LABOUR PARTY MEMBERS carry their party symbol and a portrait of slain Chinese party worker Lim Soon Seng during a protest march in Kuala Lumpur, on 9 May 1969. Seng’s coffin is carried behind the portrait. Seng was killed in a clash with the police—a shocking event that further fuelled tensions between the Malay and Chinese communities. Malaysia had faced ethnic tensions and political polarisation for decades. Since gaining independence in 1957, the Malay majority has enjoyed a special status under the constitution, while its ethnic minorities are often subject to discriminatory treatment.
Seng’s death is believed to be a factor that contributed to the outbreak of violence on 13 May, known as the May 13 incident, or the 1969 race riots. The violence erupted after the results of the Malaysian general election were announced that year. Opposition parties, supported by the Chinese community, made significant gains over the ruling coalition. Malay nationalist groups protested the election results, leading to clashes that spread across Kuala Lumpur and other parts of the country. The riots lasted until 31 July, resulting in hundreds of deaths, most of them ethnic Chinese.
The Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the constitutional monarch and the head of state of Malaysia, declared a state of emergency and suspended Parliament. Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first prime minister of Malaysia, was eventually forced to resign. The May 13 incident remains a significant event in Malaysian history and is a painful reminder of the country’s ethnic and racial tensions.