Only the truth will set us free

The ruling party barely managed to keep its two-thirds majority in Parliament. The opposition parties managed to keep Kelantan and won Penang while Selangor and Perak were hung in limbo. May 13 followed.

By BOB TEOH/MySinchew

WE NEED TO close the wounds of May 13 so that we can open a new and brave chapter of our journey–of one Malaysia where all Malaysians can live in peace and as equals among brethren.

Forty years ago today, our nation was at war with itself. At 7.20 p.m., the Deputy Prime Minister who was also the Minister of Home Affairs, Abdul Razak Hussein, declared a curfew in Selangor and the capital city. Within four hours, the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong declared a nationwide state of emergency. On 16 May, the country was under an emergency rule.

Forty six days later, another racial clash in Kuala Lumpur occurred. The official death toll rose to 186. By 8 October, the official numbers rose to 196 deaths (Chinese: 143, Malays: 24 and Indians: 13, unidentifiable: 15; Injured: 439, and 9,143 were arrested (Chinese: 5,126, Malay: 2,077, Indian: 1,874 and the rest included Pakistanis, Europeans, Thais and Singaporeans).

The then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman subsequently resigned and his deputy took over.

These are the facts made up of cold faceless statistics. But what’s the truth? The stark truth is each of this data had a name and a face to it before their lives were snuffed out by the fires of May 13. The naked truth is that the dead left behind loved ones, families, relatives, colleagues and friends in bereavement. The sad truth is that the loss and the pain remain for the living.

It is of little purpose to figure out the demographics of death. Regardless of whether the dead were Chinese, Malays, Indians or lain lain lagi or the plainly unidentified, they all died 40 years ago this day. All were unfortunate victims of a nation at war with itself. That’s the tragic truth.

The simple truth is that ours was then a newly independent country groping along an uncharted path towards nation hood. In times such as this, countries do find themselves fighting their own shadows. This is not uncommon in human history.

Take for instance, the American Civil War (1861–1865), which was the deadliest war in American history, causing 620,000 soldier deaths and an undetermined number of civilian casualties. It, however, managed to overcome that tragedy to become the world’s richest and most powerful nation over time. But first the American nation had to bring the wounds of its past to a close through a difficult and painful process of reconciliation and atonement.

So is the case for Australia, where European settlement commenced in 1788 and quickly declared the island continent Terra Nullis or no man’s land. By this means, the rightful Aboriginal tribal population was not only deprived of their land but their numbers were also cruelly decimated.

The wounds festered on for a long time until the country was ready to embark on a journey of reconciliation and atonement on 13 February last year where its new Premeir Kevin Rudd formally tabled a apology in Parliament. It was two centuries late. But it’s a case of better late than never.

"The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future," Rudd said in making the apology.

"We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

"There comes a time in the history of nations when their peoples must become fully reconciled to their past if they are to go forward with confidence to embrace their future. Our nation, Australia, has reached such a time," he said.

Have we reached such a time too? Do we have the confidence to embrace the future? The fact behind May 13 forty years ago is that our race-based politics went wrong. Terribly wrong. The then Alliance ruling coalition lost badly at the 1969 general elections. Its popularity plummeted by 10.1 percent over the previous poll in 1964 to only 48.4 percent. This meant that the opposition parties actually won the popular vote with 51.6 percent.

The ruling party barely managed to keep its two-thirds majority in Parliament. The opposition parties managed to keep Kelantan and won Penang while Selangor and Perak were hung in limbo. May 13 followed.

The ruling coalition now known as Barisan Nasional has since then been in complete control until last year’s general elections where a 1969 situation emerged. In fact, it fared even more badly. Barisan lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament and Kedah, Penang,Perak, and Selangor fell to the opposition while Kelantan remained safely in its fold. But there was no repeat of May 13. But it was not because no one tried to create one. Indeed this points to a maturing of our political process. But we cannot afford to cling on to our race-based incendiary politics as it can only serve to provide fodder for another May 13.

We continue to live from day to day and from crisis to crisis. Forty years on, we have yet to bury the ghost of May 13. Old wounds cannot be allowed to remain unhealed. The nation needs to go through the painful process of reconciliation and atonement to redeem ourselves. We can either continue to bury our heads with unuseful facts of May 13 or we can seek the truth about it. And the truth will indeed set us free. That’s a liberating proposition. The choice remains with each of us to make the difference.