It was a cool, dark night that December 31st, the year 2019. Pak Samad had promised to take his young grandchildren - Azah and Nizam - to the metropolis centre that night to see the aerial laser show display ushering in the year 2020. As soon as the Inter-City Transport Vehicle slid into the Kelana Jaya station, Pak Samad's two grandchildren rushed excitedly into it, laughing and giggling. By the time poor Pak Samad hobbled into the ICTV, it was already packed and they had to stand with hundreds others as it zipped along at 300 kilometres per hour for the three-minute journey to Dataran Merdeka.
Pak Samad told his grandchildren of a time in the last century when a ride along the same route on a crowded diesel-driven bus would have taken at least three-quarters of an hour. "We can now go there at close to the speed of sound," he said. "But the crowds are still the same! Some things never change, children."
Minutes later, they arrived at Dataran Merdeka - dozens of elevated highways and multi-hundred storey buildings towering above that little green enclave of Malaysia's history. There were already thousands of people there - a happy, jubilant crowd - all looking towards the old clock tower that still dominated the square.
"Why is this placed called Dataran Merdeka, Tok?" Nizam asked.
"They call it Dataran Merdeka for two reasons, Zam," he said softly as they sat down on the grassy field, taking in the sights and sounds of the night's festivities. "In the last century, in 1957, many people gathered here and they raised our flag. They were celebrating becoming free from our oppressors, the British."
"Then, 42 years later, many people gathered here again. They too wanted to be free from our oppressors. But this time, our oppressors were not British but our own people."
"That's a big word, Tok. What are op-op-oppressors?" Azah asked shyly.
"Oppressors are bad people who want to take away things that belong to you and stop you from doing things that are important for your life. Those bad people were taking away things like our freedom."
"Is freedom important, Tok?" the little girl innocently asked.
Pak Samad laughed. How easily young people in this new millennium took for granted the things we had to fight so hard for, he said to himself. "Yes, of course freedom is important, my dear. Today, if you are unhappy with something, or if you have a problem, you can do a lot of things. You can write to the Internet newspapers and they will tell people about your problem. You can ask associations or societies to help you. People who are unhappy can meet together anywhere and tell the public why they are unhappy."
"But in the last years of the last century, we couldn't do all those things. Newspapers would not tell your problems if it upset powerful people. People would call you all kinds of names and say bad things about you. Societies were not allowed to talk about problems. Policemen would beat you and hurt you if you met in public to complain about problems."
Pak Samad pointed to a road in the distance. "That road is called Jalan TAR. Many people were hurt there because they gathered to complain about losing their freedom. Policemen beat them and sprayed them with water that made your skin feel very painful. They fired gas at them that made it difficult to breathe. Even old ladies and children like you were hurt. They were very cruel."
"That can't be true, Tok! Policemen are very nice!"
"Yes, after we got rid of the bad men and new government changed things, policemen became better. But those bad men were always trying to make people hate each other and fight with each other. They were frightened that people would join together and take away all their riches and power. They even said asking for more freedom would make Malays, Chinese and Indians fight with one another."
"But Tok, we are all the same, aren't we? Malays, Indians and Chinese, we are all Malaysians. Why would we want to fight?" Nizam asked.
"Yes, Zam, today all our children think of themselves as one people, not different races. But in my time, the bad men wanted people to be frightened. They wanted us not to trust each other and work together. They were frightened because people were waking up. Malays, Chinese, Indians, we all realised we were losing our freedom and that the bad people thought they could do what they liked with us."
"We didn't care anymore if we were Malays, Chinese and Indians, because our freedom was more important. We did now want our children to lose that freedom. We did not want to be fooled again, the way the British fooled our parents."
As the night wore on, they got up and walked along the brightly-lit Muzium Keadilan - the former Federal High Court building. A crowd of people were looking at the mounted multimedia displays under the balcony. "Did you know your Tok used to stand under that balcony for hours waiting to get in to see the Anwar Ibrahim trial?" Pak Samad proudly told his granchildren.
"Is that the famous trial we read about in our history book, Tok? The one with the stained mattress?" Azah giggled.
"Yes, it was. You kids laugh about it today. But it was not a laughing matter during those days. Many people thought he was not getting a fair trial."
"But, Tok, how can judges be unfair?!"
"Well, dear, things in our day we're very different. In those days, judges could go on holiday with rich businessmen and people were afraid to take action. I know today the new government would investigate and punish such judges immediately. But many bad men in the last century wanted to use the judges for their own selfish deeds."
The little child still seemed confused. The idea of a court of law being unfair was probably a concept the children of the 21st century would never understand.
"What is that building, Tok?" Zam asked, pointing at a high building on top of a hill.
"Oh, that used to be the police headquarters, Zam. It's called Bukit Aman. Many people were very frightened of that building."
"But, Tok, wouldn't a police headquarters be the safest place you can be at? There will be many policemen to protect you from bad men!"
"Well, Zam, there were some policemen in those days who were bad men themselves! People used to be brought there and they wouldn't come out for days or weeks or even months. Some were beaten very badly. People were very frightened of our policemen."
"Couldn't they complain to the judges, Tok?" Azah asked innocently.
"Sometimes they could - but bad men would tell the judges not to pay serious attention to them. And sometimes these people would be taken away by policemen without even a court trial. We had a law that allowed policemen to take people away without trials. It was called the ISA and bad men used that law very often to keep their opponents quiet and frighten other people."
"Oooohhh … that is so terrible Tok! What horrible people they were! Are those bad men still around Tok?" Azah asked, looking a little frightened.
"Luckily, Zah, we got rid of them in the elections. So don't worry, child - they won't bother you now. The new government changed many things to make life better for you and make you safe from those bad men."
Her pretty little eyes brightened up again and at that precise moment, the laser display began. A million beams of light shot into the velvet darkness of the night as the thousands at Dataran Merdeka cheered and clapped. The dazzling lights spun around for many minutes as the sky erupted into a frenzy of bright, living hues and colours. Suddenly, all the lights converged into a single beam, to a single point in the sky, which blazed into a single dazzling light, like a star about to explode. The lone star stood motionless for a few minutes, its brightness illuminating all around us. The crowd roared and sang as the national anthem was played, the words enveloping the stillness of the cool night air. The 'star' continued to glow brightly many hundreds of feet above them as the country greeted the much-awaited year 2020.
"Look at that star, children, and remember it always" Pak Samad told his grandchildren. "Remember the time when we were in darkness," he said softly. "Darkness means evil and light is goodness. You must always make sure that the light of goodness never goes out. It must always burn bright ....don't ever let it go out, no matter how black the darkness grows, no matter how frightened you become, don't ever let the light go out ...."
Pak Samad shed silent tears of joy as he watched his grandchildren stare in awe and amazement at the shimmering light. He recalled those heady days of the last year of the last millennium - the moods, colour, excitement and hopes of people demanding change and reforms as their country approached the threshold of a brave, bold, new millennium. He remembered the heights of fear, hope, defeat, victory, unity, anger, brotherhood and a host of other deep feelings and emotions all rolled into those last months of the twentieth century. It has been the worst of times - and the best of times.
But he and thousands of Malaysians like him became a new people, and they made Malaysia a new country. It was not an easy journey. But they did not let the light go out. And, because they made that choice, the light of freedom, of justice, shines brightly for the children of the new Millennium.
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