The Storm and The Rainbow

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

All part of the struggle February 1st, 1999

The Malaysian People’s Party (Parti Rakyat Malaysia, PRM) has always been, still is and will probably always be a party for the poor, oppressed and the downtrodden. It’s Id Festival ‘Open House’ on February 1st made no bones about this unglamourous image. It was held at a small parking lot in what the more well-off folk of Kuala Lumpur might consider to be a ‘rough’ working class neighbourhood - Taman Datuk Senu in Sentul district. PRM’s ‘Open House’ fare would certainly have not satisfied the delicate appetites of the tens of thousands who thronged our Prime Minister’s home this week scavenging for specially-catered treats in abundance. There was so much food at the Prime Minister’s Open House that dozens of people slipped on the discarded chicken bones that were piled on the ground.

But no one slipped on any chicken bones at the PRM open house. And what the food lacked in richness and abundance, it more than made up for in the warmth and friendliness of the party workers and volunteers who prepared it.

And, unlike the Prime Minister’s mega-event, the modest crowd of 500 people who did turn up was a good 50-50 blend of Malays and Chinese - completely dispelling the myth that PRM is a predominantly Malay party. There were party workers from as far as Penang and Johor Baru - where, one may recall, PRM members were arrested a few months ago for distributing Reformasi leaflets.

And talking about leaflets, an old friend of mine brought along one of PRM’s campaign leaflets from the 1995 General Elections. "Reformasi in Petaling Jaya Selatan", it said, calling for Petaling Jaya Selatan residents to vote for change. PRM was talking about Reformasi long before most Malaysians knew what it was. 

That particular year, they didn’t vote for change. Who knows, this year things just might just be a little different.

There was a hum of excitement when it was announced that ice-cream was being served - and a groan of disappointment when it was reminded that it was for the ‘adik-adik’ (kids) only! The ‘adik-adik’ got a double treat when it was announced that Datin Seri Wan Azizah had sent over four crates of oranges for the children. PRM’s Id Festival Open House had a distinct Chinese New Year flavour with children, in their Id finery, running and playing among the rows of plastic chairs under the main tent, clutching ice-creams in one hand and mandarin oranges in the other.

There were friends from the other Opposition parties. It had been a busy weekend for Reformists of all political shades and hues. Almost everyone was sharing anecdotes from the spates of protests and demonstrations that occurred that weekend - from the courthouse, Jalan TAR and Kampung Baru demonstrations of Saturday to the dozens of toll plaza protests all over the country the next day.

PRM Secretary General Dr Sanusi Osman alluded to the toll plaza protests in his welcoming speech to the guests. "The government says it is only a `small’ increase in highway tolls. But ordinary people cannot afford these `small’ increases - they are becoming a big burden. People are then forced to used old roads - and they get blamed when many die in accidents on those roads!"

He expressed amazement that one particular ten-mile stretch involved going through three different toll plazas. "Even before you have time to go into gear, you’ll have to stop to pay toll!"

"And despite the threats of arrest, thousands of people have protested against these toll increases."

He noted that, more and more, people were forgetting their differences and focusing on common concerns, joining together towards a common cause. "People of all races and political parties are banding together in coalitions such as ADIL, working together to demand and uphold justice. We have seen great changes - ordinary people rising up and showing courage."

At that point, he introduced one of the guests - Tian Chua from human rights group Suaram - as a symbol of that courage. "We all know how many times his head has been bashed and how many times he’s been arrested!"

Party President Dr Syed Husin Ali greeted guests with an appeal for donations to four of the Kampung Baru demonstrators who were still in prison because they could not raise bail. He related the story of a mysterious Tengku (Prince) who had last week posted bail for four of the demonstrators - four people who were perfect strangers to him.

"This is all part of our struggle. Their struggle put these demonstrators in prison. You can be part of that struggle too - at the very least by donating towards their freedom."

Dr Syed is certainly one person who should know the value of freedom. He was detained under the Internal Security Act in 1974, following the spate of demonstrations by students protesting against poverty and rising prices of essential goods. He was only released more than six years later. Nearly two years of that detention was spent with a young student leader named Anwar Ibrahim.

After the hat was passed around at the end of the day, 1,237 ringgit was collected for the detainees. Not from any rich Princes, but from poor, ordinary people who were now being burdened by rising tolls, rising prices and rising poverty - just like in 1974. But they gave, all the same. Not enough to free all of the prisoners, but it will help. The PRM’s struggles have never been quick and easy.