Today our nation celebrates another anniversary of independence. I remember my involvement on that historic day: Saturday, Aug 31, 1957. I was 19 years old, full of enthusiasm and a member of the St John Ambulance Brigade. In conjunction with the Merdeka ceremony, the Brigade was assigned first aid duty in the covered area of the stadium.
The day started early. We had to report for duty at the newly-constructed stadium by 6am to be allotted our duties. My squad of four personnel took up position at the mid-level terrace near the path leading into the stadium from the main entrance. It was a good vantage point and I had a panoramic view of the stadium. The Victoria Institution clock tower provided a beautiful, and now iconic, background.
I was excited, of course. I’d never been to a proclamation ceremony or any event as significant as this.
The ceremony was scheduled to begin at 8am but it started raining unexpectedly. An announcement was made over the stadium’s public address system that the ceremony would be delayed by an hour.
Despite the rain, the stadium began rapidly filling up with people, many of them carrying umbrellas.
In those days, few people drove. Mostly walked, cycled or rode their motorbikes to the venue but the rain wasn’t about to be a hindrance on an occasion like this. The stadium was at full capacity – about 25,000 people at the time.
By 8am, the rain had ceased but it was still cloudy. Dignitaries, VIPs and invited guests started flowing in through the main entrance and were shown to their respective seats. The ministers were seated in a boxed area in the upper terrace. They were all wearing white uniforms and hats with plumes similar to that worn by colonial officers.
Although I was on duty, it was exciting watching them enter the arena. I must say that all eyes were trained on (Tun) V.T. Sambanthan, who was Minister of Health. His normal attire was white cotton dhoti and white hand knitted cotton shirt – typical Gandhian attire – but on this day, he’d conceded to wear a colonial uniform instead.
The most spectacular of all, however, was Minister of Finance Sir (Col) H.S. Lee, who looked smart in his crisp uniform adorned with full military decorations. What a sight! He was a man of slight build, but the glittering medals and colourful ribbons displayed on the left side of the chest won the admiration of the spectators, me included.
On the padang was the Guard of Honour, formed by the Malay Regiment and their commanding officer who was an expatriate. The Police Band took its position at the rear.
By 8.30am the stadium was completely full, providing a colourful view.
As the Sultans and the various heads of state of the Federation made their entrance, formal announcements were made and they proceeded to take the salute accorded by the Guard of Honour. Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman wore a ceremonial dress consisting of a dark coloured silk open jacket with epaulets, white shirt, pants and waist band, with Kedah style tengkolok.
At 9am sharp, the much-awaited Duke of Gloucester sailed in majestically wearing a white uniform and took the salute. He represented Her Majesty, the Queen and Head of Commonwealth.
The Prime Minister with his aide, the Sultans with their respective umbrella bearers, the ex-High Commissioner and the Duke of Gloucester took up their respective positions on the red-carpeted dais located on the right side of the padang.
There were only two speakers during the ceremony. The Duke of Gloucester, as representative of the Queen and the Commonwealth, read out his text. The other speaker was Tunku, our beloved Prime Minister.
As Tunku read out the Proclamation and Declaration of Independence, silence filled the stadium. The strong and firm voice of our Prime Minister paused as he came to the end of the declaration and then began the iconic proclamation: Merdeka! Merdeka! … seven times he called, raising his right hand.
I remember his voice reverberating across the stadium, and seven times came the deep and excited response from us all.
As the last roaring cheer died away, a roll of drums, and the strains of the national anthem flooded the stadium, and the flag of independent Malaya was raised. What a day!
As soon as the flag was raised, there was a gun salute and the canonade lasted for about half an hour, signalling the end of the Merdeka ceremony, and the start of a brand new nation.
It was only then that the sky became clear and sunlight shone all around, brightening the place. We were an independent nation and it was a glorious day.