Our country, our future – craft it responsibly

On Aug 31, we celebrated 58 years of Independence. However, the few days before that were tumultuous. Fortunately, the demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur proceeded relatively peacefully, but I always feel a little comfortable when people take to the streets to protest as a mob.

Remember the Arab Spring in 2010? The people stood up as one against the governments and leaders of over a dozen Middle Eastern countries for a better future. Most did not end well.

I’ve recently been working with Rack Focus Films for the History channel on a documentary about Merdeka and the formation of Malaysia. I find it fascinating that we together with Singapore managed to achieve independence through relative peace, as compared to what happened in some other South-East Asian countries.

A great deal of credit for Malaysia’s independence is correctly attributed to Tunku Abdul Rahman. It was a path of negotiation and compromise, punctuated with steely determination to stand his ground at a few crucial moments.

In 1954, Tunku and Umno were negotiating with the British about the new upcoming Federal Elections. Tunku wanted more seats allocated for the public vote (the rest were to be determined by the British), but the British wouldn’t budge.

Tunku then gave an ultimatum. He withdrew from his position in the government, and encouraged the other members of Umno and MCA to do the same.

This was quickly followed by demonstrations around the country. The British quickly sat down to negotiate with Tunku, offered a compromise and Tunku led Umno to a landslide victory in the 1955 Federal Elections.

On the surface, it looks as if Tunku’s diplomacy paved the way. But the truth is that the British were already willing to negotiate – the compromise they laid out in front of Tunku had already been proposed and discussed internally within the Colonial Office weeks before, and was even put up as a question in British parliament.

And when Umno and MCA left out crucial information in speeches to their party members, the British privately seethed at what they saw as politicking. Yet, they still were willing to negotiate for the sake of moving forward.

The establishment of Umno in 1946 was also a result of widespread protests by Malays against the crude attempts of the British to force the Sultans to agree to consolidate the Malay states into a Malayan Union, and to grant non-Malays citizenship.

The popularity of the protests surprised the British. Particularly, they were concerned that the situation would degenerate. Sir Edward Gent, the governor at the time, wrote in a secret telegram with concerns that “substantial Indonesian elements ... may develop acts of violence against non-Malay communities”.

As a result, the British decided to look for a peaceful solution and sat down at the negotiation table with Umno. They made stricter the conditions for citizenship, among many other things. This act of recognition gave Umno credibility, the party gained popularity and became established.

Umno was not alone in its fight for rights. One aspect of the documentary I am working on is that many parties were trying to gain independence for Malaya, and it is partly by chance that it turned out the way it did.

Many of these organisations also used protest as part of their campaign to persuade (or compel) the British to their point of view.

Tan Cheng Lock who was inspired by the independence movement in India was part of the All-Malaya Council of Joint Action (AMCJA) that organised a “hartal” (a nation-wide strike) in 1947 to bring attention to the call by non-Malays for citizenship.

In this particular case, the British did not respond to it (they felt they could safely ignore it), but Cheng Lock was recognised as a leader of his community and went on to lead the MCA with encouragement from the British.

Another party who contributed to the hartal was the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). After the hartal failed to move the British, they tried to win over the public by organising strikes and industrial action.

However, the authorities clamped down hard on their efforts, using force to break up the demonstrations. This in turn forced the communists to take up an armed revolution, which sparked the Malayan Emergency and the bloodshed that accompanied it.

The British were willing to negotiate with Tunku and Cheng Lock, but not with the communists. It was this key difference that meant one route had a chance of peaceful success, while the other was doomed from the start. Those in power also recognised that there lay a way forward that would benefit the country without degenerating into chaos, but there was a line over which they would not cross over.

I agree that determined negotiation carries with it a good chance for a peaceful path to success, while violence has an unpredictable quality to it. It is up to both sides to ensure peace. Certainly those in Syria who participated in the 2010 Arab Spring would not have foreseen the messy civil war that ISIS is thriving on now.

The wonderful thing about being an independent democratic country is that we have the future in our own hands. But this means we also have to craft it responsibly, both by those who are seeking a better future, and those in the position to grant it.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at star2@thestar.com.my.

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