The Storm and The Rainbow

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

Changing times February 2nd, 1999

"Your role in translating the ideals and vision of Reformasi into truth, justice and a new Malaysian consciousness will be most critical. Many Malaysians share in your dream of ‘We are all in one family’ and are willing to cross the bridge with you.

If we fail, we do not fail only in closing the Great Divide that separates us but forever remain a divided nation."
- Letter from jailed Democratic Action Party leader, Lim Guan Eng, to Anwar Ibrahim, February 1999

"It is indeed a historic day when all the panelists in a political forum organised by the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall Civil Rights Committee would be all Malay!"

This was one of the opening remarks made by Chang Teck Peng, the chairman of the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall’s forum on current political changes that was held there on February 2nd. And it was indeed true that the largely Chinese audience that evening were facing an all-Malay panel of dissident speakers consisting of Dr Syed Husin Ali of PRM, Mahfuz Omar of PAS and En. Rustam Sani of ADIL.

"I’ve recently stopped being surprised by these things," said Rustam. He commented on the Justice Forum in Penang this weekend organised by the majority Chinese Democratic Action Party which was attended by over 5,000 people. "At least 40 per cent of them were Malay! That same weekend thousands of Islamic Party supporters at the PAS gathering in Kuala Lumpur wildly greeted none other than Lim Kit Siang!"

"If you had told me this five years ago, I would have considered it a tilam (mattress) story!" 

"We may have our political differences ... but we all wear the same badge!" he said, observing the white cloth ribbons being worn by Tuan Haji Mahfuz and Dr Syed Husin. 

Rustam noted other changes he had seen recently. "A few days ago, a young friend of mine was proudly showing me his new PRM membership card. Five years ago, that card would have been more a liability rather than asset - showing it to your girlfriend would have chased her away! But today, it is worn with pride."

Why this change? His own father, the great Independence fighter Ahmad Boestamam, had been detained under the Internal Security Act during the colonial days and detained by the government again after Independence. "Little had changed - and we accepted it."

And because little had changed, Dr Mahathir thought that he could do to Anwar Ibrahim what UMNO itself had done to him in 1969, when Mahathir himself was expelled from the party.

"But that was in the feudal days of UMNO in the Sixties. Dr Mahathir wanted to repeat the same thing in the Nineties - but he didn’t realise that things have changed."

One of the changes was that it was now a global world. "With the Internet, people know there are much better alternatives to what you are fed in the local press! And Internet writers like Sabri Zain now have far more credibility than almost all the chief editors in our local newspapers!"

It was this change that has made Reformasi go beyond Anwar or Lim Guan Eng or tolls. "Even Lee Kuan Yew had said in September that Reformasi will not last more than two weeks - the government has the power to kill it."

But today, five months later, it is alive and kicking, and joining together people from different political parties, different faiths, different races. "It has brought the Islamic Party to the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall and Lim Kit Siang to the Muslims!"

"And it has brought Rustam away from the safety and comfort of university life into ADIL!"

He also noted that it has brought people out into the streets. "These demonstrators have been called rioters and troublemakers. But let me tell you, it takes a lot of courage for ordinary unarmed people to face water cannons and FRU with batons - they risked their lives."

"At the risk of being called a CIA agent, I’d have to agree with Al Gore - they are brave Malaysians!"

Tuan Haji Mahfuz noted that Malay society in particular had undergone remarkable change. "Not just political change - but a change in the mind."

He believed that there is now a breakdown in confidence - and belief - in the UMNO leadership. "Malays now dare to question the government - in the towns, in the kampungs and even in school."

"By accusing Anwar, they thought that he would be hated and despised. But with every passing day at court, it is the government that is being hated and despised .... the political sandiwara (theatre) being acted out by the government is failing miserably."

Dr Syed Husin was heartened to see all the different political parties, non-governmental organisations and ordinary people coming together for reform and change, from all races and religions. "The government has and will continue using race and religion against us, to divide us, to instill fear of change and reform."

"But if the people see that the political parties can work together, we can dispel that fear that they sow. People have lost their faith and confidence in the government and its institutions. They are now angry, they feel sorry, they grumble, they talk, they gossip. This talk and gossip has not been converted to political action."

And that political action must be an acute awareness - and desire - for change. "And the people will know change cannot come from those they no longer have faith in."

Race has always been - and still is - used by the rich and powerful powerful to divide and rule. The government’s recent scare-mongering campaign among the Chinese community is a classic example of this divide-and-rule tactic. To protect itself from the wrath of the people, the government is now trying to turn Reformasi in Malaysia into a racial issue. Malays will riot, they say. Malays will burn Chinese shops, they say. Malays will rape Chinese women, they say. And their loudest message of all - remember Indonesia.

Look at the attempts by the government to racialise the Reformasi demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur for example, equating them with the riots against Chinese in Indonesia. 

Less than one week of rioting in Indonesia killed hundreds and gutted whole districts in Jakarta. Since the mass assemblies at Anwar’s house on September 3rd, there were almost three consecutive months of demonstrations here collectively involving hundreds of thousands of Malaysians. How many Chinese shops have been burned or looted? How many Chinese have the demonstrators killed or raped? Zero.

I myself saw dozens of “Free Guan Eng” banners and posters next to the “Free Anwar” posters at these demonstrations. This did not seem anti-Chinese to me.

Look at the Reformists who have been victims of police brutality. Chinese human rights activist Tian Chua was beaten up on many occasions, arrested and even re-arrested just seconds after the Courts freed him. And long before the word ‘Reformasi’ was even coined, Lim Guan Eng was already in prison for the ‘crime’ of defending the dignity of a Malay girl who accused a government politician of rape.

Reformasi in Malaysia transcends race and even petty party politics. Upholding justice is a concern for all races. Race is being used again and again to divide and weaken us because our leaders are showing contempt for the fact that we Malaysians have learnt to live side by side in harmony, that we trust each other. And their attempts at racialising the call for more freedoms and more justice only show they do not want that harmony to exist but instead want to use disharmony so they can cling to their thrones.

Injustices are being committed on Malaysians of ALL races. The media which is supposed to be the people’s watchdog, a voice of the people that offers constructive criticisms of government policies and a check-and-balance against governmental excesses is instead being used to keep powerful men in power. The independence of our courts is seriously being questioned - there no longer seems to be that separation between the judiciary and the executive that is yet another important check-and-balance against government excesses. The police, who are supposed to protect the people, are instead being used to terrorise, oppress and harm the people.

These are all wrongs that we as Malaysians - Chinese, Malays, Indians, everyone - must correct - whether you are a government supporter, an Opposition supporter or a fencesitter.

Reformasi in Malaysia is not about Malays against Chinese. It is not about whether Anwar Ibrahim is guilty or innocent. It is not even about whether Dr Mahathir is right or wrong. It is about whether the Malaysian people are ready for democracy or not - whether we have grown out of the ‘divide-and-rule’ of racial politics. This is a real test for our democracy. 

If Malaysians casually accept all that has happened so far without question - the climate of fear, trial by media, detention without trial, violent repression, blatant unfairness, sheep-like loyalty - then Malaysians are condemning themselves to future abuses as well. They are telling the government “Do what you like with us”. 
And it will be our children who suffer from our neglect today to defend democracy and justice - just as we have suffered from the racial division policies of our colonial masters in the past.