August 2023 marked 66 years of Malaysian independence. My grandparents were both witnesses to the independence ceremonies, and at once typical and heterogeneous, their lives reflect a certain moment of Malaysian history, and tell of the structures and sediments of empire itself.

Both of their families emigrated to Malaya to work on the railways that were expanding under British rule. My grandmother’s from Jaffna, and my grandfather’s from Madras. We recently discovered that his surname, now mine, comes all the way from an Irish East India Company soldier who arrived in India in 1846. In this sense, my grandparents are typical of the racial diversity of Malaysia and its origin in patterns of migration (both forced and unforced) that took place within the British Empire. At home they speak English, the language in which they were educated, eat mostly Sri Lankan and Indian food, but feel only Malaysian.

This stance, however, is one that might seem naive in a country whose young life has been shaped by questions of race and religion, and in many ways my grandparents live out an idealism that does not always reflect the rest of the country. They represent a charmed sect of the independence generation who were too young to fight in the war, but old enough to ride on the wave of the hopes and opportunities of independence.

Born in 1930 and 1933, they were educated in British schools, but also remember the world being turned upside down by the Japanese occupation. My grandma vividly recalls the officers living in their house, and school lessons conducted in Japanese. Grandpa points to these years as fundamental in the move for independence: “Everybody realised that these so-called colonies could look after themselves – could form our own government as we did during the Japanese occupation, with their oversight.” In 1949 he entered the University of Malaya’s first cohort, and credits those years with his growing political consciousness: “There was much talk about independence, in student affairs, writings and meetings. It was very much the topic of the day, and we had some very loud voices amongst us.”

My grandma says: “Unlike the INA who were really fighting, for us it was almost on a platter. The Labour government in England had already accepted what must happen, so for me it was more a shift of governance and administration but not a big revolution or turmoil, unlike the experience for some students.”

My grandpa agrees that Indian independence “led the way for many of us. That was a real struggle and it helped us. We said, OK, we’re gonna be independent – no argument!”

“A searchlight lit up the Union Jack as it slowly came down, and then [the] national flag went up and there was a huge cheer of ‘Merdeka!’”

By 1957, my grandparents had graduated from university, and were courting. Grandpa was there at the midnight ceremony, which took place on the Selangor Club Padang (square), outside the whites-only colonial club in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. “The lights went out and they sang ‘God Save the Queen’, and then at midnight the clock tower rang 12 strokes, and on the 12th a searchlight lit up the Union Jack as it slowly came down, and then [the] national flag went up and there was a huge cheer of ‘Merdeka!’ … I’m sure my hairs stood on end, wow it was really something, it was really something. At last, independence. And we all became Malaysian citizens!”

Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's first prime minister after independenceMuzium Negara / Flickr

The next morning, they both attended the ceremony in the Merdeka (independence) stadium together, built on the old George VI Coronation Park. “It was still dark when we arrived and we saw the dawn break. There were foreign dignitaries, and all the old British colonial civil servants in their white uniforms and helmets, then the sultans arrived along to their anthems, then the Duke of Gloucester as the Queen’s representative.” The flag ceremony was repeated and the official proclamation of independence read, with the Chief Minister Tunku Abdul Raman then assuming his role as prime minister. Tunku declared “Merdeka” seven times. “It was really something.”

Grandma, however, says: “I almost took this moment of independence for granted, which was naive – a product of my sheltered world. I don’t think I felt as exhilarated as I should have.” Grandpa interjects: “Well I felt exhilarated!”

She says that only looking back has she been struck by the momentous shift that independence brought in her own life. Having graduated just two months before, she “had this incredible luck of stepping out of my examination hall in Singapore into a room where the colonial civil service were waiting to interview graduates. The next month I went along and was ushered to meet a tall and dour gentleman, a senior civil servant from England. He said welcome; I was shown to a room, and started work!”

She was the first female civil servant, a position that was contingent on the vacuum created by the outgoing British civil servants. “Looking back, there was a kind of freak thread in my life that landed me that spot at that time. If I had graduated when I should have in 1955, I would never have had this opportunity, and only many years later this connection of all the pieces sprang up in my awareness.” Her first job was processing the lump sum payments that went out to British civil servants as compensation for losing their jobs, and the second was recruiting Malaysians to fill their places.

My Grandpa’s career was less contingent on independence, but perhaps similarly tied to the creation of the new nation, as he became an obstetrician and delivered around 20,000 new Malaysians.

Reflecting on 66 years of independence, my grandma says: “I think we’ve done very well actually. It’s the racial quality of the politics that makes it divisive, but the balance between a meritocracy and the acknowledgement of the necessity of affirmative action was necessary.” Grandpa agrees, although regrets that the political system is still race-based at all. Nevertheless: “We did reasonably well with what we had at that time, which was racial politics,” and overall he suggests that the ideals of independence were realised.

“For many years the intelligentsia have convinced themselves that racially-based political parties are either a normal part or necessary evil of living in a multi-racial nation”

Others would temper this satisfaction. The way my uncle sees it, Malaysian independence was dominated by colonial, western thought. “The Federal Constitution of Malaysia was devised by the Reid Commission, made up of constitutional experts from Britain and Commonwealth countries, leaving a socio-political system almost identical to that of the UK, and concomitant socio-political systems dominated by western paradigms and interests.”

For the generation that saw independence, “Malaysia had had a fairly smooth transition to independence and economic growth, and been left with many benefits – for example, a public health system, and English, the dominant international language for trade and commerce.”

However, “the internal contradictions of the hastily put-together constitution are now palpable: no discrimination against citizens on the grounds of race (Article 8) but special privileges for the Malay race (Article 153), Freedom of religion (Article 11) but not for Malays, the majority of the population (Article 160).” In his view, by skilfully keeping “real and imagined racial tensions simmering just below boiling point”, the political elite “have managed to retain power, and enriched themselves through crony capitalism. For many years the intelligentsia have convinced themselves that racially based political parties are either a normal part or necessary evil of living in a multi-racial nation, but eventually there will be no papering this over.”


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Kuala Lumpur’s “Merdeka Heritage Tower”, completed this year, is an unwitting symbol of such tensions. It embodies Malaysia’s economic success, and explicitly ties this to independence, architecturally depicting the iconic pose of Tunku Abdhul Raman as he declared independence in ’57.

It has been criticised, though, as a waste of public funds that could be better spent elsewhere, and is tied to the former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is now in prison for corruption. Some people love it, with its combination of nostalgia and futurity, and reference to the defiant stance of independence, but I have also heard someone comment that from most angles it just looks like a massive middle finger.

Marking 66 years of independence means confronting such networks of contradictions and ever-shifting perspectives. In the act of marking progression, the annual celebration also illuminates the ways in which past and present remain entangled, constantly tugging on one another like strings of thread in a jumper that has been made without a pattern.