Culture & Religion

The difference between Malaysia Day and Merdeka Day

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In August and September, Malaysia will celebrate its national day on two dates, Merdeka Day (Independence day) and Malaysia Day. A number of countries have different national days and independence days to celebrate liberation from different colonisers, but both of Malaysia’s national days commemorate the country’s independence from the British empire. So why does Malaysia have two in the first place when it was only colonised once by the Brits?

Story time!

Merdeka Day

Photo credit: Brian J. Chong
Declaration of Independence by Tunku Abdul Rahman, 31 August 1957 | Photo credit: Brian J. Chong

Back in 1956, the Malaysia was known as the Federation of Malaya. In fact, Malaysia didn’t exist yet. In a bid for independence, a delegation of Malayan representatives from United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), and Malay Rulers met with the British Colonial Office in London to negotiate independence. Led by then Chief Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman (who went on to become Malaya’s first Prime Minister), the delegation was successful in securing the consent of the British Empire for their independence.

At that point, the Federation of Malaya consisted of 11 states in the peninsula; the nine Malay states of Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Perlis, Selangor, and Terengganu, as well as the two British Straits Settlements of Penang and Melaka. So on 31st August 1957 at 9:30am, the entire country turned up and tuned in as Tunku Abdul Rahman read the Proclamation of Independence at Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, which was built specially for this occasion.

Since then, 31st of August is celebrated as Hari Merdeka, or independence day.

Malaysia Day

miri sarawak
Miri, Sarawak

Fast forward a few years to 1963, Singapore, North Borneo (now Sabah), and Sarawak came together with the the Malayan Federation to form Malaysia. For some background, Sarawak was granted self-government by the British on 22nd July 1963, while North Borneo received it on 31st August the same year. Singapore, on the other hand, was granted self-government back in 1959 with Lee Kuan Yew as its first Prime Minister. However, self-government is not the same as independence. All three were still Crown Colonies.

The Cobbold Commission was established in 1962 to determine whether the formation of a nation comprising the Malayan Federation, Singapore, North Borneo, and Sarawak under a new constitution would be supported by the people of Sarawak and North Borneo. When it was eventually agreed, the Cobbold Commission pushed forward the merger of these independent states and colonies.

The Malaysia Bill was then introduced in the Malayan Parliament on 9th July 1963 and consented by the Agong, Tuanku Syed Putra, on 29th August 1963. The declaration of the formation of Malaysia was postponed a couple of times because of administrative issues, but it was eventually announced on 16th September 1963, thus forming the new nation that we call Malaysia.

This is why Malaysia celebrates Malaysia Day on 16th September. This is the date when Malaysia, the country we have now, was formed. One question you might ask is what happened to Singapore, since it is now an independent country? We answer this further below.

Malaysia Day vs Merdeka Day

stadium merdeka kuala lumpur aerial
Merdeka Stadium, Kuala Lumpur where the Declaration of Independence and Proclamation of Malaysia were announced

Technically, Malaysia Day (16th September) is Malaysia’s birthday. For a long time, national day celebrations occurred on Merdeka Day (31st August) and the number of years of independence was counted from 1957. Naturally, Sabah and Sarawak were not thrilled, since 31st August 1957 was of no historical importance of them. The celebrations only had historical meaning for West Malaysia.


Sabah may have achieved self-government on 31st August 1963, sharing the date with Malaya’s independence, but neither Sabah nor Sarawak were truly independent from the British until the formation of Malaysia. Yet, this fact has been widely overlooked, especially in Peninsular Malaysia.

Only 46 years later, in 2009, did the government declare 16th September as Malaysia Day and made it a public holiday – but only in East Malaysia. However, the country’s national day was still celebrated on 31st August. This caused discontent in East Malaya where it was argued that celebrating national day in August was still pushing Sabah and Sarawak to the wayside.

This led to another announcement in 2010 when the government declared Malaysia Day a nationwide public holiday and stated that future national day celebrations will no longer focus on the number of years of independence as it was before.

What happened to Singapore?

The city-state of Singapore
The city-state of Singapore

Singapore was part of the original four states that formed Malaysia in 1963. However, there were a lot of political, financial, and economical disagreements between the Singapore-state leaders and the federal government. High tensions among the ruling party, UMNO, and the People’s Action Party (PAP) did not help the situation either.

Eventually, in 1965, Singapore seceded from the Federation of Malaysia, thus celebrating their independence on 9th August 1965.

1 Malaysia

Merdeka celebrations at Merdeka Square
Merdeka celebrations at Merdeka Square

After more than five decades, Malaysia is finally being inclusive of its eastern states. The country has now officially acknowledged the fact that Malaysia’s formation happened 53 years ago on 16th September 1963 while still respecting the history of each original member state – the federation of Malaya, Sabah, and Sarawak.

It will take a few more years for everyone in the peninsula to get used to the addition of another national day, though. For now, many big national day celebrations are still centred around 31st August because of the familiarity and association of that date to national unity.

This article was updated in September 2016 with minor edits to the section on the formation of Malaysia in 1963.

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