Remembering the Merdeka narrative

Netusha Naidu
The Malaysian Insider
27 August 2015

During a recent trip to Sri Lanka, I had the opportunity to observe the country’s general election. Local and international commentary suggested that this was their “most peaceful election” as it celebrated the notorious “warrior king’s” failed return to politics – a strong indication that the Ceylonese community had a solid stand against the anti-democratic culture of the Rajapaksa regime.

Intriguingly, one could clearly observe the nation’s drive to rebuild from the rubble of armed violence by the regime and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (more popularly known as the Tamil Tigers).

Many citizens were aware of their political rights as voters as shops were closed – whether in the city of Colombo or the rural town of Dambulla, they had gone to the polling stations to cast their ideals for a better Sri Lanka. Best of all was to see the “tuk-tuk” drivers proudly showing their ink-stained fingers when I asked them how the voting had gone!

To a foreigner, the land’s political landscape appears on a track of optimistic progress as there is a strengthening civil society movement for institutional reforms that strives for greater check and balance, promoting the independence and integrity of democratic politics – such as the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption which I saw on the way to the ancient city of Sigiriya, where I could not help but lament at the state of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) due to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) debacle.

The great element that I found admirable was the collective persistence to restore Sri Lanka’s democratic principles based on the commemoration of its past. In Jaffna, once the heart of the 30-year civil war – some of the bigger monuments of destruction have been left there and marked with signage stating boldly, “SAY NO TO DESTRUCTION. NEVER AGAIN!”, “THINK BEFORE YOU VOTE – A NATION FREE OF CORRUPTION” and “NO MORE VIOLENCE. KEEP THE DEMOCRACY ALIVE!” – there was a constant reinforcement to move beyond its dark days and restore the former glory of their renowned heritage of peace.

Similarly, with the situation in Malaysia, I sense a desperate need to recall our history as we battle to “topple” the unfamiliar culture of our politics today. It is most certain that this nation has deviated from the vision of progress, presented by our founding fathers – the Merdeka narrative has long disappeared.

The continuity of the Merdeka narrative lies in the appreciation of our historical literature that encapsulates the notions of liberal secularism as embedded in the Federal Constitution. It upholds the rule of law and individual liberty that acts as the foundation of promoting transparency, accountability, trust, tolerance and most crucially, unity in diversity.

Tunku Abdul Rahman even once said, “The last thing people in this country want to see is a Malaysia divided into political extremes, for a nation divided against itself can only invite trouble.”

As we see today, we have come to this point of disarray in Malaysia. It is in my belief that much of it stems from the erosion of our historical literacy due to faults in our education system. A lot of us have forgotten the core ideas underlying the spirit of Merdeka.

Over the years, we have seen some attention drawn towards the structure and syllabus of the history textbooks taught in schools and yet, many of these concerns on factual errors, imbalanced perspectives and propaganda-laced inaccuracies that promote the political interest of a specific group, have gone completely unheeded.

Until now, it seems that there is still not enough emphasis on reforming historical education in our schools, so much so that it has now completely disfigured the values and principles that are vital in civil society and governance.

Even as a student in secondary school, I could recall the entire “memorise and regurgitate” system that removed any sense of passion or interest in learning our own history, especially since it was already polluted with the prohibition of intellectual freedom in the classrooms. Inevitably, this has led to common disregard for the purpose of historical education in preserving this narrative.

This has indeed become the crux of the matter because in order to maintain the integrity of our institutions and national unity, there has to be a constant reminder of the liberal democratic culture with which the country was founded, in the hearts and minds of ourselves and our leaders.

With this notion in mind, I cannot help but the echo the words of Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz in his book, “Roaming Beyond the Fence”:

“The parties today are trying to claim a genealogy to the history of this country in order to portray ideological purity and continuity, and as a result history is being debased… to just another marker of irreconcilable polarisation. The only way to fix this is for us to reclaim history for ourselves.”

For too long, most of us have left the ideas for a better nation to the historical narratives of our politicians, where it has been subject to the abuse and perversions that have caused confusion over what makes up the Malaysian identity. In order to save our country, this ought to change.

In the midst of restoring democracy in Malaysia, it is indeed true that we need to reclaim our historical understanding for the empowerment of our citizens to be equipped with the ideals of this nation.

We need to be able to freely contest and debate the decisions of our past leaders, and have recollections of championing of our freedoms so that we are reminded of the supremacy of our constitutional rights.

It is remembering the tenacity of people like our very own founding fathers and their vision of the future when they fought for Malaysia’s independence that becomes the light at the end of a long haul to revitalise the Merdeka narrative, even after 58 years. – August 27, 2015.

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