Changing Times

Feb 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.”

- Lim Guan Eng’s letter to Anwar Ibrahim, February 1999

"It is indeed a historic day when all the panellists 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 speakers consisting of Dr Syed Husin Ali of Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM), Tuan Haji 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 DAP Justice Forum in Penang this weekend which was attended by over 5,000 people. "At least 40 per cent of them were Malay! That same weekend thousands of PAS supporters at the Markaz Tarbiyyah PAS 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 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. Noting that he was wearing a metal ADIL white ribbon badge himself, he quipped that his was metal because he had the honour of being on the pro-tem committee of ADIL!

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 - kalau tunjuk girlfriend, mesti dia lari! But today, it is worn with pride."

Why this change? His own father, the great 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 he 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 Utusan Malaysia! 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. Reformasi will become Reformati."

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 Mahfuz to the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall and Lim Kit Siang to the Markaz Tarbiyyah PAS!”

"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 - `mereka menggadai nyawa mereka'."

"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 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 instil fear of change and reform."

"But if the people see that we can work together - PAS, DAP, PRM, ADIL - we can work dispel that fear that they will 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."

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