Hari Merdeka, Malaysia's Independence Day, is celebrated every year on August 31. It's definitely a colorful, festive time to be in Kuala Lumpur or traveling anywhere in Malaysia!
The Federation of Malaya (predecessor to Malaysia) gained independence from Britain in 1957. Malaysians celebrate the historic event as a national holiday with parades, fireworks, excitement, and flag-waving cheer. Tourists enjoy getting to see the many groups in processions dressed in traditional garb to represent their ethnic backgrounds.
Although Kuala Lumpur is the holiday's epicenter, expect smaller Hari Merdeka celebrations all over the country. Special sporting events are arranged, and stores promote sales.
Hari Merdeka is pronounced as "har-ee mer-day-kuh."
Malaysia's Independence Day
The Federation of Malaya gained independence from British rule on August 31, 1957. The official Malayan Declaration of Independence was read at 9:30 a.m. at the Stadium Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur before dignitaries that included the King and Queen of Thailand. Over 20,000 people gathered to celebrate the sovereignty of their new country.
On August 30, 1957, the night before the official declaration, a crowd gathered at Merdeka Square — a large field in Kuala Lumpur — to witness the birth of an independent nation. The lights were turned off at 11:58 p.m. for two minutes of darkness. The British Union Jack was lowered, and Malaysia's new flag was raised in its place. At midnight, the lights were switched back on for the first time in the new country.
Note:Independence Day in Indonesia (August 17) is also known as Hari Merdeka in Bahasa Indonesia, the local language, but it has nothing to do with Hari Merdeka in Malaysia!
Celebrating Hari Merdeka in Malaysia
Cities and smaller places (Georgetown in Penang is one) throughout Malaysia have their own local celebrations for Hari Merdeka, however, Kuala Lumpur is undoubtedly the place to be! Squeeze into the crowd to watch the processions and fireworks.
Each Independence Day in Malaysia is given a logo and theme, usually a slogan that promotes ethnic unity. Malaysia has an eclectic mix of Malay, Indian, and Chinese citizens with different cultures, ideologies, and religions. Building a sense of national unity is a reoccurring theme on Hari Merdeka.
The Merdeka Parade
Hari Merdeka is observed enthusiastically every August 31 with a massive celebration and parade known as the Merdeka Parade. Lots of politicians and VIPs take their turns at the microphone on stage, then the fun begins. A royal procession, cultural performances, military demonstration, intricate floats, sporting events, and other interesting diversions fill the day. Grab a flag and start waving it!
The Merdeka Parade went on tour to different parts of Malaysia but regularly returns to Merdeka Square, where it all began.
From 2011 to 2017, the celebration was held at Merdeka Square (Dataran Merdeka) — not far from the Perdana Lake Gardens and Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur. In 2018, the parade was moved to Putra Square, a square in Putrajaya just south of the city. Ask any local where to find the parade this year. Get there in the morning (taking a train is the best way) or you may not find room to stand!
The Difference Between Hari Merdeka and Malaysia Day
The two often get confused by non-Malaysians. Both holidays are patriotic national holidays, but there's a big difference. Adding to the confusion, sometimes Hari Merdeka is called "National Day" (Hari Kebangsaan) instead of Independence Day. Then in 2011, the Merdeka Parade, usually on Hari Merdeka, was celebrated for the first time ever on Malaysia Day instead. Confused yet?
Although the Federation of Malaya gained independence in 1957, the name Malaysia was not adopted until 1963. September 16 became known as Malaysia Day, and since 2010, it's celebrated as a national holiday. The federation was comprised of North Borneo (Sabah) and Sarawak in Borneo, along with Singapore.
Singapore was later expelled from the federation on August 9, 1965, and became an independent nation.
Traveling During Hari Merdeka in Malaysia
Parades and fireworks are fun, but as you can imagine, they cause congestion. Lots of Malaysians will be enjoying a day away from work; many will be shopping or adding to the already bustling atmosphere in neighborhoods such as Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur.
Try to arrive in Kuala Lumpur a few days before Hari Merdeka. The holiday affects flight prices, accommodation, and bus transportation. Banks, some public services, and government offices will close in observance of Malaysia's Independence Day. With fewer drivers available, long-haul buses to other parts of the country (and the buses from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur) may be sold out. Rather than trying to travel around the country during Hari Merdeka, plan to stay in one place and enjoy the festivities!
How to Say "Happy Independence Day" in Malay
The easiest way to say "happy Independence Day" to locals is with: Selamat Hari Merdeka (sounds like: seh-lah-mat har-ee mer-day-kuh).
Although a majority of local residents speak English, knowing how to say hello in Malay is fun and will help you meet new friends during the holiday. The greetings aren't difficult to remember; each is based on time of day.