This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: MGH 2245).


Independence Day celebrations in Malaya, 31 August 1957.

Over shots of government buildings, the British voiceover introduces the film; ‘The eve of Independence, we decorate our towns and await our great moment, for we the people of Malaya to celebrate our coming of age’. At the airport, the Duke of Gloucester arrives with his wife and son, Prince William. He is met by the retiring High Commissioner, Sir Donald MacGillivray and local rulers. The film shows ‘the last few minutes of 170 years of British protection over Malaya’. As the clock strikes midnight, God Save the Queen plays and the British flag is lowered. On Independence Day crowds gather at Merdeka stadium. Tracking shots show the Prime Minister and members of the cabinet, local Regents and Sultans, ‘Malaya’s first king’, Tuanku Abdul Rahman, and finally the Duke. The Duke delivers a speech before he hands the constitutional instrument over to the Prime Minister. The Federation flag is then raised ‘and with it the hopes and aspirations of a people, the symbol of nationhood’. The new national anthem is played, before the camera shows all the festivals ‘of this multi-racial country rolled into one’. A variety of celebrations and parades are shown, including scenes of Europeans at a swimming meeting, a cricket match, and a cycling race. Next the High Commissioner leaves, bidding farewell to ‘the personal friends of all communities’. He boards his plane as ‘a last lingering tie with Britain is broken’. Following his departure, the King and Prime Minister are now sworn in. The film provides extensive footage of the investiture ceremony, before showing further celebrations, which again focus primarily on the dignitaries. A formal banquet for 500 guests in the Palace includes Indian and Chinese dances in the gardens, and a firework display for the public. The next day is marked by a review of troops, which includes the Rhodesian African Rifles ‘to all of whom Malaya owes gratitude in helping her rid the country of Communist Terrorism’. The King opens parliament and outlines the policies for the next year. The film concludes by stating over further shots of the King and of the flag flying in the wind, that ‘A new star has risen in the East. Whether this star rises or falls depends on us. We accept the challenge, with our ruler we salute the future with pride and courage’.


Synopsis by Dr Tom Rice - AHRC Colonial Film Catalogue, Feb 2010



An article in The Straits Times less than three weeks after the country’s independence, stated that ‘millions of people throughout the world next week will be able to see how Malaya celebrated the advent of independence’. The paper noted that the Malayan Film Unit was turning out 120 prints of Merdeka for Malaya ‘in all languages’ which would go initially to America, Australia, England, India and Jakarta where the unit had its own agencies (Straits Times, 19 September 1957, 7). In addition, the MFU made copies of the film available at a cost of $250 to ‘any member of the public’, suggesting that this could then be shown at private parties (Straits Times, 21 September 1957, 7).

Ow Kheng Law, the head of the Malayan Film Unit, described Merdeka for Malaya as the biggest production undertaken by the unit, and noted that the unit’s seven cameramen ‘worked flat out for fourteen days. The laboratory worked round the clock for one week’ (Straits Times, 19 September 1957, 7). He had earlier announced to the paper that ‘all countries in the free world will get news films of the merdeka [independence] celebrations free within 24 hours of the events in Malaya’, before the unit would begin work on Merdeka for Malaya. In the interests of releasing the films quickly, both newsreel and documentary were filmed in black and white (Straits Times, 20 July 1957, 7). 

Upon releasing the film, Ow Kheng Law said, ‘We are proud of the film. It is one of the best we have ever produced. My men did their best’. However, the film was subject to criticism from some UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) members, in particular for placing ‘too much emphasis on the part played by non-Malays in the Merdeka celebrations’, which the critics suggested would ‘give a wrong impression to audiences abroad’ (Straits Times, 24 September 1957, 6).  The critics expressed disappointment over the “un-Islamic” nature of the film. Ow Kheng Law countered, by noting that ‘in the film we have shots of the mosques, faces of Malayans and children celebrating merdeka and the Nobat (Royal drums) at the installation of the Paramount Ruler. Surely these are Malayan scenes and background’ (Straits Times, 19 September 1957, 7). The MFU resisted calls to re-edit the film, describing it as ‘an objective record of the merdeka celebrations’ (Straits Times, 25 September 1957, 9).

The move towards independence in Malaya had gained rapid momentum after the Federal elections of July 1955. The Alliance Party, headed by Tunku Abdul Rahman and comprised of three communally exclusive parties (the United Malays National Organisation, the Malayan Chinese Association and the Malayan Indian Congress) had surprisingly won 51 of the 52 elected seats and, on assuming power, the Tunku had immediately pushed for independence, arguing that ‘the only real alternative to Communism was nationalism’ (Stockwell, 1999, 487, The Times, 1 September 1955, 7). The British remained suspicious of the political coalition (and in particular of the rights and opportunities this would provide for the non-Malays), and had repeatedly stated that independence would only be considered once the state of emergency had ended. However, by October 1955, British ministers retreated from this position, in part to ensure that the Tunku avoided striking a deal with Chin Peng (Stockwell, 1998, 144). In January 1956, the Tunku led a delegation to Britain, and on 8 February signed an agreement (the Independence Treaty) with the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Minister of State and Sir Donald MacGillivray, which granted Malaya independence on 31 August 1957 ‘if possible’ (The Times, 9 February 1956, 6). Piers Brendon argued that the ‘British were stampeded into granting Merdeka’, while T.N. Harper noted that once a date had been agreed ‘an unstoppable momentum built up towards it’ (Brendon, 2007, 459, Harper, 1998, 348).

Merdeka was celebrated by 20,000 in the new Merdeka stadium and by a crowd of 100,000 in front of the old Selangor clubhouse. The installation of the King followed a few days later. T. N. Harper described it as ‘a medieval sacerdotal ceremony in a month-old throne room; an invention of tradition that projected a pre-colonial sovereignty for the new nation state’ (Harper, 1998, 356).

Merdeka for Malaya was preceded by other MFU films charting the road to independence, including Merdeka Mission, which celebrated Tunku Abdul Rahman’s trip to London in January and February 1956, and Milestones to Merdeka, released shortly before independence, which outlined the developments over the previous ten years.



Merdeka for Malaya provides a valuable historical record of the independence celebrations in Malaya, showing the handover of power, but also the investiture of the King and Prime Minister and the opening of Parliament. The film places a particular emphasis on the pageantry and dignitaries, rather than the local people, and celebrates the British involvement within Malaya (Malaya ‘will always remember with gratitude the assistance that we have received from Great Britain down our long path to nationhood’). Indeed, the film emphasises the amicable nature of the handover (in contrast to other parts of the Empire) and, at times, almost mourns the loss of Empire. The commentator notes that ‘as the old order gives way to the new, there are some ties that are painful to break’, as Donald MacGillivray flies away from Malaya, saluted by ‘personal friends of all communities’. As his plane takes off, the commentator adds that ‘a last lingering tie with Britain is broken’.

The film attempts to highlight the racial unity throughout the country, displaying all the festivals ‘of this multi-racial country rolled into one’, and foregrounding the ‘rich and varied cultures’ displayed in the Palace gardens. However, the film was criticised by members of UMNO for its emphasis on non-Malays. The film initially follows the British dignitaries within Malaya, from the arrival of the Duke and Duchess to the departure of MacGillivray, and when showing celebrations, we see Europeans at a swimming meet, a cricket match and a cycling race. The validity of these criticisms is perhaps of less relevance than the fact that they were made at all. The criticisms endorse widely held British fears of communal division and dissension, as these disparate groups sought to promote their own image within an emerging national identity.

Tom Rice (February 2010) 


Works Cited

Brendon, Piers, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781 – 1997 (London: Jonathan Cape, 2007).

Harper, T.N. The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Stockwell, A.J., “Malaysia: The Making of a Neo-Colony?”, Managing the Business of Empire: Essays in Honour of David Fieldhouse, edited by Peter Burroughs and A.J. Stockwell (London: Frank Cass, 1998).

Stockwell, A. J., “Imperialism and Nationalism in South East Asia”, The Oxford History of the British Empire Vol. IV: The Twentieth Century edited by Judith M. Brown and Wm Roger Louis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

‘Free Merdeka Films for Free World’, The Straits Times, 20 July 1957, 7.

‘“Merdeka” Film for Foreign Lands, The Straits Times, 19 September 1957, 7.

‘$250 for Film Memento of Merdeka Day’, The Straits Times, 21 September 1957, 7.

‘Art in Uniform’, The Straits Times, 24 September 1957, 6.

‘Film Unit Head: We did our Best’, The Straits Times, 25 September 1957, 9.

‘Malayan Plea for Speedy Self-Government: “Independence or Communism” as the Choice’, The Times, 1 September 1955, 7.

‘Malaya's Future Role In The Commonwealth: London Conference Decisions On Self-Government’, The Times, 9 February 1956, 6. 




Technical Data

Running Time:
33 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
1242 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Production company
Malayan Film Unit





Production Organisations