A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

A reformasi chronicler
by Rizal Jalil

Publication: MalaysiaKini (Malaysia Now)
Section: News
Author: Rizal Jalil
Publication Date: 4th, November, 2000

Now that the series of trials based on former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim's alleged sexual misconduct are over and this alleged moral threat to society is "safely" in jail for a good many years, it surely is time to look back at the extraordinary year that constituted a turning point in Malaysian political history.

But where do we go to get some perspective? For those who cringe at the rattlesnakecrawl of words that constitute much of the so-called journalism in English language in this part of the world, here is at last our very own Truthteller.

Armed with all the naivete of someone who had never been in a demonstration, and yet wanting to be out there to find out what was going on first-hand because he certainly was not being enlightened by press reports, Sabri Zain is repeatedly drawn to the scene of action.

Fortunately for all of us, he decided to use his considerable talent as a writer to chronicle those times, especially on the Internet. No objectivity here, but he is plain about where he stands and he is clear about why he needed to write about the birthpangs of Reformasi (Reformation).

He is moved by the injustice he sees, the idealism of those around him as well as the police brutality he witnesses. We who sit in front of our Playstations and TVs and chew the pap of our daily newspapers need people like him to remind us of the issues, the anger, as well as the camaraderie of Malaysia's nascent political awakening.

Face Off moves from Sabri's Forrest Gumpish ability to be there (as he is fondly labelled by another crusading Malaysian writer, Rehman Rashid) to his deepening disillusionment about the distortions of the press and the corrupt power struggle, "the dirty little wars," going on.

The score: this book is exhilarating, disturbing, clever, shocking and funny in turn. And it reads like a political thriller.

"Oct 10, 1998: About 8:10 pm the headlights of the water-cannon were ominously switched on. The police made a chilling announcement. Women and children are ordered to leave the area. We are giving you two minutes to disperse.

"Almost at the very second the announcement was over, the call to the Isha' night prayers began from the nearby Jamek Mosque. As the musical call to prayer echoed in the stillness of the night, an eerie quiet hung over the whole of Independence Square. Almost everyone was still...

"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.

"I have never in my life been more proud to be Malaysian than I am at this moment in history."

Battle lines drawn

But other more violent confrontations were in store. In Sabri's reporting, the protestors or demonstrators are almost always peaceful, and he takes pains to detail how diverse they were, although clearly a major proportion of those involved were Malay/Muslims.

The violence is always perpetrated by the Federal Reserve Unit and other policemen, who cracked heads and turned on water-cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowds.

His narratives of the battle lines will be undoubtedly read skeptically by some, but none can deny the other spectacle that was taking place - the public shaming of Anwar and the alacrity with which most English language reports turned to lurid reportage.

"That is why the blatant and obviously hostile attacks on Anwar in the weeks following his sacking in September 1998 shocked so many. The meek, docile, self-censored, "responsible" journalism that Malaysians had tolerated so long suddenly became bold, fiery and downright coarse and vulgar. In lurid and graphic detail, the newspapers all gave us crash courses in sodomy and masturbation..."

The manipulation of the media by the ruling politicians and its disarray come for repeated attacks in Face Off, culminating in a piece written in December 1998, A Brief (But Helpful) Guide To Reading The Malaysian Press, that intersperses actual journalistic phrases with the "what is really going on" version. This is bullshit detection at its best.

Given the anger and passion underlying his diary reports, what makes this collection readable after the event? And why will it continue to be read far into the future?

For one thing, there is a great deal of human interest, not just politics, in these pages. Individual stories come out, episodes of strangers meeting at heightened times - such as waiting to get into a session at the courts.

Sabri picks out some heroes, both well-known and off the street: form Anwar's lawyer Christopher Fernando to human rights activist Tian Chua, to a young Malaysian student in London who stood up and suggested that Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad apologise to Anwar and his family. He also suggested that the prime minister resign. Top that, anyone?

Underground classic

It's not often that you come across a book that you want serialised, discussed and read by everyone you know. I would hate Face Off to become some kind of underground classic - we have few (if any) works in print of any kind that would help us identify and deepen our vague feelings of belonging to our nation, what it is to be swept out of our "don't care, don't get involved", ingrained apathy about politics.

It is even rarer for engaged writing of any kind to be shot through with genuinely wicked humour. Is this book going to be swallowed up by the great black hole of Malaysian middle-class comfort zone? I would argue that we need more of Sabri and more journalists like Sabri.

"A nation can have all the biggest, tallest, longest skyscrapers, factories, shopping malls and superhighways in the world - but if its society is a weak, grovelling mass of spineless protoplasm, I wouldn't want to live there."

Buy this book - buy it for your friends. Read it on the beach. Read it on the bus on the way to the KLCC to worship at Our Towers.