24September2020

Agenda Daily

MEMORIES OF MERDEKA

Malaysia has come a long way. So has its people. Who can forget that momentous day when the Tunku proclaimed Merdeka for the country?

 

By A Kadir Jasin

I was 10 years and seven days old when, with the cry of ‘Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!’, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra declared the independence of Persekutuan Tanah Melayu.

Standing in formation with a 100-odd other pupils of the Sekolah Melayu Pendang (Pendang Malay School) at the assembly ground, I could hear pretty clearly, amidst the crackling sounds of the medium wave live transmission of Radio Malaya, the Tunku’s proclamation of Merdeka from Stadium Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur.

Television was still many years away. So, while we could hear what went on in Kuala Lumpur, as told to us by the Radio Malaya broadcasters, we could not see it.

When the live broadcast ended, we staged our own lowering of the Union Jack and raised the national flag, which many years later would be christened Jalur Gemilang, accompanied by a spirited singing of Negaraku.

It was an emotional moment as I was old enough to understand the importance of the event. Since starting school in 1954, I was, like all other pupils, taught to salute the Union Jack and sing God Save the Queen.

So seeing the Union Jack being lowered for the last time and not singing God Save the Queen provoked a sense of loss and a feeling of sadness.

The Union Jack was not the only object of veneration that we saluted to or tabik in Bahasa Malaysia. We also saluted our teachers. Each time we did that, we had to shout ‘tabik cikgu’ at the top of our voices.

But our sadness at seeing the Union Jack gone did not last long. The light refreshment of lemonade, ais bandung, nasi lemak and biscuits convinced us that Merdeka was good. Even better, we got the rest of the day off.

At that age, I was more than familiar with the idea of Independence partly because our family was actively involved in the movement. My Malay school- and pondok-educated father was active in Umno and was one of the commanders of the village Home Guard unit.

Even my illiterate mother was sold on the idea of Merdeka because the talk of Merdeka and the good things it was supposed to bring become the household mantra.

But it wasn’t so for my grandmother. Having survived the Japanese Occupation and the terror of the Bintang Tiga (the Chinese-dominated Malayan People Anti-Japanese Army) a decade earlier, she was convinced that the moment the British walked out, the Japanese would walk back in.

She was wrong on most counts. Some years later, the progress that Independence brought to our remote rice-farming village saved her life.

One day during the annual flood, while dipping her hand into an earthen jar to scoop the rice for cooking, she was bitten by a cobra hiding inside. It was not unusual for snakes of all species and small animals to seek shelter in the house during floods.

Thanks to the newly constructed road, she could be rushed to the Alor Star hospital some 20 kilometres away, in time to be administered anti-venom serum. Had she been bitten a few years earlier she might have died because the motorboat trip down the Pendang River would have taken longer than she could survive untreated.

By the time the big guns – usually the Howitzers — fell silent and the convoys of Commonwealth soldiers stopped camping at our school football field, my grandmother was totally cured of the snakebite and she no longer feared the return of the Japanese.

Starting 1948, when the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) took up arms to fight the British and Emergency was declared, the big guns had been pounding the distant jungles to the north-east of our village day and night for weeks on end.

Their sound was loudest at night when silence and fear gripped the surrounding villages. Stories of attacks, kidnappings, extortion, tortures and even killings by the communists were rife.

In reality though, the big guns and soldiers who manned them, who came from such countries as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Fiji, did not actually kill that many communist fighters and we were not really in mortal danger.

But the sound of the guns and the parade of military trucks, jeeps, armoured personal carriers and tanks gave us the feeling of security and boosted our morale.

As schoolboys, what we loved most about the war was being able to climb onto the tanks and armoured cars and share the soldiers’ rations of sweets, chocolates and occasional canned sardines and fruits. That’s how they won our hearts and minds.

Decades later — in 1989 — I saw the dreaded ‘enemies’ at close quarter when I covered the signing of the peace agreement between Malaysia, Thailand and the MCP in Haatyai, Thailand.

The ageing communist fighters did not look threatening at all. In fact, they were so friendly that they bowled the journalists over, much to the dismay of the top brass of the Special Branch who insisted that the media should not make heroes of them.

Last year I accompanied former Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin to the Thai province of Narathiwat to meet Abdullah CD and other former leaders of the MCP who are settled there following the 1989 agreement. Daim was researching the MCP for his memoirs.

The Emergency was withdrawn in 1960 but the guerilla warfare continued until the late 1980s, when former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad – some say at the behest of the late Tun Abdul Ghafar Baba – decided that a permanent settlement had to be sought.

According to stories, the leadership of the 10th Regiment of the MCP, better known as the Muslim Regiment for its overwhelming dependence on Malay and Muslim fighters, had sent a letter to Abdul Ghafar to congratulate him on the occasion of his appointment as Deputy Prime Minister in 1986.

Many leaders of the MCP’s 10th Regiment knew Abdul Ghafar well as they were once members of the Kesatuan Melayu Muda – the Young Malay Union – a radical anti-colonial movement established in 1938.

My village, like most farming villages in the country, has come a long way since that day on Aug 31, 1957. So did Malaya, which in 1963 became Malaysia.

In 1964, history of sorts was made in the Pendang parliamentary constituency – then known as Kota Setar Selatan – when a young medical doctor by the name of Mahathir bin Mohamad was sent to contest the general election as the candidate of the Alliance Party, the predecessor to the present day Barisan Nasional (BN).

Soon after winning the election by convincingly beating a Pas candidate, Mahathir quickly made a name for himself as a keen debater by joining forces with the late Syed Jaafar Albar to take on Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in the Federal Parliament, although they were technically on the same side.

But that encounter lasted only briefly because by 1965 Singapore, depending on who tells the story, either left the federation or was booted out.

By the middle of the 1960s, more development projects came to our village – schools, a midwife clinic and the grandest of all, the Muda Irrigation Scheme, among the first mega projects to be launched by the Government. It was funded by a World Bank loan.

When it was inaugurated in the early 1970s, it transformed the life of over 100,000 rice-growing families in Kedah and Perlis by significantly increasing income and reducing poverty.

But once again my grandmother was horrified. She was afraid that tractors, power tillers and other modern farming implements that came with padi double-cropping would drive away her trusted ‘semangat padi’ – the spirit of the padi that she feted once a year in exchange for a bountiful harvest.

Above all, she was worried that the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and weed killers would spell doom to her much-loved angling fish ikan puyu (climbing perch) and haruan (snakehead). She didn’t much care for ikan keli (catfish).

She was, by tradition, an organic farmer. She favoured chicken’s dropping, cow dung, guano and lime over urea and phosphate.

She was partially correct. While her fear of being abandoned by the semangat padi was proven wrong – the harvest got better – by the time she passed away in 1982, the fish stocks were almost completely decimated and new types of pests started to colonise the padi fields.

Only in recent years have the fishes begun to return to the padi fields to spawn, as less poisonous pesticides and weed killers are used. And with them have come such water birds as cattle egrets, ruak-ruak (white-breasted waterhen), ayam-ayam (water fowls) and puchong (lesser egrets).

It was against this rural and highly conservative background that I grew up, most of the time against the tide because my father believed that we had to break loose of the tradition in order to break free of poverty and ignorance.

So in 1959 I sat for the Special Malay Class entrance examination and, upon passing it, gained entry to Saint Michael’s Primary School – a government-aided Roman Catholic school — in Alor Star.

That decision provoked the strongest protest from my Tok Guru uncle, Haji Hussain, who was totally convinced that I would become a kafir (infidel) in no time at all.

But sometime later, when he discovered that I had neither become a kafir nor abandoned the five daily prayers, he invited me to stay with him during the rainy season, when the unpaved road outside my house was too muddy to cycle on; his house was much closer to Pendang, from where I took the bus to Alor Star.

Merdeka has brought a lot of changes to my village, as it has done to other villages and towns throughout the country.

Whereas back in the 1960s I enjoyed the distinction of being among the first boys from my kampung to attend an English school and being shown the respect an English-speaking gentleman should, today nobody pays much attention when a village boy or girl receives a scholarship to study abroad.

Every other household in my village today boasts not one but several university and college graduates.

What has not changed is the politics. The Umno-Pas tit-for-tat rivalry that saw Dr Mahathir being ousted in the 1969 general election continues.

The Kota Setar parliamentary seat, now known as Pendang, alternates between Umno and Pas, with the latter winning more regularly.

Even during the last general election, when the BN achieved an historic victory, Pendang remained firmly in Pas’ hand.

All things considered, I think I can, without hesitation, reservation or qualification, shout ‘Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!’

Happy 50th Merdeka Anniversary to all fellow Malaysians. And as I noted in my weblog, let us fly the Jalur Gemilang for the sake of the King and Country.

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