AT the tender age of 7 nobody can be expected to be politically aware. Life was a take it as it is given.
The adults, though, were euphoric. Those in my family were noticeably overjoyed, something normally seen only during festivities such as weddings, Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Safar (the second month of the Islamic calendar) to mention a few, or when long-lost cousins were found. This last my mother had the fortune to experience.
Radios and televisions, now ubiquitous, was then, at best, found in the wild imagination of those prone to fantasy. There was an unending refrain of “Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!”. It provided a brief respite from the news which normally provided statistics on the number of Communist insurgents who were shot dead or had surrendered.
Why do I remember this? Well, as a child I dreaded the midday news and would pedal my tricycle so I would be out of earshot of this tragedy.
Now, however, I understand that this peninsula, dangling from the Isthmus of Kra, was being fought over. Indeed, the Federation of Malaya, as the newly independent nation came to be known, was a British colony struggling to regain its sovereign identity. The Communists were unwilling to gracefully accept the defeat of the Malayan Union and the Malays refused to give up their right to the land known as the Malay Peninsula. The British were trying to do the right thing and retain a foothold, all at once.
Unlike in neighbouring Indonesia, where the war of independence pitted the Pribumi against the Dutch colonisers, Malaya had to contend with a Communist insurgency or, if you like, a civil war of sorts.
But, reason triumphed and a compromise was struck even before the insurgents were defeated and Malaya gained independence on Aug 31, 1957.
Merdeka, I imagine was a merrymaking event unlike any other. It is, perhaps, comparable to victory day, the day when, for the masses, good triumphs over evil. While the bliss of innocence denied me the depth of emotion born of nationalist fervour, the years since have demonstrated how much freedom is to be treasured, how important the right to self-determination is to nation building.
I first noticed this when my father, a colonial civil servant, became part of the transitional administration. He had returned from Cardiff, Wales, armed with a degree. Some two years before independence the large colonial bungalows in the exclusive recesses of Kuala Lumpur were being filled by non-British officers who were shipped in to man the colonial civil service. Hence, my vivid recollection of the Pertunjukan Seni, Tarian dan Anika (Pesta) at the Lake Gardens in 1956, because we lived in Clifford Road and the lake was within walking distance.
A repeat of this grand and extraordinary jubilation has yet to happen. That the Pesta was etched into my young mind is testimony of this magnificent showpiece of nationhood. That year, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj returned from London with news of Malaya’s imminent independence. Malaya had negotiated her way to self-determination.
The first general election had occurred the year before. I vaguely recall (Tun) Ghafar Baba, then a schoolteacher, visiting our Melaka house in the run-up to the 1955 elections to garner support for the Alliance Party. My mother, a teacher, was a natural constituent. Once the Malayan Union was defeated the fight for an independent Malaya picked up pace and so palpable was the nationalist sentiment that even a child could feel it. The Alliance symbol, the political symbol which took Malaya into independence, was everywhere, including in our house.
Therefore, Merdeka was momentous for me in that there was the Pesta, a huge celebratory, fun-filled gala involving all Malayans. But, did I know it then? No, but I did know that somehow heroes were made as a result of the struggle for freedom.
Our traditional house in Melaka had the famed tangga batu (stone staircase) with exquisite tiles and a serambi (verandah) where a huge portrait of Soekarno, the liberator of the Indonesian islands, was hung.
Growing up in an independent, sovereign nation then is a privilege. But, the break-up of Malaysia was a low point, surpassed only by the May 13 riots. However, the highs must come with the lows for the one without the other makes national identity impossible. How would Malaysians know what is good when all they were ever privy to was a national struggle of words and more words, debate after debate and talking heads?
The country’s rich natural resources made it easier to develop. And, every five years or so, the people get to decide who will lead them. The race riots of 1969 therefore necessarily defined the route to be taken, a peaceful and stable one.
That 60 years of independence was all it took for Malaysia to achieve modernity is near miraculous. Politics aside, Malaysians have themselves to thank: the wisdom that has seen a long stretch of political stability; the recognition that prosperity comes through hard work; and, the realisation that reason must always take precedence over pride and prejudice.
I grew up with Chinese neighbours and sleepovers among us girls were natural. The aunty next door held prayer meetings and my parents never took exception. Both aunty and my mum were teachers and they walked to the school where they worked together and walked home together.
The milkman was a friendly Punjabi. When he passed our house we would call out to him: “Besar”. He, in turn, would gently reply: “Kichiiii”. The neighbour’s Indian gardener who had left his family in India would bring me sweets, maybe as a gesture to the children at home he desperately missed. My mum would say, “Kam sia” when thanking the soya sauce seller and the vegetable vendor when they came to our place. The latter, my brother, inexplicably, called “mak”.
Malaysia was, is and will always be multi-ethnic, diverse and friendly — we must ensure that it stays that way.
ASKIAH ADAM formerly served as senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, at Astro as head of news and current affairs, and as broadcast journalist at BBC World Service (Malay Section)