A million 13th Mays

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For the sake of those millions of Malaysians who lived and loved together across the frontiers of race and religion, let us not deny their past (and ours) by buying into to the hegemonic account of 13 May perpetuated by communitarian doomsayers in our midst, writes Farish Noor. Malaysian history is much richer, more colourful and certainly a happier story than that.

And so once again, we pass through the fateful day of 13 May. Today, we are joined together in a state of national mourning over the passing of what many have described as Malaysia’s golden years.

Year in, year out, Malaysians are reminded 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 in no uncertain terms.

To add to our fear, the country’s leaders (though they tend to be those on one side of the political fence) are wont to resurrect May 1969 whenever it suits them most, and to frame the event in a decidedly jaundiced aspect. We are told time and again that to demand political freedom, the right to speak, the right to believe, the right to love, will lead us down the path that ends in the impasse of communal bloodshed and violence.

But does it and will it?

A magic trick

History, as any historian will tell you, conceals a deep conceit that we historians often try to hide, like magicians do their bag of tricks. The historian’s craft is to collect the disparate facts of history and assemble the broken body of the past as if it was a cohesive whole; all pretty and prettified. And even when the history that is put together is not exactly a candidate for the town hall beauty pageant, we nonetheless present it to be something that is wholesome, sutured and complete. The trick is to play the card of linearity and determinism, and to give the false impression that there was only one path that could have been followed.

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Let me let you in on a trade secret: we historians know for a fact that history is contingent, confused, complex and multifarious. We simply dress it up in the garb of cohesion to let lay readers think that it is miraculously endowed with fixity and teleology.

The fiction of 13 May

The exact history of 13 May 1969 is one such history, and for too long we have entertained the polite fiction that this tragic story had only one beginning and therefore only one conclusion. That lie has to be exposed, debunked and deconstructed for the instrumental fiction that it is.

The fact is, whatever happened on 13 May 1969 was not a nationwide experience. Indeed, there are enough anecdotal accounts to suggest that whole swathes of Malaysia remained unaffected by the violence that took place in the urban areas of the peninsula’s west coast. If you don’t believe me, take the next flight to East Malaysia where I grew up as a kid and ask fellow Malaysians there what it was like for them on the day, and how many of them were moved by the events in Kuala Lumpur .

We also forget that behind the facade of ethnic and racial compartmentalisation that has become the leitmotif of the 13 May disturbances were real private and isolated histories that ran counter-current.

How many of us have asked the obvious question: what was it like to be an ethnically and religiously mixed couple then, in May 1969, when the frontiers of race and religion were suddenly raised and guarded? Though no official census has been done thus far, one is intuitively certain of the fact that ethnic and religious relations were far more friendly, cordial and real then compared to now.

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Indeed, here lies the dirty trick that belies the conceit of history: with each passing year as the ghost of 13 May 1969 is conjured back to life again and again, we are in fact distancing ourselves from the reality of a multi-culty Malaysia that was more authentic, peaceful, loving and comfortable with itself compared to today’s segregated and exclusivist Malaysia.

For the ghost story of 13 May, instrumentalised as it has been by the right-wing communitarians in our midst, has been the script and template for the divided and segregated Malaysia we know now.

13 May was not the result of racial conflict, but rather the blueprint for further racial and religious polarisation. The sleight of hand of history is the magic gesture that has erased this simple fact from us, and we – now duped – continue to gawk at the same old trick that has been played on us on a yearly basis.

Revisiting 13 May

Revisiting 13 May 1969 therefore has to begin from the other entry point of the multiracial, complex and plural Malaysia that was, but is now in danger of waning. Rather than write about the violence and mayhem that ensued, we need to retrace, redeem and reactivate the manifold histories of inter-ethnic and inter-religious dialogue, relationships and love that were real and genuine then. There were and there remain a million May 13s that we need to recover. We should not let this date be singularly defined by one and only one event above all.

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This is how we challenge, overcome and eventually deconstruct the hegemony of power and official historiography. For too long, we have been held captive by a singular and totalising account of history that admits no contenders and no other alternatives. As a historian activist, I would rather write about the stories of all mixed, hybrid couples who were making love and whispering sweet nothings to each other on the night of 13 May, who were – thankfully perhaps – unaware of the nastiness happening elsewhere. Sadly, many of these truly Malaysian relationships were tried and broken in the years that followed thanks to the racialisation of Malaysian politics.

But for their sake, and for the sake of those millions of Malaysians who lived and loved together across the frontiers of race and religion then, let us not deny their past (and ours) by buying into to the hegemonic account of 13 May perpetuated by communitarian doomsayers in our midst. Malaysian history is much richer, more colourful and certainly a happier story than that. Even if some of our politicians want to dwell only on tales of blood and gore, we – the Malaysian public – can and must reclaim our history for ourselves again.

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