The Storm and The Rainbow

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

Light in the darkness
May 23rd, 1999

PRM President Dr Syed Husin Ali, his son Ali and I arrived in Temerloh around 7.30 in the evening - in the middle of a massive downpour. By the time we arrived at the Sakura Hotel, the press conference was nearly over. “Do you have any messages from your husband for the people of Pahang?” asked one of the reporters. “Yes, I do,” Dr Wan Azizah replied. “And I shall tell you what it is at this evening's launch.”

For tonight, Sunday May 23rd, 1999, Keadilan was going to spread its wings in the state of Pahang.

The original venue of the launch was supposed to be Temerloh's Tun Razak Hall. Police permits had been obtained, the town council had approved the use of the hall and the organisers had even made the rental payment in full. “Suddenly, all the approvals were withdrawn at the last minute,” moaned one of the organisers. “Despite promises from the District Police Chief and the Town Council that it wouldn't be canceled.” A new venue had been found - a football field in the remote village of Kampung Paya Jauh, a few kilometres outside of town.

“I'm not surprised,” Syed Husin said. “They did the same thing to a PRM rally in Melaka last week. They withdrew the permit at the very last minute, without warning. People had already gathered at the site and they were dispersed by police. Pamphlets and leaflets were also confiscated. Someone went around town tearing down our posters.”

“Malaysian democracy at its best,” I thought to myself.

We walked out of the hotel with Dr Wan Azizah's entourage and proceeded to a supporter's house just behind the hotel for dinner. By the time we had finished our meal, a small crowd of neighbours had gathered outside the simple, single-floor terrace house. “Can we meet Datin Seri?” asked an elderly Chinese man in a singlet and boxer shorts, as what appeared to be several generations of his family peered curiously from behind his shoulders. “Of course!” the houseowner declared. A small cheer broke out as she walked among them, greeting them with a cheery 'Ni hao ma' (How are you?).

We walked back to the hotel and ran smack into a large Chinese wedding reception at the hotel lobby and restaurant. “Wah, Wan Azizah!” somebody cried and there was another cheer. The poor bride and groom were forgotten momentarily as the wedding guests rushed to Dr Wan Azizah and she disappeared into a sea of outstretched hands.

Suddenly, one of the organisers approached us. “We've just found out that the police have refused to give us a permit!” he said. “And it was they who had suggested the alternative venue!”

“Well, what now?!” I said.

“We'll just have to go there and see what happens. They've already set up road blocks leading to the place.”

At that moment, a loud siren began wailing as a fire brigade van zipped past, red and blue lights flashing, and stopped in front of the Temerloh supermarket across the road.

A large crowd of people had now gathered in front of the hotel. It was a scene of utter confusion! Some people were standing around hoping to catch sight of Dr Wan Azizah. Some were standing around looking for the fire across the road. Wedding guests were standing around wondering what happened to the wedding. Keadilan supporters were standing around wondering where to go. And the rest were just passers-by wondering why there were so many people looking confused!

The moment we started the car and drove towards Kampung Paya Jauh, FRU riot police had already arrived and were ordering by-standers to disperse.

We left the town area, crossing the bridge over the huge Pahang River, on the road leading to Kuantan. Just after the bridge, we ran into a police road block - but the officers just waved traffic on.

There was no mistaking that we were now in the rural heartland - where else would you see traffic signs for cattle crossings? But the massive traffic jam we were in was hardly suitable for such a rural setting. For as far as the eye could see, the traffic snaked slowly along, with literally thousands of cars all crawling towards the same destination. Traffic on the other side of the road was virtually non-existent. Keadilan, PAS and DAP flags along the whole length of the road guided us towards the small side road leading to Kampung Paya Jauh.

Long before we reached that junction, cars were already double-parked along the main road and people were starting to walk the three or more kilometres to the football field. A convoy of a dozen or so motorcycles zoomed past us - the pillion riders each waving large PAS flags.

The narrow laterite road was virtually a river of cars, motorcycles and people - thousands upon thousands of them, walking slowly , through oil palm plantations and secondary forest , in the darkness of the night, the moon blanketed behind black storm clouds. They seemed like an army of refugees fleeing from some unknown, oppressive terror.

Old Malay men in white skull caps, their wives in white prayer shawls, young Chinese parents with their toddlers in their arms, elderly Indian pensioners - panting and sweating as they made their way uphill and downhill on that long, winding road - it was like an exodus of people of all races, all ages, all walks of life, converging upon the Promised Land of freedom and justice.

If the authorities thought that making people walk many kilometres on a wet, muddy road to an isolated clearing deep in the middle of a forest would put them off coming - they were dead wrong.

By the time we reached the football field, it was already swarming with people. For as far as the eye could see, well into the tree line at the edge of the field, that remote football field was already carpeted with people. Drenched by the early evening thunderstorm and later tread underfoot by tens of thousands of people, the ground had already turned into a near-liquid quagmire of mud. But it did not stop people from sitting down - some came equipped with plastic mats or low stools, others just didn't care and sat squat on the mud. They had come to see the birth of a new political force, a force for change in Pahang - and they weren't going to let a little mud stop them.

I noticed that the whole field was in pitch darkness, except for a few stalls by the side that had diesel generators. “They'd cut the electricity!” someone said. “There's been a blackout here since 9.00 pm.” This was the exact time the launch was supposed to start. Pure coincidence, I'm sure. I shook my head in disbelief at the lengths people were willing to go to stop this launch.

The stage was a small, rusty zinc roof - no bigger than a car shed - with a few yellow plastic chairs under it. “We have not been given a permit to hold this launch!” Keadilan Pahang Head Hj Suhaimi Said told the sea of people before him. “But Kak Wan has a short message for all of you. We will then all say a ‘doa selamat’ (thanksgiving) and disperse.”

The crowd went wild with cheers as Datin Seri Wan Azizah made her way to the microphone. "Though we are darkness, we all share a light in our hearts," she said, looking at the darkness all around us. “I bring you a message from Brother Anwar. He says that the struggle is going to be a long one. But God will give us strength and we shall carry on the struggle. ‘Lawan tetap lawan!’ (‘Fight on!’)”

A shudder shook that rusty zinc roof as tens of thousands of voices roared in approval. “They refused to give us a permit to meet tonight. They have used all kind of excuses and tricks to break our will. But tonight I am proud to officially launch Parti Keadilan Nasional in Pahang. May God bless us and give us victory!”

More cheers shattered the dark stillness of the night and, for a moment, there was pandemonium as the crowd surged forward, converging like a whirlpool of humanity towards that rusty, zinc roof.

“They’re coming! They’re coming!” someone shouted as a number of muscular men in green jackets and wearing motorcycle helmets with their visors down approached the stage. A very frightened TV3 cameraman moved in behind them as he zoomed in on Dr Wan Azizah. Keadilan supporters rushed in front of the stage to block their way and tension gripped the air as the shouts grew louder and louder. Again, the crowd surged forward, and the shouts became a deafening din.

“We will now recite the thanksgiving!” someone announced and the shouting crowd fell silent as the tens of thousands on the field bowed their heads to God and raised their hands in prayer. The low murmur of ‘Amin’ echoed into the night for close to fifteen minutes - the doa seemed to last forever. The air was tense with nervous anticipation as the men in helmets glared menacingly at the praying supporters.

I silently slot in a little prayer for our safety as well.

Almost as soon as the last ‘Amin’ was recited and we had touched our faces with our hands to mark the end of prayer, Dr Wan Azizah was whisked speedily through the surging crowd.

The launch itself had lasted no more than thirty minutes. It was the shortest Keadilan launch I'd been to - but it was also the most gripping and emotion-filled.

As we drove back to Temerloh, Dr Syed looked back on the night with a great deal of satisfaction and pride. “It takes a lot of spirit, 'semangat', to make all those tens of thousands of people walk for hours, for miles in the mud, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere. No one can ignore this groundswell of emotion and enthusiasm. These people want change - and they want it badly.”

Indeed, there was no need to explain to these people the finer points of the law, the intricacies of judicial independence, the noble tenets of democracy, the complexities of party politics. All they knew was that a great wrong had been done, against all the traditional values that they held dear, and they were outraged. They wanted change.

That was enough for them.

And, despite the broken promises, the blackouts, the threats, the obstacles, the dirty tricks, and everything else that was thrown in their way - they made their voices heard, they made their presence felt, they showed their strength and their will.

And change will come, to Pahang, to Malaysia, God willing.