For Malaysia to heal and progress, May 13 needs proper closure

Memorialising the mass burial site would be a progressive step in embracing the truth and opening up spaces for dialogue

Group photo of all those who attended the May 13 memorial event, including family members, survivors and guests - EDDIE CHANG/TIMES PHOTOGRAPHY

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Recently, I had the honour of being invited to attend the commemoration of the 55th anniversary of the May 13 racial riots. It was held at the Sungai Buloh burial site.

The violence in 1969 began in parts of Kuala Lumpur three days after the 10 May general election. Houses, shops and vehicles were torched. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were killed.

Official figures put the death toll at fewer than 200. But a few scholars and many other commentators put the figure at 800-1,000.

How many ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians died is a mystery as the Malaysian official documents detailing the entire episode are still under the Official Secrets Act.


In a 2019 article, Dr Kua Kia Soong wrote: “We owe it to those who perished to at least register their unfortunate demise and grant some reparation to their loved ones. Where are the mass graves, besides those at Sungai Buloh?”

Like Kua, many others in Malaysia, including me, want to know what really happened. Who started the violence and why, how many casualties were there, and what was the ethnic breakdown of the dead?


As time moves on, we grow more restless with the myths and half-truths that shroud this ominous event in our national history.

The ‘politically imposed’ silence is not only insulting but dangerous. Silence keeps fear alive and breeds mounting suspicion and conspiracy theories.

It is the duty of the elected government to lead the people in a collective process of humility, acceptance, reconciliation, closure and renewed hope for the nation.

It is also terribly unjust that, to date, there is no national memorial dedicated to the dead. There is no officially recognised public memorialising event of any kind, despite the existence of mass burial sites.

Many may not know this, but most, if not all the survivors of the May 13 riots yearn to tell their stories. Till today, they have been living in silence, mentally ‘incarcerated’, unable to share the horrors they experienced. They have been unable to express the grief they still feel for their loved ones who were killed.

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This is partly due to the taboo that has developed around this brief moment in our history, instigated mainly by the political elite. Our leadership is reluctant to officially and publicly acknowledge the 1969 riots, for the mistakes ‘politics’ made, and the lessons they hold for us.

Rather, our leaders, largely through various education policies, outlined in schools and university curricula, have fabricated a culture of foreboding around this historical event. Leaders dismiss the positive role that frank discussions play in the process of confronting a painful national past.

It is time we, as a nation, embrace an open and sincere discourse. We need to heal rather than continue to mock our differences and ridicule our diverse communities for political expedience.

In 2023, a book was published, comprising 20 stories in the form of oral history. It documents the experiences of some of the survivors. Life After: Oral Histories of the May 13 Incident (edited by the members of the May 13 Oral History Group) includes narrations about people across the ethnic divide helping each other to survive. This book is definitely not about hatred and contempt for “the other”.

These oral histories also reveal that the violence of May 13 was most probably politically instigated, rather than a spontaneous riot or a natural progression of deep-seated racism in the hearts and souls of the ordinary people.  

It is time for us as a nation to commemorate the May 13 incident by building a memorial. Apart from recognising the survivors and showing remorse for the victims who perished, it will enable more constructive discourses in public spaces.

The recent commemoration I attended was organised by the May 13 victims commemoration committee of Persatuan Sahabat Warisan Kuala Lumpur dan Selangor (the Friends of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Heritage or Pesawa), established in 2020.

Representatives of different faiths – Buddhists, Taoists, Catholics, Lutherans, Muslims, Hindus – say a three-minute prayer – EDDIE CHANG/TIMES PHOTOGRAPHY

Among other important tasks, the group has renewed calls for a royal commission of inquiry and to have an open discussion on the racial riots. Its premise is that ignorance breeds contempt; knowledge encourages dialogue, acceptance and reconciliation.

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Along with a royal commission, it is also time for the mass burial site at Sungai Buloh to be officially preserved as a national responsibility and an official gesture of compassion and sincerity.

Whether we were alive during the riots or whether we were born decades later, it is our moral duty as citizens to come to terms with our past, to know our history and to actively work towards closure. Most of all, the government must lead.

Memorialisation is a strong impetus for emotional and intellectual healing.

Also, the act of preserving the mass burial site of about 104 victims at Sungai Buloh must not be politicised. Since the riots most likely happened because of politics, so reconciliation must reject such politics.

To ignore the site and to neglect memorialising it forever exposes the open, ugly wound in our social memory. There has been no closure for the survivors for over half a century. How can we as a nation be so dispassionate? Many of these survivors are reliving an unspeakable hell, traumatised daily but unable to express their grief.

In fact, the idea to either construct monuments or memorialise unique historical events is instinctive in all civilisations, cultures and religions. Malaysia should be no different. With political will, compassion and humanity, it can be done.

Besides, the “Madani” (civil and compassionate) government also declares itself a “unity government”. So, it is in this spirit that our leaders should demonstrate how willing they are to be ‘civilised’ and ‘united’. The nation needs to heal, and it can do this partly by memorialising the burial site.

Memorialisation is significant in processing grief. It rehabilitates and reconstructs a sense of community. It helps to foster a sense of belonging, mutual inclusion and reconciliation among our people.

Our society needs this desperately so we can move on with the much-needed economic, education and social reforms that the country badly needs.

Without closure, there will always be suspicion and unresolved communal grievances holding back progress. Our schools and universities should be dynamic spaces where we are regularly reminded that we are not a society of innate ‘racists’.

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Memorialising the mass burial site would be a progressive step in embracing the truth and opening up spaces for dialogue.

The status quo is not ideal; many are perpetually questioning the validity of our history textbooks, frequently suspicious of our history, which is often manipulated for political expedience. No society can thrive if it is built on deception.

Our leaders must listen to the people. Show compassion for the survivors. Show respect and humility for the dead.

Both the declassification and memorialisation process are necessary steps that the government must take towards nation-building. Ignoring these calls indicates a lack of sincerity and unwillingness to unite our diverse society.

In conclusion, a poem written by the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) founding member Dr Mohd Nasir Hashim is reproduced here. Nasir was present at the Sungai Buloh commemoration event and read this poem out with much passion.

Nasir Hashim at the memorial event – EDDIE CHANG/TIMES PHOTOGRAPHY

Peristiwa Mei 13 Menghantui Wawasan Negara

Aku terpegun sepi.

Menyaksikan peristiwa 13 Mei, 1969 di kaca TV. Negara tercinta runtuh dijilat api dan darah mengalir korbankan warga ibu pertiwi

Aku keliru di hati

Mengapa musibah ngeri harus terjadi. Aku pula tidak menempuhinya di bangku sekolah dan merantau di negara orang

Mana gerangan pemimpin yang menenangkan keadaan. Ataupun asyik mengipas bara kebencian dari jarak jauh dan selamat. Tidak sedar perbuatan keji ini lekehkan keluhuran agama dan kaum sendiri

Keputusan pilihanraya Mei 1969, menggugat kuasa pemerintah. Mereka yang terkilan cuba melunakkan kelemahan, mula menuding jari pada bayangan yang tidak pasti. Tidak sedar ibu jarinya menuding diri sendiri

Kerana jiwa sudah lama di belai manja dalam pelukan budaya pautan (culture of dependency/subsidy mentality) hingga pudarkan inisiatif, pinggirkan semangat berdikari dan lumpuhkan jatidiri. Tidak berani.

Nasir Hashim, 18 May 2024, on the occasion of the 55th anniversary memorial of the May 13 incident in 1969, at the burial ground in Sungai Buloh


S Munirah Alatas
Aliran newsletter
22 May 2024

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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