TODAY, it is often seen as just another public holiday and marked with national level celebrations, a march parade and some ceremony graced by royalty, the Prime Minister, his ministers and dignitaries.
Turn the dial back 58 years ago and it was a momentous occasion that had people coming from the villages as far as Kedah and Johor to throng Stadium Merdeka. For those who couldn’t squeeze into the stadium to hear our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s cries of “Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!”, they had to make do with listening to the news on the radio.
Datuk Abdul Wahab Majid, one of the founders of the Malaysian National News Agency (Bernama), was one of the lucky few who was at the Selangor Club Padang in front of the Sultan Abdul Samad building when the clock struck midnight on the eve of Merdeka.
A convoy of 30 motorcycles accompanied a car carrying Tunku Abdul Rahman to the field.
Abdul Wahab and his friends watched in awe as the Union Jack was lowered, and the new Federation of Malaya flag was raised. As the flag was raised, the Negaraku was sung for the first time and this was followed by cries of “Merdeka”.
It was a moment that would have sent shivers down the spine of everyone gathered there.
Abdul Wahab was only 27 then. He was working for an organisation and he was recently engaged to be married. It was an exciting year for him, for many reasons.
“We were young and we were unsure what Merdeka would bring and we were not sure of what type of Merdeka the British were granting us … but whatever it was, we welcomed Merdeka. It was a historial achievement for the leaders in the country at that time. It didn’t matter what you thought of Merdeka, it was still Merdeka.
“I just joined in to watch the ceremony as any other citizen. I was around the clock tower in front of the Sultan Abdul Samad building at midnight on Aug 30, 1957, when the Union Jack was lowered and the new Federation flag was raised.
“I was there with my friends. We felt a lot of pride watching that.
“I didn’t attend the Merdeka proclamation at Stadium Merdeka. People had to walk quite far to go there as we didn’t have much transport facilities then. Everybody was eager to go to the stadium, especially those from the rural areas. Townsfolk, I think they were divided, as usual, but anyway Stadium Merdeka was packed to the brim.
“We didn’t have TV at that time, and most people listened to it on the radio.
“I think life changed for the better after that. I got married then, too,” he says laughing. The wedding took place in Kampung Baru in Kuala Lumpur in October that year.
In March this year, his wife of 57 years, Datin Kamsiah Ibrahim died after suffering a stroke.
Speaking about how he felt about Merdeka 58 years ago, Abdul Wahab, 85, says: “We celebrated in our own way. On the side of religion, we prayed that the country would be in good shape. There were tremendous preparations for Merdeka. I remember they were just constructing Federal Hotel at that time to accommodate the foreign guests. That was the main hotel then.
“We expected the leaders to fulfil their promises and grow with it. At that time we could not foresee what was coming, but anyway there were very high expectations that Merdeka would bring a lot of benefits and prosperity to the country.”
Spirit of Merdeka at Kirkby
Retired teacher and author David Tong, 78, was only 20 when the country gained independence.
He was in Lower 6, at the King George V School in Seremban.
“We were very ecstatic over what was going to happen to us in Malaya after seeing India and the Philippines successfully gaining their independence. And then came our turn. We were very excited and exuberant to realise that we were the next generation of Malayans to contribute to the welfare of Malaya.
“I didn’t have the chance to go to Stadium Merdeka as I was a kampung boy staying in Rahang, Seremban. I didn’t have the time to listen to the news on the radio as I was celebrating with my friends. I remember going to the Lake Gardens to watch the fireworks,” says Tong, who is the author of Laughter, the Best Malaysian; He Who Laughs, Lasts!; and PS I Laugh You.
Tong later went on to Kirkby College in Liverpool, England, which has a reputation for producing the best teachers.
It was at Kirkby College in 1956 that Tunku announced that Merdeka would be on Aug 31, 1957. Tong’s seniors at the college were the first ones to hear the news.
“Life changed not only for me but for the betterment of our country. It was very timely as I was selected for teacher training at the Kirkby College in January 1958. All of us, 300 students from the different states of Malaysia and coming from different backgrounds and cultures, could mingle in one accord and harmony, sharing our newly-acquired independence as individuals and as a nation,” says Tong.
It was also at Kirkby that he met the young girl who would later become his wife.
“I can safely say ‘1Malaysia’ was actually birthed there. What was conspicuously noticeable was the esprit de corps manifested among all of us. We were spontaneously exhibiting that attitude of love, understanding and tolerance for one another because we were from the same country and were thrown into a strange foreign kampung together. The comradeship that was nurtured lasts till today. We still hold regular reunions on a big scale.
“My expectations and hopes are still based on what I derived at ‘Kampung Kirkby’, a oneness based on love and understanding despite our different backgrounds,” says Tong.
Main photo: David Tong (standing, fifth from right) and his wife Cherry (sitting, second from right) in 1958 at Kirkby College.