The Storm and The Rainbow

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

Candles in the wind March 29th, 1999

"If we can sustain this spirit of Malaysian consciousness long enough to break the chains of racial bondage placed by the BN Government, then what I have to endure in Kajang Prison will not be in vain. Instead I can rejoice that Kajang Prison has made us all proud to be a Malaysian"
- YB Lim Guan Eng’s letter from Kajang Prison, 27th March, 1999 
 A slight drizzle and the gusty breeze made it a cold, wet and dark Monday evening. Despite it being the Aidil Adha Muslim holiday, Independence Square was quite deserted - probably because of the wet weather. However, across the road, a small crowd of about 100 people were huddled under the Moghul-style porch of the Federal High Court building. A cloth banner stretched across the porch told on-lookers why they were there - it read "Justice For Lim Guan Eng - Justice For All".

An underaged girl was raped, abused, shamed and detained - while the government politician accused of raping her walked a free man. When her MP - Lim Guan Eng - tried to defend her honour and dignity, he was instead tried and jailed for sedition.

Just a few days before, on Wednesday, 24th March, the Melaka Chief Minister’s Office informed DAP Deputy Secretary-General and Member of Parliament for Kota Melaka, Lim Guan Eng, that his petition for pardon to the Melaka governor had been rejected, following the advice of the Melaka Pardons Board. No reason was given for the rejection of the pardon petition. With the rejection of the pardon petition, the Opposition leader would have to serve the full term of his three-year jail sentence for sedition. 

"The decision doesn’t come as a big surprise," said a DAP friend. "The Attorney-General was represented in the Pardons Board - I somehow doubt he would have put in a good word for Guan Eng," she said cynically. 

"It was the AG who appealed against the inadequacy of the fine that was handed down to Guan Eng. That was what landed him in jail in the first place. I don’t think the AG would suddenly change his mind and want him set free."

"But 300,000 Malaysians signed a petition asking for him to be set free," said another friend. "Don’t they count for something?"

Someone handed out copies a little booklet - "Songs of Justice For Guan Eng" - and some music was played from a minicompo. People started to raise their voices in song.

"Ni tin ren min, wei ni gao sheng ge chang, wo men du zhi chi ni, zheng yi zui zhong hui shen zhang....." ("Listen, the people are singing for you, We are with you, justice will prevail in the end.....")

Candles were distributed to the people lining the street and a hundred little flickering flames, like a hundred fireflies, glowed in the darkness of the night. Despite the bad news, the mood was cheerful and determined. Children with balloons and lit candles ran laughing, their parents running after them asking them to sit still and behave and not to get any wax on their clothes. A six-year old boy walked up the row of people helping light candles that were put by the wind - he had very cleverly sheltered his little flame by enclosing his candle in a plastic cup!

Two small children and their parents squatted in a circle around a small clump of lit candles, as the father explained slowly to the children why they were there. "These candles mean that we are in darkness and we want light," he said softly. "Darkness means evil and light is goodness. You must always make sure that the light of goodness never goes out. It must always burn bright ....don’t ever let it go out, no matter how strong the wind from the dark ...."

More people started joining our little group and soon another banner was put up - a blue ADIL banner. It then struck me that at least half of the people there were Malay. I was at one of the candle light vigils for Guan Eng last August - and only saw a handful of Malay faces there. But then, a week later, Anwar Ibrahim got the sack.

"I should have been here last August when they jailed him," a Malay executive said guiltily. "This man was defending the honour and dignity of a Malay girl, a child ... I should have been here sooner."

"We were asleep then, daydreaming... but the dream’s been shattered. We are wide awake now. Wide awake, with our eyes wide open."

Some people started distributing posters of the recently-announced National Justice Party. It was the first time I saw the new party’s logo - two crescents joined together against a plain blue background, making it look very much like an eye. A wide open eye.

Police presence that night consisted of a lone patrol car parked about 20 metres up the road and another squad car cruising around the area. The security personnel watching from behind the grill of the courthouse entrance seemed more amused than fearful. The authorities obviously did not expect the crowd to go on a rampage of looting and burning with their candles.

There was suddenly a cry of "Water cannon!" and my heart jumped. A peal of laughter broke when a bright green municipal sewage truck drove by. "Their new secret weapon," someone quipped. "I’m more scared of that water than their dyed acid!"

Just as suddenly, we saw a taxi suddenly speeding towards the crowd. There were gasps as it veered dangerously at full speed towards the crowd, swerved onto the pavement and screeched to a halt a few metres from us. All eyes were on the taxi as the driver jumped out of his vehicle, ran towards us, picked up a lit candle and joined the crowd!

There were now people with candles across the road from the courthouse as well and the singing carried on:

"Kebebasan, Kebebasan.... Oh sekarang, Oh sekarang, Kebebasan ..... ("Freedom is coming, freedom is coming .....") Oh yes, I know, Oh yes, I know ..... "

The occasional cheer rang out as cars horned their support at the singing crowd. A motorcyclist zipped past, revving his engine as his pillion rider frantically waved an ADIL flag at the crowd. A bus suddenly stopped right in front of the crowd and opened its doors - but not a single passenger got out. The grinning bus driver leaned out and gave the crowd the thumbs up as he sounded his horn and drove off.

At about 10:30 pm, DAP leader Lim Kit Siang arrived and he walked up along the row of people, shaking hands and thanking them for being there. As cars passing by horned in support, he spoke to crowd, thanking them for the solidarity. "The decision of the Pardons Board is a setback, but Guan Eng is not discouraged. I will be meeting him in prison and I will tell him about what you all have done tonight. It will be an inspiration and encouragement to him - to continue the fight for justice, for democracy and for freedom! To all of you, I say - keep the spirit alive!"

There was a loud shout of "Hidup Kit Siang!" ("Long live Kit Siang!") from the crowd - many of them from very distinctly Malay voices. The crowd broke into the final song for the night - the unofficial Reformasi anthem, "Barisan Kita"

These are indeed changing times.

As everyone left for home, I walked over to the grilled gate leading to the courthouse. There was a small sign hung on the gate, basically telling people how to dress and behave while in court. Item no. 6 read: "It is reminded that the court is a place where trials are conducted and must be respected at all times so that justice can be done."

As I read that sign, I thought of all the historic events that swept through those gates in the past year. Guan Eng’s conviction. Anwar’s ‘black eye’ appearance. The prosecution witnesses’ fashion parades. The media gag orders. The irrelevant defence witnesses. That stinking mattress. After all that, I couldn’t help wonder just how much the court is "respected at all times" these days. And just how much "justice can be done".