In 1957, Tunku Abdul Rahman shouted ‘Merdeka!’ 7 times to proclaim Malaya’s independence
Here's how the moment came to be.
On Aug. 31, 1957, Malaya’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, shouted “Merdeka!” seven times as a rallying cry at the Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.
It was echoed in turn by the crowd of over 20,000, which included the Malay rulers, members of the newly-formed Cabinet, and the public, according to the National Archives of Malaysia (NAM).
Coming at the end of the Tunku’s reading of the Declaration of Independence of the Federation of Malaya, the cry was a monumental occasion that signified the end of the British protectorate of Malaya.
It was then followed by the Islamic call to prayer, and the raising of the Malaysian flag, with the Malaysian national anthem, Negaraku, played in the background.
A total of 101 cannon shots were also fired to mark the occasion.
How did Malaya get here?
Prior to Malaya’s independence, the Tunku’s Alliance Party, comprising of UMNO, MCA and MIC, won a landslide victory, securing 51 out of the 52 seats contested in Malaya’s Federal Election on July 27, 1955.
Such a result gave the Alliance Party the mandate to form the Malayan government, with the Tunku being selected as the Chief Minister of Malaya.
It also put the Tunku in a position of strength to request and negotiate for independence from the British in 1956.
The road to Malaya’s independence was largely the result of multiple socio-political developments that occurred after World War II.
The implementation of the Malayan Union in 1946 and the creation of UMNO
On April 1, 1946, the British inaugurated the Malayan Union, consisting of the nine Malay states, and the Straits Settlements of Penang and Malacca.
Meanwhile, Singapore became a separate crown colony as the British felt that the inclusion of Singapore, with its Chinese majority, would further complicate the task of securing Malay acceptance of the scheme.
In any case, the Malayan Union still provoked intense Malay resistance anyway.
This was because under the scheme, all individuals who had been born or domiciled in Malaya were made eligible for Malayan Union citizenship, including immigrant communities.
Additionally, Malay sovereignty over the nine Malay states would have to be surrendered.
Such a scheme was perceived by the Malays as detrimental to Malay political standing and prestige.
This opposition subsequently culminated in the formation of the United Malays Organisation (UMNO) on May 11, 1946, by a Malay politician known as Onn Jafar, with the consent of then-Johor Crown Prince Tunku Ismail, The New Straits Times (NST) reported.
Faced with intense Malay resistance, the British decided to enter into confidential negotiations with UMNO and the Malay rulers, resulting in the Malayan Union being replaced with the Federation of Malaya on Feb. 1, 1948.
Under this new scheme, increased safeguards for the special position of the Malays and the sovereignty of the Malay rulers, as well as more restrictive citizenship requirements were implemented.
Such requirements included restricting citizenship status for immigrant communities to people whose parents had been born in Malaysia, or those who themselves had been continually residing in Malaya for 15 years, and spoke English or Malay, wrote Margaret Roff of the University of Kuala Lumpur.
The new scheme also promised the holding of elections “in due course”.
The creation of MIC in 1946 in response to UMNO and the Malayan Union
At the same time, these developments also spurred the creation of the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) on Aug. 5, 1946, in order to better represent the needs of the Indian community in Malaya, according to Shanthiah Rajagopal and Joseph Milton Fernando of the University of Kuala Lumpur.
Initially, the MIC attempted to represent all Indians in Malaya, regardless of whether they became citizens under the Malayan Union, as a result of strong anti-British and anti-colonial sentiments.
The MIC also criticised citizenship under the Malayan Union Scheme for being citizenship from a country still under British colonial rule, rather than an independent country.
However, this changed in 1949, when N.T.R. Singam, the president of the Selangor Regional Indian Congress, stated that the inclusion of Indians who were non-citizens would arouse hostility from other Malayan communities.
This was because by this time, apart from UMNO, the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) had also framed itself as a political party for Chinese, who called Malaya their home.
“This is aggression against the Malayan people. We cannot fly foreign flags, shout foreign slogans, sing foreign national anthems, give our loyalties to a foreign country and at the same time want to meddle in the affairs of Malaya.”
He added that the Indian community should show their loyalty to Malaysia first before demanding their rights.
The creation of MCA in response to the ongoing Malayan Emergency
As for the MCA, its formation occurred on Feb. 27, 1949, with Tan Cheng Lock as its president.
In its case, the party’s formation had been spurred by the experiences of the Japanese Occupation, as well as the ongoing Malayan Emergency, which had been declared in June 1948, in response to an insurgency waged by the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), The Star reported.
During this time, many Chinese squatters were subjected to relocation by the British government in order to deprive the communists of a supply and logistics base.
Exacerbating the situation was the fact that the Chinese community had also failed to respond effectively to UMNO’s moves against the Malayan Union, in which the Chinese stood to gain much from its retention and vice versa, Roth further wrote.
The Chinese community soon found itself caught between a colonial regime that was increasingly perceived to be pro-Malay and an armed rebellion led by the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM).
The creation of the MCA was, therefore, a move to engage the Malayan Chinese not sympathetic to the communists, assist the British government in its prosecution of the communist insurgents, and alleviate the hardship experienced by the squatters who had been evicted.
How the Alliance Party was formed
MCA reaches out to UMNO in 1952
Roth stated that by 1952, the MCA realised that it was essential for the Chinese to closely cooperate with the Malays and UMNO, if they were to be represented at all in the centres of power.
Maintaining the delicate balance between the different races also dictated the need for cooperation.
This resulted in Lee Hau Sik, one of the founding members of MCA, reaching out to UMNO to make an overture in 1952.
Despite opposition from elements within both parties, Lee successfully forged an electoral alliance with Yahya Razak of UMNO to contest in the February 1952 Kuala Lumpur elections, The Star reported.
One of UMNO’s founders leaves his party
Part of the success in forging an alliance could also be attributed to the fact that the one of the other parties contesting in the election was the Independence of Malaya Party (IMP).
The IMP was founded by former UMNO founder Onn Jafar, after he left his initial party in 1951 and was succeeded by the Tunku.
Professing to be non-communal, the IMP also gained the support of MCA’s president, Tan Cheng Lock, who was attracted to the party’s stance, as well as the MIC, both The Star and Roth stated.
This effectively made the IMP a rival to both UMNO and MCA.
Despite featuring such heavyweights, the IMP lost to the UMNO-MCA alliance, which ran on a platform consisting of matters that both parties agreed upon, while pushing contentious issues that could inflame communal tensions to the background.
The outcome saw the UMNO-MCA alliance successfully clinching nine of the 12 seats contested within the election.
The Alliance Party takes shape
Lee persuaded Tan, in the aftermath of the election, to meet with the Tunku and properly formalise the UMNO-MCA alliance, The Star highlighted.
For his part, the Tunku also worked to persuade UMNO by explaining, at the party’s General Meeting in March 1952, that the British had promised to grant independence to Malaya once the Emergency could be lifted and there was mutual understanding and respect between the different races.
The Alliance Party was thus, officially established in September 1953.
This alliance then expanded to include the MIC in 1954, resulting in the Alliance party becoming the first political party in Malaya that represented the interests of all three dominant racial groups in Malaya.
Winning almost every seat in 1955
Malaya’s first general election was held on July 1955.
Led by the Tunku, the Alliance Party fielded a total of 66 candidates, followed by Parti Negara (a new party established by Onn Jafar after the failure of IMP) with 33 candidates and the Pan-Malaya Islamic Party (PAS) with 11 candidates, among others.
A total of 52 seats were contested, with the Alliance winning 51 of them and the last seat going to PAS.
After heading to London in 1956 to negotiate for independence, the Independent Federation of Malaya Agreement was signed on Aug. 5, 1957, between the Malay rulers and Sir Donald MacGillivary, High Commissioner of the Federation of Malaya, on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II.
It stipulated that the nine Malay states and two Straits Settlements were to be established as the independent Federation of Malaya, effective as of Aug. 31, 1957.
And it all led to that famous shout that still rings out today.
Top photo by Mohd Daud/NurPhoto via Getty Images