Who or what is Reformasi?
More importantly, WHY?

November 29th, 1998

Just who are these upstarts who call themselves the Reformasi movement? Despite some pretty mysterious calls recently for the formation of a Reformasi Party (one of which came from none other than the Reformasi nemesis himself, Dr Mahathir), the Reformasi dudes certainly arenít a political party with a well-oiled political machinery and a disciplined political programme of action.

They seem to be an amorphous grouping of people of different political, ideological faiths - from Islamists who saw in Anwar Ibrahim a champion of Islamic values in government; to traditional Malay ruling party members who saw him as a symbol of a new generation of leaders; NGOs and social activists who appreciated his liberal views and NGO sympathies; and non-partisan fencesitters who are just outraged at how he had been systematically destroyed, along with the democratic institutions that had protected him and all Malaysians. Some of them donít even seem to like Anwar very much.

The only unifying theme among this political Tower of Babel appears to be an overwhelming feeling that something has gone very wrong with our country.

The Reformists see rampant abuse - and it is not just being inflicted on Anwar Ibrahim. They themselves are being vilified by the local media and champions of the government machinery. Their 'leaders' have been arrested without trial and whisked away to dark, secret places. Others are brutalised on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Yet others live in a perpetual climate of fear and enforced silence.

But when people see abuse, they get hurt, they get angry and they demand change. If there is a glaring wrong, it has to be made right. People do not want to live in fear just because their opinions vary from that of those in power. That is wrong, that is unjust - and people want do something about it.

For the Malay in particular, they have witnessed every shred of dignity stripped away from a well-respected leader and his family. This is a cultural outrage for a race whose ancient Annals, the ĎSejarah Melayuí, have decreed that "if subjects of the ruler offend, they shall not, however grave the offence, be disgraced or reviled with evil words ..."

But it has gone well beyond the alleged offences or sexual inclinations of Anwar Ibrahim. Whatever the outcome of the Anwar trials - guilt or innocence - the damage to the government's credibility and esteem has already been done. This was not just because of the outpouring of public dissent - the demonstrations, protests, criticisms are merely symptoms of a greater disease, a much deeper distrust and disbelief, much of which is silent or muted.

More and more Malaysians are now aware that rights and freedoms which they once took for granted can be so easily taken away, ignored or abused. They have seen how easy it is to misuse the institutions that are supposed to protect our freedom into tools to repress, silence and curtail that freedom. And for every one of those tens of thousands of people who took their frustrations to the streets, there will be even more of their silent colleagues who will take their anger to the branch election or the electoral ballot. If Reformasi were to be extinguished this very day, the Reformists would have already won that.

Never have Malaysians seen so much strength and power mustered against the voice of dissent. If this was allowed to happen without even a whisper of dissatisfaction, how safe do you think any opinions are that are not in line with government policy? How safe are the NGOs, the unions, the human rights groups, minority communities? How safe are you from your name being dragged in the filth by a servile media? How confident will you be that the courts will deliver justice to you? How safe are any of us against absolute, unbridled, unquestioned power?

That's what Reformasi is all about. Telling those may abuse the power that we bestow upon them that they can't get away with it, that the line has to be drawn here and that things need to change.

We have arrived at a crossroads in the history of our country. We can keep on the familiar road of break-neck, unbridled development, at all costs, to the detriment of social justice and equality, political freedoms and basic human rights. Or we can take the road of sustained and sustainable development, where social development progresses in pace with economic development.

For this to happen, the reform must be comprehensive and include all spheres - political, social and economic. This includes the repeal of unjust laws that violate rights and freedoms guaranteed to us by the Constitution - freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and the due process of law.

Reform must guarantee us a judiciary system that is completely independent, transparent and places justice and public interest above all else. In the words of the former Chief Justice and Lord President of Malaysia, Tun Salleh Abas, "every human must be treated justly ... when one human being is manifestly denied justice, then we are all in real danger of being denied it."

"And justice cannot be done hastily. And justice cannot be done in the dark. It has to be done with due deliberation, in full view of the people in whose name it is done. For it is done for them."

Reforms must also safeguard the freedom of the press as a basic human right and allow the media to be a channel where all views can be aired, discussed and debated openly. People just donít like being lied to, being deceived with half-truths and having their intelligence insulted. People are angry that they are being treated like they are stupid - and that is the worst crime against the people.

Malaysians have resorted to using the Internet as the printing press of freedom - photocopying, faxing, posting and distributing news and views they cannot find in their own local media. They have taken it upon themselves to assume a task which the local press had seen fit to neglect.

With these basic rights and freedoms strengthened, we would have an unshakable foundation upon which other pillars of democracy can be built - economic justice, social equality, open government.

What will we see if these calls for reform are ignored? There may certainly be a stronger opposition - not enough to form a new government, perhaps, but strong enough to take away the governmentís two-thirds majority in Parliament and provide an effective check-and-balance to any excesses. Recent moves by certain parties for the setting up of a Reformasi Party seem to be an attempt at splitting this united Opposition - I don't think many people are going to be fooled by this.

Whether they like it or not, Reformasi will be a major agenda of all the political parties - whether it is 'Reformasi dalam UMNO' or Reformasi agendas within the political programmes of the Opposition parties. Already, we have seen statements from both UMNO and PAS leaders we would not have even dared imagine three months ago.

I also see stronger mass support for people's organisations and non-governmental organisations from people who have become disenchanted with party politics and do not see any real alternatives to the ruling parties - remember, Aliran had been calling itself a 'Reform movement' for years now, long before the term 'Reformasi' was even coined.

The most important change, though, will be more and more people being aware of their rights, having a more acute sense of justice, questioning their country's democratic institutions and knowing what democracy really is - and is not.

Reformasi is not just a matter of 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. It is a real test for 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 will stomach anything.

In that case, we probably deserve whatever happens to us after.

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