Are we really independent?

P Gunasegaram
Mar 29, 2013

QUESTION TIME On the eve of the general election, it is appropriate to take a moment to reflect on how independent are we really.

What a moment it must have been when Malaysia (then Malaya) achieved independence from the British on Aug 31, 1957 and the flag of the newly independent country was raised.

At five years old, I was too young to remember what it was like then but have vague memories of my brother getting lost on a family visit to Kuala Lumpur town during the celebrations and being taken care of by policemen, before he was reunited with our parents.

It must have held so much hope for Malayans of all races and religions who put aside their differences to work for the formation of a new nation.

Tunku Abdul Rahman declared himself the happiest prime minister in the world and was proud of the fact that independence was achieved via negotiation without a single drop of blood being shed.

To be sure there were differences and in the years before independence there was much debate and agonising over how a disparate country of Chinese and Indian immigrants, many of whom had nowhere else but Malaya to call home, were to be integrated with the majority Malay community.

But there was a plan and everyone stuck to it and the country became independent. The communist threat had been beaten back although it would take until the sixties before they were more or less completely vanquished.

We were independent but how free were we? And did not independence mean freedom as well?

At independence, partly because of the communist insurgency at the time and the need of the British to control the people, we inherited many oppressive laws which it was not thought expedient to change at the time. The excuse was the communist insurgency.

Thus the Internal Security Act and the laws against press freedom remained in the statute books. But we had elections and in the first two, the ruling Alliance, comprising basically the three race-based parties, Umno, MCA and MIC won handsomely.

There was an underlying discontent, especially among urban non-Malay voters which often led to local councils falling to the opposition. The Tunku did away with local elections in 1965 using the confrontation with Indonesia as the excuse. He promised to bring it back after the confrontation but successive governments never fulfilled the promise.

The big curbs on personal freedom began after the May 13, 1969 racial riots in Kuala Lumpur which made the Tunku the saddest prime minister in the world and led to his exit. Many felt that the riots were engineered to re-consolidate the position of Umno after election setbacks that year.

Whatever press freedom was curbed further and the country moved towards greater control by the federal government in all spheres of life. Twelve years after independence, it was back to paternalism and the attitude of the government knows best.

When university students demonstrated in 1974 over poverty in Baling, amongst other things, the government’s response was to remove university autonomy summarily and impose the infamous Universities and University Colleges Act.

Travesty to their children

Our founding fathers, who no doubt agitated against British occupation as student activists and were allowed to by the British, decided to completely exclude university students from taking part in politics when they did so in their days! What a double standard and what a travesty to their children.

The attitude of father knows best persisted and while the country grew economically, the institutions of checks and balances in the country were eroded in favour of the executive. The independence of the judiciary was heavily undermined and compromised and the police and the civil service came under undue political influence.

Politicians wielded all the power and used it to indiscriminately put down all kinds of dissent, allowing selective demonstrations by their supporters and crushing, sometimes ruthlessly, others with a different viewpoint. Legitimacy was not the issue, power was.

The oppressive laws permitting detention without trial were used freely against political opponents and to strike fear among the populace whenever it was deemed necessary. May 13 was used as a threat over and over again.

The federal constitution was amended well over a hundred times to accommodate all kinds of laws restricting the rights of citizens and to exert central control over dissenters.

Patronage politics emerged in a big way and favoured companies and individuals received contracts which made them millionaires virtually overnight. Some became billionaires. Umno morphed from a party of teachers to one of businessmen, and the MCA and MIC tried to keep up.

As part of a private vendetta, a former deputy prime minister was accused of sodomy under archaic laws seldom applied for decades. As it turned out, the charges were trumped up. He was punched up while in detention. And then he was charged again with sodomy.

Most of the mainstream press was controlled by political parties and some of them were rabidly pro-political parties in the ruling coalition almost totally, stifling any intelligent debate on political, social and economic issues that affected the nation. TV and radio stations are government-owned or controlled, being propaganda tools of the ruling coalition.

Since the setback of Barisan Nasional in the last elections of 2008, there were attempts to free things up to reflect the feeling of the electorate but the attempts were half-hearted at best and strongly resisted by right-wing elements in the ruling coalition.

The current situation with respect to allowing freedom of expression and its dissemination is reflected in the recent declaration by the information minister that opposition parties will be given 10 minutes, 10 minutes! to present their election manifestos to Malaysians via TV and radio.

Well, are we really independent? Yes, perhaps, because our fate is now in our own hands although the hands are often tied. But we could be much freer than we are. Hell, we can’t even be sure that we are freer now than when under the British.

And that plainly shows, 55 years after throwing off the British yoke, we have not fully reaped the fruits of independence. How much longer will it take?

P GUNASEGARAM is founding editor of KiniBiz. Like most Malaysians he believes democracy is much more than one man, one vote.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Saturday, 30 March 2013 - 7:48 am

    That is why we need Kit to rejuvenate the country’s moribund democracy!

  2. #2 by monsterball on Saturday, 30 March 2013 - 9:41 am

    We started with guided democracy…easing it as years passed by….under the original Umno.
    Mahathir took over…kill off Umno and set up his Umno b..and applied the most evil ways…in every sense….fooling his own race….and encouraging corruptions in everything.
    Democracy brought back to jungle laws….by a dictator.
    ISA applied….under the most evil…cunning… dirty ,,cruel politician as PM for 22 years,

  3. #3 by chengho on Saturday, 30 March 2013 - 11:37 am

    majority rule , democracy ain’t perfect system

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