A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

The spark is lit
September 20th, 1998

I'm bad with numbers - so I can't tell you how accurate Internet reports were of over 100,000 people being at the anti-government rally today. It certainly was very easily in the tens of thousands. Numbers are pretty difficult to tell when the whole stretch of the road from Independence Square to the National Mosque was an ocean of people, spilling into the side streets, into the mosque compound, and into the nearby Islamic Centre and Railway Station.

They had apparently been told to move from Independence Square, so the crowd proceeded to the National Mosque and gathered in the compound facing the Islamic Centre. To their credit, the police kept a low profile, and the crowds behaved peacefully. It was a mixed bag of people - families, students, yuppies - of all races, though the majority was Malay. It was heart-warming to see this 60-year old Chinese pensioner standing next to me punching his fist into the air and shouting "Reformasi!". Who says it is only the young who want change?

Anwar Ibrahim arrived at about 4:30 p.m. to deafening cries of "Reformasi!". They didn't have a proper public address system, so he had to use a hand-held loud-hailer. He played the fiery orator to the hilt - but the person who won me heart and soul was his wife Wan Azizah. She was a tower of strength by his side - and when she spoke it was electric. She had all the passion of a woman whose husband had been wronged and the calm determination of the righteous confronting the full forces of darkness.

There was a moment of tension when someone shouted that there was a TV3 crew around, and a few rowdies pelted them with empty drink packets, to shouts of "Penipu!" (Liars!) "Anjing!"(Dogs!). I, unfortunately, only had a glass Coke bottle, and I didn't want to accidentally hurt anyone! But Anwar ordered them to calm down, quipping "Let them do their job ... I definitely know that this particular crew secretly supports me!"

The crowd proceeded to Independence Square after that - no one could stop them now, there was a virtual sea of people. From the theatre stage of Independence Square, Wan Azizah again spoke, delivering the Pledge of September 20th.

"We who are gathered here in Kuala Lumpur pledge to defend the freedom and sanctity of the nation to the last drop of our blood we resolve to revive the spirit of freedom we will not suffer injustice and oppression in the land we will not suffer the replacement of foreign oppressors with those raised from among ourselves we oppose all cruel and oppressive laws which deny the people their fundamental rights and freedoms we denounce those who corrupt our system of justice we denounce corruption, abuse of power and the conspiracy devised by a greedy elite to blind the people to the truth in order to maintain their grip on power and wealth "

"We raise the spirit of freedom! We are united against oppression! We are united in our resolve to establish justice! Long live the people! Give victory to Reform! We demand the resignation of Dr Mahathir Mohamad!"

She was even more electric than at the mosque. After a thunderous cry of "Reformasi!" from the crowd, she asked everyone to disperse peacefully. I think we are seeing a real leader come out from the wings - they say real character emerges during adversity and it is then that the best comes out of people. Whatever happens to Anwar, Wan Azizah has my unreserved vote. Definitely First Lady material, maybe even first woman Prime Minister material too!

Today's rally was also, personally, a nostalgic experience. Twenty-four years ago, in 1974, I was a young 15 year-old schoolboy going to what was then the Selangor Library, just behind Independence Square, to do some studying for my exams. I turned the corner into the Square only to see hundreds of young people running towards me being pursued by Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) riot police. It was the 1974 student demonstrations against poverty in Baling. Tear gas canisters were exploding around me, batons were waving, some students had blood on their clothes.

I was caught in the wave of people running for sanctuary in the National Mosque - but they were pursued even there. The memory of FRU troopers with batons and shields strutting in their boots in a mosque that choked of tear gas is something I will never forget in all my life. It changed me forever. A few days later, a young student leader from the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement - I think his name was Anwar Ibrahim - delivered a speech at Bukit Kerinchi to the protesting students. I was there too. Today, my apartment block rests on that very spot where he talked to them.

How things have changed - and not changed.

Some hours after this was written and posted over the Internet, police and demonstrators clashed just outside the residence of the Prime Minister. At around 9 p.m. masked police in balaclavas and armed with sub-machine guns stormed Anwar Ibrahim's home. In front of his wailing children, he was arrested and detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA). He was not to be seen in public until nine days later, at his first court appearance - severely beaten and with an injured black eye.