“No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones.” (Nelson Mandela)
Growing up, I remember sifting through my father’s collection of old newspaper clips. One reported that a certain persona by the name of Anwar Ibrahim was about to join UMNO. That paper clip was from 1982.
Many in Anwar’s circles and followers at the time viewed him as their next hope for a leader that could strongly challenge the government. Needless to say that move to join UMNO was not welcomed by many; my mum, a member of JIM included. In 1996, while tabling the budget in Parliament -an annual event where I await with bated breath for him to introduce a new vocabulary – a practice he was famous for – Anwar was surprisingly spotting noticeable breakouts.
Mum responded “Baru nak matang lah tu…(he is probably just about to mature…).” The consternation she felt then remained.
The financial crisis a year later shook most of the tender South East Asian economies, while Anwar was at the pinnacle of his political career. I did not really understand my parent’s remark then about how Anwar would soon “get it”. I soon did.
I watched 2nd September 1998 unravel on television while I was on campus down south. I will never forget that moment; sitting down dumbfounded trying to gather my thoughts.
From then onwards, keeping track of Anwar’s ceramahs around the country, news and developments, became daily affairs. Anwar’s famous: “Ini adalah konspirasi dan fitnah jahat untuk membunuh karier politik saya”– echoed in mind every day.
More arrests were subsequently made in that period, under the draconian ISA. The late Fadzil Noor then lead a coalition of political parties and NGOs known as GERAK. GERAK held massive protests to free Anwar. The Reformasi movement then gathered momentum, initially as an Anwar-specific cause.
But what it evolved into was something far greater. It united all opposition, NGOs and Islamic movements and revolutionized to become something bigger. Amidst major differences, opposition parties then realized that there existed transcendental values that they all fiercely subscribed to -such as justice, liberty, and freedom. This realization had major uniting capabilities. Activists made up of PRM, ABIM, JIM and men who left UMNO then decided to form ADIL, an organization which eventually graduated to become the Parti Keadilan Rakyat that we know today.
At the height of it all was Sunday 20th September 1998, where the largest ever demonstration took place in Dataran Merdeka, under the Reformasi umbrella. The crowd that had gathered at the National Mosque for Anwar’s landmark Reformasi speech, rallied on to Dataran Merdeka for another speech, then on to Jalan Raja Laut and ended up in front of EPF.
The energy and conviction I felt and witnessed being among the crowd at the time reminded me of our next-door neighbour. Only five months prior, Indonesians ousted their own President Soeharto.
Malaysia had never witnessed such resolute. But the important thing to note is that it was not all for Anwar alone. It was a show of deep unhappiness towards the grave injustices that the government seemed to be able to inflict against someone as high up as the deputy premier. What then was left for the ordinary rakyat.
We finally realized then how deep and structural were the extent of the government’s tentacles controlling the country’s police force, state media and the entire judicial system.
That very same night, balaclava-clad commandos stormed into Anwar’s private home and roughly seized him. Nine days later, he made his first public appearance with a black eye. Malaysia had just witnessed the death of democracy.
What happened after, we all knew and followed. Anwar was put on a controversial trial, found guilty, and sentenced to 9 years of imprisonment. How could the once number two Malaysia, be politically imprisoned, brutally beaten, and emotionally vilified to beyond any human extent, I wondered. Anwar Ibrahim became Malaysia’s most controversial prisoner of conscience.
Reformasi breathed new life into Malaysian youth of the 1990’s, at a time when youthful zeal and activism spirit had diluted in favour of material wealth and pleasure. This was a contrast from the youth of the 70s, whose idealism were more pro-poor, intellectually-driven, and in line with the spirit of merdeka, fitting of a recently liberated nation. It is a mass movement that was manifested by rakyat from all walks of life, whose birth was spontaneous, honest and pulsing of the rakyat’s aspirations. It still very much is; it belongs to everyone, within and out of political parties, young and old.
Fifteen years on, Malaysians have perhaps experienced an unconventional politically maturing process witnessing Anwar and our Reformasi. We inherit a Malaysian with various realities to embrace; a rigged election system, highly racially sensitized plural society, a government who has overbearing control over all economic, judicial and social aspects of the country, and spatially and demographically unequal standards of living, amidst many others. It is not easy to change status quo, a system that has deeply entrenched for the past 50 years. Not easy, yet not impossible.
The Man Who Triggered Reformasi
The Reformasi movement was borne out of the struggles of many political personalities, without whom it could not have materialized as it did, too many to credit without risking injustice. This piece is not about Anwar Ibrahim, as many will easily be led to believe, but it is about the man who triggered Reformasi.
A revolutionary varsity student leader in his UM days, Anwar later co-founded one of the pioneering civil society organizations of late 1970s Malaysia, known as Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM). His tendency to highlight the plight of the poor and vulnerables, and criticize the government vocally booked him a 20-month stint ISA stint in 1974 after the Baling incident.
Post 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution, Malaysia felt the heat from the rise of Islam in the global scene. We witnessed for the first time the proliferation of Islamic-based civil society organizations. This proved a bonus to PAS, whom at the time was welcoming home waves of new young professionals from abroad who embraced the idea of new dynamism in the party. It helped raise the party’s profile amongst foreign-trained barristers, doctors, engineers and economists, posing a significant challenge to UMNO’s political hegemony.
Anwar Ibrahim seemed like the viable solution and heir for Tun Mahathir and UMNO; a man seen and known for his sound Islamic principles and honorable background, coupled with remarkable literacy in occidental thought and philosophy. Anwar was about to become an influential political figure, climbing the political ladder up to some of the most important positions in a country; as the finance minister and the deputy Prime Minister. Known to be neither unwavering under pressures of corruption nor compromising to cronyism, he had a political career that was not easy to bring down. That fateful September, the sky fell down onto him in a political and economic saga that forever scarred the face of Malaysian political history. But not all was lost. As widely remarked, cleaning sewage water is almost impossible when swimming in it; rather it has to be done from outside the gutter. The man probably needed to learn that. A lesson that he had been paying dearly since.
Building Blocks Towards A New Age Reformasi
In November 1999, Malaysia saw the nascent opposition force leading to the 10th General Election known as the Barisan Alternatif. For the first time in history, the opposition garnered the highest ever votes from the Malays. That record had never been challenged even up to this day. Barisan Nasional was salvaged by Chinese and Indian votership, which perhaps at the time were probably politically and economically unready to seriously challenge status quo.
In 2004, Barisan Nasional (BN) turned the tables in a landslide victory. Re-delineation exercises had allowed for substantial gerrymandering, winning BN 24 out of 25 new seats, and more than 90% of the parliament. The retirement of Mahathir, who then already made enough anti-fans for himself, too ushered in fresh support for UMNO and Barisan Nasional. It was a personal struggle for me to believe that change was ever going to be possible in Malaysia.
The period before the next 2008 General Election saw the opposition making significant headways, building a forte. Anwar too was already a free man, and was beginning to truly attempt to unite the various parties to form a formidable opposition that the government had no choice but to reckon with. The introduction of needs-based policies also attracted significant new interest especially the non-malays into its stable. It’s only fair considering the vast new inequalities that were emerging from decades of favoritism-based policies, leakages and misappropriation of resources.
Leading up to the 2008 12th General Election, the waves of change was felt even earlier on. I actually took unpaid leave to come home for the voting and campaign period- from an overseas posting at the time. The opposition won five states and formed Pakatan Rakyat which includes PKR, PAS and DAP. Call for change had begun to creep up from the rakyat from all walks of life to show its teeth.
Knocking down the incumbent ruling party off of its comfortable two-third parliamentary majority was by no means a small feat. It prompted five years of the government launching various “transformative” efforts on the part of the government. As a result, we are now entering supposedly the next phase of growth with endless possibilities. Pun very much intended, if I may. Sure, we are building more highways and train tracks. Yet what is lacking is arguably the required political will power to undertake the softer and real transformation we so badly need.
That very same period provided the opposition time to reorganize and work with their differences to productively form a coalition with its own development plan, its own manifesto and its own budget proposition. It was the first time ever Malaysians could critically compare alternatives to these documents proposed by the government.
Moving forward post 13th General Election, we ask ourselves again, where do we go from here? The natural question now is whether Anwar should make way for the formidable line up of fresh and younger personalities in PKR and Pakatan Rakyat whom clearly have been gaining their own strong following. Is the way forward now a post-Anwar Ibrahim era, which entails institutionalizing and strengthening of the underlying political system? Better structure will allow for the natural development of a continuous pool of talent and leadership, but is it enough?
Strong leaders have historically proven to be the ultimate source of unification to bring about waves of change that ripples above and beyond those laid out by an institution or system. That kind of strong leadership was the only way substantial malay votes in 1999 could have shifted, a two-thirds majority for the government in 2008 could have been denied, and a game-changing 52% mandate onto PR for 2013 could have been witnessed.
Anwar Ibrahim too is now a different man. From a youthful varsity leader, to a charismatic Islamic leader, to a Deputy Prime Minister, and even down to being an inmate, Anwar’s bruises could have not been only physical. The wisdom and maturity could not have been without blood, sweat and tears.
Two general elections passed after his release and Anwar stuck to his guns. But to claim ownership of the Reformasi can only mean one thing; that he steps up to the presidency post of the party himself, to make reality the reforms that he himself had envisioned for the country. Time is ripe for him to take the mantle, step up the challenge again, be democratically elected and rise up as the President of Parti Keadilan Rakyat. It is the implicit hope of the Rakyat, for him to articulate his vision for Malaysia particularly on his young and future masses.
Anwar Ibrahim triggered the Reformasi. Now he needs to rejuvenate it too.