Reformasi's Roving Eye

January 28th, 1999



By Anil Netto
Inter Press Service 28-JAN-99

PENANG, Malaysia, (Jan. 28) IPS - Fed up with what he perceived as biased reporting by Malaysia's mainstream media, Sabri Zain, a civil engineer-turned-journalist, decided to take things into his own hands.

Zain, 39, writes eyewitness reports of the "reformasi" protests and political ferment in Malaysia that followed the sacking of deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in September.

With a knack for being at the right place at the right time in the heart of the capital Kuala Lumpur, which he calls "weekend shopping", Zain soaks in the sights and sounds of the exuberant "reformasi" protests while jotting down notes.

Next, a quick dash home, a hurried write-up, and then a click of the mouse to send his scoop swirling into mailing lists and discussion groups in cyberspace.

Sabri's eye for detail and his ability to capture the spirit of the occasion has turned him into a mini-celebrity of sorts, a familiar name among cybersurfers searching for the latest reformasi news.

His articles have appeared in different websites tracking the reformasi movement. Zain, who began by circulating foreign news reports to friends and strangers on Internet discussion lists, also has several sites of his own, including "Reformasi News" (<>) and "Reformasi Diary" (<>).

An exerpt from a posting after attending a Ramadan breaking-of-fast dinner this month, attended by Anwar's wife Dr Wan Azizah and 1,400 other Malaysians chanting "reformasi", conveys the headiness that activists feel in airing their views freely.

"Towering close by, lit up like an enormous torch against the velvet night sky, was the Petronas Twin Towers. To some, this was a symbol of our country's development," Zain wrote.

"To me, it only reminded me of the that day in November when people below it were sprayed with acid and yellow dye and dragged out of its shopping malls by plainclothes policemen and FRU (Federal Reserve Unit) personnel," he continued.

"I saw some of those same faces this evening. Acid, dye, beatings, arrests, media propaganda -- they had all failed to extinguish the determination I had seen in those same faces many months ago. We all met again that evening - in the warmth of friendship and the sharing of a common, just cause," Zain added.

"Our spirits were unbroken, unafraid and more determined than ever to continue what we had begun last September to its inevitable conclusion," he explained.

Zain says he writes in three modes: the rational analytical mode where he analyses issues, the "emotional eyewitness" accounts, and the humorous satirical pieces.

The satirical articles are just as important for Zain. "The greatest victory was when I showed a piece I had written to a friend who was very pro-government and he laughed," he recalled in an interview.

Asked what drives him to regularly share his thoughts on the cyberwaves, Zain said: "Initially, it was a whole wave of different emotions. First it was just confusion, then it was outrage and at the end it became helplessness."

Earlier on, his writing was confined to discussion of some issues that had cropped up since Anwar's arrest -- tough laws on political dissent, the fairness of the corruption and now-scrapped illegal sex charges against him, and control over media.

"We looked at these issues, and explored them from different avenues," recalled Zain. "Why was this happening? Why is the media being used like this?"

His eyewitness chronicles began on Sep 21, the day Anwar led a crowd of more than 50,000 to the heart of Kuala Lumpur in protests that later led to his arrest.

Zain was also in the action when, weeks later, protesters held the unique "Shopping for Justice" demonstrations where they mingled with Saturday shoppers in downtown Kuala Lumpur to avoid police retaliation.

Organisers resorted to the creative protest because it is illegal to hold a public rally without a permit in Malaysia.

At that rally, the former journalist described the heart-thumping chants of "Reformasi!" thundering in the city, the camaraderie among total strangers, as well as the panic that erupted when police started cracking down.

His vivid accounts were almost instantaneously flashed to the rest of the country, from the living rooms of condominiums and "kampung" or village houses.

Malaysians, starved for news and tired of the pro-establishment diet they had been fed by the mainstream media, passed on his articles via electronic mail or photocopied them for friends and relatives.

Born in Singapore, Zain was not always into journalism. He recalls reading books on Alexander the Great, Caesar and Napoleon by the time he was 15. Two years later, he found himself in London studying civil engineering.

He got his first taste of Malaysian journalism after returning home and joining the English-language daily, 'The Star'. A week later, in October 1987, the daily lost its licence in a crackdown against dissent. The paper was closed for five months and 'sanitised'.

When it reopened, Zain resumed writing for two years before joining the computer firm IBM as a media relations executive.

But "after four years helping to sell million-dollar grey boxes, I felt that I needed to do something more with my life," says Zain. Hanging up his necktie and donning jungle boots, he latched on to the nature conservation cause.

For now though, he is busy with a different cause, as an unofficial cyber-chronicler of reformasi events.

Reformasi is about "changing your way of thinking" on issues such as justice and the integrity of democratic institutions, says Zain. "There's a lot more education to do. I see myself writing about that."

Inter Press Service -

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