THIS year, we celebrate Merdeka and Malaysia Day at a very tough time. There is an accumulation of sarcasm, frustration, anger and hatred among the people. The factors are many. But there is a shared bottom line: people are tired of being talked down to, having their intelligence insulted and being labelled all sorts of things, like “pendatang” and “bangsat”. Why? Because the people are not stupid.
At the same time, the opposition is not providing the desired alternative. Hence, there is a sense of helplessness, confusion and lack of direction. There is no political leadership.
At this challenging time, there is a dire need for us to revisit the spirit of Merdeka.
The spirit of Merdeka starts within oneself. As a Muslim, I echo Siddiq Fadil’s opinion that the spirit of Merdeka begins with my understanding that I am a free man. That I am not a slave or serf to anyone except as the servant of Allah. That I am a Merdeka man.
As a Merdeka man, I am able to radically change from an old framework — whereby the relationship between the leadership and the people is that of “a ruler and his subjects” between two unequal groups of people; to a new framework — where it is a relationship between “an elected government and the electorates” where both the government and the people/electorates are citizens of a democratic system, and that each and every individual is equal before the law, regardless of race, descent, religion, place of birth and gender.
The spirit of Merdeka empowers us to inspect the official meaning of Merdeka — free from colonialisation.
The events leading up to the official proclamation of Merdeka on Aug 31, 1957 were led by Tunku Abdul Rahman. But it took some time before we were sure what the date of Merdeka means to all Malaysians. Because it is not the date of Merdeka for Sarawak.
Starting this year, the Merdeka Day celebration is being held without mentioning the number of years. In 2010, we started having a nationwide public holiday for Malaysia Day in addition to Merdeka Day.
Nevertheless, the struggle for Merdeka is not limited to what is written in the official history books only. There is more to it. This includes the contributions of the unsung and unnamed heroes.
Today, it is of utmost importance that we avoid, to borrow from Malik Bennabi, qualifying ourselves as colonised again. Especially colonisation of the mind.
Colonisation of the mind may come in two ways. First, being influenced by foreign ideas, systems and powers, directly or indirectly. This is normally easy to detect.
Second, and this is more difficult to identify, is colonisation of the mind through internal influences, for example, draconian laws, exclusive policies, oppression, manipulation and indoctrination. Some are so embedded, and are even supported by seemingly democratic argumentation, that one may not be able to fault them.
One example is the fact that there are people out there who are bent on hijacking the meaning of Merdeka. For them, Merdeka, or the fulfilment of it, is limited to one paradigm only, for example, the “developmental hopes” paradigm. Development is not wrong. But it becomes a concern once its meaning leaves room for leakage, wastage, corruption and breach of trust, all in the name of development.
They control and suppress other paradigms, for example, the “democratic hopes” paradigm. They limit the meaning of democracy by trying to curtail, if not ban, for example, students’ voices, freedom of expression, media freedom and peaceful assembly.
The Merdeka spirit is the Malaysian moral compass. To ensure a better direction for today and tomorrow is not about doing something so revolutionary that it is unimaginable to the common mind. Neither is it about reinventing the wheel. It is really about doing the needful. For example, to uphold the nation’s most important pillar — supremacy of the Federal Constitution.
It is about truth and justice, rule of law, integrity, inclusiveness, institutional reform and innovation. It is about democracy. But the problem is that there are people who try to hijack the meaning of democracy.
The Merdeka spirit should enable us to understand that the basic meaning of democracy is “government of the people, for the people, by the people”, not “government off the people, force the people, buy the people”.
The Merdeka spirit should empower us to participate in the call for a better Malaysia; by enjoining what is good and forbidding what is bad; and by applying a methodology that is based on wisdom, good teachings and debate that are carried out in the best of ways.
The Merdeka spirit should unleash the people’s real and full aspirations, strength and commitment, with a widened public sphere and without fear, in order to reclaim the lost moral compass and reset, rethink and rebuild Malaysia.
Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah is CEO of the Global Movement of Moderates and a former deputy minister of higher education. He is active on twitter: @saifuddinabd
This article first appeared in Opinion, digitaledge Weekly, on August 31 - September 1, 2015.