SEPT 6 — The polemical Tanda Putera was screened a few days ago to mixed reviews. I dislike reading reviews before experiencing the said movie/book/concert myself as it conditions my mind to see things according to the reviewer.

However, since Tanda Putera didn’t make it to any cinemas in London and probably won’t ever, I read and listened to reviews to get a glimpse of all the fuss.

What piques my interest about this film is the brouhaha surrounding it. Some people are angered at the RM4.5 million grant it received. Some are angered at how it masquerades itself as a historical film when some parts are purely fictional. Some are just angry.

At the heart of the controversy there is actually a contest: a contestation of the truth as to what really occurred on that fateful day of  May 13, 1969, the contextual considerations that triggered the violence and the subsequent events that unfolded after that day.

Most people are unsure and uncertain about this black spot in our history. Materials on this topic are insufficient.

Since the truth is unclear, people start to formulate their own versions of the truth. I can’t blame them; the truth is after all elusive and relative. The truth is liable to be subjected to various interpretations and manipulations to suit the ears of the hearer and wishes of the maker.

Films such as Tanda Putera are controversial because it is perceived as being intellectually dishonest by telling only one side of the story. The huge subsidy demonstrates the government’s power in the production of a certain historical narrative.

Books such as Kua Kia Soong’s May 13 and the Tunku’s 13 May: Before and After tells the author’s own version of what happened – not actually what happened.

These are not the authoritative truth. A single and authoritative truth must come from an independent institution comprised of a collective of individuals who have scrutinised and weighed every piece of evidence presented. This ensures credibility.

A lack of closure

Post-May 13, our leaders tried their best to restore order and security. They were very deliberative and cautious in their actions. Emergency was declared and the National Operations Council was established. The priority was lives.

This was a sagacious course of action. The result speaks for itself.

The only problem is, no mechanisms were established to investigate what really happened on that day.

When a nation endures a traumatic event in its history, it can choose to inquire or be silent about it. The choice is between fact-finding, like in trials and truth commissions or a national amnesia, where nothing happens.

Malaysia chose the latter, employing silence as a means to construct our history.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established not only to decide on amnesties and listen to the stories of victims. It was formed to unearth facts and create a single authoritative truth. The truth was not only discovered, it was also constructed.

A single authoritative truth was needed so that it can be embedded within the collective memories of South Africans. The process has to be credible enough that people are unable to deny the truth.

While we’ve heard of many Holocaust denials in public, until today there’s hardly a case of a public “Apartheid denial.” People cannot deny Apartheid because the hard evidence points to Apartheid’s existence and the evils it caused.  You’ll look ridiculous if you deny that Apartheid and violence never happened.

The TRC exposed that conflict was not solely caused by the Apartheid machinery. There were innumerable black on black violence with “necklacing” being a favourite execution method. Moreover, violence was also instigated by the resistance movement which resulted in the loss of lives among whites as well.

The TRC’s findings managed to rectify grassroots stereotypes that the Apartheid state was the sole offender. It showed that the conflict cannot be simply reduced to “whites versus blacks.” It’s more complex than that as many other factors needed to be taken into account.

The same applies to May 13, 1969.

Moving forward

On August 27 this year, Lim Kit Siang called for a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into the events surrounding May 13, 1969. I think this proposal should be given heavy consideration.

Without a single authoritative truth, conspiracy theories and hearsay will continue to be proliferated. Anecdotal stories of one’s uncle in a cinema or one’s aunt in a bus in KL will reign as the truth.

People tend to believe what favours their preconceived notions. It feels comfortable and gives them a sense of security as it is compatible with their existing beliefs. They’ll remain in their own echo chambers, selecting news and opinions on  May 13 which fits their own emotions. This is called confirmation bias.

In anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History, he interrogates how Haitians try to forget about this little known but important freedom fighter called Sans Souci – by pushing him into the shadows of history. Locals didn’t want to mention him. They were in denial mode. One of the reasons was obvious; people did not want to believe that a Congolese slave (Bossales) was a leader for Haiti’s independence unlike the dominant and more polished Creoles.

I understand that inquiring into May 13 would open up old wounds. Stories of horror would be recounted and agonising memories will be prodded by an inquisitive public. Nevertheless, the victims and the nation require some form of substantial closure.

Bite the bullet we must, in order to hammer the final nail into May 13’s coffin.

Keeping silent on May 13 but periodically invoking it as a bogeyman to scare the masses is disingenuous. We tacitly proclaim a national amnesia by being silent as to the causes of May 13, 1969 but when it suits our convenience, we point to the disaster itself – all for personal interests.

A prerequisite for Malaysia to mature is by reconciling with our past. It is imperative that we are clear as to what caused the riots. When there is clarity as to the causes, we can prevent it from occurring again.

It’s high time we set the historical record straight.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.