Surviving 13 May

By Shanon Shah (The Nut Graph)

PAUL Tan is director of studies at Genting Highlands's Highlands International Boarding School. He studied in Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur, where his contemporaries included Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz and tycoon Tan Sri Dr Francis Yeoh. Fugitive blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin was his senior in school.

Paul Tan is also a survivor of 13 May 1969.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of 13 May, The Nut Graph did an exclusive interview with Tan in Petaling Jaya on 7 May 2009. Here are his memories, fears and dreams, for all Malaysians.

TNG: When 13 May 1969 happened, was there an indication that things would come to this? Did it come as a complete shock?

Tan: It was an utter and complete shock. Well, we were not that politically conscious anyway. We knew that DAP had won the KL seat and all that, but that was all. The media in those days were very limited. If we needed news, we'd listen to the radio. Even televisions were limited in number.

May 13 happened when I was 15 years old, Form Three at the time. I was just sitting behind the first shopping complex, if you like. A place called Selangor Emporium. The memory is very vivid because I was sitting at my brother's fruit stall. The picture is still very clear, I was sitting on a stool near the big fridge where we kept the fruits.

A deserted street in KL after curfew, two days after 13 May (Straits Times Image)

I think around 4-something pm, for some strange reason, everything suddenly went quiet. I mean, that was a very busy part of KL. Lots of cars, people walking about. But within less than 10 minutes, suddenly the whole street went quiet. People closed (their) shops.

Out of the blue, someone said these words in Chinese, "The Malays are killing the Chinese."

Within 10 minutes, our stall was closed and we ran upstairs. We lived on the fifth floor of a block of flats near there. And then news began to trickle in — there were fights in the Chow Kit area.

In the next few hours, we heard that there were people being killed. So everybody stayed indoors. And that night, we were really terrified.

Actually on the night of 13 May itself, my father and my three older brothers, who were already 20- and 30-plus, got together in a whole group of people. They said, "We need to protect ourselves." Because from what we heard in the Kampung Baru area, the army came. We were told both the police and the army came, and instead of shooting at the perpetrators, they were shooting at our people.

Both the army and the police?

(Nods.) I actually have both an auntie and an uncle killed. On that evening itself. They had a shop [in Kampung Baru].

The most terrifying experience for me was three or four nights later. I was sleeping on a bunk bed. (Gestures.) My bunk bed is where I am and the window is where you are. At around 1am or 2am, I heard noises, people shouting. I got up and looked out the window. As soon as I did that, I heard the words, "Tembak! Tembak!"

Then I went to my parents and my auntie. They said, "They're here." That's all they said.


They didn't know. We were all indoors. And then within half an hour, we heard the banging of doors. We thought, "That's it. Tonight is our final night." My auntie and my mother were hysterical.

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