By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
The Merdeka Day pulled off with a commendable performance. Not only the weather was exceptionally kind, some 100,000 Malaysians reportedly thronged the venue from faraway places since very early in the day.
The performances were upbeat, more so with the Royal Couple joining in the crowd to be closed to the rakyat. It was a day to behold by many befitting the occasion. Elsewhere the Sarong added to fun-filled, colorful day.
Only a couple of weeks ago the situation was said to be tensed drawing from the theatrics of six political stages across the peninsula. On the D-day, things were calmed, considerably, thanks to the matured thinking to overlook some disquiet brewing in relation to the proposed Merdeka theme.
Critics abound but to no avail in the name of unity, hope and MADANI. The compromises were clear. We can bury our hatchets!
At hand, more than 10,000 were involved, indicating that Malaysians are reasonable people if only they are given the chance to work together for the sake of the nation. But, be consultative and participative for the collective benefit of all. After all that is what “merdeka” is all about, an assertion of independence, trustworthiness and fairness.
This means there must be safe space for all from the different walks of life to say their piece in the name of peace and harmonious co-existence. Only in this way can unity be enhanced in reaffirming that “merdeka” is about not just independence but also freedom, in form and substance from bondage, body and soul, real or imagined!
Yet, this is the toughest to realise especially for the post-merdeka generation without experiencing what was it like to be dominated and colonised by foreign powers through the subtle art of censorship and suppression – physically and mentally.
This includes restricting the spaces of freedom of expression and/or action. Otherwise, despicably looked down at things indigenous or traditional, shrouded under the blanket labelled as “jaguh kampung.”
Until today, such attitudes are still prevalent even though the foreigners had long gone.
This is because such attitudes have been assumed by some locals who are ready to play the role of the colonial masters. Freedom is just a cliché despite more than six decades of “merdeka.” It is very evident from the words “Big Brother” in the media of late, attributed to a group of senior and esteemed journalists just before D-day.
The report referred to “a series of clampdowns and restrictions on media outlets in the country of late.” Allegedly, “to shut down critics and please the political elites.” Accordingly, “What is more worrying is the fact that much of the so-called ‘offending’ content is mere reports and opinion pieces deemed critical of the government.
If this is still unclear, on the Merdeka Day itself, the global media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) weighed in with a call ” to put an end to such acts of censorship,” namely the move to block several news sites that had published content critical of the government.
“RSF is very concerned by this wave of suspensions by Malaysian authorities, without any explanations or judicial control, of news websites critical of the government” which “can only have a negative impact on Malaysia’s democracy,” RSF Asia-Pacific Bureau director said in a statement.
This is then the ugly part. Malaysia ranked 73 on the 2023 RSF World Press Freedom, the highest among Asean countries is now facing a great reputational risk. Up 113 last year, may no longer the case the next time around due prevailing draconian mentality.
In short, this is one take away that can be used to track whether “merdeka” is truly delivered in promoting genuine freedom of expression as indicated by the RSF in the coming year.
Or, it is a mere charade which in essence a contrast to what is often alluded to, that “merdeka” is the time to be courageous brave and free-spirited in voicing out the rakyat’s concern not matter how bitter a pill to swallow without being fearful that ‘Big Brother’ listening in.
After 66 years, Malaysians cannot truly experience the full “merdeka” spirit, if it is more about callous “demonising” instead of “democratising” as it seems to be the case today, even among self-claimed democratic members of the ruling coalition!
- The writer is Rector, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM)