August 30, 2014
by Tunku Abdul Aziz@www.nst.my.com
MANY of the 300 young Malayans, men and women, who heard the news first-hand ahead of the official announcement in Malacca, that their country would be an independent nation on August 31, 1957 are, sadly, no longer with us to celebrate the 57th Merdeka anniversary tomorrow. The years have taken their toll: the survivors have not been spared the ravages of time.
Those of us who took our places in the Kirkby College Hall on that grey, overcast and bitterly cold February afternoon to welcome Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, our honoured visitor and future Prime Minister of independent Malaya, had expected nothing more momentous than the standard homily about “working hard and playing hard” that distinguished visitors always seemed to be armed with. The Tunku quickly got into his stride and spoke without notes, in a tone of voice that gave not the slightest hint of what he had in store for his listeners.
He began by telling us that he and his colleagues had been in London holding constitutional talks at Lancaster House with Her Majesty’s Government on Malayan independence. He went on to say that they were extremely pleased with the outcome of the meeting which had paved the way for the country’s independence. He attributed the success of his Merdeka Mission to the “trust and goodwill on all sides”.
He paid special tribute to the people of Malaya for their unstinting support in the quest for freedom. This had proved to be an important point in convincing the British that the various Malayan races were at one in their demand for independence.
Then, without warning, he broke the welcome news that stunned us. Merdeka would be granted on August 31, 1957, God willing. The date until then had been a closely-guarded secret, and how privileged we felt to be the first Malayans to hear the glad tidings.
It took a second or two for the full import of the momentous announcement to sink in before the assembly, as if on cue, broke into a restrained round of applause.Understated would aptly describe our reaction: British reserve had triumphed over our traditional Malayan exuberance. I suppose the freezing English winter weather was partly to blame for the less than wildly boisterous reaction to the historic occasion.
What tangled thoughts ran through our minds as we began the process of bringing them into some semblance of order, I could only guess? It would be fair to say that most of us harboured, albeit secretly, grave doubts about the country’s future.
We wondered whether the two major communities, the Chinese and the Malays, would be able to find accommodation and live in peace and harmony. Continuing, the Tunku reminded us that the fight for freedom without democracy would be quite meaningless. He talked about our duties and responsibilities as citizens of a free country, and how important it was for all Malayans to live in harmony so as to ensure lasting peace and prosperity for all. It was a message that continues to be relevant and, perhaps, even more so in today’s political climate.
We were not too sanguine about the country’s long-term prospects for racial harmony having read enough about what the coming of independence had done, a decade earlier, to India. The spectre of widespread ethnic and religious violence that so marred and blighted India’s independence was very much in the forefront of our collective consciousness.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous speech to the Indian Constituent Assembly on Aug 15, 1947, Tryst with Destiny, containing that memorable line, “At the stroke of the midnight hour, as the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom” made a deep impression on most of us young people.
Nehru more than Mahatma Gandhi was my inspiration. Tunku came later as a leader I admired greatly. Even as the great Indian statesman was speaking, India was engulfed in flames: the streets of that ancient land were awash with Hindu, Sikh and Muslim blood. Religious violence still breaks out in parts of India with regular monotony. We had every reason to fear for the future of our country, and that was only natural. Were we ready for independence with all that this implied in social, political and economic terms? It was a question that loomed large for us then.
For all the apprehension about what the future might bring, none of us would ever forget the event that unfolded in that little corner of rural Lancashire on February 7, 1956. It was in a very real sense the beginning of a dramatic spiritual journey into the unknown for all Malayans, and unlike most journeys, there was no turning back when the Union flag finally came down past the midnight hour on the Selangor Club Padang. It might have signalled the imminent end of empire for the British, but for us it was the dawn of a new life, the life that we were at long last free to live as we chose.
When we reacquired our country in 1957 through negotiations, we set to with a will to confound our detractors and prove how wrong they were all along. Few thought we would survive the first few years on our own, and yet, 57 years later, despite the teething problems and birth pangs of a new nation, we remain a people deeply committed to multiracialism as a way of life.
When we think of the complexity of our society, what we have achieved for our country borders on the miraculous. As we stride out proudly to celebrate our many achievements tomorrow, let us remember that the key to our future is racial harmony and unity of purpose. We have much to be grateful for: the future is in our hands.