Thirty students performed a play in rememberance of the 1969 racial riots in Malaysia as part of the eighth annual Malaysian Cultural Night on Sunday night, which also the celebrated the Lunar New Year.
The play, written by Ross sophomore Jeevan Netraaj Singh, tells the story of a Chinese boy named Lee who was orphaned because of the race riots. Throughout the plot of the play, he develops a deep resentment for Malays, blaming them for the death of his mother, but his feelings of hatred change when he is eventually adopted by a Malay family.
LSA junior Aifa Muhammad Radzi, the publicity director of the Malaysian Cultural Night Board, explained the topic of the race riots is generally avoided in Malaysian schools.
“Why we highlight it in the play is that we don’t actually talk about it a lot in Malaysian history classes,” Radzi said. “In Malaysia, it’s still considered a sensitive topic.”
The riots are viewed by many Malaysians as a dark spot in the country’s history. A racial divide between Chinese and Malays developed, which was intensified by the 1969 Malaysian general election. After the election, many angered Malaysians attacked members of the Chinese-dominated majority party, as well as many civilians. The casualties of the riots were predominantly Chinese.
Singh, the director of Malaysian Cultural Night, echoed Radzi’s statements and said he felt some Malaysian people in his community felt uncomfortable with his choice of topic.
“Even when I was writing this play, I felt some resistance from some fellow Malaysians that did not want me to go through with this because they thought there were so many other aspects of Malaysian history I could talk about,” Singh said.
Singh said he chose to write a play about the racial riots because he felt they were important to discuss and remember. When writing the play, he wanted to depict how Malaysia is truly an integration of different cultures. Singh’s play featured a traditional Malaysian dance, as well as a Chinese Umbrella Dance and Bhangra, a traditional dance originating from India, to represent Malaysia’s multicultural society.
“Tonight’s play focuses on the lesson of how we as a nation went through the riot, went through the experiences and then built a society, learned from our mistakes,” Singh said.
By the end of the play, Lee comes to the realization that his hatred would only spawn further hatred. He accepted the events of the past and learns to love his new Malay family.
Radzi agreed the play’s purpose was to talk about the riots, and hopes by remembering these events, future incidents can be prevented.
“Mainly it’s stressing racial harmony,” Radzi said. “Lots of our plays, like in previous years, we do stress that a lot. Although the recent generation is becoming more racially integrated, there is still some sense of racial tension.”
Music, Theatre & Dance junior Stone Stewart attended the event and said he liked seeing other students telling this story of Malaysian culture. All the performers were students and the majority were also involved with the Malaysian Students Association.
“These are other members of our community — just other students — and I think it was a lot more powerful, them speaking on our level, because they’re other community members” Stewart said.
Stewart referred to a point in the play which explained how history has a way of repeating itself.
“If you don’t recognize the history we’ve been through, you are very susceptible to repeat yourself,” Stewart said.
LSA alum Lisa Kim also attended the play and talked about the importance of remembering the past because of what she believes to be the past’s relevance to the present and future.
“It’s important to know history in general and especially events like these,” Kim said. “It helps to remind not just people who were involved in the actual event, but also those who don’t really know about it, so that they can understand other cultures and the struggles they’ve been going through.”