Merdeka. It’s a light word, by which I mean it rolls off the tongue quite easily. But it’s also a heavy word, by which I mean it’s laden with meaning and history and emotion and ideals. The dreams of an entire nation can be encapsulated within those three syllables.
Merdeka. It means “independence”. During the later years of the colonial period in Singapore, it’d been a popular rallying cry. Apart from the period following the introduction of the Merdeka Generation package, it’s not a word that we hear that often in Singapore today. If you’ve been hearing it recently, it’s probably because Wild Rice’s excellent play, Merdeka, is being staged in their new theatre at Funan until 2 November. I saw it on a Thursday night, leaning against the railing on the balcony, mesmerised as I watched episodes from Singapore’s history — stretching back years, decades, centuries — unfold on the stage below.
The timing of this first staging is apt, coming towards the tail end of a year in which the government has sought to “commemorate” the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles arriving on our shores and deciding that the island would do nicely as an outpost for the East India Company’s profit. From scenes of the British invasion of Java in 1811 to the protests of the Chinese middle school students in the 1950s, Merdeka (the play) challenges long-standing myths about Singapore’s “founding”, our historic place within the region, and our quest for rights and self-determination. But as I left the theatre, it was “merdeka” (the concept), that played on my mind.
As a young Singaporean, what does “merdeka” mean to me? Not as a historical slogan, but as an idea that lives on today?
If we take “merdeka” to refer to independence in its most basic sense, then it’s something that Singapore achieved when we emerged from British colonial rule in 1963, and again when we left the Federation of Malaysia in 1965. But if we think about “merdeka” with its connotations of freedom and liberty, the question mark grows far bigger.
With our independence and sovereignty, we might have left the yoke of the colonial masters. But how far have we moved from colonial mindsets, and colonial practices? How free and independent are Singaporeans today, not only as we move through the mundane of our daily lives, but in our thoughts, deeds, and imaginations?
200 years after Sir Stamford Raffles’ landing on Singapore, and 54 years after Singapore split from Malaysia, we continue to cling on to certain colonial hang-ups.
Colonial-era laws like Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code — which criminalises sexual intercourse between men—or statutes allowing for detention without trial like the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, first enacted in 1955, remain on the books. The racial categories that continue to order our society today come from our colonial inheritance. The way that we treat migrant labour—imported from less wealthy neighbours like Indonesia, the Philippines, India, and Bangladesh—aren’t that different from the way colonial capitalists treated manual labour, many of whom we recognise as our ancestors.
At one point in the play, the characters ask themselves if Singaporeans live our lives in freedom, or in response to fear. It’s not just some clever line slipped into a performance, but a genuine question for all of us.
Reflecting upon my own life, I recognise just how much of it has been driven not out of inspiration, but of fear. Fear of losing out. Fear of losing to my peers. Fear of failure. Fear of judgement. Fear of shame, or embarrassment. Fear of politics. Fear of government. Fear of not being able to keep up. Fear of not being able to make ends meet. Fear of someone stealing my lunch.
Since our independence — our earlier Merdeka — we’ve been propelled by a desire to survive and thrive despite what we’re told are our vulnerabilities: our size, our geographic position, our lack of natural resources that can be commoditised. There’s always some threat, some cliff edge that we could fall off at any time.
But we’re not that new baby country anymore. Over half a century later, it must be time for us to revisit this notion of Merdeka — to ask ourselves what it really means to be independent. To be free.
Kirsten Han is a freelance journalist and the founder and editor-in-chief of New Naratif.