May 13, 1969: A regime crisis — Clive Kessler
JULY 24 — As the 13th national general election approaches, attention has once more returned to the events that followed closely upon the third post-independence elections of 1969.
Psychoanalytic theorists speak of “the return of the repressed.”
What they mean by that expression is that fundamental questions, so long as they remain unanswered and are pushed out of range of conscious consideration, have a nasty way of popping up and striking back, unannounced and uninvited.
This process, and this truth, seems to be as true of collective entities and identities as they are of individual personalities.
In both cases — at both levels — unresolved traumas do not go away but lurk in wait to trip us up.
In that sense we may say that, so long as the full nature and meaning of the events of May 1969 remain unaddressed, their ragged and unresolved memory will remain potent, ready to trap us in their ambush. They will be liable to erupt again at any time.
Sadly, the politicians have now begun to invoke the trauma of 1969. And Dr Kua Kia Soong, author of a monograph on the painful subject, has now offered his own brief summary of its controversial conclusions to The Malaysian Insider (“May 13: Umno’s effete election weapon”).
Some years ago, I wrote a brief commentary on this same question for the now sadly deceased monthly of Malaysian “political analysis, cultural commentary and unwelcome ideas”, Off the Edge.
Its editor Jason Tan had begun a discussion of this generally “blocked off” and occluded, even taboo, subject with Datuk Abdul Rahman Hamidon, who served on the National Operations Council (NOC) that was set up following those terrible events, the well-known academic commentator Dr Farish Noor, and the veteran political analyst and writer, Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad.
It may serve some purpose if my comment on that “roundtable” discussion, also published in Off the Edge, is now made available once more.
I then wrote:
Congratulations to Off The Edge! We are all indebted to Datuk Abdul Rahman Hamidon, Farish Noor, Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmed and Jason Tan for initiating, after some forty years of polite obfuscation and prevarication, the first serious discussion of “the meaning of May 13.”
This thoughtful exchange is, to my knowledge, the first realistic attempt available on record to Malaysian citizens to probe the nature both of that terrible national crisis and also of the continuing longer-term implications of the way in which, over the next two years, that crisis was overcome: through the suspension of parliamentary democracy and “ordinary politics”, and their replacement by rule through a National Operations Council or, in effect, a supreme state executive directorate.
I was myself both a bystander to those fateful events and also a “small bit-player” in their aftermath. I earned my youthful “fifteen minutes of fame” when the news got around that I had predicted, with some accuracy, both the election outcome and the ensuing eruption of those events to a journalist from The Times of London a week earlier. As a result political analysts and observers, both local and from overseas, made the journey to talk to me in the small Malay rural house in which I was living at the time.
It is a confession that I perhaps should not make, but I do think I hear some faint echoes of my youthful self in some of the official British documents from that time that K.K. Soong has seen and cites in his book on “May 13.” (*)
On that experiential basis and from that perspective, a useful point or two may be offered.
The main one is this. That so long as the nature of that 1969 crisis remains less than clearly understood — less than accurately identified and precisely defined — for so long will Malaysians misunderstand their own history and remain caught up in the consequences of their inadequate understanding.
Specifically, it has become a cliché to talk of “the 1969 race riots” in Kuala Lumpur.
People use the phrase routinely, automatically, unthinkingly. That is what clichés are, what it means to think in cliché terms.
Thinking in such terms has consequences. Clichés are mental shortcuts, analytically lazy or convenient bypasses around difficult issues or awkward terrain, in this case crucial political and historical ground.
Here that standard turn of phrase, that ubiquitous and now seemingly irresistible cliché, desperately needs to be considered, assessed and questioned.
This nation’s ability to understand itself — to know where it now stands, and how it got here — depends upon doing so.
That is why the four-sided conversation, plus Abdullah’s accompanying commentaries, in Off The Edge, are so important, a valuable national birthday present to Malaysia as the Merdeka anniversary again approaches.
An important point needs to be made repeatedly, and cannot be emphasised enough. All the young deconstructionists should seriously work on deconstructing that term, the perennial cliché, “13 May 1969 race riots.”
Yes, what was played out, at large among the people who became involved as innocent bystanders and victims, was a series of violent racial confrontations.
But they were the outward manifestation of, or response to, something else: a regime crisis, a systemic crisis of the Malaysian state, the electoral collapse of its initial post-1957 “governing formula.”
People from all backgrounds had been told that — whatever their deep feelings, their immediate ethno-cultural passions and narrower sub-national communal loyalties — they must set them aside since only the Alliance formula could guarantee civil peace and political stability.
Yet, at the polls, Umno failed to convince one-half of the Malay vote, and the MCA did not win support or confidence from its base either.
Suddenly people who had accepted the “only the Alliance can hold us all together” argument felt cruelly deceived.
Confidence on all sides in the Alliance government, and its underlying logic, collapsed.
The racial confrontations that erupted were the enraged popular reaction to seeing the failure before their own eyes of the “no-other-way governing formula” for which they had been asked to swallow and suppress their strongest loyalties.
They had been asked to do so by politicians who were now seen as failures, as bewildered victims, not confident masters, of events and national destiny.
It was not only the politicians who were repudiated nor just their promises and assurances. The entire political dispensation through which they operated, and with which they were identified, was popularly discredited.
Neither Malays nor non-Malays in Malaysia, the elections now showed, felt that they could now really trust Umno to hold the centre together.
Malaysian Chinese no longer had faith in the MCA to deliver Malay moderation, while most Malays had lost faith in the MCA to manage its side of the coalition “deal”, to ensure Malaysian Chinese support for the Alliance formula and the Umno-led government. The MCA leadership itself lost faith in its own ability to do so credibly and so withdrew from Cabinet.
Disintegration! The underlying cause and reality was a regime crisis, a systemic collapse. “Racial riots” were not the basic cause but the external response and manifestation of that regime crisis.
Politicians may and will use what terms they please. They are determined, canny and resourceful people. Their choices and preferences soon become popular usage. That, too, is in the nature of things.
But it is also in the nature of things for scholars in history and the social sciences, for thoughtful political analysts and commentators, to look at things clearly — at unfolding human and social developments and at the terms in which they are received into public imagination — or at least try to do so.
That is their responsibility.
When they see that the terms being developed and used capture only some part of the total situation, and that they obscure or conveniently shield from view other important parts, they need to say so. That is their job, their work, their duty.
So while the politicians may, and will, still talk of “the 1969 Kuala Lumpur race riots”, the scholars and thoughtful commentators should decline that usage and instead identify things clearly, see them for what they are, call them by their proper name.
They need to speak of what was, and what Off The Edge’s recent four-way conversation now clearly recognises as, Malaysia’s first, basic post-independence regime crisis.
The choice of terms is hugely important.
If the events of May 1969 were simply race riots, then one must ask what prompted and drove the rioting.
An answer may be found in Malay disadvantage, perceived Malay marginalisation within and from national life.
If so, then the appropriate answer is government-directed redress, urgent and accelerated inclusion, an across-the-board national programme of affirmative action. In other words, the New Economic Policy or NEP.
Certainly that was part of the situation, an important part of the problem.
In that sense, and to that extent, the NEP was an appropriate and effective response. It is not, in its immediate context and terms, with its finite purposes and goals, to be rejected.
But was there more to the crisis that erupted than just that?
If so, then the NEP was destined to prove not a complete, only a partial, answer to the challenge which the nation faced.
If feelings of exclusion and marginalisation were only one part, and perhaps not even the central part, of the situation — of the immediate national problem in 1969 — then a programme to address those undeniably significant feelings, and the hard facts from which they stemmed, might only be a partial solution.
Providing a comprehensive answer to the problems that the events of 1969 highlighted, and to the situation that the 1969 elections produced, would require something more.
If the situation facing Malaysia was not just a collapse of civil peace in racial rioting that was driven by profound feelings of Malay disadvantage but in fact a regime crisis, then regime reconstruction, and restoring the political credibility of the national leadership, was also a necessary, even central, part of what was required.
That was, in fact, the overwhelming first priority.
Tun Razak and the NOC knew this.
What they did was not simply to suspend ordinary politics in order to institute the NEP. They did so, and gave themselves and the nation a “political moratorium” for a couple of years, in order to set up an entirely new political order to replace that which imploded in May 1969.
For the heirs today of those decision and that action — the citizens of Malaysia and the Malaysian nation itself — the questions that have been left as their immediate result now need some very clear and thoughtful answers.
Two of those questions are:
First, was the new political order that was established between 1969 and 1972 the best, or only, one that might then have been created? What others might have been possible? What other paths might have been taken?
And second, perhaps, and even if, the political recourse that was adopted, in the formation of a new state structure and governing coalition — with its new constitutional and legal dimensions, its new national ideology and cultural policy — was the only or best course available. Perhaps it was.
Yet even so (one must still ask), what have been the long-term consequences of both implementing the NEP and erecting this new political regime structure, or second post-Merdeka political order, and then justifying the latter on the basis of the former, as if the two separate agendas were just one and the same thing?
The development of a massive and comprehensive, though in stated intention only a temporally finite, plan of affirmative action, in the name of redressive social justice was one thing.
The creation of a decidedly more authoritarian political system — fashioned by a national executive management team essentially answerable only to its own good judgement, to replace the parliamentary democratic system that it had set aside — was another, and something entirely different.
It may well have been the case that, in its immediate originating context, the NEP could only have been devised and instituted by such a strong executive hand.
But that is not itself an argument that, either by design or default, the strong executive hand must necessarily have become a long-term and enduring, a prospectively permanent and unalterable, political reality.
Further, for the NEP to be implemented, it had to have some formal justification.
This was found, appropriately, in the constitutional provisions ensuring the Malays would be genuine stakeholders in national life, otherwise known as the provisions recognising the “special position” of the Malays.
But this, in turn, is not an argument for, and does not by itself justify, the continuing use of the enormous powers of the newly created “strong state”, always invoking the notion of the special position of the Malays, to expand the original notion of certain finite, constitutionally protected Malay rights — both temporally, prospectively permanently, and in their substantive scope — or to promote the gradual consolidation of a national political community based on “Ketuanan Melayu”, which is, of course, something else.
Yet, looking back with clear historical hindsight, we may now recognise the path that has been followed.
As a policy the NEP was justified on the basis of Malay special rights; the NEP was then initiated and implemented, as it could only have been, by a strong and decisive government of unchallengeable authority; and, both responding to and also at times driving populist pressures and demands, that strong government’s elected successors utilized the state’s great powers to enlarge and incrementally expand the scope of special Malay rights.
So the circle was closed. It became self-sustaining, an upward spiral.
The NEP had originally been the objective, the guiding purpose, and the new strong state its essential means of implementation. In time, the strong state became the ultimate political reason and national objective, and the NEP came to serve as its constant justification.
Hence the intermittent assertions from some leading politicians that the time will never come for the termination of the NEP and its underlying policy logic: not in 1990, not in 2020, not even by 2057. Never.
This dynamic had become an express bus from which many politicians simply could not get off.
The conflation, and subsequent promotion and joint justification — as if they were inseparable twins, or one and the same thing, a single entity — of the NEP and Malaysia’s post-1960s “Orde Baru” has had consequences, and left a legacy, that need to be addressed, thoughtfully and clearly, responsibly and honestly.
Again, congratulations to Off The Edge for commencing that process.
It is a very fine birthday gift to Malaysia, and one that a person or nation, with the mature wisdom that comes in one’s sixth decade, should appreciate.
(*) Kua Kia Soong, “May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969.” Suaram, Kuala Lumpur, 2007.
* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at The University of New South Wales, Sydney.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.