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Friday, 19 August 2011

The true meaning of independence


We Malaysians may have freed ourselves of the colonial yoke but we are still lost, having taken more steps backward than forward, and are no closer to the Promised Land. There cannot be unity without equality

ONCE upon a time, we were a great maritime empire. We ruled over the Straits of Malacca. We travelled the seven seas and the world.

Then they came from the West. They were driven by gold, glory and gospel. They came not in peace.

Our empire fell under their superior firepower. First it was the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British. And for more than 400 years, they stole from the rich, the poor, the not very rich and the very poor. But they never stole our hearts. Relentlessly, we fought on.

True, we might not have had epic victories on the military front. Capturing police stations and killing a British officer with his pants down by the riverbank are not quite in the same league of, say, the Vietnamese routing the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Nevertheless, through democracy and diplomacy, our forefathers paved the way to independence.
Finally, on Aug 31, 1957, we won our independence.

That was then. Here and now, serious questions remain. How much independence did we win, really? How much good did independence bring to our lives? And when we say “we”, who are “we”?

Independence means freedom. Our Constitution bestows upon us many freedoms, such as personal liberty, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. But our Constitution also takes away as much as it gives, by bestowing on our government wide powers to restrict such freedoms.

If you think that our liberty is safely protected by the court of law, think again. In Malaysia, a person can be arrested and detained without trial indefinitely. “National security” is the reason often used, but this is rather odd considering that the last remnants of communists hiding in the jungles have been wiped out, and the threat of terrorists hiding in the mountains and caves plotting to crash an aircraft into the Petronas Twin Towers is very low.

Instead, such draconian laws are frequently used on political dissidents, especially those involved in demonstrations. Oh, yes, in Malaysia we aren’t free to hold peaceful gatherings in public.

Neither are we free to express ourselves. There are certain forbidden subjects that thou shalt not question, such as the sovereignty of the monarchy or the special rights of a certain race.

Try saying “Who made you king of anything?” loudly, and you risk suffering the same tragic fate as Socrates who had questioned the existence of the
Olympian pantheon of Gods, or Galileo who spread heretical ideas about how the sun does not spin around the Earth.

Thus, what freedoms we have are actually hollow and illusory. Malaysia may have gained independence as a country, but as Malaysians we have gained little independence as individuals.

Until today, it can be said that corruption exists in officialdom. It even spills over to the commercial sector, where individuals with connections but without competence often get the first and largest piece of the cake.

During elections, many battles are won and lost purely through character assassination, rather than through debates on national issues.

Betrayals and counter-betrayals are another common feature. In Malaysia, party loyalties shift like the monsoon winds. Shakespeare would have enjoyed living here in these interesting times. Et tu, Ezam? Et tu, Nasarudin? Et tu, Zaid? The possible story lines are endless.

And what about racial equality? Oh wait, remember the Special Rights Club? You do not talk about it.

There cannot be unity without equality. There’s no “we” or “us” in Malaysia, but only “I” and “my”.

So how did it all go so wrong? It’s perhaps down to the post-independence syndrome faced by victorious revolutionaries everywhere bestowed with new-found power and wealth overnight.

What history teaches us is that Independence Day is simply the day on which a white knight disposes of a tyrant. Whether after that he becomes a benevolent king sworn to protect his people’s freedoms is a totally different story altogether.

A change of regime may be nothing more than a change of jailors. There may be an extra meal or longer visitation hours, but otherwise the people remain in shackles. They can check-out anytime they like, but they can never leave.

After independence, it’s another day, another dawn. The journey ahead is long and hard. We Malaysians may have escaped from colonialism, but even till today, we are still lost in the desert, taking more steps backwards than forward, and no closer to the Promised Land.

Here and now, what we need is not just one country, but to share one love, one blood and one life. What we need is faith and courage to leave this dream world where there is no spoon, and reach a place high in the desert plain where the streets have no name.

Once upon a time, we won our independence. Now it’s time we win our happy ending.

The writer is a young lawyer. Putik Lada, or pepper buds in Malay, captures the spirit and intention of this column – a platform for young lawyers to articulate their views and aspirations about the law, justice and a civil society. For more information about the young lawyers, visit

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