The Storm and The Rainbow

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain


Heroes February 13th, 1999
 
 

These are the best of times and the worst of times - and the worst of times frequently brings out the best in people. This moment of truth in our country’s history has certainly brought out its fair share of heroes and heroic deeds. Anwar’s lawyer Christopher Fernando and his withering attacks in the courtroom. Human rights activist Tian Chua and the courage he showed in the face of police beatings and arrests. Wan Azizah - the biggest surprise of all - who was transformed from the shy, quiet, soft-spoken Deputy Prime Minister’s wife to a fiery orator and outspoken champion of the Reform movement.

And there is, of course, Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Guan Eng - both seen as heroes and victims, both powerful symbols for this mass movement for justice, freedom and democracy that is sweeping the nation.

Whatever happens after this, those names have all been assured a place in our history books. But those same history books frequently forget other heroes - not fiery politicians or eloquent lawyers, but ordinary Malaysians, many of them nameless, some even faceless, people whom you would probably meet sipping tea in a road side stall or sitting next to you in the bus to work. Ordinary individuals thrust into the raging stream of Reformasi history.

The latest hero to have emerged recently appeared, quite unexpectedly, thousands of miles away from the courts, rallies and streets demonstrations of Kuala Lumpur - in the drafty corridors of Malaysia Hall in Bryanston Square, London. During a question-and-answer briefing on the current political crisis by Prime Minister Mahahtir to Malaysian students there early this month, a young student stood up and suggested that Dr Mahathir apologise to Dato Seri Anwar and his family. The student also suggested the Prime Minister resign.

The ‘question’ apparently raised thunderous applause among the startled audience, much to the annoyance of our Prime Minister who, quite in character, showed what a big heart he had by saying the ‘question’ was grounds for a defamation suit.

Even the most ardent Mahathir supporter must secretly admit that it took guts for an ordinary student to publicly stand up in front of the most powerful man in Malaysia and tell him to, basically, go fly kites.

One of the earliest acts of defiance was also aimed at the Prime Minister - and I literally mean "aimed". It was immediately after the fateful UMNO Supreme Council Meeting last September 4th that expelled Anwar Ibrahim from the party. One brave soul threw a packet drink at our beloved Prime Minister as he left the building.

More acts of defiance were to follow. One of the most memorable pictures I have seen from those early demonstrations following Anwar’s arrest on September 20th was that of a lone man walking in the middle of a deserted Jalan TAR, watched by hundreds of demonstrators on the pavement, waving a large Malaysian flag. I don’t know if he was caught in the water cannon attack and riot police charge minutes later.

At that same demonstration, an ordinary security guard became a hero to dozens of people - simply by doing his job. The security guard of a firm located on Jalan TAR allowed drenched, injured demonstrators into the building, locking the grilled gate after them - much to the annoyance of their baton-waving red-helmeted pursuers. The FRU troopers shouted curses at the security guard, kicking the grill with their boots and demanding to be let in. The security guard - though visibly shaken and frightened - stood firm. This was private property.

A junior supervisor refused to allow FRU personnel into a fast-food restaurant where demonstrators had sought refuge. They battered the glass door of the restaurant with their batons until it cracked - but the supervisor ensured his ‘customers’ finished their hastily-ordered meals unmolested.

Many of us who attended the DAP Law and Justice forum held at the Federal Hotel in Kuala Lumpur last month will remember the retired headmaster who recalled his experience on the night Anwar was arrested. Driving home along Parliament Road, he suddenly found himself in the middle of hundreds of riot police pursuing demonstrators who had marched to the Prime Minister’s Official Residence that night. Seeing a young man lying on the road, he stopped his car and tended to the man’s injuries.

An FRU officer in full-riot gear approached him and asked if a car accident had happened! "Can’t you see?! This boy’s been badly beaten by your own officers!" The policeman then warned the pensioner to leave the injured man alone and let the police "deal" with him. "He’s a Malay," the officer said. "You’re an Indian - don’t get mixed up in this."

The pensioner refused. "Are you stopping a Malaysian from helping another fellow Malaysian in need?". The FRU officer exploded in a gush of expletives and curses at the pensioner, telling him to mind his own business "unless you want to be bashed up like him!" He raised his baton menacingly as if to strike. Our good Samaritan retreated, picking up the injured boy and carrying him to his car, not daring to look back, anticipating the crash of a wooden baton on the back of his skull at any time. He managed to leave safely and took the still unconscious boy to the hospital.

A friend told me of another daring rescue by car. This was in Kampung Baru on the night of the "Rain of Terror" - October 24th. He’d been pursued for almost hours on foot by FRU personnel, running from one side street to another, along back alleys, but finding every exit blocked by columns of riot police. Exhausted and drenched in sweat, he saw a lone taxi waiting at the corner of a side street leading to Jalan TAR. He rushed in and, without saying a word, the taxi drove off and entered Jalan TAR. Within seconds, the man saw a police road block ahead and cursed himself silently - the thought never occurred to him that the taxi driver could have been a plainclothes Special Branch officer waiting for fleeing demonstrators like him!

But much to his surprise, the taxi then did a tight 180-degree turn at almost full-speed that would have put to shame any American action movie car-chase scene. The taxi then weaved in and out a maze of side roads until it emerged in safety, miles from any red helmets.

The taxi driver looked back at the man. "Don’t worry, brother. I was waiting there just so I could help people like you" When my friend still appeared nervous and suspicious, the driver opened his glove compartment and retrieved a picture of a new-born baby girl to reassure his passenger. "My wife gave birth to our first-born just a few days ago. We’ve named her Nurul Izzah – after Anwar’s daughter!"

I could tell hundreds of other stories about heroic deeds on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. A man being beaten up while shielding an elderly lady. A passer-by being arrested for telling policemen to stop beating up a boy. But not even I could capture the look on the long row of faces of the over 120 demonstrators who were in the Magistrate’s Court this month facing charges of "illegal" assembly. Some of them still had wounds on their faces that would have made Anwar’s famous black-eye look like a scratch. They were being treated like common criminals. But their children who were there with them looked at them as though they were heroes.

And you didn’t have to be on the streets to see selfless acts of bravery - there were acts of courage over the Internet as well. On the eve of October 31st, rumours were rife that demonstrators were going to congregate at Petronas Twin Towers instead of Jalan TAR. The message was sent out to almost all the different discussion lists and newsgroups that the Twin Towers was the place to gather that afternoon.

But not many people knew that there were hundreds of armed policemen packing M-16 assault rifles at the Twin Towers that morning - apparently to guard Mahathir who was there to open the new Reuters office. An employee in the building saw this and knew that a tragedy was in the making.

She sent out a message over the Net - using her own name and office e-mail address. "As you can see, I am a Petronas employee, currently sitting in my office at Tower 1. I just looked out the window, there are at least 8-9 police trucks at the gas district cooling complex, and 5-6 just went into the underground car park."

She could have done what most people would have done - not get involved. She could have just said "Ain’t none of my business - I’m just looking after me and my rice-bowl", and gone home before the shooting started. But she wasn’t that kind of person. And she knew that an e-mail warning from an anonymous Internet user would be treated just like the hundreds of other rumours floating about the Net. So she used her real name and her office e-mail - proving that she did indeed work at the Twin Towers and she did indeed see those men with guns.

We live in a climate of fear now - and everyone is extra careful about what they say and about revealing their identities. This woman knew the risks she was taking - people would know her identity, where she worked, people could threaten her, she could be out of a job, she could even be accused of being one of these trouble-making Reformists.

I’m sure these thoughts were running through her mind as she watched the police trucks lie in wait. But she also knew that people could die. And she did what she felt was the right thing. She felt that if just one life was saved, or one injury prevented - it was worth it.

These were not politicians or NGO activists or ISA detainees. These were ordinary people - security guards, fast-food restaurant supervisors, taxi-drivers, clerks - people like you and me. They had nothing to gain from being heroes - and everything to lose. They didn’t wake up one fine morning and say to themselves "I want to do something heroic today!" 

They simply found themselves in situations where they had to make choices - either standing back and folding their arms or getting involved, either doing what was right or doing what was wrong. And what made them heroes was they did get involved and they did what was right - no matter what the implications would be on their lives.

And that, basically, is the choice that all Malaysians face today - choosing between what is right and what is wrong. And I believe Malaysians will do the heroic thing.

PREVIOUS CHAPTER

INDEX