THE final 100 years of our millennium, the 20th century, witnessed the demise of Western imperialism and the birth of the greatest number of independent nation states in world history.
The Federation of Malaya took its place as a fully-fledged member of the international political community when it became independent on Aug 31, 1957. Six years later, the country became Malaysia when Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak joined the federation. Singapore, however, left Malaysia in 1965.
For the younger generations of Malaysians, "Merdeka" is a word that has lost a lot of its earlier resonance. But for the founding generation that witnessed that exhilarating, defining moment of the nation's birth, it is a word that captures the glorious ideal and sublime gift of freedom. And its achievement empowered the new citizens of Malaysia to fashion a nation according to their own desires.
However, like most other former colonial territories, newly-independent Malaya faced a host of formidable obstacles as it addressed the task of nation building.
British imperial rule left in its wake a fragmented polity, one deeply divided along ethnic, religious, cultural and class lines. Colonial policies had entrenched Malays primarily in low-income subsistence agricultural activities while giving Chinese immigrant labour greater access to more lucrative jobs in the mining, plantation and commercial sectors.
Motivated by a desire to keep administrative expenditure to a minimum and hamstrung by the shortage of European administrative staff to properly regulate Chinese community affairs, the British allowed the Chinese to manage their own schools, organise their cultural activities, and operate businesses within distinctly Chinese frameworks.
This laissez-faire policy was also implemented for the other main ethnic communities, the Malays and the Indians, and contributed towards the emergence of a plural society.
But, in order for the new country to thrive, the wide cultural and social gap dividing the indigenous and immigrant communities had to be breached, new inter-ethnic solidarities forged, and an all-encompassing national Malaysian identity created.
Most fundamentally, to generate popular allegiance, the new government had to manage the economy successfully.
Since achieving power to govern its own affairs, the country's efforts at nation building have evolved through three major phases:
(1) Reaching the constitutional agreement that determined the foundations of the new state at the time of independence;
(2) Building political, social and economic structures during the Tunku Abdul Rahman Administration (1957-1969); and
(3) Making modifications under the New Economic Policy or NEP (1970-1991) to create a stronger national architecture by undoing the economic imbalances inherited from the colonial era.
The founding fathers at Merdeka were the leaders of the three parties in the Alliance coalition government which had handsomely won the country's first national elections in 1955: the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC).
Sharing a common Westernised background, and holding the political centre against more radical groups - particularly the Chinese-led Malayan Communist Party and Malay-led Malay Nationalist Party - the Alliance leaders negotiated a constitutional deal with the British.
Key negotiators of the "Merdeka Bargain" included Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman from Umno; Tun Tan Siew Sin, Tun Ong Yoke Lin (Omar Ong), and Tun Lim Chong Eu from the MCA; and MIC leader Tun V.T. Sambathan.
Given the conflicting demands and legitimate claims of the different groups, it was hardly surprising that the terms of independence failed to satisfy everyone.
However, the founding fathers produced a blueprint that met the minimum requirements of the indigenous majority Malay population. At the same time, although a number of key non-Malay demands were not met, the constitution did provide for substantial Chinese and Indian political and cultural participation in the new state.
The Umno negotiators succeeded in establishing a predominantly Malay identity for the new state that continues to this day, one in which the sultans serve as constitutional monarchs, Islam is the official religion, Bahasa Melayu is used as the sole national language, and Malays are given special rights treatment.
For non-Malays, the MCA and MIC leaders obtained citizenship and political enfranchisement, freedom of worship, liberty to propagate their own languages, cultures and customs, as well as the right to economic advancement. What they failed to get was recognition of Mandarin and Tamil as official languages and the abolition of Malay special rights (which the British had introduced into the Federation of Malaya Constitution of 1948).
Between 1957 and 1969, under the watch of Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, the fledgeling state cut its political teeth on a diet of liberal democracy and laissez faire capitalism.
But the development of the Malaysian polity was imbalanced. Vigorous efforts by non-Malays to increase their political and cultural stakes in the nation's life, particularly during the period when Singapore was a part of Malaysia, made the Malay position more vulnerable.
In a campaign aimed at re-casting the terms of the Merdeka Bargain, Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew called for a "Malaysian Malaysia," a nation in which Malays and non-Malays would be treated as complete equals.
Just when the Malays faced such unprecedented challenges on the political front, economic development - premised on open competition and an unregulated market economy - had widened the income gap between Malays and Chinese.
Increasing ethnic polarisation fed the flames of racial rioting in May 1969 and the Malaysian state appeared in imminent danger of disintegrating.
The outbreak of inter-ethnic violence forced a re-examination of the meaning of Merdeka for both Malays and non-Malays.
For the Malays, the attainment of independence was surely a hollow victory if it condemned them to permanent inferior economic status and threatened their political and cultural hegemony.
For the non-Malays, the 1969 crisis presented them with the unpalatable choice of continuing a seemingly hopeless quest for equal rights, or lowering their expectations and accepting a secondary political role and restricted cultural and economic rights.
With political power concentrated heavily in Umno after 1969, modifications were made to the nation-building blueprint under the NEP. From 1970 until the mid-80s, as an accelerated programme of Malay special rights was implemented, non-Malays experienced a diminished political role and sharply restricted access to educational and certain economic opportunities.
NEP programmes substantially raised Malay incomes and increased Malay social mobility. Buoyed by a confidence that was most apparent in the expanding ranks of the new Malay middle class, Umno became more amenable to non-Malay requests to make the NEP less onerous to them.
However, it was the need to woo more foreign and domestic private sector investments in order to pull Malaysia out of the recession of 1985 that finally compelled Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad to liberalise the NEP and to deregulate the economy after 1986.
Since then, as Malaysia's economy became more integrated into the world economy, the Malays themselves became more aware that non-Malay acumen, investments and international connections represented a great asset in rendering the country more competitive in the global market.
The transformation of the dynamics of nation building since 1991 owes its origins to Dr Mahathir's vision of achieving fully developed status for Malaysia by 2020 (the famous Wawasan 2020). The new, more inclusive approach to nation building is best reflected in Mahathir's expressed hope for a Malaysian nation "that is at peace with itself, territorially and ethnically integrated, living in full and in fair partnership made up of one Bangsa Malaysia."
The process of building a viable multiracial Malaysia that began with Merdeka will surely continue to evolve during the next millennium.
As this century draws to a close, we have much reason for optimism. From its fragile and uncertain beginnings through to its greatest test during the May 1969 riots, a stronger foundation is being laid for achieving the national dream of a resilient, multicultural Malaysian nation, anchored in tolerance and mutual respect.
* Dr Heng Pek Koon is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of International Service at the American University in Washington, DC.
Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years.
Notes: In this week's Millennium Markers, on the the eve of our National Day, Dr HENG PEK KOON looks back at the defining moment in our nation's birth.