Every time Ramon Navaratnam watches clips of Tunku Abdul Rahman shouting “Merdeka”, there are tears in his eyes.
Memories of that day when he stood in Stadium Merdeka and watched the country’s first prime minister declare Malaya an independent nation cascade in his mind every time Aug 31 looms. And this has been so for many years.
Today too tears form in the eyes of the former top civil servant – but there’s an additional reason for it.
“When I see and hear the clip of Merdeka Day 1957 being played on TV, there are tears in my eyes because it was such a poignant occasion.
“But my tears now are also tears of disappointment over the decline in national unity, as compared with that time,” the 88-year-old Navaratnam told me.
He recollected being caught up in the fervour of independence and wanting desperately to watch the declaration of independence on Aug 31, 1957.
Uncertain if he would be allowed in, the then third-year economics student at the University of Malaya in Singapore, slipped into Stadium Merdeka via a hole in the fence separating Victoria Institution, where he had earlier studied, and the stadium. The opening had been made years ago by students of the school to escape prefects on the prowl.
When the Tunku raised his hand to shout “Merdeka”, Navaratnam joined the thousands of people in the stadium to echo him and send a mighty roar to signal the birth of a new nation.
Navaratnam, who later went to Harvard University and rose in the ranks to retire as secretary-general of the transport ministry, said: “I took and still take great pride in our independence. There was a surge of nationalism and a great sense of belonging to the country. It inspired me to follow my father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and join the civil service to do my part in the nation’s development.”
But, like many Malaysians, he’s a sad man today – for the spirt of 1957 is gone.
He said the recent election results did not indicate that Malaysia would ever again see the 1957 Merdeka spirit “where we felt one with each other, where we did not discriminate race and religion, where we felt equality as one nation”.
Navaratnam said: “Today there is a lot of talk about a Malay Malaysia and this is affecting unity. It seems Malaysia has become more monoracial, not multiracial. I hope the unity govt will strengthen unity instead of allowing more polarisation.”
He said it was not hard to bring about unity: “Just be fair to everyone and ensure that wealth is spread out fairly and equitably.”
“I hope Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his government will, this Merdeka Day, resolve to bring back the spirit of 1957 and ensure greater unity. This Merdeka may be the last chance we have to act purposefully to achieve the ideals set by our forefathers,” he said.
Like Navaratnam, 99-yeer-old Habibah Kader Mastan is worried about the direction of the nation.
“What’s happening to the country today? I don’t know where it is going and I can only pray for the best.”
Habibah, who has voted in every general election since Merdeka except the last because she had then moved from Perak to Selangor, said in the early days there were no racial or religious problems.
“We moved around like brothers and sisters. People those days were not greedy, not thinking only of themselves; they always thought about the welfare of others.
“These days it’s very different. The racial problem is bad. For instance, the Chinese stick to themselves and the Malays stick to themselves.
“It was not like this in the early days. Many Malays then adopted Chinese children and Indian children. Indians adopted a lot of Chinese babies too, and you could see Chinese children walking with the ‘pottu’ on their forehead. You don’t see that now.”
People then respected each other’s religions and cultures and helped each other regardless of which community they belonged to.
Lamenting the current political situation, Habibah, who was active in the MIC in her younger days, said: “Tunku Abdul Rahman, Razak Hussein and Hussein Onn never thought of enriching themselves or their relatives or friends. There was integrity and the country was managed well.
“They joined politics to serve the nation and the people. They cared for the people. But politicians today use people to enrich themselves, today it is all about money and power. This is greed, not politics.”
She noted sadly that politics in those days built up patriotism and togetherness but today it divided people by race and religion.
Another who feels sad about the current situation is educationist Dr I Lourdesamy, 88.
On Aug 31, 1957, Lourdesamy was in London studying at the Brinsford Lodge teacher training centre which had been established to produce teachers for independent Malaya. About 300 Malayans of all races were studying there then.
“We were all in our twenties and had little understanding of what Merdeka really meant. Nevertheless, we celebrated the occasion with much joy, pride and expectation. We were eager to return home and serve our nation.
“This is what I remember most about celebrating Merdeka in 1957: the unity and brotherhood with my fellow Malayans across race, religion, language, culture and gender.
“That we were Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians did not matter. This was the spirit with which we celebrated Merdeka, and the bonds established then still remain strong,” said the chief executive of a private college.
“Today, we appear to have lost this”, said Lourdesamy, adding that we need to recover that spirit of unity.
Although former teacher Syed Mohd Bakar Syed Mohd Salim, 87, feels sad about the turn of events since 1957, he has not lost hope and feels the present volatility is the harbinger of better times.
Syed Mohd Bakar, who had just come out of teacher’s training college in Kota Bharu when Merdeka was declared, said: “People my age then were not too excited about independence simply because we were not directly involved in it, like taking to the streets or holding demonstrations. The process of gaining independence was smooth sailing.”
But, he said, it was a more innocent time.
“There wasn’t too much interference in our lives from politicians and there was nothing of religion in the national consciousness. It was a time when the essence of democracy prevailed and Malays, Chinese and Indians all felt as one.”
There is a difference today, with the nation beset by a host of problems, not least of which is tension over religion and racial issues.
But Syed Bakar feels Malaysians should not overreact.
“A lot of people today are lamenting the racial problems and all that. I see the volatility, the mood we are in as a bringer of better things because it means people are more politically aware.
“Some people are criticising Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, saying he isn’t doing much. I think he is doing his best to stabilise the economy and bring back money stolen by scoundrels. Let’s trust him and give him some space, some time. I think we can forge a Malaysian spirit.
“At my teacher training college, one of the world’s best psychologists, a gentleman named Dr Cottier, took a class. One day he came to class with a white paper, placed a dot on it and asked what we saw.
“We all saw the black dot. Pointing out that we had missed the huge white space, he explained that human tendency was to see the small negative dots and not the huge positive things in life.
“As we celebrate Merdeka, let’s focus on the white space and not the black dots,” added Syed Mohd Bakar.
I agree. No matter how bleak the situation appears, we have to fight on for what we believe in and focus on the white space while working to reduce, if not remove, the dots.
After all, isn’t the Merdeka spirit about fighting against all odds for what we believe in and to achieve freedom from the shackles that bind us – including the shackles of stupidity, narrow mindedness, hypocrisy, egoism and authoritarianism in any form?
The writer can be contacted at [email protected]
The views expressed as those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.