It is a rather quiet but blissful Merdeka season for me. Quiet, because I see fewer Jalur Gemilang on the streets in the Klang Valley, indicating that the economy is lacklustre while Malaysians are still recuperating from the hectic electioneering back in May.

Still, I feel blissful because the Barisan Nasional government remains distraught, having spent much money and energy on securing its ‘victory’, which is clearly reflected in the absence of pomp and fanfare for this year’s Merdeka celebration, except for the stupid idea of playing Negaraku in cinema.

But who are these BN ministers - popularly perceived as incompetent, corrupt and mediocre - to tell me how to demonstrate my patriotism? All I would do - if I ever go and see a movie at all - is to wait until the national anthem finishes playing before entering, exactly the way I have avoided being made to stand up and listen to the king’s anthem in a Bangkok cinema.

When love has to be forced upon, can it be called love still? Can it be truly free and genuine?

NONEI still cannot forget how the Bersih protesters in 2007, 2011 and 2012 were tear-gassed, chased and beaten up for being audacious enough to demand for clean and fair elections, as theJalur Gemilangthat they were carrying with them proved utterly powerless to save them from police brutality. So why should Malaysians give Umno the moral authority to determine which is the best way to display one’s patriotic spirits?

This year, Petronas has produced a webfilm to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Federation of Malaysia. While it is good that someone actually took the trouble to remind us of the larger union, it shows again how much the official discourse continues to revolve around the myth of Merdeka, through which Umno’s ‘struggle for independence’ is perpetuated and enforced.

I have no doubt many would buy the message in the webfilm - academic excellence is naturally followed by a successful career regardless of one’s ethnic, religious or cultural background, and that ‘our hopes and dreams are the same’.

penan blockage bakun loggingBut for me, it is dangerous to be deluded into thinking that a country of close to 30 million people shares a common dream and hope. This could not be further from the truth. I honestly do not believe the Penans in the remote areas of Sarawak all aspire to live like the urbanites, not when they have been forced off their customary land and are now made to eke out a living without the traditional skills that they once had.

When I chanced upon a young postman on my way back the other day, I was shocked to see his weary face. He told me with a salary of less than RM1,000, he has to feed a family of five, with his eldest boy going to school next year. Our brief conversation convinced me that we do not share the same agenda in life - while he is working until exhaustion to meet even the basic needs of his family, I have been writing about public integrity and institutional transparency. 

I admit I do lead a relatively comfortable life, but to see the income gap widening fast over the past two decades is still bothering me a great deal.

Growing wealth disparity

And it is this growing wealth disparity in Malaysia that the business giants known as GLCs have been accentuating. The fact is, these enterprises - be they Petronas, Proton, Khazanah or otherwise - were created with a nationalist agenda but have all ended up enriching a tiny portion of the Malaysian populace. 

But their political obligation of producing human imaginings of cultural, religious and social unity is as vital to Umno as ever, despite that these imaginings do not always reflect the rich and valid diversity in politics, religion and culture of the various communities.

It is hence ironic that the Petronas webfilm should seek to pool the wool over the public’s eyes in regard to this critical issue by pretending that all is fine and well. That the background music is soothing and comforting is not in dispute, yet it cannot hide theNONEreality that much more wealth is now concentrated in the hands of a select few in Malaysia, including the Mahathirbusiness empire and the CIMB Group, of which Nazir Razak (right) is the chief executive.

The appeal to sentimentality and a feel-good factor is always an effective means of propaganda, a task made all the easier with the advent of modern technology. It is through images such as those presented by Petronas that people are induced to appreciate the manufactured togetherness. 

As Benedict Anderson has rightly observed, “communities are imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”.

And members in these communities are required to not highlight their differences but adhere to conformity for the sake of ‘national integration’. They are not even encouraged to raise all the pertinent concerns in their lives for the purpose of finding a solution, for to do so would “undermine social harmony and bring the country onto the brink of disintegration”.

As I have always maintained, the biggest risk confronting Malaysia nowadays is not the differing and at times opposing political visions and aspirations of the various communities, but the state-imposed expectation that we live as one big happy family with a common goal, minus our obvious differences. Even if they come to surface occasionally, the response should be to clamp down on them rather than an open dialogue and discussion. 

I refuse to live in a fake nation as such because I want to live in truth, which is why I have not been celebrating either Merdeka Day or Malaysia Day as the powers-that-be would prefer, but choose to work towards a Malaysia without Umno in government, and that would be the first step to a real Merdeka indeed.

JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.

~ Malaysiakini