's tools cannot dismantle the master's house." Perhaps it is good for us that we do not have such access to this kind of power that is being wielded over us.

Today is May 13. I am a student of a literature that intersects with theories and workings of social justice. My tools are my fingers that type, a mind that seeks to inquire into the origins of the anxiety that drives us apart from each other, and a willingness to learn and reach across gulfs of differences.

Today, I expect many to speak from a place of anger, or a place of fear, or a place of hostility, or a place of pain. Today, I expect most to be silent, because to speak out is more costly than they can pay.

This post is going up earlier than May 13, because where I am, May 13 will arrive in Malaysia 12 hours before it gets here. Yet, as far away as I am from my own tanahair, I remember May 13. I may not have been there that fateful day in 1969, but I know, it has not yet ended. 


  1. Nicely written...thanks for organizing #swarm13may =)see u on twitter

  2. "The Malaysian elite are the heirs of our former masters. They use fear and intimidation to silence the common Malaysian into silent fear. Their tools are a police force, the laws they can manipulate and re-interpret, and a religious authourity from which they moralize and pontificate."

    I've been agonising about whether or not we have attained real independence because of this fact. It's not something many Malaysians would like to discuss at length about, because we've seen Tunku Abdul Rahman shouting from the rooftops that we're free played on repeat every national day. His figure in the grainy film reel is what we refer to assure ourselves that we're attained freedom, he's almost like a hero of mythical proportions. But in truth, he was a committed anglophile and a posh Malay man who was there at the right time and the right place when the British empire was crumbling. To dare think that we are still colonised in other more implicit ways is perhaps over the line for many.

    The fact that we see it fit to continue the colonial method of divide and rule when dealing with the different ethnic groups in Malaysia is also another indication that we yet to move on from our colonial masters. The obsession with divisions based on race and religion has roots in different places on the colonial map, but the effect of this obsession vary from violent conflict and silent grumbling (as in Malaysia). Perhaps a big comparative colonial history lesson for Malaysians would help, a lesson that I am confident will be subversive and very enlightening.


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