Students who ushered in Merdeka 60 years ago
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PETALING JAYA, Aug 4 — Septuagenarians Hetish Sharma and James Lim still distinctly remember that Aug 31 morning 60 years ago when the words Merdeka, Merdeka, Merdeka rang out clearly at Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.
The teenagers then saw, and heard, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the young nation’s first prime minister and architect of nationhood, usher in a new era in Malayan politics.
Negaraku was officially played for the second time (the first was the night before) in a hushed stadium filled with expectant hopes of a people free to decide their future.
As student ushers co-opted with many of their peers to seat the thousands gathering at the purpose-built stadium, they knew it was an important moment in national history.
But Sharma, then 18, and Lim, 17, may not have truly grasped the significance of the event unfolding before them and how it would colour their lives.
For them, it was probably the excitement of the moment that captivated them, ushering guests into the largest stadium they had ever seen.
Today, Sharma, 78, gets misty-eyed whenever he hears the Negaraku played over television or radio.
“I cannot help getting emotional when the Negaraku is played. It reminds me of that moment six decades ago when we gained independence and I was a small part of that historic event,” he said in a recent interview.
The retired teacher, part of the 18-member ushering group from the High Street School in Kuala Lumpur (later to relocate to Setapak), woke up extra early that Merdeka morning to get to the stadium by 5.30am.
“I got to the stadium as people were already coming in for the 8am event. We took guests to their numbered seats after seeing their official invitation cards,” he said.
His father, Prakash Chander Sharma, was impressed by the fact that his son had been given a traffic pass that read “Essential Services”.
Sharma and fellow ushers from school were more fortunate than their peers from other schools as they were invited to four other Merdeka events.
They ushered at the opening of parliament at the then Public Works Department headquarters, the departure of outgoing British High Commissioner Sir Donald McGilivry from the Sungai Besi airport, the special Merdeka shows at the Lake Gardens, and the Malayan Amateur Athletic Union (MAAU) championship at the Merdeka Stadium.
Sharma attributes this to his headmaster Hermen de Souza “who was the man of the hour.”
“He did his best for the school. He was the kind of man who never gave up on anything and encouraged us to excel,” said Sharma who is a committee member of Persatuan Rakan IJN Malaysia.
Sharma, who lived in a shophouse along Batu Road (Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman now), said the town was gaily decorated for Merdeka.
“It was the biggest event people had seen for some time then. We were caught up by the excitement,” he said.
Lim, 77, part of the Methodist Boys School ushering group, vividly remembers that “everything was kelam kabut (in chaos) that morning.
“Halfway through the ceremony, there was a massive downpour and everyone was drenched to the skin. But that did not bother anyone as we realised it was a special moment in time,” he said.
Lim, a fourth-former then, proudly wore a large bronze badge with the word “usher” on it.
Lim, who retired from teaching in 1982 to join Kwong Yik Bank as a sports development officer, remembers the Duke of Gloucester in his official finery at the stadium.
He said the Tunku, resplendent in his Baju Melayu with tengkolok (traditional Malay headgear), stood on a special dais erected for the ceremony while shouting the word “Merdeka” thrice to herald the advent of a new era in local history.
“I will never forget that Merdeka morning when I had the honour of being present at the most significant moment in our national history,” he said.
Sharma had the honour of meeting Tunku later in his teaching career in the early 1960s.
He said a distinguished man turned up one day at the Batu Road School where he was teaching and knocked at his classroom door.
“I looked up and saw a Malay man calling to me. He looked familiar but I could not place him. He told me he was admitting his son to my class and to give it (caning) to him if he needed it,” he said.
Sharma said he asked his students who the man was and was told it was Tunku.
“He addressed me most respectfully as ‘sir’ with the word preceding or following every sentence,” he added.
He said Tunku later saw him in a tailor shop and recognised him instantly despite some time having elapsed.
What mementos do Sharma and Lim have from that day?
“None,” both intoned, adding the memories of that day were the best keepsakes from the event.
“Memories of that day will always linger in our minds,” said Lim, a chaplain now with Alpha Malaysia.
Lim said he did not meet Sharma at the stadium but got to know him two years later as they prepared to become members of the teaching fraternity.
The two have enjoyed a 58-year friendship that gets stronger by the day.