Deafening silence greets the Parti Reformasi

December 5th, 1998

The three-month old Reformasi movement just refuses to die.

Its supporters have been blasted off the streets with water-cannons - last weekend was the quietest Kuala Lumpur has had since the first big demonstration of September 20th. Newspaper headlines condemn the reformasi dudes as being under the pay of, at various times, the foreign media and the CIA. Indirectly, they are being vilified in what is perhaps one of the most intense and expensive television media blitzes in Malaysian advertising history - who says we're in an economic downturn? With all those millions from the CIA (in hard US currency, no doubt), one would have thought the Reformists could at least afford just a lousy RM14,000 one-page ad in the papers to counter all this subtle "boneka Amerika" propaganda.

Amidst this barrage of plastic-flag patriotism, the Reformists now suddenly find themselves at another crossroads in its short but intense history - the formation of a Reformist Party.

One would have thought that the statement by Abdul Malek Hussein announcing that he and "other members" of the pro-Reformasi movement were forming a Reformist party would have been greeted with wild jubilation from the Reformasi dudes. After all, they had been denied all avenues of expression - their demonstrations have been violently dispersed, they are ignominiously shut out from the local media, their leaders and spokesmen have been arrested, harassed and, in many cases, silenced. Even the simple act of being in possession of a Reformasi leaflet can land you in a lock-up for quite a few uncomfortable days.

Out of the blue, there is now at last an organisation that the Reformists can flock to in their thousands - and sanctioned by no less than the PM himself!

So why is there no stampede? And why the deafening silence from others in the Reformasi movement?

Some unkind souls might point to the self-appointed founder of this fledgling political party, Saudara Malek Hussein himself. Looking at his track record, he certainly does not strike one as a man of strong political convictions. Standing as a PAS candidate in a constituency in Kuala Lumpur during the General Elections, he withdrew from the race at the very last minute - giving MCA an uncontested victory and leaving a lot of angry PAS and Opposition voters fuming.

The circumstances in which he made his historic announcement of the Reformasi Party this week may have also raised a few Reformist eyebrows. Just days after he was released from ISA detention, he is suddenly allowed to attempt the potentially seditious task of forming a Reformist party and gets more TV news coverage than any Reformist leader since Anwar was arrested - even from that nemesis of the Reform movement, TV3. His lauding the police for the good treatment he received while under ISA detention probably didn't win him too many sympathisers either - especially from people who had read about the beatings SUARAM's Tian Chua got when he was arrested just days before.

But the largest single factor that probably made many people regard this new reform party with more than just a little suspicion was the fact that it was apparently formed in response to a boyish dare by the Prime Minister. Mahathir told the reform movement on Tuesday to form a political party to challenge the government. "If they want a political party, they can have a political party," he said.

Strange words, indeed, coming from the head of a government that has jailed Reformasi leaders, forced others to exile, and branded its supporters as violent, petrol bomb-throwing, motorcycle-burning anarchists. It also seems that the government is not the slightest bit worried by the formation of a political party whose supporters, it has been claimed, have access to millions of US dollars in covert CIA funds.

A Machiavellian mind may even conclude that the government sees a great deal more good than bad out of the formation of a Reformist Party. It would certainly stem the tide of Malays now flocking to PAS in the thousands. More importantly, though, it would offer a clean way out for disgruntled UMNO members who, for ideological or historical reasons, would never stomach joining PAS. That would certainly whittle down any Reformasi support within the UMNO grassroots - and help ensure that the 'proper' UMNO delegates get selected to go to next year's UMNO General Assembly.

For their greatest fear is not a national Reformasi Party - their assured downfall would be a reformasi in UMNO itself. While a Reformist Party would cleanse UMNO of these silent Reformasi dissidents, the Party itself would probably go the way of other UMNO breakaway parties - the final death throes of Semangat 46 are still fresh in our minds.

All that said, it would be unfair for us to immediately brand this new Reformasi Party as an evil plot to divide and undermine the Reformasi resistance. Saudara Malek and his friends certainly have a right to form a political party and we should all judge that party according to its ideals, objectives and programme of action - none of which is clear right now. If indeed their aims are to restore justice and democracy in Malaysia, they deserve all the support they can get. If not, they certainly will not fool anyone - and people are just fed up of being fooled these days.

It would be interesting to see how other personalities in the Reformasi movement react to this new initiative as well. Malek has already stated that Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah, will be the movement's de facto leader while Anwar is being remanded in prison pending his corruption trial, (though one would think that this smacks of nepotism, the very anathema of the Reformasi movement). Wan Azizah herself has not made any public statements about joining this new party, though Malek had said that he intended to meet her about it. When they do meet, I could imagine that she'd probably be quite surprised to have already been elected its leader.

While Wan Azizah has always said that she would continue playing a role in helping to lead the cause of Reformasi, she has always maintained that that role was symbolic. Asked by TIME magazine if she was ready to lead the Reform movement, she said that it was not a question of whether she was ready or not - she had to. "I would like to be a symbol mainly. The workings of the movement I will leave to others ... but I would like to be a symbol of what the reformation is all about and what Anwar has started. I am a symbol of calm, of caring, of wanting what is best for all of our people."

More importantly, she probably sees the Reform Movement as something that transcends mere party politics. In a recent interview with Aliran Monthly, she had said that Anwar would not form a new party and that, as a party, UMNO is "still viable". "UMNO, I think can work ... a lot of the party members want to just show a protest." In that same interview, she reminded people that "what Anwar has fought for is not for any political party ... it cuts across all (party) borders, cuts across everybody, the various races as well ....."

I certainly think that is indeed a very important message to deliver. Whether there is a Reform Party or not, whether it is necessary or not, reforms must still take place - and these reforms must be championed by all parties, all organisations and all individuals that care for the preservation of democracy in the country.

Thousands thronged the pavements of Jalan TAR last October calling for reforms - and they certainly didn't need the weight of any political parties behind them. The struggle and the movement still carries on today. Last week, the Gerak coalition led by PAS took the reform message to the kampungs. Today, three hundred lawyers marched on the Court of Appeal to protest what they saw as an outrage against justice. A midnight candle-light vigil outside a Petaling Jaya police station this evening reminds people that NGO activist Tian Chua and others like him continue to be victims of a system that is intolerant of dissent and free expression.

45 UMNO members were also issued with show cause letters yesterday demanding they show proof why they should not be sacked from the party for their involvement in the reform movement - clearly indicating that, away from the headlines and TV cameras, a silent reform movement is underway in that bastion of power.

For reformation is a renewal, a moral force that has been re-awakened among thousands of people - in UMNO, in the opposition parties, in the NGOs, in the courtrooms, in the coffeeshops, on the streets. And it is not dictated by party policies or branch resolutions or political manifestos or ideology. It is dictated by feelings - of outrage against injustices and unfairness, of disgust with greed and manipulation, of hope for something better.

And thousands will continue to strive towards that hope of something better - in their own ways. Some will spread the word over the Net. Others will pass on a leaflet to a friend. Yet others will pass a resolution at a branch meeting. It really doesn't matter how and where it is done - as long as we're focused on the issues - to restore the basic rights and freedoms guaranteed us under the Constitution; to strengthen the democratic institutions we have set up to protect those rights and freedoms; and to tell those who may abuse the power that we bestow upon them that they cannot get away with it, that the line has to be drawn here and that things need to change.

The spark has indeed been lit. With or without a Reform Party, its flames will ultimately engulf the injustice and abuses it was meant to destroy.

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