A depiction of a Prime Minister and his Deputy leading the country through a difficult period. | Image taken from Tanda Putera promo stills.

Helena Michael watches and reviews the controversial Tanda Putera and comes back with unexpected insight.

A depiction of a Prime Minister and his Deputy leading the country through a difficult period. | Image taken from Tanda Putera promo stills.


For Merdeka Day, my hubby and I decided to watch Tanda Putera. I didn’t know much about the movie, but I kept seeing it being tweeted about, and when I asked my hubby what the movie was about, he said it was a controversial movie about May 13. I asked him why he wanted to watch the movie as we don’t usually watch local Malay productions, and he said, “I want to see for myself what the fuss and controversy is all about.” Intrigued, I agreed and thought to myself, this was a good way to celebrate Merdeka-watch a local production about some part history which seems to be causing some conflict among certain quarters. We had made plans to go to the movie with some friends, and so I quickly looked for some reviews about the movie to be able to forewarn my friends. The reviews I read and heard seemed to paint a bleak picture about the movie. Almost all of them were negative, particularly pertaining to the production quality, acting skills, lack of a proper story line and one observer even pointed out the inconsistencies of time, i.e. there was a CCTV in one frame and a Proton Saga Iswara in another.

Despite all these reviews and comments, and somewhat wary about taking my friend to watch this movie, we still decided to go ahead. Having given my friend ample warning and opportunity to opt out, we booked the tickets online. I remember my friend telling me at 11am that only 4 people so far had booked tickets. I laughed and thought to myself, well, if we’re the only ones, then it will be like a VIP screening of the movie.

How did I find the movie? I must say, I really enjoyed it. There were moments in the movie when I was asking myself and my husband if the scenes were real, i.e. did these things really happen? I was surprised at how little I knew or recalled about our history. Some of the scenes about the Chinese attacking the Malays somewhat alarmed me. I guess it affected me because these incidents happened so close to home. The Communist Chinese party members were portrayed as being extremely violent and brutal. The street killing scenes in the movie reminded me of the recent shootings that have taken place around our country and how similar they appeared to be. The other brutal scene that bothered me was the one that took place in a cinema where the Chinese were told to leave and the remaining patrons (Malays) were attacked and killed. Horrors!

However, contrary to what I know about the May 13 tragedy, there was very little shown of the backlash from the Malay community i.e. the Chinese being attacked by the Malays, so it appeared like the Chinese did all the killing. In this respect, the movie lacked balance and did not appear to depict what may have really happened in and around KL during the May 13 incident. Having said that, I must add that the May 13 violence occupied only about one third of the movie.

The main plot or story (at least from what I observed) was the friendship between the Tun Abdul Razak Hussein (Malaysia’s 2nd Prime Minister) and his deputy, Tun Dr Ismail. Admittedly, I have little recollection of who Tun Dr Ismail really was. This movie, whether accurate or not, gave me insight into who he was and how close he was to Tun Abdul Razak. He also appeared to be rather influential and seemed to have been the brains behind some of the Prime Minister’s major decisions at the time.

The focus for most of the movie was on the relationship between Tun Abdul Razak and his deputy, Tun Dr Ismail. | Image taken from Tanda Putera promo stills.

It may be that my view of the movie is too naïve, but despite the brutal and violent scenes about race relations and politics, I found the movie to be quite heartwarming. I certainly did not feel (being half-Chinese and all) that I needed to defend the community or worse, hit the streets rioting! I was particularly struck by the deep trust, respect and loyalty Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Dr Ismail had for each other. This was seen when Tun Dr Ismail suddenly died while serving as the DPM and how this greatly affected Tun Abdul Razak. It was also evident to me how the Malay culture placed a premium on trust, respect and loyalty, even at work. Tun Abdul Razak also came across as a gentle man, who cared sincerely for the welfare of the people.

As I watched the people’s reaction (in the movie) to the news of Tun Abdul Razak’s death, I wondered whether we would feel the same way about our current Prime Minister, who is the son of Tun Abdul Razak. As it stands, I seriously doubt so as there is little resemblance of the father to the current PM.

On a different note, I must say the wives were rather young, and after the movie when I mentioned it to my friend’s girlfriend, she said, “But that’s how it is, the wives are always young.”

Throughout the movie there was a group of people, i.e. a group of friends who were caught in the middle of the crisis. Coming from different ethnic backgrounds, the May 13 incident appeared to have all the makings of tearing their friendships apart. Although the crisis did give rise to some awkward moments between them, the friends were able to rise above it after some soul searching. That was nice. While it is almost certain that this part of the story was added as part of the producer’s creative license, I am quite certain it also reflects some of the experiences ordinary Malaysians had to grapple with during the crisis.

A group of friends feature in Tanda Putera, rising above racial tension and the May 13 crisis. | Image taken from Tanda Putera promo stills.

I’d like to think I represent the ordinary moderate Malaysian. Does this movie incite me and make me feel angry? Certainly not! As I mentioned earlier, the brutality and violence were only one part of the movie, while the rest was about the struggles of a Prime Minister and his Deputy who desired a better country. Many reviews have called into question the authenticity of this representation of Tun Abdul Razak. I don’t know as I am no historian. But at this point, I will take it at face value and make no judgments. Perhaps it’s sufficient for me to know that it would be nice if leaders today emulated Tun Abdul Razak’s care and concern for the people as depicted in the movie.

We all know that movies are not 100% accurate. In fact there is a disclaimer at the end of the movie saying as much. There are many factors that need to be considered when producing a movie as well as when watching a movie. This was not made as a documentary. It was a depiction, i.e. an attempt to highlight certain aspects of a man and his role as the Prime Minister of a country wading though difficult times. As with most movies, there are moments of exaggerations or playing down, and so we ought to watch cautiously. I am however glad that I did not blindly accept the reviews that followed the initial screening of the movie, but instead decided to watch the movie for myself with an open mind. Watching this movie has made me think about how much I know about my country’s history and its leaders. It has also helped me understand a little bit more about Malay culture and some of the values that they hold dear.


Helena M believes there is goodness in all things and persons if one looks hard enough. “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” ? William Shakespeare,...

11 replies on “Tanda Putera: It’s Not All that Bad”

  1. Dear Reader who has made it this far down the comments page. Ask yourself this: have any of the above comments been of any use whatsoever?

    The second thing to think about is, can you judge what the nation is thinking by comments on a website – its a very skewed perspective. Firstly, the sample data already filters to only people with access to Internet, enough free time, those who came here solely hoping to find something controversial, etc etc. Secondly, angry people are always the louder ones, and angry people without references even louder.

    So if you are disheartened by the vitriol and blind hate to anyone with any semblance of what may be intepreted as support for a certain party, (hell even non criticism seems to be an offence here!), don't fret. Always judge comments by what value they bring, and never be overwhelmed by volume. If many people say one thing there is absolutely no reason that it must be right.

    Have a good day :)

  2. "No historian" –
    "I have little recollection of who Tun Dr Ismail really was. This movie, whether accurate or not, gave me insight into who he was and how close he was to Tun Abdul Razak. "
    uninformed, unread and certainly not qualified to write a review of this "movie".

  3. As is rightly observed, the part on the riot (which occupied 1/3 of the movie) lacked balance. It only showed one community carrying out all the atrocities. It is similar to those cowboy and indian movies shown in the US. It almost always (then) depicted the Red Indians as the aggressors and the infantry coming in to save the day. You won't see such movies produced anymore today. And neither should this movie be allowed as a propaganda tool.

  4. Hi Helena,

    Thanks for sharing your views.

    (1) Do read the government's own white paper on May 13 and check the number of Chinese deaths as opposed to Malay deaths.

    (2) You've watched Hollywood movies — where (most of the time) Americans are always the heroes (from fighting savage native Indians, Vietnamese (in the Vietnam War), the many other dirty wars that the US is involved in, or even aliens. This movie does the same thing. It portrays Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Dr Ismail as heroes while glossing over the fact that they presided over possibly the most brutal act in Malaysia. Until today, none of those guilty (from all sides) have been brought to justice.

    It is worrying that you missed that element.

  5. Yup! The magic worked… History has been changed, due to the sudden temporal flux that has occurred…
    Someone, please sound the alarm, we must get the Starship Enterprise to travel back in time & take corrective actions…

    All hands! Battle-station….. Red Alert…..

  6. 2/ Subsequently, after the engineered riots had run their course, an Emergency was proclaimed by the Agong. The Dewan Rakyat rule was replaced for two years by the National Operations Council, led by Razak and Tunku was eased out by 1971. The storyline began, which now Helena (a non-Malay) innocently mouths, as if it is the gospel truth, that 13569 was STARTED by the dastardly Chinese and a few Indians who, not satisfied with economic hegemony (thanks to Tunku's benign ways) now also wanted political hegemony! Please, with minority numbers, and one-man-one-vote, the Chinese/Indians will never have such power. But the lies are being told and retold. We must always contest them, if we love Malaysia. Until the day the truth comes out.

  7. _Why would a minority group (Indians or Chinese) provoke a race riot by openly attacking and murdering members of the majority race? It doesn't stand to reason. On the other hand, elements in the the ruling party seized the opportunity, since the previous overwhelming majorities of the Alliance(UMNO, MCA,MIC-the precursor of BN) had been severely shaken in Penang and Selangor, plus the radical book by the ultra Kerala politician Mahathir Mohammad shook up Tunku's leadership, to call for a pogrom on the Chinese/Indians and usurp power from Tunku and moderate UMNO leaders./2_

  8. Looks like the film has worked its magic on Helena! -where she says that the Chinese attacked the Malays in the cinemaand then the Malays retaliated. No, that ain't the way it went. Thugs from outstation, possible K'tan and T'gganu were hired by certain leaders(no names mentioned) and then a rampaging crowd from Harun Idris' house rushed out and murdered 2 Chinese van drivers, waiting nearby. S'wak Rangers first sent in, fired at ANYONE breaking the curfew, then were recalled (why?) and replaced with M… Battaliona men

  9. It's not all that bad – how bad does it have to be before people should reject political propaganda? If the aim of the film is not to brainwash the gullible why is the government desperately promoting it? It took a lot of criticism and protests before the creators of the film admitted the film was fictional eg the urinating of the flag scene.

    You don't need to take a lot of poison to kill yourself and this film is poisonous propaganda meant to brainwash the Malays into thinking May 13 was the fault of the Chinese and to plaster over the fact – historical not fictional – that many of the victims were Chinese and many died from gunshot wounds.

    May 13 was a political conspiracy.

    It is an insult to the many innocent victims of the political crime to have the film distort the truth in the name of creative licence. Tanda Putera should have been titled Tandas Sejarah.

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