The riots that broke out on May 13, 1969, undoubtedly changed the course of Malaysian history, but many still feel they do not have a complete understanding of the tragedy.
An overwhelming 87 percent of respondents in a survey commissioned by Malaysiakini said they would like to “understand the May 13 tragedy better”, with a similar number wanting it to be included in the national syllabus.
The online survey was conducted by research firm Vase.ai in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the riots to gauge public awareness on the issue.
At present, the incident only receives several cursory mentions in the Form Five History textbook.
Though the date of May 13, 1969, is mentioned four times, the textbook does not actually discuss the event at length.
For example, it states: “If the country’s development is only enjoyed by only selected segments of society, it could lead to enmity and spark racial riots like the May 13, 1969 incident.”
According to the survey, about half of respondents said they are “aware of the full story” of May 13, while just under a third said they know what happened, but not why.
Of those who said they know about the incident, most said they learned about it in school.
Other sources of information cited for learning about May 13 include books, social media and family, with 40 percent saying that they have heard relatives speak about the incident.
But only 26 percent said they know someone who witnessed or was directly affected by the riots.
The bulk of the 1,000 survey respondents are from the post-riot generation, with about three in four aged below 40.
These demographics reflect national figures in terms of ethnicity, religion and gender.
About a quarter of the respondents live in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, while others were quite equally distributed across other states and territories.
The May 13 riots have long been deemed too sensitive for public consumption, with many materials related to the riot only belatedly entering the National Archives in the 2000s.
However, the majority of the respondents believe it is no longer a taboo topic, with 62 percent believing that discussions on May 13 can be made public.
Nevertheless, more than half of the respondents fear a repeat of the tragedy, saying it might happen again “given the political context.”
Correspondingly, three out of four respondents said the tragedy has been “misused by politicians for political reasons”.
Comparing race relations today and during the era in which the riots took place (1960s-1970s), however, most feel things have improved.
Less than 40 percent thought race relations were good or very good in the 1960s and 1970s, while about half believe it to be good or very good from the 1990s onwards.
However, there seems to be an impression that ties are worsening again, with only 45 percent saying race relations are good or very good today – a dip of about five percent compared to the 1990s-2010s.
Many – 82 percent – said Malaysia has ethnic relations issues to be addressed.
On a more positive note, 87 percent said they have friends of other races, and were almost unanimous when it comes to the benefits of having a diverse social circle.
Almost all respondents in the survey also said there is more to gain by mixing with people from outside their own race.
Conversely, when asked if there are drawbacks, only 36 percent said ‘yes’.