Face Off – A Malaysian Reformasi Diary (1998-99)
Author: Sabri Zain
Pub. Options Publications Pte Ltd, Singapore, 2000
Hashanuddin Rais, a Malaysian filmmaker, makes the bold claim on the back of Face Off that after reading this collection of Sabri Zain’s Internet pieces, “Malaysia will never be the same again.” Another film director, U-Wei bin Haji Saan, asserts, “Sabri Zain is an original.”
Face Off vibrantly describes the movement that swept Malaysia after the 1998 arrest of then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and the infamous assault on him by the police that followed. “Reformasi”, of course, was the cry first heard here in Indonesia when the students and others took to the streets to demand an end to Soeharto’s New Order regime. It fired the imagination of many Malaysians of all ethnic groups who were tired of what they perceived as corruption and abuse of power by Dr. Mahathir’s entrenched political machine.
The Malaysian opposition movement, which has not gone away, took many people by surprise, both inside and outside the country. There was a widespread impression that decades of political quietism and increased prosperity had deadened the real opposition to Barisan Nasional, the coalition of parties that binds together the political elites of the Malays, Chinese and Indians that have run the country since the interethnic disturbances in 1969. But, still waters run deep and even the most politically passive peoples can, if goaded enough, resist perceived injustice.
Sabri Zain used the Internet, on which he built up a big following, to great effect by putting together well-written, witty and informative pieces that relayed the anti-Establishment views of that resistance, the means by which they were expressed and the often brutal response of the state. (It might be remembered here that the Indonesian students were galvanized to a great degree by the free flow of opinion and information on the Net.) Malaysians could find in Sabri’s pieces an alternative to the mendacious propaganda of such newspapers as The New Straits Times, surely one of the stuffiest progovernment publications in the region.
The Malaysian police come out of this very badly indeed, and for someone like myself, who lived for four years in Malaysia and was always impressed by their apparent restraint and lack of hubris, the feeling is very strong that Mahathir has done a very great disservice by politicizing them so.
The wide spectrum of people that took to the streets was a refreshing antidote to the years of ethnically orientated party politics and a reminder that the Chinese and the Indians also believe themselves to be loyal Malaysians, loyal to the country. Sabri’s writing makes this point at almost every turn.
We have just seen a popular movement in the Philippines oust a corrupt president. Perhaps the winds of change will blow again in Malaysia.
Certainly, it is hard to believe that articulate, intelligent people like Sabri Zain will simply fade away or hide their faces when they see perceived wrong in their land.
(pub. The Jakarta Post, 4th February 2001)