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May 13 and the neglect of oral history and memory studies in Malaysia

An important message in the Life After book is that society must mature and learn to prioritise closure in the aftermath of tragedy

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Book Review: May 13 Oral History Group. 2022
Life After: Oral Histories of the May 13 Incident
Petaling Jaya: Gerakbudaya

Both oral history and memory studies involve learning about the lives of ordinary people through long, open-ended interviews.

As a method of inquiry, it often links the notion of democracy and collective civil rights to the injustices of wilfully forgetting the past through active manipulation of historical events.

Political elites have been known to manipulate history, to project a more state-centric, elite-manufactured narrative for societal consumption.

In the context of the 13 May 1969 (May 13) riots, the neglect of memory studies and oral history, as well as the prevailing declassification of official documentation about how and why the incident took place, are part of a subtle ‘silencing’ of the victims’ voices.

The intention is probably to project only one version – the official one – rather than to record an objective, inclusive and people-centred one. Also, the act of silencing invariably suggests an attempt to conceal the truth.

Life After: Oral Histories of the May 13 Incident is a collection of personal narrations and memories of a dark episode of racial violence in Malaysia’s post-independence history.

As the subtitle suggests, the book is a compilation of oral histories, narrated by 20 men and women. Nineteen of them are Malaysians of various ethnicities, and one is an Australian lecturer who was then based at the University of Malaya’s History Department.

The book is co-authored by four talented young Malaysians who call themselves the May 13 Oral History Group. The group comprises Tham Seen Hau, Usen Leong, Tung Wan Qing and Por Heong Hong.

However, their names do not appear on the front cover. In fact, it is not immediately apparent who the authors of the volume are, until the reader leaves through each of the engaging pages to reach the small print on the back cover flap.

This in itself symbolises the running message throughout the book. It seems the intention of these authors, from the very beginning, is to spotlight the stories of the survivors and honour the victims, rather than to showcase the authors themselves.

To do the latter would draw attention away from the victims and survivors. These ordinary people who were killed in the riots or who witnessed the unspeakable violence remain faceless.

The survivors have not yet been given a space in society to tell their stories, or to honour their deceased loved ones. They could not tell their stories because these historical events have been trapped within a cloud of secrecy, dictated by our political culture.

There are a few examples of how oral history in Malaysia has been used in various studies, from art, film and literature to history and politics. Overall, however, establishing an oral history programme in the country has been “sluggish” (Musa, 2018). Nevertheless, there are a few worth mentioning [with thanks to Por Heong Hong].

In 2019 Lau Kek Huat produced a visual narrative called The Tree Remembers. This film was banned in Malaysia as it highlighted the origin of racism in Malaysia and the taboo of the 1969 riots (Lau, 2019).

Agnes Khoo’s Life as the River Flows: Women in the Malayan Anti-Colonial Struggle is an oral history account of 16 women from Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. It highlights the role that women played in the guerrilla war fought by the Communist Party of Malaya (Khoo, 2005).

In 2020 Tan Teng Phee published Behind Barbed Wire: Chinese New Villages During the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960. He used a combination of ethnography, oral history and archival material to highlight what it was like to be moved to and to live in a “new village” (Tan, 2022).

More than a decade ago, the Five Arts Centre [a collective of Malaysian artists, activists and producers dedicated to generating alternative art forms and images] attempted to document the oral histories of Malay communists. However, the documentary [A National History, directed by Mark Teh] was never released. Instead, some footage and conversations collected by the group during their field trips to southern Thailand were used for a theatre performance recently (Tobin, 2019).

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Life After joins this rare and intriguing collection.

‘People’s narrative’ to fill in the gaps

Since 1969 the government’s reluctance to declassify the official documents of the riots has resulted in a maze of half-truths and myths about the riots, on top of several attempts to reconstruct events based on empirical research.

[Kua Kia Soong’s May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969 (2007) relied predominantly on contemporary media accounts and diplomatic dispatches. The author tried to piece together events that led up to the violence, suggesting a pre-planned political coup. Soong’s take is controversial but nevertheless highlights an important point. The different ethnic communities in Malaysia will forever be bombarded by biased ethnic and religious politicking, unless the government declassifies documents.]

There has been no encouragement from official channels for empirically based, transparent, and unemotional discussions after the first National Operations Council report released in October 1969.

By default, all ethnic communities in Malaysia who were affected by the riots have hardly spoken about their painful past.

As a result, we have yet to heal as a society, complicating our efforts to build a cohesive and progressive nation.

In the decades after 1969, there is an obvious and automatic reluctance among many Malaysians to even casually refer to May 13. This episode is deemed ‘too sensitive’, which is the official narrative imposed on the rest of society.

Life After, however, is an attempt to deviate from this and offers a “people’s narrative”.

Diana Wong’s foreword and KS Jomo’s postscript each present a unique interpretation of events leading up to the horrific killings. Their scholarly insight supplements a short list of other publications that have emerged over the decades.

Together with the 20 personal narrations, Life After vividly exposes how ordinary people felt about the machinations of politicians and their political parties. Through their stories, the survivors present their thoughts about how elite political agendas influenced violent mobs that resulted in the riots.

The reader is provided with alternative perspectives in simple language – about violence, kindness, personal regret, disbelief and inconsolable suffering.

Significantly, none of the stories expresses anger, the need for retribution or revenge.

To the contrary, the common thread connecting these 20 narrations is the yearning for acknowledgement of their suffering and for closure.

People’s commitment

On the one hand, the stories expose a subtle tension within the survivors themselves. This tension is about whether they should talk about their horrific experiences.

On the other hand, their narrations allude to how today’s politicians continue to manipulate society’s perception of ethnicity, which in turn dismisses history and their suffering, hopes and vulnerabilities as survivors.

One survivor said that one of the biggest influences the incident had on him was a “mistrust of politicians”.

He related: “It also changed me in being Malaysian to be more humanistic. In times of troubles, the rich people, the powerful people, the influential people, always got advantages. Police come and save them…. they came in trucks, carrying their furniture. I cannot accept this… I think that event made me a socialist” (Mr R, p 58).

Life After also reveals that sense of regret among the survivors and the nature of our politics today. Our politics has bred a culture of concealment, disguise or simply, a “cloaked” culture among Malaysians. This further marginalises the human face of tragedy under any circumstances.

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May 13 is consistently and unfairly linked only to politics. Even though the events were crystallised by political developments, the consequences should move beyond politics.

The commitment of the May 13 Oral History Group and Gerakbudaya to publish Life After represents the “people’s responsibility” to acknowledge humanity and not just politics.

Any mention of the events of May 1969 is usually done as a filler, a passing comment or a warning about a current political or social problem. For example, days after the last general election on 19 November 2022, Malaysian police “cautioned” social media users to refrain from posting “provocative” content on race and religion (Channel News Asia, 2022).

May 1969 is regularly mentioned in the context of this faceless, inanimate, and threatening paradigm.   

Conflating a tragedy to ‘one noun and one number’

In the foreword, Diana Wong writes about the lack of discourse about the violence that took place days after the 1969 general election. She accurately suggests that information had been hidden “behind a wall of silence….the whole country, it would appear, lost its voice to silence” (p 6).

Also, after almost 54 years, what seemed like an endless two-week-long series of street violence in several major cities in the peninsula is now dismissively referred to as “the May 13 riots” or “May 13”. The nation’s tragedy has now been conflated to one noun and one number, ie May 13.

May 13 is still shrouded in “official amnesia” because information is scarce and scholarly discourse is meagre (p 6).

Life After is a fresh attempt to counter this. Witnesses and survivors have a space for expression, and their tragedies are no longer “footnoted”.

Their oral narrations of brutal killings and of inhaling the stench of headless bodies floating down rivers, is an appeal for humanity and comfort. Their stories are not about blame, retribution or revenge.

This is contrary to the official insistence that speaking about May 13 and our nation’s brush with racial violence is too ‘sensitive’ a topic to broach. According to this narrative, any discussion may renew feelings of ethnic hatred, prejudice and violence.

In Life After, both the authors and survivors engage in a collaborative and democratic practice that seeks to make space for as many voices as possible. The purpose is to understand historical events as being inclusive and complex, as well as to highlight the experiences of “the ordinary Malaysian”.

It is a bottom-up approach to good research and an excellent literary contribution that bridges difficult socio-political subjects.

It is clear in Life After that, for the survivors, their brush with violence and the deaths of their loved ones had more to do with egotistical politics, and less to do with ordinary people hating each other on account of their different ethnicities.

According to the majority of the narratives, the violence was not an organic, divisive social dynamic brewing within our multi-racial society for years.

Closure, caution and ‘Malaysian-style’ democracy

Had it not been for the May 13 Oral History Group, many of these survivors’ stories would have remained trapped in their hearts, minds and souls.

Most of these men and women are ageing, now in their 70s and 80s. If not for Life After, they would have had to spend the rest of their lives harbouring their memories in silence and isolation. Life After is a humane step towards closure for them.

One survivor recalls: “The May 13 memories were something that I don’t really talk about because it was an incident that I wish had never happened. The images of buildings burning, headless bodies……it was something that should not have happened” (Mr B, p 70).

Many survivors do not talk because of how contemporary Malaysian politics has evolved.

Malaysian-style democracy is premised on an elite-led politicisation of socio-cultural diversity in our society. Politics has evolved in such a way that politicians have devised ingenious ways of garnering electoral support through their use of ethnic and religious narratives.

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This happens during every election cycle. Political posturing is channelled through “divide and conquer” narratives played up by many mainstream media outlets.

Given the experience of ethnic violence in Malaysia’s past, today’s politicians are cautious. Nevertheless, it is evident from the pages of Life After that survivors are frustrated that such ‘caution’ has been taken to the extreme.

There is no commitment to have a sincere, mature, and calm national conversation about the riots. There is no attempt to recognise the value of a community-interpreted narrative. There is no realisation that having only one official narrative feels like an insult to all the victims and survivors.

A few of the survivors in Life After hope the government will soon declare an annual memorial day for the victims.

One survivor related: “My mother feels that a memorial should be erected to commemorate the victims of May 13, at the very least, for some of their names are not found in the cemetery…. We need this recognition because all victims’ families suffer similar pain, regardless of their backgrounds” (p 231).

A memorial is a gesture of respect and dignity for those who perished, so that we may celebrate their lives and, in the process, collectively heal as a nation.

‘Ignore it and it will go away’ mantra

The gross lack of attention to the events of May 13 is an example of the “ignore it and it will go away” mantra practised too often in Malaysian society.

Mr B’s statement above is an example.

Life After, however, is a collection of dignified and mature narrations which do not ignore human suffering. It honours the victims and situates the role of politics and politicians upfront.

In simple language, the stories in this volume inadvertently dismiss the politically instigated stereotypes about Malaysia’s diverse ethnic communities.

In the book, survivor Mr R relates how he witnessed a Chinese family in their car being approached by a group of Malays. He said: “I went to stop them. I remember shouting, hysterically…..let them go, kill me, kill me, don’t kill them. The Malays were actually surprised why I stopped them….I don’t know why I did it. But when I see the two crying kids, and the parents were shivering in the car, I could not accept that. Apa dosa dia? [What wrong did they do?]….Why should they be victims? Just because they were Chinese?” (Mr R, p 54).

An important message in Life After is that society must mature and learn to prioritise closure in the aftermath of tragedy. Also, we as Malaysians must discard destructive myths around ethnicity and diversity.

In the Malaysian context, trepidation because of our multi-ethnic society is an imagined (false) reality of shrewd politicians. It is not the reality of the people.

On 7 January 2023 the publishers, Gerakbudaya, held a panel discussion, followed by the launch of the book. The event was well attended.


Channel News Asia. 2022. “Malaysian police war of ethnic tensions on social media after divisive election

Khoo, Agnes. 2005. Life as the River Flows: Women in the Malayan Anti-colonial Struggle (an Oral History of Women from Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore). Merlin Press.

Lau, Kek-Huat. 2019. The Tree Remembers. Documentary.

Musa, Mahani. 2018. “Reconstructing the Past Through Oral History: A Malaysian Experience”. Kemanusiaan Volume 25(1): 39-58.

Tan, Teng Phee. 2020. Behind Barbed Wire: Chinese New Villages During the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960. (Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre.

Tobin, Patricia. 2019. Tender notes on violence in ‘A Notional History’ by Five Arts Centre“. 18 July.

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14 Mar 2023 8.49am

Those who engineered the killings and their supporters are still alive. They would not wish to have their roles exposed. It is this rather than any reluctance among Malaysians to discuss traumatic events that is responsible for the silence. The ruling elte still have draconian laws they can resort to.

2 Mar 2023 1.58pm

Slm Msia.We can start acting with the young.More needs to be done than what is being done in our schools, media, community centres, academic bodies..EDUCATION of RKN NEG NATIONHOOD-HUMANITARIAN VALUES, together with constant COMMUNITY(C) engagement. THis CAN be done with our primary and secondy schools involving the YOUNG in REAL C matters.NOT just visits to MALLS.The ‘leaders’ today NEED to be further educated about our diversity and our common yearning to be Malaysian.There are good people, and they are in the majority I believe, who WANT a stable and prosperous Msia,always going FORWARD for the WELL-BEING of ALL.Society must monitor the govt as to its social-economic prgrms.People NEED to KNOW how, not be fatalististically quiet.

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