Shopping For Justice

October 10th, 1998

After the many anti-government demonstrations following the sacking of ex-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, the Reformists in Malaysia were warned by the authorities not to hold any illegal assemblies. Not wishing to break the law, the organisers 'invited' Malaysians to join them 'shopping' on Saturday, October 10th, 1998.

I went shopping today.

It was a hot, sunny late afternoon, and as my significant other and I proceeded to Masjid India from Central Market, we could already see pockets of four or five policemen, beating the sidewalks, waiting at junctions ... but traffic seemed usual and people were going about their own business, as if this was going to be just another ordinary Saturday afternnon.

It was not to be an ordinary Saturday. This Saturday was to be one of those special days that history claims for its own. Just like September 20th was.

As we winded our way along the Saturday market in the back alleys of Jalan Masjid India, we couldn't help noticing a hum in the air. It could have been the distant honking from Jalan TAR - I thought to myself traffic must be really bad today. But it was more than a hum. By the time we reached Semua House and decided to turn into jalan TAR, the hum grew louder and louder until it became a roar.

And what a breathtaking sight we saw when me turned that junction!

Wire news reports I read later said it was at least three kilometres long. But from where I was, it seemed all along Jalan TAR for as far as the eye could see - thousands of people lining the pavements, chanting, singing, laughing, cheering, clapping. Men. Women. Children. Students. Couples. Middle-aged. Elderly. Yang bertudung. Yang rugged. Some were waving posters of Anwar Ibrahim, others made do with magazine covers with his photographs, there were brightly painted cloth banners, still others just made do with home-made scrawled marker pen messages on manila cardboard - but they all had the same messages - "REFORMASI" "KAMI TUNTUT KEADILAN" "REFORMASI" "UNDUR MAHATHIR" "REFORMASI" "KEADILAN" "REFORMASI".

How many people were there? Estimates vary from 10,000 to 30,000. I would think that there were certainly at least many tens of thousands along Jalan TAR - maybe less after Maghrib prayers later that evening. And I'm not even counting the cars. A pedestrian/demonstrator remarked "Kalau kita semua pi Bukit Jalil pun, saya rasa satu stadium Komanwel tu pun tak cukup!"

And I dare Datuk Dr Yusof Noor to say again that all these people were foreigners!

And the persistant honking and honking. But the traffic was moving smoothly. No, this wasn't your usual Malaysian motorist's love call to the car in front of him. The vehicles were honking at us on the pavement! After a while you could distinguish a certain ryhtmn as well - four short honks, repeated at intervals. Honk-honk-honk-honk. RE-FOR-MA-SI!

And the passengers in the cars had their own posters, pictures and messages, stretching their bodies out of their windows and waving them at pedestrians. Some shook hands with the pedestrians, but most exchanged that gesture that the Reformists have made their own - the thumbs up. And the crowds on the pavement clapped and cheered as this happy convoy made its way up Jalan TAR.

One middle-aged lady in a burgundy Proton saw the white ribbon I was wearing on my jacket and bellowed out "REFORMASI" as she smiled broadly. I shot back a thumbs up and returned her smile - and for that instant we knew that there was an instant bond. I got that feeling a lot today - that instant bond, with total strangers, yet much stronger than anything I've felt with some people I would call friends.

As we were moving along the road towards Dataran Merdeka, I could see that the organisers were taking great pains to make sure that traffic flowed smoothly and people were safe. I could see individuals along the road diligently directing traffic, persuading crowds back when they spilled too much onto the road, getting cars to move along when the drivers were too engrossed shaking hands with pedestrians.

And the uniformed police were far from the grim, stern-faced guardians of the law last week. There were groups of two or three of them along the road, leaning against pillars, arms folded, smiling at the crowds - yes, smiling! In fact, I can't say that I've ever seen so many smiling policemen. One sixty-year old man I met said one of the policemen even struck up a conversation with him. "Apa nak buat sekarang? Dah ramai sangat orang dah ni. Asalkan dia orang tak buat kacau, rosakkan benda, kita biarlah."

The old man remarked "Polis ini orang biasa macam kita jugak. Orang biasa. Mungkin yang jahat cuma yang dah pangkat besak sangat." And he let out a revelation. "Dan bukan polis saja macam tu. Kita orang UMNO pun sama."

I met a journalist friend of mine along the way, and a female acquaintance. "This is wonderful," I said. "I couldn't believe Malaysians could do this. But we have. And perhaps there hope."

I subsequently heard that he had been assaulted by two men later that day.

The crowd proceeded towards the direction of Mesjid Negara as the evening wore on - a mass of many thousands of people converging upon a mosque to perform their Maghrib prayers. The cheers of "REFORMASI" and takbirs ringed the the Dataran Merdeka again, like it did last September 20th. We saw three or four FRU trucks waiting in front of the Sultan Abdul Samad building - but this time, no long columns of red helemts, shields and batons barring the way. And where were the FRU? Safely huddled inside their caged trucks!

At the junction near Dayabumi, police crowd control consisted of two petite, young and rather pretty female officers - surrounded by this sea of big, perhaps angry young men. The officers of course tried to play their part to the hilt, looking seriously and sternly at the crowd - but one of them couldn't stop herself from letting out a giggle when one of demonstrators remarked "Jaga keselamatan kita ya dik - jangan lah pukul - sakit!"

The fountain located at the entrance of the tunnel below the British Council was awash with people - literally. From being a rather ugly and perhaps over-expensive ornament, that fountain was transformed into a refuge where the faithful could cleanse themselves for prayer - dozens of people were performing their wudu' there, expecting the washing area in the National Mosque to be already congested with bodies.

But perhaps the most stirring moment for me that day was when we entered the tunnel. Roars of "REFORMASI" reverberated as the crowd entered the tunnel, the acoustics amplifying the sound until it hit you like a wall, like the blast from an explosion. I spent a few minutes just standing still in that tunnel - "REFORMASI!" "REFORMASI!" "REFORMASI!" - echoing in my ears for many minutes after I left.

And the crowd came back along that same tunnel - echoing the same call - after Maghrib prayers had been performed, and they filled with renewed zeal. And marching to that square that was the secene of so much history in just these past weeks and so aptly named - Dataran Merdeka.

The crowd reached the Sultan Abdul Samad building a few minutes before 8.00 - and there were already FRU trucks and the infamous water cannon barring the way to Jalan TAR. So people just did the most logical thing - they just sat down on the road! A sit-in protest - no one can accuse you of starting violence when you're sitting cross-legged on the road! A small group of crew-cut young men in jackets - I don't know who they were - tried to pull down the barricades along the padang and urged the crowd to follow them. But it was obvious that the organisers were well-prepared for any trouble-makers - the men were immediately surrounded by men and women and ordered to get back on the road, sit down and join the rest. They even put the barricades up again.

The crowd continued chanting and singing what has become the anthem of the Reformists, albeit with the lyrics slightly modified: "... semboyan telah berbunyi, menuju reformasi!!!"

When the clock tower struck 8.00, the whole crowd let out a roar of "Allahuakbar!". They were not budging and the situation was tense - the police certainly seemed no longer in the smiling mood they were in the afternoon. There were some heated negotiations going on immediately under the clock tower with some senior police officers, while the crowd continued chanting and singing. There was a momentary round of applause when a line of young women in tudungs moved through the crowd, in single-file, bearing a poster of Anwar.

And as I sat there, I couldn't help but notice Bukit Aman towering above us behind the crowd. One or two of the floors were still lit up on the dark monolith, and you could even just about see individuals peering from the lit windows. I wondered if Anwar was seeing this - and what thoughts would be running through my head if I were him.

At about 8:10 pm the headlights of the water-cannon were ominously switched on. The police made an announcement. "Wanita dan kanak-kanak diminta beredar daripada kawasan ini. Kami memberi dua minit untuk berdear."

Almost at the very second the announcement was over, the call to the Isha' prayers began from the nearby Jamek Mosque. As the music of the Azan echoed in the stillness of the night, an eery quiet hung over the whole of Dataran Merdeka. Almost everyone was still.

As the Azan disappeared into silence, the crowd still did not move. I could hear a young Indian man talking behind one of the pillars of the building, either to a handphone or perhaps a walky talkie " It's still stand-off. OCPD wants to give them another 15 minutes. Stand by."

But at 8:30 sharp, the organisers told the crowd to go home - their point had been made. And as the mass of people turned away towards Central Market, the clock tower struck 8:30.

Despite the attacks on demonstrators in the weeks before, despite the warnings almost every day this whole week that the authorities would crack down on any form of demonstration, despite the fear, despite the threats, despite the solemn pronouncements by the powers that be that the Reformasi movement is dead - tens of thousands of Malaysians came out today - defiant and free.

I have never in my life been more proud to be Malaysian than I am at this moment in history.

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