Unlike previously, this year’s official celebrations unfolded with government politicians casting a keen eye towards having to recapture lost ground in the imminent general election, writes Yeoh Seng Guan.
Before 2012, the last time I was in Dataran Merdeka to witness the countdown to Merdeka was on the evening of 30 August 2007. I could not resist commemorating 50 years of our country’s independence at the historical site in the heart of Kuala Lumpur with my fellow Malaysians from all walks of life.
Later that year, during the long school holidays, I took a road trip to visit parts of Peninsular Malaysia that I had not been to before as a resolution to see “the other side” of Malaysia.
But for that night, it was the high octane energy of nationalistic fervour on Merdeka Eve that took centre stage. Not unlike a rock concert, Dataran Merdeka was transformed into a cauldron and spectacle of bright colours, light, and sounds palpably infused with patriotic pride.
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Among others highlights, I remember the contingent of Vespa scooters driven by Umno Youth members which drew admiring glances from the milling crowd. Dressed in retro Malay dress with the trademark colours of red and white, some went on to carry Umno flags and banners bearing the slogan “Kami anak Malaysia” (“We are the children of Malaysia”) during the performance.
I also remember coming across and striking up conversations with a number of Indonesian and Bangladeshi migrant workers who were there to enjoy the free and energetic entertainment.
Weeks before, Malaysians were treated to a variety of open displays of patriotism. Most prominent were whole façades of key skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur draped with gigantic Malaysian flags or the photos of the foremost political leaders of the country with the words, “Malaysiaku Gemilang” (My Malaysia Shines) emblazoned below them. Reminiscent of visual practices in India, one that stood out for me was the image of then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Badawi in the foreground backed by slightly smaller representations of his predecessors – Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak, Tun Hussein Onn and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad – to suggest an orderly succession of power.
The opposition political parties too got into the spirit of the Merdeka celebrations. Not too far from where I reside, a small banner placed at a road junction had publicised a pidato perdana (prime speech) event to be delivered by Anwar Ibrahim (PKR) and Hadi Awang (Pas). Unsurprisingly, the theme was “Kembalikan semangat kemasyhuran kemerdekaan” (Returning to the fame of Independence).
At the ground level, ordinary Malaysians also enthusiastically capitalised on what Michael Billig has called “banal nationalism” – everyday markers of national identity. For instance, some Malaysians took to trying to break existing records in the use of the Malaysian flag or logo by pooling together their resources. Others were more singular in their approach. Car drivers took to creatively decorating their vehicles with Malaysian flags, and draw attention to their mobile patriotism. The most “loud” of these vehicles were usually taxis, perhaps intent on attracting more customers.
The 50th Merdeka anniversary celebration was enthusiastically welcomed by petty traders who enjoyed roaring business selling specially designed souvenirs and mementos for the occasion – such as wristwatches, flasks, mugs, backpacks, badges, fridge magnets and T-shirts – bearing the Merdeka design for that year, a stylised hibiscus flower with the figure ‘50’ clearly visible.
Five years on, the Merdeka Eve countdown in 2012 seemed both familiar and yet different. Yes, the formulaic large banners and the colourful decorative lights draped on several iconic buildings in the city were still ubiquitous. Malaysian flags were again re-fashioned as part of the human and vehicular attire or re-deployed to create new records or arresting visuals by Malaysians. And the army of small traders continued to enjoy good business on the sidewalks of Kuala Lumpur city centre selling the paraphernalia of nationalism. Ironically, one of the items for sale – the Guy Fawkes mask made famous in the movie “V for Vendetta” and re-appropriated as a symbol of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement – was a popular item sought after by the revellers.
The slogan adopted for this year’s Merdeka celebrations, “Janji Ditepati” (Promises Fulfilled), however, had a less inclusive feel to it. Rather than speaking for all Malaysians, it seemed to be a message specifically tailored to celebrate the achievements of the status quo.
Unlike 2007, Dataran Merdeka was cordoned off this time as workers prepared the grounds for the national day parade early the next morning. But the large crowds – estimates range from 10000 to 100000 – were still there. A sizeable number wore the trademark yellow T-shirts associated with Bersih.
They were there as part of the “Janji Demokrasi” (“Promise of Democracy”) gathering, to remind the powers-that-be of their failure in fulfilling their promise of free and fair elections. Although the police had deemed the gathering illegal under the newly promulgated Peaceful Assembly Act, those present risked arrest in order to commemorate Merdeka at the historical public space.
Five years ago, the 2007 Merdeka Eve celebrations were conducted at a time of an apparent aura of political invincibility. Most politicians were clueless in seeing the writing on the wall and foretelling the landmark electoral results of the “political tsunami” of March 2008. It is arguably a sign that the citizens of Malaysia are now much more politically savvy and empowered to shape the kind of Malaysia that they aspire to.
By contrast, this year’s official celebrations unfolded with a keen and sober eye towards having to recapture lost ground in the imminent General Election. Similarly, members of the opposition coalition are mindful too of the potentially historic nature of the forthcoming polls, and have capitalised on the nature of the celebrations as well.
In these anxious and antagonistic times, it would seem a heavy dose of discernment is required of ordinary Malaysian citizens and civil society groups in holding fast to the ideals of modern democracy in nation-building. After all, should it not be the case that the Merdeka spirit belongs to all Malaysians, and that true and sacrificial patriotism entails not just love of one’s own country but also one’s countrymen and countrywomen of whatever political stripes and ideological persuasion?
Dr Yeoh Seng Guan is an Aliran member based in the Klang Valley