FACE OFF

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain


The gathering storm
An introduction


On September 2nd 1998, Malaysians were stunned to hear of the sacking of their Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim. Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad accused Anwar of sexual misconduct, claiming he committed acts ranging from adultery to sodomy. Others, however, speculated that Mahathir was angered by Anwar’s increasing calls for economic reforms to counter corruption, cronyism and nepotism in the government, especially in light of the worsening economic crisis in Asia at the time.

I was in Kuala Lumpur watching the TV3 news on the evening when I first heard of Anwar’s sacking. For some odd reason, the news of the country losing its Deputy Prime Minister only warranted the third or fourth segment in the TV3 news that evening - after the top news of a change in the elementary school curriculum and some insignificant official openings by some insignificant Ministers in some insignificant places I can’t even remember. The producers probably thought that by burying the news announcement somewhere in the middle, people might somehow not notice that the nation's second most powerful man was now destroyed.

I must admit that I was relatively unmoved at the time. Mahathir publicly declared a few weeks earlier that there was "no rift" between him and his Deputy. "Do I have to kiss him on the street to prove it?" Mahathir asked. In the minds of most cynical Malaysians such as myself, this more or less confirmed that Anwar’s days were numbered. At the time, the sacking only seemed to me to be just the latest climax in the dirty little wars of the ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

Little did we realise that, within weeks, the sacking would unleash a national fury that would go well beyond just the fate of Anwar Ibrahim. Little did we expect the gathering storm of change that one single event would create in the coming months.

Two days after his sacking, Anwar Ibrahim was expelled from UMNO at an emergency meeting of its Supreme Council. Remarkably, angry protesters pelted Mahathir with packet drinks as he left the meeting - the first-ever open act of naked rebellion targeted at a Prime Minister who had ruled the country with an iron hand for nearly two decades. "Good God!" I thought to myself. "What has he started?!"

Anwar launched a nationwide movement for Reformasi - reforms -calling for greater democratic freedoms, economic reforms and sweeping social change. His clarion call caught the imagination of Malaysians tired of decades of corruption, political oppression and the steady erosion of democracy in the country. They flocked to his home in the tens of thousands.

At 9:00 p.m. on September 20th - less than three weeks after his sacking - dozens of masked policemen armed with sub-machine guns stormed Anwar's home and arrested him. He was not to be seen again until weeks later, when he was produced in court, battered from the beating he received while under police custody. The arrest - and Anwar's black eye - sparked violent street demonstrations never before seen in the country, ushering in a new age in Malaysian politics.

Denied any voice in the government-controlled media, Reformists turned to news groups, mailing lists and hastily-constructed websites on the Internet. Consisting of a selection of my writings over the Internet in the year following the sacking, this book is a personal diary that chronicles the sweeping political and social changes that rocked Malaysia following the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim. It is an eyewitness account of a wide variety of events - the massive street demonstrations that were brutally put down, the twists and turns of the Anwar trial, the euphoric rallies by tens of thousands of people all across the country. I tried to capture in words the spirit, moods, colour, excitement and hopes of ordinary Malaysians caught in the wave of Reformasi - demanding more reforms, more democracy, more freedoms, demanding change.

And what a year it had been! The heights of fear, courage, defeat, victory, violence, solidarity, anger, hope and a host of other deep emotions, all rolled into twelve short, intense months. It had been the worst of times - and the best of times. After the storm of protest and outrage that erupted and engulfed the nation, a rainbow of hope is on the horizon. Malaysia is a new country today and Malaysians are a new people.

INDEX