A different Merdeka this year

By Bridget Welsh
Sep 6, 2012 | Malaysiakini

Malaysians celebrated 55 years of independence on Aug 31. Most did so the usual Malaysian way – with family and friends, along with good food and great friendship.

Despite high levels of political anxiety, angst and uncertainty, there is much to celebrate. Malaysia is a great country, with a proud history and warm wonderful people.

I celebrated the event in Ipoh, where Perakians showed me the fine hospitality of good cheer and company. It is clearly evident that Malaysia’s finest assets are its people.

Najib and Muhyiddin at a rally to celebrate country’s 55th Independence Day in Bukit Jalil StadiumThis year’s Merdeka was markedly different, however. The event became highly politicised, as both sides of the political divide used the occasion to woo supporters. The use of government resources for logos, songs and political slogans and politicking during the official celebration with Umno-like political speeches does not reflect well on the governing coalition.

The sagas around the preparation for Merdeka raised serious questions of credibility. Rather than embrace all Malaysians, the mode was one of “by invitation only” which at its core violated the spirit of marking independence.

There was a deficit of statesmanship. This highlights one of the most serious issues Umno is facing nationally – that it is seen to serve only the chosen few rather than the broader community.

At the same time, the yellow-shirt civil society’s ‘Janji Demokrasi’ (Promise of Democracy) gathering mirrored the polarising politics now present in the country, with a show of continued resilience among the Bersih movement in its campaign for a cleaner electoral system.

While the intention to bring together Malaysians was more evident – and the festival spirit of the event telling – the tactics adopted by a few to denigrate others by stomping on pictures and flying alternative flags – even if from questionable sources – allowed the government to undermine the event’s overall impact.

Prouder to be Malaysians

The temptation to use this event in the increasingly high-stakes politics was just too attractive to resist. The reason is simple – Malaysians are deeply proud of their country – and politicians wanted to exploit this.

Despite all the political noise, the angry comments on websites, the negative attacks and underlying concerns, the love of Malaysia has been growing.

Survey results from two different periods (2006 and 2011) as part of the region-wide cross-national Asia Barometer Survey show that Malaysians are overwhelming committed to their country; they are proud to be citizens and believe in being always loyal, as shown in the table.

Recent data shows that 97 percent of Malaysians are proud to be Malaysians – this says something. It is among the highest in the region. The trend among all ethnic groups is towards stronger national identity, with markedly more people identifying themselves as “Malaysians”.

While there are ethnic differences – understandably tied to feelings of exclusion and concerns about equality – these pale in comparison to the overall trend towards a stronger Malaysian nationalism.

The data also shows that fewer Malaysians are willing to live abroad, with a sizeable drop over the last five years. The temptation for better economic opportunities remains present, however, highlighting concerns about opportunities and quality livelihoods.

That said, more Malaysians across races are simultaneously identifying themselves as “Malaysian”. In the Malay community, the “Muslim” and “Malay” markers persist, but the shifts among the other communities is marked and telling.

Noteworthy, a majority of Malays prioritise the Malaysian identity. This places a challenge on any leader who does not see himself as Malaysian first, even among the Malay community. Malaysian nationalism is alive and well, and growing stronger.

Stronger embrace of democracy

The interesting question is why? Some would point to PM Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia concept. Despite its constant misuse for partisan campaigning and market branding, the idea in a nutshell involves a sense of place for everyone in Malaysia.

This dream – like Malaysia’s push for a common Vision 2020 for all – gives people a sense of belonging and hope. But few in the survey pointed to 1Malaysia directly as a success.

Another more substantiated part of the story comes from the greater gains made for non-Malays in Parliament and a greater sense of inclusion in the governing process of many opposition governments, whether in Selangor, Penang, (briefly in) Perak or Kedah, to name a few.

The overall findings of the data show a stronger embrace of democracy and high support for more inclusive representation. This sense of all communities having a place at the table – from Sabah and Sarawak to the different ethnic groups – is a true test of the leaders’ ability to represent them nationally.

The struggle BN faces to be seen as multi-ethnic are real with Umno’s overwhelming dominance and weakening non-Malay representation, as are the challenges Pakatan Rakyat faces in assuring that all the voices are represented and accommodated.

The dynamic is not about representing one group, however, but the country – even at the expense of politics and especially at the expense of personal interest.

The coalition and leaders that are seen to be doing this best – to be inclusive of all Malaysians with the promise of hope and belonging and seen to put the country as a whole first – have the advantage electorally.

Part of this is putting aside politics and genuinely celebrating each other. For at their core, Malaysians are Malaysians – and proud to be so.

  1. #1 by undertaker888 on Thursday, 6 September 2012 - 10:27 am

    55=five five=sounds like bye bye. This will be the last merdeka celebration for them.

  2. #2 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Thursday, 6 September 2012 - 10:44 am

    So? E kong si mi? Aiyah dont know lah. No need to know one. Just ABU.


    Yeah, just ABU.

    OK. Lu ABU, gua ABU. Taikey lai ABU!


  3. #3 by Cinapek on Thursday, 6 September 2012 - 11:14 am

    “..The sagas around the preparation for Merdeka raised serious questions of credibility. ”

    Very true. I suspect that this hijacking of the spirit of Merdeka by BN who turned it into a political circus has alienated a lot of people. And I am not talking about the tech savvy community only.

    When I drove around my taman on Merdeka day I noted a very muted atmosphere. We saw hardly any flags flying and it seems only the banks had their flags up. Unlike previous years I also did not see a single vehicle decorated with the national flag (only saw a couple after Merdeka).

    On another note, looking at the survey table, a very telling statistic is the comparatively lower percentage of Malays who identify themselves as Malaysians compared to the non Malays. This surprised me. And yet we have our defence minister questioning the loyalty of the non Malays.

  4. #4 by yhsiew on Thursday, 6 September 2012 - 12:02 pm

    ///This highlights one of the most serious issues Umno is facing nationally – that it is seen to serve only the chosen few rather than the broader community.///

    Umno is an elite’s club specially catered for its political patrons.

  5. #5 by drngsc on Thursday, 6 September 2012 - 1:49 pm

    Lets us also make 16th September, also different.
    Let us all fly our flags on 16th September. Hari Malaysia.

    We must change the tenant at Putrajaya. GE 13 is coming soon. Malaysians arise. First to GE 13, then to Putrajaya.
    Change we must. Change we can. Change we will

  6. #6 by dcasey on Thursday, 6 September 2012 - 2:53 pm

    On another note, looking at the survey table, a very telling statistic is the comparatively lower percentage of Malays who identify themselves as Malaysians compared to the non Malays. This surprised me. – Cinapek

    Perhaps surprising, perhaps not but to some who do not wish to identify themselves as Malaysians may still dwell on the perspective that their roots come from Indonesia.

  7. #7 by sheriff singh on Thursday, 6 September 2012 - 5:12 pm

    Rais and his Kementerian is always good for organising a good show especially when money and resources is not a problem. ‘Putting on a good show’ is their motto. His bosses are indeed very happy with him / them.

  8. #8 by boh-liao on Friday, 7 September 2012 - 8:13 am

    AhCHEATkor n Umnob/BN very confident of landslide victory mah in d next GE, so they r pushing 4 EXCLUSIVE n INCLUSIVE politics lor
    They r in power 4 their kaki2 n cronies, no need 2 bother abt others (boh chap) esp d PR lot
    Hence, merdeka also kena hijacked 2 bcome their own celebration, invited kawan n paid them duit 2 join in d celebration lor

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