Merdeka vs Malaysia Day? Analysts say nothing wrong with having both

Jerry Choong
Participants wave the Malaysian flag during a National Day rehearsal in Putrajaya August 29, 2019. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 7 — The ongoing debate over why Malaysia effectively celebrates two national days is predicated on a misunderstanding of their significance, according to political observers.

While the apparent prominence given to Merdeka Day is seen by East Malaysians as an affront to Malaysia Day that marks the birth of the federation, the analysts pointed out that the former was a crucial moment in history that served to seed of what eventually became Malaysia.

Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Prof Sivamurugan Pandian said Malaysians should not view Merdeka Day and Malaysia Day as a dichotomy but strive to understand the interconnectedness of the two celebrations.

“With August 31, the Federation of Malaya could focus on the formation of Malaysia. It is a long six-year struggle, and I think it will be unfair to history,” he explained.

Officially, Merdeka Day on August 31, 1957 marks Malaya’s independence from the British, while Malaysia Day on September 16, 1963 was when the peninsula allied with Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore to create Malaysia. Singapore was expelled in 1965.

Until recently, however, Merdeka Day was considered the official national day, while Malaysia Day had only been a state holiday in Sabah and Sarawak as recently as 2010.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Prof Kartini Aboo Talib Khalid said Malaysia should be seen as a nation-state with two birthday celebrations.

“One can never get enough of two birthday celebrations, cakes and two national holidays. For both, National Day and Malaysia Day, the whole of Malaysia is celebrating the days. 

“We have to be clear that August 31 was a historic moment for Malaya declaring independence from Britain, while September 16 was the formation of Malaysia. The former is the birthday and the latter is a form of unity and anniversary,” she said.

When asked if Putrajaya should place the emphasis on Malaysia Day more, Kartini said there is no need to as only “a confused, inferior mind” would think this necessary.

“Those dates are historical through different paths and events. Each is rich with the evolution and narrative of states that structurally define a society’s biography. Moreover, both created unique federal-state relationships,” she said.

Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s Prof Arnold Puyok shared a similar view. 

“There is no issue about celebrating both days; they show that our country is unique and shaped by different historical trajectories,” he told Malay Mail.

Others suggested, however, that the significance of Merdeka and Malaysia Day should be made clearer to illustrate that the latter was the country’s national day.

Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun said the continued prominence given to Merdeka Day unsurprisingly upset East Malaysians.

A Sabah native, Oh said many in the Borneo states are regularly perplexed by why those in the peninsula do not place as much importance on September 16.

“It would be a better alternative to refer to August 31 as Independence Day, and September 16 as National Day, or Malaysia Day. That at least is a compromise solution,” he said.

Unimas Prof Jeniri Amir said the tussle was indicative of the dysfunctions in East-West relations over the decades, including the lack of adherence to the Malaysia Agreement 1963. 

Jeniri said that theoretically more significance ought to be placed on September 16, but suggested celebrations also be held in the peninsula instead of either Sabah or Sarawak as has been the case for the past decade or so.

“This way, the people in West Malaysia will be able to comprehend the importance of September 16. 

“As it stands, I think many do not feel the same way about that date, and vice-versa for Sabah and Sarawak when it comes to August 31, 1957,” he said.

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