Eddie Wong writes of the various spectres around the riots of May 13 1969 that continue to haunt the Malaysian psyche till today. He conjures up new ways of thinking of ghosts and their connections with the living, and pays tribute to those who continue to contribute to the much-needed conversation around this topic. This article is published as part of the inaugural AE x Goethe-Institut Critical Writing Micro-Residency 2021/2022.
Content Warning: This article contains potentially graphic and sensitive content that may disturb some readers.
“They handed out red bandanas with Arabic words. I felt uncomfortable, and I wanted to leave. My senior said he would kill me if I left. Imagine that! They said they wanted to fight back against their team. Then a delivery boy from the kopitiam came carrying drinks for the crowd who had gathered around Datuk Harun’s house. They killed him because rumours had spread that a Chinese killed a Malay in Setapak. When they opened the gate, there was no crowd. This wasn’t a procession, they were going to create chaos.”
– Mr. R, Malay, Sentul, b.1945, interviewed on April 10, 2019. Excerpt taken, “Reborn After Trauma — May 13th Incident Personal Narratives & Oral Histories”, page 154 translated from Mandarin.
A spectre is haunting Malaysia…
I’ve always had a fascination with local ghost stories. In a diverse, multicultural country like Malaysia, ghosts are not just fictional beings. Stories of the pontianak (the undying female vampire) and toyol (spirits of unborn babies reanimated by black magic to do its owner’s bidding) are part of our cultural beliefs. The Chinese still uphold traditional rituals like the Hungry Ghost Festival, to remember their deceased relatives and give them offerings of food and other things.
The ultimate Malaysian ghost story, passed down for generations, is that of the May 13 ‘racial riots’ which is still conjured up like it’s a genuine threat, over 50 years later. Just as tales of hauntings and ghosts have been part of Malaysian folklore, the May 13 riots is a turning point in modern Malaysian history that worsened the racial divisions and the dilemma we face today. In this essay, I take a philosophical look at the ghost of May 13. Before I do that, I should give you a bit of background of the incident.
May 13, 1969. Communal clashes broke out in Kuala Lumpur, fuelled by months of election campaigning and intensifying rhetoric on both sides. Opposition parties, including Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), and newcomers Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Gerakan, scored major victories against the incumbent Alliance party, reducing the absolute majority at the federal level for the first time since independence. The predominantly Chinese- and Indian-based opposition organised a victory parade through the city and allegedly taunted the crowd with racial slurs and obscenities, causing the Malays to respond. Things turned violent quickly. Mobs surged into Chinese neighbourhoods in the capital, burning, looting, and killing. In retaliation, the Chinese, sometimes aided by Indians, armed themselves with makeshift weapons and shotguns, struck at the Malay kampongs (villages). Huge pillars of smoke rose skyward as houses, shops, and cars burned down.
The government declared a national state of emergency, bringing in the army to quash the unrest and suspending all newspaper publications. Official reports listed hundreds of deaths, but many believed it was in the thousands, a majority of them Chinese victims and many unaccounted for. In response to the riots, a nine-man National Operations Council (NOC) took power, led by then-Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, and ruled by decree until 1971. Soon, the NOC introduced a slew of legislation like the New Economic Policy, National Cultural Policy, as well as drafted Rukun Negara (National Principles), which were planned to ensure unity among Malaysians and help prevent future riots. These policies continue to bear heavily on the lives of Malaysians today.
The 13 May 1969 riots have marked Malaysians in profound ways, but why the riots happened is still a taboo subject. I’m haunted by the question: What makes the riots still seem powerful and transformative to our imagination?
Augustine Towonsing, 49, a paranormal researcher and founder of the Malaysian Ghost Research Association based in Kuala Lumpur, believes ghosts take on a human form that resembles their personality while they are alive. “However, their appearance is not long. They will disappear the moment we recognise them,” he said, in an interview with The Star.
Malaysians have powerful memories of May 13, or a strong will to confront the ghost, but may only vaguely remember the details. School textbooks gloss over the date. The commonly held belief amongst many is that the government is afraid of acknowledging its alleged role at instigating the riots. In the 40 years since the incident, much of the government’s silence has been reinforced by draconian laws like the Internal Security Act (ISA) that forbid any discussion of it. Many records and evidence pertaining to the incident remain classified under the Official Secrets Acts (OSA) and there is no public memorialising of any kind for those who died or went missing during those tumultuous days. As historian Farish A. Noor has commented: “Year in, year out, they remind Malaysians of the tragic events of 13 May 1969, and made to repent for the sins of our forefathers and foremothers. Like a restless ghost, we cannot get past this date without a sense of foreboding and the fear that one day, the past will revisit the present.” (Teh, 2017).
The official government white paper blamed communist infiltration into opposition parties for instigating the violence. The paper also appears to justify the riots by blaming the British colonialists for backing Malaya’s capitalist elite, who wanted to maintain the colonial status quo, causing Malays to feel alienated in their own land. This led to their discontent and prompted the riots. The opposition, meanwhile, maintained that it was the government’s hired thugs who started the riots (NOC, 1969).
While scholars dispute official accounts of the riots, their theories differ on the “real” origin of the violence. In “May 13: A Review of Some Controversies in the Accounts of the Riots”, John G. Butcher considers the incident an example of pseudo-racial politics, interpreting it as class conflict and a conspiracy within the government. Butcher’s view is supported by Subky Latiff’s argument that it was a coup d’état directed against Tunku Abdul Rahman” (Latiff, 1977). Dr. Kua Kia Soong’s research based on contemporary British diplomatic and intelligence reports—now declassified–claims that the state capitalists wanted to take back power from the old aristocrats, and establish Malay supremacy (Kua, 2001). Clive Kessler points out that the violence triggered by a crisis within the regime resulted in legislations such as the New Economic Policy, that put Malays at a special position as the indigenous population (Kessler, 2010).
The truth lies somewhere in between and is multiple.
When a society faces a crisis of faith and truth is unavailable, ghost metaphors are useful. As Peter Buse and Andrew Scott argue, in a disenchanted world, we invoke ghosts where lack of clarity exists, because they are used to filling in the gaps – phantom pregnancies, limbs, and phone calls, ghost-writers. Even though it is now frivolous to believe in ghosts, we cannot shrug off the spectre of belief: it is simply that now we have consigned them to represent whatever is not to be believed (Buse & Scott, 1999).
Ten days after martial law, we tried to get home again. Our house was burnt down, but the smell of corpses remained. There was a skeleton lying in front of the ruined living room. We found the remains of our 14-year-old brother, Chuan (黄晴川)..he was still wearing school shoes, and might have been ready to run away. My youngest brother, Ran (黄浩然) was only 10 years old. He was a lame (polio stricken) and also a child, but died in this way. What’s the reason for this?
– Oral history told by 黄静芳, the eldest surviving daughter of the Ng Family b.1945. Interview on March 19th 2017, 1st May. Excerpts taken from pg 132, “Reborn After Trauma — May 13th Incident Personal Narratives & Oral Histories” translated from Mandarin
Victims’ and survivors’ families have never fully described what happened, or come to terms with what occurred. And that’s because both sides of the issue have imposed limits on acceptable speech that makes it hard for people to reach an objective understanding of what they actually remember. For the Ng family, they have resigned themselves to never finding an answer to the tragic death of all five family members. Talking about the tragedy with those who have endured such losses is an unimaginable burden, so families of the victims kept silent throughout the years. “What’s the point of speaking out?” is a common phrase heard among relatives of past victims.
The post-1969 generation perhaps chose silence to unburden the weight of the past. Thongchai Winichakul calls it `unforgetting’ – the liminal state between forgetting and remembering. At a societal level, the ghost attaches to us as a mixture of ambivalence and subtle repression. But the obvious reason this haunting persists, even in our silence, is the fact that we live under the rule of a regime that relies on the powerful symbols of May 13 to keep its citizens in line.
I return to the ghost story as a repository of our spiritual impulse. We assign the supernatural a political, cultural and social significance, because the reality, the horror, carries immense pain. Ghosts, too, are stuck in the cycle of their pain, unable to move forward. And neither can we. What are we really afraid of? For me, it’s that the spectre of racism haunting Malaysia is a feature, not a bug, in a system designed to sow distrust among the different races in Malaysia.
This haunting has exposed part of a truly primal fear that makes us look at our own shadows and wonder who they belong to. And if we are not careful, it will lead us to get swept up in the fervour. If we could see the apparitions for what they really were; human projections, manipulated by hidden hands – powerful, shadowy forces that stand to profit from a society divided, then we could release the ghost, along with all its whispers and doubts.
What are we not talking about when we talk about the ghosts of May 13? Ultimately, there are two ‘grand narrative’ myths underlying Malaysia’s political facade. One is the myth that violence will break out whenever Malays are unhappy with their lot in life. Two, as disagreement between groups is natural in a multi-racial society, voting for the opposition could destabilise the peace and spark a riot. Finally, we have talked about May 13 as a racial riot but not as political violence. May 13 and its aftermath represent a fundamental change in using violence as a tool in politics. Not acknowledging this perpetuates violence as acceptable in politics and encourages authoritarian rule, according to political analyst Wong Chin Huat.
Like a black magic spirit summoned by malicious practices, the toyol is an instrument of terror made visible only by its effects on our daily lives. When social activists, religious leaders, and other political figures are mysteriously abducted, we feel the shadowy presence of those who seem to be beyond the law. It’s also present when we cannot openly criticise the excesses of wealthy elites or question the disproportionate number of ethnic Indians dying in police custody. Now that the metaphorical toyol is out of its jar, what form will it take when its owners call upon it again? In the end, these phantoms hide the fault lines in Malaysian society that were immortalised in Said Zahari poem 50 years ago:
Hidden hands appear
Seeking the blood
Of the poor and the wretched
Colour, race, religion and language
Become sharp blades
To use in the carnage
Living Monument to the Ghost
Relatives of victims, civil society activists and community leaders have proposed the idea of building a monument to commemorate those who perished on May 13 and remind us of the importance of human rights, and reject the use of racial violence. Though the obstacles for that are obvious, instead of creating a monolithic symbol which the ultra-right wing can hijack, I think we should build something more fluid: a living monument. Perhaps a living monument should take the form of a curriculum in a school; or a safe learning space for dialogue to work through difficult histories without bias.
Monuments also live in films. Lau Kek Huat, an award-winning director based in Taiwan, made a documentary, A Tree Remembers (2019), that investigates the origin of racism in Malaysia and how wealth inequality connects to the taboo of the May 13 racial riot. The title, derived from the proverb “What the axe forgets, the tree remembers”, also refers to the ancient oak trees in downtown Kuala Lumpur that witnessed the massacre on that fateful day. 50 Years of Silence (2019) is a documentary by Tham See Hau, a third-generation family member of the Ng family of 10, five of whom tragically died in the riots. For 48 years, the family never spoke to one another about what happened, until the interview. The documentary helps piece together their buried memories of the five who remain faceless even to themselves.
Oral histories and stories from family members too are living monuments of memory — Dr. Por Heong Hong, a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia, has researched and written extensively about family narratives and oral histories. She interviewed families and recorded their life stories over the course of two years, which became the basis for a book titled Reborn After Trauma – May 13th Incident, Personal Narratives & Oral Histories. Por said that oral histories may be fragmented, but it opens up space for survivors to speak. Multiple perspectives and individual memories instantly challenge state narratives about the conflict.
Time is running out for people to come forward to share their experiences of May 13. And the obstacles are severe. Speaking at the Freedom Film Festival in 2019, film director Lau Kek Huat suggested that a May 13 reconciliation is possible if the law protects those who come forward, that protects both victims and the people on the other side, those who have killed. Even if families of victims forgive perpetrators for crimes, they may not reveal themselves for fear of being attacked and/or arrested. Also, some participants in killings may feel the need to confess their crimes. In a country where whistleblowing is deemed punishable, I think it will be some time before we see restorative justice for victims’ families.
I was relieved to know, however, that there have been consistent efforts every year to declassify May 13 stories and commemorate the victims by relatives, journalists, activists, and civil society groups. It’s heartening to see how online media outlets have continued to publish special features and analyses of the May 13 tragedy. In 2018, the opposition-led government (Pakatan Harapan) held power for the first time since Malaysia’s formation in 1963. Documentary film screenings and forums such as the one hosted by Imagined Malaysia became public again. The window of opportunity was short-lived though, as the government fell. While Malaysian politicians grappled with the new government’s political changes, calls to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the 50th anniversary of May 13 were shot down by certain Barisan Nasional (Alliance) politicians, with inflammatory editorials in the UMNO-owned Utusan Malaysia newspaper and ultra-right wing lobbyists supporting their position. The spectre of May 13, warning that anyone who challenges ketuanan Melayu will face bloodshed, rears its ugly head again.
In the Realm of Imagination
Living monuments exist in the arts. A new generation of artists, writers, curators, indie-researchers, filmmakers are filling in the blank canvas of May 13 and keeping alive spaces for healing and renewal. Art can also help challenge the binary thinking of grand narratives and show us how to think through the troubled past and subvert the present. I’m reminded of Ursula K. Le Guin’s quote, “the exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, unnecessary”.
In March 2020, two independent curators and a group of four emerging artists held an exhibition at the Tun Perak Co-Op in Kuala Lumpur titled May We. The show featured four emerging artists, who, while they had no direct experience of May 13 themselves, were familiar with echoes of the event; stories their parents told them, accounts they had read, and films they had seen. The artists produced multi-sensory installations that confronted the taboo of May 13 and allowed people to heal from intergenerational fear, anxiety and discontent, while representing the post-memory of Malaysian artists in Generation Y and younger.
“The night before we opened, the government declared an ’emergency’ to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and put a lockdown in place,” said curator Rebecca Yeoh, as she recalled the chaotic moment to me over Zoom. I couldn’t help but notice the irony that the exhibition opened on the night that an emergency took place five decades ago and in the same city that had been reduced to a ghost town. An eerie sense of life imitating art, as the shadow of May 13 seemed to loom over our imagination like a dark spectre.
“It is an interesting paradox that a ghost, which is typically thought of as a human who has survived death, rarely brings much comfort. We invariably fear ghosts, even when their intentions may seem benign.” (Buse and Scott, 1999). Perhaps this is because ghosts are believed to want to communicate with us. Their imaginative power lies less in what we may see in them than in what they may have to say to us.
The realm of the imagination is precisely where the battleground is. We can learn to speak with the ghost by learning how we already come to live with it. Instead of trying to expel or exorcise it, we should try to see the ghost as perhaps an open opportunity for reconciliation and unity amongst ourselves, rather than continue to live with fear and hate. Only then can we face the ghost with empathy, and open up a space for optimism to reclaim our future that was wrongfully foreclosed.
Bibliography (For further reading)
Kua, Kia Soong. May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969. Suara Inisiatif Sdn Bhd, 2019.
Teh, Mark. ‘An-Other May 13: An ongoing history or artistic responses’ in New Critical Strategies: Narrative In Malaysian Art Volume 2, Nur Hanim Khairuddin and Beverly Yong, with T. K. Sabapathy (Rogue Art: 2013), 98-112.
Butcher, JG, ‘May 13: A Review of Some Controversies in Accounts of the Riots’, in K.S. Jomo (ed.), Reinventing Malaysia: reflections on its past and future, Selangor: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia 2001, pp. 35-56.
Show, Ying Xin (2021) Narrating the racial riots of 13 May 1969: gender and postmemory in Malaysian literature, South East Asia Research, 29:2, 214-230, DOI: 10.1080/0967828X.2021.1914515
Hong, Por Heong. “Family Narratives and Abandoned Monuments of the May 13 Riot in the Sungai Buloh Leprosarium.” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 90, no. 2, 2017, pp. 35–54., https://doi.org/10.1353/ras.2017.0019.
Translation of May 13th Incident Book – “Reborn After Trauma — May 13th Incident Personal Narratives & Oral Histories”, 2020.《在伤口上重生——五一三事件个人口述叙事.
Rahimi, Sadeq. The Hauntology of Everyday Life. Palgrave Pivot, 2021.
Reid, Anthony. “The Kuala Lumpur Riots and the Malaysian Political System.” Australian Outlook, vol. 23, no. 3, 1969, pp. 258–278., https://doi.org/10.1080/10357716908444353.
Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Winichakul, Thongchai. Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok. University of Hawaii Press, 2020.
Hassan, Ahmad Mustapha. The Unmaking of Malaysia: Insider’s Reminiscences of UMNO, Razak and Mahathir. Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2007.
May 13, 1969: Truth and Reconciliation – the Malaysian Bar & Bar Council.
The National Operations Council (1969). The May 13 Tragedy: A Report. Official report by the NOC (http://langkasa-norul.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-may-13-tragedy.html)
Horowitz, Donald L. “The Deadly Ethnic Riot.” 2001, https://doi.org/10.1525/9780520342057.
B., Shamsul A. “The Economic Dimension of Malay Nationalism -the Socio-Historical Roots of the New Economic Policy and Its Contemporary Implications-.” The Developing Economies, vol. 35, no. 3, 1997, pp. 240–261., https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1746-1049.1997.tb00847.x.
Subky Latiff, ‘UMNO: 30 Years After’, in Southeast Asian Affairs 1977, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 1977.
Clive Kessler, ‘The Confidence Game: the (still-rumbling) ideas of Ketuanan Melayu and “the Malaysian Social Contract” – their origins, use and public career’, Off The Edge February 2010.
Tunku Abdul Rahman, May 13 – Before and After, Kuala Lumpur: Penerbitan Utusan Melayu Berhad 1969.
Soo, Wern Jun. “May 13 Reconciliation Possible If Those Who Come Forward Are Protected by Law, Says Film Producers” Malaysia, Malay Mail, 29 Sept. 2019.
“Pontianak – Malaysia’s Undying Vampire” Yahoo! News, Yahoo!
Buse, P., & Scott, A., Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, History, London : Macmillan, 1999).
Thank you to Rebecca Yeoh, Por Heng Heong, Chan Yoong Chia and Mark Teh, for their help, insight and conversations. Big thanks to Nabilah Said for mentoring me with patience and generosity. I’m also grateful to Kathy Rowland’s perspectives on the subject as a fellow Malaysian, and the good people at Goethe-Institut Singapore and ArtsEquator, for this amazing experience.
This article is published as part of the inaugural AE x Goethe-Institut Critical Writing Micro-Residency 2021/2022. Read more about the programme and the six resident writers here.
Header image and image of “Belas Masa” courtesy of Rebecca Yeoh, curator of May We exhibition, 2020.
About the author(s)
Eddie Wong (b.1982) is a multi-disciplinary artist and researcher based in Malaysia. He completed an MA in Computational Arts at Goldsmiths University. His work spans a diverse range of mediums, including writing, film, and computational creations. His research examines the interplay between narratives and technologies through the use of artificial intelligence, video art and installation. In his work, Eddie uses mythotechnesis (machine-fictioning) as a method to delve into personal and collective memories, probing postcolonial conditions, data surveillance and ethnographic explorations.