Regime crisis, not just a ‘race riot’ — Clive Kessler

SEPT 3 — A regime crisis, a complete implosion of the then existing national ruling formula and framework: that, and not a “race riot”, was what occurred in May 1969.

And that fact, that distinction, needs to be emphasised and repeated.

Even now.

Especially now.

Now that Tanda Putra is being widely screened, amidst heated and acrimonious controversy.

A regime crisis, not just a “race riot”: that is a truth that has long been denied and is still routinely resisted.

But is it an essential truth that cannot forever be evaded.

Why?

Because so long as that fact is not understood, so long as it is “glossed” and “fudged” and avoided — at times artfully, as in the Shuhaimi Baba’s controversial film Tanda Putra — the Malaysian nation will never know, and never be able to understand, itself.

It will never be able to move forward with clarity and well-formed purpose so long as it fails to grasp, and resists knowing, the ground upon which it now stands, how that terrain was formed, and how the nation got to the difficult ground where it now finds itself.

In hope of encouraging that better understanding, I offer here, now in a “return appearance”, a modest contribution of my own to that task.

Under the shadow of Tanda Putra — and in the midst of the swirling and often bad-tempered polemics that this loosely factual, and imaginatively revisionist, work of historical fiction has inspired — it may be appropriate to republish here some excerpts from a brief comment of mine that was published several years ago in the now defunct, and much missed, Malaysian monthly of “political analysis, cultural commentary and awkward ideas” that, while it flourished, was known as Off the Edge.

It appeared there, in mid-2009, under the title “May 13 1969: A Regime Crisis”.

What follows is an excerpt of some key parts of that earlier text, offered again here with only a few minor stylistic amendments.

May 13, 1969: A regime crisis

Congratulations to Off The Edge! We are all indebted to it [and to the four discussants whom it brought together] for initiating, after some forty years of polite obfuscation and prevarication, the first serious discussion of “the meaning of May 13”.

This thoughtful exchange [among some key participants in the “national rescue effort” of carrying the nation forward after that trauma] is, to my knowledge, the first realistic attempt available on record to Malaysian citizens to probe the nature of that terrible national crisis and of the continuing longer-term implications of the way in which, over the next two years, that crisis was overcome: through the suspension of parliamentary democracy and “ordinary politics” and their replacement by rule through a National Operations Council or, in effect, a supreme state executive directorate.

I was myself both a bystander to those fateful events (as outlined in my comment on the 1969 elections, viewed from the standpoint of those of March 2008, in Off The Edge May 2008) and also a “small bit-player” in their aftermath.

I earned my youthful “15 minutes of fame” when the news got around that I had predicted, with some accuracy, both the election outcome and the ensuing eruption of those events to a journalist from The Times of London a week earlier. As a result political analysts and observers, both local and from overseas, made the journey to talk to me in the small Malay rural house in which I was living at the time. It is a confession that I perhaps should not make, but I do think I hear some faint echoes of my youthful self in some of the official British documents from that time that K.K. Soong has seen and cites in his book on May 13. (*)

On that experiential basis and from that perspective, a useful point or two may be offered. The main one is this. That so long as the nature of that 1969 crisis remains less than clearly understood — less than accurately identified and precisely defined — for that long too will Malaysians misunderstand their own history and remain caught up in the consequences of their inadequate understanding.

Specifically, it has become a cliché to talk of “the 1969 race riots” in Kuala Lumpur. People use the phrase routinely, automatically, unthinkingly. That is what clichés are, what it means to think in cliché terms. Thinking in such terms has consequences. Clichés are mental shortcuts, analytically lazy or convenient bypasses around difficult issues or awkward terrain, in this case crucial political and historical ground.

Here that standard turn of phrase, that ubiquitous and now seemingly irresistible cliché, desperately needs to be considered, assessed and questioned. This nation’s ability to understand itself — to know where it now stands, and how it got here — depends upon doing so ...

An important point needs to be made repeatedly, cannot be emphasised enough. All the young deconstructionists should seriously work on deconstructing that term, the perennial cliché, “13 May 1969 race riots”.

Yes, what was played out, at large among the people who became involved as innocent bystanders and victims, was a series of violent racial confrontations.

But they were the outward manifestation of, or response to, something else: a regime crisis, a systemic crisis of the Malaysian state, the electoral collapse of its initial post-1957 “governing formula”, of the “Merdeka1 political dispensation”.

People from all backgrounds had been told that — whatever their deep feelings, their immediate ethno-cultural passions and narrower sub-national communal loyalties — they must set them aside since only the Alliance formula could guarantee civil peace and political stability.

Yet, at the polls, Umno failed to convince one-half of the Malay vote, and the MCA did not win support or confidence from its base either.

Suddenly people who had accepted the “only the Alliance can hold us all together” argument felt cruelly deceived.

Confidence on all sides in the Alliance government, and its underlying logic, collapsed. The racial confrontations that erupted were the enraged popular reaction to seeing the failure before their own eyes of the “no-other-way governing formula” for which they had been asked to swallow and suppress their strongest loyalties.

They had been asked to do so by politicians who were now seen as failures, as bewildered victims, not confident masters, of events and national destiny.

It was not only the politicians who were repudiated nor just their promises and assurances. The entire political dispensation through which they operated, and with which they were identified, was popularly discredited.

Neither Malays nor non-Malays in Malaysia, the elections now showed, felt that they could now really trust Umno to hold the centre together. Malaysian Chinese no longer had faith in the MCA to deliver Malay moderation, while most Malays had lost faith in the MCA to manage its side of the coalition “deal”, to ensure Malaysian

Chinese support for the Alliance formula and the UMNO-led government. The MCA leadership itself lost faith in its own ability to do so credibly and so withdrew from Cabinet.

Disintegration! The underlying cause and reality was a regime crisis, a systemic collapse. “Racial riots” were not the basic cause but the external response and manifestation of that regime crisis.

Politicians may and will use what terms they please. They are determined, canny and resourceful people. Their choices and preferences soon become popular usage. That, too, is in the nature of things.

But it is also in the nature of things for scholars in history and the social sciences, for thoughtful political analysts and commentators, to look at things clearly — at unfolding human and social developments and at the terms in which they are received into public imagination — or at least try to do so. 

That is their responsibility.

When they see that the terms being developed and used capture only some part of the total situation, that they obscure or conveniently shield from view other important parts, they need to say so.

That is their job, their work, their duty.

So while the politicians may, and will, still talk of “the 1969 Kuala Lumpur race riots”, the scholars and thoughtful commentators should decline that usage and instead identify things clearly, see them for what they are, call them by their proper name.  They need to speak of what was, and what Off The Edge’s recent four-way conversation now clearly recognises as, Malaysia’s first, basic post-independence regime crisis.

An afterword (2013)

In the post-election regime crisis of 1969, Malaysia’s first post-independence political framework or “dispensation” collapsed.

That first post-Merdeka framework and its governing formula were replaced by a new political logic and dispensation that were crafted by Tun Razak and his associates who ruled Malaysia through the extraordinary interim political directorate known as the NOC: National Operations Council.

When the NOC had finished its work, it unveiled the new set of national governing arrangements that would hold for the next political phase.

These provided for a new strong state that was to be charged with promoting, and which would be strong enough to drive, a comprehensive national programme of pro-Malay affirmative action, to be known as the NEP: New Economic Policy. This policy was to redress and overcome the widespread feelings of Malay marginalisation and “relative deprivation” that had driven Malay anger against the old ruling framework, the “Merdeka1 model” of independent national sovereignty.

Originally planned to last for twenty years — and required to produce clear results and an effective remedy for Malay resentments in that fixed and finite period — the NEP era was to end in 1990.

But somehow it did not.

Instead, it lived on.

The NEP was seamlessly projected further as the NDP: New Development Policy. And the specific kinds of pro-Malay affirmative that had their rationale in Article 153 of the Federal Constitution morphed into the doctrine of “Ketuanan Melayu” — an entirely new doctrine of Malay ascendancy in perpetuity, by mutual consent of all, that was “retrofitted” to the original Merdeka Agreements and foundations — that, its proponents now asserted, had supposedly been part of the nation’s formative “social contract”.

As these two linked changes took hold, that second NEP-centred national ruling “dispensation” — the “Merdeka2 political framework or model” — came to enjoy a strangely prolonged after-life, one that far exceeded its initially intended lifespan of twenty years.

As I have written elsewhere, it was only with the twelfth general election (GE12) in March 2008 that, with its underlying social basis by now inexorably eroded over the years by deep socioeconomic changes, Malaysia’s second post-independence national political dispensation finally collapsed.

Now evidently obsolete — and no longer serviceable even to the government as a device for ensuring democratic electoral legitimacy — the essential structural scaffolding and supports of that “Merdeka2 model” of independent national sovereignty were simply blown away in the political tsunami of that year.

Ever since GE12 in 2008, throughout the politically difficult period leading up to GE13 in May 2013, and in the months since then, Malaysia has been struggling to find and fashion a workable new political framework: its third post-Merdeka political “dispensation”.

That is why Malaysian politics have become so embittered and unforgiving, so extraordinarily vituperative and polarized.

For many political actors — both inside government and outside it, including notably in the Malay media headed by Utusan Malaysia and amongst the Malay ethno-nationalist activists of Perkasa — there is strong support for a new national model, or one certain form or version of it.

Their candidate for the next national ruling dispensation —  their “Merdeka3 model” of independent national sovereignty, now offered as their preferred “successor framework” to the now collapsed second ruling agreement — is one that builds upon but goes beyond the logic of the second.

Far more even that the second ruling formula with its official NEP policies and doctrine of Malay “cultural centrality” in national life, this preferred third formula is one that harks back nostalgically, yet also unapologetically and uninhibitedly, to the exclusivist mid-twentieth Malay nationalism that flourished decisively in the mid-20th century: in the period from the anti-Malayan Union struggle of 1946 to the gradual emergence of the Alliance Party as the new inter-communal governing “bloc” in the years from 1951 to 1957.

It is a view of the nation that rests upon, grows from and gives political expression to a “maximalist” Malay political conviction that may be summarized in the mantra ”Malays on top, now and forever. That is Malaysia. Love it or leave it!”

It is in that context that “Tanda Putera” has emerged.

It emerges, as a politically salient and also politically driven government artistic project, that aims to promote precisely that view.

It is an attempt — a calculated, and far from disingenuous, “revisionist” attempt — to lay claim to the events of 1969 for the Malay ethno-supremacists and to harness them politically in the service of that new and assertively Malay-centric “Merdeka3 ruling doctrine and framework”.

Tanda Putera” seeks to grasp the tragic events of 1969, and the governing response to them that was directed by Tun Razak and Tun Dr Ismail, and to “frame” them in a certain way: to yoke them the purpose of giving legitimacy to that new “Malay-ascendant” view of the nation’s identity and of the national agenda that it now further implies.

That is why the polemics that swirl around Tanda Putra are so contentious, extreme and divisive.

That is why Tanda Putra and all that it represents is important.

That is why the often disingenuous arguments that are now offered as an exercise in assertively pro-Malay political apologetics for Tanda Putra need to be questioned.

They need to be questioned not only because, in looking to the past, “Tanda Putera” is an exercise in historical revisionism, even distortion — an exercise in rewriting and “refashioning” rather than probing the historical truth of what happened in those fateful May days and their aftermath.

They matter, and need to be questioned, because, in providing their refashioned view of the past, Tanda Putra and the symphony of apologetics that is now heard in its praise are seeking to determine the future. To set the nation’s course in the years to come.

By means of a film, some people now intend, the new national script can be written — as if a nation in all its complexity were as simple to produce as a calculating film with a contrived story-line, mawkish sentiments and a narrow political “message”.

Tanda Putera” is a film about, a partisan political representation of, an earlier regime crisis that has been produced in the midst of, and to promote a certain answer to, a later regime crisis, the regime crisis that Malaysia faces today: the crisis born of the slow, much delayed collapse of the “Merdeka2 model” or national political framework, and the less than explicit bid to impose a certain successor “Merdeka3 model” in its place.

Those behind Tanda Putra are seeking to suggest that the future scenario that they offer and wish to impose, their candidate model for the “Merdeka3 political framework”, is the only one that is consistent with the experience of May 1969 — as they wish it to be re-imagined and seen.

In a kind of maudlin collective self-pity, they seek to portray May 1969 as simply a “Malay tragedy”, and thereby to suggest that the future national script or scenario that they have to offer is the only one that stands authentically upon the foundations of the post-1969 national past.

But the past which Tanda Putra seeks to create is a past, or a version of it, that — later invented and retrofitted, just like its earlier underlying doctrine of “Ketuanan Melayu” — is itself historically not just dubious but inauthentic.

That is why it is necessary for Malaysians to understand what happened in 1969.

To understand that what occurred was not simply a “race riot” that might be managed, then and even now, by more “Malay-friendly” government policies.

It was nothing less than a total regime crisis: one that expressed itself, in part, in the form of “race riots” but which was something far deeper and even more serious than just that.

Malaysians need to know and understand the truth.

Only the truth, and nothing less, can set people free from the grip of the past.

Free from an uncomprehended and otherwise endlessly disabling past.

And, now thanks to Tanda Putra, a dubious past fashioned and promoted with a very specific future, or forward, purpose.

One may recall here the old tale:

“Have you read Tolstoy’s War and Peace?”

“No, but I have seen the film.”

Similarly, here:

“Have you yet bought into the Umno/BN promoted ‘soft’ version of the Perkasa view of the national future?”

“No, not yet. But I have seen Shuhaimi Baba’s Tanda Putra”.

* Kua Kia Soong, May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969.  Suaram, Kuala Lumpur, 2007.

** Clive Kessler is Emertius Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at The University of New South Wales, Sydney.

*** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.