The shackles of independence


TOMORROW, Malaysia celebrates its national day or independence day as some may prefer. Just over two weeks later, on the 16th of September, the nation celebrates Malaysia Day.

For a nation that has been independent for 62 years, she has achieved admirable milestones comparable to developed nations and older democracies.

But it is also saddled with problems that do not seem to want to go away, while it meanders through its journey towards a more mature democracy.

While it can be argued that other nations too face such trials and tribulations in nation-building and finding its identity, but Malaysia started on quite a good footing.

As it negotiated its independence without going through armed conflicts, Malaysia inherited a working administrative system from the British, then deemed among the best in the world.

It had a written constitution, prepared by eminent constitutional experts, both local and foreign.

Except for certain provisions pertaining to privileges for the Malays and later on the Bumiputeras, everyone was equal.

Every single citizen regardless of race or creed was eligible to vote and every fundamental liberty promoted in a democracy was accorded.

If a comparison can be made with the likes of the US, Malaysia was quite well ahead in its democratic pursuits where Jim Crow laws were never part of Malaysia’s make-up from the day it attained its independence.

If there’s any segregation in Malaysia, it is generally by choice. If in America, only after 1965 did segregation become illegal, Malaysia wanted a unified nation albeit its diversity.

It has been debated that the bane for then Malaya and present day Malaysia was when it did not take the route taken by its neighbours Indonesia and Thailand where their citizenry was made to embrace the nation’s identity and discouraged if not out rightly disallowed, from holding on to the identity of their land of origin.

Hence, all Indonesians speak Bahasa Indonesia and all in Thailand speak the Thai language. In fact, their names reflect they are Indonesians or Thais, mostly not revealing anything of what the original race is.

Of course, it had also been pointed out that in Europe and the rest of the Western world that the existence of multiple school systems tied to race did not exist. Neither does it exist in India or China.

But it had also been argued that Malaysia’s choice of allowing its citizenry to hold on to their identity of origin while becoming a Malaysian had contributed to the nation’s dynamism and over the years, after independence, it had overtaken its neighbours especially in terms of development and economic progress.

Its mantra of unity in diversity is in the truest form in which the diversity is seen and felt and celebrated. (Note: Indonesia has its motto — Bhineka Tunggal Ika — usually translated as unity in diversity but it had been argued that it should really be taken to mean diverse, but one which is probably closer to the Indonesian make-up).

It is difficult to determine whether the contention that Malaysia had progressed because it chose to allow the diversity to become a part of the nation’s make-up still holds, given the seemingly fragile race and religious relations it suffers today.

Of course, it is probably too late to change the course. It will even be treading on dangerous waters even for suggesting such an idea. Most times, anyone who attempts to raise the idea of taking the Thai or Indonesian route would be browbeaten especially now with all the available social media platforms.

It is indeed a place where even angels fear to tread but those who dare rush in are not necessarily fools.

Then whither Malaysia. It is not getting any nearer to a solution to what seems to be a combustible race relation that at every turn and corner, any national issue will be viewed with the race tinted glasses.

Before Malaysia, there was Persekutuan Tanah Melayu and it was in that form that it achieved independence. While it has been accepted that Malaya gained its independence without going through wars, it shed as much blood, sweat and tears before it came to that stage.

The centuries of occupation and colonisation were a history filled with killings, murders, slavery, oppression, suppression, cruelties and worst, the humiliation as a people, are no different than that of other nations that went through similar phases.

However, these are left in the annals and only dusted and shared come independence day, and probably only noticed by those keen.

For the rest of the nation, today’s narrative is about what their group should get, not an inch nor a quarter given.

It is not a pretty picture and such a bleak outlook doesn’t seem to promise much for Malaysia. Yet, the optimists argue while Malaysians seemed to be pulling each end to their side, the seams had not broken because there are more of those who are level-headed than otherwise.

And to them, the tumult is mere sabre rattling that is more bark than bite. They are after all those suffering from the trauma of liberation.

Shamsul Akmar is the editor of The Malaysian Reserve.