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Merdeka and the Malay rulers


Map of Malaya (Source: britishempire.co.uk)

LOOKING forward, at the conclusion of the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka’s recent Prof Syed Hussein Alatas Memorial Seminar, to Merdeka Day, the Raja Muda of Perak recalled another anniversary.

On the threshold of independence on 5 Aug 1957, the Malay rulers issued a declaration, their last political testament before the nation and their subjects achieved national sovereignty.

Consenting to Merdeka

The constitution of the emerging independent nation had already been formally enacted by legislation in the British Parliament and the Federal Council of Malaya. But on 5 Aug, the nine Malay rulers agreed to affix their signatures signifying their assent to the new constitutional arrangements. In doing so, they issued their wasiat, meaning primarily a legal will or testament, but also with connotations suggesting a sacred heirloom or legacy.

 They bestowed this wasiat, they said, upon the Malay rakyat, their original subjects. In it they affirmed several points. The name of the land was Persekutuan Tanah Melayu; one-half of that land would be set aside for Malay Reservation; the Malay Regiment would be their instrument to protect the Malay future, their subjects’ and their own; they guaranteed the sovereignty both of the government and their own royal position; Islam was to be the religion of the new federation; Malay was to be its language; and the rulers undertook to guarantee the special position of the Malays, together with the legitimate rights of the nation’s other citizens. These points from Raja Nazrin Shah‘s speech on 6 Aug were the front-page highlight in Utusan Malaysia the following day. The full text appeared on the editorial page.

This wasiat was issued on the rulers’ initiative to assert the historical continuity of Malay political power and sovereignty residing with them and now through them within the new nation.

Whatever the original legal standing of this royal affirmation, issued after the formal enactment of the constitutional instruments of Merdeka, it has now been declared sacrosanct. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak announced that solidarity between rulers and rakyat was inscribed within Malay history itself. Umno vice-president and Defence Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi characterised the wasiat as the pre-independence rulers’ last word and binding injunction to the entire people, non-Malay as well as Malay.


Raja Nazrin Shah (Public domain)
It was different and distinct from any negotiated intercommunal “social contract”. Barisan Nasional-installed Perak Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir insisted that, as the foundation of nationhood, this wasiat is itself the basis of any “social contract”. Any attempt to deny it would imperil national stability.

Consent in context

One may read the rulers’ wasiat literally, in isolation. This view would imply that Merdeka could not have been achieved without the issuing of the wasiat signifying the rulers’ consent. National sovereign independence exists only by virtue of royal grace, favour and beneficence. Yet where its words correspond with those of the constitution these matters were already decided, and where they do not (as when they declare that Islam is the religion, not the “official religion”, of the federation) the constitutional wording is authoritative.

But the royal wasiat cannot be read simply in its own terms, literally and out of context. It came at the very end of, even after, a long process. Initially the rulers had been wary of Merdeka. They feared for their standing as heads of the Islamic religion that underpinned their position in their separate states.

Very late in the process, they accepted assurances that their accustomed positions would not be diminished by the creation of an independent national federation with Islam as its official religion. Satisfied that Merdeka would not encroach upon their prerogatives as state heads of Islam, they agreed to the constitutional proposals that emerged from the Reid Commission. The British government was delighted (published documents note) that, late in the day, the rulers had “changed their tune” on these matters, ensuring a smooth process of political evolution.

New power, and old

The British government had made it clear to the rulers that power was shifting from them. Britain was now dealing with the popularly supported leaders of a new and prospectively modern nation. The rulers were given to understand that they had a clear choice: to go along with the creation of a new political order or to be sidelined.

The issuing of their wasiat, once they had agreed to terms on the virtual eve of independence, was the proud action of dignified, tradition-conscious men in the face of the inevitable, of dramatic and far-reaching changes. Britain had no objection, or any interest in preventing its declaration. Nor, from Britain’s standpoint, did it have any constitutional status.

The formal statements of such focal people carry great cultural weight and authority. Their wasiat affirming their consent and giving their blessing to Merdeka was stamped at the time with their great prestige. It can still be made, by contemporary politicians, to convey great force even today.

Malaysian flag billowing in the wind
(Pic by Chris2K / sxc.hu)
Clarifying the foundations of nationhood

But if the Malay rulers’ final pre-independence admonition is to enjoy the great prestige, and carry the enormous political weight today that some political leaders now wish it to bear, it is strange that until now it has remained so little known. Raja Nazrin’s recent reminder sent leading historians scurrying to their documentary sources, fruitlessly.

The royal wasiat does not appear in the published British archival sources of key documents on the “Merdeka process”. Its omission is not surprising. In the independence negotiations, Britain was mainly concerned to resolve technical constitutional matters, including such questions as nationality, citizenship and legal appeals as well as defence arrangements. It preferred not to become involved in “local matters”. These it left to be worked out by the local players themselves. They could be settled in open politics between Umno and its Islamic and radical Malay rivals; and more politely between Umno and its Alliance partners, especially the MCA, in intercommunal matters, and between the Umno leadership and the Malay rulers over matters of Malay political tradition.

Those who now wish to invoke the 1957 wasiat and make it render important political service might well make that document, its provenance and transmission and all relevant related materials publicly available. That would allow all Malaysians to fully comprehend the processes that led to this nation’s independence and the role that the Malay rulers played towards achieving it. The foundations of modern nationhood cannot be left shrouded in mystery.


Clive Kessler co-authored Sharing the Nation together with Norani Othman and Mavis C Puthucheary. He is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the School of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

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5 Responses to “Merdeka and the Malay rulers”

  1. Kunyit says:

    Interesting article, Mr Kessler (despite not being a Malaysian).

    Wasiat = Last will and testament. The last order to the people in Tanah Melayu.

    I did not know there were issues of citizenship. Who was not a citizen of Tanah Melayu at that time?

  2. pak yeh says:

    Heh,heh,heh. As if rubber stamping Merdeka was a necessity. A Merdeka that was sponsored and given free of charge to Umno/MCA/MIC/Alliance, without any fight for Merdeka at all, is seen as a power transition and a British proxy government.This type of Merdeka is but a comedy drama/sandiwara by the British.

    I would say it is a Merdekahahaha/false Merdeka rather then a true Merdeka.

    [...]

  3. raja rahman says:

    The only thing that can’t be changed is the writings in the holy scripture, the Quran. Other than that, all is [human] made and [leaves] much to be desired. It [would be] full of lies and deceit for one party to remain in power forever no matter how evil and devilish they become!

  4. To whomever it may concern…………..it just does not make any difference……we, the non-Malays would just have to “BERDIKARI”.

  5. ambo77 says:

    “….Malay was to be its language…”

    Umno politicians abolished the teaching of Jawi (Malay scripts) in schools despite [the] Malay language [being] guaranteed in the wasiat!

    Was the wasiat prepared in Jawi?


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