KUCHING, Sept 16 — Not many people know it but national recognition of the country’s founding day has been a near 40-year-long effort.
Human rights lawyer Dominique Ng Kim Ho is largely credited with leading a civil movement that pressured the federal government to give due recognition to September 16 as Malaysia Day.
It finally happened in 2009 when then prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak acceded to the demands of mass movements in Sarawak and Sabah and declared September 16 that year a national public holiday for the first time, to mark the anniversary of Malaysia’s birth.
“I am happy that the federal government has finally recognised September 16 as a very important and historical day,” Ng said in an interview with Malay Mail last week.
“But the credit should not go to me. The whole people of Sarawak must be given the credit. It was their pressure, not mine, that led to Najib to make the announcement,” he said modestly.
“I happened to start a civil movement which kept on calling on the Malaysian government to recognise September 16 as Malaysia Day,” he added.
The Malaysia Day genesis
Ng related it was former DAP politician, the late Sim Kwang Yang as the then Bandar Kuching MP who first raised the Malaysia Day issue through his numerous press statements in the 1980s to mid-1990s.
“I remember during our days in the DAP he always issued press statements just before September 16 to remind the people that there was such a day as Malaysia Day.
“As a teenager, he was at the Central Padang on September 16, 1963 when the Federation of Malaysia was formally proclaimed, so he knew how important it was to have Malaysia Day celebrated every year,” he said.
But issuing statements had little effect as Ng soon realised. So he gathered a few friends — ”Yong Sen Chan, Wan Zainal Sanusi, Wong Huan Yu, Noraini, Alim Mideh, Dr Francis Ngu and others whom I could not recall” — at Central Padang in Kuching to raise the national and state flags every year on September 16.
“Our first celebration was in 2005. We sang Negaraku and Ibu Pertiwiku and then raised the national and state flags.”
Ng said he and his friends also reenacted the Declaration of Malaysia. Wan Zainal played the role of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Ah-Haj, the first prime minister while Ng acted as Sarawak chief minister.
“We also put up a huge banner with the words ‘National Day is not August 31, our National Day is September 16’ every time we held our celebration,” he added, explaining that it was a reminder that Malaysia did yet not exist on August 31, 1957 as it was founded only on September 16, 1963.
Their simple gathering drew the attention of the police, including a unit from the anti-riot squad. Ng said the police warned them their gathering was illegal and told them to disperse.
“I said to the officer to arrest me if he wanted to stop me. I told him there were about 6,000 people turning up at this padang on September 16, 1963. I also reminded him there would be more people turning up in future if Malaysia Day was officially recognised.”
Ng said he and his friends were not arrested, but the police kept watch from a distance. Their vigil continued resumed whenever Ng and his friends returned for their annual commemoration.
But the police were not the only people who objected to the yearly spectacle.
“The state leaders and the people started to pass sarcastic comments, poke fun or ridicule us, but one thing was certain, we did not give up,” Ng said.
He said that in 2006, he went another step further and turned up for his annual commemoration in the full official uniform of an assemblyman after becoming the state elected representative for Padungan.
“This time, there were more than 100 people attended, including PKR members from peninsular Malaysia.”
As a state lawmaker under the PKR ticket then, Ng said he continued to call on the Sarawak government in the state legislative assembly to recognise September 16 as Malaysia Day by according it full status and celebrate it annually, as the government did in the past few years after the new country was formed, before the practice ground to a halt.
Perseverance pays off
By 2008, the call for September 16 to be recognised as Malaysia Day had spread statewide and even gained the attention of then Sarawak chief minister Tun Taib Mahmud, and federal leaders, including Najib.
In 2010, the state held its first “official” celebration at Central Padang — the very site that had been used by Ng and his friends for their “illegal assembly” just five years prior. His prediction came to past. The celebration was attended by over 10,000 people that year.
“There was a massive celebration at the padang and I was not even invited to attend,” Ng said, laughing at the irony.
That year, he commemorated Malaysia Day at a temple in the aptly named Temple Street. It was also his last to organise one, because his wish for the state government to take over was finally granted.
Why recognise Malaysia Day?
Ng said his commemoration of September 16 is to show there is a country called Malaysia , consisting of Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah.
“When we raised the national and state flags and sang the national and state anthems at our yearly commemoration of September 16, it was to inform and educate the people that Sarawak is part and parcel of Malaysia,” he said.
Failure to recognise September 16 as Malaysia Day is to deny the role of Sarawak and Sabah in the formation of Malaysia, he explained.
He said August 31 is an important day for peninsular Malaysians because it was a reminder of their independence from the British, but the date has nothing to do with Sarawak and Sabah and therefore the people did not have to commemorate it.
Ng said he is very much aware that September 16 does not mean much to the people of Malaya, who treat the date as just another holiday on the long list of holidays.
“To them, September 16 is of no significance because they have been taught that August 31 is their National Day. Dissemination of public awareness on September 16 has not reached them yet,” he said.
But he added that the school history textbooks need a revision so Malaysians know their real history.
“The other day I was shocked to learn from a history teacher who did not even know the significance of September 16 and why we celebrate Malaysia Day.
“For me, September 16 is just the start of a campaign to fight for the return of our eroded rights and our status as equal partner in the formation of Malaysia,” Ng said.