With more openness, transparency and accountability, we can still be not only a good but even a great country to live in.
MERDEKA! What a great emotive word it was that our Father of Independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman, shouted seven times to the expectant crowd in Merdeka Stadium that Aug 31st drizzly morning 50 years ago this Friday.
With his right arm and open hand raised heaven-ward, Tunku shouted this seal of our independence as soon as he had intoned the vision of our founding fathers as to what our new nation was going to be: “sovereign, democratic and independent State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people.” That vision repeated several times in a number of articles in the past several months is a yardstick to measure how close we have hewed to it or how far we have strayed from it these past 50 years. It is well-worth mulling over.
Why did Tunku shout “Merdeka!” seven times and not six? Seven was regarded by many Malays of the time and even now by some Hindus as a significant number. Was “merdeka” a common Malay word for independence or freedom? I have seen this so described. Of course, today it is a common enough word to mean independence or freedom but it is a Sanskrit word chosen and made popular by Tunku as a more exact word for independence than the traditional Malay word, “bebas”.
Why the open hand? Previous to this, Tunku had shouted “Merdeka!” with his right arm up-raised and his right hand clenched into a fist. It denoted an unfinished struggle. Tunku had explained that the fist would remain until independence was achieved. Thus on Aug 31, 1957, the right hand was unclenched as Tunku shouted “Merdeka!” to the jubilant crowd.
How we were thrilled – we who were with the majority of the people who had struggled for this day through the Malayan Union and the worse days of the Malayan Emergency! But we were not 100% of our people: tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of people were at best lukewarm to our independence. Some were supporters of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), still at war with us; some were unhappy at the loss of their “British subject” status; some were still sore over the exclusion of Singapore from the 1948 Federation of Malaya; some were quite undecided what they wanted to be because of the pull factor of their “mother-countries”, while others were pushing for an Islamic theocracy.
Well, is it therefore strange that we should have different voices, views and chatter cluttering our air waves this past year – or ever since 1957? Not to me! This is the mark of our diversity, a search for equilibrium and a test of our tolerance, accommodation and acceptance for the principles of a democratic nation.
There is at the moment no clear and present danger for us to fail this test. And I do think that our parliamentary democracy is quite well in a basic way: and in the immediate instance I think we have our Prime Minister’s great sense of tolerance and inclusiveness to thank for. With more openness, transparency and accountability, we can still be not only a good but even a great country to live in.
We must of course roll back the corruption already extant in our society. We cannot compromise on that. History teaches us that corruption of various kinds led to the downfall of the Malacca sultanate. We must insist on a more dedicated, independent and empowered Anti-Corruption Agency so that this scourge can be stamped down. And we must insist that all our national institutions play out their roles properly. Only when we insist on such things would we ourselves have played our own parts properly as participants in a parliamentary democracy.
As Umno revved into the last stage of the independence struggle, its dominant leaders led by Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak, Tun Dr Ismail and his brother Datuk Sulaiman Abdul Rahman, Tun Sardon Jubir, Tun Khir Johari, etc, rejected the demands of some Umno ulama to make Malaya an Islamic theocratic state based on the syariah. These ulama walked out of Umno to form the Parti Islam SeMalaya (PAS). That is why PAS is still championing an Islamic theocratic state, not just an Islamic state.
From time to time PAS had been able to place immense pressure on Umno or certain of her candidates close to election time but Umno had always been able to weather this. Umno succumbed only following the May 13, 1969, incident when the Chinese deserted the MCA and confronted Umno. Then Umno had to find a modus vivendi with PAS in order to hold the country together and persuade the middle-of-the-road Chinese to return to the MCA and the new Barisan.
But the pact with PAS carried a price: greater Islamisation of the public sector and public life. So PAS achieved this through the Chinese isolation of Umno and its Chinese allies.
Is there a lesson to be learnt? On this 50th anniversary of our nation when we have been more vocal than ever about our unhappiness over some religious, economic, educational and common law issues as we face an anticipated general election, we should also mull about this. Do we want history to repeat itself? The ball is at your feet.
Previous articles of Tun Hanif’s Point of View are available at thestar.com.my/columnists/