Digging up the racial past
Malaysia’s 1969 riots were instigated by UMNO politicians
to force out Tunku Abdul Rahman, declares new book. Asia
May 17, 2007
Thirty-eight years on, the traumatic ethnic riots of May
13, 1969 in Malaysia remain as much a subject of official
censorship as the events of June 4, 1989 in China.
a new book by a Malaysian Chinese academic is on the point
of being officially banned for suggesting that May 13 was
the occasion for what amounted to a coup against the independence
leader and Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman by his UMNO
colleagues who were pushing pro-Malay policies.
of Malaysia’s Internal Security Ministry Tuesday confiscated
10 copies of the book from a Kuala Lumpur bookstore, advising
the store not to sell it as it may be banned.
to a letter issued by ministry officials, the book is suspected
of being an “undesirable publication.”
happened on May 13 remains highly relevant to UMNO’s
position as the leader of the Barisan National, the alliance
of race-based parties that has ruled the country since independence
50 years ago.
Documents on the Malaysian riots of 1969” by Dr. Kua
Kia Soong, the principal of New Era College, is based not
directly on Malaysian sources but on now-open British documents
held at the Public Records Office in Kew Gardens, near London.
consist of contemporary British diplomatic and intelligence
reports which suggest that the riots were not spontaneous
acts of communal violence, as is constantly alleged by UMNO,
but were fanned by Malay elements, with support from the
army and police, wanting to discredit the accommodating
prime minister and impose a much more rigorous Malay agenda.
British document concluded that the goal was to “formalise
Malay dominance, sideline the Chinese and shelve Tunku.”
official Malaysian government version of events was that
the riots were sparked by opposition parties “infiltrated
by communist insurgents” following huge opposition
gains in the election.
the UMNO-led Alliance, the predecessor of the Barisan National,
retained an overall majority, it lost its two thirds majority
and its control of Selangor state was threatened.
there was much celebrating among the mainly Chinese opposition
parties at the election result, which angered Malay politicians
who sensed their political dominance was under threat.
time the riots were over, official figures said 196 people
had been killed, 6,000 made homeless and more than 700 buildings
destroyed or damaged.
in particular have long believed that though there was violence
on both sides, it was a mostly one-sided affair with some
Malay politicians, notably Selangor Chief Minister Harun
Idris, encouraging mobs to attack Chinese areas and that
the security forces initially did little to prevent violence.
is largely confirmed by contemporary reports such as those
of Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent Bob Reece.
thesis suggests that there was a grander political design
behind the episode, which from the beginning was intended
to create a new political agenda and new leadership.
this to a younger Malay group dissatisfied with the aristocratic,
pro-British the Tunku.
event, the Tunku effectively stepped aside as emergency
powers to rule by decree were (temporarily) placed in the
hands of a National Operations Council headed by his deputy
Tun Abdul Razak – father of current deputy prime minister
Najib Abdul Razak.
Tunku remained prime minister until September 1970 but had
little authority any more.
he also stepped down as president of UMNO after virulent
criticism by the Malay “Young Turks,” headed
by Mahathir Mohamad, the future Prime Minister.
same year the government enunciated the New Economic Policy
and began aggressive affirmative action programs to advance
the economic and educational level of Malays.
while the consequences of May 13 may be clear, there are
disagreements about Kua’s thesis even among those
who attribute the riots to Malay politicians.
example, Dr Syed Husin Ali also a respected academic and
deputy head of the opposition Keadilan Party, has suggested
that while some UMNO figures used the events as an opportunity
to sideline the Tunku and set out a pro-Malay agenda, it
was not planned as such.
words, Razak and others took advantage of the situation
which arose after the election and the appearance of Malay
mobs to grab the reins of power from the Tunku, with whom
they were dissatisfied, but that it was not premeditated.
also takes issue with Kua’s view that they represented
an aspirant Malay capitalist class when most had traditional
and feudal links.
have been advised not to sell Kua’s book and a formal
ban looks likely on the grounds that it will stir up racial
animosities, which it could well do in the short run.
from a broader perspective it is hard to see how a multi-racial,
multi-religious Malaysia can flourish if events such as
May 13 can only be discussed in private, while the public
is fed a distorted official version in order to sustain
the legitimacy of UMNO politicians.
Following from: http://malaysianunplug.blogspot.com/2007/05/may-13-dr-kua-kia-soongs-latest-book.html
REALLY HAPPENED IN MAY 1969
are excerpts and summary of the chronology of events based
on the declassified documents taken from Kua’s book:
The ruling Alliance Party suffered a major setback in the
general election although it had managed to retain a simple
parliamentary majority. They had lost Penang to the Gerakan
Party; Kelantan to the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party while
Perak and Selangor were at the brink of falling into the
11 and May 12:
On both nights, the opposition celebrated their victory.
A large Gerakan procession was held to welcome the left-wing
Gerakan leader V David back from winning the federal seat
The MCA which had suffered badly at the polls, announced
that it would withdraw from the cabinet while remaining
within the Alliance.
A dispatch from a foreign correspondent showed it is evident
that there was a plan for youths mobilised by Umno elements
to assemble at then Selangor menteri besar Harun Idris’
residence in the late afternoon. A retaliatory march had
been planned although police permission was withheld.
When people were still assembling for the parade, trouble
broke out in the nearby Malay section of Kampung Baru, where
two Chinese lorries were burnt. The ensuing carnage at Kampung
Baru and Batu Road quickly spread elsewhere in Kuala Lumpur.
The foreign correspondent noted the curfew that was imposed
was not fairly applied to all.
“In the side streets off Jalan Hale, I could see bands
of Malay youths armed with parangs and sharpened bamboo
spears assembled in full view of troops posted at road junctions.
Meanwhile, at Batu Road, a number of foreign correspondents
saw members of the Royal Malay Regiment firing into Chinese
shophouses for no apparent reason.”
Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman immediately attributed
the violence as triggered off by the behaviour of opposition
supporters after the election result announcement while
his deputy Tun Abdul Razak pinned the blame on the communists.
The riots continued but on a smaller scale. The curfew was
only lifted in staggered hours in various districts to allow
people to buy food. The police called out all possible reserves
and handed over the northern part of the city to the army.
Police put casualties for the previous night incident at
44 killed and about 150 injured. Another dispatch showed
the casualties were mainly Chinese as it stated that out
of 77 corpses in the morgue of the General Hospital on May
14, at least 60 were Chinese.
The government’s attempts to blame the communists
for the riots were however not taken seriously by the officials
at the British High Commission (BHC) who could see that
the Tunku was not prepared to blame his own people for the
riots, nor was he going to blame it on the Chinese “as
The King proclaimed a state of emergency. The National Operations
Council headed by Tun Razak was formed. Tun Razak was still
responsible to the Tunku, but all the powers under Emergency
Regulations were vested in him.
The curfew had been lifted temporarily in Kuala Lumpur that
morning but the situation had rapidly worsened and more
sporadic fighting had broken out. Curfews were re-imposed
but food was very short.
The local press was suspended until censorship regulations
could be drawn up but no attempt was made to supervise reports
sent out by foreign correspondents.
The situation was still tense in Selangor with cars and
houses being burned and fatalities rising. Death tolls had
risen to 89 with over 300 injured. 24 hour curfew remained
in force in Selangor and had also been imposed in Malacca.
In Penang and Perak, the situation had improved although
the curfew remained in forceTunku made a broadcast in which
he announced the setting up of a National Defence Force
to be manned by volunteers. The new information minister
Hamzah Abu Samah and Tun Razak gave a press conference pinning
the blame for the riots on communist infiltration of the
There were reports of looting by the largely Malay military
and their bias against the Chinese Malaysians. Number of
refugees were increasing.
From a BHC telegram, it showed there were skepticism among
British officers toward the official figures for fatalities
and the preponderance of Chinese casualties among the dead.
The police estimated the deaths at about 100 now while British
officers estimated the proportion of Chinese to Malay casualties
is about 85:15.
The press censorship invited criticism not only from the
local press but also in diplomatic circles especially when
official statements lacked clarity and credibility.
In a confidential BHC memorandum to the Foreign and Commonwealth
Office (FCO), the coup d’etat has been acknowledged
and it has effected the transfer of power not only to “Malay
hands” but also to the security forces. The latter’s
professionalism is questioned.
The BHC also noted the Federal Reserve Unit, which at the
time was multiracial in composition, was the more impartial
of the security forces while the Malay troops were discriminatory
in enforcing the curfew.
“Discriminatory takes the form, for example, of not,
repeat not, enforcing the curfew in one of the most violently
disposed of the Malay areas in Kuala Lumpur (Kampung Baru)
where Malays armed with parangs, etc continue to circulate
freely; with the inevitable result that gangs slip through
the cordon round the area and attack Chinese outside it.
In Chinese areas, the curfew is strictly enforced.”
The Tunku qualified his earlier assertion that the disturbances
were caused by communists, putting the blame instead on
assorted “bad elements”. He also announced the
deferment of the Sarawak elections and the continuance of
the restrictions on the movement of foreign journalists.
The situation was still unsettled in some parts of the capital
Less than a week after the riots, the reins of power had
effectively passed to Tun Razak, indicating that there had
been a plot to bring about the coup d’etat.
“The exact relationship between Tun Razak and the
Tunku is not clear. In public Tun Razak says he is directly
responsible to the Tunku but he has made it clear privately
that he is completely in charge of the country. This could
mean the beginning of a process of withdrawal by the Tunku
as an effective PM”.
There are some 10,000 reported refugees. The local press
was allowed to publish under censorship while foreign journalists
had their curfew passes withdrawn. Some opposition politicians
In a meeting, an Australian High Commissioner had suggested
the opposition leaders should be given a role as peace maker
but Tun Razak and Ghazali Shafie were firmly against this.
“They considered opposition leaders would simply use
such an opportunity to promote their own political views.”
The Malaysian Red Cross Society is continuing its daily
feeding programme for refugees in various places and over
5,000 had received food supplies.
The official statistics of casualties at this juncture were
137 killed (18 Malays), 342 injured, 109 vehicles burned,
118 buildings destroyed and 2,912 persons arrested who were
mostly curfew breakers.
The declassified documents reveal that Malay troops were
not only fraternising with the Malay thugs but were discharging
their firearms indiscriminately at Chinese shophouses as
they went through the city.
“When confronted by foreign correspondents with reports
of racial discrimination, Tun Razak flatly denied them.
Following this, curfew passes issued to foreign journalists
were withdrawn and reporters were ordered to remain indoors
‘for their own safety’.”
A foreign correspondent’s report showed the Malay
hooligans were detested by the law-abiding Malays of Kampung
Internal security and home minister Tun Dr Ismail indicated
that the Internal Security Act would be in future amended
to “counter changing communist tactics”. It
was disclosed that of the 3,699 arrested during the crisis,
952 were members of secret societies.
Law and order has been re-established in Kuala Lumpur and
the atmosphere in the town had improved. People were going
back to work (in non-curfew hours) and the government offices
were limbering into action. The curfew remained in force
(from 3pm to 6.30am of the following day). The government
was not ready to admit that it was armed Malay youth who
had caused the disturbances.
The Tunku was under pressure to resign as he was clearly
incensed by foreign journalists’ speculations about
his weakening position and got his private secretary to
write a protest note to the BHC.
A confidential report by the BHC to the FCO on this day
observed the government’s attempts to blame the communists
for the disturbances were an attempt to justify their new
The riots had been under control but they were still sporadic
outbreaks of civil disturbances. A BHC report noted violence
erupted again in one part of Kuala Lumpur on the night of
June 28 and 29, a number of houses were burnt and the casualties
were officially given as five killed and 25 injured. Some
disturbances toward the end of June also involved ethnic
Renewed trouble in which one policeman was killed was quickly
stopped from spreading in Kuala Lumpur by positive police
Tun Ismail’s firm stand in ordering the security forces
to act firmly ‘without favour or discrimination’
to any communal group and the Tunku’s announcement
of a National Goodwill Committee made up of politicians
of all parties went some way toward allaying the fears of
Tun Ismail also revealed the total arrests since May now
stood at 8,114, comprising people “from all the major
racial groups”. Of these, 4,192 had been charged in
court, 675 released on bail, 1,552 unconditionally released
and 1,695 preventively detained.
Situation in the Peninsula had improved substantially but
tension remains high in sensitive areas of Malacca, Perak
Tension had begun to ease until Malay agitation connected
with Tunku’s return to a position of influence and
the removal of Dr Mahathir Mohamad from Umno’s general
committee on July 12 had heightened it again. Malay university
students petitioned for Tunku’s resignation and demonstrated
on the campus.