Independence Day (Malay: Hari Merdeka, also known as Hari Kebangsaan or “National Day”), is the official independence day of Federation of Malaya. It commemorates the Malayan Declaration of Independence of 31 August 1957, and is defined in Article 160 of the Constitution of Malaysia. The day is marked by official and unofficial ceremonies and observances.
The observation of 31 August as Malaysia’s national day is the cause of some controversy, due to calls to prioritize the celebration of Hari Malaysia (Malaysia Day) on 16 September instead. Hari Malaysia commemorates the formation of Malaysia in 1963, when North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore federated with the existing states of Malaya to form Malaysia. Some, especially people from East Malaysia, argue that it is illogical to celebrate 31 August 1957 as Malaysia’s national day when Malaysia was only created in 1963. Supporters of Hari Merdeka argue that “the Federation” as defined in Article 160 of the Constitution of Malaysia is the “Federation of Malaya” that was established in 1957.
Independence Day (31 August 1957)
On the night of 30 August 1957, more than 20,000 people gathered at Merdeka Square (Padang Merdeka) in Kuala Lumpur to witness the handover of power from the British. Prime Minister-designate Tunku Abdul Rahman arrived at 11:58 p.m. and joined members of the Alliance Party’s youth divisions in observing two minutes of darkness. On the stroke of midnight, the lights were switched back on, and the Union Flag in the square was lowered as the royal anthem “God Save The Queen” played. The new Flag of Malaya was raised as the national anthem Negaraku was played. This was followed by seven chants of “Merdeka” by the crowd Tunku Abdul Rahman later gave a speech hailing the ceremony as the “greatest moment in the life of the Malayan people”. Before giving the address to the crowd, he was given a necklace by representatives of the Alliance Party youth in honour of this great occasion in history, with a map of Malaya inscribed on it. The event ended at one in the morning.
On the morning of 31 August 1957, the festivities moved to the newly completed Merdeka Stadium. More than 20,000 people witnessed the ceremony, which began at 9:30 am. Those in attendance included rulers of the Malay states, foreign dignitaries, members of the federal cabinet, and citizens. The Queen’s representative, the Duke of Gloucester presented Tunku Abdul Rahman with the instrument of independence. Tunku then proceeded to read the Proclamation of Independence, which culminated in the chanting of “Merdeka!” seven times with the crowd joining in. The ceremony continued with the raising of the National Flag of Malaya accompanied by the national anthem being played by a military band and a 21-gun salute, followed by an azan call and a thanksgiving prayer in honour of this great occasion.
The day followed with the solemn installation of the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Abdul Rahman of Negeri Sembilan, at Jalan Ampang, and the first installation banquet in his honour in the evening followed by a beating retreat performance and a fireworks display. Sports events and other events marked the birth of the new nation.
The formation of Malaysia
The Federation of Malaysia, comprising the states of the Federation of Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore, was officially declared on 31 August 1963, on the 6th anniversary of Malayan independence. However, it was postponed to 16 September 1963, mainly due to Indonesian and the Philippines’ opposition to the formation of Malaysia. Nevertheless, North Borneo and Singapore declared sovereignty on 31 August 1963. Indonesian opposition later escalated to a military conflict. Indonesia considered Malaysia as a new form of colonisation on Sarawak and North Borneo, which bordered Indonesian territory on Borneo. However, they did not lay claim upon the two territories, unlike the Philippines which claimed the eastern part of Sabah. To assure Indonesia that Malaysia was not a form of neocolonialism, a general survey (instead of a referendum) was organised by the United Nations involving interviews of approximately 4,000 people, which received 2,200 memorandums from groups and private individuals. The Cobbold Commission, led by Lord Cobbold, was also formed to determine whether the people of North Borneo and Sarawak wished to join Malaysia. Their eventual findings, which indicated substantial support for Malaysia among the peoples of Sabah and Sarawak, cleared the way for the final proclamation of Malaysia.
The formation of the Federation of Malaysia was announced on 16 September 1963, the anniversary of which is celebrated as Malaysia Day. Hari Merdeka continued to be celebrated on 31 August, the original independence date of Malaya, while Malaysia Day became a public holiday only in East Malaysia. This caused discontent among East Malaysians in particular, it being sometimes felt that celebrating the national day on 31 August is Malaya-centric. In 2009, it was decided that starting 2010, Malaysia Day would be a nationwide public holiday in addition to Hari Merdeka on 31 August.