A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

Face Front
by Rehman Rashid

Publication: Agenda Malaysia
Section: Letter from The Editor
Author: Rehman Rashid
Publication Date: 13th September, 2000

Sabri Zain emailed me last month and asked if I would write the foreword to his compilation of observations from the frontlines of the Reformasi phenomenon, dispatched to the Internet as 'Sabri Zain's Reformasi Diary'.

I was happy to oblige. It would have been unthinkable to decline, because towards the end of that first remarkable year following Anwar Ibrahim's ouster and ordeal, I was among those who harangued Sabri to compile his Diary into a book.

It sometimes happens that the most vivid and genuine accounts of events do not come from professional journalists. One of the definitive records of the Philippines' 'People Power' rebellion of 1986, for example, was written by the poet James Fenton. Disparaged at the time for its romanticism, Fenton's The Snap Revolution (Granta, 1986) came to be lauded for its evocation of the sentiments and emotions underlying those events. Salman Rushdie's sojourn in Nicaragua, The Jaguar Smile (Pan, 1987), and Doris Lessing's depiction of Afghanistan in The Wind Blows Away Our Words (Picador, 1987) similarly turn the pointillism of moments into the broad sweep of history, and endure.

Sabri Zain's Face Off (BigO Books, 2000) does something similar for Malaysia's most recent political upheaval. Here follows my foreword for the book.

Being There

Try to remember the kind of September…

Sabri Zain is an extraordinary fellow. Rarely does such a great and energetic talent wait until 40 years of age before finally unleashing itself. Disguised for the first half of a lifetime as a good-natured, nattily dressed and somewhat wackily intelligent tree-hugger, Sabri was well-known within local environmental NGO circles but not much further afield. That we heard a great deal more about the World Wide Fund for Nature, Malaysia, than we did of its longtime communications director says everything about how well he did his job.

But then came this extraordinary episode in Malaysian political history, and everything seemed to coalesce for the callow youth who had just happened to be near the Selangor Club Padang that day in 1974 when the students demonstrated against poverty. “A few days later, a young Abim kid Anwar Ibrahim delivered a speech at Bukit Kerinchi to the protesting students – I was there too.”

Throughout his subsequent life in a nation spending an entire generation on the singular administration of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Sabri Zain, like Peter Sellers or Forrest Gump, just happened to be there. Ultimately, he was there again at the Selangor Club Padang on 20 September 1998, at another pivotal moment in Malaysia's modern history. For also there again was that young Abim kid Anwar Ibrahim.

In nations governed through contests more equal, at least half the time a pivotal moment happens as a genuine victory. Beneath a single administration that lasts a whole generation, however, history turns more on the heroic failure. Such a moment transpired that afternoon at Kuala Lumpur's Dataran Merdeka, when many thousands of people gathered to cheer the ousted former deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his wife, Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Ismail, as they railed against the Mahathir administration and demanded reform. The official reports claimed crowds of 20,000; Sabri suggests 100,000. Who knows? You had to be there.

Sabri began writing his 'Reformasi Diary' that very day - even before Anwar was arrested, taken into custody and beaten black-and-blue by the then Inspector-General of Police. Posting his reports on the Internet throughout the tempestuous months that followed, Sabri became an icon of the Reformasi phenomenon. With a keen reporter's eye unclouded by professional cynicism, and wholly devoid of conscientious objectivity, he sallied forth to the frontlines with notebook in hand (and discomfitingly often, hapless Significant Other in tow) to record what comes across in these pages as little short of the Second Coming.

There is no ambiguity in what follows. None. There's a Hero and his cohort; a Villian and his. The possibility that Anwar might be guilty as charged does not make even a token appearance. The question doesn't arise of Sabri Zain standing entirely on one side of the fence. There is no fence. And he doesn't stand. He capers merrily.

Almost uniquely amid the torrents of journalism devoted to these deeply troubled times, this entire tract is shot through with rippling good humour and optimism. Sabri seemed to inhale all that was noble and uplifting about these events - mixed with the tear gas for spice. The sheer rush of his sudden damburst of creative writing spun off the often hilarious satirical website, 'Not The New Straits Times' (surely another compilation bound for the bookshelves) which skewers Malaysia's official media as much as the authority they serve.

The Reformasi Diary, however, is a classic. No one's ever done this in this country, or perhaps anywhere - perhaps because it simply couldn't have been done. This giddy mixture of narrative innocence driven by a righteous political conscience makes for a remarkable first-person chronicle of the most significant Malaysian political developments in a generation.

Sabri was there, having at last the time of his life, and now here he is. You hold in your hands a gem of Malaysian narrative journalism. Engagingly, passionately written, it both records and participates in the events it describes. Buy it, keep it, give it to friends. Ten, 20, 50 years from now, someone will still be grateful you did.