Independence Day (Malay: Hari Merdeka, also known as Hari Kebangsaan or “National Day”), is the official independence day of the Federation of Malaya. It commemorates the Malayan Declaration of Independence of 31 August 1957 and is defined in Article 160 of the Constitution of Malaysia. The day is marked by official and unofficial ceremonies and observances.
The observation of 31 August as Malaysia’s national day is the cause of some controversy, due to calls to prioritize the celebration of Hari Malaysia (Malaysia Day) on 16 September instead. Hari Malaysia commemorates the formation of Malaysia in 1963, when North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore federated with the existing states of Malaya to form Malaysia. Some, especially people from East Malaysia, argue that it is illogical to celebrate 31 August 1957 as Malaysia’s national day when Malaysia was only created in 1963. Supporters of Hari Merdeka argue that “the Federation” as defined in Article 160 of the Constitution of Malaysia is the “Federation of Malaya” that was established in 1957.
The effort for independence was spearheaded by Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, who led a delegation of ministers and political leaders of Malaya in negotiations with the British in London for Merdeka, or independence along with the first president of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) Tun Dato Sri Tan Cheng Lock and fifth President of Malaysian Indian Congress Tun V. T. Sambanthan. Once it became clear that the Communist threat posed during the Malayan Emergency was petering out, the agreement was reached on 8 February 1956, for Malaya to gain independence from the British Empire. However, logistical and administrative reasons led to the official proclamation of independence in the next year, on 31 August 1957, at Stadium Merdeka (Independence Stadium), in Kuala Lumpur, which was purposely built for the celebrations of national independence day. The announcement of the day was set months earlier by the Tunku in a meeting of the Alliance in Melaka.
On the night of 30 August 1957, more than 20,000 people gathered at Merdeka Square (Padang Merdeka) in Kuala Lumpur to witness the handover of power from the British. Prime Minister-designate Tunku Abdul Rahman arrived at 11:58 p.m. and joined members of the Alliance Party’s youth divisions in observing two minutes of darkness. On the stroke of midnight, the lights were switched back on, and the Union Flag in the square was lowered as the royal anthem “God Save The Queen” played. The new Flag of Malaya was raised as the national anthem Negaraku was played. This was followed by seven chants of “Merdeka” by the crowd. Tunku Abdul Rahman later gave a speech hailing the ceremony as the “greatest moment in the life of the Malayan people”. Before giving the address to the crowd, he was given a necklace by representatives of the Alliance Party youth in honor of this great occasion in history, with a map of Malaya inscribed on it. The event ended at one in the morning.
On the morning of 31 August 1957, the festivities moved to the newly completed Merdeka Stadium. More than 20,000 people witnessed the ceremony, which began at 9:30 am. Those in attendance included rulers of the Malay states, foreign dignitaries, members of the federal cabinet, and citizens. The Queen’s representative, the Duke of Gloucester presented Tunku Abdul Rahman with the instrument of independence. Tunku then proceeded to read the Proclamation of Independence, which culminated in the chanting of “Merdeka!” seven times with the crowd joining in. The ceremony continued with the raising of the National Flag of Malaya accompanied by the national anthem being played by a military band and a 21-gun salute, followed by an azan call and a thanksgiving prayer in honor of this great occasion.
The day followed with the solemn installation of the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Abdul Rahman of Negeri Sembilan, at Jalan Ampang, and the first installation banquet in his honor in the evening followed by a beating retreat performance and a fireworks display. Sports events and other events marked the birth of the new nation.