A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

Reformasi's Ongoing Fight

A moving record of Malaysian civic action

by Sangwon Suh

Publication: ASIAWEEK
Section: Books
Author: Sangwon Suh
Publication Date: 17th, November, 2000

A moving record of Malaysian civic action


In Malaysia, a new term has come into circulation: OKT, an acronym for 'orang kena tuduh' (the accused). Coined in the wake of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim's ouster, the word refers to those arrested by police during the reformasi protests. Some prefer to read it as 'orang kena tahan' (the detainees); others, noting how the OKTs found themselves at the wrong end of police batons and boots, wryly say the term stands for 'orang kena terajang' (the beaten-up).

The story of the OKTs, little known among many Malaysians, gets an airing in Sabri Zain's 'Face Off' (BigO Books, Singapore, 208 pages, S$17.90). In a poignant chapter entitled "The Accused," Sabri describes the indignities and injustices suffered by the OKTs, both during and after their brief stints in jail. One tells of the reaction of his office colleagues: "A few would avoid you in public it's strange to see people walking towards you on the corridor turn around the moment they spot you. I hated that it was like being treated like a murderer or rapist."

Yet these are not criminal thugs but ordinary people: students, teachers, civil servants, business executives, elderly men, young girls. Spurred to action by the longstanding societal iniquities that the Anwar saga brought to the fore, the OKTs mix bright-eyed idealism and righteous indignation leavened by the cynical wit of some of the more seasoned protesters. (One detainee, when asked by his sympathizers if they can visit him in jail, replies: "Sure you can. Just pick up a rock and throw it at a policeman at the station they'll let you in pretty quick!") The author hails the spirit of these Malaysians, dedicating the book to "the courage and sacrifice of the OKTs and their families."

Like the OKTs themselves, 'Face Off' embraces the call for justice, transparency and accountability. Subtitled 'A Malaysian Reformasi Diary (1998-99)', it is a collection of essays eyewitness reports, editorials, satirical pieces that journalist and commentator Sabri posted on the Internet between Sept. 20, 1998, the day of Anwar's arrest, and the anniversary a year later. During those 12 months, the author went out into the streets, joined the demonstrations, smelled the tear gas and then reported his feelings. The result is an eminently readable account that captures the spirit of those heady days. This is no dry treatise on the Anwar saga. It is a passionate, opinionated account touching at times, humorous at others of what happened at the ground level at the height of the reformasi protests.

Predictably, 'Face Off' does not cast those in power in a particularly flattering light. Government leaders, their favored businessmen, the riot police and the official media are all fair game as Sabri criticizes and ridicules everything from official double-speak to self-censorship to cronyism. Especially entertaining are the humor pieces including a guide to reading between the lines of the official press and a parody on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

The book, however, is not simply an anti-government tract. It is also a withering indictment of ordinary Malaysians themselves. Sabri forces his compatriots to take a hard look at themselves for complacently allowing the country to drift away from the notions of freedom and justice. Noting the silence of academics and intellectuals over the Anwar affair, he remarks: "Such is the boldness and courage of those honorable men who are to mould our future generations of leaders and thinkers."

'Face Off' is not without its flaws. The attempts at humor don't always work; some are a bit silly. But as far as capturing the color and immediacy of the moment goes, the book serves its purpose very well. It is a valuable addition to a topic that, for all the journalistic ink expended on it, is not exactly overflowing with literature. It is perhaps even more invaluable as a wakeup call to Malaysians.

Today, a little over a year after Face Off's last diary entry, some of the idealism that pervades the book might seem a touch naive. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad continues to rule. Despite some noises about reform and revitalization in his ruling United Malays National Organization, the political culture of Malaysia remains largely unchanged. Anwar is out of sight in jail and, increasingly, out of mind. And the reformasi movement appears to be on life support despite a brave showing at an opposition rally on Nov. 5. (The organizers hoped to draw 100,000 people but less than 10,000 turned up.)

But as the author points out, few can deny that there has been one change for the better the raising of Malaysians' political consciousness. Thus, Sabri is ultimately optimistic about the country's future and, after reading his passionate essays, so is the reader.