MERDEKA can mean different things to each Malaysian but for me, it is the freedom to live a dignified life without fearing unjust persecution.
It is difficult for a young person in Malaysia to truly appreciate the privilege of living in an independent country as freedom is all they have ever tasted.
In my experience, putting myself in another person’s shoes has certainly made me appreciate our tanah air for all that it is, both its strengths and shortcomings combined. Our country has flaws, yes. But we have also come a long way and are continuously progressing due to the sacrifices our forefathers made.
It is easy to believe that the grass is greener on the other side, but as they say: the grass is actually greener where you water it. It would be ignorant and foolish on our part to dismiss the hard work that every Malaysian citizen has put in to bring our nation forward.
I have been told how grateful I should be to live in Malaysia by both Malaysians and foreigners alike. I have also witnessed for myself how quickly people are angered when they are told the same thing.
More often than not, I realise that it is our elders who do not take the country’s sovereignty for granted. Anyone who has ever got to know their grandparents would discover just how difficult and limiting life was in pre-Merdeka Malaysia.
My late paternal grandmother, Almarhumah Raja Perempuan Muzwin, used to tell me how fortunate I was to get an education. She would always repeat this, especially when she saw me on the floor of her room, focused on completing my assigned homework.
I was a bright-eyed primary school kid when she revealed to me that she was only formally educated up to the age of 12, as that was the time when the Japanese invaded Malaya.
My grandmother, being of Chinese descent through her mother, would have been a target for the Japanese. She was a young and beautiful girl. God knows what they could have done to her, so her worried father sent her off to live with her aunt in Kuala Kangsar, where he felt she would be much safer.
On her journey from Ipoh to Kuala Kangsar, she described seeing the dead bodies of Chinese men and women scattered by the roadside. The area in Tiger Lane, Ipoh, now called Jalan Raja Azlan Shah, was one of the hotspots for gruesome executions.
Life under Japanese occupation was a complete contrast to what she was used to. Having lived the comfortable life of a judge’s daughter, she had to quickly accustom herself to a daily routine filled with uncertainty and a diet that consisted mainly of boiled tapioca. Wherever the Japanese went, they confiscated all the rice.
I was far too imaginative and innocent then, to truly understand how horrifying that period of her life was. All I could think of was how thrilling that must have been. I had read far too many adventure novels.
Of course, I know now that “thrilling” is not the right word to use . In fact, “traumatising” would have been more apt.
The terrors of war and ethnic/religious persecution may seem distant or even unimaginable to the average Malaysian, as we have had the privilege of living in peace for decades, but such inhumane violence is still a bitter reality for many people in this day and age.
In the past week, my timeline has been filled with news of Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar. By just looking at the preview of the videos, I know what is to come won’t be easy to watch.
We are exposed to graphic images so frequently that we have become desensitised to the magnitude of destruction that violent conflicts can cause to a country and its people. Buildings can easily be rebuilt but the kind of trauma war inflicts on a person takes forever to heal.
My Arabic tutor, let’s call her D, is a Yemeni lady who moved to Malaysia with her family to escape the war in Yemen. Luckily for her, she has the finances to live a normal life in the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur. But, every other week, as I scroll through her Facebook page, I see that she has posted eulogies of the people she has just lost back home.
How often do we read about civilian casualties in the news, only to shrug off our feelings of distress moments later, as if we had read nothing? Switching off our emotions when the news gets overwhelming is a privilege that Malaysians have, but as for the people of Yemen, or any other war-torn and violence-inflicted country, they do not have the luxury of putting aside their fears.
Losing my cousin to cancer two years ago was a huge enough heartbreak for me, I cannot fathom the pain D has to go through, knowing that her hometown is being destroyed and the livelihood of the people she loves, shattered.
I hope that this Merdeka, we make a conscious decision to not only be thankful for what we have but to honour the hardships and exploitations that our grandparents’ generation had to bravely endure. The peace and stability that comes with our country’s independence may be something all of us feel entitled to, but just remember that it did not come without a price.
RAJA SARINA ISKANDAR is a freelance writer, a blogger at www.dearsarina.com and is currently studying Arabic. She is a millennial trying to make a difference, starting with herself.