by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published by The Star 16 September 2014

Today is Malaysia Day. Malaysia was formed 51 years ago, bringing together Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore under one federation, as one country.

When Almarhum Tunku Abdul Rahman proclaimed the formation of Malaysia, he repeated the same words when Malaya was proclaimed as an independent country. He proudly announced that this nation was founded upon the two principles of liberty and justice.

Then in 1970, our Rukun Negara was announced. The two principles were reiterated in the Rukun Negara, this time, among others, our forefathers declared that this country will guarantee a liberal approach towards our rich and diverse cultural traditions.

Clearly the values of justice, liberty and liberalism are the founding values of this nation. But it feels like we are moving in an illiberal direction with some people seemingly interpreting laws in unpredictable ways.

I was originally planning to write about the state of liberty in our country today. But it is difficult to know what is safe to write these days. So, rather than take the risk I thought it would be safer to write about a foreign country thousands of miles away from Malaysia instead.

Let us talk about another country that is also a federation – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The UK is made up of Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This coming Thursday 18 September, the people of Scotland will vote in a major referendum to decide whether they will remain as one of the entities in the UK or to secede.

The road to this secession referendum has been a long one. Scotland and England (and Wales) united in 1707. Some authors suggest that the demand for self-rule has existed right from the first day of the union. That demand became stronger over the last few decades.

The British government has gradually devolved powers to Scotland. In 1997, London asked the people of Scotland through a referendum if they wanted devolution. Millions of Scots campaigned and voted for devolution. They won the debate and the Scottish Parliament was eventually formed, allowing them greater control over their own lives.

In 2011, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won the election, allowing them to form a government in Scotland. The nearest equivalent to Malaysia would be to say that the SNP formed the state government in Scotland.

The SNP promised in their manifesto to hold a referendum for Scottish independence. London was strongly against this agenda as it might split Scotland from the UK.

But the SNP won the election and justice will be denied if the ‘federal’ government were to prevent this manifesto promise from being executed. So in 2012, the British Prime Minister signed the Edinburgh Agreement enabling a referendum on Scottish independence to take place.

The two sides started their campaign soon after the agreement was signed. It is really fascinating to watch how they campaign against each other. They appeal to the citizens’ intellect. They put forward political, economic and cultural arguments to support their calls.

There were reports of some tension, but overall there has been no violence against those who speak up. Political leaders and those with authority take part in open debates. They did not cowardly resort to threats of legal action or intimidation when they are unable to give good answers to criticisms. With the guarantee of security, no one is denied the liberty to speak.

I personally feel that an independent Scotland would be a weak Scotland. Scotland would be better off staying in the union. I also feel that the pro-independence campaigners are a rather confused lot, demanding separation but wanting to keep key elements of the union like the pound sterling currency.

They also want to keep the Queen as the head of state but some have suggested that the monarchy could be removed after the current Queen.

On the topic of the monarchy, Buckingham Palace’s reaction to this major referendum is certainly worthy of a special mention. There is no doubt that the relationship between Scotland and the Queen will change significantly if Scotland were to vote for independence. But Buckingham Palace has been respectably quiet throughout the campaign.

For example, last week some politicians suggested that the Queen has an opinion on the campaign. Buckingham Palace immediately issued a stern response, insisting that the Queen does not want to get involved and that the referendum is a matter for the people of Scotland.

The Palace went on to say that “The sovereign’s constitutional impartiality is an established principle of our democracy and one which the Queen has demonstrated throughout her reign. As such the monarch is above politics and those in political office have a duty to ensure that this remains the case.”

It is no wonder then that even the pro-independence campaigners want to keep the Queen as their monarch. She is loved and respected including by many who generally dislike the monarchy as a system. She consistently refuse to get involved in political matters that that can be resolved by a show of numbers. She firmly respects individual liberty even when some people are openly debating her future.

We should know the outcome of the Scottish referendum by Friday. I hope the United Kingdom will remain united.

Nevertheless, whatever the outcome, citizens of the United Kingdom can be proud for being able to openly discuss and vote on a most sensitive issue that could break up their country and even remove the monarchy. The liberty and justice that allow them to think, speak and act freely is precious, and are yet to be enjoyed by many in countries whose leaders prefer to emulate North Korea and Zimbabwe.

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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my)

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