I was all of seven years when what was then Malaya became an independent nation. I remember going with my dad to hear Tunku Abdul Rahman speaking about independence from Britain, an end to colonialism and foreign exploitation, a new beginning for us all.
Of course, I had no idea at the time what it all meant except that everything was about to get much better once we were free of the colonial yoke. And so I joined in unison with all those around me in shouting, “Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!” and went home happy and excited that day.
Later, I came to learn that ‘colonialism’ is generally defined as political control over another territory or country and its subsequent exploitation for economic gain. It is often used together with the term ‘imperialism’ – the policy of extending a country’s power and influence through colonization, use of military force, or other means to gain strategic advantage.
Perhaps it was the contagious nationalism of that first political rally I attended that subsequently inspired me to join our foreign service – where better to defend the nation against colonialism and help promote Malaysia’s interest in the world?
In the foreign service, I watched in awe and with unbridled pride as our young nation took its place in the world, became admired and respected, a role model for other developing nations. I like to think that I, like other Malaysians, played some small role in that rise.
Since 1957, colonialism itself fell into disrepair as nation after nation threw off the shackles of exploitation and foreign rule, and, with varying degrees of success, established themselves as independent nations.
The return of the colonialists
It came as a surprise, therefore, to hear our Prime Minister, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of our independence, once again warn the nation about the dangers of colonialism and inveigh against colonialists and their local henchmen.
Sixty years later they are apparently still lurking around waiting for an opportunity to rise phoenix-like to reclaim what they lost. After 60 years of nation-building, establishing a strong international presence, building a reputable economy, it seems we are still vulnerable.
But who are these colonialists and their henchmen that we are summoned once again to defeat?
A closer reading of the Prime Minister’s speech appears to indicate that they are none other than those foreign countries which have the temerity to investigate money-laundering and corruption across national borders and local citizens who have the audacity to demand transparency, accountability and good governance.
And, since the government clearly cannot do much about the neo-colonialists who are intent on investigating Malaysians linked to the 1MDB scandal, it has chosen to focus its ire on its own citizens instead.
Traitors or patriots
Opposition politicians, civil society and concerned citizens who question the government’s handling of scandal and corruption or exercise their constitutional rights to demonstrate, disagree or organize to defeat the ruling party at the polls are not seen as partakers in the democratic process but as “traitors,” as “dirty hands” intent on undermining our independence, working against our democracy, secretly conspiring to bring back the colonialists. In short, they are enemies of state.
Ominously, he called for these “traitors of the people and nation” to be “eradicated.” This is the sort of language one would expect from tyrants like Mugabe who attack their critics to divert attention from their own failures and wrongdoing, not from the prime minister of a democratic nation.
Besides, who are ones who have let their country down; those who abuse their power for personal gain or those who expose their misdeeds? Those whose actions bring disrepute and shame upon our nation or those who fight to defend its integrity, ideals and aspirations?
And even if these critics and dissenters are wrong, they are still citizens to be respectfully engaged, not miscreants to be eradicated.
Many will now wonder if the Prime Minister’s national day message presages a new crackdown on dissent, a further tightening of what’s left of our democratic space, an iron-fisted response against all who disagree or oppose his administration.
Back where we began
And so, 60 years on, we appear to be back where we started – fighting colonialism from within and without.
Ironically, while our leaders sally forth against the colonialists, they continue to use the laws and employ the logic and justification of our former colonial masters to suppress dissent and limit freedom. When the colonialists used those laws, it was imperialism at its worst, colonial abuse of power, oppression stark and simple; now it is vital for national security, it’s the rule of law, Asian values, even democracy in action.
Can it be that we have simply exchanged our former foreign rulers for a bunch of local oligarchs? Have we become a nation governed by an entrenched group of politicians and cronies who see the country as a vast plantation to be exploited for their own benefit with much of the profit going back to London as in the old days?
Like servile plantation workers, the rest of the nation must toil hard, pay increasingly higher taxes to the government and tolls and fees to the cronies, keep silent and respectful, and, of course, wave the flag whenever the new ‘tuans’ come around to tell us how well we are doing, how fortunate we are to have great leaders like them and to be always wary of those who agitate to change what is by all counts a near perfect system of exploitation.
Perhaps the neo-colonialists are not so foreign after all.
Independence might mean being free of foreign intervention and domination; it does not come with a guarantee that you won’t be exploited and oppressed by your own leaders.
Happy Independence Day, Malaysia!