The Storm and The Rainbow

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

Avenue to Peace, Road to Independence March 6th, 1999

After three hours of driving 300 kilometres and nearly 40 ringgit worth of tolls, we finally arrived at Kampung Melayu Majidee in Johor Bahru, where Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah was to make her first foray into the southern state of Johor, at a rally organised by the Malaysian People’s Party, PRM. The roads were awash with PRM banners, flags and posters, and you could be forgiven for thinking that Johor Bahru was in the thick of a General Election. Everywhere you turned - on lamp posts, on fences, at street junctions, on wire fences, outside attap houses and modern bungalows - PRM’s black seladang bull stared out from its blood red flag, looking every bit the scourge of the oppressor, a defender of the oppressed.

It was only 3.30 pm - more than five hours before the rally was supposed to begin - but the field was already a hive of activity. About 100 local PRM volunteers were busy working - from putting up posters and lighting to setting up the gaily decorated stage. People were already arriving - in cars, vans, on foot - asking "Is it on? Is it on?". The organisers were a little surprised that a police permit was given - PRM had been applying for permits for rallies for months now and had been turned down every time - and a little amused as well. "They said people could sit on the stage," said an official. "But no one was to speak from a rostrum!" I wondered aloud if they would let people speak while they were sitting!

The organisers were a little worried that they might not a get a good turnout - but their worries evaporated when they saw already a dozen stalls being set up at the edge of the field, selling everything from Reformasi badges and Anwar tapes to full-size party flags. "Even the shrewdest politician could never predict whether a crowd would be large or small," said a PRM official. "But these entrepreneurs invariably know when there will be a large crowd - they know even better than us!"

Our car left at 6.00 pm to join the convoy that was to greet Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah at Senai Airport. Being all Kuala Lumpur residents and quite unfamiliar with Johor Bahru roads, we depended upon the navigational skills of the only local resident in the car - the eleven-year old granddaughter of PRM Deputy President, Abdul Razak Ahmad! However, she was an excellent navigator and we arrived right on time at the airport, to be greeted by a crowd of about 100 cheering Reformists outside the arrival gate, with banners unfurled and flags flying. Wan Azizah was speedily whisked into her maroon four-wheel drive before the local police made things difficult - no one was sure how they would react to their first-ever large Reformasi gathering.

The convoy of about a dozen cars proceeded towards Kampung Melayu Majidee, with our car just ahead of Wan Azizah’s vehicle. As we proceeded along the road, I couldn’t help but notice dozens of cars overtaking us and people waving and smiling from their windows at Wan Azizah’s vehicle. Frequently cars raced ahead, trying to overtake other curious drivers, and more than once this nearly caused some near collisions! But the only accident I saw was not on the road but on the pavement - a curious pedestrian was peering at her car as he was walking, with that ‘Is that her?’ look - and seconds later collided with a municipal dustbin and nearly fell over!

When the convoy had to stop at a traffic light, Wan Azizah wound down her window and waved energetically at the other cars in the convoy - with that girlish smile that has won so many hearts. Cars started honking in response to her greeting and the honking went on for quite some time - until we realised that some of the honking was actually from cars behind us telling us to move on because the lights had already changed green for quite some time!

The convoy made a stop-over at the Kolam Air Mosque for Wan Azizah to do her evening prayers - she apparently is pretty strict about starting her prayers on time. As she entered the mosque with her daughter Nurul Izzah, she saw me and greeted me. "Izzah is so glad to see you here - she really loved your write-up of the Rainbow Park rally." Now, if that isn’t motivation to write well, I don’t know what is!

After a short dinner at a house nearby, the convoy proceeded to the rally site - a grassy playground on Lorong Aman (Peace Avenue), off Jalan Merdeka (Independence Road). The almost 10,000-strong crowd had spilled over the playground into a nearby football field and into all the roads, side lanes and homes surrounding it. The crowd broke into wild cheers of "Reformasi!" as Wan Azizah went up on stage with her hosts - PRM President Dr Syed Husin Ali, PRM Deputy President Abdul Razak Ahmad, PRM Secretary General Dr Sanusi Osman and PRM Youth Chief Hassan Karim.

Razak was the first to speak, remarking that Mahathir had outlasted the reign of three of Malaysia’s kings - and will soon still rule during the reign of a fourth. "He wants to be like Asia’s longest-ruling head of state, Suharto, who ruled for over 30 years. But look at what happened in Indonesia - Suharto was toppled. Another Asian dictator, Marcos, was also toppled - by a woman. In Malaysia, we too have a woman who has the greatness of soul and the strength to topple Mahathir - we welcome you!"

Noting that this was her first trip to Johor since the political crisis began, he thanked her for accepting PRM’s invitation to come there and ironically recalled the day he had met her husband and invited him to Johor - the day just before he was arrested and beaten. 

Razak should certainly know about arrests. He was arrested last December together with PRM Youth Head Hassan Karim, PRM Deputy Secretary General Mohd Salleh Haji Ahmad and a local DAP leader Madam Chan Yoke Lam for distributing reformasi pamphlets in front of the Komtar complex in Johor Bahru.

As he neared the end of his speech, the crowd cheered the arrival of the next guest speaker – human rights activist Tian Chua. As Tian Chua got up on stage to take his seat, Razak assured Tian that he would end his speech soon. "Give me a minute or two and I will go. Not like Mahathir, he doesn’t want to go at all!" The crowd roared with laughter, breaking into a chant of "Undur, Mahathir, undur!" ("Resign, Mahathir, resign!")

Tian commented on the recent admission by Rahim Noor that he had beaten Anwar while he was under police custody. "And it was not just Anwar. They have beaten up Reformists, hawkers, squatters - even I was beaten up!" he said, to shouts of "Lanun! Lanun!" ("Pirate! Pirate!") from the crowd.

Ahmad Noor from DAP also commented on the Anwar beating, wondering why Rahim Noor has not been arrested even after flatly admitting that he had beaten up a prisoner in his custody. "If I were to hit a policeman right now, I would be arrested and dumped in a lock-up in moments. Arrest Rahim Noor right now! He’s already admitted it - what else are they waiting for?!"

He also wondered what Mahathir was waiting for. "He promised us that he would step down when the time was right. Isn’t it the right time now? Doesn’t he know why so many thousands of people are gathered here. Doesn’t he know? Actually he knows - he’s just pretending he doesn’t!"

Dr Daeng Sanusi from PAS welcomed Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah to Johor and expressed sympathy for her family. "They attempted to humiliate and shame her family. But it is they who have been humiliated and shamed. Her family is noble in the eyes of the people. Her family is noble in the eyes of God."

"When Mahathir sacked Anwar, he said that he had irrefutable proof that Anwar had committed sexual offences. The trial has proven that he lied. Mahathir then said that Anwar hit himself .... not only that, Rafidah Aziz even told students in London that Anwar made the black eye pinching himself! They’re not only liars - they’re also stupid!"

PRM Secretary General Dr Sanusi Osman commented on Mahathir’s response to Wan Azizah’s challenge to contest his seat in Kubang Pasu. "Mahathir says that Wan Azizah cannot do anything for the people of Kedah, while he can give them an 800 million ringgit university. He talks as though that money came straight from his own pocket. Does he think that’s his father’s money? It is the people’s money!"

"He said he would resign when he sees ‘signs’ from the people. Aren’t mass gatherings of thousands of people almost every other day around the country ‘signs’? Can’t he see these ‘signs’?" The crowd shouted in response "Mahathir buta!" ("Mahathir is blind!")

PRM President Dr Syed Husin Ali, a native of Johor himself (from Batu Pahat), got the crowd going early in his speech. "We’ve heard a lot of shouts of ‘Reformasi’ this evening. But it’s no good just shouting here. Reformasi must be heard right up to the Chief Minister’s house!" The crowd responded with perhaps the loudest shout of "Reformasi!" I’ve heard yet – the bright,coloured light bulbs strung across the stage rattled as the roar reverberated into the stillness of the night. I had this amusing picture in my mind of the Johor Chief Minister waking up in his bed at that very moment, bathed in sweat, as though awakened from a nightmare.

As though that shout did not make our voices hoarse enough, the shouts continued on as the main speaker stood up to speak - Wan Azizah. She thanked the people of Kampung Melayu Majidee for their warm welcome and support. "The people here are good ... they know what is wrong and what is right, what is sapphire and what is glass..."

She began with an emotional description of the early days of her husband’s sacking and arrest. "At the very minute he was sacked, they cut the water supply and electricity at our official residence ... we were given two days to get out of the house .... On the day we were arrested, the police stormed in, walking all over our prayer mats with their boots. They waved submachine guns at our children...."

She described how former UMNO Youth leader Ruslan Ali was taken away in a hamburger van, which days before had been selling ‘Reformasi’ burgers to supporters visiting the house. 

She commented bitterly on Rahim Noor’s ‘apology’ to her family for the beating he gave Anwar that night. "If I had my way, I will not forgive. Nevertheless, I accept the apology - but the process of justice must go on."

She didn’t blame rank and file policemen for what happened to her husband. "It was ordinary policemen who helped him when he was injured. It was an ordinary policeman who told him who did the beating." The crowd clapped warmly.

She also brushed off Dr Mahathir’s disparaging remarks about her challenging him in Kubang Pasu. "He ought to remember - I’m a Doctor too!"

As the event ended right at the stroke of midnight, hundreds gathered around the stage - some to get autographs, others to just have one last look at that remarkable woman before they left - for most, this was the first time they had seen her in person. One middle-aged man standing beside me commented on her beauty. "Lawalah Kak Wan tu! Lawa betul! Takkanlah Abang Anwar tergamak buat semua benda tu - saya langsung tak percaya!" ("Sister Wan is lovely! Really lovely! I can’t believe Anwar would do those things - I cannot believe it at all!")

Wan Azizah wasn’t the only object of admiration that night, though. Looking at the many hundreds of slips of paper that were being handed to Wan Azizah to autograph, a friend of mine wondered if he could get away with passing on a slip of paper saying "I hereby swear to give my daughter Nurul Izzah in marriage to ..... !!!!!" He offered me a small ransom when I jokingly threatened to reveal his name in this story!

As the crowd continued to mill around her, I reflected on her speech and noted how little politics there was in it. Nothing about party loyalty, or economic analysis or racial policies or even promises of glittering schools, freshly-tarred roads and lucrative development projects. 

In a country with no shortage of shrewd, cunning politicians, Wan Azizah seemed an anomaly, an accident of history. But people have had their fill of shrewd, cunning politics. With her natural grace, what she gave us that night was compassion, nobility, sincerity, strength and courage - attributes sadly deficient in many of our oldest and ‘wisest’ politicians and leaders.

Many of us dispersed into the night after the rally, and we ended up sipping tea at a popular local night-time haunt, the 25 Hours Restaurant. We talked long into the wee hours of the morning about the rally, about politics and politicians, about the trial, about Wan Azizah, about justice, about the future of our country. We were mostly young people - lawyers, students, writers, fun-loving and carefree men and women - hardly hardened politicians. Like Wan Azizah, we too were political anomalies, accidents of history - perhaps a little naive, perhaps a little too innocent. 

But I couldn’t help but feel that the future of our country was in the hands of people like these. People willing to stand up to a slick, powerful government machinery that would crush anything in its path, shaking their fists in defiance. Little Davids standing before a Maha Goliath, armed with only a burning, sincere desire for justice and democracy to prevail in our beloved land.