Chapter 07 - The 13 May Riots | 13 May 1969


During the long five-week election campaign leading up to the 1969 federal and state elections, it became apparent that the Alliance leaders were not in touch with the considerable sense of frustration and antagonism which had built up inexorably over the course of the past few years among non-Malays over such controversial issues as Malay special rights, the privileged position the Malays had in regard to employment, the four-to-one preponderance Malays enjoyed in the senior ranks of the civil service, and the barely concealed efforts that were being made to counter Chinese hegemony in commerce and industry. It has been said that 'The Chinese and Indians resident in Kuala Lumpur had after fifteen years of Alliance rule developed an acute persecution complex'.1 Interracial friction seemed almost inevitable as a result of the racial insults which were bandied about indiscriminately and irresponsibly both by the opposition parties and the Alliance.

According to one observer, 'The unwritten law regarding communal issues was violated by both the Alliance and Opposition parties when they indulged in open public and heated debate over such subjects.'2 Malay and Chinese emotions were rubbed raw and came dangerously close to breaking point. Although the campaign went off without incident, there was a distinct feeling of tension as polling day (10 May) approached.3

The Alliance leadership did not have any new formula for fighting the elections and countering the threat posed by the opposition parties consisting, in particular, of the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PMIP), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan), and the People's Progressive Party (PPP). The Alliance election manifesto read very much like a government report, and while it was a solid, reasoned document, it did not have any elan about it. It gave a summary of what the Alliance had achieved during its years in power, with

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sections devoted to the 'economic approach', 'defence and security', 'foreign affairs', and the 'racial nemesis'.

In regard to Sino-Malay relations, the most interesting section was the last-named. 'Historical circumstances have combined to keep the races apart', it said, 'and have somewhat segregated them economically.' The rural people are predominantly Malays, who are living at subsistence level and 'because we have given them a deserving priority in our attentions, we have been accused by our adversaries of practising racial discrimination'. It confirmed that the position of the 'have-nots' (the Malays) would have to be levelled up to the economic status of the 'haves' (the Chinese) although it added that this policy did not aim at depriving anyone of opportunities for advancement. It claimed that there was not a single opposition party which had shown itself capable of serving the needs of Malaysia's multiracial society, and the alternative to Alliance rule would be an irreversible process of disintegration with all the consequential carnage too hideous for anyone to envisage'.4

The Alliance placed considerable emphasis on maintaining Malay 'special rights' during the election campaign, and in a broadcast over Radio Malaysia on 9 May, the Tunku elucidated once again the division of power between the Malays and the Chinese. 'The Malays have gained for themselves political power,' he said. 'The Chinese and Indians have won for themselves economic power. The blending of the two with complete goodwill and understanding has brought about peace and harmony, coupled with prosperity to the country'.5

The main enemy as far as UMNO was concerned was the PMIP, which, as the oldest opposition party, had built up for itself a reputation as an Islamic religious and communal Malay party, with a strong anti-Chinese streak about it.

It promised that if it came to power it would establish an Islamic state in Malaysia, and amend the constitution to give it a more Malay rather than Malaysian slant. Its stand was crystallized in its slogan: bangsa (race), ugama (religion) and tanah Melayu (land of the Malays). The focal point of its power was Kelantan, but it had a not inconsiderable following in the Malay states of Trengganu, Perlis, Kedah as well as in north Penang, where the Malays formed a majority.

It accused UMNO of being pro-Chinese and selling out the country and the Malays to the Chinese.6

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Its influence was not very strong in the west coast states where there were more non-Malays, and a greater degree of exposure to western-style modernization and economic development.7

UMNO countered this by alleging that the PMIP had links with the outlawed Malayan Communist Party (MCP) in south Thailand, which was a subtle thrust, as it will be remembered that the MCP was predominantly Chinese in its make-up. It pointed out that the PMIP had done nothing about the economic development of Kelantan although it had been in control of the state government there since 1959. UMNO offered tremendous sums of developmental aid to Kelantan (which were termed 'daylight political bribery' by the PMIP President) if the vote in the state election should swing in its favour.8 Two further charges were made against the PMIP in order to discredit it in Malay eyes. Firstly, it was alleged that it had some sort of electoral understanding with the DAP, theoretically a noncommunal party, but which was regarded in Malay eyes as a Chinese party, with links extending south to the PAP in Singapore. Secondly, the Tunku claimed that it was receiving funds from the PAP in Singapore through the DAP.

This charge was taken so seriously by the Singapore government that it was officially denied by the Singapore Foreign Minister.

The PMIP and DAP then countercharged that the Alliance had received funds from the CIA, which the Tunku promptly denied by taking an oath on the Koran in a mosque.

The DAP was seen as posing the biggest threat to the MCA. Despite claims to be noncommunal, it was controlled by Chinese, and it attacked the MCA for surrendering Chinese rights to UMNO in the Alliance. Its platform was based on its 'Setapak Declaration of Principles', which was proclaimed by the General Executive Committee, together with members of branch committees, at Setapak near Kuala Lumpur on 29 July 1967. In brief, it was opposed to racial hegemony and supported the PAP's 'Malaysian Malaysia' concept. It saw Malaysia evolving as a multiracial, multilingual and multireligious society.9 Its election manifesto was 'Towards a Malaysian Malaysia'. It was attacked by the Alliance as being an anti-Malay communal party opposed to Malay 'special rights' and as a cover organization for the PAP, the branches of which had been de-registered in Peninsular Malaysia after Singapore's departure from Malaysia.10

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The DAP entered into an electoral pact with Gerakan and PPP aimed at preventing a split in opposition votes, and this strategy was to play an important part in the resounding blow given to the Alliance in the elections, which will be commented on later.11

The Gerakan was founded in 1968 as a noncommunal party by several leading intellectuals, as well as politicians who joined from the United Democratic Party (UDP), which was dissolved in 1968 in favour of the newly-established Gerakan, and others who crossed over from the Labour Party of Malaya (LPM).12

It is interesting to note that the UDP was formed in 1962 by Dr Lim Chong Eu, a medical practitioner and a former MCA President, who helped to sponsor Gerakan, and later became the chief minister of Penang.13

The LPM had a chequered history. It had been founded in the early 1950s, when its leaders were English-educated professional men, who were intellectual socialists, but they had left the party after it was infiltrated in the late 1950s by a large number of Chinese-educated Chinese. The latter were Chinese chauvinists from the 'non-Malay' states of Johore, Malacca, Selangor and Penang, who were virulently anti-Malay and strongly in favour of Chinese education and Chinese culture. The LPM was alleged by the government to have communist connections and to be an MCP-front organization.

The LPM took no part in the elections, most probably as a result of a policy decision taken by the MCP that the elections were a charade and should be boycotted.14 Meanwhile, it had been involved in the murder of an UMNO member in Penang in April, just a fortnight before polling day, and ten days later, one of its members had been shot dead by the police while resisting arrest in Kuala Lumpur. The LPM held a large funeral procession in Kuala Lumpur on 9 May, one day before the elections, when serious communal violence was only narrowly averted by the good sense and patience of the police.15

According to an official report, the LPM 'defied Police instruction and organised a large parade in which an estimated number of ten thousand persons took part and marched through the centre of Kuala Lumpur, flouting every Police instruction. They chanted Maoist slogans, sang "The East is Red", and displayed portraits of Mao Tse-tung and the Red flag. The parade passed through the heart of Kuala Lumpur and tied up traffic in almost every major street in the city, and provoked Malay bystanders

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with shouts of "Malai si!" (Death to the Malaysl) and "Hutang darah dibayar darah!" (Blood debts will be repaid with blood!)'.16

To revert to the Gerakan, its leading sponsors included Professor Syed Hussein Alatas, Professor of Malay Studies, University of Singapore, a Dutch-educated Malay intellectual from Johore, who became the party chairman; Professor Wang Gungwu, then Professor of History, University of Malaya; Dr. Lim Chong Eu; and Dr. Tan Chee Khoon, a former leader of LPM.

The Gerakan campaigned under the slogan of 'Equality, Justice and Equal Opportunities for All: Our Aim'.17

Among its aims were the reduction of the Alliance's two-third majority in parliament so that it would not 'further abrogate our constitutional rights and guarantees'. It was opposed to corruption which then posed a serious problem in Malaysia — Professor Alatas, in fact, wrote a book on this.18

While accepting the status and policy of Malay as the national language as provided for in the constitution, it was in favour of the 'legitimate use of all languages', and pressed for the support of the National and Merdeka Universities where Malay, Chinese and Tamil could be studied up to university level, and advocated the retention of Chinese and Tamil secondary education. It advocated an integrated Malaysian society with a common outlook and destiny.19

The sphere of influence of the People's Progressive Party (PPP) was Perak, where it had established itself as the champion of Chinese rights, under the leadership of two Ceylonese-Tamil lawyer brothers, one of whom died before the 1969 elections. Its election slogan was 'Malaysia for the Malaysians'. During the first federal elections of 1955, it had supported Malay special rights and the Alliance's position on the language and education issues. However, after independence, it had made a complete volte face by reshaping its policy to oppose Malay special rights, and had declared itself to be in favour of multilingualism and official recognition of the Chinese and Tamil languages. It had an even more pronounced pro-Chinese image than the DAP, and most of its supporters were Chinese, in spite of its president being a non-Chinese. 20

Polling took place on 10 May. The results were received with dismay by the Alliance. Although at parliamentary level, the Alliance won 66 seats (see Appendix 4), and as ten of its candidates had been returned unopposed in Sabah, it was certain of

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a majority in the 144-strong Dewan Rakyat, the outcome of the elections in East Malaysia, which were staggered and not held at the same time as those in Peninsular Malaysia, would decide whether it would still retain a two-third majority in parliament, without which it would be powerless to amend the constitution unless it could enlist the support of some members of the opposition.21

The results meant that the Alliance had won 23 seats less than it had in the 1964 general elections or, in other words, it had lost 25.84 percent of the seats which it had formerly held.

The MCA position was affected most seriously of all. It had won only 13 of the 33 seats it contested, that is, 14 less than in 1964. The MCA's 14 losses were matched by 13 DAP gains. Moreover, of these 13 seats, three had been unopposed, and three were won in Malay-majority constituencies.

The MIC had won two out of the three seats it had contested. In 1964, it had won three.

UMNO, primus inter pares of the three parties making up the Alliance, had won 51 out of the 67 seats it had contested or, in other words, 8 less than in 1964.22

The Alliance, in the words of the Straits Times, had a 'rough time to victory'.23

The most dramatic shift away from the Alliance occurred in the state elections, which in Malaysia are held at the same time as the federal elections (see Appendix 5).24

Penang was lost to the Gerakan, where only 4 of UMNO's 24 candidates were returned, with Gerakan winning 16 seats, DAP 3, and another opposition party 1. Kelantan was held by the PMIP to the chagrin of UMNO which had planned to inflict a resounding defeat on its rival. The Gerakan and the DAP had considerable success in Selangor at the expense of the Alliance, which was particularly galling considering that Kuala Lumpur was not only the Selangor state capital but also the federal capital. In Selangor, the opposition won one half of the 28 seats (DAP 9, Gerakan 4, Independent 1), and in Perak, the Alliance was struggling to retain control. It had won only 19 out of the 40 state seats (PPP 12, DAP 6, Gerakan 2, PMIP 1).

It was fortunate for the Alliance that the Gerakan refused to join any coalition of opposition parties, so that the Alliance was able to hang on to the control of the Selangor and Perak legislatures.25

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The situation was seen by the Malays to be extremely serious. An agonizing reappraisal of their position was called for. It was clear that the opposition parties had made a considerable dent in their armour, and the Alliance faced the prospect of a strong Chinese-based opposition in parliament for the first time since it had come to power.

UMNO campaign directors met behind closed doors as soon as possible after the results were known and demanded a more Malay-oriented Cabinet. It was urged that Malay ministers should be appointed to take over the portfolios of Commerce and Industry and Finance which had in the past always been held by Chinese ministers appointed from within the ranks of the MCA.26 The Tunku's own standing in UMNO had fallen considerably after the passing of the National Language Act, when Malay national language advocates had criticized him for not taking a strong enough stand with the Chinese.

Although, technically speaking, the Alliance had won, the opposition parties were elated at the improvement of their position, and on 11 and 12 May the DAP and Gerakan held 'victory' parades in Kuala Lumpur, some of which did not have police permission, which were followed by numerous smaller processions.

Some of the DAP and Gerakan supporters went to the house of Dato Harun bin Idris, Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) of Selangor, and chairman of UMNO Selangor Branch, and told him to quit as he was no longer Menteri Besar.

The 'victory procession', writes Tunku Abdul Rahman, 'was held on an unprecedented scale, politically speaking, and was accompanied by acts of rowdyism and hooliganism and in utter defiance of the Police after the main procession had ended. The procession went through unauthorised routes, jamming traffic everywhere as a consequence..,'27

This unruly mob slowly wound its way through town, past Kampung Bharu, the largest Malay residential area in Kuala Lumpur, where some thirty thousand Malays lived, hurling abuse and insults as it went, such as 'Melayu sudah jatuh' {The Malays have fallen), 'Kuala Lumpur sekarang China punya' (Kuala Lumpur now belongs to the Chinese), 'Ini negeri bukan Melayu punya, kita mahu halau semua Melayu' (This country does not belong to the Malays, we want to chase out all the Malays), and the like.28

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On the evening of 13 May, a group of UMNO supporters assembled outside the house of the Selangor Menteri Besar with the intention of staging a counter-demonstration on behalf of UMNO, and immediately after this procession got under way disturbances involving Malays and Chinese broke out.

Very soon after that, rioting occurred in several parts of Kuala Lumpur and it was clear that the government had a very serious emergency on its hands. Malays and Chinese indulged in an orgy of killing, looting and burning. The police did their best to control the situation in an even-handed way, but as the rioting continued to get out of hand, the army had to be called in, and police and army reinforcements were summoned from outside. The situation by then had become increasingly uncontrollable, and a curfew was declared at 8.00 p.m. on 13 May.

'Kuala Lumpur was a city on fire,' Tunku Abdul Rahman wrote in his account of the disturbances. 'I could clearly see the conflagration from my residence at the top of the hill and it was a sight that I never thought I would see in my lifetime. In fact all my work to make Malaysia a happy and peaceful country through these years, and also my dream of being the happiest Prime Minister in the world, were also going up in flames.'29

On 14 May, intermittent shooting occurred in different parts of the town, and roving gangs of Malays and Chinese, several hundred strong, fought savagely with each other using any weapons they could lay their hands on. As the London Times correspondent reported, 'in street after street were overturned and burnt-out cars, motor-cycles and scooters, with no evidence of the fate that befell their passengers'.

The bloodshed continued on 15 May, and there was firing between the army and armed youths. Clouds of dense black smoke continued to rise from burning houses, shops and markets, and the roads were littered with debris and barricades.

It is not necessary to recount here blow-by-blow the bitter fighting which took place between the two main communities of Malaysia, and the havoc and destruction to life and property that was wrought, but rioting, arson and looting continued for several days before the situation was brought under control.30 A 24-hour curfew was imposed over virtually the whole of the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, that is, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, Perak, Kedah, Penang, and Malacca. During the height of the flare-up,-rail, bus, train and air links with the outside world were severed,

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and the publication of newspapers was suspended for a few days. Gradually, however, the violence subsided, and by 20 May, the situation in Kuala Lumpur, while remaining tense, had largely returned to normal, and it was possible to make a preliminary reckoning.

The official figures relating to the emergency covering the period 13 May to 31 July indicate that 196 persons lost their lives and 180 were wounded by firearms and 259 by other weapons, but these totals have been contested by newspaper correspondents who were at the scene, who maintain that they were much higher. 9,143 persons were arrested, of whom 5,561 were charged in court.31 6,000 persons were rendered homeless and at least 211 vehicles destroyed or damaged, and 753 buildings damaged or destroyed by fire.32

Many of the older residents of Malaysia who had experienced the Sino-Malay racial disturbances in 1945 — 6, immediately after the Japanese surrender, considered that it was the worst racial riot in the history of the country.

On 14 May, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong proclaimed a state of national emergency under clause 2 of article 150 of the constitution 'to secure public safety and the maintenance of good order'; the constitution and parliament were suspended, and the elections in East Malaysia were postponed indefinitely.33

Two days later, Tunku Abdul Rahman set up a ten-member National Operations Council headed by Tun Abdul Razak, the deputy prime minister, with responsibility for administration under the proclamation of emergency, and appointed a new Cabinet, 'superior to the Operations Council'.34

The Tunku made it clear that he remained as prime minister, that he was still in complete overall charge of the country, and that the Operations Council would be responsible to him.35

Meanwhile, Tun Tan Siew Sin, (son of Tan Cheng Lock), MCA president, had announced on 13 May that as the MCA had lost the confidence of the Chinese electorate, it would withdraw from the government although it would remain in the Alliance in order to give it a majority. This announcement was made before the outbreak of the riots but it came as a shock as, for the first time since the formation of Malaysia, the Chinese community would not be alongside UMNO and the MIC in the Alliance government. Nevertheless, three MCA members joined the 'Emergency' Cabinet on 20 May.36

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As the official National Operations Council report on the tragedy says, 'Sino-Malay distrust runs like a thread through the nation's recent history',37 and since the elected Alliance government had assumed power fifteen years previously, while there had been isolated incidents of Sino-Malay clashes such as those in May 1959 on Pangkor Island; in July 1964 in the Bukit Mertajam district; in July and September 1964 in Singapore; in early 1965 in Kuala Lumpur; and in November 1967 and April 1969 in Penang,38 there had been nothing on the terrifying scale of the 13 May riots, which are a watershed in contemporary Malaysian history.

In summing up, one may say that the violence which shook Kuala Lumpur was triggered off by the results of the general elections at federal and state levels which saw the Alliance Party, especially the MCA component of it, reeling under body blows from the opposition, but the underlying cause is much deeper and undoubtedly must be looked for in the social, political and economic differences which had grown up between the Chinese and Malays.

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