Since it will be August 31 soon, I think I want to further develop my thinking about the 55 versus 49 years old debate, i.e. how old is Malaysia?

I have shared opinion on the matter a number of times over the last, probably six years. I was September 16, before there was September 16 (kidding, don’t shoot me). Now, I want to generalize my framework on the matter.

The debate does matter in terms of historical accuracy and its logical implications are huge (honestly though, in the immediate every day, the debate is pedantic but fun nonetheless). For instance, if you understand Malaysia to be born in 1963 and that Malaysia does not exist prior to September 16 1963, then Malaysia was never colonized. What were colonized were the lands that modern Malaysia now encompasses. I think this is a strict observance of definition but many are not really interested in such strict observance.

In fact, many would ridicule that strict observance. When historian Khoo Kay Kim said that Malaysia was never colonized by the British because technically, the lands that came to form Malaysia under the British were protectorates, many thought he was crazy. But technically, he was right though those lands for all intents and purposes were colonized.

So, to many, Malaysia was colonized in the past. Not too many differentiate the history of modern Malaysian state (the 1963 federation) from the history of its member states. Really, if you read history from the perspective of the land instead of the state as an institution, there is no difference between the history of Malaysia and the history of its member states. I do think the history of the land is the lens which most Malaysians see the history of Malaysia.

The proper way to understand history is to consider each state on its own terms but at the same time, take the history of the land as continuous, whatever states that existed in the relevant period (also, history is “borderless“, i.e. one cannot apply modern boundary into the distant past in the reading of history). This allows for consistent and technically precise understanding of history but also allows for the appreciation of history in its widest, complete context. Call it the state-land dichotomy; same-same but different, or so the Indochinese would say.

While it is a dichotomy, the understanding of both is crucial. One obviously cannot understand modern Malaysian history without understanding pre-1957 history of the land.

For instance, how does one understand modern conservative Malay psyche that is a major factor in contemporary politics without knowing the history of Malay sultanates?

Also, history of foreign lands are important as well. But that would digress from my point and so, Iwill stop here as far as foreign lands are concerned.

So, according to the state interpretation, Malaysia is 49 years old. According to the land interpretation, Malaysia the land is, well, I do not know how old Malaysia is. It cannot be 55 years old because the land existed in 1956. In fact, this land has existed since time immemorial.

The third interpretation, which probably an amalgamation of the dichotomy into one, is that all those states or institutions that existed are intertemporally related states that should be taken collectively as the same state from modern point of view (as seen from the current state, which is taken as the successor of previous related state).

This has been the argument that supports the idea that Malaysia is 55 years old. But there is inconsistency here. If these institutions are really the same, why accept 1957 as the beginning? What about 1948 when the Federation of Malaya was formed? What about 1946 during the Malayan Union? There are other dates but it all leads to the same question: when did the first institution was formed? Do we need to go to all the way to Srivijaya’s time? All the way to the beginning of Kedah? I see third interpretation as eventually approximating the land interpretation.It will not have the time immemorial conclusion but it will go far enough into history that it really does not matter to contemporary life.

I know monarchists do take this interpretation in some way, by basing the “Malaysia” institution as the office of the Agong. Since the office of the Agong was established in 1957, then Malaysia is 55 years old. That intepretation does logically lead to the number 55, but I do not subscribe to that. I do not see how the office of the Agong is the state. The state does not take its power from the Agong. The office of the Agong is merely an institution within the state.

Perhaps, the question is not how old the state is but rather, it is a question of independence: how long has the current state been independent? This sidesteps the reference to 1948 or earlier dates. Unfortunately, it suffers from controversial Malayan bias: Sabah and Sarawak (and Singapore) attained independence in 1963.

But whatever it is, something happened on August 31 1957. The Federation of Malaya, formed on January 31 1948, became independent.

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