When the Malayan flag was hoisted in 1957, 'every person there did not represent one race, they were Malayans,” recalls Mrs FR Bhupalan, who was then a 30-year-old mother of two.
SPECIALKUALA LUMPUR: At the age of 84, Rasammah Bhupalan’s eyes still light up at the mention of Aug 31, 1957.
Her eagerness when sharing what she witnessed that momentous day is infectious and at times poignant.
Known to many as Mrs FR Bhupalan, she was both a Malaysian freedom fighter and social activist.
Having championed causes such as the anti-drug abuse movement, women’s rights, education and social justice, Bhupalan was one of the earliest women involved in the fight for Malaysian (then Malaya) independence.
At the age of 16, she joined the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the women’s wing of the Indian National Army, to fight the British.
As founder president of the Women Teacher’s Union, she fought for equal pay for women teachers and tried to bring a disparate teachers’ unions under the same roof.
With these achievements, which she described as, “modest”, it is little wonder why she feels so strongly about the day Malaya was liberated and recalls the day with much clarity and enthusiasm.
“It was the most exhilarating and happy period of the time. But it also came with the realisation that therein was a challenge (for me) as a citizen of an independent country and nation.
“It made me think about how I must undertake certain responsibilities and have greater participation in the life of our country. I was 30 years old at the time.”
On the eve of Merdeka, Bhupalan made her way from Ipoh to be in Kuala Lumpur with two of her children in tow – a girl of five and a boy of three.
Excitement and anticipation
Having been a student of history, Bhupalan felt it was important that when the Union Jack was brought down and our Malayan flag hoisted, she should be there in order for her to share with her children the value of liberty.
So together with her cousins, Mrs Bhupalan arrived at what is now is known as Dataran Merdeka, as early at 9pm on Aug 30.
She recalled that even at that time, a massive crowd had already gathered.
There is pride in her voice when she recalls that the ambience that night was breathtaking.
“People were chatting and there were happy shouts everywhere. I never saw anything like it. Then the Union Jack came down and it was the most poignant moment.
“The clock struck 12 midnight and Tunku Abdul Rahman raised our flag. I was emotional with happiness because I felt that the future held great promise.
“Here was a country previously under colonial rule but which was now free.
“The whole spirit of that night was triumphant. Every person there did not represent one race, they were Malayans,” she says, her voice catching.
At this juncture, she pauses and shared a thought that had come to her mind while witnessing the historic moment.
“My paternal grandfather came to Malaya in 1860 as a contractor and there I was standing as witness to this independence in 1957, three years short of a century.
“This fact struck me at the time. For me, there was every hope that Malaya would achieve its independence with a unity in spite of our multi-racial, cultural, language, and socio-economic differences.
“Tunku brought forth great hope. There would be no turning back now and as a nation, we would be moving forward,” she said.
When ‘hope’ was born
Bhupalan smiles when she recalls the Merdeka morning. She arrived at the newly constructed Merdeka Stadium very early and the first thing that caught her attention were flag poles upon which state flags flew.
“The guest list was impressive, but we squeezed ourselves in. Yes, we were insignificant among the illustrious guests, but being there when our independence was declared made me feel very special.
“It was a majestic and breathtaking sight to see our nine Sultans decked out in full regalia looking so strong and proud,” she said.
When asked about her stand on the monarchy and liberty, Bhupalan said she believes in the status of the Sultans.
“I knew at the time that we were a constitutionally democratic country where we would have free elections.
“There was hope that the nation of Malaya would uphold the constitutional monarchy within a democratic party.
“That the government would assure that every man, woman and child would get their place in the sun. The whole concept of a democracy was there.”
She said she knew then that everyone had rights that would be protected by the constitution, and the government which the citizens would elect would have the power and responsibility to rule this new country.
“Electing the government was one thing, but more essential was assuring that each person becomes major players in the various multi-faceted responsibilities.
“It was the duty of a citizen to contribute to the progress and development of this new, young nation, ” she said, adding that it is not enough to be a recipient of rights without understanding that with this comes both accountability and responsibility.
True spirit lost
When asked her views on the current situation in Malaysia, Bhupalan was biting. She didn’t mince her words.
“To be honest and forthright, I am greatly perturbed and disappointed that many aspects of life which we had dedicated ourselves to in the country have not received the same commitment and dedication from the vast numbers of persons.
“Many men and women have lost the true spirit of sacrifice, but there are also others who are pushing forward for change.
“In our country, we have… acquired a spirit of complacency. We have lost in part our spirit and determination to stand up without fear or favour.
“Many have just chosen to accept instead of boldly stating what should be a strong impetus for the country and our people as a whole.
“There is a streak of egotistical self-sufficiency, which has become a major part of our individual life.
“There are millions in Malaysia who have seen minimal change. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is still with us.
“The cry of the silent millions goes unheeded. From 1957 to 2011, could we the citizens have made a greater, positive contribution to the lives of the have-nots?
“I ask myself this everyday.”
No unity now
Bhupalan also feels strongly that a predominant part of our early history is tragically lost.
She opines that rhetoric from politicians, leaders of corporate bodies, non-governmental organisations and from both men and women clearly shows that the much-needed action is ignored.
The need for a strong proponent for unity in the country is unfortunately not present.
“Perhaps it’s insufficient to sit in an armchair and make the assumption I have.
“But it is my firm belief that democracy should be a government of the people, by the people, for the people and with the people.
“For me, liberty means that we are able to stand strong, bold and state the intrinsic responsibility regardless of position or any other factor.
“Liberty to me is to be able to voice your opinion without fearing for your life.
“Freedom of speech from time immemorial has been the deepest yearnings of man.
“I have made very modest contributions to the country but I have never lost or even lacked the conviction that it is my inalienable right as a citizen to be forthright and fearless in expressing in clear-cut terms my convictions,” she said.
Climate of fear and silence
Bhupalan adds that the rule of law, justice, equality, and respect for all persons regardless of culture, ethnicity and religion is the right of everyone.
“We must be wary of those who speak on justice, freedom, principles and values with a forked tongue.
“It is my prayer that the annals of history will record in clear, unequivocal terms the conduct of such persons.
“The climate of fear and silence must never be permitted to take over our nation,” she said.
She added that while optimism and hope are laudable, citizens must accept the heavy responsibility of active participation and call for change.
There is, she added, an imperative need for democracy and the rights of the people to be upheld.
She recalled a saying from Aristotle which reads, “We live in deeds, not years: In thoughts not breaths; In feelings, not in figures on a dial. We should count time by heartthrobs. He most lives Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.”
She said the famed leader of the Indian National Army, Netaji Subash Chandrabose, had also said something equally strong and succint.
“Chandrabose said ‘Live for others if you want to live’. This is what every Malaysian should be feeling every day of their lives.
“And this is what liberty, unity and democracy is to me.”