What triggered the May 13 incident?

By Thomas Lee Seng Hock (MySin Chew)

I was a month short of my 21st birthday when the May 13, 1969 incident exploded, and I never forget how I was escorted safely home by some Malay men when I had to pass through the Malay section of Lorong Selamat (the Macalister Road end) in Penang on my way home on my Vesper scooter.

One of them even rode pillion on my scooter to ensure I was not attacked.

The riot was not racial per se. It was sparked off by the poor Malays being told by Malay politicians that the rich Chinese caused them the economic suffering, and the poor Chinese being told by Chinese politicians that the powerful Malays in the government caused them their hardship.

The riot was triggered off by the then massive suffering of many poor Malays and poor Chinese, both having reached the extreme intolerable level of economic and financial hardship. The intense manipulative racial stroking by irresponsible politicians of the already tense environment during the campaign for the May 10 general election detonated the already ticking racial timebomb.

Who to blame?

Not the ordinary Malays. Not the average Chinese.

But the happy-go-lucky tidak apa government of the day, which didn’t have any concrete plans and policies to uplift the quality of life of both the poor Malays and poor Chinese.

The faulty socio-political economic situation at that time was the context in which the May 13 riots took place.

When I was doing a research paper on revolution for my course on history at the Flinders University in South Australia, I did a comparative study on the causes of revolutions in France (1789–1799), Russia (1917) and China (1911 and 1949). I found that there were five common factors that gave rise to the revolutions in these countries.

The first factor is that there was massive economic hardship among the general populace of the country. Many people were facing difficulties in even putting food on the table. Jobs were scarce. Children go to bed hungry. In such a situation, many became desperate, and couldn’t care less about any consequence, even if they were to resort to violent means to survive. These people become fertile ground for the seed of revolution to take root and grow.

Secondly, while the majority of the population was suffering hardship, an elite class of economically powerful and corrupt officials and business people nonchalantly exploited the people. The people were heavily taxed, pieces of essentials keep rising, bribes were demanded for getting things done at government offices, the cops were trigger-happy, and many innocent people were persecuted and prosecuted on the most unsubstantial and flimsiest charges.

Such a scenario gave rise to a massive resentment and revulsion among the people. The circumstance was certainly appropriate for mass action to get rid of the immoral and corrupt political parasites.

Thirdly, the major influence and impact of the increasingly powerful mass media, particularly the newspapers, contributed to educate the general populace of their fundamental human and civil rights.

The people began to realize that they have absolute rights to a decent life and lifestyle, and that they are the actual bosses of those in the government and its administration.

They began to demand for justice, fairness, economic equality, political freedom, liberty in organizing and operating their own well-being, and the rights to freedom of expression, worship, jobs and education.

In other words, the people have got up from their innocent slumber and became enlightened to the fact they have fundamental birth rights which they should protect, preserve and prevent from exploitation by the abusive and dictatorial authorities.

Fourthly, the rise of some well-educated idealistic charismatic leaders led to the mobilization and organization of the people into collective powerful pressure groups which took the lead to fight against the establishment. A massive people movement began to make the clarion call to the masses to stand up and be court for the nation. The charismatic people rousers became the powerful attractive socio-political magnets attracting the masses to march for change.

Finally, like Mao Zedong said, a mere spark will cause fire to a whole plain. In the case of 18th century France, Emperor Louis XIV and his successor Emperor Louis XVI mismanaged the nation’s finances that by 1789, the government was bankrupt. Louis XVI resorted to impose heavy taxes on the people. The people, who suffered from bad harvest, exploded in anger and attacked the Bastille (prison for political prisoners). The Fall of Bastille started the French Revolution. It spread out to other parts of France.

The explosive pressure cooker blew its cover and all hell broke lose as the people took to the street to demand for accountability and change.

Nearer our time, we have seen how the dictator Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines was ousted by the People Power Revolution in 1986. The massive protest was brewing since 1983, after the assassination of opposition politician Ninoy Aquino, followed by the deteriorating economy, with the government plunging deeper into debt. By the end of 1983, the country was bankrupt, and the economy had contracted by 6.8%. The pressure started to build up until 1986 when the time bomb exploded.

From my studies on revolutions, we can observe that what gave rise to the massive visible, vocal and even violent demonstration demanding for reformation and transformation is basically the mass dissatisfaction, disenchantment and disillusion with the governing establishment, sparked off by just an unjust act.

In the case of May 13, the heat generated during the election campaign, followed by the then unprecedented electoral set-back of the ruling Alliance coalition, resulted in a herd self-defensive instinct of the poor Malays which was expertly exploited by irresponsible and immoral politicians. The ordinary Malays should not be blamed as they were certainly being denied their legitimate rights to have a proper and decent life. The Chinese, meanwhile, were victims of circumstances, not of racial hatred.

That, I believe, is what May 13 is all about.

By the way, May 13 is also my wedding anniversary.


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