There are some numbers you never forget. For many Malaysians, they include the numbers five, one, three. This is a reference to May 13th, in particular May 13th, 1969.
The 13 May 1969 incident refers to the Sino-Malay sectarian violence in Kuala Lumpur (then part of the state of Selangor), Malaysia, which reportedly began on 13 May 1969. The racial riots led to a declaration of a state of national emergency or Darurat by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong resulting in the suspension of the Parliament by the Malaysian government, while the National Operations Council, also known as the Majlis Gerakan Negara, was established as a caretaker government to temporarily govern the country between 1969 and 1971.
Like many others who lived through that difficult time I can recall where I was when we first heard the news. I was 14 and in Form 3 (Grade 9). On the afternoon of May 13th, 1969, dad came home from office earlier than he normally did. He told all of us to stay at home, that there had been trouble. He then went out to the sundry shop to get some groceries. We had to stock up in case the violence spread and we could not get food.
We lived in Penang and so were spared the worst of the violence. (Most of it happened in Selangor.) Life ground to a stop. We wanted to know what was happening. Even then we didn’t quite trust the mainstream media. Since we had no Internet, we waited eagerly for foreign newspapers and news magazines from friends coming back from abroad. Everyday we feasted on rumours. Many of them were ones that kept score as to how many more Chinese had been killed in comparison to Malays. I wondered if the ratio were reversed in the rumours that reached Malay homes. It was a terrible time. It was a pivotal time in Malaysian history.
Yesterday was the 44th anniversary of the May 13 Incident. And like 44 years ago, yesterday’s anniversary came after a hard fought general elections. Perhaps it is one mark of the maturing of the nation that yesterday came and went without any incidents of racial violence though there were threats by some quarters to do so. I have long concluded however that racism is a poison that is deeply entrenched in all of us, perhaps the last “act of the flesh” to disappear.
Followers of Jesus believe that all humankind is made in the image of God. Therefore no race is inherently superior or inferior to another and that we are not to treat people differently because of their race. Like the Lord, we are not to view people by their externals but to look at their hearts (1 Samuel 16:7). In fact, Jesus made race a key issue when He discussed eternal life. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, He makes a Samaritan the hero (Luke 10:25–37).
Jews viewed Samaritans as Jew wannabes, second-class and impure. That means if you were a Jew, you would have grown up being told that Samaritans were an inferior and impure race, a race to be shunned, a race not worthy of your care. If you were a Samaritan, you would have grown up looked down upon by Jews. By making a Samaritan the hero of the story, Jesus is saying a number of things.
For a Jewish listener, Jesus is saying race is not what defines people. It is how they relate to God and neighbour. Therefore there is no place for racism. Folks of other races, even Samaritans, can be heroes in God’s eyes. Many Jews had forgotten that Abraham, the father of Israel, was called to start a nation that would be a blessing to the other nations (Genesis 12:1–3), not a nation that looks down on other nations. Listening to a story where a Samaritan was the hero would have been very jarring to a Jewish listener, a wake-up call to reconsider how he or she viewed other races.
If you were a Samaritan listening to the parable, you would have to be confronted with the fact that to have eternal life, to love God and love neighbour, is no armchair doctrine. It includes loving people who looked down on you, people who ridiculed you. It is to renounce a way of thinking that put people in two lists, the neighbour list, people who warranted my care, and a non-neighbour list, people whom I needn’t love. Instead, I need to ask, “Am I a neighbour to people in need, whatever their race? Do I really have eternal life?”
Like many, I long that Malaysia—indeed, all countries—would be free of racism. I know that that will finally happen in the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 5:9, 7:9–10). In the meantime, as salt and light, we do all we can to build bridges and dismantle walls between different racial groups. Some of us will be called to fight this good fight in civil society and politics. All of us should reach out to folks in our sphere of influence with genuine friendship, whatever their race.
I suspect, however, that true and permanent celebration of the different races will only come when peoples’ hearts are transformed by the gospel and acknowledge the same God, the Lamb upon the throne. Therefore, in our quest for racial harmony, we cannot backpedal the preaching of the gospel. I think, however, that we also need to demonstrate the power of the gospel by demonstrating how we celebrate the different races in our churches. Often the Church of Christ has been guilty of horrendous racism. God forgive us. We need to take a long hard look at how we handle racism in the Body of Christ, not just as a demonstration of the power of the gospel but as a key test of whether we truly have eternal life.