Features.

The Meaning of Merdeka

[By Gloria Ngu]

In school, we used to celebrate Independence Day by having an extra long assembly with some traditional performances, followed by the headmaster or headmistress leading us in three shouts of ‘Merdeka!’. Most of us would just follow along while the occasional cheeky kid would deliberately chime in half a beat late.

Growing up, I never really thought about the meaning of merdeka. All I knew was that we got a holiday, and I got to stay up late the night before just to watch the fireworks, and then my mother would usher me to bed if I had not already dozed off on the couch.

[image credit: National Army Museum]

“Po po and gong gong [grandmother and grandfather] were alive when the war was going on, you know. The soldiers were very cruel, they came and took away everything the people had. Your grandmother’s brothers were killed. Do you know how people were killed at that time? They would pump soap water into a person until they couldn’t take anymore, then step on their bloated stomach, bursting it and killing them.”

This was just one of the many stories I grew up hearing. My mother must have told me this at least ten times. Other stories like how prisoners were made to dig huge holes, which would turn out to be their own graves only moments later gave me insight as to how life was before independence.

My own grandfather was almost blown up in the war, but he survived with all limbs intact. Only when I grew a little older, when my mother had stopped telling me all these stories, did I realize their significance and how they would shape my perception of Independence Day many years later.

Imagine an old man who lived through the horrors of war, who braved starvation and sent his sons off as fighters, knowing that he would never see them again, finally hearing news of a possible independence. Even then, he wasn’t sure whether it would come to pass.

Years passed, years that were full of conventions, plans and agreements before the Federation of Malaya was declared as an independent and free country. In the one and a half years that passed between the agreement for independence on 8 February 1956 and the actual proclamation on 31 August 1957, he couldn’t help but worry whether this promise of independence would become a reality, whether his sons’ lives were lost in vain.

Merdeka Day, 31 August 1957

Finally, the day arrived. As he gathered with everyone else in the stadium, tears flowed down his cheeks. His trembling hand was raised towards the sky as he echoed the shouts of Merdeka! and the stadium rumbled with the voices of the people of Malaya.

Later on, Malaysia would be formed by the joining of Sarawak and Sabah with the Federation of Malaya, and 16 September was officiated as Malaysia Day. Nevertheless, the whole country celebrates Merdeka Day together.

So what exactly is the meaning of merdeka? Why didn’t they choose the more traditional bebas, which literally translates into free? To get a little more technical here, merdeka carries more depth than merely independent or free. Chosen and popularized by our very own Tunku Abdul Rahman, the chief architect of Malaysia’s independence and the eventual first prime minister, the word originated from a Sanskrit term, maharddhika, which means rich, prosperous and powerful – perhaps projecting his hopes for Malaya.

The chosen word was shouted seven times, as seven was regarded by many of that time as a significant or even auspicious number.

Independence was not a get-out-of-jail-free ticket that would miraculously scoop Malaysia out of the conflicts and problems that had existed since day one. It would not magically transform Malaysia into a paradise with trees that bore nasi lemak and bushes that gave packets of mi goreng.

In fact, soon after independence was declared, a chain reaction of incidents kicked in with a vengeance, some causing injuries and even deaths. Despite all the trials and tribulations faced, the people of Malaysia managed to pick themselves up, set aside differences and work together as one. They had finally attained independence, and they were not going to give it up that easily.

For them, merdeka was more than freedom – it was an affirmation that the beautiful land they had been toiling on was now theirs, and that they belonged here. Merdeka was not a status; it was something they had worked towards and fought for.

Nowadays, we seem to have lost that enthusiasm for Merdeka Day. Despite learning about it in our history classes, this independence our forefathers fought for us has lost its significance and become impersonal. Merdeka means nothing more than another public holiday or another celebration.

How often have we stopped to think of the importance of this day?

I believe that our independence, whether directly or indirectly, has brought us together and united us as one people. Whether it was the fight for independence or simply having independence, it prompted the people of Malaysia to join hands and develop the country.

Sure, Malaysia isn’t perfect; it is nowhere near perfect (show me a country that is perfect and I’ll show you a flying cow).

Jokes aside, this is our country – and we are Malaysians. Having been given independence and freedom, we ALL have the responsibility to contribute to the betterment of our nation. What are we doing to change those imperfections other than complaining?

Are we really making use of our state of freedom? Is merdeka simply something that we inherited, or do we have to work for it?

What does merdeka mean to you?

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