Parading around hope

LIKE many national day parades around the world,

ours feature a prominent military element. The heads of state (at both federal and state levels) attend as Supreme Commander or Colonels-in-Chief, and the marches begin and end with soldiers resplendent in Number One dress for royal inspection, or in combat uniform to reassure civilians of their constant readiness to defend our nation. In between, vehicles including our PT-91M main battle tank make their dignified (if smoky) procession too.

Of course, many other institutions are represented in the parades, at least those in Seremban, which I try to attend every Aug 31. Apart from serving and former soldiers, last Friday’s spectacle included contingents from government agencies and private companies, representatives of professions as diverse as doctors, veterinarians, policemen, and firefighters.

Educational establishments of various types were also there: from the uniformed students of SMJK Chan Wa, whose march was nearly as synchronous as the soldiers’; the costumed educators of the Raja Melewar Teachers’ Training Institute; and the enthusiastic flag bearers of those attending private universities present in Negeri Sembilan, punctuated by displays from Taekwondo practitioners and silat exponents clad in tudungs.

At that juncture I could not help but think of our Asian Games athletes – where in Taekwondo we gained a bronze, and in Pencak Silat four silver and four bronze medals, though my thoughts were with our squash players, who contributed two gold, one silver, and two bronze medals out of the total 36 medals won by Malaysia: if only their victories could have somehow been incorporated at the parade.

The experience was new for members of the state government. This was the first time they were invited to a national day parade (even

though some of them had previously served as state assemblymen), and to join the Yang di-Pertuan Besar on the main stage. I asked if the members of the opposition were invited: they had been, but none of them turned up – perhaps unsurprisingly, since they didn’t turn up at the palace to attend the swearing in of the Menteri Besar in May either. (All elected state representatives are invited to such ceremonies.)

However, I was pleased that political logos were entirely absent. In the past, flags from the coalition parties making up the government would be first to feature after the national and state flags, but this time there were none.

The rationale was clear: Merdeka does not belong to any one party, but to all Malaysians regardless of their membership or preference of political party. (Having said that, both Umno and Bersatu can claim to be descendants of ‘the Party of Merdeka’, but the challenge facing both is whether they can successfully internalise and project that spirit.)

So congratulations are in order to the new State Secretary for organising Negeri Sembilan’s celebration of Malaysia. Seeing all these different institutions coming together and marching forward in the same direction provides a beautiful metaphor. Unfortunately, continued challenges to that metaphor abound across our many institutions.

For example, for all the diligence of our armed forces, questions of procurement procedures, maintenance of equipment, and improper deployment of personnel have continued to swirl. This week confusion accompanies the implementation of the Sales and Services Tax, while talk of a further tax on fizzy drinks triggers philosophical questions about the role of the state when it comes to health and personal freedom.

The minister responsible for that suggestion is having his acquittal over corruption charges questioned even by political allies, while civil society presses for the speedy separation of the powers of the Attorney General as legal advisor to the government and public prosecutor, or alternatively, the less wise idea of granting the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission the powers of prosecution in addition to its existing powers of investigation. In the meantime, the supposed meting out of justice in Terengganu via caning has attracted international attention and a cautious rebuke from the cabinet, joining a former minister and the person frequently dubbed the ‘Prime Minister-designate’. The latter’s wife, as Minister of Women and Family Development, continues to be criticised for being soft on child marriage. The announced appointment of the Education Minister as president of a university is drawing flak, too.

These are the issues that cannot be solved by joyous national day parades. However, how these issues are addressed contributes to the joy felt the next time National Day is celebrated.

The music in Seremban was played spiritedly by the Royal Malay Regiment Band, and included the stirring ‘Inilah Barisan Kita’. The politicians enthusiastically sung along (not changing the second word to ‘Harapan’), but they seemed to warble on “Jangan harap kami pulang”.

Perhaps, by 2022, they will be able to sing it with the same aplomb as our brave soldiers.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.

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