May 13, 1969: View from a food court 40 years later

“May 13? What is that?” That was not the answer I was expecting when I first approached a table of Chinese students from a top private college having supper to ask them what they thought of the race riots, often touted by politicians as a black mark on race relations, that happened 40 years ago.

And the student I asked, Alvin from Kuala Lumpur, had never even heard of it.

I had come to Asia Cafe in SS15 in Subang Jaya a couple of nights ahead of the 40th anniversary of May 13, 1969. The food court is a magnet for students and young adults who gather underneath a huge willowy angsana tree to indulge in the modern Malaysian ritual of watching European football on giant projection screens while sipping drinks with friends and supping on sizzling seafood.

I was on a mission to hear what members of the generation born two decades after the riots had to say about it.

As it turns out, not many find the May 13 riots relevant as they feel they occurred at a time too distant in the past and were of no consequence to their lives. However, everyone had a lot to say about the secondary topic which is the state of race relations today.

The first table that agreed to talk consisted of three twentysomething Malay friends; two students and one batik designer. All three, their responses delivered in a mix of English and Malay, had an inkling that it was some sort of “scary” fight between races and all agreed it would not happen again. “Dah OK, semua boleh terima, sepadu (It’s all OKI now, we can accept each other and are united),” said Ariff, 23, a student.

But surely everything was not hunky dory? What about all that segregation between the races which begins by them going to different school systems? Even the tables at Asia Cafe were filled according to race.

“Remaja OK, pemikiran lain dari orang tua. Kita pandang depan dan pemikiran kita positive (Youth think differently from the older generation. We look forward and think positively),” said Wan, 25, the batik designer.

“Mungkin sekolah Cina, keluarga yang paksa. Anak tak nak (as for Chinese schools, maybe the parents forced them to go but the kids don’t want to),” he adds.

What an interesting way of looking at it, I thought.

With such relentlessly positive and upbeat sentiments, I left the table satisfied that this group was optimistic about ethnic harmony in Malaysia.

The second table which agreed to talk consisted of a large group of twentysomething Malay students and working adults. Sharply dressed, hair fashionably highlighted and fluent in English, this group had far more diverse views than the first.

But first, an argument broke out over whether Indians were involved in the May 13 incident or was it just Malays and Chinese killing each other?

Once the argument fizzled out, Papa, 23, an event manager from Shah Alam, said that as far as he was concerned, May 13 was in the past and should stay there.

“I don’t care what happened last time,” he exclaimed.

“I care about what will happen in the future. I don’t see any problem here,” he said gesturing at the diverse crowd at Asia Cafe. “I think racial problems are all political propaganda. It is better for us to be together. Race is not an issue. I hope the politicians will please unite. Please write that.”

Ika, a girl with an intense gaze, disclosed that her mother’s family is from the epicentre of the race riots Kampung Baru in Kuala Lumpur.

“My grandmother told me how she and my grandfather used to hide Chinese to stop them from being killed by other Malays,” she said.

“It is a peaceful country right now but if you go deeper, there is still a thin line between the races. It’s all about mentality. I can like some Chinese, I can hate some Chinese. People today are smarter and more flexible. But we cannot take this comfortable environment today for granted and we must learn from May 13 so it is not repeated.”

Lin, a petite 24-year-old from Seremban, works in a Chinese company and observes that while there are no racial problems, the main issue is that Malaysians tend to cling to members of their own race.

So how does she feel working in a Chinese company?

“I didn’t want to work in an all-Malay company and it has been good because they really push us and they always think about how to make money,” she replied with a soft smile.

But does she feel discriminated against as a Malay?

“A little bit in terms of salaries and benefits,” she says shyly.

When I apologise, several in the group wave it off with loud protests. “Maybe Chinese working in Malay companies will face the same thing,” Lin adds graciously.

CC, 24, who works with a consulting company, says that it is no use fighting over something that happened 40 years ago and that people should choose to make friends with all races.

“I have this Chinese friend who has many Malay friends,” she says. “We should learn from the Black Eyed Peas and Bob Marley and promote love and peace.”

Ika thinks the country is starved of heroes that can unite all Malaysians. “We need someone like (Mahatma) Gandhi. We lack such heroes in Malaysia.”

The talk then veered off tangent to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and other politicians.

Just then, Alfie, a Malay friend of Papa’s, swaggers by, sporting a huge afro.

Papa hails Alfie in slightly accented Tamil.

You speak Tamil?

“A little bit,” said Papa. “A friend taught me. Do you know what I said?”

I shake my head regretfully. I also take Alfie’s appearance as my cue to move on.

It is now past midnight and my last table is the group of 19-year-old Chinese college kids having a late supper.

“May 13? What is that?” said Alvin. “I have never heard of it.”

His friend Dave, however, had heard of it and moved closer in order to share his views.

“May 13 was a racial issue,” he replied when asked his understanding of it.

Was he worried it might happen again?

“Yeah, I am worried. But I am getting used to it.”

But did what happen in 1969 affect your life today?

“I don’t think it affects my life today.”

And how does he see race relations today?

“I feel we (Chinese) are treated like immigrants. Some race relationships are good and some are not. I think racial problems will never end.”

At that point, a third student, Kelvin, jumped in.

“We have learned the lesson from May 13, 1969. Our government then gave benefits to the Malays so that they felt appreciated and we could avoid the Malays killing the Chinese. Everyone likes to be treated specially. Our government is now organising many activities to bring the different races together.”

At this point Dave is shaking is head in disagreement with arms folded. “I don’t think so. I don’t think the government is doing enough,” he said.

And how are race relations at their college?

“The different races will mix for projects but eat separately,” says Dave. “Sometimes, it can’t be helped due to halal issues with food. But during projects, racial unity is there. But I feel the government is doing something only after they lost five states in last year’s general election.”

Kelvin responds by leaping to the government’s defence. “We can’t do things overnight. We are still a developing country.”

By this time, Alvin can no longer keep quiet and decides to cut in. “How long do you want? 20 years? 30 years? Until you die? Japan can build a bullet train in less than a year. Here to build a less advanced train line takes so much longer.”

“But a lot of talented Malaysians left to work in Singapore. They are materialistic,” argued Kelvin.

“It is not materialistic. It is realistic,” retorts Alvin. “No money, no honey.”

He then returns to the issue of race relations. “As long as you have people of different races, you will have racial problems unless everyone is educated.”

When it is pointed out that some politicians who make racially tinged remarks are educated, Alvin shrugs.

I then conclude our conversation by soliciting their feelings about the future, which turn out to be mixed.

At this point, a fourth friend, JT, decides to join in.

“I can’t see the future for Malaysia,” he says. “It’s unlike Japan where you can definitely see it is rising. But Malaysia, who knows? I can’t tell its future.”

I thank the boys and get up to leave.

It is almost 1 in the morning but in true Malaysian fashion, Asia Cafe is only just coming alive. The tables are laden with drinks and food ranging from satay to burgers to char koay teow. The latest song from pop megastar Beyonce fails to to drown out that strange but familiar sound excited chatter in a multitude of languages spoken by Malaysian of different colours.