MAY 9 — It is soon the 40th anniversary of the riots that broke out in Kuala Lumpur at sunset of May 13, 1969.
Not many events have left as strong an imprint on the history and the psyche of the nation as the violence of that evening and the days that followed did.
What exactly happened is still being heatedly discussed by all parties, but often behind closed doors. One could argue that some closure was achieved through the March 8 elections of last year, when the power structure was badly shaken up, just as it was by the May 10 elections of 1969.
The significance of the fact that no inter-racial fighting followed the 2008 elections should not be underrated. Things have changed. Malaysians do accept the results of polls, despite the fact that most of them do think that the country’s free elections are not exactly fair.
The dramatic change in inter-racial tensions was already very noticeable in 1998 at the height of the Reformasi movement sparked off by the sacking, arrest and trial of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Suddenly, race did not seem relevant. That movement acted as the universal solvent for many of the suspicions that the various ethnic groups living under a race-based system of government for half a century harboured against each other.
This was most obvious among the young. The important thing that happened between 1998 and 2008 was that the post-May 13 generation somehow managed to convince their elders that new times were at hand.
Looking back today, chances of a new May 13 happening are small. Indeed, they are definitely smaller than chances of rioting aimed at the central government’s use of harsh laws to silence dissent are.
The beginning of a closure to May 13 on the ground is not matched by a dismantling of the institutions that stemmed from that dark day. This is made painfully apparent by the use of the Sedition Act just a few days before May 13, 2009, against the respected activist Wong Chin Huat, a lecturer in journalism at Monash University, Subang Jaya.
Wong, who was born in Perak, had acted as spokesperson for Bersih (the Coalition for Free and Clean Elections), in announcing a peaceful protest through the wearing of black against the Perak state assembly scheduled for May 7. That assembly would in effect finalise the switch in power managed by the federal government against the opposition coalition that won the Perak state election last year.
Significantly, another high-profile case of sedition is to be heard on May 12, involving the popular blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin.
What these events highlight, along with the new federal government’s weak hints that it will soon review the highly criticised Internal Security Act (ISA), is that the legacy of May 13 is most poignantly found in the survival of harsh legislations put in place after the riots.
Such laws are plentiful, and one does not even have to include the 1971 Constitutional (Amendment) Bill in the discussion.
For one thing, the Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance (EO) passed after May 13, 1969 is still in effect. According to a recent report, this law was responsible for as many as over 1,000 detainees being held without trial in 2004.
In 1971, the Sedition Act that came into being in 1948 to fight red insurgents was hardened to overrule parliamentary immunity, among other things. This followed the tradition set in 1960 when the ISA was passed to replace the Emergency Regulations Ordinance of 1948, also originally put in place to fight communist guerillas.
Apparently, while detention under the ISA is ordered by the Home Ministry and top officials, the EO is purportedly used when insufficient evidence is available to low-level investigators.
The Printing Ordinance is another such controversial law. It was passed in 1948 and was revised, also in 1971. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed transformed it further in 1984 into the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which required the print media to obtain a licence annually.
Another harsh law passed in 1971 was the Universities and University Colleges Act. This piece of legislation serves to drastically limit student involvement in politics.
The following year, in 1972, the Official Secrets Act was passed to prohibit the dissemination of any information classified as an official secret. This Act covers a wide range of items, and despite an amendment in 1986, is strongly criticised for muffling the press, stifling dissent and seriously reducing transparency in governance.
While a case can certainly be made that these laws did have a vital function to fulfil when they were passed, the lack of a culture or mechanism to repeal or review draconian legislations cannot but stunt the political maturity of the country.
There are at least two related reasons why the country needs to get over a major trauma like May 13. First, without closure, the inter-ethnic fissures of 1969 will continue to be exploited by parties that otherwise risk irrelevance, and second, without closure, the populace remains limited by — and addicted to — the narrow mindset of those days.
In short, without honest and open discussion about its harshest laws, the country remains in a permanent state of crisis and cannot possibly realise its full potential. Fear remains a constant element in Malaysian politics.
The writer is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His latest book is “Arrested Reform: The Undoing of Abdullah Badawi” (REFSA 2009).