In search of lost truth

Aerie Rahman
The Malay Mail Online
September 6, 2013

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.

  1. #1 by Di Shi Jiu on Monday, 9 September 2013 - 11:08 am

    Hear, hear!!

  2. #2 by Bigjoe on Monday, 9 September 2013 - 11:13 am

    It appears that the controversial urinating scene is an extrapolation of the Director’s own experience to have seen Chinese taking off their pants in front of her supposedly.. Clearly the Director perspective have been tainted from the start and as much as she may claim she is objective, clearly if she really cared for the project to be pure work of art and objective, she should not have done it herself to give the utmost credibility to the work.

    The truth is we may be at a stage many people don’t care for the truth, they want their version, even if its pure fantasy, to be the dominant version. There simply is over-vested interest for the truth to come out..

    • #3 by Di Shi Jiu on Monday, 9 September 2013 - 1:48 pm


      “… urinating scene is an extrapolation of the Director’s own experience to have seen Chinese taking off their pants in front of her…”


      Repressed memories, eh?

      I had a totally different theory previously but the moderators banned it and I don’t blame them either :)

    • #4 by cemerlang on Monday, 9 September 2013 - 3:25 pm

      It is a common sight

  3. #5 by bennylohstocks on Monday, 9 September 2013 - 11:14 am

  4. #6 by Loh on Monday, 9 September 2013 - 2:16 pm

    ///’Only Dong Zong unhappy with Edu Blueprint’, ‘Learning Bahasa Malaysia does not make one less Indian or Chinese,’ deputy education minister P Kamalanathan also notes.///–Malaysiakini

    How stupid can the deputy minister be when he said only Dong Zong was unhappy with the Education Blueprint. He can say similarly that only the prime minister is not happy with a certain thing. What the Dong Zong to the Chinese education is similar to the PM to the affairs in the country.

    If we have this type of deputy minister, and from MIC, we know that the quality of both the minister and the party is just hopeless.

  5. #7 by Loh on Monday, 9 September 2013 - 2:31 pm

    ///即时新闻 廖中莱为首的中委齐聚马华总部开会逾一小时,据悉是讨论召开特大,来商讨“不入阁”议决未获执行一事。

    Translation: Liow Tiong Lai and some central committee members of MCA had a meeting of over an hour and they resolved to convene an emergency meeting to discuss failure of MCA in faithfully implementing the resolution of leaving the Cabinet. ///–Malaysiakini

    Chua Soi lek might not have implemented what LTL considered as the resolution which to LTL bars all MCA members from any position in government. One wonders whether CSL position in the Penang Port constitute a cabinet position.

    LTL wanted to reverse the MCA resolution regarding the conditional decision to leave the Cabinet, and he told Najib that MCA would join once MCA had a meeting. Now LTL tries to make use of the tens of thousands of MCA members who are employed in local government to force MCA to reverse its resolution, on the pretext that the resolution had not been faithfully followed.

    Everybody knows that LTL wants to return as a minister. Only the groups of central committee members who support him are blind, or they too hope to get government appointment.

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