is never dead. Its not even past.
It was in
1971 that I arrived in $ingapore 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 $ingapore, we were soon witness
to the legacy of European colonialism in the Asian context, Prime
Minister Lee Kwan Yews total grip on the city-state, and
the power struggles between the South-east 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.
I had been out the United States for a few years after marrying
and living in Australia. Once landing in $ingapore 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 $ingapore 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"
- its overall culture or singers. Western bands coming to $ingapore
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 $ingaporeans. 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.
One of Lees
rules that made absolute sense to me was that no one was allowed
to have stagnant 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 stagnant
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. [Editor's note: As we go to press, there
is a dengue fever outbreak in $ingapore. To this day, it remains
a consistent, unresolved problem.]
is located at the tip of the Malay Peninsula and historically
the fate of $ingapore and Malaysia has been closely related. Primarily
ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians, with $ingapore having a majority
of Chinese, populate both $ingapore and Malaysia.
as if all of South-east Asia was a cauldron in 1971. Some of the
Malaysia had been occupied by European powers since 1511 (first
Portugal, then the Dutch, then Britain) and Singapore had been
occupied since the 1600s by the same three European powers.
After World War II, the anti-colonial movement resulted in Malaysia
winning its independence from Britain in 1957 and, by 1965, $ingapore
was independent as well. By 1963 a Malaysian Federation was created
of Malaya, $ingapore, Sabah and Sarawak.
After independence a struggle for power increased between the
groups, particularly between the ethnic Malays, largely Muslim,
and the Chinese, mostly Buddhists
Much to Lee Kwan Yews disappointment, by 1965 $ingapore
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 Yews political activities on mainland Malaysia.
Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung had launched the Cultural Revolution
throughout China in 1966 and he declared it completed in 1969.
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 with Chinese communists
and had admitted communists into his government. The CIA tried
unsuccessfully to hide its involvement in this "Year of Living
At the time, $ingapore 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. With the end of the lease in
1997, Hong Kong would come under the authority of China. Many
Hong Kong Chinese held both $ingaporean and Hong Kong passports,
with residences in both cities.
The legacy of World War II was still a reality in 1971. While
some in South-east Asia welcomed the Japanese occupation during
World War II 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 $ingapore
in but six 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.
1971, however, we were told that the Japanese who had occupied
$ingapore and their descendants were not allowed into the city-state.
In 1971, Ferdinand Marcos was President of the Philippines with
close ties to the Nixon Administration. That year "a group
calling themselves the Peoples 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)
1971 the Vietnam War was raging, the anti-communist sentiment
was strong and the domino theory predominated in western government
thought and policies.
occupation in South-east 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.
occupation the British did encourage migration from India and
China to the Malaysian peninsula and the subsequent independent
nations were 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.
unlikely his book will radically
alter the history of Malaysia,
but at least finally there are
documents that reveal
some alternative to the
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 were 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.
World War II and the western concern about communist China, the
Chinese population throughout South-east Asia became suspect by
Britain, the U.S. and Australia. It was thought by some that the
South-east 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 South-east Asian
complexities and power struggles have long been a reality. Also,
South-east 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 South-east 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.
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 South-east Asia.
On a clear
day from my apartment in $ingapore 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 - it 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 $ingapore 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 Malaysian
Chinese were running everywhere from the hordes of attacking Malays.
My husband ultimately moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in the mid-1970s
and his secretary, of Chinese descent, described how she came
home during the riots to find her husbands head in her refrigerator.
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 per cent 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 cites
many examples, but for one he reports a foreign correspondents
notes that on May 13 "In the side streets off Japan 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."
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 already... thought 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 detat" 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. Its unlikely his book will
radically alter the history of Malaysia, but at least finally
there are documents that reveal some alternative to the official
riots have continued to plague the relations between the various
Malaysian ethnic groups. For one, the controversial "Malaysianisation"
(National Cultural Policy) policies of Malaysia in the 1980s 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
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 [email protected].