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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Did Merdeka Liberate or Create Malaya?

By Ooi Kee Beng. Editorial, Penang Monthly, September, 2017

Sixty years may have passed since Merdeka Day, but its historical significance remains something we continue to debate.

Did Malaya fight to free itself from an implacable Britain? Did the British offer independence to its colonies in South-East Asia to suit its own ends? Was there a Malaya that now threw off the shackles of Pax Britannia’s global hegemony? Or was Malaya something novel, grown out of generations of colonial conveniences?

In short, the key question is: “Was there a Malaya that on August 31, 1957, was liberated and granted independence? If there already was a Malaya, in what sense was there one? Or was it created that day? If it was created that day, what were the ingredients – physical and cultural – that went into the concoction?

The Legal Malaya

The trouble taken to so carefully craft a national constitution under the oversight of an international commission would suggest that a new polity was in fact being judiciously brought into being, and that nothing like it had existed before. Seen that way, the constitution was the outlining of a new entity we would now call the Federation of Malaya, an act of definition in fact that was geared towards immediate membership in the UN.

Already on September 17, 1957, the country became the 81st member of the United Nations. Needless to say, most of those members who came later and many of those who went before were in fact new countries, generated and necessitated by the fall of empires and of colonies throughout the twentieth century.

Gaining political existence in a form that would gain the country immediate membership to the UN was a basic deliberation in the crafting of the Malayan constitution. What qualities a country should essentially possess for it to be a potential member were what the lawyers and politicians involved in crafting the document were trained to consider.

The UN has 193 members today, up from 80 before August 31, 1957, 60 years ago. How so many diverse societies in the world could, over just a few decades after the demise of the imperial principle of human organisation, take on the strict stock character of the nation-state, explains much of the global troubles that we live with today – not only in Malaysia, but throughout the world. What the alternatives could have been and can be are still being worked out violently and painfully every day, especially in the 25 years since the communist model a la Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin-Mao fell apart.

With Pax Americana weakening today a multipolar system seems impending, but what that actually means for newly constructed nation states and their globally connected economies is hard to predict.

The Political Malaya

We should remember that the major criterion for the British Foreign Office, struggling with the deterioration of Britain’s post-war economy, in deciding to “grant independence to Malaya” or to “create Malaya”, was that a stable enough political solution was on offer as well.

Handing over power to a political structure that could not only defeat communists on the Malayan peninsula but also stay spiritually true to the letter of the constitutional compromise were what concerned the British greatly.

The Alliance consociationalism that evolved in the mid-1950s was therefore a brilliant innovation on the part of local politicians who understood the lay of the land, and it provided a quick and hopeful alternative to the British, whose Malayan Union model had failed so badly in the mid-1940s.

Malaya – and more so Malaysia – was therefore a bold compromise, a modern creation configured by assorted cultural and colonial contexts.
As global dynamics change, the defining of Malaysia – and the deciding of what Merdeka means – will therefore continue ad infinitum.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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