Saturday, June 6

Malaysia’s darkest hour 51 years later…

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Year of 1969 — our very multiracial group of students.

ON that fateful Tuesday on May 13, 1969, 51 years ago, I was in one of my afternoon classes at St Thomas’s Secondary School just five months’ away from sitting for my Cambridge A Levels (HSC) in Upper 6 Arts when I first heard whispers of “riots and killings on the streets of Kuala Lumpur”, which were connected to the just-concluded federal election results. There was talk of Chinese and Malays being involved and many dead.

More details were broadcast over the radio and news that evening and the following days’ newspapers were full of what happened and there were curfews in Kuala Lumpur. Everyone here was told to stay calm and not to listen to rumours and public speculation.

Years later, we were to learn of what had really happened, but even then depending on who was retelling the story, the blame was always shifted between one party or another. I shall not dwell on this here.

There was one certainty that all of us, even as school students, had known for sure — it could never happen here, not in our beloved Sarawak. Because we have a very solid and strong history of a special social bond and long surviving family ties between all of our races, be it Chinese, Malay, Indian, Iban, or Bidayuh etc.

We have always lived in harmony, peace, and togetherness since time immemorial (besides the occasional hiccups during the Brooke era of the Hakka gold miners at Bau and some early Malay related issues with Rajah Brooke).

In those dark days of May 1969, although fearful and under uncertainties over the future, we put our trust in the majority of law-abiding citizens and our law enforcement authorities to ensure that it was just a matter of time before all the troublemakers were arrested and things would return to normal once again.

Fifty-one years down the road, has that happened? Has it become worse or is there hope for the future?

I was very much taken aback and somewhat shocked to see a published result from one Indexmundi at Daily World Maps on Facebook last week, which showed a ‘Racism Perceptions Index’ whereby participants of the survey were asked, “How big of a problem is racial discrimination in the country where you live?”

A score of 10 means racism is widespread. The survey result showed South Africa at No. 1 with a 6.86; but what really shocked me was Malaysia came in at No. 2 with a 6.32 score, thus beating others who came after like Guatemala, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, France, and Brazil, which completed the top 10.

During the same week, another survey undertaken by an outfit called Businesstech published a similar survey result with Malaysia at No. 11. So in a way, it’s not as if such survey results were biased or purposely putting Malaysia in a bad light; I am sure that if we did a random Google search on similar surveys conducted in recent times, we’d also be shown similar results. Malaysia does figure in the top 10, or top 20, or somewhere high up in such surveys.

When I was in my last year in school, 51 years ago, I had for my classmates a majority of Chinese of different dialects and backgrounds; some Malay, Iban, Bidayuh, Indian, and even a Eurasian. We were taught by teachers from the UK, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Malaya, Sabah, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Sweden!

We had no issues and no problems with coexisting at both academic and social levels and treated each other with respect, love, and belonging. We studied together, played, cycled, ate, picnicked, and went everywhere together — no fuss and no problems arose out of religion, race, or any other sensitivities.

We just met up recently for our 50th year reunion and caught up with each other — things haven’t changed all that much except some have put on more weight, lost some hair, turned grey, or are mobility challenged. We too remembered those brothers and sisters we had lost to accidents and medical ailments in recent years; a few who had left us in an untimely fashion at a young age.

We just wondered whether present boys and girls of our age then, 18 or 19, who had gone to school together for so many years; are today behaving like we did and will always be — the same, in our treatment and behaviour towards each other, showing forth our real honesty, love, trust, and fellowship? We just wondered. What do you think?

From a personal point of view, I have read many published historical facts and opinions from both sides of the divide about what had actually happened on that fateful day, May 13, 1969, in Kuala Lumpur; and what had triggered it and who had purportedly ‘masterminded’ it.

Regardless of what the actual truth is, who was to blame and why it had actually come to pass would always be debated for years and years; and I am sure that there will be no clear answer to it all.

It may be due to a confluence of many things happening at the same time, events that had built up reaching a stage whereby a mere spark of a few well placed words or actions by one or more people had brought about the force of violence, fear, and hatred, which had been kept hidden or stored away within some aggrieved parties. It could have been a knee-jerk reaction too for the shocking and unexpected recent election results. Again, who’s to know the truth except those who had a hand in its making.

Could it happen again today?

I fear for the trend that has worsened in recent years, especially on the mainland, but I can positively say that I do not fear that it could ever happen here in Sarawak. We are very different and we will continue to live in harmony with each other and I can only pray that whatever ill will and fearsome racial distress, real or perceived, that has been brewing over in the mainland, will never ever reach our shores.

We can all thank God for that!