REFORMASI'S Roving Eye
By Anil Netto
Inter Press Service 28-JAN-99
PENANG, Malaysia, (Jan. 28) IPS - Fed up with what he perceived as biased
reporting by Malaysia's mainstream media, Sabri Zain, a civil engineer-turned-journalist,
decided to take things into his own hands.
Zain, 39, writes eyewitness reports of the "reformasi" protests
and political ferment in Malaysia that followed the sacking of deputy prime
minister Anwar Ibrahim in September.
With a knack for being at the right place at the right time in the heart
of the capital Kuala Lumpur, which he calls "weekend shopping",
Zain soaks in the sights and sounds of the exuberant "reformasi"
protests while jotting down notes.
Next, a quick dash home, a hurried write-up, and then a click of the
mouse to send his scoop swirling into mailing lists and discussion groups
Sabri's eye for detail and his ability to capture the spirit of the
occasion has turned him into a mini-celebrity of sorts, a familiar name
among cybersurfers searching for the latest reformasi news.
His articles have appeared in different websites tracking the reformasi
movement. Zain, who began by circulating foreign news reports to friends
and strangers on Internet discussion lists, also has several sites of his
own, including "Reformasi News" (<reformnews.cjb.net>)
and "Reformasi Diary" (<reformdiary.cjb.net>).
An exerpt from a posting after attending a Ramadan breaking-of-fast
dinner this month, attended by Anwar's wife Dr Wan Azizah and 1,400 other
Malaysians chanting "reformasi", conveys the headiness that activists
feel in airing their views freely.
"Towering close by, lit up like an enormous torch against the velvet
night sky, was the Petronas Twin Towers. To some, this was a symbol of
our country's development," Zain wrote.
"To me, it only reminded me of the that day in November when people
below it were sprayed with acid and yellow dye and dragged out of its shopping
malls by plainclothes policemen and FRU (Federal Reserve Unit) personnel,"
"I saw some of those same faces this evening. Acid, dye, beatings,
arrests, media propaganda -- they had all failed to extinguish the determination
I had seen in those same faces many months ago. We all met again that evening
- in the warmth of friendship and the sharing of a common, just cause,"
"Our spirits were unbroken, unafraid and more determined than ever
to continue what we had begun last September to its inevitable conclusion,"
Zain says he writes in three modes: the rational analytical mode where
he analyses issues, the "emotional eyewitness" accounts, and
the humorous satirical pieces.
The satirical articles are just as important for Zain. "The greatest
victory was when I showed a piece I had written to a friend who was very
pro-government and he laughed," he recalled in an interview.
Asked what drives him to regularly share his thoughts on the cyberwaves,
Zain said: "Initially, it was a whole wave of different emotions.
First it was just confusion, then it was outrage and at the end it became
Earlier on, his writing was confined to discussion of some issues that
had cropped up since Anwar's arrest -- tough laws on political dissent,
the fairness of the corruption and now-scrapped illegal sex charges against
him, and control over media.
"We looked at these issues, and explored them from different avenues,"
recalled Zain. "Why was this happening? Why is the media being used
His eyewitness chronicles began on Sep 21, the day Anwar led a crowd
of more than 50,000 to the heart of Kuala Lumpur in protests that later
led to his arrest.
Zain was also in the action when, weeks later, protesters held the unique
"Shopping for Justice" demonstrations where they mingled with
Saturday shoppers in downtown Kuala Lumpur to avoid police retaliation.
Organisers resorted to the creative protest because it is illegal to
hold a public rally without a permit in Malaysia.
At that rally, the former journalist described the heart-thumping chants
of "Reformasi!" thundering in the city, the camaraderie among
total strangers, as well as the panic that erupted when police started
His vivid accounts were almost instantaneously flashed to the rest of
the country, from the living rooms of condominiums and "kampung"
or village houses.
Malaysians, starved for news and tired of the pro-establishment diet
they had been fed by the mainstream media, passed on his articles via electronic
mail or photocopied them for friends and relatives.
Born in Singapore, Zain was not always into journalism. He recalls reading
books on Alexander the Great, Caesar and Napoleon by the time he was 15.
Two years later, he found himself in London studying civil engineering.
He got his first taste of Malaysian journalism after returning home
and joining the English-language daily, 'The Star'. A week later, in October
1987, the daily lost its licence in a crackdown against dissent. The paper
was closed for five months and 'sanitised'.
When it reopened, Zain resumed writing for two years before joining
the computer firm IBM as a media relations executive.
But "after four years helping to sell million-dollar grey boxes,
I felt that I needed to do something more with my life," says Zain.
Hanging up his necktie and donning jungle boots, he latched on to the nature
For now though, he is busy with a different cause, as an unofficial
cyber-chronicler of reformasi events.
Reformasi is about "changing your way of thinking" on issues
such as justice and the integrity of democratic institutions, says Zain.
"There's a lot more education to do. I see myself writing about that."
Inter Press Service - http://www.link.no/IPS/eng/serv/AP.html