WE will soon be celebrating Merdeka (Independence) that marked the transition in 1957 from colonial to self-rule.
Prior to British colonial rule, Malaysia had gone through various phases of colonisation in different parts of the country and at different times.
The northern part of the peninsula involving present-day Kelantan, Terengganu, Perlis and Kedah were for a long time part of the Thai kingdom while the southern part, especially Johor, was an extension of the Riau-Lingga kingdom.
Then came the colonisation by the western powers, first by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch whose territorial influence was limited to Malacca and its surrounding areas.
The British replaced the Dutch as colonial masters superseding the Malay rulers and ruling over the people for over 300 years. They regulated the freedom and independence of the Malays, making the people subservient to them.
The unpleasant experience of feudalism, colonialism and Japanese atrocities sparked the innate embers of independence and freedom, which culminated in independence on Aug 31,1957 to fulfil the aspirations of the people to chart their own destiny.
However, achieving Merdeka does not immediately transform the people’s wellbeing and lifestyle as well as mental attitude. For most, it was just another day; the only difference was that there was a new flag flying high heralding a new independent nation.
Independence marks a contract between the leaders and the people to accept the responsibility of charting the future of their own nation.
Achieving independence is the easy part but realising its implications and expectations is the difficult one — transforming the nation into a liveable and prosperous home through the proper management of resources for the peoples’ benefit.
Undertaking this transformation requires a collaborative and integrative effort of both the government and the people based on the democratic principles of government of the people, by the people and for the people.
A successful transformation requires a government of integrity and accountability and an institutional structure that guides as well as provides checks and balances that would quickly react to any malfeasance; as well as a citizenry that provides both material and moral support to enable the government to achieve its objectives of shared prosperity.
We cannot deny that our standard of living has improved, poverty has been reduced and education is accessible to all. We have progressed from a wholly agricultural to a mixed industrial-based economy and have become a major trading nation within a capitalist system, and we are now moving towards a digital economy.
In such a system, disparity of income exists according to efforts expended. Thus, the distribution of income is based on the value of efforts expended and this is referred to as equitable distribution.
Nevertheless, the government addressed these inequalities by creating land schemes and entrepreneurial opportunities for the low-income groups. In addition, welfare programmes and other subsidies were implemented to reduce the burden of this group.
Such was the hallmark of the initial governance following independence.
But good governance resulting from self-rule upon independence is not a given. It all depends on the integrity and moral standards of those governing.
As the country prospered and the initial leaders were replaced by new ones, things began to change resulting in greed and patronage.
The spirit of Merdeka of sharing, caring and working together was twisted and became a farce when politicians and politically connected corporate heads enriched themselves at the expense of the people who bore the burden of their malfeasance.
It became worse when the Merdeka spirit of inter-racial cooperation was shattered by political parties which fanned racial sentiments causing tension, apprehension and suspicion.
As a result, the spirit of Merdeka has now been reduced to a superficial expression of flag-waving and -flying, parades, concerts and other inconsequential gatherings.
Malaysian society today is fractured because of political differences, racial schism and an educational system that is structurally divisive. Chauvinism has reared its ugly head and unleashed its destructive forces.
There is a dire need to rekindle the original spirit of Merdeka that postulates integrative and cooperative efforts towards achieving shared prosperity and shared happiness.
To this effect there is a need to restructure economic policies to give priority to the truly deserving rather than racial considerations. Everyone must be made to feel to belong here.
The citizens of this country must be proactive in contributing towards an integrative society that not only celebrates differences but is also unified in thought and deed.
We must remember that the nation is not centred in Putrajaya or Parliament or in the Executive, but in the hearts of every citizen of the country.
Then and only then can we celebrate Merdeka with pride and joy beyond the superficial trappings of flag-waving and parades.
The writer is a lecturer at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang