The Photo I would Really Like to See

By Farish A. Noor

The pranksters have been at it again, though perhaps in the eyes of some, the latest joke came across as being more of a stunt. We are, of course, referring to the now-infamous doctored photo of the Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak that was intended to remind us of an alleged encounter in some mysterious faraway locale which others would presumably hope to forget. Notwithstanding the ruckus that was sparked by the posting of this photo on the internet, the point was made and it was a valid one: If the real photo exists somewhere out there, we would like to see it, please.

Some have raised the question: Why all the fuss over a photo, real or fake? Well, the historian will tell you that photos are of crucial importance for any form of socio-political and historical research. For a long time the documentary worth of photos was downgraded by many scholars. Yet photos do tell us much about the subjects they contain, and in photos we find empirical evidence that helps to underscore the points we wish to make.

Take a walk down memory lane and visit the National Archives if you don’t believe me: While doing research for my book on the history of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS), for instance, I was struck by the photos of the PAS general assemblies of the 1960s and 70s. For a start, the few surviving photos of the Dewan Muslimat (Women’s Wing) of PAS dating back then would show that many of the female members of PAS were quite comfortable wearing kebayas at the meetings, and some of them didn’t even wear tudungs. The sartorial shifts that took place not long after are a record of the social changes that took place in Malaysia from the 1980s onwards, which remains of historical importance.

Browsing through photos of Malaysia in the 1960s one also sees another Malaysia that may seem so alien to many of us now: Multi-racial dinner parties where Malaysians of all races and religions were happily eating, drinking and dancing the night away — tango and cha-cha being the favourite dances then. How quickly everything changed when the conservative elements of our society came to the fore in the 1980s, and the parties became decidedly tamer and duller, and the only drinks served in the wine glasses of the 1960s were fanta and pepsi…

Disappearing photos are another interesting phenomena altogether, and if any of you had been browsing through the net during the late 1990s you may have noticed an unreported event that was (and remains) of some importance:

Following his dismissal from office and the UMNO party, photos of the former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim were speedily deleted from all the UMNO party websites. In a classic case of historical erasure ala Stalin and co. the memory of Anwar was removed from the public domain with a click, in a pre-emptive move that foretold of his subsequent arrest and beating by the security services.

Now back to the current brouhaha over the photos of the Deputy Prime Minister. As a political historian, I obviously cannot discount the possibility that the mysterious photo of this equally mysterious encounter might be out there somewhere. However for now fake pictures — even if they were intended as a joke — would not suffice.

But there are plenty of other real photos I would like to see. For a start many of the photos of Kuala Lumpur during and after the 13 May riots of 1969 have mysteriously disappeared. These need to be recovered for the simple reason that many of the faces we might see on these photos will tell us who were really involved in the racial clashes then.

However at the very top of my list of must-see pics is the photo of the abovementioned politician (and his other UMNO mates) present at a rally of several thousand Malay ethno-nationalists at the TPCA stadium of Kampung Baru in Kuala Lumpur in late 1987, a location loaded with symbolic meaning because the 13 May riots of 1969 began close by. Najib Razak was then deputy leader of UMNO Youth, whose members were present in large numbers at the meeting. You may recall that at the time the ruling UMNO party was in crisis (as it always is) following the election of the party leadership and the break-up of UMNO into the so-called camps A and B. That was also the year when the UMNO party was declared null and void, and a major political crisis ensued. That also happened to be the year when the government faced another crisis over the thorny issue of vernacular Chinese education, and when racial tempers were flaring.

At this rally in Kampung Baru, the politician who is now the Deputy Prime Minister was seen with the crowd that was already hot-tempered. We will recall that the banners and slogans shouted then included warnings such as ‘May 13 Will Happen Again’ and vain boasts such as ‘This Keris Will Drink Chinese Blood’. As a young scholar in England at the time, I recall watching televised images of this event where the leaders of the ruling party was seen standing in the middle of the crowd while all this bloodthirsty demagoguery was going on. Odd, to say the least, that a man who was present at such a racist rally could now occupy such a position of power in the country. (Or perhaps not so odd, considering the nature of Malaysia’s divisive communitarian racial politics… )

Now if anyone out there has any of these photos, this historian of modern Malaysian politics would dearly like to have some copies; un-doctored, thank you. I would also like to have all the newspaper cuttings of that period when shortly after the government launched Operation Lalang, that led to the arrest and detention of more than a hundred opposition politicians, academics, human rights activists and religious leaders. In particular I am still looking for the newspaper headline where another upcoming UMNO leader (then) justified the crackdown and the use of the ISA as a necessary security measure, ostensibly for the public good. (Despite the fact that the 1987 crisis, as we all know or should know by now, was really an internal crisis within UMNO and the ruling BN coalition that finally spilled out into the public domain.)

Politicians are public figures and they should be made to remember that they are in the glare of the public eye all the time. Yet in Malaysia these same individuals seem to think that they can rule the country like the Rajas and Dewarajas of old, trampling upon the sensitivities of the public and abusing their privileges at whim. Collecting such photographic evidence (along with newspaper cuttings, recorded speeches, etc.) is the first step towards building a people’s history of Malaysia and at the same time serves as an effective means to ensure that politicians do not get away with anything and everything under the sun.

So the next time you see one of these hot-headed nationalists brandish his keris in public and scream about racial supremacy, take a picture and keep it for posterity’s sake. Or better still, send it to us at We should never let politicians get away with their mistakes, or allow them to forget them. The public store of common knowledge is the bedrock upon which a national history is made and written, and in the end it is that national history that will hold these politicians to account.

  1. #1 by lulu on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 12:48 pm

    i think i’ve seen photos online from the umno youth protest outside the selangor chinese assembly hall. there were the ugliest worded banners i’d ever seen.
    up till then, i never really knew how bad racial hatred can be.
    i feel a bit mixed whether i’d like to see those photos again.
    they were ugly, but maybe we need to be reminded.

  2. #2 by dawsheng on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 12:57 pm

    What’s there in the past, the present and the future hold for every Malaysians? There are more lies than truths in this country. Our childrens will grow up with more lies. That’s when everything becomes fake. Whatever that will be contained in their brain is no more than artificial intelligent.

  3. #3 by sotong on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 1:05 pm

    It’s all about power and wealth at all costs!

  4. #4 by dawsheng on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 1:12 pm

    I strongly believes that incident similar to May13 will not happen in Malaysia again. Although I believes there are some people who want to see bloodshed just to prove their point, that is to justfy muder and robbery. Of course all of these concerns about racial riot are in the context that the minority Chinese will be the major victims, so think UMNO. But I must say time has changed or changes all the time, who in this world now will see themselves being victimized like those jews in the holocaust, ending in the gas chambers. Once beaten twice shy, make no mistakes or it will be an eye for an eye.

  5. #5 by sotong on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 1:32 pm

    There is no such thing as too careful…….there are criminals eagerly waiting for the opportunity!

  6. #6 by Libra2 on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 1:57 pm

    “I strongly believes that incident similar to May13 will not happen in Malaysia again.”

    Yes, I think there is strong possibility, stronger than in 1969, of the incident happening again. That will happen when there is implosion in UMNO, when the oil wells dry up, when FDI stops coming to Malaysia, when young Malays are unemployed, when universities cannot accommodate all the Malay students, when price of necessities shoot through the roof.
    They would direct their vengance on the non Malays, namely Chinese.

  7. #7 by kelangman88 on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 2:47 pm

    I’m just wondering is majority Malay so racist of just some of them?

  8. #8 by Jimm on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 3:20 pm

    There will never be another May 13th as that’s history now. The truth of that event was well covered up that leads to the UMNO legacies today. They cannot turned around and search for the truth. All they can do are to continue with the processes at all cost.
    With the total Malays dominating more than 60% of Malaysian populations, there are no more contest from other races to oppose them.
    Should there be another racial clean-up, the number of casualities are much more higher and easy killings. The wipeout will be a short yet painful one.
    So, there won’t be another May 13th but a much more ‘evil’ event.

  9. #10 by pwcheng on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 2:46 am

    If I were to express my honest opinion, (Please do not think I am a pessimist) I would say that a similar event like May 13 will happen again. Why I am saying this (and deriving from my witnessing to some first hand incidents of May 13) is that
    i) There is a quantum leap of racial differences as compared to 39 years ago.
    ii)The Malays feel that they taking too little and the Chinese feels that they are giving too much. If you were to conduct a survey I am sure about 95 % of the Chinese are more frustrated now than 39 years ago. The remaining 5% who thinks otherwise are some BN politicians who got some crumbs or some Chinese with high political connections or some criminals who loves the present political environment.
    iii)The Malay population had increased by leaps and bounds where else the others had dwindled.
    iv)The Malays had become more demanding because some of their peers had become too rich too fast and many will be impatient to catch with their peers as greed has no bound especially when you know that you have the opportunity to be greedy and if they still cannot achieve want they want someone has to be the scapegoat..
    v)The Malays knows that the swords are completely in their hands and its up to them when they want to use it and many will be impatient to use it as demonstrated in the last UMNO general assembly.
    vi)the Chinese are totally defenseless as compared to 69 where you have many Chinese in the army, police and defesce corps. Many also do not know that the gangster at that time had prevented the onslaught of the Chinese. This last fortress of defense is totally wiped out now. Hence when you are defenseless you also become a tasty morsel. Even animals had instinct on this.
    Vii)for them all you need is a mad leader to agitate a few and put them in frenzy and the domino theory will take effect.
    I am sure many also do not know that there are many smaller racial skirmishes before May 13.
    Though in this case I might have sounded like a prophet of
    doom but in real life I am a very optimistic person. I can only hope my empirical theory is wrong and I pray and hope that I am wrong.

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