The Meaning of Merdeka for Malaysians

In the spirit of Merdeka, we need to draw from history and geography to re-imagine Malaysia. Our discourse has often been too insular and inward-looking. In fact, our history and geography tell us that the Malacca Sultanate was a great metropolitan city linked to the world by water.

In Bahasa Melayu, when we talk about the nation or homeland, the word is “tanah air”—land and sea. Water is an integral part of the imagination. No other languages gives equal worth to water and land to denote the meaning of homeland.

Malaysia is a “maritime nation with continental roots”. We have roots linking Malaysia to Europe and other parts of Asia. Undeniably, Malaysia is surrounded by waters, and this has great consequences for our significance to the rest of the world. The world’s busiest waterway – the Malacca Straits – and the world’s most contentious water – South China Sea – are in our vicinity.

Once we see Malaysia as “tanah dan air”, we will see Sabah and Sarawak as very integral parts of the nation, not separated by waters, but linked as an inseparable whole, of which the sum of the whole is far bigger than the parts.

We need to constantly remind everyone that Malaysia is not just the peninsula but the entire piece of geography stretching from the Malacca Straits to the Sulu Sea—indeed, more water than land.

Malaysia would be a great nation if we unite the lands, the waters and the people, and look outward to realise our potential to contribute in various ways to the development of the region and the world.

Civic nationalism

But instead of seeing ourselves in such an exciting context, our political discourses often diminish us through highlighting our differences and treating them as a problem and not an advantage.

Everyone is told that he or she is Malay, Chinese, Indian, Dayak, Kadazan and so on and so forth, and all too often, these identities are portrayed as primary identities that exist in irretrievably adversarial ways.

To reverse this trend and to move into the future, we need young people to help us build a civic nationalism that sees Malaysia as an identity worth fighting for. And as Malaysians, in a time of great power competition between United States and China, we need to act united with a common ambition of ensuring peace and prosperity in the country and in the region. The two cannot be divided.

Having separate cultural heritage and ancestry does not mean that we have to compete with each other in politics. Malays shouldn’t vote for a Malay just because he is a Malay, no matter how corrupted he may be. The same goes for the Chinese or the Indians or all the stereotyped communities we imagine to exist in our minds. Voting as Malaysians should be about voting for leaders who have Malaysia’s interest at heart.

We merely wish to see everyone elect Malaysians who are clean and competent, and who want nothing but to bring our beloved nation to the next level, and to make us proud.  

Merdeka from dua darjat and poverty

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that we are all very vulnerable, and if the weakest in our society, such as the homeless, migrants or prisoners, are infected, then the whole society is at risk.

Everyone needs to learn that there is only one set of laws and rules—and they apply to everyone. There cannot be dua darjat practices.

Covid-19, just as Merdeka, also means, that each of us is of equal worth, whether we are laymen or we are ministers; and each of us with the right to be treated equally and justly by law. Everyone has a responsibility to ensure that society is not infected by the Covid-19 virus—or the virus of corruption. 

Likewise, poverty is a problem that concerns all of us. Poverty goes beyond race. There are Malays who are poor and there are Malays who are rich. There are Chinese and Indians who are poor and there are Chinese and Indians who are rich.

The poor need decent jobs with decent pay. Actually, every Malaysian needs decent jobs and decent pay. We need good healthcare, good education, good public transport and decent housing.

An e-hailing driver, whatever his ancestry or cultural legacy, is an e-hailing driver who may have to spend 16 hours in his car trying to make a living to provide food on the table for his family. Whatever their ethnicity, some of them may have hold two or three jobs just to survive.

Society as a whole, meaning all of us as a while, need to empathise with those among us who are not doing well for whatever reason.

Merdeka is also about freedom from dua darjat practices and poverty. Let justice for all be at the centre whenever we discuss governance and let empathy be the core value whenever we talk about people’s lives and livelihood.

Selamat Hari Kebangsaan!

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