A Trip To The Pasar Malam

April 3rd, 1999

There is something about a pasar malam that is uniquely Malaysian. In it you will find all the sights and sounds and smells of Malaysia. Malay food stalls. Chinese VCDs. Indian spices. The constant babble of different languages and dialects. Cheong sams. Saris. Baju kurungs. It is a living time capsule of all things Malaysian. Spend half an hour in a Malaysian pasar malam, and you will know Malaysia and you will know its people.

In that respect, the regular Saturday pasar malam at Taman Dato’ Senu, Sentul, is no different from the hundreds of others in every city and town in Malaysia. Stalls offering roti canai and murtabak were busily selling their wares, next to stalls offering PAS posters, tapes, badges and the latest issue of Harakah. Drink sellers were having a bit of a hard time trying to peddle their air sirap and tebu - it had been raining a few hours before and was still drizzling slightly that cool, damp night.

But there was something else about tonight’s pasar malam that was slightly different.

In the middle of it was a large lorry - but it was no ordinary lorry! The back of the lorry was fitted out with rugs, lighting, a PA system, podium and a rather brightly-coloured sofa set. The whole lorry was draped in the flags and banners of PRM, PAS and ADIL, with a large cloth backdrop that read “Bersama Parti Rakyat Malaysia untuk Tegakkan Keadilan dan Demokrasi - Ke Arah Reformasi Tulen!

Parked under the balcony of the Parti Rakyat Malaysia's Sentul office, that lorry was the stage for PRM's Ceramah Keadilan!

A crowd of nearly 3,000 people had already gathered in front of the ‘stage’, waiting anxiously for the start of PRM’s first ceramah in the area since it opened its office there last February. It was very much a working class crowd - factory workers, civil servants, clerks, labourers, hawkers - the heartland of PRM’s support base. Sitting right in front of the growing crowd were rows of loud, laughing, playful schoolboys - all intently reading PRM leaflets!

PRM Secretary General Dr Sanusi Osman greeted the audience and thanked the police for granting a permit for the ceramah. I later learned that the police had received complaints from the local UMNO branch, because they were organising their own meeting that very same night just a few hundred metres away! It sadly attracted a much smaller audience.

Dr Sanusi reminded everyone that the historic verdict for the Anwar Ibrahim trial would be delivered in just a few days’ time. “We don’t know what the sentence will be on April 14th. But we do know that Anwar Ibrahim had already been ‘sentenced’ long before he was even put on trial - he was accused, punished, sacked, shamed, vilified, tortured and beaten.”

He spoke of other victims of Mahathir’s brand of justice. “An underage girl was abused, shamed and detained - while the VIP accused of raping her walked a free man. When her MP - Lim Guan Eng - tried to defend her honour and dignity, he was instead tried and jailed like a criminal.”

Dr Sanusi spoke of the ISA. “There are only three countries in the world that practice detention without trial under the ISA - Malaysia, Singapore and Israel. Are we proud of this distinction?”

Gagasan chairman Tian Chua opened his speech on a religious note - and I’m not just talking about his now-famous salam to audiences! “Dr Mahathir has a holy book,” he said. “No, it is not the Quran or the Bible. It is the Guinness Book of Records - what is important for him is Malaysia always having something in that book!”

“But the poor continue to be poor, and the rich become richer,” he lamented.

Tian touched on the economic crisis, which he blamed on corruption, cronyism and nepotism, or KKN. “Do you think that George Soros is powerful enough to single-handedly destroy our economy almost overnight? I don’t think so. KKN is a greater disease that racks our economy. And it is no ordinary disease that infects us like a germ or a virus - it is a cancer that grows.”

DAP’s Ahmad Nor spoke of the loss of confidence in the government and its institutions. “Before and since Independence, our police forces had struggled and sacrificed themselves for the people and the country. Many lost their lives. But during Mahathir’s reign, the image of the police has been shattered completely. Their sacrifices and noble deeds over the past few years have been overshadowed by everyone talking about how they beat up people.”

He mocked claims that people were plotting to assassinate the Prime Minister. “The only person who wants to shoot the Prime Minister is the Prime Minister himself! In his speech to students in London last February, it was he who said that if people wanted him to step down, they would have to shoot him first!”

Tapi kita tak sampai hati nak tembak dia - kalau tembak dengan pistol air pun kita tak mau,” he said, to roars of laughter from the crowd.

The former Negeri Sembilan UMNO Youth Head Ruslan Kasim seriously questioned the credibility of the assassination plot. “Out of the 21 million people in Malaysia, who is the one who finds this so-called ‘assassination tape’? None other than Ibrahim Ali!”

“They are trying to frighten the people - because it is they who are frightened,” he said. “Rakyat sudah bijak, sudah pandai menilai, yang mana permata, yang mana kaca, yang mana betul, yang mana palsu...

PAS’ Haji Subky Latif also poured scorn over the assassination claims. “Buang masa saja kalau suruh orang tembak dia - lagi baik tembak babi!

He described a recent visit he made to the victims of the recent flash floods in Kampung Baru. “On one side of the river were some low-cost flats that were hit badly by the floods. On the other river bank were commercial high-rise buildings completely protected from floods by sheet piling. Such is the discrimination that exists, not between races, but between rich and poor.”

“We don’t need development like the Petronas Twin Towers - they are like huge tombstones under which lie the people of Malaysia. Free education for all, at all levels, investing in more doctors, engineers and professionals - that is true development.”

PRM President Dr Syed Husin Ali fully agreed that Reformasi should look at issues such as economic justice. “It is not just about justice for Anwar or his wife and children - it is about justice for all Malaysians. Reformasi just doesn’t mean toppling Mahathir and freeing Anwar. It must cover all spheres - political, economic, judicial and social.”

“The government has spent more than RM 150 billion on megaprojects such as the Petronas Twin Towers, the KLIA and privatised toll highways. How may low-cost homes, roads, hospitals and schools could we have built with that money? How have you ordinary people benefited from that money?”

I looked at the crowd around us. The ten-year old boy in the torn, shabby baju Melayu would probably be shooed away by the security guards if he came near any of the expensive boutiques selling Christian Dior shirts at the KLCC. The makcik with the basket of vegetables from the pasar malam probably couldn’t even afford the taxi fare from Sentul to KLIA - let alone fly to Davos or Silicon Valley or other distant lands and places. And the tolls probably meant that she would have to pay more everyday for those vegetables.

“How have they benefited?” More than what would happen to Anwar or who would win the next elections or those other 'important' questions grabbing today's headlines, that single question lingered and gnawed in my mind, as I returned home from my trip to the pasar malam. I could only come to one conclusion - the answer to that question is probably what real change, real reformasi, is all about.

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