The Storm and The Rainbow

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

The rainbow on the horizon

In November 1999, Parliament was dissolved and the country's tenth General Elections were held. With complete control of the media and the government machinery, Mahathir's ruling coalition won the elections and retained its two-thirds majority in Parliament. Even opposition politicians conceded that Mahathir's National Front coalition was never in any danger of losing.

But it was the most bitter General Elections ever fought in the country's history and the election results showed deep trouble ahead for Mahathir. UMNO, the dominant partner in the coalition, suffered a massive erosion of its electoral support and the loss of 22 parliamentary seats. Five UMNO ministers lost their seats in Parliament. The Opposition managed to capture the government of the northern State of Terengganu. In another Opposition State, Kelantan, only one solitary UMNO Member of Parliament remained.

Many UMNO candidates won by significantly reduced majorities than they did in the previous election. Where they previously held seats with majorities in the tens of thousands, some held on to their seats by just a few hundred votes. Even Mahahtir himself saw the majority in his own constituency reduced from 17,000 to 10,000.

Still reeling from this Phyrric victory, the government unleashed a wave of political arrests and assaults on the media. Just days after Mahathir's television broadcast urging Malaysians to work towards national reconciliation after the bitter General Elections, police swooped on senior opposition politicians Marina Yusof and Karpal Singh - charging them under the draconian Sedition Act for making anti-government statements. Singh is also a leading member of the legal team defending Anwar Ibrahim.

Also arrested was National Justice Party Youth head Mohamad Ezam Noor, who was charged under the Official Secrets Act for disclosing official documents revealing that the country's Anti-Corruption Agency had recommended that two senior government ministers be charged and prosecuted for corruption. Ironically, the two ministers themselves have yet to be charged by police.

The human rights group Amnesty International described the arrests as "striking at the heart of free speech in a democratic society." Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Abdullah Badawi retorted that the arrests were "a normal matter."

The media was also targeted in the crackdown, with the arrests of the editor and printer of the Islamic Party newspaper Harakah. Harakah had seen its circulation skyrocket from 60,000 to over 360,000 in the wake of the Anwar crisis.

The Government also curtailed Harakah's circulation, the Home Ministry ordering its publication to be reduced from twice weekly to fortnightly, as well as restricting its sale to Islamic Party members only. A number of other smaller newspapers and magazines critical of the government were banned outright.

The move raised a howl of protest from press organisations worldwide. The Paris-based press freedom organisation Reporters sans Frontières called it "a grave violation of press freedom," while the New York-based media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists warned that "in the absence of such alternative voices, Malaysia cannot be called a democratic state."

Senior opposition politician Lim Kit Siang said that "the final term of Mahathir would be the most dangerous times for Malaysian nation-building." The recent crackdown may just prove his prediction correct.

So what had these upstarts who call themselves the Reformasi movement really accomplished after one year? They made an amorphous grouping of people of different political and ideological faiths into a united opposition front. From Islamists who saw in Anwar Ibrahim a champion of Islamic values in government; to disgruntled 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. The unifying theme among this political Tower of Babel appears to be an overwhelming feeling that something has gone very wrong with our country - and a determination for change in the future.

Since the traumatic events of September 1998, Malaysians have seen see rampant abuse - and it is not just being inflicted on Anwar Ibrahim. They have seen dissenters 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. All avenues of dissent and free expression have been blocked off by water cannon and riot police.

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 'Sejarah Melayu', 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.

If Reformasi were to be extinguished this very day, the Reformists would have already won that.

Never before have Malaysians seen so much strength and power mustered against the voices 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 press, 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 was what Reformasi was - and still 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 don't 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.

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

For Reformasi is not just a matter of whether Anwar Ibrahim is guilty or innocent. It is not even about whether Mahathir is right or wrong. It is about Malaysians 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. It is about whether the Malaysian people are ready for democracy or not. It is a real test of our 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'd probably deserve whatever happens to us.