Thursday, May 21, 2009

May 13, Revisited

While I was away, that hugely significant anniversary - the fourtieth of May 13th, 1969 - came around. I liked author Preeta Samarasan's response (which she posted on Facebook) so much that I repost it here, with her permission.
I meant to write this note yesterday, on the actual anniversary, but. But.

I'll repost the link to The Nut Graph's brief commemorative piece here, because it's the only mention of May 13th I've seen on Facebook so far.

I didn't live through May 13th 1969; my parents and one of my siblings did. It's not so distant that the country is close to running out of survivors who remember it, and yet I think the question of what it has come to signify to my generation (and younger generations) is the more interesting one. Because, let's face it, in the grand scheme of things -- and oh how Grand that Scheme can be -- May 13th was no Rwanda, no Sri Lanka, no Palestine. Even the most liberal estimates put the total dead at about 2000. Of course I'm not belittling any of those lives lost, or the terrors of those few weeks; when you lose someone you love it doesn't matter if they were one of 2000 or one of six million. But what I *am* trying to say is that for most of us, the true impact of May 13th lies in the ways its memory has been preserved (or not), and not in the actual event itself. Which are, as I see it:

1) As a threat: If we don't toe the line, accept certain inequalities, and shut up about Sensitive Issues, it could "happen" again (always the omission of agency, as though these unfortunate things just stir themselves up, like bad weather);

2) As an unpleasant episode that has been gracefully laid to rest: Thank goodness we've moved on, look what perfect racial harmony we live in now, all of us getting along so nicely; surely we don't have to dwell on that terrible aberration.

These are the official, sanctioned ways to remember May 13th, but resistance to them isn't as common or obvious as one might expect. In Edinburgh last year, I was interviewed by a journalist who demanded to know why I'd written a novel "set in the past as usual." Why this obsession with the past, she kept asking, why not draw inspiration from my present life? I started to explain myself to her: I said I chose to include that chapter about May 13th because so few people discuss it meaningfully; because there are only these prescribed ways to talk about it; because, as a nation, we've never really digested it.

But she cut me off with a proclamation that has left me thinking about her for months: "The thing is," she said, "I'm not interested in the past. Frankly, it's boring. I've moved on."

It could almost be our new national motto: *Malaysia. We've moved on.* We've insulated ourselves inside city-sized malls, to which we drive in SUVs that replicate the temperatures of a Scandinavian spring. So the economy is a little wobbly these days, but we can still afford the Japanese buffets stocked with airflown seafood; we can still queue up for novelty cupcakes and donuts. Yes, we bemoan the government's latest iniquities, the arrests, the covered-up crimes, the wrestling matches in parliament. There's enough to entertain us right here, right now. Why talk about the past? It takes a lot of effort, for unclear rewards, to connect May 13th 1969 with anything that's happening today. And yet I can't shake the conviction that so much of what our nation is began on that day (or in the weeks leading up to it, because the truth is that it didn't just "happen" spontaneously). It was our watershed, and until we acknowledge that, *I* can't move on, and am equal parts impressed and offended by anyone who claims to have done so.


Drachen said...

Oh yeah, I remember May 13. I remember my dad worrying about the future for us kids. He said the Malays and Chinese used to be like abang-adik. I remember my dad hiding weapons in the house in case we were attacked. I remember him opening up the chain-link fences in case we had to run.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not interested in the past, I've moved on."

Poor journalist. Other people are interested in the past though. And also to the same journo - others are making news, you're only recording them.

- Poppadumdum

Anonymous said...

the journalist forgot that the late 1960s to early 70s was a turbulent period everywhere, and not just in malaysia.

most of the ideological and political battles that are being fought in Europe and the US today (e.g. matters related to liberalism vs conservatism) originate from the various unresolved issues that occurred during the Sixties.

even among the least sentimental westerners, people are still not ready to move on. and the more difficult problem is that they are not even sure how to do it (obamamania notwithstanding).

- burhan

Anonymous said...

Preeta is right, we move on. That's exactly how it goes, despite everything, the country goes forward. Country doesn't stop for anything, which is interesting and weird at the same time.