Let’s rekindle the torch of freedom at Dataran Merdeka

History books say, and most people assume, that Malaya became independent at the stroke of midnight. Not so if you take the flag raising ceremony as indicative of the time Malaya became an independent nation.

The Malayan flag actually replaced the Union Jack, the flag of the “empire on which the sun never sets”, seven minutes after midnight.

I try to visualise the crowds arriving at the field, until then known as the Selangor Club padang. By 9pm, there is a huge crowd of about 5,000 excited people, and more pour into the area as midnight nears.

Then the dignitaries begin arriving. There is Abdul Razak Hussein, the Tunku’s lieutenant in Umno; there is Sir Tan Cheng Lock, the leader of the MCA and there is V T Sambanthan, the leader of the MIC.

Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, the then Chief Minister of Malaya, is scheduled to be at the padang just before midnight. As his car arrives at the federal secretariat along Jalan Raja, jubilant Malayans swarm around it, waving and shouting. As he steps out of the car and walks up to the dais, he is mobbed by enthusiastic citizens, despite the efforts of the Alliance party’s youth wing to calm the crowd and make a path for him.

The clock at the secretariat building sounds the first notes to signal the arrival of midnight, and the Tunku hurries up to the dais. As he does so, a wild roar, a grateful roar, erupts from among the crowd of proud Malayans who have been elatedly waiting for the independence hour.

As everyone’s eyes turn to the three poles bearing the Union Jack flanked by the flags of the Alliance and Umno, the music “God Save the Queen” begins to fill the air. As the British flag is lowered, the celebratory shouts move a pitch higher, higher, and higher. The crowd goes wild when the Malayan flag begins to be hoisted.

Excitement has not gripped just those in the crowd; those responsible for the stage and music too are caught in the emotional drama. Which is why someone starts playing the “Negara Ku” record even before the Malayan flag is hoisted. But, just as abruptly, the music is stopped. The record of the national anthem starts playing again when the Malayan flag moves upwards to flutter proudly at the top of the flagpole.

The Tunku comes down to inspect the guard of honour mounted by Alliance youths, before greeting delegations from the 12 states of the federation standing on the field. He then walks back to the stage where a group of Alliance youths, led by Umno Youth leader Sardon Jubir, come before him. Sardon places a gold chain around Tunku’s neck and declares him “Bapa Kemerdekaan Tanah Ayer” or Father of Independence. The midnight air is ruptured by spontaneous shouts of “Bapa Kemerdekaan Tanah Ayer” from the crowd.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, who will become the nation’s first prime minister later that morning, then addresses the crowd. His is a message of hope for a newly independent nation.

He says: “This is the greatest moment in the life of the Malayan people, for at the stroke of midnight a new nation is born – a nation that will stand forthwith free and independent.”

Telling Malaysians to be grateful to God, he continues: “Humble yourselves before God whether it be in mosques, churches, temples or your homes. “

The Tunku says: “It is freedom for the Malayan people, and once this torch of freedom is lit, let us hold it high so that all around us will glow with radiant happiness.

“Let freedom be secured for all the law-abiding people. There shall be freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of movement.”

The Tunku adds: “No matter who you are, live in harmony in this glorious land of ours.” He finishes with shouts of Merdeka which are lustily answered by the jubilant crowd.

Later in the day, people crowd into the newly-built national stadium to watch the Tunku read the official declaration of independence – with the rulers and representatives of the British crown in attendance.

As I watch Freedom Square, Dataran Merdeka, I recall some of the other instances when crowds had gathered there, especially over the past 30 years or so when people who felt their freedoms had been trampled upon by the government gathered in and around that iconic padang. Despite threats, despite forceful action by the authorities, they had the courage to stand up and have their say.

Dataran Merdeka is our heritage. It is where Malayans went hoarse shouting “Merdeka”. It is a symbol of freedom and independence and should always remain so.

Unfortunately, today, it has become a mere tourist attraction. Like a book that we keep in the shelf and dust up once in a while, most of us only remember the padang in August each year. We only see it as an icon of freedom on Aug 31 each year, if at all.

It is time to make better use of the field and remind Malaysians of its role in our history.

There can be free screenings of documentaries related to Malaysia, especially its history, and Malaysian-made movies (in all the major languages spoken in Malaysia, not just in Bahasa Malaysia) every weekend – with everyone sitting on the ground to watch. People can be encouraged to come there and read their poems or perform one-man comedy shows.

More importantly, it is time to make it the symbol of freedom every day of the week. Right now, Kuala Lumpur City Hall acts as though Dataran Merdeka belongs to it. The previous government acted as if it belonged to the government and nobody else.

Nonsense.

Dataran Merdeka belongs to all Malaysians and if anyone wants to make use of it for legitimate, lawful reasons – including holding a public protest to bring attention peacefully to some misdeed or infringement of a citizen’s rights – he or she should be allowed to do so.

I think it is time for a Speaker’s Corner at Dataran Merdeka to allow any citizen the right to say what he wishes to whoever is willing to listen. I suggest that the mechanics of it be worked out by a committee headed by the speaker of Parliament.

Speakers should be allowed to talk on anything under the sun as long as they don’t condemn any religion or race or speak ill of the sultans. Those who don’t agree with the speaker can have their turn to speak at another time or on another day. There should be no need to apply for a permit from the police or City Hall, but at least two policemen should be around to keep things under control.

Who knows, it may well help bring back the days when people met physically to talk about things, instead of staying at home or in some building and communicating via lifeless social media.

If we wish to give true meaning to the iconic symbol of freedom that Dataran Merdeka is, we should allow people to gather there and speak freely.

If we wish to honour the Tunku, if we wish to truly celebrate freedom, we should actuate his words: “Let freedom be secured for all the law-abiding people. There shall be freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of movement.”

Is the Pakatan Harapan government, which talks highly of freedom and justice, willing to hold high this torch that the Tunku and other leaders lit on Aug 31, 1957?

A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT

The views of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.