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13 May 1969: The Darkest Day in Malaysian History

LEON COMBER (b. 1921 – ) is Visiting Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). His research interests are in Southeast Asian History and Politics.

Marshall Cavendish (Reprint, 2012)
134 pages


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13 May 1969: The Darkest Day in Malaysian History is an attempt to chronicle the long road to the 13 May 1969 riots in Kuala Lumpur, which were acknowledged by the Malaysian authorities to be the most serious racial riots in the history of the country. It is not primarily concerned with recounting the events of that tragic occasion but is an attempt to lay bare the underlying reasons for what happened and to provide a comprehensive, yet concise, historical picture of the complex Sino-Malay relationship in Peninsular Malaysia, for both layman and student of race relations alike.

In order to do this, the interplay of the two main communities in Peninsular Malaysia, the Malays and Chinese, has been scrutinized from a historical viewpoint, going back to the time of the earliest Chinese settlements in Malaya.

It was only after the tremendous influx of Chinese immigrants in the second half of the nineteenth century that Sino-Malay friction began to grow. There were differences in customs, language, food and religion. But, more importantly, the “world view” of the two communities was poles apart too. The Chinese were xenophobic and sinocentric. On the other hand, the social and religious structure of the Malays made it impossible for any other religious or ethnic group, with the exception of Arabs or Indian Muslims, to be integrated with them. Intermarriage between the two communities, which would have helped to break down racial barriers, was extremely rare, as the non-Malay partner would be required to embrace the Muslim faith.

Most of the early Chinese immigrants were in the true sense of the word ‘aliens’, and moreover, transient aliens, as the great majority of them had no intention of settling in Malaya but only of seeking their fortune and, if they were fortunate enough, returning, wealthier than they had ever dreamed of, to their ancestral villages in China. However, as the twentieth century progressed there was a growing number of local-born Chinese who began to think of Malaya as their home and who had no intention of returning to China. It was this section of the Chinese community which began to demand citizenship rights and some say in the running of the country.

When the 1931 Census revealed for the first time that the Malays were outnumbered in their own country by the non-Malays, it came as something of a shock to both the Malays and the British colonial authorities. The Malays were concerned about preserving their heritage and birthright as the indigenous people of the country, a factor which had been recognized by the British in the treaties entered into with the Malay rulers much earlier on. Restrictions were imposed on further immigration by Chinese, and steps were taken to control Chinese schools, which were ‘alien enclaves’ teaching Chinese values and loyalties inappropriate to the Malayan setting.

The Japanese occupation (1942-45) gave the British Colonial Office time to ‘rethink’ the situation and to formulate plans for the reoccupation of the country after the Japanese had been defeated. In the meantime, Japanese rule exacerbated the ill feelings between the Malay and Chinese communities. Although both communities suffered, the Chinese were the worse off because they were distrusted by the Japanese, especially as China had been at war with Japan since 1937, and Chinese communist and other volunteer units had put up stiff resistance to the Japanese during the closing stages of the battle for Singapore.

The Malayan Union plan which the British introduced on their return to Malaya in 1945 did not find favour in Malay eyes, as it gave away too much to the non-Malays, and it had to be withdrawn and replaced by the Federation of Malaya Agreement. which reaffirmed the ‘special position’ of the Malays and recognized the sultans as sovereign monarchs, which meant ipsa facto that the Federation of Malaya was a Malay state.

By the early 19503, it was clear that the main grounds fOf dissatisfaction and resentment on the part of the Chinese were their lack of citizenship rights; the national language issue, which they feared would lead to the stamping out of the Chinese language and culture; the national education policy, favouring Malay as the medium of instruction; and what they perceived as the privileged ‘special position’ of the Malays.

In order to present a united front to the Reid Constitutional Commission which was drafting the constitution for an independent Malaya, UMNO and the MCA leaders agreed in 1956 to 3 ‘bargain’ or ‘pact’ whereby the MCA conceded Malay ‘special rights’ in return for more liberal citizenship terms, as well as a freehand for the Chinese in pursuing their economic and commercial interests.

As Tunku Abdul Rahman put it in 1969, ‘The Malays have gained for themselves political power. The Chinese and Indians have won for themselves economic power’. It is indeed, this ‘bargain’ which has bedevilled Sino~Malay relations 1n more recent times, as the younger generation of Chinese does not wish to abide by it. Moreover, the matter was not made any better by the People’s Action Party’s campaigning in the 1964 Malaysian general elections for a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’, and Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s challenging the ‘special rights’ of the Malays, which was to lead to Singapore’s expulsion from Malaysia. In fact, the electioneering leading up to the 1969 federal and state elections released dangerous pent-up racial feelings and emotions both on the Malay and the Chinese sides, and it seemed as if both communities were moving inexorably towards a massive confrontation on a scale which had never before been envisaged.

The spilling of blood on 13 May 1969, and the terrible disturbances which followed, almost tore the country asunder. Parliament was suspended for twenty months and the country was ruled by a National Operations Council. By the time parliament resumed, many changes had taken place. Tunku Abdul Rahman was no longer prime minister. He had resigned in September 1970 after leading the country as a multiracial symbol for fifteen years. The Rukunegara, or official state ideology, had been announced, and a ‘New Economic Policy’ (NEP) had been unwrapped. Several contentious and potentially dangerous matters dealing, for example, with Malay ‘special rights’, the national language, religion, and so on, had been removed from the domain of discussion not only in public but also in the hitherto privileged confines of the Dewan Rakyat and the state legislatures. The Rukunegara made it evident that neither the Malay nor Chinese extremists were going to be able to claim victory, as it tried to steer a middle path between the interests of the two communities.

The New Economic Policy, which has been spelt out in detail in the Second Malaysia Plan 1971-1975, follows a two-pronged approach: the restructuring of the economy to ‘correct economic imbalances’ between the Malays and the Chinese, and the eradication of poverty among all Malaysians.

If the spirit of the NEP is adhered to in practice, so that, as the plan says, ‘no particular group will experience any loss or feel any sense of deprivation’, then there can be no objection to it, but obviously much depends on the way in which the policy is interpreted and administered by the Malaysian authorities.

The cut-off point of this account is the resumption of parliament on February 1971, as what happens after that marks the beginning of yet another panel in the unfolding scroll of Sino-Malay relations.

In dealing with the 13 May 1969 racial riots and Sino-Malay friction, attention has been focused on what happened 1n Peninsular Malaysia rather than in Singapore or Sabah and Sarawak, and events in the latter three territories have been referred to only when they have a bearing on the subject of 13 May 1969: The Darkest Day in Malaysian History.

Weight0.212 kg
Dimensions21.5 × 14 × 0.8 cm




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