The 1969 Riots Against the Chinese in Malaysia

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

Willam Faulkner

It was in 1971 that I arrived in Singapore along with my one year old son and Australian husband who worked for the Australian embassy. We had taken the maiden voyage of Qantas’ first 747 Jumbo Jet from Darwin, Australia. In Singapore, we were soon witness to the legacy of European colonialism in the Asian context, Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew’s total grip on the city-state, and the power struggles between the Southeast Asian religious, ethnic and political groups. Violence against the Chinese in neighboring Malaysia in 1969 had proceeded our arrival and now decades after that tragedy new information has been revealed about those riots by Malaysian academic Dr. Kua Kia Soong in his recently released book, ‘May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969’.

In 1971, I had been out the United States for a few years after marrying and living in Australia. Once landing in Singapore and being rushed to a hotel, I awoke that first Asian morning to a song by American country singer Ray Stevens blaring from the clock radio. Stevens (whose real name was Ray Ragsdale) had been a classmate who had preceded me by a number of years at Druid Hills High School in Atlanta, Georgia. It seemed altogether strange that my first encounter in Singapore would be with a former classmate from Georgia.

I soon learned, however, that Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, while wanting western money and trade, was not enamored with western “youth”–it’s overall culture or singers. Western bands coming to Singapore had to perform with hair nets (Lee did not like males wearing long hair) and once they had performed they were required to go immediately to their hotel rooms, as Lee did not want them mingling with Singaporeans. There were signs in government places, such as the post office, that displayed the appropriate hair length and any male with hair that hung over his collar would be served last or would have to go to the end of the line. Young Singaporean couples were not allowed to kiss or hold hands in public.

One of the Lee’s rules that made absolute sense to me was that no one was allowed to have standing water. In this tropical zone, this was one of the ways malaria infected mosquitoes were controlled. Impromptu visits by authorities were made on occasion to ensure you had not violated the ruling and you were fined appropriately if you had! I was always a nervous wreck that there might be standing water somewhere! The benefit of all this was that our apartment was open to the outside at all times, except during monsoons. I never saw a mosquito.

Singapore is located at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula and historically the fate of Singapore and Malaysia has been closely related. Primarily ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians, with Singapore having a majority of Chinese, populate both Singapore and Malaysia.

It seemed as if all of Southeast Asia was a caldron in 1971. Some of the historical context:

o Malaysia had been occupied by European powers since 1511 (first Portugal, then the Dutch, then Britain) and Singapore had been occupied since the 1600’s by the same three European powers.

o After WWII the anti-colonial movement resulted in Malaysia winning its independence from Britain in 1957 and by 1959 Singapore was independent as well. By 1963 a Malaysian Federation was created of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak.

o After independence a struggle for power increased between the groups, particularly between the ethnic Malays, largely Muslim, and the Chinese, mostly Buddhists

o Much to Lee Kwan Yew’s disappointment, by 1965 Singapore was essentially asked to leave the Malaysian Federation. Apparently, Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, otherwise known as the Tunku (Prince), and other Malay leaders were not thrilled with Lee Kwan Yew’s political activities on mainland Malaysia.

o Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung had launched the Cultural Revolution throughout China in 1966 and he declared it completed in 1969.

o In Indonesia in 1965-66, thousands of Indonesian Chinese were among those specially targeted in the riots to overthrow President Sukarno who had strengthened his ties to with Chinese communists and had admitted communists into his government. The CIA tried unsuccessfully to hide its involvement in this “Year of Living Dangerously.”

o At the time, Singapore was a haven for many Hong Kong Chinese who were concerned about the end of the British 99 year lease of Hong Kong that began in 1898. In the 1990’s with the end of the lease, Hong Kong would come under the authority of China. Many Hong Kong Chinese held both Singaporean and Hong Kong passports, with residences in both cities.

o The legacy of WWII was still a reality in 1971. While some in Southeast Asia welcomed the Japanese occupation during WWII as a way of ending western occupation, the ruthlessness of the Japanese occupiers definitely dampened this enthusiasm. However, the Japanese defeat of the British controlled Singapore in but 6 days radically altered the Asian view of European invincibility. Lee Kwan Yew admitted that while he was appalled at the Japanese cruelty, still he was impressed with Japanese efficiency and the systems they put in place.

But in 1971, however, we were told that the Japanese who had occupied Singapore and their descendants were not allowed into the city-state.

o In 1971, Ferdinand Marcos was President of the Philippines with close ties to the Nixon Administration. That year “a group calling themselves the People’s Revolutionary Front (PRF) claimed responsibility for two bombings at the headquarters of U.S. oil companies in Manila, Philippines. The bombs killed one and caused extensive damage. A note at the site of the bombings claimed responsibility for the attacks in the name of the group and said “this is the anger of the Filipino people against American imperialism.” (MIPT Terrorism: Knowledge Base)

o In 1971 the Vietnam War was raging, the anti-communist sentiment was strong and the domino theory predominated in western government thought and policies.

Britain’s occupation in Southeast Asia was with its usual arrogance of white supremacy, which played out socially and economically. The British are, of course, excellent at dividing and ruling their colonies. In fact, the hierarchical British seem proficient at increasing the gaps in social divisions that were already at play or creating them for their own benefit to decrease the potential power of the existing indigenous population.

During its occupation the British did encourage migration from India and China to the Malaysian peninsula and the subsequent independent nations are forced to adjust to it all. The lucrative Malaysian tin mining, for one, was a major incentive for the British in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In Singapore and Malaysia, the ethnic Malays were at the lower end of the scale and were generally considered the laborers and farmers in the rural areas; Indians were the drivers and guards; and the Chinese were the middle/upper class entrepreneurs in the urban areas. All of this is stereotypical and, of course, was not always played out in reality but was usually the scheme in the social and economic strata and the gaps in income and social/economic power was profound. From the religious hierarchy, then, it was the Malay Muslims and the Indian Hindus at the lower rank, and the Chinese Buddhists at the higher end, with the occupying British Christians at the top of it all.

But after WWII and the western concern about communist China, the Chinese population throughout Southeast Asia became suspect by Britain, the U.S. and Australia. It was thought by some that the Southeast Asian Chinese would side with China regardless of their links with western capitalism. This was not the beginning of negative attitudes about the Chinese, however, as the Southeast Asian complexities and power struggles have long been a reality. Also, Southeast Asian countries have always worried about the long-arm of a powerful China.

In this period and up to the present, there was speculation that China was supporting and fostering Southeast Asian Chinese in the creation of communist groups throughout the region to challenge western influence. To counter this, in the cold war period (and up to the present I might add), there was significant secret service activity from the CIA, British MI5 and ASIS from Australia throughout the region.

The jockeying for power has never been simply about ethnic rivalry since independence, it has always been about who will control and benefit from the natural resources in Southeast Asia.

On a clear day from my apartment in Singapore I could see the Indonesian island of Sumatra. In our apartment building, in fact, there were Americans who were gone for months into the neighboring Indonesia on oil exploration activities for the Texas based Huffco and Mobile Oil, apparently at the invitation of the Indonesian government. I was never sure about this–at always seemed so secretive. (Occasionally they brought out, illegally, Dutch antiques such as the famous Dutch oil lamps, the traffic of which the Indonesian President Suharto was wisely trying to control.)

On May 13, 1969, riots against the Chinese began in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was considered the worst racial riot in Malaysian history. Many Malaysian Chinese fled to Singapore for protection. We were told the rivers ran red in Malaysia with Chinese blood. One of my European friends married to a Chinese described how she and others hid in a hospital for protection and how the Malay Chinese were running everywhere from the hordes of attacking Malays. My husband ultimately moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in the mid-1970’s and his secretary, of Chinese descent, described how she came home during the riots to find her husband’s head in her refrigerator.

Some police figures are that 196 people died in the riot, many more were wounded–there were numerous cases of arson and approximately 6,000 Kuala Lumpur residents (of which 90% were Chinese) became homeless. Some have said the actual tragedy far exceeded the official figures.

It has been suggested–in fact this is the official position – that the riots resulted from the tallies of the 1969 elections in which the largely Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party and the Gerakan Party made significant gains in opposition to the Malay controlled United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Members of the winning party marched through Kuala Lumpur through some largely Malay areas. It is said the demonstrators carried brooms that symbolized “sweeping” the Malays out of Kuala Lumpur. The official policy was that the Malays resented all of this and the riots ensued–basically that the Chinese had themselves to blame. It is the classic “blaming the victim” explanation.

In his book, Dr. Kua Kia Soong, however, has reported from recently released British files and reports from foreign correspondents, that there were suspicious activities prior to and during the riots that suggest the riots were not spontaneous but rather planned in advance.

Dr. Kua sites many examples, but for one he reports a foreign correspondent’s notes that on May 13 “In the side streets off Jalan Hale, I could see bands of Malay youths armed with parangs and sharpened bamboo spears assembled in full view of troops posted at road junctions. Meanwhile, at Batu Road, a number of foreign correspondents saw members of the Royal Malay Regiment firing into Chinese shophouses for no apparent reason.”

Other examples include observations that there were unfair curfew policies that discriminated against the Chinese.

Dr. Kua revealed that “the National Cultural Policy (announced in 1971) burst in the 80s, it was alreadythought of one week after (the May 13 incident)” (“Unveiling the ‘May 13’ riots” by Beh Lih Yi).

Dr. Kua suggests there was, in fact, a “coup d’etat” backed by the army and police to place the “ascendant capitalist class” in power–or those elements in the Malaysian Alliance who were more favorable to the western economies.

This is what ultimately happened. The Tunku soon lost power after the riots and Tun Abdul Razak, more aligned with the west, became Prime Minister not long after. Dr. Kua said those orchestrating the coup wanted to oust the old aristocracy and replace it with one that would aspire toward a new economic agenda.

It was difficult for Dr. Kua to publish his book and as its thesis is contrary to the official explanation for the riot, many Malaysian politicians have asked that it be banned. It’s unlikely his book will radically alter the history of Malaysia, but at least finally there are documents that reveal some alternative to the official explanation.

The 1969 riots have continued to plague the relations between the various Malaysian ethnic groups. For one, there was the controversial “Malaysianization” (National Cultural Policy) policies of Malaysia in the 1980’s were thought primarily to be about the perceived need to replace the Chinese control of the banking, business and academic institutions with ethnic Malays. To this day, there is still an unease about the potential of violence as the power struggles between groups continue.

Much more needs to be written about western government involvement in the May 13, 1969 Malaysian sordid affair, but the writing is on the wall. Unfortunately, there are always innocent victims from the machinations of greed and power mongering and never enough accountability.

HEATHER GRAY produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.






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Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

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