MALAYSIANS have always celebrated Merdeka Day on Aug 31 of each year. We all know, of course, that it was on that day in 1957 that Malaya won its independence.
When negotiations started in earnest in subsequent years for Malaya to morph into Malaysia, to include Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore, the understanding had been that the latter’s formation and formal declaration — which would also mean independence for the other three territories then still under British rule — would happen on Aug 31, 1963, so all four territories would share a common date for independence, if not the same year.
But hiccups caused primarily by Indonesian and the Philippines’ objections to the idea of Malaysia, including Sabah and Sarawak, meant a delay in the birth of the new country to Sept 16, 1963.
It did not even occur to most Malaysians in Sabah and Sarawak to question Merdeka being celebrated on Aug 31 (or at least them celebrating Merdeka on that date) until very recent years. After all, they can reasonably argue that the two eastern states only became really independent when Malaysia was proclaimed on Sept 16, 1963, or Malaysia Day.
As often happens in the best tradition of give-and-take that we are wont to practise in this country, it was then decided by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak that both Merdeka Day and Malaysia Day will, henceforth, be recognised as public holidays nationwide and, therefore, giving both dates due and equal status as National Days.
We are thus probably the only nation anywhere where all its citizens accord the different dates of independence for its constituent parts equal recognition.
That Malaysia Day is now recognised as a national public holiday naturally means perhaps a good deal more for Malaysians in Sabah and Sarawak than in the rest of the country. For far too long, there had been national and collective amnesia of sorts about the day. It was not even recognised as state holidays in Sabah and Sarawak for the first few decades of Malaysia’s existence
That it is now nationally commemorated all across the country gives Sabah and Sarawak national prominence and, most crucially, respect, that both states often felt had been lacking before. And, respect almost always begets respect in return.
It was no less than Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud, currently Sarawak Yang Dipertua Negeri, who, when he was still the chief minister several years previously, was moved to make perhaps the most cogent and, coming from a Sarawakian, very gracious defence of why Aug 31 ought to continue to be celebrated nationally as Merdeka Day.
The Sarawak leader made reference to July 4 being celebrated as Independence Day for the United States by all Americans in all 50 states, when the date actually marked only the independence of its original 13 states in 1776. Subsequent states were progressively added onto the federal union later on different dates, but they all accept and recognise July 4 as Independence Day because it is the original date of US independence.
The unmistakable inference by way of reference to the US Independence Day is that all Malaysians should similarly take the cue from Americans and rightly regard the original date of Aug 31 as Merdeka Day.
Malaysians in Sabah and Sarawak understandably and rightly take umbrage at any hint that their place and standing within the Malaysian federation is in any way slighted by other Malaysians.
That for so many decades before now, Malaysia Day had all but been officially ignored reminds those in Sabah and Sarawak that their sensitivity at being slighted is not exactly misplaced.
It is a rather complex feeling Sabahans and Sarawakians harbour for their country. They want, above all, to feel the same sense of belonging that other Malaysians feel for the country.
Their sense of being alienated often cannot be helped when they feel that they are either ignored altogether or taken for granted by the rest of the country.
At the same time, there is a certain sense of pride for what makes each of these two states stand out from the rest of the federation and a yearning to retain such distinctiveness.
Such complicated sentiments are easily misunderstood by others, but they are not mutually exclusive and can be accommodated within our federal set-up with little difficulty. Malaysians from either east or west just have to resolve to better understand each other, going forward.
JOHN TEO views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak.