Although I think of September 16 as more of a ‘national day’ than August 31, the latter is still a noteworthy date because it is the day Malaya became independent of the British.
These days however, I find myself wondering just how independent we really are.
Being colonised meant suffering as a result of the greed of others.
If we were to take that as our key definition, then it feels less like we have been successfully ‘decolonised’, and a little more than we have merely switched colonial masters - from those with a different skin colour as ours, to those with the same skin colour as ours.
Perhaps true Merdeka is independence from leaders and ministers who seem to feel they are above the law, and exempt from the rules that apply to other Malaysians.
Perhaps true Merdeka is not only casting off the yoke of foreign rulers, but casting off the yoke of any rulers who put their self interest above national interests.
Perhaps true Merdeka is about building our own homegrown democracy, rather than mimicking the broken systems of our former colonial masters.
It’s hard to feel that we are a functioning, independent democracy, when we have leaders and ministers who flout the law with impunity.
In a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, it is even more vital that leaders show solidarity with the rakyat, and demonstrate that we are all in this together.
What we seem to have instead is a situation not unlike pre-Independence days, where the reality was there was one set of rules for those who governed, and another set of rules for those who were governed.
What was the point of gaining independence, when such injustice and inequality prevails? Should we be so proud that we got rid of the white-skinned man, only to replace him with a darker-skinned man who behaves the same way?
1957 was a major turning point in our journey towards self-determination, but perhaps it is fallacious to think that the journey ended there. Perhaps in actual fact, we still have a long way to go.
If self-determination is the core of Merdeka – indeed the core of democracy itself – then surely in an era in which state and federal governments seem to change or collapse almost at the drop of a hat, we must ask ourselves: how Merdeka are we?
If we vote in one government, only to let the machinations of a few politicians overturn that vote completely, how Merdeka are we?
I think after the year we’ve had politically, more and more Malaysians are recognising that there are elements of our ‘independent’ democracy that are in severe need of fixing.
All the changes and collapses of government in this last year have all been technically quite legal indeed. They were all allowed by the political system that we inherited essentially wholesale from the British.
"Legal" is not the same as "right", however. And when what is not right can become legal, then it is high time we re-examine our laws and democratic institutions.The good news however, is that an increasing number of Malaysians are starting to do exactly that.
One encouraging thing this Merdeka is that we can clearly see the beginnings of a wave – a wave of Malaysians who have started to openly say: This system is broken, and we need a better one.
Even more encouraging is that these calls are coming from across the various spectrums that make up Malaysia, in terms of race, class, religion, and age.
This last week alone saw at least three interesting developments.
Firstly, there was a cross-partisan conversation between (Datuk Seri) Nazri Aziz, Anthony Loke, Thomas Fann, and Dr Wong Chin Huat, which explored ways of drastically changing our electoral system.
Secondly, there was the submission of the report from the Electoral Reform Committee to the government, which contained detailed recommendations of how we can do elections, and by extension democracy, better than the way it’s currently done.
Thirdly, buzz about the formation of a youth-based political party has emerged more clearly in the public eye.
Each of these initiatives in and of themselves may not contain all the solutions for Malaysia. There are many challenges and pitfalls involved, and the roads ahead will be tough.
That said, I for one choose to never underestimate the will, the energy, and the commitment of Malaysians to better their country.
And whatever happens in the end, I think the most significant thing to note this Merdeka, is that Malaysians are coming together once again, just like they did in 1957, to recognise that we can no longer simply plod along under a system that oppresses us – whether it is the oppression of white people, or the oppression of greed, injustice, and a broken democracy.
Perhaps if 1957 was our first wave of Merdeka, then 2020 may see the beginnings of our second wave.
Let’s hope that we will once again be able to rise together, and meet the dire challenges that face our nation as a united people.
NATHANIEL TAN is having a rough weekend, but hopes for better days ahead. He works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed here are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sunday Star.