The role of the youth is constantly upheld as crucial in any country, but our demographic situation makes it particularly true here. And our children seem ready to celebrate Merdeka with as much gusto as the crowds of 55 years ago.
EVERYONE recognises the picture of Tunku Abdul Rahman and his outstretched palm (now superimposed on the 1Malaysia logo), but many still think he shouted “Merdeka!” three times although it was seven.
Few will have heard the awesome version of NegaraKu performed that day, and fewer still will be able to narrate a timeline of key events leading to Merdeka.
Perhaps it does not matter; the sight of the democratically elected Prime Minister proclaiming independence on the dais together with the representative of Queen Elizabeth II and the Malay Rulers in the centre of a stadium of multiracial thousands remains a powerful symbol and inspiration of the optimism and unity we yearn to recapture.
Alas, today’s celebrations will not unite as broad a spectrum of Malaysians as they should.
It is certainly the most politically partisan Merdeka Day I have witnessed, with the opposing coalitions declaring different themes and logos.
Sadly, it shows how divided we have become, regardless of how much the two sides proclaim that they are the true heralds of unity.
This disunity has also infected institutions that are supposed to be neutral, too; the civil service, the police, the courts and the Electoral Commission.
It is no wonder why appeals to the palace have shown no signs of abating, even if they carry constitutional risks. Time and again, I find that the antidote to this sad picture lies in our schools.
I love meeting my young compatriots who, despite being well-informed with their access to social media websites and a wider array of news sources, have yet to acquire the cynicism that results from an increased exposure to our institutions as one grows up.
The latest visit was to SMK Sri Permata in Petaling Jaya.
They had invited me to officiate their Co-curricular Activities Achievements Awards and launch their Patriotism Month.
I flipped through the programme and was alarmed to see that I would have to join the kids in singing strange new patriotic songs – not the older, less politically controversial ones I know like Tanggal 31 by Ahmad CB (later remade by Sudirman), Malaya Permai by Abdullah Chik (using a tune later made famous by the Gipsy Kings), Malaya Tetap Merdeka by Zainal Alam, or our national and state anthems.
I was about to roll my eyes and grit my teeth, but I noticed how spirited and happy the children were, and how passionately they seemed to believe in what they were singing.
These lyrics, when uttered by politicians or edifices of government, sound unconvincing and condescending.
But these kids pulled it off exuberantly and infectiously, and I mustered my best baritone for “Kita satu bangsa, Kita satu Negara / Kita satu matlama-a-a-at, ooh-oooh!” (which occurs over a particularly emo chord progression) while waving my flag like a conducting baton.
It brought home the power that the Government has, through schools, to promote unity and endow young citizens with a sense of inclusive patriotism.
All the children that day received prizes for their extra-curricular activities, and in my speech I told them that when they became voting adults, their contributions in volunteering, sports or other hobbies would help them become responsible, active and well-rounded citizens.
The role of the youth is constantly upheld as crucial in any country, but our demographic situation makes it particularly true in Malaysia.
Policies on housing, transport, pensions, subsidies and protectionism in the automobile and other sectors need to take their futures into account.
The politicians have recognised the latent power of the youth but there are still ways to involve them in policymaking beyond the teas and Tweetups, and all the political parties still have too many dinosaurs who have failed to evolve with the times, though there are exceptions; the speeches of Parliament’s longest-serving member Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah continue to be circulated amongst the reform-minded long after their delivery.
His best was at the Malaysian Student Leaders’ Summit two years ago, where he urged young Malaysians to oppose draconian laws, think independently, play more sports, appreciate the history of our nation (via some entertaining memories of Tunku Abdul Rahman) and to understand the responsibilities of our institutions.
From my conversations with Malaysians half my age, it seems many are doing so with a similar gusto shared by all 55 years ago: I hope it’s not just the happy tune stuck in my head!
Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS