The Tugu Peringatan or Memorial Monument was completed in 1966 to honor the more than 11,000 soldiers from Malaysia that made the ultimate sacrifice for their country starting from World War I and on to World War II, Independence and the Emergency Period (a period of communist insurgency) and the Confrontation (with mighty Indonesia). The 15 m high bronze statue was the biggest in the world at that time. This monument is an important icon on Malaysia’s path and history of nation building. We proclaim to the fallen, their families and all Malaysians now and in the future, that we will “never forget”.
In contrast, the May 13th Incident seems to be something that Malaysians of all persuasions seem to want to forget. On May 13th 1969, race riots and sectarian violence erupted in Kuala Lumpur and some other parts of the country. By the time the smoke cleared, it is believed that more than 2,000 men, women and children were killed. Most of them were innocent and defenceless civilians. Official figures claim less than 200 killed. Many will forever be lost to their families allegedly coated in black paint (to make racial identification difficult) and buried in unmarked mass graves. There were stories of great brutality but there were also stories of great bravery and integrity on the part of the police, armed forces and ordinary citizens. Many stories tell of neighbours protecting each other irrespective of race or political leanings. However, a certain innocence of race harmony would be lost that day too.
Just a couple of days ago, a prominent journalist wrote that his young grand-daughter had no idea about the May 13th Incident and that in his opinion this was a good thing as this meant there is hope for the young generation to bring the nation forward without these baggages from the past. So instead of “never forget”, we are being encouraged “not to remember it anymore”.
I have to disagree. I think it is both a responsibility and a need to “never forget”. To all those who were murdered, we cannot forget. Not because we should seek to perpetuate a legacy of hatred and to promote revenge but to ensure that their deaths serve a purpose in warning us from going down that dark path again. In remembering, we can learn from history and avoid the same mistakes in the future. “Never forget” can than become “never again”. However, those who do not learn from history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat it again. I certainly hope for Malaysians that we learn and do not repeat our mistakes.
Unfortunately, despite the monuments and memorial days that we see around the world, I sense that most of the world is neither remembering nor learning from the past. World War I was the war to end all wars. Never again was the cry; yet within a few years, we were on the road to World War II.
Last century saw the Holocaust. We set up memorials and said never again. Yet just as the Jews were persecuted under Nazi Germany, today the Palestinians suffer under the heavy boot of Israel. Sure, we can analyse and given reasons and argue who has more rights but in my opinion oppression and killing of the defenceless will always be unjust. Why did we not learn?
Genocide, ethnic cleansing and even fracticide has occured again and again. The Khmer Rogue and the killing fields of Cambodia. The horrors of Rwanda. Even now, it is happening in places like Darfur, Sudan and the world seems unable and unwilling to do what it must to stop it.
I think that the first step to “never again” is to make sure that the whole world “never forgets” the lessons of the past. Instead of re-writing history, being politically sensitive and hiding these incidents, we need to do even more to highlight them, to teach about them in schools, universities and museums and to make sure that these terrible deeds are exposed before the powerful light of public consciousness. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Let us instead remember, learn and prevent these horrors from visiting us again.