Malaysia: Diversity is our Strength

By Haidah Halid

There are many things that Malaysia is known for. Its amazing spread of culture infused cuisines, the diverse community and the phenomenal flora and fauna, just to name a few. However, if you aren’t a local resident of Malaysia, this next fact that is about to be unfolded may be hard to come across.

According to a 2019 article by HR Drive, Malaysia is ranked second in a list of countries with the most public holidays. Malaysia holds the runner-up position alongside Bulgaria and Azerbaijan with 19 paid national holidays in a year. 

This feat shouldn’t be too surprising. A country as homogeneous as ours, holidays are put in place to allow the people to celebrate festivities of their respective races, ethnics and beliefs. 

On 31 August, Malaysia had a long weekend in celebration of Merdeka, Malaysia’s Independence Day. Now, just over two weeks later, on September 16, Malaysia is yet again given a national holiday.

 Malaysia Day.

But wait, what’s the difference between Merdeka and Malaysia Day? 


There are a few differences between these two holidays. Let’s start with the most obvious ones, which are the dates! 

Merdeka, also known as Independence Day in Malaysia. Our independence was first declared on 31 August 1957, a whopping 63 years ago. However, Malaysia Day was declared on 16 September 1963. A total of 4 years and 16 days apart from each other.


Besides the difference in dates, these two events also vary in it’s meaning, history and significance to the people of Malaysia. 

Before independence, Malaysia was known as Malaya. The effort to gain independence was spearheaded by Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman who led a team of delegates of prominent political leaders and ministers of Malaya. The negotiations to gain independence from Britain were made alongside the first president of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Tun Tan Cheng Lock, and first president of Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), Tun V. T. Sambanthan. 

After strenuous efforts of negotiations, Malaya claimed victorious when it attained independence from Britain on 31 August 1957 and officially became the ‘Federation of Malaya’.

1 September 1957: The Straits Times front page story of the birth of a new nation, Federation of Malaya.

Merdeka is the Malay word for independence or freedom. Hence, Malaysia’s Merdeka Day which falls on 31 August every year is to signify the day the Federation of Malaya gained independence from Britain. 

Malaysia Day celebrated nationally on 16 September every year, is to commemorate when Malaya allied with Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore to form Malaysia. 

The idea of this merger between the three states and Malaya was first proposed in a speech by Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman to foreign journalists at the Adelphi Hotel in Singapore. After much consideration, surveying the views of communities and discussions held between the allies, an agreement was made and Tunku Abdul Rahman yet again jetted off towards Britain to attend the signing ceremony on the establishment of Malaysia. 

According to the National Archives of Malaysia, a parade was held on 17 September 1963 to commemorate the establishment of Malaysia with over 30,000 attendees of different races, beliefs and backgrounds. Tunku Abdul Rahman reenacted his legendary chants of ‘Merdeka’ seven times with alternated cries from the audience after reading the promulgation of Malaysia. 

Tragically, on 9 August 1965, just shy of two years since the merger, Singapore made the decision to leave Malaysia to become its own independent and sovereign state. This separation was the result of deep political and economic differences between the ruling parties of Malaysia and Singapore.

In an article, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Prof Kartini Aboo Talib Khalid states, “We have to be clear that August 31 was a historic moment for Malaya declaring independence from Britain, while September 16 was the formation of Malaysia. The former is the birthday and the latter is a form of unity and anniversary.”

Merdeka Day celebration on 31 August 1957
The Yang di-Pertuan Agong delivering his speech at the Malaysia promulgation ceremony
on 17 September 1963.

Personally, these two holidays have always held a significance throughout my lifetime. While in school, History was my favourite subject. Besides that, Merdeka was often merrily celebrated among us, school students.

Now that I’m out of school, these national holidays are even more important as my family makes it a point to use those days to come together, celebrate and make new memories together. Coming from a family that has members of different types of races, ethnics and backgrounds, I have become more proud and appreciative of what our ancestors have gone through and stood for. 

The older I get, the more I start to understand and appreciate the diversity in our country. The beauty is in the differences that we have to offer as a nation. We should be proud of our individuality and differences. After all, it is what makes us, us. 

Tunku Abdul Rahman once said, “I venture to prophecy: in not very many years from now, we shall hear far less about being Malay or Chinese or Indian, and far more about being Malaysian.” As a member of the younger generation, I hope the day will come when I can be a part of and witness this prophecy and vision become a reality. ***

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