A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

When anger overcomes fear
October 17th, 1998

"We want to send a strong message to the public that 'kita tidak main-main' (we are not kidding)," City Deputy Chief Police Officer Senior Assistant Foong Yee said on Thursday. "Any gathering will be construed as illegal and police would not hesitate to take stern action under the Police Act 1967 if our advice to disperse is not heeded."

Even Mahathir, before going on his junket to Japan, warned his loving citizens that "certain groups" were plotting "chaos" in the country - which many seriously took as a warning that he would use any ‘chaotic’ situation as justification to take more brutal actions against all those who would like to see him go and not come back. Many still remembered the police assault on the village of Memali many years back and the people killed - coincidentally, at a time when the PM was away in China on another junket.

The danger signals were all there. Even Reformasi supporters warned people to take a ‘break’ and stay away from Jalan TAR today. Everyone had thought it was called off and nothing was going to happen this Saturday October 17th.

Perhaps, today, my shopping could proceed undisturbed!

The police were certainly out in full force - there were hundreds of them. No more the solitary couples of officers that we had at the demonstrations last week. Walking the back streets of the Indian Mosque district was like walking in a war zone. From Masjid Jamek right up to Campbell Road, every street junction was manned by dozens of uniformed policemen and FRU personnel. Anyone attempting to leave the back-alleys into Jalan TAR was turned away by a wall of police officers. Every possible entry point into Jalan TAR - no matter how narrow - was blocked. The wider roads had the infamous red trucks of the FRU blocking the route - I counted at least six trucks, and there were possibly others on the other side of Jalan TAR.

There seemed no way of getting to Jalan TAR on foot.

I noticed that the back doors of the shops were still open - customers were going in and out of them as usual. My significant other and I decided that we’d try our luck in one of the large departmental stores - she could get at last get that sari cloth she’s wanted for so long! Then, we’d go out the front door and check out the cloth stores on the other side of Jalan TAR! But we were foiled - the front doors of all the shops had been locked shut, with stern policemen glaring at you from behind their glass panels.

It was as though the whole length of Jalan TAR was off-limits. I could see traffic still moving along the road - but the pavements were strangely clear of pedestrians. We decided to try our luck again at the junction in front of the Coliseum cinema. Again, at least two dozen policemen barred the way. An officer sternly told us to turn back and continue our shopping elsewhere. I protested that my significant other and I were looking forward to the Hindi movie matinee today. The officers stern frown turned into a smile, as though he saw right through my small deception. "Don’t bother," he said. "All the tickets are sold out today!"

We pressed on towards Campbell Road - I couldn’t believe that they had enough manpower to block every road and alley along Jalan TAR. Traffic was also still flowing on the road - so there had to be an opening somewhere.

Many thousands of other people probably had the same idea. Because as we made the turn into Campbell Road and proceeded towards Sogo Department Store - there they were! Thousands of chanting, singing people at the intersection of Jalan TAR and Campbell Road

The time was about 5 pm. Someone must have been distributing pictures this time, because the courtyard and stairs leading up to Sogo were jam-packed with people waving pictures of Anwar Ibrahim. Coloured ones, photocopied ones, even magazine covers. The social reform magazine Aliran must have done a roaring business today because I saw hundreds of copies of their new October issue on Anwar being waved about at passing motorists.

It was certainly a banner demonstration today - literally! The crowd lined the road with cloth banners proclaiming a multitude of messages - in Malay, English and Arabic. "Reformasi - The Way To Justice". "Justice For Anwar - Justice for Malaysians". "Mahathir = Suharto" . A placard that particularly caught my eye read "Mahathir, please resign". Malaysians are extremely polite, even when they’re protesting.

The banners had a life of their own. They were moved up and down, swayed left and right, the demonstrators even passed them along the line of people down the road, so that everyone could see them. The banners were then passed up the line again back to the junction!

But the prize of top demonstrator must go to this darling seven year old girl in a pink pinafore, perched on top of the branches of a tree, with her dad holding her securely, her one hand waving at the convoy, the other hand waving a piece of elementary school art block paper, with the words ‘Reformasi’ hand-written in a childish scrawl with colour crayons. I would have killed for a camera then.

And of course there were the regulation cheers of "Reformasi!" and the shouts of "Mahathir undur!" ("Mahathir resign!"), as well as the singing of ‘Barisan Kita’. The crowd certainly cheered and sang much louder than last week. Perhaps this was because there were so many people concentrated upon that junction - all of the side roads were blocked by police and FRU trucks, and people were packed into every inch of sidewalk space that was left. I couldn’t even move further up the road from my vantage point outside the Haagen Dazs at Sogo, there were so many people squeezed together. The pace was certainly a lot livelier and faster than last week. Perhaps people thought that the police were this time going to break up the demonstration at any moment, and they wanted to say as much as they can, as loudly as they can, in the little time that they had.

But the police did not charge yet. Their main preoccupation seemed to be controlling the traffic and offering whatever semblance of normalcy that they could - perhaps drivers might not notice the thousands of singing and shouting demonstrators on the pavements surrounding them! We somehow had the strange feeling that as long as traffic flowed, as long as this strange sense of ‘normalcy’ was maintained, the police would probably leave us alone.

When we first arrived, few of the cars were honking in support at the demonstrators. Last week’s convoy appeared to be missing - after all, most people thought there wouldn’t even be anybody at Jalan TAR! But within half an hour, the honking was incessant - frantic handphone calls spread the word that Jalan TAR was in the hands of the people again! A small convoy of superbikes roared by, revving their engines in support, until they sounded like thunderclaps. There was even a bright orange school bus full of eager teenagers, clapping and showing the thumbs-up at the pedestrians. They must have just come back from a trip to the zoo or something, because almost all of them had cameras and were busy taking pictures of the revelling demonstrators.

I also noticed something strange as I watched the demonstration unfold. I was standing at the steps of Sogo, quite a distance away from the chanting, cheering demonstrators on the pavement, among what I thought were just a big crowd of curious on-lookers. As time passed by, you could see the odd one or two individuals among my crowd of by-standers suddenly shoot a fist in the air, shout "Reformasi!", look nervously around, fold their arms as though nothing had happened, and carry on quietly ‘by-standing’.

Soon, more and more people within the crowd repeated the same process. Within half an hour, my little crowd was chanting and cheering as loudly and as wildly as the people on the pavement!

The silent majority eventually found the courage to be silent no more.

When I first arrived, I estimated the crowd to be at least 5,000 people. By 5.30pm, the number could have easily matched or exceeded the numbers last week - the demonstration spilled over all four corners of the Sogo junction, up the road towards the Chow Kit district and down the road towards Independence Square. You could not move an inch, there were so many people packed together. I couldn’t help but overhear a young Muslim girl in a veil standing next to me ask her male companion "What are you feeling now?" "My country is going to change for the better," the young man replied.

Standing next to them was an elderly Chinese man reading, of all things, a copy of the Islamic Party Opposition newspaper Harakah. I never thought I’d see the day. Perhaps the young man was right.

It’s funny how many friends you meet at these ‘shopping’ excursions. I met a local journalist friend of mine, who remarked on seeing me "Out shopping again, Sabri?!" I coyly asked her why she bothered coming since not a word of today’s protest was going to come out in the government-controlled papers anyway. She could only respond with a weak smile, slightly embarrassed.

And talking about newspapers, my significant other kept nudging me every five minutes saying, "Sabri. You’re being observed again ..." Here I was, in the middle of a demonstration, wearing a flak jacket, carrying a sling bag, keenly observing everything and feverishly taking notes down in a notebook. People would certainly think I was either a Special Branch officer in plainclothes or, even worse, a local reporter! I suddenly became acutely aware of the notice sent out by an NGO today advising people to look out for undercover police officers wearing flak jackets, carrying sling bags and taking notes! I think I’ll just put my stuff in a shopping bag the next time I go ‘shopping’!

It came to a point where my significant other even remarked that a one -year old boy on his father shoulders was observing me with great suspicion!

A gentleman standing in front of me certainly mistook me for a reporter. He turned around, saw me writing on my notebook, then suddenly remarked, "Hah! You see 10,000 - but perhaps you’re writing down 1,000!" I quickly assured him that I was not a newspaper journalist, but I was taking notes down to tell people about what happened over the Internet. His stern demeanour rapidly turned jovial, and he laughed saying, "Good thing you’re not a reporter, I was about to give you a piece of my mind just now!"

At that point I suddenly noticed him wearing a white ribbon and realised that almost everyone was wearing the ribbon of Justice! A few individuals were carrying boxes full of ribbons, passing them around.

At about 5.50 p.m., there was suddenly a loud roar from the crowd and everyone surged to the middle of the street. At first, I’d thought that the police had finally charged and people were running away. But they were not running away from the street - they were running towards it. Then I saw her - it was Anwar’s wife, Dr Wan Azizah, waving at the crowd from a passing vehicle! The crowd went wild! Within seconds the road was engulfed by a sea of people and the cheers of "Reformasi!" roared louder and faster! I could see people weeping in joy - some were in a daze as though they couldn’t believe their eyes.

She couldn’t have been there for more than a few precious minutes. She was still under an Internal Security Act gag order and could have easily been arrested on the spot by the police if she had uttered a word to the crowd. But those precious few minutes were enough. It charged the crowd and the cheers and slogans became louder and faster. The organisers had a difficult time pushing the excited crowds back onto the pavement and restoring order - it was some minutes before traffic was flowing freely again on the road.

By this time, the whole road was lined by FRU and police - it was like a guard of honour welcoming the people’s convoy! But the officers certainly did not look very welcoming. While everything had been peaceful and disciplined so far, I was still not sure if we would be attacked at any time.

At about 6.40 p.m., the crowd dispersed for evening prayers. We had another appointment at the Central Market, and my significant other remarked it was going to be a tiring walk there. We passed by a group of FRU officers packing their shields, batons and tear-gas guns into a police truck and getting ready to move off somewhere else. My significant other quipped "You think we could get a lift from them?!" I remarked that we’d probably end up some place we would rather not want to be.

For me the day had ended. It was rousing, inspiring, peaceful. There were hundreds more policemen this time round and they were not in friendly mood - I saw many who refused to shake hands proffered to them by demonstrators as they left. The threats were more sinister this time round as well - from the police and from none other than the Prime Minister himself.

As the crowd moved along Jalan TAR towards the mosque, the pavement was full of people except for a particular spot along the road which, strangely, people seemed to avoid. As I got closer to the spot, I could see why. Someone had spilled a plastic bag of sambal chilli (chilli paste) on the floor. It was just an ordinary bag of chilli. But it looked like something far more sinister splattered all over the floor. Perhaps people just avoided it, not wanting to think the unthinkable, of what could have happened that afternoon.

Yet, again this week, people had shown that threats and fear could not silence their discontent. As a friend I met on that walk said, "We’ve always been afraid of the government. But the anger’s gone well beyond fear now."

I later learned that many incidents of police attacks and arrests occurred when people returning from prayers proceeded to the Royal Palace to present a memorandum of protest to the King. The crowd apparently dispersed at the Palace but were attacked as they turned back towards the city. Many incidents of dispersing demonstrators - young and old - being punched, kicked and beaten by sticks were seen and at least 130 people have been arrested. The fears were not unfounded - and the anger does not look as though it will subside.