Merdeka means many things to many people, but it is easier to say what Merdeka is not.
Merdeka is not about admonishing and making police reports against the person who, last week, flew the Malaysian flag upside down. People can and do make genuine mistakes. Swearing, cursing and screaming at him will not make him want to show his patriotism next year.
Merdeka is not about Little Napoleons threatening businesses to make them fly the flag outside their premises to show patriotism. Sadly, many civil servants think that patriotism can be turned on like a tap.
Someone told me that Malaysians are less united today. I beg to differ. While it is true that pockets of racism are found in every section of society, these incidents do not detract from the fact that by and large, Malaysians are a united people.
If you want to see unity, look for it in the back streets, on the road, in a neighbourhood or at a sporting venue. Go to where the homeless are being fed, and you will see Malaysians helping those who are in need. An accident will see people working together to help the victims. Even in cases of road rage, others will intervene to defuse the situation. When a person suffers a loss, the neighbours will be among the first to offer help. A sporting event in which Malaysia is playing in is another occasion for unity.
Malaysians who have left the country, either to work or to live, are nostalgic about Merdeka. Merdeka celebrations overseas, especially in the high commissions or embassies, showcase our unity. We may be a diverse people but we are all proud to be Malaysian.
National day – Aug 31 – may not be a holiday elsewhere, except in Malaysia, but the expats will hold parties in the run-up to Merdeka, or after Merdeka day itself. It is not just nostalgia, but pride in the achievements of the nation. They are proud ambassadors for Malaysia.
Although a few political parties, and a significant number of politicians, still spew racist agendas, most Malaysians are aware that these politicians are self-serving and use politics as a means to an end. Their goal is to assume power, amass wealth and attain positions in society and in their parties. Their flock is equally misguided; many have been brainwashed, others are too stupid, or lazy, to realise that a united and equal Malaysia will bring out the best in people.
It is important that Malaysians speak out against racism and religious extremism. Islam does not differentiate between the races, but insecure and power-hungry politicians use religion to drive a wedge between communities.
How do people view Merdeka? A child and a schoolgoing teenager will look forward to the public holiday and fireworks displays. Others enjoy the Merdeka-themed parties. The older generation, born when Malaysia was a colony, will rejoice that Merdeka was, for them, a dream come true. Some of our grandparents and great grandparents probably actively campaigned for independence from the British.
Yesterday, in a special Merdeka video, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad said that Merdeka is an important celebration because it commemorates a time when our voice, and not the colonial masters, was finally heard. Some Malaysians will disagree because many of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) policies have not been executed.
So, does Merdeka pay tribute to lost opportunities?
Merdeka is a day when we feel pride and a sense of patriotism for our country. People look forward to Aug 31 and appreciate that our diversity makes us very special. Merdeka should not be seen as just a parade past the clock tower at Dataran Merdeka.
Perhaps, it would be true to say that Merdeka is a work in progress and we should not simply go through the motions of a parade, a fireworks display and flag flying, on one day of the year, when we should build on our unity and the contributions of each race every day.
If the government takes care of its people and does not isolate communities by treating some more favourably than others, the people will reciprocate. The government must take action to punish those who insult others because of their race or religion. It must be seen to be fair and just.
True equality among the various communities means that Malaysia will stand a better chance of realising its full economic and social potential. When push comes to shove, and faced with either an internal or external threat, Malaysians will rally round to defend the nation.
Selamat Hari Merdeka.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.