The Storm and The Rainbow

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

All honourable men
March 13th, 1999

"For Brutus is an honourable man; 
So are they all, all honourable men"

- From William Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’

A country’s universities are its seats of learning, its repository for the collective knowledge, wisdom, ideas and thought of its best and brightest people - its thinkers, its intellectuals, its elite. So it was not surprising to hear that a forum last weekend on 'Public Intellectuals and Contemporary Challenges' was to be held in the country’s oldest seat of learning, University of Malaya. And being Malaysia, it was also not surprising to hear that the forum was banned by the university authorities.

Fortunately, the organisers of the forum, the Malaysian Social Sciences Association, also happened to be having their Annual General Meeting at the same date and venue - so they quiet ingeniously included the forum into the agenda as a discussion item under "Any Other Business". But the gag order was certainly a graphic illustration of the weakness and cowardice that has infested Malaysia’s elite and its honourable men.

Why - in the midst of Malaysia’s worst political crisis ever, in the face of the worst abuses in its human rights record does there seem to be no sense of outrage at all among the country’s elite - its intellectuals, its writers, its academics, its judges, its elected representatives? "Why has there been no reaction?" social activist Dr Chandra Muzaffar asked at the forum. "Why haven’t academics refused to teach, in protest? Why haven’t politicians resigned? Why have even retired judges remained silent?"

Dr Chandra himself had recently been a direct victim of these outrages. The university management last month refused to renew his contract at the university, citing ‘economic factors’ as the reason. Of course, no one believes that Dr Chandra’s sharp criticism of the country’s most powerful men played no part at all in the authorities’ decision. Honourable men would not do that, would they?

In any other free nation, such a blatant blow to the individual freedom of thought and expression of a leading intellectual would have erupted in a whirlwind of protest from other intellectuals. Students and a few academic staff did protest. But the vast majority of the country’s most respected and experienced academics decided that discretion was the better part of valour and chose to remain silent on the issue. Such is the boldness and courage of those honourable men who are to mould out future generations of leaders and thinkers.

And these academics seem ready to accept little inconveniences such as suppression of freedom and are quite happy to continue, in Dr Chandra’s words, "living with a lie". 

And it is a Big Lie that they are living. The brutal beating of street demonstrators. The absurd tragi-comedy of the Anwar trial. The indiscriminate arrests without trial. The torture and ‘turning over’ of detainees. The prostitution of the media. A chief of police who is more like a chief of the Gestapo. The piratisation of the country’s wealth in the name of privatisation. These must be made unimportant, not relevant, not to be mentioned in polite company, let alone publicly quoted. That is the Big Lie.

You can talk in fuzzy, general terms of the importance freedom and democracy. But don’t you dare question how, for five months, the Home Minister did not know that his Chief of Police had beaten a man senseless - even when more than half of the country seemed to know already. Don’t you dare ask why that Chief of Police has not been arrested yet. Don’t you dare.

See no evil. Hear no evil. Say no evil. And you’ll keep your Volvo.

But it is quite unfair to just single out academics. Other honourable men continue to live with the Lie. Not a single Member of Parliament has resigned in disgust. Not a whisper of dissent has been heard from the UMNO Supreme Council. Senior civil servants carry on ‘berkhidmat untuk negara’ (serving the nation). And the media, who were not long ago in a foaming frenzy for months about acts of sodomy, seem strangely unmoved by a blindfolded, handcuffed man being nearly beaten to death.

Academic Rustam Sani certainly had a few words to say about the media in an article a few weeks ago - and he didn’t mince his words. "During these times, they have become instruments of propaganda, behaving unethically, immorally and shamelessly," he said. "Their writings and analyses have shown that they don’t respect the intelligence of their readers, whom they consider incapable of doing their own thinking." I think the word ‘gila’ (crazy) was used somewhere in the article as well. Rustam Sani has always had a way with words.

The President of the Malay Journalists Association of Malaysia Yazid Othman whined that Rustam’s remarks were an insult to the profession. I wondered if he realised that most people already know that it is some of the editors and journalists themselves who were an insult to their profession. Quite rightly in my opinion, Rustam Sani refused to recant - though he did remind Yazid that he was not referring to journalists as a whole. "Just the ones who allow themselves and their professions to be prostituted by certain parties."

Yazid demanded Rustam retract his statements in the name of - wait for this - the dignity of journalism. I suppose he was referring to the dignity of calling women demonstrators whores (in the case of Utusan Malaysia) , and the dignity of urging other journalists to be detained under the Internal Security Act (in the case of the New Straits Times). I am glad Yazid knows about dignity - he is clearly an honourable man.

I cannot write about all these honourable men without at least mentioning one more such man. A man who saw honour in being dubbed a ‘pirate chief’. A man who assured us all that Anwar Ibrahim was ‘safe and sound’. A man who was praised and lauded by our political leaders when he resigned to take full responsibility for Anwar’s beating while in police custody. 

A man who later admitted that it was in fact he himself who had beaten a blindfolded and handcuffed Anwar Ibrahim in the inner sanctum of Police Headquarters. That honourable man is, of course, our former Inspector General of Police Rahim Noor.

One can imagine the thoughts running through Anwar’s mind as he sat on that cold cement slab in police headquarters at Bukit Aman (Peace Hill) - they could hardly have been very ‘peaceful’. Just hours before, he had seen police storm into his house and level their submachine guns at his family. His hands were handcuffed behind his back, he could not see and all he could do was pray quietly to God. 

They say that the loss of one’s sight acutely heightens other senses such as hearing and feeling. In his blindfolded darkness, Anwar must have been acutely aware of the footsteps coming into the cell. And he must have acutely felt the devastating punch that came seconds later which landed above his left eye. He must have acutely felt the pain of that blow and the pain of the fall as he fell backwards on the cement slab. Dragged up on his feet again, the blows kept coming - a heavy blow on the top right of the head, then on the left, more blows, a karate chop on the side of the neck, then hard strong slaps repeatedly across his face. 

It is difficult to imagine how Anwar must have felt at the time. But what is even more difficult to imagine is how a person could repeatedly punch, hit and slap a blindfolded and handcuffed man, whose only reaction to the blows were a howl of pain, a plea to stop - and a cry to Allah.

As if this was not enough, Anwar was taken elsewhere, stripped naked and refused proper medical attention for days. Rahim, meanwhile, had the ‘courage’ to tell the world that Anwar was "safe and sound". Our chief guardian of law and order waited five months before - his back to the wall after days of incriminating testimonies from Anwar, medical experts and Rahim’s own police officers - he had to finally admit his crime to the Royal Commission investigating the beating.

And, to add insult to injury, the admission was first made not by Rahim himself, but through a statement read by his lawyer Teh Poh Teik.

It is hard to imagine that an honourable man could be capable of such cruelty. It is hard to imagine that other honourable men could have known of the beating and kept silent - or even lied. It is hard to imagine that honourable men would leave such a crime unpunished.

But what is most difficult, almost impossible, to imagine is that any honourable man would be part of all of this and still continue to serve the public good. An honourable man would redeem his honour by resigning in disgust and in shame.

And are they not all, all honourable men?