The Storm and The Rainbow

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

The storm and the rainbow February 28th, 1999

It was already drizzling slightly as the taxi crawled its way up Sentul Road and the driver wondered aloud why there was such a massive traffic jam on a Sunday. "Must be a big accident..." Looking at the white and blue ADIL flags that were fluttering on the bonnets of some of the cars stuck in the jam in front of us, I was pretty sure that this was no ‘accident’. We were all headed towards the same destination: a special ‘reception’ with Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah organised by ADIL supporters at Taman Pelangi (Rainbow Park) in Sentul.

When I told the taxi driver why there was such a big jam, the middle-aged Indian gentleman nodded his head knowingly. "Oh ... are they angry the chief of police beat up Anwar?" Apparently even he had heard the electrifying news that, just hours earlier, the former Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Rahim Noor had admitted to beating up Anwar Ibrahim while in police custody.

If Dr Mahathir thinks that Reformasi is a matter of little concern to non-Malays, he should have been in that taxi there with me. Selva (that was his name) started a long speech about how fed up he was being treated like he was stupid. "We all knew a long time ago he beat up Anwar. Why fool us all these five months? And they thought we were all stupid enough to believe that he beat himself up?!" He then mockingly pretended to punch his face repeatedly with his fists.

"You can fool people ... but you can’t fool God," was his parting message, as we finally reached the junction leading to Rainbow Park, where I alighted.

Lining the side road leading to the field where the reception was being held were hundreds of cars and thousands of people, with ADIL volunteers patiently directing traffic, assisting with parking and giving directions. The dozens of stalls set up along the road also indicated that the amount of Reformasi merchandise available now was staggering - in terms of quantity and variety. In the early days of September, you’d be lucky to go home with a couple of Anwar button badges, a cassette tape of his speeches and, if you were really lucky, a Reformasi t-shirt.

Today, you could see dozens of different badges and tags, dozens of t-shirt designs, calendars, posters, magazines, books, bonnet flags, caps, pin badges, brooches - even an elegant-looking ADIL tie-pin. One imaginative woman had even converted her metal ADIL badges into a pair of fetching ear-rings! The popular ‘Laungan Reformasi’ (Reformasi Call) video was also now available on VCD.

As I made my way through the crowd, I heard clapping and a loud cheer, and saw people smiling and waving - up at the sky! A police helicopter was hovering above us - and I don’t think its passengers were waving back.

That police helicopter, in fact, seemed to be the only sign of police presence in the area (apart from, of course, the plainclothes Special Branch and CID officers disguised amongst us). When I wondered aloud about the strange absence of riot police and water cannons, a friend said cynically. "Their boss just admitted today he behaves like a gangster. If I were them, I too would be ashamed to show my face here!"

The subject of the police chief’s confession was on everyone’s lips. I had expected a lot of disgust and anger at the gathering, with the confession just coming out only a few hours ago. And indeed, there was anger in the crowd - but it was not the kind of fiery, hot-tempered anger that made Rahim Noor beat the living daylights out of a blindfolded, handcuffed Anwar. It was a quiet, determined type of anger - anger that a wrong had been done, and determination to put things right. There also seemed to be an overwhelming sense of relief - relief that a deep, dark secret was at last out in the open, relief that we could at last tell the world: "See - we were right all along."

Rahim jokes were already making the rounds. Like the one about Malaysia’s answer to Blackbeard the Pirate. Rahim had always been proud of his nickname 'Pirate Chief' - now he's BlackEye the Pirate. Or the new Malaysian Police website address - And there was the one about the new brand of mascara Rahim Noor was marketing. And the one about the Malaysian Kennel Association protesting against Anwar’s alleged remarks about Rahim Noor being "the father of all dogs". Recalling Rahim Noor’s famous remark to a British reporter a few months back, it’s said the policeman’s standard pick-up line in KL bars and discos is now "You - come to my room!"

The event proper began at 5 p.m., almost an hour late - the VIPs were apparently caught in the massive jam as well. PRM Secretary General Dr Sanusi Osman had to stop his car almost two kilometres away and walked all the way. Dr Chandra Muzaffar was so late, he arrived just as the event had finished!

And even before the formal speeches began, it had already begun to rain heavily. People scattered and retreated to a few tents that were set up by the organisers. But with between five to ten thousand people already there, there was not enough tent space for everyone, and most stood exposed to the beating rain - including your intrepid reporter, who had to discard at least five pens that were obviously not water-proof.

The first to speak was Ruslan Kassim, the former UMNO Youth leader who was arrested at Anwar’s house minutes before Anwar himself was taken away to his beating. He recalled the walkie-talkie conversation of the police officer who arrested him. "The officer was talking to his superior on the walkie-talkie. He was saying ‘Subject is here’. I was thinking to myself ‘What subject was this? Mathematics?!’. Then I heard his superior say ‘Bring subject to Hotel A’ . Well, I certainly knew I wasn't being brought to the Shangri La - we all know where that ‘hotel’ is!"

Ruslan said he actually saw Anwar being brought in as he himself was being ‘checked in’ to his own ‘hotel’ room. "And only today they admit what happened that night five months ago. We’d known all along!"

Tian Chua from human rights group SUARAM was heartened to see many non-Malays among the crowd, adding that the government was now panicking and resorting to discredit the Reformasi movement by saying that it would incite racial riots between Malays and Chinese. "They will try to incite racial enmity. Are we enemies?"

"Noooo!" the crowd roared back. 

"Who wants to make us enemies?"

The crowd’s response was almost immediate. "Mahathir!"

Writer and academic Rustam Sani was heartened to see the response to the event. "I can see thousands of supporters of justice here today. But unfortunately, all you thousands of people here today do not exist. Because if you read the local newspapers tomorrow - as far as they are concerned, this event did not exist and all of you don’t exist ... but soon we’ll show them that their masters are the ones who won’t exist!"

Rustam also commented on the fate of social activist Dr Chandra Muzaffar, his colleague in University Malaya who lost his job there when it refused to renew his contract. Firmly believing the move was politically-motivated, he did not doubt that he could suffer the same fate as well, for speaking out against injustice. "But my life does not depend on contracts!"

At this point, the downpour had long become a torrent from the skies and my notebook had already disintegrated into pulp in my hands, together with all my notes! Fortunately, some kind soul handed me a disposable plastic poncho which, though it managed to keep me relatively dry in places, made me look like a shrink-wrapped vegetable in a supermarket. And a very wet vegetable at that.

But despite the beating rain, the thunder, the lightning, the gale force winds, every single person stood rooted to the spot as a host of other personalities took the rostrum to address the crowd. Dr Syed Husin Ali from PRM. Lim Kit Siang from DAP. Haji Mahfuz Omar from PAS. And, finally, our host, Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah.

"Today the truth has emerged at last," said Wan Azizah, as the thunder and lightning lent a dramatic air to her words. "Let’s make sure Anwar’s struggle does not go to waste, " she reminded everyone, as the crowd roared and shouted "Reformasi!" repeatedly, as though to drown out the claps of thunder with an even louder roar for change, for justice, a roar that would reach skywards towards their Maker.

Somebody remarked that the government had probably hired a ‘bomoh’ (shaman) to start a downpour that would scatter the crowd. If they did, it had failed miserably. Almost everyone was drenched to the skin - women were wringing water out of their veils, children were playing in the huge puddles that were already covering the field. But everyone stayed, rooted to the ground - they listened, they clapped, they laughed, they cheered, as though they were sitting comfortably under the crystal chandeliers of the Renaissance Hotel. 

Because they knew they had been through a far worse storm - the thunder of oppressive threats, the lightning strikes of arrests and detentions, the rain tinged with acid. Today, with the admission of guilt by the police, yet another evil had been exposed, the latest among many exposed in the months before - and many more to be exposed in the months to come. One dark cloud had passed, and the glimmer of truth was beginning to shine through the storm. And that storm would pass, and with its passing, the political landscape would soon glow with the shining colours of the rainbow, bringing with it the warm sunshine of justice.

We were, after all, in Rainbow Park.