The meaning of nationhood in Malaysia

The meaning of nationhood in Malaysia
The remains of victims of the MH17 disaster are carried during a repatriation ceremony at the Bunga Raya complex of KLIA airport in Sepang on August 22, 2014.

Three days from now, we will mark the 57th anniversary of independence in a year that will go down in history as one of the most painful for Malaysians.

Two tragedies involving Malaysia Airlines flights within four months have left most of us shocked and anguished and the run-up to the usual Independence Day celebrations has been rather subdued.

But amidst the gloom, Malaysians have come together in sharing the grief of those who lost their loved ones.

Tragic as they were, the disasters rekindled our sense of unity that has been strained by racial and religious bigotry over the years.

As one who was born before Merdeka and grew up in the country's formative years, I have always held much reverence for Aug 31 and also for Sept 16, when Malaysia came into being with the addition of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore in 1963. Singapore, of course, was expelled two years later.

Sept 16, by the way, happens to be Lee Kuan Yew's birthday although it is not certain whether Tunku Abdul Rahman's decision to set the date had anything to do with it.

Merdeka used to be a special occasion for Malaysians of my generation for it reinforced the measure of our belonging, however diverse we were in terms of economic standing, ethnicity or religious backgrounds.

But that feeling of oneness has gradually eroded away, leaving zealotry and dissension in its place, no thanks to misguided policies introduced from about three decades ago.

Like many of us, I often wonder what became of the belief of nationhood felt so meaningfully then. The common ground that we stood on appears to have slipped away.

With the amount of hate and distrust in our midst, as compared with the acceptance, mutual respect and optimism in the past, it seems like we are barely a nation now.

As French philosopher Ernest Renan defined it, a nation must have a soul or spiritual principle made up of the past and the present.

In his famous essay 'What is a Nation?' in 1882, he described it as a large-scale solidarity, constituted by feeling of sacrifices that people had made in the past and of those that they are prepared to make in the future.

"More valuable by far than common customs posts and frontiers conforming to strategic ideas is the fact of sharing in the past, a glorious heritage and regrets and of having, in the future, a shared programme to put into effect, or the fact of having suffered, enjoyed, and hoped together," he wrote.

Looking back at events leading towards Merdeka, Malaysia's founding fathers must have been guided by similar principles. Last week, I had the opportunity of finding out a bit more about our pioneer group of nation builders, over tea with Uma Sundari Sambanthan.

She may be 85 and not in the best of health, but the widow of V. T. Sambanthan, one of the signatories of the Merdeka agreement, remains sharp in mind and memory.

The vivid details in her recollections, which ran the gamut from the colonial days and the Japanese Occupation to the quest for independence and the communist insurgency, were remarkable.

But what came through most during out two hour-long chat was the picture of Tunku, Tan Cheng Lock and Sambanthan as sincere and reasonable leaders who made big personal sacrifices towards achieving independence.

"Tunku was humble, kind, practical and fair to all," she said, remembering how he intervened to help secure a pardon for 11 youths sentenced to death for consorting with infiltrators during Indonesia's "Konfrontasi" campaign, in a famous case defended by the late P.G. Lim.

She also recalled how Tunku declined to take over the leadership of Umno when its founder and president Onn Jaafar resigned after his proposal to turn it into a multi-racial party was not accepted.

"But after much thought, he said if the family of Motilal Nehru (the father of first Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru) could sacrifice so much, including being jailed before gaining independence, he should accept the nomination to serve the people," she said.

Uma was a founder of the National Council of Women's Organisations, and actively involved with the National Land Finance Co-operative Society set up by Sambanthan to help plantation workers acquire assets after the fragmentation of estates in the early 1960s.

She said throughout his life, her husband was always concerned about national unity and building bridges among the ethnic communities. His speech calling for greater cooperation among the communities during the debate on the draft Constitution before Merdeka is testimony to this.

"We belong to a plural society, and we should always remember that in such a society we have to recognise that psychology has its own place," he said.

"It is not enough if one's own attitude towards a problem is good. It is necessary that he should see what reaction, what effect it would have on members of the different communities.

"We may be a young nation, but we have very high traditions, and they are the traditions of brotherhood, of happy and peaceful living among each other. That, we must always remember."

These may be trying times, but it is not too late for our current political leaders to listen to his sound advice.

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