Sign of the times

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Times, they are a-changing. Sharaad Kuttan ponders the signs. [October 1998]

September 20, 1998 is an important date in our post ’69 political history. Malaysians walked, some of us covering a total of six miles, beginning a search for self-determination lost to a regime that has both coddled and cowed us into submission. The steps I retrace here are part of landscape of political and cultural signs that we are discovering anew. And in which I am both eyewitness and participant.

The events around the incident at Sri Perdana can no longer be told in a naive fashion. Too much is at stake for those who oppose the Reformasi movement, as well as those who support it. As this nation is polarised by the current crisis the ability to speak with reasonable objectivity diminishes, as do forums in which to negotiate our differences, whether they be political or cultural.

One clear indication of the way those who oppose the reformasi movement want to cast the events of that day, is the language of the mass media which has solidified around certain words and phrases: ‘rioters’ instead of ‘demonstrators’, ‘didalangi’ instead of ‘dipimpin’.  Mahathir even raised the spectre of ‘looting’ and ‘rape’ alluding directly to events in Indonesia. To help steer their audience, the mass media entertains us with brilliant displays of intellectual dishonesty by the likes of Kadir Jasin.

In his “Other Thots”, Sunday 27 September, he creates a fantasy of possible ‘ethnic strife’ arising from the Reformasi movement by enacting a hypothetical traffic accident during the march on Sri Perdana. Claiming that the marchers were essentially Malay, his political scenario has a non-Malay driver ploughing into the Malay crowd thus igniting a racial riot. Through the simplistic and the banal, politicians and some in the mainstream media stoke our basest fears and prejudices to get us firmly back on the road to the old politics.

Old Sites, New Signs

It’s important to remember that the day began with the displacement (by government) of the Reformasi rally from Dataran Merdeka to the Masjid Negara. Yet, with his undeniable charisma and oratory skills, Anwar, through both the tone and substance of his speech, went beyond the symbolic confines of the site to establish that the Reformasi movement intended to speak to all Malaysians regardless of political and religious convictions and beyond ethnic group affiliations. For skeptics, like myself, as well as supporters,  the atmosphere was electrifying. More so when Anwar declared that we – the rakyat  – should reclaim Dataran; but he did so by first demanding the crowd agree to be peaceful.

Taking over the microphone, one of the organisers began to lead us in singing a Islamic ‘hymn’ – a melody familiar enough but to which I can’t myself identify with.  Then there was the patriotic song, “Inilah Barisan Kita” first introduced to me by noted UMNO youth leaders and other Barisan youth hacks who broke into an international conference on East Timor in 1996. I now sing it with a touch of bitter irony; maybe its the best way to sing a patriot song.

We poured into Dataran – estimates run from a low of 15 thousand to a high of 100 thousand. No head count, though, can detract from the significance of the moment. Here was a broad spectrum of Malaysians demonstrating their feelings; maybe against the increasingly low political style of the Mahathir administration, maybe against the management of the economic crisis; certainly, for many, in support of their displaced leader.

Under the shadow of Bukit Aman, the Ministry of the Interior, which looms over Dataran Merdeka – Anwar addressed the crowd through a less than adequate sound system. Shouts of ‘reformasi’ were occasionally overtaken by demands for people to duduk so that we all could enjoy the spectacle equally. After a speech that was hardly audible to me Anwar was carried on the shoulders of his supporters, and no indication was given as to what would come next. But it felt like the crowd made its desires known as we found ourselves moving down Jalan Raja Laut chanting – some ‘Reformasi’, some ‘allahu akbar’,  others ‘hidup Anwar’ –  waving at on-lookers and making a loud but friendly racket. Nothing in my experience was as exhilarating as this, spontaneously reclaiming the streets.

“Where to now?”, my friends and I speculated as to where we were heading. I suggested the Twin Towers; after all what better symbol of arrogance borne of misdirected wealth and cold power could there be in our wonderful city.  The answer came somewhere down Chow Kit: the UMNO headquarters. It made sense to me that Anwar should lead us there – after all UMNO is the core of the Barisan Nasional and the real seat of power. The site of his struggle and yet the symbol of our collective disenfranchisement – some of us barred by the party’s constitution from participating, others by the fact that wealth and patronage is the overriding reality of the party. This is the system I am hoping the Reformasi movement will thoroughly discredit and repudiate, and so help lay the foundations for a real ideological shift in our national psyche – away from communal politics.

Unfortunately, having reached UMNO headquarters, the one overriding feeling in the crowd must have been confusion and a loss of direction.  Questions about the whereabouts of Anwar and the next move animated us. People who wanted to pray were invited into the building to do so (though I observed one man praying outside amongst the crowd), while others remained outside where some jokers took to entertaining the crowd with the mock political speeches.

I walked into the building and felt that I had crossed into forbidden territory. After placing a question mark sticker on the glass door, I made my way back into the crowd. I saw none of the alleged vandalism that was supposed to have occurred that night. There was no orgy of violence and disrespect. Instead it seemed that the day had reached an anti-climax – no closing speech, no direction set for further action. Had Anwar ‘abandoned’ the march, a friend asked. Was it his responsibility to be there to the end? And if we criticised the movement for being dependent on Anwar’s personality, could we also demand that he set every move? Where was the movements machinery, its leaders? One man voiced his concern about the loss of momentum. Someone suggested having a beer.

Later that evening, after the attack by the FRU on those who had walked to Sri Perdana was over, news spread that people were to gather in front of the Istana. This was the crowd and its political desires looking for a higher authority to appeal to; still failing to see itself as the determinant of historical change. I was reminded though of one of the banners at the Masjid Negara earlier that day which read ‘Allah Lebih Berkuasa’. Lebih berkuasa dari Mahathir; nothing there to warm my atheistic heart. As for the Agung, has he the symbolic weight that is constitutionally ascribed to him? A position, duly elected and rotated among a set of fairly anonymous peers, which has found little pride of place in the transformations of the last decade.The position even lacks the aura of permanence that ironically surrounds Mahathir. Nevertheless, this crisis might have us at the gates of the Istana many times in search of a higher authority to petition.


Sri Perdana – the servant’s quarters

A suggestion that captured the imagination of the crowd was that we march on Sri Perdana. Having dominated the last decade and a half with his singular vision of a modern Malaysia, no one but Mahathir is better qualified to represent all that has gone both right and terribly wrong in our country. Anwar’s speech at Masjid Negara was marked by this very ambivalence. A man he once said he respected as a father, but who now had clearly to be removed. (I wish politicians would give up the rhetoric of bapak-ism, it keeps us all in a state of perpetual childhood).

The image of the people at the gates of Sri Perdana has such symbolic power. It is the citizenry reminding its elected leader that he remains, whatever his contributions to the nation, a servant of the people, accountable to us and not to the party, his associates or his family.

From UMNO headquarters a group of demonstrators started moving down to the highway, chanting ‘reformasi’ and the word went round that they were heading towards Sri Perdana. The crowd, now only a fraction of the numbers at Dataran but still numbering between two to five thousand, made that long walk to the prime minister’s official residence. With lots of humour and a few rude barbs at the prime minister’s expense the crowd preceded like a travelling carnival rather than in military formation.

The walk to Sri Perdana was longer than I had expected but the sight of water canons spraying the crowd just fifty metres ahead of my friends and I sent a quart of adrenaline into my veins. I ran forward with my camera. Realising that I was not watching TV  and that I would be wet as soon as the spray turned towards me, I buried my camera deep in my bag. After the first attack with water canons there was alot of confusion and anger, some retreated, others implored the crowd to return and sit on the road.

I could see that the FRU had formed a barricade at the bottom of the road that leads to Sri Perdana – its gates still over 300 hundred metres away. We were on the perimeter of the deputy pm’s official residence. There was a traffic jam with cars and vans caught between us and the FRU. One mineral water bottle, curses and religious advice went flying from the crowd and in return, tear gas grenades were lobed, high-pressured canons shot chemical-laced water, and FRU personnel with the shields, batons and some with guns charged the crowd. On the night of Anwar’s sacking, some two weeks before, as many people came to the DPM’s official residence,  several FRU trucks drove past us towards the PM’s sprawling residence. Sri Perdana was ready, even then, for a standoff, for siege or worse. The crowds surging towards Sri Perdana on the 20th was thus a confirmation of what they had already anticipated. What they must have rehearsed over and over in their minds, or had drawn out on maps and charts; now to be put into action.

Cut off from my friends by the initial charge, I followed the FRU from behind watching as they prosecuted this little war in order to eventually cross the FRU line and join my friends. I left the small group of demonstrators still chanting “reformasi” and walked away from them somewhat bewildered, smarting from the hosing down and the tear gas.  Crossing puddles of “water” left by the cannons made my eyes tear. I picked up a spent tear-gas canister, still very hot and threw it in my bag. Maybe it was a souvenir, maybe evidence.

Despite being outmanoeuvred, and massively under equipped, the crowds retreated only partially and had to be hosed, gas and charged at least three times. The encounter with violence did not seem to have the desired effect on the crowd. I had found my friends, having successfully crossed the FRU line, acting very much like a journalist.  We were sauntering up Jalan Parliamen when a friend called and informed us that Anwar had been arrested. And in equally dramatic fashion. Then the FRU bell rang again to signal yet another charge, and we ran.

Twenty days later, on October 10, thousands staged a noisy drive past on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. The police did not intervene as people cheered and chanted; and then walked to Masjid Negara; finally returning to Dataran. The stand-off lasted half an hour. This time when the crowds dispersed we walked towards the FRU line and shook hands with them. One or two officers refused my hand, but most obliged. More signs.

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