This year in Malaysia, calendars still featured the date May 13, 1969.


The horror

KL, May 2010: Concentrated silence – a flurry of motion and the crowd cranes its neck to see an arm rise and then smash down in a killer blow. Shutting its eyes the crowd wails in despair as Malaysia loses yet another point in the badminton world championship.

KL, May 1969: An engorged silence, waiting for a crack – which comes when a car explodes into flames followed by a band of men brandishing cutlasses and pitching toward the crowd, which scatters, screaming in terror.


5-1-3, Malaysia’s 9/11

The past and present of May 13: a long time before before “9/11,” Malaysia had “5-1-3” or “Mm-Yutt-Sahm” as it was pegged by the local Chinese. The May 13 incident took place in 1969, three days after the general election and only twelve years after Independence. Sparked by “more aggressive (pro-Malay) affirmative action policies” Sino-Malay race riots flared across the Malayan peninsula, flashing and burning for weeks. 196 people were killed or maybe 2000; it was always too late and too terrible for officials to know. Many were hacked to death with a parang – that all-purpose blade, so useful in jungles and plantations. Now, forty-one years later …




This year’s perfect equatorial storm: I happened to arrive in Kuala Lumpur in the week of the insignificant 41st anniversary of May 13 – but there was already a perfect storm churning. In the Islamic bulwark of the peninsula’s northern states, a 10,000 strong rally had been planned for that day. It was to be called “Melayu Bangkit” or “Arise Malays” – at which the ever provocative ex-PM Mahatir was slated to give a speech. As the independent Malaysiakini reported, the organiser insisted that “the rally was not meant to provoke, threaten or insult other races. He had also said that the rally is apolitical, and is merely to ‘awaken the Malay race into making sure that the May 13 incident never happens again.’ ” In Malaysia, them are fighting words and colonades of columns and hours of audio were duly slung across the MSM and blogosphere.


(A couple of the following images from 1969 are gruesome, so be warned – I have kept them smallish and bodgy to prevent distress.)


Next was the Sibu by-election to be held that weekend of the 15th, in the eastern state of Sarawak (in Borneo). It was crucial for the government to hold on to the seat – it was still coming to terms with the amputative shock result in the ’08 generals. To that end it promised millions for schools, churches, flood problems and cash for the indigenous Iban.

And it was crucial for the opposition, headed by the sodomy-trial-hampered Anwar Ibrahim, to maintain its momentum with a win. To that end they pursued the fraught issue of the potential destruction of Malay-language Bibles and the “escalating dispute” over whether non-Muslims, ie Christians, may use the word “Allah”, which had caused chuches to be fire-bombed; luckily no one had been injured. (In this neat CNN video the supremely bland, British-educated PM – and he sounds it – is interviewed about the “Allah” problem.)

In Australian terms Sibu would have been like a by-election of Wentworth/Turnbull – everyone watching. The key was that Sibu has a population of 67% Chinese, of which over half are Christians; whereas the crowded peninsula with 80% of Malaysia’s 28 million is 60% Malay, all of whom are Muslim. It’d be impolite to note that racial and religious factors are not unknown in M’sian elections. One might say that the May 13 rally was not helpful to the incumbent in Sibu. Not to mention fire-bombing churches or pulping Bibles.



Another arena all Malaysians were watching was the Thomas Cup Championships – hosted this year in KL – the Wimbledon of the badminton world. No, really, I forbid you to laugh. Alright, I dare you to laugh – Malaysia has had a long and honourable standing in badminton – the Thomas Cup for M’sians is like the Ashes for Australians. Malaysia’s heyday is long past, but they still claim the world’s number one ranking player. Nowadays, to no one’s surprise, the giant on the court is China. But nationalistic pride is myopic and the country turned its impaired eyes to the hi-def screen. I swear it, I heard in the night cries of rejoicing and pain over that week. You might get a sense of the peculiar sport-race-politics mode from this report in the daily Star: “Kuala Lumpur: Malaysians of all races cheered for their team as they fought tooth and nail to beat Denmark to reach the semi-finals of the Thomas Cup.” (My italics.)

The outcomes: the planned May 13/”Arise Malays” rally was so inflammatory that PM Najib Razak was forced to shut it down by fiat. But too late to prevent Sibu from tipping to the opposition, an “historic” event which unleashed phalanxes of finger-pointing. And finally, a shuttlecock too far – Malaysia beat Denmark, but alas, was effortlessly crushed by China. There were no knives this week, this year, but there was heat and rage, and oppositional triumph across the land. It was a red-hot anniversary, only a blade short of bloody.



Palms leaves, like blades (May 13, 1969)

Curfew: from the walnut cabinet

the test pattern’s squealing note.

Tuning the wireless past that

wailing from another planet.

Sirens whooping –

polis or ambulance?

screaming … then silence  [                  ]


Banana palms clatter, like blades.

Blades falling – a bad dreaming,

a scene from nowhere, everywhere.

Clouds, like smoke.

Monkeys, like sirens.

Palms, like blades

chopping through the air.