Merdeka and the rise of citizens



(The Nut Graph) – THERE has been an unusual amount of bickering over the Merdeka celebrations this year. There have been public disagreements over the Merdeka theme, song and logo, and over the celebrations that have been held, plus who should be invited.

There were the federal government-organised Merdeka celebrations at Bukit Jalil and the countdown at Kuala Lumpur City Centre, and the Pakatan Rakyat state government celebrations. There was also Janji Demokrasi, organised by civil society, at Dataran Merdeka. Individuals, including a teenager, have even been arrested, handcuffed and expelled from school over their behaviour at the non-government Merdeka celebrations.

The Nut Graph speaks to political scientist Wong Chin Huat on the different celebrations of Merdeka and tries to pin down why this year’s celebration is more contested than in other years.

TNG: Why the tussle over Merdeka this year? Has it been this way before? What’s different this time round?

This is not the first time the official celebration of Merdeka and/or Malaysia Day has been contested. In 2008, some bloggers posted the national flag upside down to drive home the message of “nation in distress”. In 2009, after the Perak coup, Teoh Beng Hock’s death and the cow-head protest, some citizens called for a black Merdeka celebration. In 2010, on the eve of Malaysia Day, instead of having a loud countdown, concerned citizens organised “47 minutes of silence”, a celebration to usher in Malaysia’s 48th year as a country and reflect on what Malaysia was meant to be – a promise of fraternity through freedom.

These were, however, mostly small-scale gatherings and expressions. What makes this year’s state-citizen contestation more pronounced than before is the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s desperate move to push its electoral campaign into the Merdeka celebration by using “Janji Ditepati” – a self-praise slogan. Many Malaysians can no longer stomach such self-serving behaviour especially after their “baptism of fire” in the Bersih 2.0 and 3.0 rallies. This is something the BN government cannot or refuses to acknowledge.

In the past, most people seem to have been happy to enjoy their public holiday or watch the Merdeka parade on television. This year, people have taken to the streets for their own Merdeka celebrations, ignoring or even mocking the government-organised celebrations. Why do you think this was the case?

The fact that Merdeka and Malaysia Day are no longer just official rituals speaks volumes of the rise of citizens. They want to reclaim the country. They are not satisfied to be pushed around by politicians, bureaucrats and the police after paying taxes. They are putting their feet down and telling the state: “Hey, look. Who’s the boss here?”

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak reportedly described the roughly 100,000-strong crowd at the government-organised Bukit Jalil celebration as the “majority … who are nation-loving citizens”. Are those who snubbed the government celebrations then nation-hating citizens?

Thomas Paine (Wiki commons)

Thomas Paine (Wiki commons)

It appears that “Najib the Moderate” has not read Thomas Paine, who said: “The duty of a patriot is to protect his country from its government.” Or Mark Twain, who said: “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it.”

The test of democracy is about living with people you don’t like. State officials who cannot see themselves as serving the entire country should return the portion of their salaries that come from those who oppose or are critical of them. That would simply be the honest thing to do.

Read more at: