Thursday, August 30, 2012

Memories of Merdeka

ADIBAH AMIN looks at how far we have come as a nation after Merdeka in this particularly striking essay from her bestselling book, Glimpses: Cameos of Malaysian Life

AN OLD SCHOOLTEACHER looks back over the years. Where did it all begin? In truth, he says, the fight for Merdeka started centuries ago, from the moment freedom was lost.

Names have come up out of the past. More often, the uprisings are recounted in folklore but the freedom fighters are forgotten. “Never mind,” says the cikgu. “I’ll just talk of beginnings that I remember, some sixty years ago.”

Mention Merdeka and he is a young trainee again at the teachers’ training college in Tanjong Malim, talking into the night with like-minded friends. They spoke about imperialism and the plight of the colonised, about human dignity and the right to be free.

They read Muhammad Yamin and other Indonesian poets who, still with gentle voices, pledged undying devotion to the motherland. When the young teachers graduated and were sent to schools to carry out the colonial policy of “making farmers’ sons better farmers, and fishermen’s sons better fishermen,” they went a little further.

To the set syllabus they added readings of Indonesian poets, whose voices were growing less gentle by the day. These poems, and Pak Sako’s anti-imperial satire, made more exciting classroom fare than tales of the mousedeer or of Pak Pandir the Fool.

Discovery was a matter of time. Rumours reached the colonial masters. If any warning was given, it went unheeded. The need to awaken the young was too compelling. One after another, the more active of the teachers just disappeared. “Later, we’d hear they’d been transferred without notice, to areas we came to call ‘Siberia.’ ”

The new generation grew up, aware and impatient. One of them, who later specialised in history, recalls, “When the Japanese came, the twin myths of British power and protection collapsed. And when in turn the Japanese were toppled, imperialism itself was seen as innately impermanent, a moribund monster.

“Indonesia had won her war of independence. I remember stomping around with other youths, sporting Indonesian accents and yelling ‘Merdeka!’

They staged tableaux of fighters in fierce stances and declaimed Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar’s Aku (I), seeing it as a cry for freedom from the shackles of colonialism.

A local poet, Usman Awang, wrote of his people’s “slave-minds” and called for a total change of outlook. Kindred spirits from different communities had the poem translated into several languages. Through poems, stories and plays, writers cried out against social injustice as well as colonial oppression. Together with teachers, journalists and young people from other fields, they wanted a society that would be united, just and free.

Among them was a girl fresh from Chinese school who, to this day, has not forgotten the dream and the oneness of the dreamers. “We didn’t think of ourselves as Chinese, Malays, Indians ... And we were sure it would always be that way.”

Their ideas about a fairer social order got them dubbed “dangerous.” Many were questioned, harassed, threatened, detained. “My fiancé was locked up. The British were after my brother. He vanished.”

One wonders, says another survivor of those days, how many fighters for independence languished in detention or exile, having been conveniently called “communists” by colonial powers-that-be. Accepted versions of the Merdeka story make scant mention of the many patriots, young and old, who quietly risked all they had.

“Let me hasten to say that I’m not one of those unsung heroes,” says the cikgu. “I was fervent enough, but not to the point of sacrifice.” If he lost anything, he muses, it was the old shining faith in one country, one nation.

He and his family had never thought in terms of being anything but children of the peninsula that had been their home for generations. Then something happened to jolt him into awareness of a different point of view.

Many who speak of Merdeka remember this episode with pain. Dato’ Onn Ja’afar, leader of UMNO, wanted to open the party’s doors to all communities. Ethnic barriers, he felt, must be transcended; the call for freedom must be made with one voice.

Dato’ Onn’s idea was rejected. For him, compromise was out of the question. There was nothing for it but to resign. Analysts said later, “He was too far ahead of his time.” Other voices sigh today, “Will there ever be the right time?”

A doctor, who was still at school then, says, “My mother took me to the historic meeting at Majestic Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. I can never forget Dato’ Onn’s last speech.” Though barely fifteen, she felt the poignancy of it all. “Only a few years before, this man had been hailed as a hero for daring to lead the fight against the British over the Malayan Union. Suddenly, all that was forgotten.”

The man who was persuaded to take his place, Tunku Abdul Rahman, did not at first inspire great confidence. Dato’ Onn had been politically conscious even as a young man. When Tunku was getting up to high jinks as a student in England, young Onn was already drawing cartoons that poked subtle fun at the British.

Readers of the Lembaga Malaya (Malayan Image) magazine chuckled over exchanges between a cheeky boy called Awang and the Big White Tuan (Sir). A typical one goes: The Tuan lectures the boy on cleanliness. To this the urchin replies, “When I take a bath, I scrub off the dirt and pour water on myself to wash it away. When Tuan has a bath, he soaks himself and his dirt in the tub.” Seemingly innocent, Onn’s cartoons eroded the awesome aura of the Orang Putih (White Man).

As a leader, Dato’ Onn was brilliant, intense and dynamic. He had scintillating wit and was a fine orator. Tunku’s laid-back, genial manner made him seem a less formidable force. He spoke well but without rhetoric, and his humour was gentle.

An observer comments, “Even as we smiled at Tunku’s special way of saying mudah-mudahan (‘hopefully’: he always pronounced it mudahan-mudahan, and the stage comic Ismail Bontak had audiences in stitches when he stressed this in his imitations of Tunku), we found ourselves disarmed into trust and affectionate respect for the man he was.”

The raceless oneness felt by the young people who had dreamt together of a brave new world was the exception rather than the rule. The majority of the people were only too conscious of ethnic differences. Kept largely separate by British policy and natural inclination, the various communities had been tolerant enough of one another’s ways, viewed from a comfortable distance.

Then the Merdeka movement demanded their solidarity as a future nation. Ironically, it was this very movement that sharpened their awareness of different and conflicting interests. Distrust was the order of the day. There were whispers that the leaders would “sell” the rights of their people in the name of Merdeka.

“To say that Tunku and his friends in the other communities managed to gain total trust would be naive,” the observer adds. “Still, they did win it to a workable extent; good enough for attaining independence.”

Before that, the rakyat (masses) had to be reached and infused with the spirit of the movement. In remote villages along the upper reaches of the rivers, deep in rubber estates, around mines and in new settlements, in slum areas where they lived in wretched hovels, most had not even thought of Merdeka. The only struggle, the only freedom they knew was the daily struggle for freedom from hunger and disease.

An engineer who grew up in a rubber estate remembers, “I was ten at the time. My friends and I sometimes joined the crowds that gathered to hear the speakers from town. They spoke in different languages. Even when they spoke Tamil, we didn’t really understand them. We just enjoyed the excitement.

“But one woman moved us. She did not speak. She sang. The only word we understood was ‘anakku’ (‘my child’). Her face and voice, the way she sang and looked at us, made us feel she was our mother, our motherland, that we must free ourselves from bondage.”

Such were the moments that roused the people into a new awareness, of needs beyond the mundane, of a dream of freedom and dignity they must all help to realise. There were, of course, sceptics among them, with doubts as deep as those of their more sophisticated compatriots. Yet many decided to suspend disbelief and rallied behind the leaders.

Some have since scoffed at our fight for freedom. “What fight? It was bloodless. Merdeka was handed to us on a platter. What freedom? We were free only in name. Economically, even politically, we were still chained to Britain.” Comparisons have been made with Indonesia, where lives were sacrificed for the cause, and where Dutch influence was ruthlessly uprooted.

When we pushed for independence, cynics have said, the British were already resigned to losing their colonies. It could even be argued that they were eager to get rid of us. Certainly, the British backbenchers whose support Tunku sought were of that view. There was also the communist threat. Once Britain was assured that we would not kill one another and ruin their economic interests here, and that we would remain in their Commonwealth, they were more than happy to give us independence.

Yet such belittling has not tarnished the memory of the first moments of Merdeka in the minds of many Malayans, now Malaysians. It cannot dim the splendour of the split second after midnight when our flag took its rightful place over our independent land. Nor can such remarks mute the resonance of the first exultant shouts of “Merdeka!

What, then, has turned that joyous vitality into listlessness for some of us? One is a sense of failure as we recall the old dream of a people united in fairness and freedom. We had hoped to be one at heart while retaining our rich diversity and initiative. We had thought we could grow ever closer while living and letting live.

What is the reality today? We live in peace and work side by side. We are polite to one another and exchange greetings during festivals. We avoid sensitive topics so much so that self-censorship has become second nature to us.

If truth be told, we are drifting further apart. It feels increasingly right to move within our own ethnic and economic circles. We see this happening even more in schools and universities, a preview of things to come. Once in a while, someone sounds a warning, and attempts are made to stop the malaise. With what success? The roots may lie too deep for quick-fix measures to reach.

There was a time when you could hold firmly to your creed and yet mix freely with friends of different faiths. And was it so long ago that buddies could exchange ethnic insults in public without anyone turning a hair?

The social gap between rich and poor, bridged by the common cause of Merdeka, is now very much in evidence. It’s a moot point whether this gap is even wider than the ethnic one. Homes, cars, leisure activities, holiday destinations, dress and speech styles set the two groups worlds apart.

Try telling a schoolboy to make friends across the divide and he will say, “Then the guy will lose his friends and I will lose mine. Anyway, leceh-lah.” (Leceh means “awkward and troublesome” and “probably pointless.”)

And how do you convince a schoolgirl we are all Malaysians together, when observation and intuition tell her that certain classmates will have better opportunities by virtue of parentage, community and connections?

I ask a Fifth Form boy what Merdeka Day means to him. He is silent for a while, then says, “Do you want the school version?” When I do not reply, he begins to recite: “Malaysians celebrate August 31 joyfully because on that day in 1957 we gained our independence from British colonial rule.”

He breaks off, grins and says, “Sorry, I know you don’t want that. Okay, let me think. What does Merdeka Day, or National Day, mean to me? Parade. Fireworks. Fun with friends. A holiday, I guess.”

Oddly, his answer fills me with hope, not despair. The new generation knows the difference between what one is supposed to say and what one really feels. The sentiment, or lack thereof, may be disturbing, but the honesty refreshes and reassures.

Perhaps it is time for all of us to stop the numbing, distancing over-politeness and speak candidly to one another about the way we feel. It will not be easy, but with fair minds and humble hearts we can do it. And then we will sing in harmony a great new Merdeka song.

Reproduced from the July-September 2012 issue of Quill magazine


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