Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

There is No National Day: An Ambiguous Independence

Written by johnleemk on 2:55:42 pm Aug 24, 2007.
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In less than a week, it will have been five decades since Tunku Abdul Rahman first proclaimed to the world "Merdeka!" — "liberated", as I would translate it (neither "free" nor "independent" seem to fully capture the word's meaning). Yet despite this, as I most recently saw on Malaysiakini, Malaysians — especially the thinking sort (which sadly do not number all that many) — are tying themselves up in intellectual knots about whether this is our 50th independence/national day, or whether 16 September 2007 is our 44th independence day, or what have you.

The confusion stems from several perturbing problems of identity. It is probably best to recapitulate the historical events that have led us to this impasse today.

In 1948, the autonomous Federation of Malaya was formed. This was the first state-like entity to encompass the states in Peninsular Malaysia, minus Singapore.

In 1957, this Federation gained its independence from the British Empire. In 1963, this state joined (or merged) with Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak to form the independent state of Malaysia.

This is of course not anywhere near as simple as it sounds. Although the non-Malayan components of Malaysia supposedly insisted that this new state be distinct from the Federation of Malaya, this new state took on virtually the same Constitution, the same national symbols, maintained its seat in international organisations like the United Nations, and even continued the numbering of the order of Yang di-Pertuan Agongs. (Otherwise if we date back the Agongs to 1963 instead of 1957, we end up with 11 heads of state, and not 13.)

So is Malaysia the state distinct from the Federation of Malaya the state? Maybe, maybe not. A strong argument can be made that they are, but there are chinks in this argument. It's almost as befuddling as deciding whether we are an Islamic or secular state.

Thought that was confusing? Malaysia was originally due to be formed on 31 August 1963, exactly six years after the Federation of Malaya gained independence. Indonesia's decision to virtually go to war with Malaysia complicated matters, delaying merger. At the provocation of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak all declared independence from the British on 31 August 1963, without the Malayan government's approval.

Thus, for over a fortnight, these three states were independent and self-governing, until they merged with the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia. So when did they truly gain independence? Singapore celebrates its independence day as 9 August 1965, the day it left the Malaysian federation. Sabah and Sarawak do not seem to have made up their minds just yet.

But wait, there's more! A nation and a state are distinct entities. There may be no independent or even autonomous Palestinian state, but there definitely is some sort of Palestinian nation.

When does the Malaysian nation date back to? 1957? 1948? The Malaccan sultanate? In the first place, do we even have a national identity considering how fragmented our society is? We seem to be a state in search of a nation that has found three — not to mention all the lain-lain (others).

I am really beyond the point of caring about most of these questions. I am especially tired of this debate about whether we should be celebrating our 50th, almost 44th, or whatever national day.

The sad truth is, this whole conundrum just reflects our total lack of national unity, our total lack of any sense of shared nationhood and shared belonging. We still see each other as Malay, Chinese and Indian. We still see each other as Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian and Hindu. We still see each other as West and East Malaysians. Hardly anybody feels they belong in a Malaysian nation.

How, then, can we celebrate a national day when we have no nation to celebrate? What we have is an independent state in search of a nation to put in the phrase "nation-state".

About a month ago, I had a discussion with some fellow Malaysians about when to celebrate our national or independence day. A common analogy, which was once one of my favourites, brought up the fact that the United States does not date its independence to the last time a state joined the federation. But whether Malaysia is entirely distinct from the Federation of Malaya is highly disputable, and on the balance, there is ample evidence to suggest that they were at least supposed to be distinct de jure, even if by de facto they have ended up the same.

The distinction between nation and state was brought up. It was suggested that we ought to celebrate our national day as 31 January 1948, the day the Federation of Malaya came into being, and for the first time politically uniting all the Malay states. But at the same time, it was argued that some shared sense of identity between these states had existed prior to the federation's foundation.

My solution to the impasse was simple, focusing on the questions that could be answered clearly and without dispute. That Malaysia the legal entity dates back to 16 September 1963 is, by now, I think largely a moot point. Regardless of your view on the issue anyway, it is clear that Malaysia Day (regardless of how you define it) is to be celebrated on 16 September.

But as for the issue of national or independence day, the name would suggest that we celebrate the date we gained independence as a nation — and that date is indisputably 31 August 1957, when the Malaysian nation first became independent.

For those who would argue that the Malaysian nation is distinct from the Malayan nation, it is easily pointed out that the Malaysian polity maintained all the national symbols of the Malayan polity, implying shared similarities and thus a shared nationhood.

What most perturbs me now is that in spite of this, half a century after our supposed nation was liberated, we do not seem to have this sense of nationhood. The East Malaysians feel spited by the dominant West, and yet there are marked political advantages they have over the other states, leading to what I have labeled the East Malaysian question. Most ethnic groups pay lip service to national unity, but their main impression of the nation is that it exists to maintain a "separate but equal" system, allowing every race to, as that oh so Malaysian phrase goes, "mind your own business".

Fifty years after triumphant shouts of "Merdeka!" rang across the country, we still do not have a nation which everyone agrees they belong to, which everyone agrees has bonds of culture and acceptance uniting us all. Fifty years after independence, what nation is there for national day to celebrate?


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Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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