This Friday, August 31, will mark the 61st anniversary of Malaysia’s freedom from colonisation. For the first time in years, there is a revival of hope in my homeland.
It was inevitable that I spent part of this summer reflecting on what happened on May 9, when Malaysia went to the polls. We now know that Malaysians made history that day (see What Malaysia Means). UMNO, which stands for United Malays National Organisation, the political party that had ruled the country for 61 years, was finally booted out of office. The opposition coalition, led by former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, won against all odds. His age – 93 years – is what Western journalists have focused on, but this is the least of it. What happened was astonishing, a rare victory for democracy and justice in today’s world.
As with many things Malaysian, the full story is dramatic and complicated. It began long before 2018. The tale is worth telling, though, for it bears the hallmarks of great fiction: power, intrigue, grit and remorse, forgiveness and possibly, just possibly, redemption.
But how to tell it to non-Malaysians in such a way that they will understand and enjoy? This article is my attempt. Between now and August 31, I will lay out Power, Remorse & Redemption in Three Acts here on my blog.
To understand the stunning firsts and reversals that took place on May 9, we must go back to another May, to a day that’s etched in the psyche of every Malaysian. May 13, 1969. On that day, the Malaysia of my childhood fell apart. Thus begins Act I.
May 13: Spontaneous Combustion or Arson?
I was only four when my father rushed home one afternoon. I remember his ashen face and gruff voice. He told my mother to switch on the radio, muttering a word I’d not heard till then: curfew. The broadcaster confirmed that a curfew had been declared. There were riots and fighting on Kuala Lumpur’s streets. My father’s descriptions were more graphic. He said that Malay men with sword-like knives had set fire to Chinese shop-houses.
Over the next few days fear permeated our house. It was the first time that I learnt to be suspicious of other races. Until then I’d thought of our Malay and Indian neighbours as people like us except that they wore interesting clothes and ate spicy food. May 13 destroyed this innocence. The crying shame is that many Malaysians have mixed lineage. Multiculturalism should have been a pillar of our country’s richness; instead, for the next 49 years, it became a political weapon.
To understand why Malaysia is naturally multiracial, you only have to look at a map. To the west of Peninsula Malaysia lies a narrow and sheltered stretch of water: the Straits of Malacca. In the days when pirates roamed the seas, seasonal winds brought adventurers from East and North, West and South. Ships invariably ended up docking in Malaysia.
They came from everywhere. From neighbouring countries like Indonesia and Thailand and from farther afield too: China, India, even Arabia and Armenia. Some of these traders settled. Malaysia is a paradise: peaceful, sunny and well-fed by rain, its very air exuding the promise of an easy life. Surrounding waters teem with fish; a seed only has to drop for it to grow.
European powers eventually arrived, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British. It was the latter who recognised Malaysia’s potential. After gaining control of the country in the 19th century, Britain began developing the tin mines and rubber estates which would make the mother country rich. In a letter published in the London Review of Books on March 6 2014, Robert Lemkin, an Oxford-based filmmaker, wrote this about Malaysia:
‘In 1946 the colony’s rubber and tin industries brought the UK Treasury $118 million; the rest of the empire altogether yielded only a further $37 million. Without Malaya, the post-war British welfare state would have been unthinkable.’
Malaysia, then called Malaya, was the British Empire’s crown jewel. To develop their new industries, the colonials needed labour. They set about importing vast numbers of Chinese and Indian indentured labourers. Chinese and Indian populations had already settled naturally, but British policies changed Malaysia’s demographics overnight. The result is a rainbow country today with three main races: Malay (67%), Chinese (25%) and Indian (7%).
Many people confuse ‘Malaysian’ with ‘Malay’. Malaysian is the nationality, Malay the race. You can be Malaysian without being Malay, just as you can be British without being English.
For Malaysians of mixed heritage like me, of whom there are many, the crude classification above cannot properly reflect our roots. I fall under ‘Chinese’, but my great-grandmother had Malay lineage. And the many Malays I know with Chinese mothers or grandmothers are categorised merely as ‘Malay’. In reality Malaysians are a potpourri of Malay, Chinese, Indian and lots more. There were also indigenous tribes already in situ – the Orang Asli or ‘original people’ – the true natives of Malaysia, who are aggregated as ‘Malay’ in the above statistics.
Race is a lightning rod in Malaysia. It has been easy to use race to keep Malaysians apart because our political parties have traditionally been run along communal lines. What’s astonishing is that many still are – in 2018. You must be Malay to join UMNO, which is why it’s called the United Malays National Organisation. I would not be allowed into UMNO, though I’m eligible to join the Malaysian Chinese Association, MCA. Indians can join the Malaysian Indian Congress, MIC. This system of apartheid is crazy, but when you grow up with it you don’t see this. It’s such an accepted fact in Malaysia that even some of the newest political parties are race-based.
As a consequence of May 13, race ignited in the Malaysian consciousness – for all the wrong reasons. When race is used as a weapon, it’s a sign that someone’s power is being threatened. This was precisely the case in Malaysia.
On May 10 1969, a general election had been held – Malaysia’s third. The political line-up included three non-racial parties that were all part of the opposition. Anyone could join those parties, but their members were mainly ethnic Chinese and Indians, their supporters people like my parents, who were delighted by the results. The ruling alliance led by UMNO retained power but garnered only 44% of the vote, and lost its majority in three of Malaysia’s wealthiest states (as well as one on the east coast). Crucially, UMNO lost the two-thirds parliamentary majority that had allowed it to change Malaysia’s constitution at will.
But even more than the above, it was the lessons on race that terrified UMNO. In 1969, two of the multi-racial parties in the opposition fielded Malay candidates who were elected into office. This was a first; until then politics in Malaysia had been solidly communal. The results showed that a substantial minority of Malaysians were already prepared – in 1969 – to herald in a less racist country. It was equally clear that Malaysians wanted a real opposition, not toothless puppets. There was the promise of stronger democracy. Foreign correspondents praised Malaysia’s democratic process, predicting more efficient governance in future.
What happened next would change the above premise. It was a watershed moment.
The official explanation for the May 13 riots is that they were a ‘spontaneous’ outburst, the result of simmering tensions in a multiracial society. But a cursory glance at Malaysia’s 1969 election results will tell you that UMNO’s hegemony was being challenged.
Unsurprisingly, May 13 has not been properly discussed within Malaysia. No one has been called to account. There has been neither truth nor reconciliation, only avoidance. Official documents remained classified for 30 years. When I was growing up May 13 was the spectre we were not allowed to mention publicly, lest racial riots ‘flare up again’. It took this article for me to understand the significance of Malaysia’s 1969 elections.
A Malaysian social scientist, Kua Kia Soong, after a painstaking analysis of declassified documents, concluded that May 13 was no spontaneous outburst. ‘There was a plan to unleash this racial violence’. He adds:
‘Nor does it necessarily follow that there will be conflict when different ethnic communities coexist, as is implied in pluralist analyses. The role of the state has to be analysed in the particular historical conjuncture.’
(May 13, published by Suaram Komunikasi in 2007)
His analysis makes sense in light of what happened next. The UMNO-led government initiated policies that would seal UMNO’s position in the Malaysian political landscape. UMNO would rein in Malaysian democracy. Malaysia lost; UMNO gained.
It’s worth remembering that UMNO was formed first and foremost as a freedom movement. Its initial raison d’être was to rid the country of British rule. In this it was ferociously effective. But freedom movements don’t necessarily make good governments, as we have seen across the Commonwealth.
UMNO’s internal politics paved the way for the rise of the man known as Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who would muzzle the press and dismantle institutional checks and balances. In so doing, he systematically destroyed Malaysia’s fabric, whether or not he intended to.
The fact that millions of Malaysians young and old came together 49 years later, also in the month of May, to support the same Dr. Mahathir and his new allies, is remarkable. I was among the many doing so, something I never imagined would happen.
(to be continued)
8 responses to “Power, Remorse & Redemption: in Three Acts”
Hi Selina, wonderful job at writing up an accurate and concise explanation of Peninsular Malaysia’s socio-political history! I enjoyed reading through this. I have a few things I’d like to add on:
1) It’s worthwhile remembering that much of this is largely applicable to West Malaysia (i.e. formerly Malaya), but we also have East Malaysia (i.e. present-day Malaysian Borneo), where the context and issues are slightly different, and where we have the indigenous Borneo tribes who are neither Malay, Chinese, Indian, or Orang Asli (though all the indigenous groups of Malaysia on a whole are often collectively referred to as Orang Asal). That’s a whole other kettle of fish.
2) “indigenous tribes already in situ” – I understand what you intended to mean by this, but technically even indigenous people originally migrated to a place from elsewhere, so it would be more accurate to acknowledge that the concept of indigeneity is more concerned with who was there first. I am being a pedantic scientist here, as the term “in situ” can imply that something was always there and originated from there.
3) “It’s worth remembering that UMNO was formed first and foremost as a freedom movement. Its initial raison d’être was to rid the country of British rule. In this it was ferociously effective.” – Ah, but I’m not so sure about this. There was at least one other freedom movement that was arguably a better alternative to UMNO. Have you ever watched Fahmi Reza’s excellent documentary ’10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka’? He documents and highlights quite compelling evidence that even UMNO’s role in securing independence, and forming and governing Malaysia as a newly created country, was also largely thanks to “the role of the state” (in this case the colonial British administration in Malaya, and in other words it was all about political collusion). If you haven’t seen the documentary yet I highly recommend it – though it will make you rail at the injustice of it all: https://youtu.be/4Sn3C2QTeRs
4) Also being pedantic here – always important to remind people that “race” is a social construct, not a biological reality…
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and for reading so closely!
You’re absolutely right on all counts:
1. These 3 posts are written from a West Malaysian perspective; East Malaysia is a totally different kettle of fish.
2. We all probably came out of Africa at some point! But how many people know this in Malaysia? I chose the phrase ‘in situ’ to counter the dominant narrative in Malaysia today.
3. I knew that there was a ‘Malaysian spring’ with real debate and pluralist political parties post-WWII. I was not aware of this documentary, though, so thanks for pointing it out. I haven’t had time to watch it but from what I read before, I understand that UMNO spearheaded the rebellion against the Malayan Union. Which is why I gave them credit here. I look forward to watching this.
4. Race may be a social construct, but it’s complicated since there is a biological basis. A concept for another blog-post or even series of posts…
Thanks for responding to my comments, Selina. As someone who was previously an archaeologist and is now a biologist I can assure you that there is absolutely no biological or genetic basis for the concept of ‘race’ whatsoever! I will have to dig up some relevant links to share with you, but in the meantime, this is worth watching: https://www.facebook.com/thestarRAGE/videos/680598152304092/?t=7
I look forward to hearing more!
The following is a selection of articles (from both popular media and academic journals) that I have bookmarked because they are helpful in explaining and debunking the myth of ‘race’ to the average person:
‘There is no such thing as race’
‘Genetically speaking, race doesn’t exist in humans’
‘There’s no scientific basis for race – it’s a made-up label’
‘Why racism is not backed by science’
‘What scientists mean when they say race is not genetic’
‘Race is not an accurate or productive way to describe human biological variation’
‘”Race” and the construction of human identity’
‘Biological races in humans’
‘Taking race out of human genetics’
Thanks so much for spending Hari Merdeka digging up these links. Very interesting indeed — and they’ve given me new ideas for future posts!
And wow, KiniTV recently produced this excellent coverage of Orang Asli issues that tells it like it is: https://www.kinitv.com/video/64928O8
From someone who has never been to Malaysia – a very interesting and informative article – stimulating to read and made me research it more. Also interesting and enlightening discussion above, thank you.