57 years. That is a long way to come for a small nation of 28 million people.
We were once ruled over by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Japanese and the British. On this same date Aug 31, 57 years ago, our founding father Tunku Abdul Rahman finally declared us free in the now famous footage of him shouting Merdeka (freedom) seven times on our field of Independence.
To understand a little about our country, we have to go back to it’s rich culture and diversity. Foreign readers of this blog will probably be confused as they think all Malaysians are Malay. Malaysia is actually made up of three major races – the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians. The Malays came here from Indonesia a long time ago, and established ‘Kesultanan Melayu’ or the Malay Sultanates. It was a glorious kingdom in the region, until the Portuguese invaded in 1511 (I still remember my history lessons!). Then the Dutch in the 1600s, for close to 200 years. Places such as Malacca were rich in natural resources, and something the Europeans needed – spices. It’s strategic location also enabled it to monopolise the spice trade routes.
The British, which have left a lasting legacy here that we can see from our day to day lives such as our parliamentary system, usage of British English, etc. took over in the 1800s. With industry developments of tin mining, the Chinese came in search of better opportunities (my great grandparents included :D) as well as the Indians (who usually worked in rubber estates). Then you have the Eurasians (Serani, or locals who married Portuguese people) , the Arabs, the indigenous peoples, etc. So you see, Malaysia is really a giant melting pot of different races/cultures. It’s not like in, say, China where most of the country is culturally homogenous.
A lot of things have changed since then. Back in the days, we were probably more united as a nation than we are today. The different races united for a common thing : to fight for independence. It didn’t matter what our skin colour was. We wanted a country of our own.
Today, the voices of dissent and racial/religious hatred are strong – not only here but also in other parts of the world; while moderation and tolerance are drowned. Selfish parties use race and religion as a shield, playing countrymen against countrymen.
I am fourth generation Malaysian-Chinese. My great grandparents came here from China more than a hundred years ago. I feel sad that even after so many years, I am still called a ‘pendatang‘ (immigrant), despite having lived my entire life here. I am often told to ‘go back to China‘. But how can I, when the only country I know, the only place I call my homeland, is Malaysia? I can’t even speak proper Chinese.
I am sad to know that because I am not Malay, I will forever be a second-class citizen, unable to enjoy the same privileges or educational opportunities for my children. Things will probably change slowly – even in America, black people were strongly discriminated against as recent as 50 years ago. And now they have a black president. Will Malaysia, with it’s constant calls for ‘unity’ (yet gives it’s citizens different privileges, which others are not allowed to question lest we be charged and thrown in jail) ever see the same? I would hope so. Maybe not in my life time.
Not all is lost, however. I recently interviewed ordinary, everyday Malaysians on what makes them proud to call themselves ‘anak Malaysia‘, and was pleasantly surprised by how effortlessly the answers came to most of them.
It is heartening that there are still lots of people out there who are all for a true 1Malaysia, who do not let the voices of dissent cause disharmony. It is true. We have much to be thankful for. Our food, our culture, our heritage… growing up in a country where I learn much about people of different races and beliefs. I am mindful of my Muslim friends who fast during fasting month, and I know not to serve beef to Hindus – things I wouldn’t know if I had been raised in a homogenous society. The bottom line is, we are all Malaysians, no matter our skin colour, our race, our religion, or beliefs. We are still sons and daughters of Malaysia.
Happy Merdeka Day, Malaysia.