This week the Federation of Malaya celebrates 59 years of Independence from British rule. Thousands will gather once again, as usual in pomp and circumstance on Merdeka Square. There will be fireworks and loud celebrations in the evening.
Merdeka Square is an iconic place reminding Malaysians of our independence from British rule. The Jalur Gemilang was first raised there in 1957 when The Federation of Malaya formally declared her independence and chartered a brave new course for self-rule.
Yet, the weekend before our 59th year of Independence, Merdeka Square was in desperate lockdown. It appears that a group of young Malaysians were protesting. Their rallying call? “#Tangkap MO1” or Catch MO1. The iconic Merdeka Square on 27th August, 2016 however was surrounded by The Royal Malaysian Police. The young protesters were denied entry. The reason? Perhaps best explained by Tourism Minister Mohammad Nazri; “Seek approval from the police. There is an Act (Peaceful Assembly Act). If the police say cannot, then cannot, lah. I understand that approval must also be sought from the landowner. DBKL is the owner of Dataran Merdeka. If it says cannot, then cannot lah,”
On one level it seems straight forward. The government of the day denies Malaysian youth the right to assemble on a public place, specifically Independence Square (Merdeka Square). On another level, this is a stark reality of Malaysia under the rule of one single government for 59 years. It is perhaps symbolic that the future of Malaysia represented by these brave and idealistic youths were denied their freedom to step foot on the symbol of Independence and freedom in Malaysia. It was loud and clear, that this government would not allow anyone into Merdeka Square on that afternoon of the 27th of August.
The reason is simple according to Minister in Najib’s cabinet. Dataran Merdeka or Merdeka Square belongs to DBKL. They are the landowners. When did any government agency become landowners in Malaysia most of all a public square of historic significance?
This is what happens when one party becomes ruling government for too long. They forget that they represent the people and are elected into government to ensure that all Malaysians are treated fairly under the constitution. Nazri’s statement bleeds of arrogance. Governments are not private landowners. They are mere guardians of public spaces and public amenities and infrastructure. They have no right to deny any law abiding citizen of Malaysia from entry into any public space especially Dataran Merdeka which is the symbol of freedom and independence in Malaysia.
It is clear that this regular lockdown of Merdeka Square each time there is a peaceful protest is an affront to the freedom and rights of the Malaysian people. The grills, barricades and barb wires are symbolic of a repressive regime bent on holding power even in the midst of a deep financial scandal implicating a senior government official in the ruling BN government.
When, Oh when will the people be able to finally shout “Merdeka!” from inside Merdeka Square like our brave forefathers on the evening of 31st August 1957?