Speaking for the Reformasi Generation

SEPT 2, 2008 — A decade ago today, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was dismissed by the then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. From the halls of power, as Anwar puts it in one of his earliest prison letters, he descended into “the labyrinths of incarceration”.

From the ruins of Anwar’s previous political life, however, a Reformasi generation arose. Throughout the long decade, despite being jailed the first six years and spending a considerable amount of time overseas in the immediate two years after release, Anwar aroused passionate support and devotion from many, some out of sympathy while others felt that he embodied the national quest for change and maturity.
But, the beauty of this long march is that Reformasi was not just about Anwar; it was very much about us.

Like they said about JFK’s assassination, we all remember what we were doing when we first heard of Anwar’s dismissal.

Anwar’s political stock went south after the June 1998 Umno general assembly when his proxy Datuk Zahid Hamidi failed in his attack against Dr Mahathir. By late July, as Anwar tried in vain to rescue his friend Datuk S. Nallakaruppan from police detention, some analysts concluded that it was just a matter of time before Anwar departed the political scene.

Before Malaysians could begin their National Day weekend, on Friday, Aug 28, 1998, Anwar’s allies — Bank Negara Governor Ahmad Don and his deputy Fong Weng Phak — resigned.

The National Day celebration was the calm before the storm.

Anwar was expected to do a Musa Hitam. Naively, we thought resignation was the only exit for Anwar as sacking was never in our political lexicon.

On Sept 1, 1998, Dr Mahathir pegged the ringgit. On the morning of Sept 2, the rate of RM3.80 to one US dollar was announced.

The government often portrays currency control as the silver bullet in countering the economic crisis of 1997/1998. But as Professor Jomo K.S. pointed out, it came about 14 months after the first attack on the ringgit. The likely truth is that the measure was bulldozed through to prevent a slide in the ringgit caused by Dr Mahathir’s sacking of his popular deputy prime minister and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim.

At 5.30pm on Sept 2, the Prime Minister’s Department notified the press in a short statement that Anwar had been dismissed from all government positions.

From his Treasury office in Kuala Lumpur, Anwar went back to his official residence, where the electricity and water supply had been cut. He emerged more than 20 hours later to call a press conference on Sept 3 at his then private home in Damansara Heights.

Anwar was probably under some form of house arrest during the initial hours as the police didn’t know what to do with him. It won’t surprise me if the police were contemplating the option of arresting him there and then.

Perhaps the only reason why Anwar was not arrested immediately was the impending Commonwealth Games which was to be held from Sept 11-21.

Anwar was sacked from Umno at the party’s emergency supreme council meeting which ended at around midnight on Sept 4,1998.

The nation was stunned. Not only by the abrupt moves of Dr Mahathir but by the vicious attempts to taint Anwar’s reputation through a series of affidavits played up by the mainstream media.

With friends from New Era College, where I was a student of Chinese literature, I attended the impromptu ceramah at Anwar’s house on Sept 6. Like many of my peers, it was my first taste of a ceramah. Ironically, I can still recall that the first speaker we heard that day was Dr Chandra Muzaffar, who was then Anwar’s most articulate defender.

It was barely a week or so after we had attended several vigils for Lim Guan Eng, who had been sent to prison on Aug 25, 1998, outside the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. Those nights were sobering and sad.

At Anwar’s house, the crowd frequently shouted “Reformasi” and “Allahu Akhbar”; and Anwar promised to fight back, whatever it takes. To a young student, undeniably, there was an air of excitement in the midst of uncertainty when the No. 2 man in the country chooses to fight the system.

As the Commonwealth Games opened, Anwar left his private home for the first time on Sept 11 for Friday prayers and subsequently toured the nation until he was arrested on Sept 20. I saw him a few days later at a DAP centre in Kajang in solidarity with Guan Eng, where Anwar linked his fate with that of Guan Eng’s.

The grand finale was scheduled to be held at Dataran Merdeka at 4pm on Sunday, Sept 20. But Queen Elizabeth II was visiting a church nearby. Tens of thousands of people thronged the National Mosque. Naturally, it was my first time in a mosque. With the so-called “confessions” of Dr Munawar Anees and Sukma Darmawan, it was apparent that Anwar would be arrested soon.

The group marched to Dataran Merdeka and Anwar left at about 6pm. My friends and I proceeded with a splinter group of probably 10,000 people to walk to the Prime Minister’s residence.

We were a generation growing up without knowing any other Prime Minister except Dr Mahathir. But on the march to Sri Perdana, we shouted “Undur, undur Mahathir” (Step down, Mahathir). It was a liberating experience.

We reached there a little before 10pm. It was our first taste of tear gas and water cannons. Those in the front row were heavily beaten by the FRU.

I went home with the images of young Malay women shouting “zalim” (cruel) as we ran together towards the direction of the Lake Gardens. Instantly, I was quite certain that, like me, these young Malay women, who were at the receiving end of tear gas and water cannons while seeing their boyfriends being beaten by the FRU, would never support Umno or the Barisan Nasional in their lifetime unless there was a major change for the better.

It was said that nationalist and independent movements in colonial states began with the “cramped pilgrimage” of students and indigenous functionaries to the capital or metropolis.

The sense of camaraderie in adversity often leaves a lasting psychological impact. Anwar was arrested that night. As they say, the rest is history. The roads of Kuala Lumpur in September 1998 were tragic but nonetheless an uplifting experience for those of us who walked on them.

Though I was interested in politics at a very young age, I would not have been an active participant that early in my life had it not been for September 1998. I went on to campaign for the DAP in the 1999 general election and worked for DAP MP Teresa Kok subsequently, before going overseas to study politics and graduating with a B.A. thesis on Pas.

Quite a few friends I met through activism since 1998 are now political leaders in their own right in Pas, the DAP and Keadilan. The “cramped pilgrimage” for justice in the face of physical oppression and other abuses by the state is the deepest common bond among the leaders of Pakatan Rakyat.

Ten years of Reformasi changed the life paths of many. Perhaps it is now time to change the path of our beloved nation in the spirit of Reformasi.

Liew Chin Tong, DAP MP for Bukit Bendera, was 21 years old when he witnessed Anwar’s last few days of freedom in September 1998.

(Published by The Malaysian Insider on 2 September 2008, 15 years ago)

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