By Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin. First published in Malay Mail Online 2 September 2016

SEPTEMBER 2 — In recent years the term “Merdeka Day” for Aug 31 has been officially eschewed in favour of “National Day” — with Sept 16 (a nationwide public holiday since 2010) known as “Malaysia Day.”

However, many are making the case that if one day were to be designated as “National Day,” it should be the latter. And there is certainly no end to the dispute about which date ought to be given priority across the country, with a myriad of different historical justifications being wheeled out to argue why one should trump the other.

One fact that is often overlooked is that the intended date of Malaysia Day in 1963 was Aug 31 to coincide with the celebration of Merdeka that year: A delay resulte
d because neighbouring countries objected, and the United Nations asked to carry out a Malaysia Mission.
On Sept 14, its Secretary General U Thant concluded that “the majority of the peoples of Sabah (North Borneo) and of Sarawak have given serious and thoughtful consideration to their future, and to the implications for them of participation in a Federation of Malaysia.

“I believe that the majority of them have concluded that they wish to bring their dependent status to an end and to realise their independence through freely chosen association with other peoples in their region with whom they feel ties of ethnic association, heritage, language, religion, culture, economic relationship, and ideals and objectives.”

Malaysia was proclaimed in its four component entities two days later.

Some will find zero value in a hypothetical intended date, and thus to them the actual date of Sept 16 must indisputably take priority; and furthermore, if Aug 31 is still to be celebrated by all, equivalent dates of importa
nce to Sabah and Sarawak should also be honoured.

No doubt though, there will be disagreements on which dates to choose even then: in Sarawak for example, some might favour the establishment of the Kingdom of Sarawak on Sept 24, 1841 while others might prefer July 22, 1963 (referred to as “self-government day” or “independence day” depending on who you speak to).

These commemorations of historical events are indeed important, forming a central part of identity and helping to inform and chart future trajectories of the people concerned. But the key in resolving disagreements about which events, what names and which dates to publicly remember lies in first having a populace which is well-informed to engage in these issues; and secondly in having the institutions that enable such a populace to participate in such debates.
It is only with consensus and democratic legitimacy straddling both the peninsula and Borneo that we can end the continuing saga.

In the meantime, plenty of businesses will take advantage of “Merdeka Month” (or perhaps it should be “National Month”), spanning both Aug 31 and Sept 16.

Unfortunately there was some glossing over of history in the parade in Seremban on Wednesday, in particular during one skit performed by schoolchildren about how Merdeka was achieved.

Some of the children were dressed as typically rural pre-independence Malayans, while others wore military uniforms variously featuring the British and Japanese flags as well as the Bintang Tiga emblem used by the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army and the Malayan Communist Party.

Confusingly, some students were wearing more than one insignia. In the performance, those dressed in these uniforms collectively abused and encircled the Malayans, until the arrival of silat warriors who liberated them.

While this performance was a great opportunity for the children, the story being portrayed of good guys versus bad guys was dangerously simplistic, and may reinforce the erroneous belief that the foreigners were all on one side, or all used the same methods.

Crucially, there was no depiction at all of the negotiation process that to
k place: from the presentation, you might conclude that independence was achieved by violence. Thankfully, I have seen more historically accurate representations in schools in the past.

There was much else to recommend in the parade, however. While march-pasts have a strong military connotation (and certainly, hundreds of soldiers from different regiments participated), citizens from the private and voluntary sectors involved in charity, educational and youth engagement were proud to sing patriotic songs, recite the Rukun Negara and wave the
ir flags as they filed past the audience.

Alas, despite the odes to unity throughout the event, I could not help but notice the absence of representatives from opposition parties. I was told there was an intention to invite them, but it did not materialise.

Whatever we call it, a day to celebrate our country should certainly respect the legitimately elected representatives of the people. I hope next time, they will be.

* Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin is Founding President of IDEAS

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