Happy Birthday Malaysia
In the late morning of the 31st of August 1957 I sat listening to the wireless in our home in Kuala Lumpur. I was a young lad at the time as the gracious but joyous tones of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaya’s founding Prime Minister, announced Malaya’s formal independence from Britain. “Merdeka! [freedom]; Merdeka! Merdeka!” rolled across the Padang in the city centre as the crowds roared with joy. “Merdeka!” The cry echoed up into the hills, over our house and rolled across the country.
It was a great moment.
It was a great moment for Malaya, one of the jewels in the British imperial Crown, to have successfully made the transition from colonial to independent status. It was now a sovereign and independent member of the British Commonwealth. Despite being held to ransom for nine years by a failed communist insurrection, despite the dire warnings from naysayers in both the British and neophyte Malay governments, despite an unconducive international situation and Cold War, British and Malay administrators hammered out a Westminster constitution peculiar to Malaya that has stood the test of time. Malayans could rejoice in that their country was now theirs and Britain could be proud in that it had delivered unto the world one of the true success stories of post-colonial governance.
The parting was amicable and I, in my youth, didn’t fully appreciate its full historical significance. But I was aware that something of great import had happened. Little was I to know how much that great country was to mean to me in later life.
Malaya, and now Malaysia has been an economic and plural success story. Its delicate racial mix of indigenous Malays, Chinese and Indians have, with one bloody exception in 1969, coexisted peacefully largely because of the constitutional arrangements put in place those many years before.
Malaysia has remained a constant, if sometimes difficult Westminster democracy. There have been problems it is true. A degree of political corruption exists as does economic cronyism. Arguably, however, no more so than in Australia but Malaysians are more honest about it. The principle of freedom of speech is by and large observed and the rule of law, the presumption of innocence and so forth are in force. Compared to its South East Asian neighbours it has been a paragon of stability and order.
In the late ‘80s I had the enormous privilege of interviewing Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra at his home in Penang. He was a trifle late for the interview as, his aide explained, he was finishing his prayers. When the great man appeared he graciously apologised, offered me a brandy or beer and we chatted for an hour. I reminded him of his Padang speech in ’57 and he smiled and said ‘Well, you are then one of us”. It was one of the greatest compliments I have ever received in my life.
Happy birthday Malaysia.