On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Missing out on the magic

FOR a long, long time, I thought Tunku Abdul Rahman only made the Merdeka cry three times, no thanks to the archive footage that we see on television. The first Prime Minister actually made the historic cry that reverberated across the stadium seven times, but none of my teachers told me that. 

In fact, my ignorance continued until I became a journalist. I found out about the “deep, excited response” which “echoed in the crowded stands to be flung back again by the amplifying horns” – that was how The Sunday Times issue of Sept 1, 1957, reported that event.  

The page one story, with the headline “This is it” and sub-heading “Across a stilled stadium, the magic words of nationhood”, was written by one Allington Kennard, presumably a white man. 

The front-page picture wasn’t of the Tunku raising his hand to proclaim Independence. Instead, the picture showed the Tunku bowing to the Duke of Gloucester, the Queen’s representative, as he received the Constitutional Instrument. 

Priced at dua kupang (20 cents), the newspaper, which is now stored in microfilm form at the National Archives, remains one of the best records for young Malaysians like me who want to know about Aug 31. 

My school teachers and university lecturers never told me that by 2am, people had gathered at the Padang, what is now known as Dataran Merdeka, and an hour later, Merdeka Stadium started to come to life. 

But there was a “blustering storm” and “a grey and clouded dawn threatened the day with ruin” with “nearly 2,000 men of the Federation forces billeted in schools not far from the stadium, paraded in driving rain” and “they were soaked to the skin”. 


Full of colour 

At the stadium field, it was reported, “the film and television cameras were stacked on their tripods like some strange stadium harvest, protected against the rain by plastics and oil skins”. It was dramatic. That was how the white man reported, with plenty of colour, that historic day.  

But the rain stopped at the right time. Reading the report, which gave me goose pimples occasionally, I knew why Malaysia remains a lucky country after 50 years. God was, and remains, kind to us all. 

Walking from the dais, shouts of “Merdeka rose again and again, as the storm “disappeared over the hills, now the sun lavished its lustre on a brilliant scene, on the sparkling stands, the glittering uniforms, the incredibly gaily hued throng on the embankments of the stadium.” 

That's awesome. And yet no one told us that. 

The ceremony didn’t end at Merdeka Stadium as Malaya’s first King was later sworn in at Istana Negara, witnessed by the Tunku and his Cabinet. The Governors of Penang and Malacca – Sir Raja Uda and Leong Yew Koh respectively – were handed warrants of appointment. 

In the evening, tiaras, champagne and even a dancing princess were the highlights at Balai Rong Seri. Dinner comprised grapefruit, sharks fin soup, nasi pulau, roast chicken, curry kurma and sambal.  

It was reported that after dinner “a strikingly attractive Malay princess, Tengku Nor Asiah, 20, captivated the guests with a performance of a century-old Kelantan love dance – the Tari Ashek.” 

Outside, on the lawn, there was a dragon dance, 14 joget dancers and an Indian temple dance. “A talented group of singers from Malacca entertained the guests with Portuguese, Malay, and other songs.”  

It was very multi-racial and classic Tunku, making sure every race felt they had a place in this newborn country. 

It was real and not some form of tokenism, which we sometimes see at some cultural fare. Malaysia is made up of three main racial groups, why be shy about it. There is no need to be apologetic. 

I cannot imagine the joget dancers making their appearances at official functions now. In fact, they have disappeared completely as religious conservatism chips away at the face of Malaysia. The nearest we have now is poncho poncho, a form of line dancing.  

The beautiful Malay culture with its gentleness, which we love so much, seems to be losing its ground to Arab culture. 

Who would have thought that the elegant kebaya would at one point almost become extinct but for the active intervention of the late Datin Seri Endon Mahmood; and for that matter, the wayang kulit and mak yong in Kelantan? 

That wasn’t all. On the eve of National Day, the Tunku who was speaking at the Alliance rally remarked: “Humble yourself before God, whether it be in mosques, churches and temples or in our homes, Give thanks to Him for His blessing He has showered upon us.” 

It took a great leader like the Tunku, truly a leader of all Malaysians, to make such a statement. Such openness has become a rare commodity, in some ways, in Malaysia 2007. 

The Straits Echo, a Penang-based newspaper, on its Aug 31 issue, had the apt headline “Birth of a new nation – Tunku hailed as Father of Independence”. 

The Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, another English daily based in Penang, reported on Aug 28 that mosques in Penang and Province Wellesley held special Merdeka sermons, which were prepared by Haji Ahmad Badawi, the father of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.  

It reported that a four-page Jawi typewritten sermon was made available to every mosque in the state. 

The newspaper also reported the anxiety of titled community leaders as independence approached. They wanted to know whether their decorations, medals and honours conferred by the British government could still be worn after Merdeka and whether Justices of Peace, appointed by the British government, would be able to perform their functions from Sept 1, 1957. 

For the ordinary Malayans on Aug 31, it was a holiday. Dendam Pontianak, which starred Maria Menado, was screened at the Odeon in Kuala Lumpur and Penang to full houses.  

(Remember at one time, an Information Minister banned such horror movies during the 80s but luckily sanity has prevailed and we are back to watching such locally-made movies of this genre.) 

The rival show was Kaseh Sayang, which had Aziz Sattar and Normadiah in the lead. Burt Lancaster’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was the English choice for most moviegoers. 


Good old days 

Young Malayans were swinging to Pat Boone’s Love Letters In The Sand and Elvis Presley’s Teddy Bear, which were on top of the charts in the United Kingdom and United States. Rock and roll was the order of the day with the young and restless dancing to the beat of Bill Hayley and the Comets. 

In sports, the Malayan soccer side ranked among the top in Asia with the ability to compete against the best Asian teams; 50 years later, we have gone down the pits. Very much like our politics, you may say. 

At the Rex Cinema in Kuala Lumpur, the hottest item was a live show by a four-woman group from Australia, who called themselves Bubla Folies, a slick dance team.  

Alas, some of us would frown on that, too, today. Who would have thought that the Gwen Stefani concert would be an issue after 50 years and why do we even bother to entertain this group of PAS-inclined students, who should be more worried about passing their exams, improving their English and making themselves employable?  

They are just a group of small but vocal minority and certainly the majority should never submit to their wishes. It’s the tyranny of the minority that Malaysians have to stand up to if we want to keep the Malaysia we love. Malaysia is not Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran, let’s be clear. 

Aug 31, 1957 – I wasn’t born then. The retired teachers and the older folks tell me that things were better then, perhaps out of nostalgia.  

We have had the best times, the worst times and, surely, there can be better times but Malaysia will remain our home, that’s for sure.