Malaysia has beaten the odds of race, language, religion dividing us and this is what we have to celebrate in a pandemic year. 

IT is a pattern that is repeated across the years: a country finally escapes the clutches of colonialism, only to be put under a domestic form of repression. Malaysia has been fortunate to escape this fate, but we have seen this happen across Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia. It points to how, in the life of nations, their most hopeful moments have been at the dawn of their independence. 

Malaysia has had its share of trials and tribulations, yes. But it would be disingenuous to ignore its wealth – and I do not refer to natural resources or economic standing. Malaysia’s wealth is and has always been its people and how their natural kindness and values shine when the yoke of ethnic, political and racial divisions are shaken off.  

As we approach the 64th anniversary of Merdeka amid a still-raging pandemic, we must hold close to our hearts the memory of the spirit of the nation before independence: not the pomp and ceremony of 1957, but the travails and unity and shared struggles that came before – and try to embody this spirit once more.  

In school, we learn about Datuk Siti Rahmah Kassim’s golden bangle. About women, so often side-lined in nation-building, giving away their precious stones and gold to fund the Merdeka mission, spurred on only by hope and unerring conviction that the nation was worth fighting for.  

But years later, we see annual rituals of Merdeka Day marked by marches, monuments and mottos. The images we celebrate are those from the fateful day itself: 31 August 1957. The Malaysian flag hoisted at the stroke of midnight, just moments after the Union flag was taken down. Tunku Abdul Rahman leading the chant of “Merdeka” seven times at the stadium.  

Celebrating 31 August is not just about freedom from colonial rule, but remembering the Merdeka spirit that brought us together. Today we stand again in a battle – against a pandemic. And as history has taught us, so long as we stand together, we will prevail, and come back stronger.

While these are rousing images, indelible from the collective psyche, we must also remember and hold equally dear the moments that led up to that occasion. We must remind ourselves and each other that, in theory, Malaysia should not have worked. This was a nation divided, a people sliced and diced every which way you could imagine: race, language, religion, geography, social milieu and incomes. But we were lucky to have a group of people who recognised the challenges and sought to transcend those differences, and a community that recognised larger struggles, greater goals and deeper kindnesses.   

It is this spirit that we should be seeking to commemorate: not necessarily independence in and of itself, but what galvanised that spirit of change.  

Independence is a noun, not a verb. It isn’t a static state, but a journey and a battle all at once. Celebrating 31 August isn’t just about freedom from colonial rule, but remembering the spirit that brought us together as a society. It is imperative that in these difficult times we embody this spirit once more. To be independent is to harbour the spirit of communitarianism. To be able to work together to achieve shared goals and visions. 

It is a fact that last year and this have been difficult. Gravely so. Death, sadness, uncertainty, economic difficulties. A pandemic is never just about health: it’s also about the loss of normalcy, the external and invisible weapon that gouges deep fault-lines in the fabric of a society and cannot be fought with fists. Our trust is placed in doctors, lawmakers and scientists. 

But more than that, we trust in each other. Initiatives like the white-flag campaign seeking aid and assistance serve to show that despite external threats, we all still have faith in each other. After all, you only ask for help from people you trust. 

This year, let us celebrate each other and an independent society while eyeing a renewal in 2022: the year we emerge stronger than ever. In a year’s time, let Malaysia be among the leading nations to emerge from this pandemic: although a new normal may never be a reality, we will adapt, grow and learn. And by that time, we must be in a position to be able to say that we are not only stronger as individuals, but stronger as a community, too. 

Herizal Hazri, 

Anak Malaysia 

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