May 13 : 50 Years Later

On May 13, 1969, Malaysia witnessed the worst riots in its history. We speak to five individuals who lived through the clashes about how that day changed the course of our nation and the lessons that we should learn from it, 50 years on.

Hassan Abdul Muthalib

Kampung Baru

“They were saying ‘Woi Cina, marilah!’ ‘Woi Melayu, marilah!’ (‘Come here, Chinese! Come here, Malay!)” but nobody actually crossed the road,” said Hassan Abdul Muthalib, who lived in Kampung Baru during the May 13 riots.

“But that night, they burned the (Chinese-owned) terrace houses. We heard screaming - the smell of burnt flesh lasted for two weeks.”

Photo credit: Johenson Goh

Hassan Muthalib was working in the National Film Department of Malaysia when his superior dismissed the staff and told them to go home early at 3pm on May 13, 1969 after hearing rumours of impending riots.

The week long racial clashes was one of the worst in Malaysian history, leaving scores of people dead and injured and thousands made homeless after their houses were burned by mobs.

At that time, Hassan was a 24 year old renting in a share house together with other bachelors like himself at the corner of Hale Road (now Jalan Raja Abdullah) in Kampung Baru.

Behind his house was Klang river, where squatters had made their home.

It was here that Hassan witnessed an incident that scared him stiff - he saw a young boy hacked an old lady on her neck.

Leong Lai Wan

Kampung Baru

“At about 5 or 6pm, I heard a loud drumming noise. I saw a big group of people with red bands around their foreheads marching down the road, and we quickly closed our doors. Afterwards, we could hear people hacking at our shutters,” said Leong Lai Wan, whose father owned a laundromat on the Chinese side of Kampung Baru.

They were forced to take shelter in the Chin Woo Stadium, alongside an estimated 1,500 others, many of whom were Chinese. An estimated 6,000 people were made homeless after the riot.

Photo credit: Chen Yih Wen

Leong Lai Wan’s late father ran a laundry shop on Princess Road (now Jalan Raja Muda Aziz), on the fringe of Kampung Baru.

On the fateful evening of May 13, 1969, her family was caught in the middle of Malaysia’s worst clashes. Her sister sought help from a regular policeman customer who got them to safety to Chin Woo Stadium in Petaling Street, where they lived together with 1500 other refugees.

When her family returned a week later, they found that looters had ransacked their shophouse.

Today, she still runs the laundry shop together with her husband.

Johan Fernandez

Petaling Street

“People were standing there with parangs, cleavers, bicycle chains - you name the cruelest weapon you can think of, they had it - and they were blocking the exit, preventing anybody from leaving,” said Johan Fernandez, who was watching a movie at the iconic Rex Cinema in Petaling Street when it was stormed by a mob.

“People who talk about ‘another May 13th’ don’t know what they’re talking about - they never lived through it.”

Photo credit: Chen Yih Wen

On the evening of May 13, 1969, Johan Fernandez, a then 21-year old clerk with the Department of Statistics, was watching Paul Newman’s directorial debut film, Rachel, Rachel, at the iconic Rex Cinema in Petaling Street.

Unbeknownst to him, the worst clashes in Malaysian history had started outside. Halfway through the movie, the screen went blank – flashing the words “Darurat” (Emergency) in bold, black text.

It was total pandemonium, as the movie goers rushed to the exit only to find the ushers holding back a mob of armed men trying to break into the cinema.

Considered ‘The cinema’ in its heyday, Rex ceased operations after 25 years in 2002 before being converted into a backpackers hostel.

Today, a group of architects are refurbishing this classic cinema to an art and culture space.

Richard Teoh

Petaling Street

“Some Malay men were being beaten badly, and I could hear them saying ‘Saya tak salah! Saya tak salah!’ (I’m innocent! I’m innocent!). It was very frightening,” said Richard Teoh, who worked as a salesman in the area.

“Luckily, some Chinese people came and pulled the attackers away. It was a touching scene in the middle of the fear. You could hear screams and people begging for mercy. I’ve lived for 70-plus years, and I never want to see something like that again.”

Photo credit: Chen Yih Wen/Johenson Goh

71 year old retired hotelier Richard Teoh takes a walk down memory with his youngest child, 25 year old filmmaker, Dominique Teoh to share his experience of the May 13 riots, one of the worst clashes that Malaysia has seen after the country’s third general elections in 1969.

At that time, Richard was working as a salesman and was delivering the last orders for the day when he saw a big crowd running towards him in Batu Road (now Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman).

Panicking at the sight, he quickly turned around and sought refuge in a client’s photo studio in Foch Avenue (now Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock). After hiding for three days, he decided to make his way towards High Street Police Station (now Tun H.S. Lee) which was opposite his office.

A normal walk will take about ten minutes, but it felt like an eternity for Richard. Recalling his ordeal, “It was the fastest in my life that I ever ran. I ran so fast that I could have beaten the Olympics medal runners.”

Today, the police station and Richard’s office building has made way for the Pasar Seni MRT station and an open air carpark.

Jalaluddin Abdul Manaf (Pak Amjal)

Kampung Kerinchi

The night before the May 13 riots, Jalaluddin Abdul Manaf heard about the opposition party’s victory parade and wanted to heed Datuk Harun’s call for a counter-rally to show their strength.

“I got a call from my relative to go to Kampung Baru, and I was told to bring my machete,” he said.

“I didn’t really question why - I thought it was for self-defense.”

Now 80, Jalaluddin isn’t so sure why he was so swept up, but what he does know is that Malaysians should know better by now.

“(May 13 was) just a game by those in the higher ranks, using those in the lower ranks to gain position.”

“Now, the younger generation isn’t like my generation who are uneducated. They should know right from wrong.”

Photo credit: Johenson Goh

On the night of May 12, 1969, Pak Amjal was 34 years old when he received a call from his relative to gather at Selangor Chief Minister Datuk Harun Idris' residence in Kampung Baru for a counter-rally after the Opposition party won the 1969 elections. There was one specific instruction - to bring along a machete.

Thinking it was for self-defence, Pak Amjal complied and made his way to town the next evening. However, he was stopped by a policeman because fightings had broken out in the city.

Pak Amjal then sought refuge in Kerinchi police station where he witnessed shots fired at people who were trying to escape at the Pantai River after their houses were set on fire by angry mobs.

May 13 Cemetery

Sungai Buloh

Photo credit: Johenson Goh

A week long riot broke out on 13 May 1969 after Malaysia’s third general elections, one of the worst in the country’s history. Official accounts put the death toll at 196, 439 injured and 6000 made homeless.

However, Western diplomatic sources estimated a higher death toll at around 600; while some observers and correspondents suggested a 4-figure number.

The Malaysian Government designated the Sungai Buloh Leprosarium as a burial ground for 103 victims, of which 99 were Chinese, two were Muslims and two were Indians, including 18 ‘unidentified’ persons. For many years, some of the victims’ families did not know of their final resting place due to the stigma associated with the leprosarium.

Likewise, today, the memories of these tragic deaths remain out of sight from our history, hidden away in a secluded hilltop behind a mosque.

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