September 11th, 1999

“Malaysia's jailed former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim was hospitalised today amid allegations he was suffering from arsenic poisoning while incarcerated … an Australian testing lab found his urine contained 77 times the normal level of arsenic…” - CNN, September 10, 1999

It was supposed to be just a quiet Saturday afternoon cleaning the house. The significant other was mopping the living room and I was finishing up some office work on the laptop when the handphone rang.

"You're not going to believe this … but there are a couple of thousand people at the National Mosque protesting against Anwar's poisoning. They're moving off towards the Royal Palace right now …."

The significant other and I immediately left the house and we were at the Masjid Jamek LRT station by about 3:30 pm. The cleaning could wait.

We walked down Jalan Tun Perak and turned the corner towards Dataran Merdeka. Rattan-wielding FRU troopers were already blocking the road at the bridge spanning the Klang River, while a crowd of by-standers looked on from the Jalan TAR junction. A red water cannon truck drove by, heading towards Jalan Kuching.

Undaunted, we walked on towards the bridge and were immediately surrounded by about eight Red Helmets. "Saudara hendak ke mana ini?" ("Where are you going, sir?") one of the officers asked.

"Hendak terus ke Dataran …" ("Straight to the Dataran ....")

"Maaf saudara. Jalan ini sekarang ditutup. " (I'm sorry, sir. The road is closed.")

When we didn't move back, he said rather obligingly, "Tetapi kalau saudara hendak teruskan perjalanan, saudara boleh ikut Jalan Benteng di seberang sungai sana." ("If you want to carry on, you can take the Benteng road across the river there.")

"Maaf ya, saudara," ("I'm sorry, sir") he said, as we turned back. "Kami cuma menjalankan arahan." ("We're just carrying out orders.")

"They were very polite and friendly," the significant other remarked with some degree of surprise as we walked towards the Benteng. I hoped they would stay that way for the rest of the day.

We were suddenly struck by a massive downpour and sought shelter in a café at Lebuh Pasar. At about 5.00 pm, the rain died down and we again proceeded towards Dataran Merdeka. We didn't get stopped this time and sat on a bench facing the courthouse building.

No sooner had we warmed our seats when we met some 'stragglers' from the afternoon's demonstration. "It was just like September 20th last year … except Brother Anwar wasn't there," one young man told me excitedly, alluding to Anwar's massive rally at the National Mosque on the day he was arrested. "We dropped leaflets from the mosque balcony and marched towards the Royal Palace. Then we turned back … the FRU waiting at the palace must have wondered where we were!"

He said the protesters played a cat-and-mouse game with the police for three hours that afternoon - heading somewhere and then turning sharply off elsewhere. "We didn't want to give them any opportunity to start breaking heads."

"We're going for Maghrib prayers at Kampung Baru," another straggler said, walking towards Jalan TAR. "See you there!"

We sat on the bench for the next half hour. Every now and again, a familiar face would show up and they would all ask the same cryptic question: "Mana?" ("Where?"). And the response was always just as cryptic: "Kampung Baru!" A passenger on a passing vehicle rolled down his window screen. "Mana?" he gestured with his hands. "Kampung Baru!" we shouted back. After a quick thumbs-up, the driver headed towards Kampung Baru.

Across the road, a squad of FRU troopers were resting under the porch of the High Court entrance, next to a pile of shields and red helmets. About half a dozen police trucks were parked in front of it. I had no doubt they too would be headed towards Kampung Baru soon.

We got off the train at the Kampung Baru LRT station. On one side of the river were the cold, glittering steel and glass towers of Mahathir's Malaysia - the towering edifices of Corporate Malaysia, with the Petronas Twins Towers dominating all around them. But on the other side, in stark contrast, were the zinc roofs and wooden plank walls of Kampung Baru, like a completely different world, with different people, with different values, different hopes and aspirations. For on this side of the river was the Malay heartland.

As we made our way through the maze of winding sidestreets and alleys, dodging playing children and clucking chickens, we understood clearly why the protesters would wish to end their day here. PAS and Keadilan flags were flying everywhere. Anwar posters adorned the houses. Flyers announcing Opposition rallies were pasted on lamp posts and fences. Cars were bedecked with Reformasi stickers. There was even a simple wooden shed with 'REFORMASI' spray painted all over it.

When we reached the junction of Jalan Raja Abdullah and Jalan Raja Alang, FRU and police were already stationed at every street corner leading to the Kampung Baru mosque. About a dozen FRU officers in helmets and shields were patrolling the perimeter wall of the mosque, while protesters gathered at the mosque entrance shouting 'Reformasi!"

As we stood watching the stand-off, half a dozen by-standers stood in front of us. We knew instantly they were policemen. They all seemed to have the same brand of black sling bags strapped acoss their chests and they all sported immaculately-polished shoes. But what really gave them away were the outlines of the handcuffs in the back pockets of their tight trousers!

We decided to move away from these 'by-standers' and sat on a low wall further down the road. Much to our dismay, the little group sat next to us just minutes later! I was in the middle of working out which sidestreets and back alleys to take in order to evade our unwanted guardians when, much to my relief, we were joined by a friend who worked as the correspondent for an international news agency. "If I'm going to be arrested today, at least the whole world will know about it," I thought to myself. Our little group of handcuff-totting 'protesters' soon moved off to another street corner.

At 6:30 pm, I packed the significant other off home in a taxi and parked myself at one of the teh-tarik stalls facing the mosque. The babel of conversations centered around just one thing - arsenic.

"Teh tarik satu, kopi-o satu! Kurang gula, kurang arsenik ya!" ("One tea, and one coffee! And easy on the sugar and arsenic please!") a friend ordered as he joined me at my table. He showed me a copy of an AFP article he had printed out from the Internet. "Will you look at this … the public prosecutor says that Anwar's family may have put the arsenic in his food! Why doesn't he just say that Anwar poisoned himself?!"

"Just like the way he beat himself up last year …!" I added.

He brought out another article from his little collection of print-outs - this time from the Singapore Straits Times. "The Deputy Prime Minister says Anwar has been sent to hospital and 'he is fine'. Doesn't that sound a lot like 'he is safe and sound'!"

"He also said that a special police team will investigate the allegations," he added. "I hope it's not the same police investigation team that couldn't find out that their chief of police had beaten the crap out of Anwar last year!"

Everyone suddenly looked skyward as a helicopter buzzed overhead, making sweeping circles around the mosque, sometimes flying so low it almost touched the rooftops of nearby buildings.

"And did you hear what Rafidah Aziz had to say? This whole thing is just to gain political mileage and world attention. For God's sake, the man's been poisoned. Does that woman have any shred of decency or humanity?"

His voice quivered with rage as he spoke. I have never before ever seen him angry in my life.

"Allahuakbar!". We heard the shout ring loudly and saw dozens of people running across the road to the mosque entrance. We leapt out of our seats to see what was happening. But it was only people distributing copies of an early Monday edition of Harakah. "ANWAR DIRACUN" ("ANWAR POISONED") the headline said in big, bold, red letters.

"Hidup Anwar! Undur Mahathir!" ("Long live Anwar! Mahathir resign!") the protesters shouted, as the crowd grew larger. People were walking up and down the road selling copies of Harakah and a traffic jam developed as cars stopped so their drivers could buy their copy. The huge piles of newspapers heaped on the side of the road were soon almost all gone.

Another friend joined us. "A reporter just told me Mahathir said that maybe it's not Anwar's urine!"

We all shook our heads in pure disbelief and shame. I never thought that even he could go that low.

"Did any of them actually say they were concerned about the man's health or safety?" my friend asked. No one said a word..

"You know what else he said? Killing politicians is not part of our country's culture."

The call to prayer rang out as the shouting demonstrators fell silent and joined the faithful in prayer. As I heard the musical tones of the Azan break the stillness of the evening air and sipped the last of my hopefully arsenic-free coffee, I thought of that statement. Killing politicians is not part of our country's culture. Dragging stained mattresses into our highest court of law is not part of our country's culture either. Neither is beating up a former Deputy Prime Minister in prison. Accusing a wife of poisoning her own husband is hardly part of our culture. Beating up women and old men on the streets is not our culture. National leaders talking about masturbation, sodomy and anuses on national television, in front of our children, is not our culture. Cronyism, nepotism, corruption - these are not part of our culture.

"... and if any ruler puts a single one of his subjects to shame, that shall be a sign that his kingdom shall be destroyed by Almighty God". That is in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals). That is part of our culture.

I could only come to one conclusion - our culture has been poisoned too.

And the sad fact is that it is not only Anwar Ibrahim who has been poisoned. We are all being poisoned slowly. Unknown to many of us, little doses of poison, day by day, unseen, undetected, are slowly killing the things we hold dear to our lives - freedom, justice, truth, democracy. And their 'poisons' may have different names - ISA, FRU, OSA, UMNO, TV3 - but they all have the same killing effect on the democratic institutions we have that protect us all.

Some of us may not be feeling its affects now - that is the beauty of their 'arsenic' - it kills you slowly, without you knowing it. But the doses become more lethal day by day, the sickness becomes more apparent, more glaring, until, the day when you realise something has gone very wrong - it may already be too late.

Our leaders seem unashamed by what has happened. But if ordinary Malaysians are still unmoved by the horror of the poisoning of Anwar Ibrahim, then the poison has really set in. It would have killed the last of our defences - our sense of humanity and common decency. It would already be too late.

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