A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

A Malaysian Reformasi Diary

Sabri Zain's Face Off

by Lim Li Min

Publication: Agenda Seni (Arts Agenda)
Section: Reviews
Author: Lim Li Min
Publication Date: 19th October, 2000

How will history judge Face Off, an account of Malaysia's then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim's downfall? Author Sabri Zain's book is culled from a compilation of Internet postings penned from 2 Sept 1988, the day of Anwar's sacking, to 19 Sept 1999, the first anniversary of his arrest. And quite frankly, it shows. Sabri's book, more eyewitness account jottings than actual reportage, demonstrates the advantages (and perils) of delivering instant digital hits.

At its best, it's a colour-drenched Polaroid of Malaysia in a politically charged year: "The persistent honking! After a while you could distinguish a certain rhythmfour short honks, repeated at intervals. Honk-honk-honk-honk. RE-FOR-MA-SI!" Sabri himself is the lively, sympathetic first-person narrator, scribbling away in his notebook at all the critical junctures: Following Anwar's wife Wan Azizah on the campaign trail in Johor, the launch of Keadilan, Tian Chua's prison stay. (Although, it has to be said, he never quite makes it into the Anwar trial.)

The book is bookended by crowd scenes: from the first, nascent stirrings of Reformasi rippling through the rakyat, to its final, water cannon-dispersing moments. Essentially, because Sabri likes people, which is both his main strength and his Achilles heel, his accounts of the Reformasi movement are fixedly from the man-in-the-street's point-of-view and this sometimes makes for strange commentary: "There was even a bright orange school bus full of eager teenagers, clapping and showing the thumbs-up at the pedestrians. They must have just come back from a zoo trip or something, because almost all of them had cameras and were busy taking pictures of the revelling demonstrators."

What's missing, crucially, is an historical overview. Take a typical description of a street scene: "It was like an enormous carnivalold men in traditional Malay songkoks, young children in their Sunday best, teens in leather jackets, executives in their Sunday suits." Because there's little context provided for the crowd's social dynamics, Sabri misses a pivotal point that what he's witnessing is no less than the tearing of Malaysia's social fabric.

Face Off is also unashamedly partisan and while that undoubtedly contributes towards the book's enthusiastic, boyish charm, ("My significant other and I had gone into Kuala Lumpur with a certain degree of trepidation" a reference, both political and personal, to how Sabri spent his Saturday afternoons) it also makes it a somewhat suspect historical document. His ringing endorsement of Opposition politics brooks no shades of grey. And ultimately, this is what finally undermines the book's authority. Without trenchant analysis, Sabri is reduced to mere rant: "And the sad fact is that it is not only Anwar Ibrahim who has been poisoned. We are all being poisoned slowly," he writes, not entirely accurately Anwar proved not to have been poisoned after all.

That said, there's no denying the importance of Face Off as a unique portrait of a movement, and an important historical document. "I shot back a thumbs-up and returned her smileand for that instant we knew that there was an instant bond. I got that feeling a lot todaythat instant bond, with total strangers." Even with the hindsight that time allows, Sabri's words still telescope you immediately to the sentiments of the thousands who marched that day. It's just sad that history may yet prove him wrong.