Celebrating Merdeka With An Eye On The Future
by Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam*

As published in New Straits Times (NST).

I BELONG to the Merdeka generation in the sense that we closely watched Tunku Abdul Rahman lead us to independence from the British. We helped our political leaders to develop our country in both the government and the private sectors, to progress and benefit all our people, regardless of race and religion, for most of the time.

I well recall the pride, patriotism and great promise that my generation shared as Malaysians on Aug 31, 1957.

I was at the Victoria Institution on Petaling Hill, overlooking the Merdeka Stadium, with a grandstand view of the whole historic and grand ceremony. We all witnessed our dear founding Father of Independence Tunku Abdul Rahman accept the Instrument of Independence. We all joined him shout out joyously “Merdeka!” seven times.

We had a strong sense of gratitude to God, loyalty to king and country and a new sense of freedom, and a deep feeling of belonging and national unity.

Many of us were students at the only university in Malaya and Singapore, then called the University of Malaya.

Most of us joined the public service as civil servants, doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants and many other professions. Indeed, we were the pioneers who took over from the reluctant, departing and depressed British officers. The illustrious Group of 25 were some of my colleagues then!

Looking back, there is a lot of gratitude that we must have and share. Although there were many doubters at home and abroad before and just after Merdeka, we are now a unique multiracial and multi-religious country.

Poverty was prevalent in the early years of Merdeka, but over the years, with improved income and living conditions, the poverty rate went down dramatically to only about 2 per cent now, according to World Bank figures. Living standards and all the social indicators, like health, education and incomes, have risen significantly from pre-Merdeka days.

The country’s infrastructure has expanded beyond our dreams and overall quality of life has improved enormously. More importantly, we have progressed rapidly and well on our way to becoming a developed country, under conditions of peace, stability and relatively high social cohesion and national unity.

Indeed, we thank God, our Founding Fathers and leaders and our Malaysian brothers and sisters of all races and religions, for their great sense of unity and purpose, in bringing us this far ahead in terms of our national progress and resilience.

But, we cannot take our many successes for granted. We have to continue to strive and struggle to achieve greater progress, harmony and stability as a developed nation by 2020 and beyond for all Malaysians.

The real challenge today: can we sustain our achievements despite the many odds and global uncertainties? How do we carry on?

We need to address the concerns and problems, although teething, and provide long-lasting solutions. Among the concerns are:

WE need to strengthen national unity. Our spirit of togetherness must be enhanced. If we look around us, polarisation is creeping. The basis for an increase in polarisation are the growing economic problems such as income disparity, rising inflation, unemployment, especially among graduates, and corruption. These must be addressed;

WE need to treat all low-income Malaysians equally. Hence, the underprivileged of all races and religions can be easily categorised under income groups. Priority could then be given for the accelerated development of the low-income groups like the bottom 40 per cent; and,

RELIGIOUS intolerance is a new and dangerous phenomenon, which needs our urgent attention.

The solution to this worldwide problem is to follow the principle and policy of wasatiyyah, or moderation in religion. This policy should be more actively promoted by all government agencies, at the federal and state level. In recent times, there has been grave anxiety felt by most Malaysians over what appears to be the erosion of religious understanding and tolerance in our country:

THERE appears to be growing evidence of the rise of “Islamisation” in schools, universities, government agencies and policies. Such trends are divisive. They don’t promote a greater sense of belonging or cohesion and national unity;

WE need to follow the Constitution and Rukun Negara closely, and regard Malaysia as a Muslim-majority country; and,

AS I have been told by my Muslim brothers and sisters and non-Muslims too, all religions promote religious understanding and tolerance and mutual respect for each others’ beliefs. We should faithfully follow those beliefs and teachings and discourage extremism, ultra-conservatism and bigotry.

Hence, on our 60th Merdeka Anniversary, we should thank God for all His Blessings. We need to summon our courage and sincerity, and address our concerns for the present and future progress, unity and harmony of all Malaysians.

We have, indeed, come a long way and we are grateful for our rapid progress since Merdeka. Therefore, we need to work out solutions to problems, be rational in our policies and practise wassatiyah in all our decisions leading up to 2050 when our youths will take over. We cannot afford to delay our progress forward, as time may not be on our side!

Selamat Hari Merdeka to all Malaysians!

*The writer is the Director of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI) and Chairman of the Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS).

Click here for the original article in New Straits Times (NST).