MERDEKA is the country’s most important word. It defines the country’s original aspirations and means a great deal to older Malaysians. For that reason alone, young Malaysians should study what it means for them to be heir to that imposing legacy.
All Malaysians know it as the founding of Malaya as an independent country. Merdeka Day is of course Aug 31, 1957 — the day the British relinquished official control over Peninsular Malaya (barring Singapore).
To be sure, this event took place within a worldwide process that witnessed the fall of European colonial power and the beginning of the Cold War, and so, the independence achieved that day was a negotiated emancipation arrived at within a global context.
The conditions were the best that the retreating British at that time could achieve in their weakened position, and it was the best that the hotchpotch of Malayan leaders who were in a hurry then could manage.
The agreement was far from a final one, as became evident in the many contests that erupted immediately after that. Tensions within the
Alliance, the coalition that succeeded the British authorities, were always high as could be seen in the infighting that threatened to tear apart the two major member parties — Umno and the MCA — over the following decades.
Needless to say, this called into question the claim of these race-based parties to be legitimate and permanent representatives of their respective communities.
Now, understanding Merdeka as an event that occurred over 50 years ago is grossly erroneous, and demeans the desires of millions.
Decolonisation cannot but be a long and painful process. Merdeka is therefore a long and painful process that went through important stages, and not always in a clear direction. The New Economic Policy (NEP) implemented in 1971 was shock therapy applied to remedy the socio-economic symptoms of the plural society that Malaysia is. The extension of the Alliance to become the Barisan Nasional was the political measure required to provide the political stability for that remedy to work.
As with all cures for serious diseases, the NEP had its bad side effects; its collateral damage if you like. But even collateral damage cannot be allowed to persist for too long. Also, if the cure is applied too eagerly, the patient cannot help but become either overdosed or addicted.
But in the body politic, the most overdosed of all would have to be the leaders themselves. This has been the case in most, if not all, new nations. Breaking out of old ways of thinking — continuing the Merdeka process — requires revisiting its history and realising what the next stage of liberation should be.
Territorially, the country is not threatened. However, economic stress is showing in high inflation and budgetary deficits. And inter-ethnic tensions are running high. Much has changed since prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad retired in 2003, and a new generation of Malaysians are rethinking the country’s future and role in the world.
To put it bluntly, Malaysian society is struggling with its next stage of independence — merdeka for the mind. Like so many Malay words, “merdeka” is of Sanskrit origin. Derived from “maharddhika”, meaning “prosperous and powerful”, it was apparently used in the Malay Archipelago in recent centuries to denote a freed slave.
In the late colonial period, merdeka became a rallying cry for the freedom to form a new nation and not to be ruled by external powers. Taking these connotations collectively, merdeka as an extended process would mean something like “freedom to prosper”.
Freedom for the new nation — the new state — to prosper is one thing; freedom for the individuals within it to prosper is another. And it is the tension between the two that seems to pervade discourses today. The government’s hand-out initiative known as BR1M, the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax next year, the inability of most households to own a home, and the reduction of subsidies are all signs of economic stress.
The freedom to prosper has not been gained by a large part of the population. But what has put the country in this state cannot be sought in economic policies alone. Given how the petroleum wealth the country as a whole has enjoyed since the 1970s has not brought wealth to all, it would seem that the problem lies elsewhere.
The problem runs deeper. All new countries have governments that are inexperienced and that are actually making do, that feel with their feet. Naturally, they cannot allow too much criticism in the beginning. They have to have time to learn. That is fair enough.
But then, as the years go by, what is to stop them from admitting mistakes, and what is to make them correct their mistakes? Most importantly, at what point is the regimented public mind to be liberated in order to contribute to the continuing merdeka process?
For an answer to that, we need to go back to the first merdeka, back to the 1950s. There was the fateful element of timing. Enough of the relevant forces need to come together and move in a similar direction for things to happen.
Most important of all was a realisation on the part of those holding power — be it the British or the Malay aristocracy — that the status quo was no longer viable, and a new structure was needed if they were not to be swept away altogether. Acting on that realisation brought merdeka.
The same holds true for those holding power now.
Ooi Kee Beng is the deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore
This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 1 - 7, 2014.