At the end of this month, Malaysia celebrates 55 years of independence. We will once again be reminded of that momentous occasion as the TV and radio channels play the footage of Tengku Abdul Rahman declaring independence at what is now known as Dataran Merdeka, at the stroke of midnight on 31 August 1957. Even though I was born many years after this historical moment, images of this footage does not escape me come 31 August every year. On an occasion such as this, it is only natural for me and for many others to ask as Malaysians…what have we achieved in the last 55 years?

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that we have certainly come a long way since then in terms of development. When our first Prime Minister declared Malaysia to be independent, it was indeed a declaration that we are now free from the hand of our colonisers.  In our Federal Constitution, the word freedom also appears in many instances. Yet we know from experience, that freedom is not absolute. The freedom that we have been accorded or that we encounter more often than not comes with ‘guidelines’ and ‘restrictions’.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church views freedom as related to responsibility and that freedom is exercised in the context of human relationships (n. 1731 & 1738). In other words, freedom is not just a concept but it is a concrete expression of human conduct. It would be erroneous to think that freedom gives us the liberty to do whatever one pleases. If that is the concept, then we would certainly be living in chaos. Freedom requires respect for the other in a way that promotes the greater good of society.

However, freedom cannot be curtailed either for the sake of invoking control. Young people are often at odds with their parents because they feel that their freedom is curtailed and parents feel that they need to control their children so as to prevent them from mischief or from making the wrong choices. Similarly, governments  and institutions invoke control (sometimes through unreasonable means) in the pretext of keeping citizens out of trouble, but as Mahatma Gandhi once said, freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes. Freedom comes with great responsibility and if we are not accountable to the freedom we receive, then we lose that privilege. When God created the world, He gave us freedom and we need to exercise it responsibly.

Even Tengku himself spoke of the responsibility that comes with freedom as aptly stated in his Proclamation of Independence Speech … “But when we think of the past, we look forward in faith and hope to the future; from henceforth we are masters of our destiny, and the welfare of this beloved land is our own responsibility …. I call upon you all to dedicate yourselves to the service of the new Malaya; to work and strive ….to create a new nation, inspired by the ideals of justice and liberty ….”

So the question that I now ask myself is … after 55 years of independence, are we freer than when we were colonised? All of us have our own perception of how freedom should be exercised but we have to accept that the foundation of all freedom is respect for one another. It is when we seek to respect the freedom that is enjoined to our dignity, and then we become collaborators in working for the free and just world.