August 31st, 1957 was a day of ebullient celebrations and unrestrained joy throughout Malaysia (or Malaya as it was then known). Rightly so for on that special day the long oppressive yoke of colonialism was finally lifted off our collective necks. We had our Merdeka!
I was then in lower secondary school. In our kampung house however, the mood was anything but jubilant. The day before my father had warned us, my siblings and me, to remain at home. That family curfew would continue till the day after. In contrast to the national celebratory mood, in our house there was only heightened anxiety. The extra supply of food and other necessities my parents had bought days earlier testified and added to that jitteriness.
My parents’ paranoia was not unfounded. A decade earlier they had seen ghastly images in the newspapers of the mass madness that had gripped and consumed the Indian subcontinent when it heralded its independence. Next door in Indonesia, the situation was no better for them. A decade of independence and President Sukarno had to urge his people to trap rats, thus solving the twin blights plaguing his young nation – mass starvation and rodent infestation. At home in the power vacuum at the end of World War II, there was the two-week reign of terror inflicted by the Malayan Communist Party.
More immediately, a few days before merdeka my father overheard a conversation among his fellow villagers. They were giddy with their plans to seize those elegant bungalows in Kuala Pilah for themselves, and drive out those colonials like my school headmaster. My father threw a damper on that idea. If those houses were to revert to the natives, he told the kampung wannabe heroes, rest assured that they would not be the lucky recipients. Besides, who would teach our children if those British teachers were to leave?
So on that day at midnight, to the delirious chanting of “Merdeka! Merdeka!” on the radio and everywhere, my father would mock, “Mencakar! Mencakar!” (Scraping, as in scraping for a living.)
A decade later my parents would readily admit to the error of their earlier grim forebodings. Bless them! Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tengku Abdul Rahman had stuck to his words of “building schools instead of barracks, and training teachers instead of soldiers.” In the seven-mile drive from my village to my old school in Kuala Pilah for example, no fewer than seven new primary schools were being built, and my older brother and sister were among the thousands trained as teachers.
Malaysians have much to be grateful to Tengku beyond his saving the nation from an unnecessary war of independence. Thus on this Merdeka Day, Malaysians have no embellished reenactments of glorious battles and solemn rituals of honoring fallen heroes. Malaysians, unlikeAmericans, are thankfully spared our Bunker Hills and Paul Reveres.
As Tengku had kept his pledge of building schools and training teachers, young Malaysians like me were able to pursue our dreams. In the final analysis, that is the most precious and enduring gift a leader could bestow upon his nation.
This year, 2020, was to be Malaysia’s “coming-out” party marking her entry into the exclusive club of developed nations, the crowning achievement of her long-time Prime Minister Mahathir. Instead, she is cursed with a government that is bloated, corrupt, and incompetent, and her citizens deeply and dangerously polarized.
Malaysia is now known for her 1MDB notoriety, the world’s most expensive swindle, perpetrated by former Prime Minister Najib Razak. The price tag of that, though humongous and escalating, is at least quantifiable. Not so the divisions he had sowed and continue to sow among Malaysians.
Mahathir’s much ballyhooed Vision 2020 proved to be but a cruel hoax. Beyond that, he cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for the rise of the sleepy Badawi, the kleptocratic Najib, and now the muddling Muhyyiddin, thus turning Malaysia into the sorry state she is in today. What an ugly legacy, obvious to all but Mahathir.
The late PAS leader Fadzil Noor once quipped for Mahathir to have a long life so he could see the follies of his policies. Fadzil Noor got only half his wish. Mahathir still deludes himself as being God’s greatest gift to Malaysia. As per the wisdom of Sa’adi’s Gulistan, “He whose fault is not told him / Ignorantly thinks his defects are virtues!”
Courtiers do not dare tell their emperor that he is naked.
Tengku was spot on when he predicted that Mahathir would destroy Malaysia. Mahathir personifies Raja Ali Haji’s Gurindam 12 aphorism: “Tiada orang yang amat celaka / Aib dirinya tiada ia sangka.” (Cursed are those whose self-awareness is closed.)
Tengku’s enlightened vision for Malaysia has been derailed. There is much to be done to put it back on track, as well as build a stronger locomotive and straighten the tracks. Then ensure only the honest, competent, and principled be at the throttle. Only thus could Malaysians savor our Merdeka