A Photographic Exhibition of Malaysia's Formation and Journey from Independence

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“I call upon you all to dedicate yourselves to the service of the new Malaya, to work and strive with hand and brain to create a new nation, inspired by the ideals of justice and liberty, a beacon of light in a disturbed and distracted world.”

Tunku Abdul Rahman, Prime Minister of the Federation of Malaya, 31 August 1957.

The last day of August has been a very special one for Malaysians for more than half a century, as it marks the moment that their country was finally free of colonial rule. Merdeka (Independence) Day is an occasion to both remember the past and look forward to the future, and the patriotic celebrations that take place each year are enjoyed by many.

The British flag was lowered at midnight on 30 August 1957, at what was then The Padang and is now Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square). The following day, at the newly-built Merdeka Stadium, Tunku Abdul Rahman formally proclaimed the Federation of Malaya’s independence.

His speech is best remembered its conclusion, with his rousing cry of “Merdeka!” repeated seven times. The preceding proclamation was generous, moving, and surprisingly solemn, with Tunku Abdul Rahman fully acknowledging the many challenges that lay ahead in the creation of a new nation.

“From henceforth we are masters of our destiny, and the welfare of this beloved land is our own responsibility. Let no one think we have reached the end of the road. Independence is indeed a milestone, but it is only the threshold to high endeavour: the creation of a new and sovereign state.”

However symbolic, Merdeka Day is far from the only important date when it comes to the birth of Malaysia. Eleven years before independence, the eleven British-ruled Malay states were brought together for the first time as the Malayan Union. In 1948, this was replaced by the Federation of Malaya, which held its first general election in 1955.

Probably the most crucial date was 16 September 1963, when Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joined with the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia, although the country did not assume its current form until 1965 when Singapore was expelled. Despite this, 16 September is celebrated annually as Malaysia Day and is an important milestone in the country’s history.

It is fitting, therefore, that both Merdeka Day and Malaysia Day should be the inspiration for an excellent exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, entitled “Formation of a Nation: A Photographic Flashback.” In association with the National Archives, fifty five black and-white pictures have been chosen – one for every year since independence – and they will be on display until the end of November.


The exhibition content is divided into six broad themes, each symbolised within the national flag by a colour or shape: royalty (yellow); courage (red); unity (blue); sincerity and integrity (white); the thirteen states and Federal Government (14-pointed star and stripes); and Islam (crescent). It’s an innovative approach, which helps create a flow through the exhibition.

Apart from the massive image of Tunku Abdul Rahman proclaiming independence, the photos on display are on the small side. Rather than detracting from the experience, however, the compact size concentrates the mind and rewards close inspection. It also allows for a better appreciation of the interplay between different pictures.

Overall, the selection is refreshingly free of pomp and ceremony. There are shots of royalty, both visiting and local, and of senior politicians, but for the most part these dignitaries are shown informally. Many of the people pictured are “ordinary” Malaysians, although plenty of them did extraordinary things.

Another welcome feature of this exhibition is the attempt made to reflect Malaysia’s cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity through the selection. The only real failing in that respect is the relative lack of pictures of the many indigenous peoples of West Malaysia, Sabah, and Sarawak.

The formation of a nation is still a work in progress in Malaysia, but it was never going to be easy. Malaysia can often seem like a country so focused on the future that it pays too little attention to the past, and this exhibition demonstrates that history has plenty to teach us; a sentiment of which Tunku Abdul Rahman no doubt would have approved.

“High confidence has been reposed in us. Let us unitedly face the challenge of the years. And so with remembrance for the past, and with confidence in the future, under the providence of God, we shall succeed.”


Formation of a Nation:
A Photographic Flashback runs until 29 November at
Islamic Art Museum Malaysia,
Jalan Lembah Perdana;
03.2274 2020;
open daily,
10am to 6pm;
admission RM12.


This article was written by Pat Fama for The Expat magazine.
Source: The Expat November 2012


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