FACE OFF

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain


Face Off, The Book
by Chong Yen Long



Publication: MalaysiaKini (Malaysia Now)
Section: Ruminations
Author: Chong Yen Long
Publication Date: 19th September, 2000

I deliberately titled this piece thus as after reading Sabri Zain's journal of our country's traumatic times, I believe it could easily be the script for a movie too, not just a book.

Dare we dream that a Malaysian Peter Weir could emerge to give us a visual feast of FACE OFF: A Malaysian Reformasi Diary (1998-99)?

As I read over the weekend the 200-odd pages slowly, digesting it for a "review", I can't help but recall a film I have seen "The Year of Living Dangerously", in which the protagonist is also a newsman.

Sabri's chronicles benefit from his journalism background as most of his paintings and narratives were objective enough, though the choice of words, emotive and descriptive ones, clearly reflects the bent of his loyalties to the burning issue of the day: the reformation movement spawned by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

From the outset, I must make clear this is not the usual book review, as I take the liberty of randomly highlighting segments that to me are telling gems, and Ruminations breaks a tradition by bringing the reflection in two parts.

First, I quote from Rehman Rashid's foreword which he began with a familiar refrain: "Try to remember the kind of September" which I believe stirs a lot of nostalgia among us, of better times past?

To the romantic at heart ... if anything one expects presaged by the refrain a romantic setting of poetry and song, wine or the intoxicating journalist's brew - teh-tarik - or women in red (I prefer the word "lasses" and in blue too, but some colleagues object) lazing by a sidewalk café in Paris in the springtime, Sabri's diary is not "it".

"It" is romance of the political kind and of a higher plane ... The kind that has a bearing and great import on dear Malaysia's future for a long time yet and it is precious for all of us, Malaysians, to be involved. It is not of normal plane because this year-long sojourn does not instill just momentary pleasure, it aims to touch the inner heartstrings of Malaysians. I hope these feeling Malaysians are a majority of the 22 million here.

Also, Sabri's diary will stand up as an important historical document, with wit thrown in to dilute the reader's swelling anger perhaps, which future generations of Malaysians will treasure ... and not waste precious time poring over reams and reams of newspaper cuttings to ever get near to any approximation of the truth of momentous history still in progress.

For those who missed the "action" where it happened, centred mainly around Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) and its vicinity starting in September two years ago, Sabri brings the readers to the arena where the episodes of Malaysian history were played out. The writer's baptism that led him to cross Anwar's path - that Abim kid, his term of endearment - was that moment in 1974 where it started with a demostration exactly 26 years ago - led by that "Abim kid" highlighting peasants' plight in Tasek Utara, Johor..

For whom the bell tolls

Key figures revolved around Anwar and his family and, of course, the puppet master or script writer or political conductor himself, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in person, or via his proxies, and the band of Malaysians that visiting American vice-president Al Gore proudly described as "brave Malaysians". (I actually agree with him and ‘em, even if you call me "unpatriotic", so be it; as a journalist, I subscribe to the motto: Don't shoot the messenger!)

Most importantly, the less heralded players, nameless yet exalted, faceless and unobtrusive yet endearing and enduring, are the ordinary Malaysians whom Sabri observed and recorded their "involvement". These bit players cared, and stood up to be counted. To me, the diarist has done them justice by his anecdotes of the true Malaysians ... the sum total of their contributions will form the substance of the reformasi, not just the rhetoric of politicians, though their roles should not be under-estimated.

In "Shopping For Justice" (Oct 10, 1998), Sabri notes:

“Despite the attacks on demonstrators in the weeks before, despite the warnings almost every day this week that the authorities would crack down on any form of demonstration, despite the fear, despite the threats, despite the solemn pronouncements by the powers-that-be that the Reformasi ... movement is dead - tens of thousands of Malaysians came out today - defiant and free.”

Sabri was more than a little astute when he made some observations in "We Don't Tell Lies ... Up To a Point"( Nov 9, 1998), viz:

“The only memorable news about Anwar in the weeks leading up to his sacking were denials by him and Mahathir that there was a rift between them and Anwar was being called on to resign. Mahathir was even quoted as willing to "kiss him on the street" to prove the point - a very risky proposition, considering the nature of the sexual accusations that were to emerge later.”

“The news of the country losing its Deputy Prime Minister was the third or fourth segment in the TV3 news that evening - after the top news of a change in the elementary school curriculum and some insignificant official opening by some insignificant minister in some insignificant place I can't even remember.”

In "Waiting For Justice" (Nov 13,1998), the introduction quoted Tun Salleh Abas, former Lord President (from the book with K Das, May Day For Justice): And justice cannot be done hastily. And justice cannot be done in the dark ..."

Sabri's diary records the dark moments in Malaysia's justice delivery system ... today it may be Anwar, but tomorrow, the question on many minds was:"For whom will the bell next toll?"

However, the consolation is that Anwar was never alone in facing his travails. At the Kuala Lumpur High Court:

“My little group started discussing the reasons they were here. Some of them were here for the first time, others were relative "veterans". ‘I've been here almost every day since the trial began,' said the Malay gentleman in the faded batik shirt. ‘Sometimes I managed to get in, but most times I can't. I'm just here to show my support for Brother Anwar...'.”

“The (elderly Malay) lady admitted she was very confused by everything that was happening. ‘I don't know if he is guilty or innocent. But even if he is guilty, I don't understand why they are treating him like this. Our leaders are coming out with so much filth in the papers. It shames his family and it shames our race.'”

In "Changing Times" (Feb 2, 1999), the uplifting observation is that the times in Malaysia, are a-changing ... for the better I believe, as denoted by the revelation that all the panelists in a political forum organised by the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall Civil Rights Committee were all Malays, namely PRM president Dr Syed Husin Ali, PAS Youth chief Mahfuz Omar and PRM's Rustam Sani (now Barisan Alternatif Information Chief).

As recorded in the diary, Rustam noted: “One of the changes was that it was now a global world. ‘With the Internet, people know there are much better alternatives to what you are fed in the local press! And Internet writers like Sabri Zain now have far more credibility than almost all the chief editors in our local newspapers!'"

Make no mistake, the compliment to the author was not self-trumpeted, but from a respected academician-writer himself, Rustam, whose father was the great Independence fighter Ahmad Boestamam, and whose freedom fight will assuredly continue with many of his family members after him.

Salute to heroes

And Malaysians must always treasure another veteran freedom fighter - Syed Husin, who was quoted as saying:

“Race has always been - and still is - used by the rich and powerful to divide and rule. The government's recent scare-mongering campaign among the Chinese community is a classic example of this divide and rule tactic. To protect itself from the wrath of the people, the government is now trying to turn Reformasi in Malaysia into a racial issue. Malays will riot, they say. Malays will burn Chinese shops, they say. Malays will rape Chinese women, they say. And their loudest message of all - remember Indonesia.”

The above entry was dated Feb 2, 1999 and today, one and half years later, Syed Husin's reminder still rings true to warn us Malaysians to remain vigilant: Witness the Umno Youth's recent demonstration in front of SCAH housing Malaysian Chinese Organisations' Election Appeals Committee (Suqiu) office to demand an apology for its 17-point appeal allegedly questioning Malay special rights (Malaysiakini “Genuine appeals must gain govt's hearing: PRM, Sept 18).

In the chapter on "Heroes" (Feb 13, 1999), Sabri salutes the ordinary man in the street who shines, as Malaysia undergoes growing pains in a phase when the "worst of times frequently brings out the best in people".

At a demonstration at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman on Sept 20, the day of Anwar's arrest, was recalled:

“... 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.”

There is another episode of a Malaysian Samaritan - a retired headmaster - who stopped along Jalan Parliamen to help a young man lying on the road, and found himself “in the middle of hundreds of riot police pursuing demonstrators who had marched to the Prime Minister's official residence that night”.

“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?”

May there be more such God-fearing Malaysian standing tall out there - just carrying out their duties and acting human as human beings should ... We have hopes for this young nation yet.


Sept 20: Today marks the second anniversary of the arrest of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim; by natural news development, it also marks the birth of Face Off, though the budding could be traced back to that fateful day at the then Selangor Club Padang, exactly 26 years ago when providence brought the nascent author in contact with the "young kid from Abim".

Years later, the Philippines has seen the rise of Cory Aquino; maybe history will also honour Malaysia with an equally blessed first woman premier, now in the horizon (near or far), for a potential local counterpart is found in Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. Women's groups can hasten the process by taking naturally to political waters as they take to the kitchen, PAS notwithstanding!

If Malaysians can help realise this dream, we would have proven to the world that an Asian democracy has actually blossomed and matured and arrived; until then, true and genuine Malaysian democrats must stay the fight.

If September 1998 marks the leave of absence for her husband Anwar as an "active" player on the Malaysian political landscape, his significant other (using Sabri's quite unusual, fond reference) has slowly but surely risen in stature, yet with a grace and dignity that is indeed premium and prime.

To many of the Reformasi followers, Wan Azizah is the icon for their struggle - in the common pursuit of change, freedom, democratic government and, of course, justice.

I now continue with another entry from "Heroes":

"The latest hero to have emerged recently appeared, quite unexpectedly, thousand of miles away from the courts, rallies and streets demonstrations of Kuala Lumpur - in the draughty corridors of Malaysia Hall in Bryanston Square, London. During a question-and-answer briefing on the current political crisis by Prime Minister Mahathir to Malaysian students there early this month (February, 1999), a young student stood up and suggested that Dr Mahathir Mohamad apologise to Datuk Seri Anwar and his family. The student also suggested the Prime Minister resign."

Harking back to Dr Chandra Muzaffar’s laments in "All Honourable Men" (March 13, 1999), and later "The Emperor’s New Clothes" (June 13, 1999), it is well appreciated that pockets of heroism sallied forth from unexpected quarters, just like Hans Christian Andersen's innocent child breaking out loud with the unexpected: "The emperor is naked!"

When a forum on 'Public Intellectuals and Contemporary Challenges' to be held at the Universiti Malaya, the country’s oldest seat of tertiary learning, was banned by the authorities, there was no outpouring of outrage and protest.

"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?"

And these academics seem ready to accept little inconveniences such as suppression of freedom and are quite happy to continue, in 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.

Often it’s a case of: '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.' "

But Sabri must surely be kidding when he added that "Not a whisper of dissent has been heard from the Umno Supreme Council."

If these councillors did not put a dagger into the victim's back, the poor "fall guy" was already blessed; more likely than not, in the cover of darkness, they will bludgeon you, blindfolded and handcuffed, to near-death. They won't want you dead for that would be martyr-creating, they relish to see you suffer, naked and helpless, preferably begging for mercy, calling out the name of the Almighty!

Here I digress by recalling a joke that Time magazine (July 3, 2000) ran to show the wit of Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid: "Egypt held a competition to guess the age of a mummy. France, Germany and the US sent archaeologists. Indonesia sent a military officer. The French team spent two hours with the mummy, then gave up. The Americans spent longer, but their guess was wrong. The German team estimated 3,200 years - also wrong.

"The Indonesian military officer asked if he could study the mummy in a closed room. Fifteen minutes later he emerged and said the mummy was 5,224 years, three months and seven days old. The jury was amazed - he was exactly right and won the prize. As he was leaving the Cairo airport, journalists asked him how he got the answer. 'I hit him black and blue until he confessed.' "

Back to Sabri's diary, "The emperor realised that the people were right but could not admit to that. 'I shall pretend that there is nothing wrong.' And though he knew that he was really naked, he thought it better to continue the procession under the illusion that anyone who couldn't see his new clothes were either stupid or incompetent."

Lives turned upside down

An important chapter, "The Accused" (March 20, 1999), pays tribute, truly deserved I believe, to a group called the OKTs.

"But amid all the twists and turns of the Anwar trial, just across the river from the (Kuala Lumpur) High Court, another drama was unfolding - almost unnoticed, almost forgotten.

Police arrested a total of 331 people in connection with massive street demonstrations that erupted following Anwar’s arrest on September 20. In a series of eight reformasi trials, these people were being charged with illegal assembly, under Section 27 of the Police Act. If found guilty, they are liable to a fine of not less than RM2,000 and up to RM10,000 - and imprisonment for up to a year.

They’re known as the OKTs - Orang Kena Tuduh or the accused. Because most of them spent many traumatic days in police lock-ups before bail could be raised for them to be freed, others preferred another meaning to the acronym - Orang Kena Tahan, the detainees. One bitter cynic among them said it also stood for "Orang kena terajang" (the beaten up).

Today, the significant other and I were fortunate to join about 80 of the OKTs at a small tea party held for them at the Bar Council Auditorium. It was a humbling experience.

The first thing that struck me was the number of ladies among the OKTs - shy, demure young girls in veils whom we thought were family members were, in fact, OKTs themselves! 'There were 17 of us from October 17!' chirped one young girl proudly, referring to the day when police unexpectedly attacked demonstrators dispersing from the Royal Palace and pursued them all the way across town to Independence Square.

As a result, many OKTs had to take no-pay leave or even leave their jobs, so they could attend court. Those who were petty traders or had their own businesses have found the situation really tough.

'These are people who have to support families,' said one of the lawyers defending the OKTs. 'Some have lost their jobs, seen their businesses crumble, lost friends, they cannot find jobs ... their lives are being turned upside down.'

'The financial hardship some of them are suffering cannot be underestimated,' said another lawyer. 'During the trials, we actually discovered OKTs who skipped lunches and would just lie in a corner at the court and sleep - they had no money for lunch.'

Despite all they had been through, not one of the OKTs I talked to had any regrets. 'If anything the whole process has made me stronger in my commitment to seeing justice prevail,' said one OKT."

Birth of 'Justice'

In "The Eye Of Justice" (April 4, 1999), Sabri records the graduation of social justice movement ADIL into a full fledged political party - Parti Keadilan Nasional or the National Justice Party, at the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Renaissance, Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur ... the party's mission is crystal clear: to uphold truth and justice.

"Everywhere (at the hotel) - on the walls, on tables, on posters, even along the staircase banisters - the blue-and-white 'eye' of the Keadilan logo stared out at you.

Then came the moment everyone waited for. The whole room rose to its feet in wild cheers as Dr Wan Azizah walked to the podium to deliver her first-ever speech as the leader of a political party.

'We're gathered here to fulfil a demand from the people - they are demanding justice. We are here to fulfil the demand of the Malaysian race - bangsa Malaysia. They are demanding the dignity of their race. And we are fulfilling the demands of our changing times - the time has arrived.

'Ten years of rapid development has given us confidence. But for some, that confidence has turned to arrogance. Our economy was driven by ego and the desire to show off. Crony capitalism dominated the New Economic Policy. Corruption, cronyism and nepotism grew like an cancer. Massive mega-projects eroded our economic fundamentals and shook the stability of our banking system. The lust - nafsu - for mega-projects left our defences weak. Because of these weaknesses, the currency speculators attacked.'

She explained the party logo, which consists of a white sphere on a sky blue background, representing a pure cause, and a smaller blue sphere on the white, representing justice for all. “At first sight, you might think it looks like an eye. There are reasons for that.

'Firstly, I am an ophthalmologist!' she quipped, to peals of laughter and applause from the crowd. 'Secondly, it’s to remind us of the infamous black eye,' she added, more seriously.

'But it also has a deeper meaning,' Dr Wan Azizah continued. 'It is our mata hati - our inner eye that helps us distinguish between what is right and what is wrong. It is a symbol of our quest for truth and our struggle for justice. It is the 'eye' that seeks justice.' "

'Rainbow on the horizon'

"Anniversary Day" (Sept 19, 1999) records a Reformasi gathering of tens of thousands at the National Mosque, spilling across the road into the KL Railway Station and stretching to the Dayabumi complex.

"And I am sure I have never before seen so many Chinese within the courtyard of the National Mosque. Today, there was a cause that transcended the racial barriers that once divided us. I suppose the tyrant's whip does not distinguish between the colour of your skin , the language you speak or the faith you hold."

Sabri's epilogue titled "Rainbow On The Horizon?" holds an optimism - hence the rainbow - tinged with some reservation as posed by the question mark. This throws a quiet challenge to Malaysians whether they are responsive and responsible enough to be moved, perhaps encouraged by his narrative of the many heroes doing their little bit, but definitely not enough to claim victory to date, to continue the quest for truth, freedom and justice.

"We have arrived at a crossroads in the history of our country. We can keep on the familiar road of break-neck, unbridled development, at all costs, to the detriment of social justice and equality, political freedoms and basic human rights. Or we can take the road of sustained and sustainable development, where social development progresses in pace with economic development.

If Malaysians casually accept all that has happened so far without question - the climate of fear, trial by media, detention without trial, violent repression, blatant unfairness, sheeplike loyalty - then Malaysians will stomach anything.

In that case, we’d probably deserve whatever happens to us."

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