SOUTH-EAST ASIA INSIGHT: Malaysia: Blood and soil

Intercommunal clashes between Malay, Chinese and Indian communities on 13 May, 1969 left hundreds perhaps thousands dead, and still cast a shadow over contemporary Malaysia.
  • Two events that shaped and threatened contemporary Malaysia occurred almost 50 years apart this month.
  • 9 May is the first anniversary of the election that ended, at least for the present, the hegemonic right of the country's Malay population to dominate and dictate the nation's political settlement.
  • 13 May marks 50 years since intercommunal clashes between the country's Malay, Chinese and Indian communities represented the most serious crisis facing the country following independence from Britain in 1957. Hundreds perhaps thousands of Malaysian citizens, mainly of Chinese and Indian ancestry, were killed by often well-organised Malay mobs
  • The aftermath of the May 1969 crisis saw a fundamental restructuring the country's economy to reflect Malay political dominance, in a bid to ensure a more equitable distribution of national wealth.
  • Half a century on, Malaysia's hydrocarbon and mineral resources, agricultural commodities and largely foreign-invested manufacturing have brought a level of often uneven prosperity. Intercommunal tensions are again assuming a central political role. The ousted dominant Malay party is seeking to find relevance and support through emphasising the threat posed to the country's largest ethnic group and by extension, its Muslim faith by other ethnic groups and social divisions.

Past as present

The date ’13 May’ has resonated in Malaysia for half a century. The passage of time has yet to make the date a purely historical event as what occurred on that and subsequent days in May 1969 appeared to signal the unravelling of the country’s complex and intertwined ethnic composition; with catastrophic results for many Malaysians. In the event, order was gradually restored, and the issues seen as the heart of the sudden conflagration systematically addressed. What has not happened over the past five decades, however, has been any ‘peace and reconciliation’ efforts to lay to rest the ghosts of that period. One result is that in 2019, sentiments and conditions evident in 1969 are again on open display, with no obvious indication as to how they may be deflected or controlled.

The events of May 1969 are usually viewed as a domestic Malaysian issue. However, the country’s leadership and many of its citizens were also influenced by events beyond the country’s borders. In early 1969 much of South-East Asia was in turmoil. In China, the Cultural Revolution reached its highest pitch of stridency in December 1968 with the launch of Mao Zedong’s ‘back to the countryside’ movement. While this was intended to disperse the radical Red Guards, it was projected as the essence of the Chinese revolutionary spirit. This expeditionary sentiment was translated into action in South-East Asia, notably in the Philippines.

In the same month the Red Guards – a student-led paramilitary socialist movement – marched off for their ‘lost decade’ in farms and fields, the Communist Party of the Philippines was formed with the stated aim of fighting a Maoist ‘people’s war’ – albeit with Philippines’ peasants rather than the country’s largely urbanised Chinese population. The conflict in Vietnam also reached new levels of intensity in the first months of 1969 as newly installed US President Richard Nixon sought to match peace overtures with increased military pressure on Hanoi and its guerrilla forces in the south, and in Cambodia.

‘The main problem facing the country was the management of its diverse ethnic population.’

Malaysia’s own evolution had run smoothly since independence from Britain in 1957. The 12-year anti-communist ‘emergency’ ended in 1960, with the remaining bands of Malayan Communist Party (MCP) guerrillas and cadres scattered along – or across – the Thai border. The country’s mainly commodity-based economy prospered as demand for tin and rubber rose in response to rising global consumer demand. The main problem facing the country was the management of its diverse ethnic population. This had been resolved, at least at the level of political governance, through a system of coalition government that represented the Malay, Chinese and Indian ethnic groups.

The Malays, as the ‘native’ race and numerical majority, took precedence in terms of controlling the levers of power. In 1969 the Malays were still mainly engaged in farming or employed in the public sector as civil servants, the police, and military personnel.  The Chinese, the second-largest community, dominated the economy’s private sector, often in small- to medium-sized enterprises or in specialist occupations and trades. The Indians – mainly drawn from the ethnic Tamil community – were overwhelmingly employed in the plantation sector, with a small urban presence engaged in commerce and the professions.

‘This image of a nation settled in its assigned roles was encouraged by the Malay-dominated government.’

Relations between these ethnic groups until 1969 were primarily utilitarian. Differing faiths, habits, preferences, and commercial relationships made close cross-communal ties relatively rare beyond the narrow band represented by often deracinated elites. Few Malaysians of this era had travelled outside the country. In many in rural areas – where movement was still difficult and slow – a visit to the then capital Kuala Lumpur was a significant event. Access to broadcast media was limited, with much of the content determined by the state. Telecommunications often consisted of a single payphone in a village, while personal transport was usually a bicycle. As a result, rural Malays and Indians remained far more dependent on information derived from a narrow range of sources, ranging from kampong gossip to government-mediated news, than those – predominately Chinese – living in the urban centres and small towns.

This image of a nation settled in its assigned roles was encouraged by the Malay-dominated government. The first generation of leaders reflected well-established British preferences for nurturing emollient members of the pre-colonial elite. In the case of Malaysia this was largely based around the numerous sultans and their attendant courtiers and aristocrats. The country’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, a prince of the royal house of the north-western state of Kedah, exemplified this form of governance. His United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was less a political party than a mechanism of apportioning power and its benefits within a small circle of fellow aristocrats. Similarly, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) – which traced its origins to the anti-communist Kuomintang of China – served the Chinese community’s business interests. The third and junior member of the Alliance, the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) – having lost the anti-colonial role that had brought it into being – sought to improve the lot and garner the votes of the Indian community.

In the May 1969 general elections, this model was challenged for the first time since independence. As the results for the 10 May polls were counted, it became clear the Alliance’s overall majority had been eroded by a number of other ethnically based parties. The MCA lost votes to leftist or liberal Chinese parties, notably the Democratic Action Party (DAP) – then the local version of Singapore’s People’s Action Party – and the Penang-based Gerakan, while UMNO was challenged by the Pan Malaysia Islamic Party (PMIP, later Parti Islam se-Malaysia) over its policy of permitting the Chinese economic hegemony.

‘On 13 May, groups of Malays surged through predominantly Chinese districts in central Kuala Lumpur, attacking individuals and destroying property.’

The narrative at this point diverges for many Malaysians. The Malay view was that ethnic Chinese triumphalism spontaneously enraged Malays in Penang and Kuala Lumpur who responded with violence. The initial reaction by then-prime minister Abdul Rahman was that the ‘communists’ were responsible – a charge he later withdrew. The ethnic Chinese perspective is that while there may have been some provocation in the large victory parades held in Kuala Lumpur on 11 and 12 May, a significant amount of the Malay reaction was pre-planned. This version was confirmed by third-party observers, notably the few Western journalists present, and the assessments of mainly British diplomatic and military personnel.

On the evening of 13 May, groups of Malays surged through predominantly Chinese districts in central Kuala Lumpur, attacking individuals and destroying property. The Chinese quickly responded with similar attacks against Malays and their property. Police and military personnel, almost all recruited from the Malay community, arrived about an hour later but did little to calm the situation. Skirmishes continued through the rest of the night and into the following day. On 14 May there were independent reports that the army – notably members of the Royal Malay Regiment – were firing indiscriminately into Chinese-owned properties. By 15 May the unrest had spread to Petaling Jaya, a predominately ethnic Chinese satellite town less than 20km outside central Kuala Lumpur. However, by then the violence had been largely reduced to scattered incidents – often involving the security forces – and arson attacks. Incidents continued in and around Kuala Lumpur for another few weeks.

The official death toll for the May 1969 ‘incident’ was 198, the majority of whom were ethnic Chinese. The unofficial toll – and still far more widely believed within the Chinese and Indian communities – ranged from 2,000 to 7,000. Estimates by British military and diplomatic sources – in May 1969 Britain retained major garrisons and other smaller facilities across Malaysia and maintained close official and unofficial ties with the country’s security forces – were at the lower end of the scale, but still far higher than the government’s figure.

‘What remains more problematic is the extent to which all Malays benefited from this policy.’

In response to the violence parliament was suspended. On 16 May a National Operations Council (NOC) – an emergency administrative body headed by then-deputy prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein – assumed many of the powers of state. The NOC continued to effectively govern Malaysia until February 1971 when parliamentary rule was restored. In 1970, Razak took over from Abdul Rahman and in 1971 introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP). This enshrined the principle that Malays and the country’s other aboriginal people – now collectively referred to as bumiputera (freely translated as ‘sons of the soil’) – should have a minimum fixed share of 30 per cent of the national economy. The NEP, and its rebranded successor the National Development Policy (NDP), subsequently succeeded in diverting a significant amount of wealth into the Malay community. What remains more problematic is the extent to which all Malays benefited from this policy, the extent to which it reduced intercommunal tensions, and whether it inadvertently replaced the country’s traditional ethnically based political system with one that placed a greater emphasis on class.

Playing the race card

On 9 May 2018, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, dominated by UMNO and the direct descendent of the Alliance coalition of the 1969, lost a general election to the multi-party, inter-ethnic opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) party that groups traditional Malay nationalists together with ethnic Chinese and Indian support. PH’s success in the polls was underpinned by the rising urban Malay middle class and its widespread dissatisfaction with endemic corruption, nepotism, and cronyism within the country’s political elite, as well as more general concerns over economic issues, the lack of employment opportunities and the promise of a ‘new Malaysia’.


Mahathir Mohamad is credited with engineering PH's victory 

UMNO appeared shattered, with its former leader and now ousted prime minister Najib Razak and his wife charged with numerous offences relating to their alleged role in a state fund that ‘lost’ billions of dollars, and the huge amounts of undeclared money deposited in his personal bank account. The new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who was an ‘ultra’ Malay nationalist in 1969 and subsequently served as the country’s premier between 1981 to 2003, was credited with engineering PH’s electoral victory against his old party.

‘One year on, PH is facing numerous challenges.’

In order to survive, UMNO must now recover much of the Malay vote it lost to PH. Malays comprise about 60 per cent of the population and can be broadly divided into three distinct groups. Many remain close to the land as farmers or in the fisheries, following a traditional pattern of rural life based around Islam, family, and their communities. A growing urban segment of the Malay community, often employed in the public sector, is the main source of the ‘progressive’ strand who rejected UMNO for PH. A third and very small group form the Malay political and commercial elite – often simultaneously – and are seen as the principal beneficiaries of the NEP policy of securing 30 per cent of national equity holdings for the Malays.

One year on, PH is facing numerous challenges, some relating to its own intrinsically unstable political coalition, others to the impact of domestic and international economic factors that have compromised the party’s electoral pledges on improving day-to-day life for most Malaysians. However, the most powerful and destabilising is UMNO’s determination to use race and Islam as the means to recover its lost support among the Malay majority. Intercommunal tensions are endemic in many aspects of life in Malaysia. Insulting or patronising epithets towards other communities are routine and the often most minor or random incident involving individuals from differing ethnic groups can quickly escalate into a confrontation that draws in others to support ‘their side’.

‘UMNO appears to use race and faith to make intercommunal divisions routine.’

UMNO’s credibility among many Malays remains in doubt due to continuing investigations into corruption, malfeasance and other alleged crimes and omissions that directly affect many within their community. It appears to view the deliberate and open use of race and faith to make pre-existing intercommunal divisions routine, in order to erode PH’s support and restore its own base. The policy was indicated by UMNO’s recent entry into a de facto pact with PAS, a party that combines an emphasis on strict adherence to Islam with ketuanan Melayu (Malay pre-eminence) and which was formally viewed by UMNO as a competitor for the Malay vote. Other recent manifestations of racially charged displays include a rally in Kuala Lumpur in early May that attracted around 2,000 Muslims and senior UMNO and PAS leaders, calling for the defence of the ‘sovereignty of Islam’. This was in response to claims PH, and specifically Chinese elements within the coalition, are seeking to erode their bumiputera status. UMNO and PAS’s main target within PH is the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which draws its support overwhelmingly from the Chinese community.

The Chinese community comprises about 25 per cent of the country’s population, and while the NEP has succeeded in reducing Chinese-owned equity as a percentage of national wealth, the community remains the target of accusations that it exploits the Malays and remains insular in commercial and social terms. The Chinese community is also divided as how to respond to the inequality inherent in Malaysia’s political system. The now largely discredited MCA had broadly argued for pragmatism – ‘make money, keep quiet and the Malays will leave you alone’ – while the DAP is more assertive in challenging the status quo and defending the legitimate rights of all ethnic groups. Divisions within the Chinese intensified as the BN faltered, evidenced by the May 2018 elections results.

The Indian community accounts for around eight per cent of the population and is collectively the poorest of Malaysia’s three main ethnic groups. Most Indians worked in the country’s rubber and oil palm plantations until replaced by cheaper Indonesian labour in the 1980s. Many have since drifted to the urban areas, where they compete for work with poor Malays and foreign migrants. Poverty, low education attainment, and the lack of political influence are reflected in serious social problems, such as drug addiction, alcoholism, and crime, widely identified with the community. In addition, the Malaysian authorities appear to have embarked on a campaign against Hindu temples that form the focal point of Indian life. An unknown number of an estimated 6,000 temples – many of them old and few ever officially sanctioned by the colonial or Malaysian authorities – have been torn down, further adding to many Indians’ sense of grievance.

Malaysia 2019

Ethnicity remains an irreducible core residing at the heart of Malaysia, with little prospect of it being eroded significantly for generations.

Inter-ethnic relations are also subject to the agenda of those who seek to use ethnic divisions as a means to empower one section of the community by forcing compliance on others. This remains a powerful weapon in Malaysian politics that needs only to be displayed, rather than discharged, to function.

However, as in 1969, intent can readily fail in the face of emotion, provocation or manipulation, and efforts to use such a crude instrument for political advantage is both dangerous and likely uncontrollable.

Foreign companies operating in Malaysia should closely monitor all events and incidents relating to intercommunal tensions and ensure they have developed a range of strategies and contingencies intended to protect their staff, property, assets and operations from the threats inherent with racially based instability and disorder.