13 May incident

13 May incident
Location Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Result Declaration of national emergency
Suspension of Parliament
Temporary establishment of National Operations Council
Resignation of Tunku Abdul Rahman as Prime Minister
Implementation of New Economic Policy
Increased tension between races, especially between Malays and Chinese
Racial issues being played by certain UMNO and DAP politicians
Malays mainly consisting of Perikatan/UMNO supporters Chinese mainly consisting of opposition supporters

The 13 May Incident is a term for the Sino-Malay sectarian violences in Kuala Lumpur (then part of the state of Selangor), Malaysia, which began on 13 May 1969. The riots led to a declaration of a state of national emergency and suspension of Parliament by the Malaysian government, while the National Operations Council (NOC or Majlis Gerakan Negara, MAGERAN) was established to temporarily govern the country between 1969 and 1971.

Officially, 196 people were killed between 13 May and 31 July as a result of the riots, although journalists and other observers have stated much higher figures. Other reports at the time suggest over 2,000[citation needed] were killed by rioters, police and Malaysian Army rangers, mainly in Kuala Lumpur. Many of the dead were quickly buried in unmarked graves in the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital grounds[citation needed] by soldiers of Malaysian Engineers.

The government cited the riots as the main cause of its more aggressive affirmative action policies, such as the New Economic Policy (NEP), after 1969.

In the decades since the riots, the Barisan Nasional coalition government which has ruled unabated since independence has pinned the blame for the incident solely on the opposition Democratic Action Party, which is Chinese-based. However, many allege that the riots were simply a ploy by the Malay elites of UMNO, as part of their efforts to wrest power from the moderate Tunku Abdul Rahman – in which they succeeded – as well as to further their agenda of Malay supremacy which has dominated Malaysian government policy ever since.[1]



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On its formation in 1963, Malaysia, a federation incorporating Malaya (Peninsular Malaysia), Singapore, North Borneo (Sabah) and Sarawak, suffered from a sharp division of wealth between the Chinese, who were perceived to control a large portion of the Malaysian economy, and the Malays, who were perceived to be poorer and more rural.

The 1964 Race Riots in Singapore contributed to the expulsion of that state from Malaysia on 9 August 1965, and racial tension continued to simmer, with many Malays dissatisfied by their newly independent government's perceived willingness to placate the Chinese at their expense.

Ketuanan Melayu

Politics in Malaysia at this time were mainly Malay-based, with an emphasis on special privileges for the Malays – other indigenous Malaysians, grouped together collectively with the Malays under the title of "bumiputra" would not be granted a similar standing until after the riots. There had been a recent outburst of Malay passion for ketuanan Melayu – a Malay term for Malay supremacy or Malay dominance – after the National Language Act of 1967, which in the opinion of some Malays, had not gone far enough in the act of enshrining Malay as the national language. Heated arguments about the nature of Malay privileges, with the mostly Chinese opposition mounting a "Malaysian Malaysia" campaign had contributed to the separation of Singapore on 9 August 1965, and inflamed passions on both sides.

  • the concept of Ketuanan Melayu began to be used only in the 1980s*

Run-up to polling day

The causes of the rioting can be analysed to have the same root as the 1964 riots in Singapore, the event rooted from sentiments before the campaigning was bitterly fought among various political parties prior to polling day on 10 May 1969, and party leaders stoked racial and religious sentiments in order to win support. The Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) accused the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) of selling the rights of the Malays to the Chinese, while the Democratic Action Party (DAP) accused the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) of giving in to UMNO. The DAP promoted the concept of a "Malaysian Malaysia", which would remove the Malays of their special rights under the Constitution of Malaysia. Both the DAP and Singapore's People's Action Party (PAP) objected to Malay as the national language and proposed multi-lingualism instead.[2] Senior Alliance politicians, including Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, accused Singapore-based People's Action Party of involvement in the campaign, as it had done during the 1964 general election campaign (at the time when Singapore was part of the Malaysian federation between 1963 and 1965).

The run-up to the election was also marred by two deaths: that of an UMNO election agent, who was killed by a group of armed Chinese youths in Penang and that of a member of the Labour Party of Malaya (LPM), who was killed in Kepong, Selangor.[2] There was a contrast in the handling of these two deaths. The UMNO worker was buried without publicity, but the LPM casualty was honoured at a parade on 9 May when some 3000 LPM members marched from Kuala Lumpur to Kepong, violating regulations and trying to provoke incidents with the police.

Election results

Amidst tensions among the Malay and Chinese population, the general election was held on 10 May 1969. Election day itself passed without any incidents, and the results showed that the Alliance had gained a majority in Parliament at the national level, albeit a reduced one, and in Selangor it had gained the majority by cooperating with the sole independent candidate. The Opposition had tied with the Alliance for control of the Selangor state legislature, a large setback in the polls for the Alliance. On the night of 11 and 12 May, the Opposition celebrated their victory. In particular, a large Gerakan procession welcomed the left-wing Gerakan leader V. David.[3]

On 12 May, thousands of Chinese marched through Kuala Lumpur, parading through predominantly Malay areas, hurling insults which led to the incident.[2] The largely Chinese opposition Democratic Action Party and Gerakan gained in the elections, and secured a police permit for a victory parade through a fixed route in Kuala Lumpur. However, the rowdy procession deviated from its route and headed through the Malay district of Kampung Baru, jeering at the inhabitants.[4] Some demonstrators carried brooms, later alleged to symbolise the sweeping out of the Malays from Kuala Lumpur, while others chanted slogans about the "sinking" of the Alliance boat – the coalition's logo.[5] The Gerakan party issued an apology on 13 May for their rally goers' behaviour.

In addition, Malay leaders who were angry about the election results used the press to attack their opponents, contributing to raising public anger and tension among the Malay and Chinese communities.[citation needed] On 13 May, members of UMNO Youth gathered in Kuala Lumpur, at the residence of Selangor Menteri Besar Dato' Harun Haji Idris in Jalan Raja Muda, and demanded that they too should hold a victory celebration. While UMNO announced a counter-procession, which would start from the Harun bin Idris's residence. Tunku Abdul Rahman would later call the retaliatory parade "inevitable, as otherwise the party members would be demoralised after the show of strength by the Opposition and the insults that had been thrown at them."[4]


The riot ignited the capital Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding area of Selangor – according to Time, spreading throughout the city in 45 minutes.[6] Many people in Kuala Lumpur were caught in the racial violence – dozens were injured and some killed, houses and cars were burnt and wrecked, but except for minor disturbances in Malacca, Perak, Penang and Singapore, where the populations of Chinese people were similarly larger, the rest of the country remained calm. Although violence did not occur in the rural areas, Time found that ethnic conflict had manifested itself in subtler forms, with Chinese businessmen refusing to make loans available for Malay farmers, or to transport agricultural produce from Malay farmers and fishermen.[7]

Incidents of violence continued to occur in the weeks after 13 May, with the targets now being not only Malay or Chinese but also Indian. It is argued that this showed that "the struggle has become more clearly than ever the Malay extremists' fight for total hegemony."[8]

According to police figures, 196 people died[9] and 149 were wounded. 753 cases of arson were logged and 211 vehicles were destroyed or severely damaged. An estimated 6,000 Kuala Lumpur residents – 90% of them Chinese[verification needed] – were made homeless.[9] Various other casualty figures have been given, with one thesis from a UC Berkeley academic, as well as Time, putting the total dead at ten times the government figure.[8][10]

Declaration of emergency

The government ordered an immediate curfew throughout the state of Selangor. Security forces comprising some 2000 Royal Malay Regiment soldiers and 3600 police officers were deployed and took control of the situation. Over 300 Chinese families were moved to refugee centres at the Merdeka Stadium and Tiong Nam Settlement.

On 14 and 16 May, a state of emergency and accompanying curfew were declared throughout the country, but the curfew was relaxed in most parts of the country for two hours on 18 May and not enforced even in Kuala Lumpur within a week.[citation needed]. On 16 May the National Operations Council (NOC) was established by proclamation of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King of Malaysia) Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah, headed by Tun Abdul Razak. With Parliament suspended, the NOC became the supreme decision-making body for the next 18 months. State and District Operations Councils took over state and local governments.

The NOC implemented security measures to restore law and order in the country, including the establishment of an unarmed Vigilante Corps, a territorial army, and police force battalions. The restoration of order in the country was gradually achieved. Curfews continued in most parts of the country, but were gradually scaled back. Peace was restored in the affected areas within two months. In February 1971 parliamentary rule was re-established. However, the state of emergency imposed in 1969 has never been revoked by the federal government in the decades since, thus allowing many provisions such as the Emergency Ordinance to remain in use today.

In a report from the NOC, the riots was attributed in part to both the Malayan Communist Party and secret societies:

The eruption of violence on May 13 was the result of an interplay of forces... These include a generation gap and differences in interpretation of the constitutional structure by the different races in the country...; the incitement, intemperate statements and provocative behaviours of certain racialist party members and supporters during the recent General Election; the part played by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and secret societies in inciting racial feelings and suspicion; and the anxious, and later desperate, mood of the Malays with a background of Sino-Malay distrust, and recently, just after the General Elections, as a result of racial insults and threat to their future survival in their own country'
— Extract from The May 13 Tragedy, a report by the National Operations Council, October 1969.[2]

Conspiracy theories

Immediately following the riot, conspiracy theories about the origin of the riots began swirling. Many Chinese blamed the government, claiming it had intentionally planned the attacks beforehand. They cited the fact that the potentially dangerous UMNO rally was allowed to go on, even though the city was on edge after two days of opposition rallies. Although UMNO leaders said none of the armed men bused in to the rally belonged to UMNO, the Chinese countered this by saying that the violence had not spread from Harun Idris' home but had risen simultaneously in several different areas. The armed Malays were later taken away in army lorries.".[11]

The government did not held responsible for an act of cowardice by few men, claimed to be soldiers by the Chinese people, who burnt a few more houses.[11] However, Western observers such as Time suggested that "Whether or not the Malay-controlled police force and emergency government have actually stirred up some of the house-burning, spear-carrying mobs, they seem unwilling to clamp down on them. It was an accusation because the police was largely Malays and controlled by the government"[8]

In 2007, a book – 13 May: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969 by academic, former Democratic Action Party member and former Member of Parliament Kua Kia Soong – was published by Suaram. Based on newly declassified documents at the Public Records Office in London, the book alleges that, contrary to the official account that had blamed the violence on opposition parties, the riot had been intentionally started by the "ascendent state capitalist class" in UMNO as a coup d'etat to topple Tunku Abdul Rahman.[12][13]


Immediate effects

Immediately after the riot, the government assumed emergency powers and suspended Parliament, which would reconvene again only in 1971. It also suspended the press and established a National Operations Council. The NOC's report on the riots stated, "The Malays who already felt excluded in the country's economic life, now began to feel a threat to their place in the public services," and implied this was a cause of the violence.[4]

Western observers such as Time attributed the racial enmities to a political and economic system, which primarily benefited the upper classes:

The Chinese and Indians resented Malay-backed plans favoring the majority, including one to make Malay the official school and government language. The poorer, more rural Malays became jealous of Chinese and Indian prosperity. Perhaps the Alliance's greatest failing was that it served to benefit primarily those at the top. ... For a Chinese or Indian who was not well-off, or for a Malay who was not well-connected, there was little largesse in the system. Even for those who were favored, hard feelings persisted. One towkay recently told a Malay official: "If it weren't for the Chinese, you Malays would be sitting on the floor without tables and chairs." Replied the official: "If I knew I could get every damned Chinaman out of the country, I would willingly go back to sitting on the floor."[14]

The riot led to the expulsion of Malay nationalist Mahathir Mohamad from UMNO and propelled him to write his seminal work The Malay Dilemma, in which he posited a solution to Malaysia's racial tensions based on aiding the Malays economically through an affirmative action programme.

Tunku Abdul Rahman resigned as Prime Minister in the ensuing UMNO power struggle, the new perceived 'Malay-ultra' dominated government swiftly moved to placate Malays with the Malaysian New Economic Policy (NEP), enshrining affirmative action policies for the bumiputra (Malays and other indigenous Malaysians). Many of Malaysia's draconian press laws, originally targeting racial incitement, also date from this period. The Constitution (Amendment) Act 1971 named Articles 152, 153, and 181, and also Part III of the Constitution as specially protected, permitting Parliament to pass legislation that would limit dissent with regard to these provisions pertaining to the social contract. (The social contract is essentially a quid pro quo agreement between the Malay and non-Malay citizens of Malaysia; in return for granting the non-Malays citizenship at independence, symbols of Malay authority such as the Malay monarchy became national symbols, and the Malays were granted special economic privileges.) With this new power, Parliament then amended the Sedition Act accordingly. The new restrictions also applied to Members of Parliament, overruling Parliamentary immunity; at the same time, Article 159, which governs Constitutional amendments, was amended to entrench the "sensitive" Constitutional provisions; in addition to the consent of Parliament, any changes to the "sensitive" portions of the Constitution would now have to pass the Conference of Rulers, a body comprising the monarchs of the Malay states. At the same time, the Internal Security Act, which permits detention without trial, was also amended to stress "intercommunal harmony".[15]

Despite the opposition of the DAP and PPP, the Alliance government passed the amendments, having maintained the necessary two-thirds Parliamentary majority.[15] In Britain, the laws were condemned, with The Times of London stating they would "preserve as immutable the feudal system dominating Malay society" by "giving this archaic body of petty constitutional monarchs incredible blocking power"; the move was cast as hypocritical, given that Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak had spoken of "the full realisation that important matters must no longer be swept under the carpet..."[16]

The Rukunegara, the de facto Malaysian pledge of allegiance, was another reaction to the riot. The pledge was introduced on 31 August 1970 as a way to foster unity among Malaysians.


The state of emergency that was declared shortly after the incident has never been lifted, an action that has been cited by academic lawyers as a reason for diminished civil rights in the country due to the legislative powers granted to the executive during a state of emergency.[17]

Many political analysts attributed the Malay "crutch mentality" syndrome to have arisen from 13 May, and a direct result of the affirmative NEP programme. This had resulted to abnormally large proportion of younger generation of Malays not being able to compete not only internationally but also nationally.


The 13 May Incident led to affirmative action policies, such as the New Economic Policy (NEP), after 1969 and the creation of Kuala Lumpur as a Federal Territory out of Selangor state in 1974, five years later.

Political references

Malaysian politicians have often cited the 13 May incident when warning of the potential consequences of racial rhetoric, or as a bogeyman to blanket off discussion on any issues that challenge the status quo. In the 1990 general election and 1999 general election, 13 May was cited in Barisan Nasional campaign advertisements and in speeches by government politicians. Such usage of the incident in political discourse has been criticised; the Tunku stated: "For the PM (Dr Mahathir Mohamad) to repeat the story of the 13 May as a warning of what would have happened if the government had not taken appropriate action is like telling ghost stories to our children to prevent them from being naughty… The tale should not be repeated because it shows us to be politically immature…"[citation needed]

In 2004, during the UMNO general assembly Badruddin Amiruldin , the current deputy permanent chairman, waved a book on 13 May during his speech and stated "No other race has the right to question our privileges, our religion and our leader". He also stated that doing so would be similar to "stirring up a hornet's nest". The next day, Dr Pirdaus Ismail of the UMNO Youth was quoted as saying "Badruddin did not pose the question to all Chinese in the country ... Those who are with us, who hold the same understanding as we do, were not our target. In defending Malay rights, we direct our voice at those who question them." Deputy Internal Security Minister Noh Omar dismissed the remarks as a lesson in history and said that Badruddin was merely reminding the younger generation of the blot on the nation's history.

See also



  1. ^ Dr. Kua Kia Soong (2007). May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969. Suaram. 
  2. ^ a b c d Professor Dato' Dr. Zakaria Haji Ahmad. The Encyclopedia of Malaysia, "Government and Politics". ISBN 981-3018-55-0
  3. ^ Kia Soong Kua – 2007 – 136 pages.
  4. ^ a b c Hwang, In-Won (2003). Personalized Politics: The Malaysian State under Mahathir, p. 78. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ISBN 981-230-185-2.
  5. ^ Al-Mukmin, Hatta (2005). "Keranamu UMNO", p. 104. Abadi Publishing House. ISBN 983-2215-00-5.
  6. ^ "Race War in Malaysia". Time. 23 May 1969. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,900859,00.html. 
  7. ^ "Preparing for a Pogrom". Time: p. 3. 18 July 1969. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,901058-3,00.html. 
  8. ^ a b c "Preparing for a Pogrom". Time: p. 1. 18 July 1969. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,901058,00.html. 
  9. ^ a b Hwang, p. 72.
  10. ^ Hwang, p. 88.
  11. ^ a b Emery, Fred (6 June 1969). "The nightmare that lingers on in Malaysia", p. 11. The Times.
  12. ^ "Another look at incident on May 13". The Star. 14 May 2007. http://www.thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2007/5/14/nation/17718816&sec=nation. 
  13. ^ Jeff Ooi (14 May 2007). "Surviving 38 years of the May 13 bloodshed". http://www.jeffooi.com/2007/05/surviving_the_may_13_bloodshed.php. Retrieved 14 May 2007. 
  14. ^ "Preparing for a Pogrom". Time: p. 2. 18 July 1969. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,901058-2,00.html. 
  15. ^ a b Khoo, Boo Teik (1995). Paradoxes of Mahathirism, pp. 104–106. Oxford University Press. ISBN 967-65-3094-8.
  16. ^ Emery, Fred (8 Nov. 1969). "Malaysia unity call against a background of fear", p. 7. The Times.
  17. ^ Wu, Min Aun & Hickling, R. H. (2003). Hickling's Malaysian Public Law, p. 34. Petaling Jaya: Pearson Malaysia. ISBN 983-74-2518-0.

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