Independence Day

August 30th, 1999

“The nation shall be founded upon the principle of liberty and justice ...” - Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Proclamation of Independence

It was the eve of Merdeka Day and the city was abuzz with excitement in anticipation of the glittering celebrations about to take place in Bukit Jalil National Stadium that night. The full page ads and glowing newspaper write-ups promised glamourous singing stars, fabulous dances, dazzling fireworks, awesome multi-media wizardry. And we’d get a chance to be with our beloved Prime Minister.

But I grudgingly decided to give the high-tech bread and circuses at Bukit Jalil a miss that night.

Forty-two years ago, as the clock struck midnight on August 31st, 1957, huge crowds gathered in Kuala Lumpur and watched the Union Jack being lowered for the last time in this country, as a band played ‘God Save The Queen’. The fading last notes of that anthem signaled the end of British colonial rule in Malaya. As our country’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman looked on, the flag of the new Federation of Malaya was raised and a nation was born.

I wanted to spend my last Merdeka Day of the millennium there - where it all began - in what is now called Dataran Merdeka..

The significant other and I took the LRT train and, within minutes, we emerged at Jalan Tun Perak, under the domes and minarets of the red-bricked Masjid Jamek mosque. A large crowd was already at the Masjid Jamek STAR station - no doubt on their way to the festivities at Bukit Jalil.

I stood a few minutes at that point where the Klang River meets the Gombak River to reflect. The last time I was in Masjid Jamek was on April 14th - the day Anwar was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. I was huddled together with hundreds of frightened students in the mosque courtyard - some were bleeding from the wounds inflicted on them that day, others were performing their ablutions, cleaning the sting on their skins from the tear gas and water cannons. A wall of FRU and police blocked the entrance to the mosque and were searching everyone who entered or left. A few unlucky ones were dragged by their shirt collars and kicked into a waiting truck nearby.

The loud tolling of the clock tower at the nearby Sultan Abdul Samad building brought me back to the present. Today, there were no police there, no caged trucks and only a few dozen of the faithful were praying in the mosque - no doubt giving their thanks to God for the freedom from oppression we celebrate today.

We walked down Jalan Tun Perak. I remembered that evening we went out to the movies last October and found ourselves caught in the middle of the running cat-and-mouse battles between demonstrators and police on that very road. That day was our first encounter with the FRU. “Don’t run - just walk calmly. We’re just by-standers. We’ve done nothing wrong,” I remember telling her as the Red Helmets charged and scattered the protesters. “Don’t run - just walk calmly. We’ve done nothing wrong,” I kept repeating. Since then, I’d seen old ladies kicked and shoved onto the pavement by charging troopers. I’d seen kids on the way to school sprayed by water cannons. I probably wouldn’t give her the same advice today.

“Don’t run - just walk calmly,” I told her as we crossed the road towards the Masjid India area. The Reformasi stalls there were still doing a roaring business that night. But where they were mostly selling Anwar badges and tags a few months ago, today it was mostly books, newsletters and video CDs. I suppose the time for outrage is over - it was now the time to learn, and to teach.

The back cover of this week’s issue of Harakah caught my eye at the stall. It celebrated independence of a different kind - Lim Guan Eng’s release from prison after a year in detention for sedition. “I’m willing to be jailed again” the headlines proclaimed. The centrespread of the paper had colourful pictures of a defiant Guan Eng, his fists clenched skywards in defiance, among a sea of Malay, Chinese and Indian supporters, the scenes awash with DAP, PAS, PRM, Keadilan and Malaysian flags.

As I read about his release, I couldn’t help but recall the great Tunku’s words when he declared our nation’s independence: “This is not the end: it is the beginning”

Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!

We bumped into a familiar face at the stall. It was none other than the famous OKT Pak Long. We embraced like old war veterans. The last I’d heard of him was that he was one of the people arrested during the night demonstrations on the eve of the Anwar judgment - the last he’d heard of me was that I was being sued by an Anwar accuser. I had to admit I could not recognise him at first. He was not in his usual turban and jacket - just in casual slacks and shirt - but the trademark cowboy boots were still there. He entertained us to a spirited delivery a number of his impromptu ‘sajaks’ - much to the amusement of passers-by around us.

As we parted company, his words kept ringing in my ears.

“Apakah lagu tanpa iramanya?
Apakah kuntum tanpa baunya?
Apakah kemerdekaan tanpa kebebasannya?
Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!”

(“What is a song without its melody?
What is a flower without its smell?
What is independence without its freedom?
Independence! Independence! Independence!”)

The significant other and I decided to start off our Merdeka celebrations with dinner at our favourite North Indian restaurant on Jalan TAR. We were quite pleasantly surprised when the waiters presented us with the gift of a postcard together with our menus. It was that famous picture of the Tunku at the ceremony proclaiming our independence 42 years ago in Merdeka Stadium, his right hand raised in triumph, crying “Merdeka!”

There was a written message on the postcard as well. It was not a chest-beating “Malaysia Boleh!” but merely a simple, powerful line from the Proclamation of Independence that very day: “This nation shall be founded upon the principle of liberty and justice ...”

Someone asked me last week what ‘Merdeka’ meant to me. I think that line said it all. It’s not just about kicking out the Brits. It’s not even about having our own flag, our own parliament, our own leaders, our own government. All of that is absolutely useless without the bottom line. “This nation shall be founded upon the principle of liberty and justice ...”

We polished off our chicken mughlai, mutton with fried chilli and onion bhajia before setting off again along Jalan TAR. The crowd on the streets had swelled by now and the pavements were packed with people inching their way towards Dataran Merdeka. A massive traffic jam snaked along the road for as far as the eye could see.

I hadn’t seen so many cars and so many people on Jalan TAR since the ‘shopping’ excursions there last October. I still remember that day on October 10th well - thousands of people lining the pavements, chanting, singing, laughing, cheering, clapping, with banners, flags and placards waving. I could swear that I still heard the faint chants of “Reformasi! Reformasi! Reformasi!” echoing in the pavements of Jalan TAR that night, echoes still reverberating from tens of thousands of voices almost a year ago.

When we reached Dataran Merdeka, they were already setting up the VIP seats and podium in front of the High Court building for the National Day parade that was to take place the next morning. A few dozen girls were busy sticking name labels on the seats. The Ministers and politicians were seated in front of the north wing of the court building, where just behind them Anwar Ibrahim was tried and sentenced. The dignitaries from the countries out to recolonise us were seated in front of the south wing, at the exact spot where we used to queue up in the mornings to get into court.

The Prime Minister’s podium was right in front of the porch entrance. I went to the entrance gate to see if they still had that sign up that read ““PP LWN DATO’ SERI ANWAR IBRAHIM”. Quiet understandably, someone had thoughtfully removed it - it may put a little damper on the morning’s celebrations.

When the clock tower struck ten, they closed the road off to traffic and thousands of people spilled off the pavements onto the road. A few families even spread out mats on the road and had a little picnic in front of the famous clock tower! It reminded me of the incident last October, when about 5,000 demonstrators were trapped and hemmed in by columns of FRU troopers at both ends of the Dataran and just sat down on the road. I recall the eerie silence that evening as two red FRU trucks switched on their headlights and trained their water cannons on 5,000 people sitting cross-legged on the road, just before an announcement was made for women and children to evacuate the area.

Tonight, the only trucks in front of the building were green DBKL trucks and the green uniforms and red helmets of the FRU were replaced with the grey uniforms and black berets of DBKL enforcement officers telling people to keep off the flower beds.

We did encounter an FRU water cannon truck discretely parked behind the courthouse building, and just behind it were two buses filled with FRU troopers - either fast asleep or looking bored out of their minds. I went right up to the water cannon - this was the first time in a year I could actually go close up to one of those things without being sprayed by it. The significant other seemed a little concerned with my eagerness. “Why don’t you just climb into one of the trucks and sit with the FRU if you’re that excited?!”

However, as we proceeded along the rear of the courthouse and emerged at the Loke Yew Building junction, I was dramatically reminded of exactly what those water cannons could do. For here was that famous bridge where, on the day of the Anwar sentencing last April, water cannons attacked without warning and started running street battles throughout the day and into the next four days. Here, Tian Chua, with blood still streaming down his cheek and mouth, pleaded with demonstrators to show calm and patience and begged for the police to show restraint - just seconds before he was repeatedly kicked and dragged into a police truck.

The bridge was tonight full of happy, laughing people. Vendors were selling drinks and balloons, children were chasing each other, young teenage boys were playfully teasing passing girls, courting couples were walking hand-in-hand. It was like a street carnival - but, somewhere among that happy, celebrating crowd, I could see the pathetic figure of Malek Hussein, crouched on the ground, curling his body up into a small ball and covering his head with his arms as at least half a dozen FRU officers kicked him with their boots and battered him with their rattan sticks.

Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!

It was already 11:45 pm and we proceeded back to Dataran Merdeka to await that fateful stroke of midnight. The crowd was already packed like sardines on the square, cheering, shouting, waving flags, all training their eyes on the Sultan Abdul Samad building clock tower. I could only imagine what it was like for my parents 42 years ago, when they too were here and they too awaited the stroke of midnight - filled with excitement, anticipation, hope and, perhaps a little fear. I too had feelings of hope and fear tonight - hopes for a new Malaysia and fears for its freedom.

The shouting of the crowd at the Dataran grew louder and louder as the minute hand approached midnight. Some one shot off a flare in anticipation and a loud cheer broke. Calls of “Merdeka!” erupted as the minute hand moved closer and closer to the hour, and another flare was shot in the air. We gazed fixedly at the clock tower and we all held our breaths in anticipation of the loud tolling of the bell.

Silence descended over the whole crowd and we waited. And waited. To our collective shock, the minute hand moved past 12 and it was 12:01 am. Then it was 12:02 - and still the clock did not strike. We could hear fireworks exploding in the distance from Bukit Jalil stadium, but here at Dataran Merdeka, it was only dead silence. Ask not for whom the bell tolls - but, tonight, it sure wasn’t tolling for us. Without us knowing it, the moment had passed - and we would never have it again.

“Sudah ‘merdeka’ ke?” I heard a young girl ask her friend, checking her watch.

“Are we Merdeka yet?”

As we made our way home with the disappointed crowd, I couldn’t help but marvel at the irony of her innocent question.

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