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The Freedom to Commemorate PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 13 April 2010 12:16


tugu negera



By Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz


First published in


A grammatical point to prefix this article: the proper name for the day on which we commemorate our fallen heroes is “Warriors’ Day” – with the possessive apostrophe after the “s”, i.e. a day for many warriors.


 Previously in this column I lamented that “there are groups who actively try to downplay the role of the our armed forces and even try to suppress proper and public tribute to them during events like Warriors’ Day.”  This week it was announced that henceforth, Warriors’ Day would be celebrated at a new site in Putrajaya, because the usual ceremony at the Tugu Negara is unIslamic owing to the presence of human depictions and the playing of The Last Post.


There are so many questions to ask, like whether this is in fact true.  No Muslim who attends the ceremony succumbs to idolatry, and the Muslims who attend Remembrance Day in London seem not to encounter the same problem either.  Why, after nearly fifty years of following the traditional ceremony, is it now officially deemed as such?  What has changed?  Is this symptomatic of a wider shift in values, or is there something more sinister at work?


If the latter, we can expect the banning of many more things.  Another tradition that a minority have complained about is the burial of leaders under roofs.  The funeral of Tun Dr Ismail was delayed because although Tun Abdul Razak had ordered that he be buried at the Makam Pahlawan, a mufti intervened to say that Muslims could not be buried under a roof.  Tunku Abdul Rahman was outraged, pointing out that his ancestors were buried in a mausoleum under a roof: indeed, you will find such complexes in most royal capitals in Malaysia, and one funeral I attended in Kedah was accompanied by a nobat orchestra (about as unIslamic as The Last Post).  Upon Tun Abdul Razak’s orders, soldiers tore up the floor of the mausoleum to enable Tun Dr Ismail’s burial at the said spot.


The deliberate destruction of Malay culture on Islamic grounds is something we have come to expect from self-appointed religious purists.  So in Kelantan, there are official bans on manora and mak yong, and wayang kulit is permitted only if the government deems it sufficiently Islamic.  However, thanks to the sterling work of organisations like Pusaka, these arts have endured and perhaps one day the authorities there – cajoled by their party’s membership of a progressive alliance – will revise their attitude.


There is a catalogue of other things that could potentially be banned just because the religious scholars say so.  On the other hand, it will be pointed out that maybe this is what the people want.  But if indeed such changes are wanted, there should be some process of consultation with those involved.  The change to Warriors’ Day was announced unilaterally.  It would do the government much good to be able to say that the change was approved after discussion with ex-servicemen and indeed the wider public.  But there wasn’t.  Instead, their actions seemed to have been triggered by the opinions of a particular minority.  If this is how policies of a government in the midst of reform are decided, that does not bode well for democratic legitimacy.


In the meantime, to sideline the Tugu Negara in this way is an insult to Tunku Abdul Rahman, who commissioned it.  It is an insult to Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong who officially opened it.  Most of all, it is an insult to those who have there been faithfully commemorating their family members and colleagues – heroes who fought for the freedom of every Malaysian today.  But we have been presented with a fait accompli, and the most we can hope for now is that it won’t be destroyed.


Finally, there is one other reason to condemn this scheme, which is that the ceremony will shift to Putrajaya.  The most important national events still take place principally in Kuala Lumpur.  The Istana Negara, Parliament and the embassies are still in the city that has witnessed all the wars since its status as capital of the Federated Malay States.  For the main Warriors’ Day celebration to move from our historic capital to a part of Selangor annexed by the federal government in 2001 is most uninspired.


As history has comprehensively shown us, there is no authoritarianism as insidious as that based on ostensibly religious grounds, or secular authoritarianisms that adopt the trappings of ritual and ceremony.  Our heroes fought for a constitutional democracy, where some minorities are not more equal than others.


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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is President of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).

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