The Storm and The Rainbow

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

Wishing upon a star April 11th, 1999

We arrived at Taman Tun Syed Nasir in Muar at about six in the evening and it was already a hive of activity. All along the road leading to the suburb, people were putting up posters, banners and flags - streets, houses, fences, lamp-posts, even trees, were draped in white and blue. For tonight, the President of Keadilan Dr Wan Azizah was to return to Johor to launch her new party in that UMNO stronghold.

The setting was a stark contrast to last week’s opulent, flashy, high-tech launch at the Renaissance Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Taman Tun Syed Nasir was a typical Malay suburb in middle of the rural heartland, and the stage for the event was on the balcony of a supporter’s house. Looking like an old-fashioned movie billboard, next to the stage was a large canvas painting of Anwar Ibrahim, with his now-famous black eye, an arm raised in defiance. “The picture makes him look like a Bollywood Hindi movie hero!” quipped a friend.

Keadilan was not alone in celebrating that night. Draped over the fences and gates adjoining the house where the launch was to be held were the party flags and banners of PRM, PAS and DAP. Posters of Anwar with his now-famous black eye were put up side by side with Lim Guan Eng “Justice For All” posters. Stalls stocked with PAS books, newspapers and tapes were doing a roaring business next to PRM workers loudly selling the latest issue of the ‘SUARA PRM’ newsletter.

While putting up our PRM flags, we met with a young, eager teenager who lived in the area. His late father had been a long-time supporter of PRM in Johor and a guest of the ISA facilities in Kamunting detention camp for four years. Helping with the preparations for the night, his young son was defiantly carrying on the tradition of dissent into the next generation.

Half an hour later, we drove off to the main road and waited for the convoy that was to take Dr Wan Azizah to the dinner reception elsewhere in Muar. In a flash, the convoy zipped past us after a few minutes. “Are they being chased by cops?!” our driver moaned as we turned off into the road, desperately trying to avoid oncoming traffic in an attempt to keep up with the speeding convoy.

“Cut off!” he shrieked, as we found ourselves stopped dead by a traffic light and looked helplessly on as we saw the convoy proceed ahead and disappear into a side road. After some minutes driving around Muar having no clue at all where we were going, we finally gave up and stopped. We were fumbling in the dark with the handphone trying to recall the number of the lead car when we were rescued by one of the other cars in the convoy which had backtracked in search of the lost sheep from PRM!

The dinner was at another supporter’s house in village on the other side of Muar. The modest single-story house was already surrounded by hundreds of well-wishers. Dozens of excited boys in sarongs on bicycles were eagerly waiting outside the compound, peering into the house hoping to catch sight of Nurul Izzah, while giggling girls in their finest baju kurungs fought for space by the windows outside the house.

Dr Wan Azizah was in a splendid greenish blue baju kurung with large pink flowers, dark green shawl and turquoise tudung, while Nurul Izzah was quite well colour-coordinated in all bright green baju kurung and tudung. We all sat on the floor and a sumptuous feast was laid before us, including perhaps the most delicious nasi minyak and mutton curry I have tasted in my life.

During dinner, a row of small children quietly made their way behind Dr Wan Azizah and Nurul Izzah, stood behind them as they ate and an accomplice elsewhere in the room took a quick picture. Later, more rows of children did the same, snapping pictures with the famous couple while they were eating, quite unaware of all the excitement happening behind them. By the time, dinner was nearly over, even adults had caught on to the scam and were taking their ‘sneak’ portraits with the two!

Meanwhile, the windows were filled with the faces of dozens of curious children outside, peeking in to see what the fuss was all about. At one point, Dr Wan Azizah turned around and spotted them. The faces quickly disappeared into the darkness once they realised they had been discovered. “Eh, malu!!!” (“So shy!!!”) she exclaimed, as she pointed at the window, smiling. “Apa khabar?!” (“How are you?!”), she greeted as she stood up and waved at the children outside, amidst the din of playful laughter.

The convoy left the village to return to Taman Tun Syed Nasir just after evening prayers. The number of cars in the convoy had by now swelled to many dozens- some from the village, others from other parts of Muar as word soon spread that Dr Wan Azizah was in town. Volunteers along the route directed traffic at roundabouts and junctions to ensure the convoy proceeded undisturbed. A car with a large Keadilan flag fluttering in the wind headed the convoy, with dozens of motorcycles flanking the motorcade. “She has more outriders than the Prime Minister!” a friend remarked.

The convoy had to stop a few hundred metres before arriving at the launch site - the roads were just jam-packed with thousands of people. We got down from our vehicles and proceeded on foot, when we were suddenly startled by the loud, rhythmic pounding of kompangs as a group of about 50 schoolboys beat a warm welcome to the entourage. Lead by a pudgy boy beating a large drum, the boys sang songs to the Prophet as they accompanied the crowd to the stage, moving slowly through the narrow winding roads of Taman Tun Syed Nasir, weaving through the throngs of people pouring out of every house, side road and alley.

The crowd began cheering ‘Reformasi!’ as it moved through the local pasar malam and the atmosphere became electric as the cheers of the crowds, the chanting of the boys, the beat of the drums and the din of the night market merged and blended to produce a symphony of sounds that electrified the air and charged me with excitement and anticipation. We walked for about for about ten minutes, looked on by isolated groups of wary policemen but oblivious to any fear or anxiety, as men, women and children all converged to the brightly-lit stage that was to be the launching point for Johor’s newest political movement.

I inched my way towards the front of the crowd and finally found a strategic vantage point - a small tree - near the front of the stage from which I could, in turn, take photographs with my 15-year old camera and take hastily-scribbled notes. It was only later that I realised that I had inadvertently stumbled upon the home of a particularly vicious colony of carnivorous red ants with an intense hatred for Reformasi journalists. I certainly found it rather difficult recording the pearls of wisdom from the speeches that night while trying to extract apparently hungry ants from my camera, pen, notebook and quite painfully-sensitive parts of my anatomy that I would rather not mention.

The first person to speak was Lokman Adam, a seasoned Reformasi fighter and victim of the ISA. He took us back to the early days of Reformasi, back to the street demonstrations of October which climaxed on October 17th when tens of thousands of people marched to the gates of Royal Palace to present the King with a memorandum demanding justice and reforms. “But the King did not go to the gates, neither did the King’s flunkeys. But we were greeted by riot police, batons and water cannons. But even if we had shed our blood there, Mahathir would have been unmoved. He has a heart of ice.”

“A heart of stone!” someone shouted from the audience. “At least ice can melt!”

“We cannot topple Mahathir with demon-strasi (demonstrations)” Lokman continued. “But we can topple him with demo-krasi (democracy)! That is why we have formed Keadilan.”

He thanked Mahathir for opening the eyes of Malaysians. “He has opened our eyes to Anwar’s black eye … he has opened our eyes to his lies. He said that he would resign when there are ‘signs’ from the people. A few months later, he sayd that he will only step down when he is shot. This man has high ambitions. He wants to be the only Prime Minister to have ruled Malaysia over two different centuries.”

“I have left UMNO - and I know many of you were in UMNO,” Lokman said. “It is useless staying in UMNO now. Before, UMNO was the Malays, and the Malays were UMNO. But today, UMNO is Mahathir.”

He had a message for the UMNO leadership from Johor. “Join us now. Otherwise, if not today, tomorrow … if not this week, then next week …. if not this month, then next month … but we will fight you. Lawan tetap lawan! (We will fight on!)”

The next to speak was Keadilan ’s Chief Liaison Officer for Johor, Kahar Ahmad - a veteran UMNO politican who left to join the breakaway Malay party Semangat 46. He spoke with the slow, quiet, soft-spoken tone of an old campaigner. “A few Reformasi youngsters came to see. ‘Uncle, come join us’ they said. I asked them why. They said they wanted to fight Mahathir. I reminded them I’d been fighting Mahathir for the past ten years!” “Before, young people like these weren’t bothered by politics. They avoided it. But the country and its people have been hit by a large wave. And, praise be to God, they are now aware and they are now with us…. I am proud that Malaysians have risen, especially our young Malaysians”

“For ten years, I have gone in and out of villages, opposing Mahathir. At my age, I should be retired by now,” he lamented. “But I only have one wish before I die - I want to see how Mahathir falls!”

Keadilan Vice President Tian Chua noted that Lim Guan Eng’s petition of pardon from King had just been rejected. “Ironically, on the same day, the Attorney-General said he was satisfied that there was no necessity to pursue corruption charges against the former Chief Minister of Selangor. Isn’t the AG worried about where he got that suitcase of money? Perhaps the AG was satisfied with his explanation to the Australian Court: ‘I speak no English’!”

“Therefore, Reformasi is not just about toppling Mahathir,” he reminded everyone. “There is no point toppling Mahathir if we do not topple the corrupt system that supports him.”

He stressed that the ordinary UMNO member was not the enemy. “We know that they too are ordinary citizens who are, in their own, trying to uphold justice as well. But the existing vehicle they have - UMNO - is no longer capable of doing this. It is no longer relevant.”

Dr Daeng Sanusi from the Islamic Party PAS agreed. “Dr Mahathir is only a symbol - a symbol of oppression and injustice, the oppression and injustice of UMNO and the national Front coalition …. We therefore welcome the coming of Keadilan, that will give added momentum to the wave that will sweep National Front away.”

Likening UMNO to cataclysmic natural disasters seemed to be a popular theme for the night. DAP’s Dr Chan Man Heng felt it was more than a wave. “It is like a typhoon! Like an earthquake, that has already shaken Dr Mahathir.”

PRM President Dr Syed Husin Ali commented on the recent CNN pictures that were circulated over the Net of Anwar some time after his beating. “We saw how he had beaten until his eye were shut tight. But that shut eye has ultimately made Malaysians open theirs.”

“We have also seen the emergence of a new political party dedicated to upholding justice, and a new political force - Keadilan, PRM, PAS and DAP coming together, despite their different opinions, views and racial compositions.”

He noted that the Barisan Nasional also consists of parties with different opinions, views and racial compositions. “But the ‘glue’ that holds them together is power. Once that power is taken away from them, it will collapse. The Opposition don’t have that power yet. But, despite that, we have come together, like never before.”

He admitted that Dr Mahathir had brought development to the country. “But it is not only Dr Mahathir who can bring development. So can we, if we’re given the chance. So can Dr Wan Azizah. Mahathir may be a doctor … but we have so many other ‘doctors’ just on this stage tonight!”

Dr Syed Husin talked of matters close to PRM’s heart - rising food prices, rising cost of housing, rising education costs, rising healthcare costs, rising unemployment and plummeting wages and benefits. “The few benefits still left - such as the EPF - are being squandered to save the corporate cronies.”

“The people must know what needs to be done,” he concluded.

Dr Wan Azizah opened her address by thanking the people of Muar for coming to see her - and her daughter! “But remember!” she warned. “You can look - but don’t touch! Her dad’s in prison - but her mum’s right here!”

She then turned to look at the billboard painting of her husband next to the stage. “Some people have commented that he looks like a Hindi movie hero in that picture.”

“But remember, the hero always wins in Hindi movies!” she exclaimed, to laughter and cheers from the audience.

On a more somber note, she talked about the emotional toll the whole episode surrounding her husband’s arrest was taking on her family. “My children asked me this evening. ‘Mama, where are you going?’ And I told them ‘Mama is going to defend your Papa’.”

“Long live Mama!” a voice from the crowd shouted, as the crowd cheered her tenacity and defiance.

But she soon got down to the business of the day - her new party. “They say that Keadilan is a breakaway party, a party seeking revenge. But the only person I have seen seeking revenge so far has been Chief of Police Rahim Noor!”.

“Chief of gangsters!” someone shouted from the audience as they booed to that despised name.

“My party is a party of unity - not a party out to divide,” she said, turning to the PAS, DAP and PRM speakers seated behind her. “What we need to do now is cooperate.”

“And I now hereby launch Keadilan in the state of Johor.”

Everyone was suddenly startled by the sound of a loud explosion and an ear-piercing shriek as a rocket was fired from the back of the stage and shot upwards into the sky. The crowd gasped as we watched the burning flame propel upwards, leaving behind a thin trail of light, like a shooting star, climbing higher and higher, until it finally disappeared among the other stars twinkling like jewels in the velvet sky.

As a young child, I read somewhere that if you saw a shooting star and silently made a wish, your wishes would be magically fulfilled. As the thousands that night sat silently as we watched that shooting star climb higher and higher, propelling itself to join the other constellations ruling the clear night sky, I could not resist the child-like temptation of making a silent wish.

To many, Keadilan is a climbing, shooting star, upon which rests the noble but heavy task of fulfilling the wishes of thousands of people seeking justice, freedom and democracy in our country. It is not going to be fulfilled by magic. It is going to be fulfilled by hard work, sincere commitment and close cooperation, for they will joined by thousands others in the other alternative parties - PRM, PAS and DAP - who yearn for the same thing, who share the same belief that, together, we can make this a better country, that justice will prevail in our beloved land.

That is the silent wish which I, and thousands of other Malaysians, hope this new shooting star will fulfil.