I was seven years and four months old when Malaya gained its independence from the British and I was clueless what was independence all about but I knew there was going to be a big celebration at the Padang Muar Club, at the High School Padang just across the government building and at the riverside of Tanjung. Last week grandma had bought some colourful clothing material and from some of this material she was going to enjin (sew) a shirt for me. Grandma was a good tailor herself and most of her dresses were from her own hands. When Mak Chu was young, grandma did all her dresses but when she grew a bit older, she had most of her Malay dresses tailored because grandma’s fashion was never updated.
I was already in Standard One schooling at the Sekolah Ismail School Two which was an afternoon session. In class, our teacher told us that very soon we were going to be independent. We would not be singing the song ‘God Save The Queen’ any longer. She was a small size teacher, bespectacled and I can still remember her name as Miss Lim. While writing this, I can visualize her feature, the way she smiled and the way she walked. Somehow she liked the way I drew pictures and my style of creating designs. Sometime she would sit right besides me and would add some of her ideas into my design. My drawing was then displayed on the board and I was very proud. Drawing was the only thing I was good at. I still could not multiply five by five and Miss Lim would always answer for me when I kept quiet. What a wonderful teacher Miss Lim was.
At home I asked grandma what was independent all about and she explained that the ‘orang putih‘ (white people) were going home for good but I still could not comprehend. There were many orang putih in Muar town but why must they return to their country? Never mind, what was important the town would be celebrating with some exciting activities and I was waiting for that day.
The Padang Muar Club was the center of activities when it came to any celebration in Muar town. The Maulud Nabi celebration would always begin at the Padang Muar Club before the congregation proceeded their procession to the town mosque. Whenever the Town council organized a Fun Fair in collaboration with some local entrepreneurs, they would always have them at the Padang. The Chinese and the Indian communities too used this Padang to celebrate their own festivals. However, the only activity that never used the Padang was the circus. Most circus that came to Muar town used the area around ‘Bentayan’ and later the open field besides the Diamond Jubilee Hall along Jalan Sultan Ibrahim. This field was later turned into a stadium and during my time it was hardly used.
Every Sundays during the school assembly, we would sing two songs; God Save The Queen and Allah Peliharakan Sultan. The flags flying over Muar town and in every government buildings were the Union Jack and the flag of the State of Johor. Some government buildings flew the Muar flag too. During my primary one before we were independent, we were given biscuits and bread together with a paper glass of Ovaltine. If I am not mistaken, it was given to the students for free once a week. Every time when we noticed a big van coming into our school compound, we were very happy because of the free biscuits and bread.
All our lessons in class were conducted in the English language. It took many months before all of us could learn the language properly. At home I would talk to Kak Fuzi in English, what your name? how old you ?. Kak Fuzi then replied, yes, no, alright! You name Din? She was schooling at the ‘Sekolah Abu Bakar Girls’ School’ and was already in Standard Two. Actually we never talked the English language at home and we never bothered to. Every time when we watched an English movie at the cinema, we understood nothing but when we returned home, we told everyone the story like as though we knew the story from the beginning till the end. Even when I was in Standard five or six, watching an English movie was always without a clue. Maybe because these actors spoke the ‘real English’ language compared to our teachers who spoke the English language to us the way they were used to. So every time we heard the actors talking in a movie, they did not talk like the way our teachers talked to us and thus we understood nothing.
Two or three days before the celebration, the new Malayan flag could be seen in some houses. Some placed their flags on the field, some put them at the windows and some even put them on some tree branches. Our house had two flags ready to fit at the front door upstairs; the Malayan flag and the Johor flag. Grandpa was still a government servant but would be retiring soon. When I was older, I remember reading an old letter written by grandpa and his English was really good. I also remember finding some old letters written by both my father and my late mother. He wrote to my mother frequently while he was still studying at the Raffles college, Singapore. They both wrote to each other in English. My mother was working as a nurse when she got married. How I wish I should have kept those letters that were once in my possession.
At school, we had the pictures of both King George VI and Queen Elizabeth hung at the school hall. We also had the picture of our ruler, Sultan Sir Ibrahim. Queen Elizabeth during her younger days was very beautiful. However, the coins we used were still showing the picture of King George. These coins were quite heavy. Later, I remember our one dollar note had the picture of Queen Elizabeth.
When the big day arrived, I was ready with my new shirt tailored by grandma. It was so colourful and I would show-off to every one in the house. At the lampposts of every major roads in the town center, many small flags rectangular in shape and of various colours were flown. The new Malayan flag could be seen flying in many houses. Some even flew the Umno flag. We walked to the Padang at around 10.00am and we observed so many people walking along the same road. Obviously our maid-servant Mak Yang was our escort and she was more excited than us. Kak Fuzi wore a bright coloured skirt and so was Kak Arah. Mak Yang wore a nice baju kurung, the same baju kurung she wore a few nights ago when she brought me along to watch an Hindustani movie at the Asiatic cinema.
At the Padang, there were so many people of various races and we had to walk very slowly. At the front portion of the club, few people were sitting on a row of chairs and all of them were wearing ties. One man was talking while standing using a big microphone. We could not hear properly and we could only hear the man talking via a big loud speaker hung at the top of a long pole. It sounded like flap flap flap flap flap…merdeka, flap flap flap. Some people shouted Merdeka three times. I asked Mak Yang what is Merdeka? She answered me merdeka lah. There wasn’t much activities and Mak Yang was not too happy and so were we. We decided to go home and before that, we bought some ice cream and Mak Yang bought a bigger portion.
When we reached home, I told grandma that there was nothing at the Padang except for people everywhere and so we decided to return home. But Mak Yang said we could go to the Muar High School Padang later in the evening because there could be some exciting activities. Grandpa was still at the Padang Muar Club celebrating the Independence Day for the country. It was meaningful for him because he understood what independence day really was.
We went to the Muar High School Padang later in the late afternoon and this time it was more exciting for us. There were many kids like us running around the Padang and balloons hanging on some poles. The new Malayan flag was being displayed with great pride at the government building. Along the coast of the Muar river near the government offices, many people were walking leisurely while many hawkers were very busy attending to their customers. We did not do much except walking among the crowds and holding our balloons we just bought.
There were so many cyclists with the new Malayan flag hung at the handle of their bicycles and some of them shouted Merdeka three times just like the ones we heard at the Padang Muar Club. I asked Mak Yang again what is merdeka? Again she answered me medeka lah. Kak Fuzi understood better than me what merdeka was. She said merdeka means ‘we are all medeka lah’.
Few cars that passed by also had the new Malayan flags flying above the front bonnet. All the cars were black in colour. Some of the drivers showed their faces outside by the windows and shouted Merdeka. I wanted to ask Mak Yang again what was this merdeka about but I think I’d better not.
We did not go out during the night because we were too exhausted. Later we were told that Muar town was like London, Paris and New York. The Padang at the Muar High School was very bright and there were more people from all walks of life. I can’t recall whether there were any fireworks.
The next assembly we had at the school hall, we were told to listen to the tune of the new national anthem called Negara Ku. Then one teacher sang the song accompanied by the piano played by another teacher. When the teacher finished singing, the song was played again and this time all the teachers stood up and sang the same song. Some of us followed singing the song and I followed too. I was just humming because I didn’t know the lyrics.
The pictures of King George and Queen Elizabeth were removed and were replaced by two other pictures; Tunku Abdul Rahman and the picture of our Sultan and the picture of our first King was at the center. At the flagpole, the Union Jack was lowered and the new Malayan flag took its place.
It was on that 31st August 1957 that I heard many people shouting Merdeka but unfortunately Mak Yang did not explain to me properly what merdeka was all about.