Malaysia’s Merdeka Narrative

Ahmad Fuad Rahmat

Mat Sabu, Deputy President of PAS

Mat Sabu, Deputy President of PAS

As PAS Deputy President Mat Sabu was dragged to the police station by the police, for the crime of just having an opinion, it is hard to tell if the dust from the storm had finally settled or if it is just rising. Who’s next? What else are we not allowed to say?

The bile that was ignited by his comments reminds us that the fight for democracy is much larger than the fight against the grips of any state or ruling party. It is also a struggle within a culture that is still coming to terms with how free it is willing to be. India-based political commentator Aijaz Ahmad once said that “every nation gets the fascism it deserves”.

The suppression of freedom and democracy can only thrive as long as there are those who support and tolerate it. That support and tolerance, in turn, can only thrive as long as there are many who still remain unconvinced that freedom is an essential value.

This is why the history wars we are witnessing are more than just about the freedom of speech. It is about the very idea of freedom itself, or more specifically, the kind of freedom that Malaysia gained in its independence.

If history as it has been presented to us in the textbooks is all there is then we have the reasons to believe that freedom is ultimately just an institutional status to be granted. After all, if we were not technically colonized, as many of our distinguished historians have argued, we never really needed to think about freedom at all. Based on that understanding, freedom is just an item of discussion to be mulled over, a technical term in a contract between resident advisors and royal clients, or in the case of the Straits Settlements, management and staff.

But if there is a different narrative, if the story of our freedom is first and foremost the story of the marhaen, of activists, strikes, rebels and martyrs, religious and secular – of poor and ordinary people of all races who risked their lives to rise against the most powerful empire the world had ever seen – then we can now think of freedom as a human fate to be won. Based on this story, freedom matters because our conscience cannot rest without it, because we cannot accept who we are until we are free.

Malaysians who have considered the debate thus far stand at a crossroads: was our Merdeka achieved through a contract between nations negotiated among privileged individuals, or was Merdeka fuelled instead by the uprising demand of a people for the recognition of their dignity?

Was “Merdeka” a fight for independence so that we can later be free, or was “Merdeka” a fight for freedom because independence would mean nothing without it? The polarizing reactions to the Merdeka debates is confirmation that history is not won or lost through the assertion of facts alone but the very interpretation of those facts. The point then is not that the likes of Mat Indera, KMM or the People’s Constitution existed but that their legacy still matters today.

Malaysians want to know more about how we came to be because they know that they have not been told the full story. History may be written by winners but history is also an on-going competition. This is precisely what we have been seeing and reading about over the past few weeks.

This should not be lamented or taken for granted: History is powerful because it is about the study of “what was” in light of “what could have been”. It’s about reality in light of possibilities. Understanding those possibilities, with factual clarity, can ignite the imagination, and imagination is the seed and root of any desire for change.

This impulse should be recognized for its sheer everyday simplicity: The past matters because it is always thought about in a present time, and the present is only valuable because we have some notion of a future in mind. History matters because the past is always already the raw material with which we envision a future. This is true for individuals and nations.

But not all ideas of the future are desirable. To seize the liberating potential in historical reflection, we must resist the temptation of arriving to a point that would end all debates. Nor should it be about nostalgia for glory’s sake. We must accept history for what it is: as a continuous struggle of reinterpretation, that is to say, a political art. As we can now see for ourselves, history, especially national history, cannot be won by silencing others but by identifying the important events and questions in our desires to know more.

We must show that history matters not because so and so is right, but because a careful look at history will always reveal more than one possibility to understand the present. It is not enough then to just ask “what happened?” Rather, we need to know: what else happened? Why is it still significant? What more can we learn? What would the questions of their struggle be like today? We win or lose not by the loudness in our insisting but by how much hope and inspiration our questions reveal.

In the following passage, American historian Howard Zinn describes this art of envisioning possibilities further:

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.”

That defiance will begin in the question we ask to project our future visions and by now, we have seen that there are enough layers to Malaysian history to be moved to inquire of different possibilities for our future. Is the independence that is claimed through negotiation the same as freedom won from struggle? How do we envision democracy in its true meaning – as the empowerment of a people – beyond occasional elections and everyday consumerism?

What might “power of the people”, as lived everyday reality, look like in a nation as racially divided as ours? How do the different communities in Malaysia go beyond a unity based simply on a common enemy or circumstantial convenience? What would be the ideal to bind us together? What is the significance of political ideologies and philosophies given realpolitik necessities? What is our relationship to neo-colonialism?

Is Malaysia to be considered independent if its livelihood is dependent on the whims of investors and consumers from another continent who have no real concern over the welfare of our people? If Merdeka can be translated to English to mean both “independence” and “freedom” then why has the former been typically preferred? What has been lost in that translation?

Photo courtesy of Malaysia Aktif.