Today we celebrate the 63rd anniversary of Merdeka, Malaya’s independence from Britain. It is, therefore, a good time to reflect on the state of the nation.
Where are we as a nation? Have we progressed in these 63 years? If so, what sort of progress? How much of the aspirations of Merdeka have we achieved?
In 1957, there were those who predicted that Malaya as a nation would fail because the three major races – Malays, Chinese and Indians – would not be able to live in harmony or tolerance. Some felt there was too much suspicion between the races, that there were too many cultural and other differences for the experiment to work.
Have we proved them wrong? Have the suspicions disappeared or been reduced? Is there real harmony in the nation or are we living in a bubble? Have the people we trusted to lead us fulfilled their duty or failed us?
It is at such times that we should recall the aspirations of our people in 1957. What sort of free Malaya did they envisage?
One of the best ways is to listen again to the words of our founding fathers and those who were in the thick of the struggle for Merdeka, and in this, I never tire of talking about first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and his vision.
On Merdeka eve, thousands gathered at the Selangor Padang (now called Dataran Merdeka) to celebrate the occasion and watch the British flag being lowered and the Malayan flag being hoisted.
Tunku began his speech by saying: “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.”
He went on to say: “To all Malayans this is a fateful moment, a moment we have been praying for – a moment of joy and gladness. Humble yourselves before God whether it be in mosques, churches, temples or your homes. Give thanks to Him for this blessing he has showered upon us.
“A new star rises in the eastern sky – a star of freedom for yet another Asian nation. A new hope comes into being, a dream long cherished now materialises. 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.”
Today, 63 years later, have we achieved these? Do we, for instance, have freedom of speech or are we afraid that if we criticise the government or some government agency, we may land in trouble?
The Tunku continued: “With freedom there is much to do for us all. Freedom must bring with it opportunities to all; to the needy new hope, to the sick and afflicted relief, to those distressed and in want, help. We shall build our social, economic and educational structures so that the new nation will rear its head, sturdy and proud, and the people happy and contented.”
If there is one thing the Tunku stressed again and again, it was for people to be happy and contented. Is that the case today, 63 years later?
About midnight on Aug 30, 1957, the Tunku’s message was: “No matter who you are, live in harmony in this glorious land of ours.”
Have we as citizens followed this advice? Have we adopted a live-and-let-live attitude? Have we tried to understand fellow citizens of other races and religions so that there can be harmony?
Have we tried to accommodate each other rather than wanting everything for ourselves or our race? Are we, on an individual level, looking beyond race in our relationships with people we meet – whether on the road, at the office or in the mall?
Looking at another citizen, but of another race, do we see a competitor, or worse, an enemy, or do we see a fellow traveller?
If you are a leader – especially in politics or government – have you taken any concrete measure to help everyone get closer or have your words and actions further divided people of different races and religions?
Do we see the diversity of races and religions as a problem or as an opportunity?
In July 1957, a month before Merdeka, the last British High Commissioner to Malaysia Donald MacGillivray said the country would do well if it continued with the “goodwill and mutual trust and tolerance that has hitherto characterised relations between the communities”.
Addressing the Rotary Club in Seremban, he added: “We are often reminded that Malaya is a multi-racial state and that she faces peculiar difficulties on that account. These difficulties, though no doubt real, have, I think, at times been exaggerated and they are certainly not insurmountable.”
He went on to say that the “diversity of races in a self-governing Malaya can be a source of strength and not a sign of weakness if men of goodwill work together to make it so”.
On Aug 28, 1967, 10 years later, then deputy prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein – one of the architects of the nation – in opening a Merdeka exhibition asked:
“In the 10 years that have passed, a lot of changes have taken place. Have those changes been for the better? Can we look back with pride on those changes that occurred during this period? Have we built a society and a nation which our children can be proud of? Have we given them the best that we could give?
“Have we given them a better world to look forward to? Have we improved the lot and wellbeing of the man on the street? Have we fulfilled the aspirations that we hoped for on the day when we proclaimed our country a free, democratic and independent nation?
Today, 53 years later, Razak’s questions are still relevant.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.