The ritualistic month-long celebration of Merdeka (independence) activities has largely lost its meaning, in part because the history of the roles that different groups played in the road to independence has been rewritten to support the current rulers. The August 31 celebration, the day that Malaya gained independence from the British, as the major national day seems to exclude the aspirations of Sabahans and Sarawakians, who on September 16, 1963, joined Malaya and Singapore in a union called Malaysia. Groups like the Communist Party of Malaya, which fought and lost many lives against both the British and Japanese, are almost totally excluded from the nation’s Merdeka narrative as well.
This is all occurring in an environment desperately in need of a narrative of inclusiveness.
The current Merdeka celebration suppresses a generation of new ideas and national creativity that could spring up from an environment of inclusiveness. They have severed any empathetic connections between Malaysia’s diverse elements, replacing them with a single narrative that one would find on a cellulose film like “Tanda Putera.” A whole generation of people now exist who behave according to the beliefs and values incorporated from this narrow narrative.
Ironically, during the Mahathir years, a strong national narrative existed which at the time appeared to be shared by middle class Malaysian society. Malaysia in the 80s and early 90s had a deep sense of national pride where any senses of inferiority were thrown out of the window with the cry of “Malaysia Boleh.” Many people at the time believed that Malaysia was the best country in the world to live in. Almost 25 years on, these feelings have been replaced with a sense of disappointment over law and order, corruption, religious intolerance, and self indulgence.
That Malaysia has many domestic issues to solve and its place in international rankings is slipping – these considerations do not appear in the country’s national discussion. Rather, it appears that division is in everybody’s best interests, from the lowly school administration right up to the highest echelons of government.
Malaysia has lost that true spiritual unity between people that catalyzed independence in the first place, first with the British during the 1950s and then between the parties that made up the Malaysian union in 1963.
Missing today is the aspirations about the purpose and ‘dreams’ the country was founded upon during the struggle for independence, and its subsequent search for an identity as a nation. Malaysia as a nation is yet to realize that diversity has an inherent spiritual unity about it. Suppress it and the national narrative becomes one without any optimism for a ‘just and equitable society.’
The Malaysian rulers have felt insecure with their own values, preferring to adopt a neo-colonial development paradigm of unquestioned growth, development, and profiteering. Development has been a game for the elite, without any questioning of this occidental paradigm.
Greed and intolerance have thus developed into two of the most important post-Merdeka qualities. This has been at a great cost to the development of any sense of shared spiritualism about the country. Malaysia is in need of the qualities of compassion, tolerance, mercy and forgiveness as the assumptions behind any national development agenda. This is where the universal values of Islam are important and where the true sense of an Islamic state really exists. Islam must be viewed as a way to enhance the quality of society rather than a tool to control society.
The banning of books, the demolition of buildings, and the suppression of many practices is causing the cream of Malaysia’s society to flee. Repression through brute force has cost the country dearly. Crony capitalism and corruption is keeping Malaysia in the ‘dark ages.’ This parochial thinking precludes any vision of a progressive and prosperous Malaysia in the coming decades, which could in time force Malaysia to become a slave to the new emerging world order.
Malaysia must find its own dream rather than adopting those of other nations. The aspirations of multimedia super corridors, Cyberjaya, and biotechnology clusters, are the stuff of other peoples’ dreams, preventing the creation of something that could be uniquely Malaysian.
The evils of this narrow conception of progress will be felt by future generations of Malaysians who will have to pick up the pieces of a destitute and stripped environment that others before them have ravaged.
As long as the UMNO ruling party retreats back into its shell of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ (Malay superiority), the language of intolerance and inequality will continue to divide Malaysia. This ignores the needs of a rapidly changing society, which will almost certainly bring further friction, one in which the illusion of harmony might come to an abrupt end.
The current divisions within UMNO are serving the interests of a select few who can dictate the agenda. This will prevent UMNO from learning how to reengage its traditional constituency again and reform itself in the spirit of Merdeka.
However, at the same time, the popular vote of the last election strongly indicates that the majority of people are looking for some form of genuine change within Malaysian society. But, it was just wishful thinking to suggest that any electoral outcome would actually bring change. Real change could not occur, as all the parties involved within the political process are institutionalized. Any real change requires a complete rebirth of ideas and new processes to accompany them. This requires a totally frank national dialogue in the spirit of accepting diversity, honoring those people who worked together to achieve Merdeka more than 50 years ago.
Murray Hunter is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com