The turning point of 1969: Lessons to be learnt

By Koay Su Lyn | APRIL 22, 2013
The Malaysian Insider

APRIL 22 — The general election held on May 10, 1969 in Malaysia remains an eventful one despite the passing of 44 years. People who lived through that era of transformation will probably describe the event as having altered the course of Malaysia’s political history forever.

The unprecedented event came as a rude awakening for the Alliance with the victory of the opposition parties, namely the Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, the DAP and PPP. The exceptional victory, coupled with rising ethnic tensions within, contributed to the occurrence of the May 13 riots.

As a crucial turning point in Malaysia’s political history, the 1969 general election and its aftermath serve as a considerable lesson that all Malaysians could learn from and ponder in the light of the upcoming general election of 2013. However, to fully comprehend its significance, it would be necessary to first appreciate the political developments prior to 1969.

The 1964 elections and the birth of new parties

The elections in 1964 were held under the shadows of Indonesian Confrontation and internal opposition, stemming from the Socialist Front. Due to the instabilities encountered, the political climate was certainly unfavourable to the opposition parties. Their failure to co-operate and formulate a common strategy resulted in unnecessary multi-cornered battles. Grassroots support was also poor as the majority preferred stability in the government’s defence of national sovereignty. The failure to foresee such circumstances led to a shocking defeat and served as a severe lesson to the opposition in the forthcoming elections.

The years from 1965 onwards also witnessed the birth of new parties in the nation. The separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965 altered the political landscape of Malaysia when one of the principal leaders of the PAP, C.V. Devan Nair, chose to remain in Malaysia. A year later, he initiated a Malaysian-based Peoples’ Action Party (PAP), known as the Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Distinguishable from its Singaporean predecessor, the DAP adopted a firmer stand on communal issues in promoting a “Malaysian Malaysia”. Its primary aim then was to establish itself as the champion of the non-Malay communities, in the light of the previous failure of the PAP in wooing Malay support, which incurred the wrath of Umno.

The mentioned period also witnessed the beginning of the end of the Socialist Front when the Labour Party (LP) parted with the Malay Parti Rakyat. The LP, dominated by Chinese chauvinists, later called for a boycott of the 1969 general election. The disintegration of the Socialist Front, however, paved the way for the emergence of the Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan), which was formed and led by intellectuals like Dr Lim Chong Eu, Dr Tan Chee Khoon and Professor Syed Hussein Alatas. This new, non-communal political force was destined to forge a new “political wave” in the nation, typically in Penang.

The electoral understanding

The 1969 elections saw a tough contest between the governing Alliance, and the opposition parties namely, the DAP, Gerakan, PAS (formerly known as the Pan-Islamic Malaysian Party) and the PPP. Having won the elections since independence, the Alliance demonstrated a casual attitude and did little to construct a favourable image. Guided by their defeat in 1964, the opposing parties were in a much pessimistic mood. However, they determined to overcome their differences in a battle against a common enemy.

In February 1969, a “Three Corner” agreement (Persetujuan 3 Penjuru) was reached between the PPP, DAP and Gerakan. They agreed to divide the sections of the general election based on the popularity of each party to prevent the issue of internal rivalry. This was a crucial strategy as they refrained from fielding candidates against each other like that in 1964. This had the potential of depriving the Alliance a chance of victory.

Based on the agreement, many areas in Penang were given to Gerakan. Selangor was divided between the DAP and Gerakan while Negri Sembilan, Johor and Malacca were allocated to the DAP. The PPP, on the other hand, had its main base in Perak.

The important thing to note is that the main objective of the opposition coming to an electoral agreement was to collectively deny the Alliance a two-thirds majority in Parliament so that it could not amend the constitution without the approval of the representatives from the opposition.

The mood of the nation

Ever since independence until 1959, the majority of the non-Malay communities were still uncertain of their identities in Malaya. However, their mood towards 1969 changed. Lee Kuan Yew’s Solidarity Convention had consolidated them with more political awareness and they were willing to adopt a positive stance in safeguarding their interests. As such, they were generally less willing to concede to previous bargains and were less hesitant in approaching the opposition parties to secure their welfare. Their sentiments impacted the Malay community with intensified fears. They perceived the opposition’s agreement as a serious threat against their political supremacy guaranteed by the traditional quid pro quo arrangement of the Alliance.

The Solidarity Convention organised by Lee’s PAP, followed by the control of the Labour Party by Chinese-educated extremists and the controversy pertaining to the national language in 1967, further heightened the insecurities of the Malay community. There were feelings of disappointment towards the late Tunku Abdul Rahman’s leadership as the inter-communal Alliance co-operation had failed to protect them against the non-Malays. As such, many turned their support towards the Pan Malayan Islamic Party (PIMP). The Alliance, however, turned a blind eye and deaf ear towards such changes in the sentiments of the grassroots and faced the elections with an air of confidence. With the absence of the Indonesian Confrontation and disunity of the opposition, their victory in 1964 was unlikely to repeat in 1969.

Additionally, the nation was also confronted with two unfortunate events that aggravated existing racial tensions. Just months into the elections, the LP convened a meeting in Penang which ended with several young men scribbling anti-election slogans along the streets in a campaign to boycott the 1969 elections. Later, an Umno worker, Kassim Omar, who happened to be in that vicinity, was found murdered. A curfew was executed but such cruelty failed to be prevented in the coming days.

A month later, a 23-year-old LP member, Lim Sun Seng, was shot dead in a gruesome fight with the police in Jalan Kepong. The police had initially ordered a group of young men to disperse and to cease vandalising the streets with anti-election sentiments. Their refusal led to a fierce fight and subsequently the death of Lim. The incident formed a magnet for a huge demonstration of around 10,000 people. Almost like a ticking time bomb, there was bound to be a racial explosion between the Malays and non-Malays in the near future.

The shocking defeat

The poll results marked a shocking defeat to the Alliance. In relation to the number of seats, it only managed to secure a mere 66 out of 104 parliamentary seats and 162 out of 282 state seats. Many top guns of Umno and the MCA were not re-elected and even the majority of the Tunku himself was significantly reduced. Interestingly, the most crushing blow was in Penang, where it merely captured four of the 24 state seats. The Alliance had also failed to obtain a majority in both Selangor and Perak.

In contrast, huge successes can be attributed to the DAP in Selangor, Perak and Negri Sembilan. The party also emerged as the largest opposition party in Parliament with 13 seats. The Gerakan obtained the greatest victory in Penang with 16 out of 24 seats and formed the state government with Dr Lim Chong Eu as the second chief minister of Penang. The PPP also did extremely well despite its initial blow with the death of its leader, D.R. Sreenivasagam, by having four of its candidates elected to Parliament. Simply, the Gerakan, DAP and PPP were successful in depriving the Alliance government of a two-thirds majority.

In addition to the above, three of Gerakan’s Malay candidates were elected, followed by two more under the DAP’s ticket, who were successful in the state elections. This marked the first time in Malaysian history that Malay candidates were elected to represent non-communal parties. The PIMP, on the hand, recovered its losses in the 1964 elections by capturing 12 seats contested and retained control of the state government of Kelantan.

To the non-Malays, the results demonstrated a great, democratic leap forward in establishing a “Malaysian Malaysia” and provided hope in the viability of non-communal parties in the nation.

The explosion — May 13, 1969

Despite the victory, the electoral results of 1969 simply ignited the smouldering racial tensions. In Selangor, the results confirmed the end of the quad pro quo arrangement in the eyes of the Malays, which guaranteed both their economic and political supremacy. The victory processions of the non-Malays were also perceived by some as a threat to their security. This resulted in a counter-rally by Selangor Umno which escalated into an unprecedented ethnic violence.

The time bomb exploded three days after the elections and led to the declaration of a state of Emergency under Article 150 of the Constitution. Both Parliament and the elections were suspended with the National Operations Council taking over the administration of the nation. According to Tun Dr Ismail, the new minister of home affairs: “Democracy is dead in this country.”

This marked the most gruesome riot the country ever experienced.

Lessons to be learnt

The 21st century witnessed an evolution of the Malaysian society. The intervention of technology and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube took the nation into a different level of politicking as guns and pens were no longer the sole tools of the trade. As immaterial as it may be, the case of 1969 remains a lesson for all to learn.

Firstly, the constraints of public expression could be relaxed and exercised vigilantly as the society matures politically. In 1969, the killing of Lim by the police in a fight to halt the spreading of anti-election expressions created further tensions in the brewing public sentiments which indirectly contributed to the racial explosion. While the maintenance of public order is essential, Article 10 of the Malaysian Constitution, which confers freedom of speech, association and assembly to all Malaysians, should not be strictly encroached upon as well.

Compare this scenario to the Bersih demonstration in 2011. Although street demonstrations are rare in the country, thousands of Malaysians, irrespective of races, took the streets in Kuala Lumpur in a march for clean and fair elections. While this signifies that Malaysians today are united in expression, it also indicates a healthy sense of political awareness in the nation’s struggle for true democracy on the part of the younger generation.

Unfortunately, the authorities deployed heavy police presence to block the rallies. Several leaders and activists were also arrested and the rally ended with the use of tear gas and water cannons to disperse the participants. Although one may argue that the Bersih rally differs eminently from the killing of Lim by the police, a clear point stands out — violence is inevitable in the end when the over-suppression of public expression is met with wide resistance. Perhaps, a vocal public alongside a resurgent opposition, demands a non-violent and reasonable, check-and-balance approach in ensuring that their freedom of expression is upheld and public order is safeguarded, especially in the pre-election times.

Secondly, coalition building should cut across the ethnic boundaries. A coalition today should fight for the welfare of all Malaysians instead of a single communal, ethnic group. Previously, growing dissatisfactions towards the Alliance policies led to many non-Malays being attracted to the opposition’s concept of equal rights. Hence, despite their multi-racial character, then opposing parties like the DAP and PPP formulated their objectives to primarily secure the support of the non-Malays. Attempts to obtain Malay support were only affected in the later stages. Gerakan however, was an exception. Unlike today, with the presence of Syed Hussein Alatas as one of Gerakan’s founders and leaders then, the party guarded its non-communal personality carefully and made attempts to woo the Malay voters. Arguably, although these three parties reached an effective electoral understanding, ethnic boundaries and communalism much existed.

Today, with more Malays forming and leading the opposition parties together with the non-Malays, coalition building has taken a far more liberal twist across the ethnic boundaries. Perhaps, it can be generally claimed that the victory of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition consisting of PKR, the DAP and PAS in the 2008 political tsunami marked the closest the nation ever returned to the 1969 elections.

Despite the sociological and environmental differences, the Barisan Nasional coalition comprising the MCA, MIC and Gerakan with Umno as its superior, experienced a similar crushing defeat by losing five state legislatures to the opposition. They lost Penang, followed by Selangor, Kedah and Perak and failed to wrest Kelantan back from PAS. Just like the previous Alliance government, they were also denied a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The only difference was that the situation in Malaysia was remarkably calm in 2008, without any riots like that of May 13, 1969 taking place.

Although inter-ethnic connections in a coalition didn’t happen in 1969, in the face of a tedious battle against corruption, nepotism and serious cases of injustice demonstrated by a declining regime today, most Malaysians have come to realise that we should no longer be divided by our petty racial differences. Malaysia is our home regardless of race. The spirit of a coalition should reflect such a nature. Thus, a coalition should be constructed on the strong pillars of understanding and acceptance of each other’s ethnicity in order to form a concrete and united platform in terms of governance.

Last but not least, a ruling government should not play ignorant by sweeping grassroots sentiments under the carpet. In 1969, the downfall of the Alliance can be partially attributed to its own ignorance towards the change of grassroots sentiments. As a result, they were unaware of the change of mood in favour of the opposition. The 2008 political tsunami witnessed a certain sense of resemblance to 1969 on this point. As Malaysia matures into a true democratic country, the government should be more responsive and tactful at the same time towards the needs and demands of the people. Therefore, it would be wise for a ruling government to abide by its principles and to address the cries of the electorate. As Thomas Jefferson once said — “When governments fear the people, there is liberty but when people fear the government, there is tyranny.”

With these reflections in mind, having undergone both the 1969 elections and 2008 political tsunami, would the general election of 2013 witness another turning point in Malaysia’s road to true democracy? Only the polling results would tell. However, one can expect a metamorphosis. All Malaysians would be united once again in authoring the nation’s political course. As Barack Obama once said: “A change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Hence, let us be reminded of our past in our struggle towards making yet another change for a better, brighter Malaysia.

  1. #1 by ahkmlog on Thursday, 25 April 2013 - 3:07 pm

    Its now or never Malaysians. If UMNO/BN wins GE13, they will delineate the country to their benefit. Ini kalilah kami UBAH Malaysia for A Better Malaysia.

  2. #2 by Loh on Thursday, 25 April 2013 - 5:39 pm

    ///Despite the victory, the electoral results of 1969 simply ignited the smouldering racial tensions. In Selangor, the results confirmed the end of the quad pro quo arrangement in the eyes of the Malays, which guaranteed both their economic and political supremacy. The victory processions of the non-Malays were also perceived by some as a threat to their security. This resulted in a counter-rally by Selangor Umno which escalated into an unprecedented ethnic violence.///–the author

    The above observations proves only that the author is sold on the Alliance propaganda that May 13 was a spontaneous reaction of Malays out of jealousy against other races. That is simply not true.

    May 13 happened because Tun Razak called Harun Idris perhaps half an hour too late when the latter had already dispatched his followers to cause trouble. This is the evidence given by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad was with Tun Razak on the afternoon of May 13, the very day the enent took place. His letter appear in this blog, years ago.

    In 1969 non-Malays were hoping that Article 153 would come out for a review, and they wanted strong representation in the parliament. It is not a case of asking for more right, but rather than partly trying to help the late Tun Dr Ismail achieve his aspiration; Tun Ismail said that Malays would on their own give up that particular article, out of pride, when they no longer required it.

    Tun Razak launched NEP to justify why Tunku should be sidelined in ‘confirming’ that Tunku gave up too much to non-Malays. Under Tunku Article 153 was firmly carried out up to 1969. In fact Tun Razak carried out preNEP in the 1960s where he reserved FELDA schemes to Malays only when there are certainly non-Malays who met the criteria to be included, saved their race classification. Hindraf hoped that Najib would release a bit of what his father reserved for Malays, half a century later; but what about other non-Malays?

    May 13 may seem to be beneficial to some Malays, particularly those who utilized the qualification as Malay to become fabulously rich, for the benefit of other Malays to satisfy their ego that Malays boleh. Some Malays too are not happy that the English medium schools no longer exist. That was the result of May 13.

    UMNO leaders threatened a repeat of May 13 believing that other Malays enjoy it like them. But many Malays are unhappy that their capability is being questioned because it is the perception of many that they are where they are because of NEP. Unfortunately they have to live with the stigma else they will be termed ungrateful to Mamakthir. A change of government on 5 May can help them in this regard.

You must be logged in to post a comment.