This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 28 - April 3, 2016.
The problem with thinking of Merdeka — of independence — as a reboot and as the beginning of a largely internal process through which pride of place on the world stage for the people and the state is earned, is that one becomes rather ahistorical.
By that, I mean that a myth about completed liberation takes hold and both leaders and followers buy into the rhetoric that their fate is now in their own hands. While being optimistic and proactive is commendable and necessary, they should not forget that modern times are a revolutionary era. Changes have been coming so thick and fast on all fronts that all societies, states and individuals are knocked off balance.
We are all, in a word, victims of tsunami-sized waves that over several centuries now have brought huge political, economic, social, technological and ideological changes to the human condition. And this phenomenon is far from over. The storm continues, and what national independence means is that adaptations to global forces are now to be attempted by national forces.
National independence is, thus, a defensive project where a nation ostensibly pushes back and tries to take charge of its own fate.
But what generally happens in post-colonial nation building is that inter-ethnic strife or regional tensions become a key concern and we forget that we are all victims in one way or another of recent history and its formidable globe-spanning forces.
Interethnic strife and regional tensions in the Third World, if not everywhere, often stem from ignoring how powerfully these global forces have formed — deformed may be the better word — cultures, societies and individual lives and a denial of how others are also victims, just like us.
Such a lack of historical perspective or context on our times is tragic, and its consequences defeat the whole point of a country becoming independent.
Instead of considering all peoples to be in the same historical boat, the tendency is for a group or person to act either as the greater victim, and therefore possessing special rights to repossess whatever is imagined to have been lost, or as being better equipped to survive and therefore especially privileged to dictate the agenda.
Such contestations reveal the triumph of victimhood over the retaking of local initiative. Blaming the past and blaming others for our sad historical situation do not take us very far, and are, in fact, perpetuations of victimhood. As many a wise man has said, the best revenge is to live well, not to make sure that others do not live well.
As centuries go, the 20th century was revolutionary beyond imagination. The organisation of humanity and the oppression of the natural world changed to take forms that were unthinkable at the beginning of that century. After two world wars, nation states replaced broken empires all over the world. The scale of changes on all fronts has been so enormous that it is really quite impossible to understand modern life without that backdrop.
Technological advances alone have changed the planet beyond recognition and altered how we relate to nature and to each other. But if we ignore that, then we may be left to see each other as enemies in victimhood.
Let’s take British Malaya as an example. Born out of territories controlled by British colonialism, Malaysia and Singapore were better equipped than other regions in Southeast Asia to adapt after independence to global economic forces. After all, despite the Cold War, the Anglo-Saxon world continues to control most key institutions.
While Singapore gave prominence to economic growth and built institutions to enhance that motivation, Malaysia was waylaid by excessive politicking and an obsession with inter-ethnic relations and wealth redistribution. This perpetuated identity politics and communal divisions and continues over time to undermine the integrity of its institutions. Communities are taught to see each other as victims in a vacuum, as essential adversaries.
Given the absence of sensitivities about global history, communalism, provincialism and infighting have come to define interpersonal relations and political discourse. Seeking a solution to this unhappy state of affairs, many plead for more tolerance of other cultures and faiths and for fairer practices in governance. All that is good.
But what should also be sought, and what can bring more lasting social harmony, is consciousness about how each modern human being, family and community is a victim of rapid historical changes; how we should thus understand the common and difficult situation that each person finds himself in; and to consider what collective actions are needed to improve the lot of the nation — and mankind — as a whole.
That way, Merdeka would become much more meaningful.
Ooi Kee Beng is the deputy director of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. His recent book is The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World.