What the 1998 Reformasi taught me

October 4, 2018

What the 1998 Reformasi taught me

This is an article I never thought I’d have to write. Somehow, the strange post-election events have sparked off a stream of socio-political events that are even stranger than the idea of a 93-year-old man once dubbed Public Enemy No. 1 being back in the Prime Minister’s seat.

Image result for reformasi 1998


The series of harsh statements by students and activists against Anwar Ibrahim, his wife Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and their daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar shocked me more, in some ways, than the commando raid of his house in 1998. I feel compelled as a citizen to recount not just what happened in 1998, but my feelings and positive growth as an individual, a citizen, a Muslim and an academic for the benefit of a new generation of Malaysians.

In 1998, Anwar Ibrahim was unceremoniously sacked by the Prime Minister and UMNO President. The charge was firstly about some guy named Nalla who owned a gun, but then we heard whispers of flings with women, and ultimately the big headlines in Utusan Malaysia, Berita Harian and The Star on the alleged sodomy of Azizan the driver, Munawar Anees, his political brother, and Sukma Darmawan, his adopted Indonesian brother.

As I recall, Munawar and Sukma were detained under the ISA while Azizan sang like a canary. A few weeks later, an exhausted Munawar and Sukma were brought to court to confess to the accusation of sodomy. After they were freed, they both retracted their confessions and recounted the torture the Police had inflicted to force the confessions. The Judiciary, Police and academia ignored their retractions and let an innocent man stand trial in a Malaysian kangaroo court.

Can Mahathir make the spirit of <I>reformasi</I> fade away?

Then came the incredible and dangerous drama of balaclava-clad commandos with machine guns storming the house of the former Deputy Prime Minister. Anwar was whisked away without anyone’s knowledge of where he was being held or what condition he was in.  A few days later, he emerged with a bloodied black eye amid news that he had been beaten by the “gangster” Police Chief, Rahim Noor. Anwar’s famous black eye appeared even in foreign media like CNN, Newsweek and Times.

Image result for Rahim Noor

After that came damage control efforts with the Prime Minister accusing Anwar of inflicting the injury on himself. I will never forget the sneer on his lips as he spoke, describing how Anwar could have given himself the black eye. I will also never forget how a member of his Cabinet, a loud-mouthed woman, demonstrated with a drinking glass how Anwar could have pulled it off. We heard later that Anwar had suffered a severe spinal injury and almost lost his life, left to bleed after the “heroic” efforts of the then-Police Chief who has now been appointed as a peacemaker.

I also need to mention how the court allowed the Chief Public Prosecutor to bungle the dates and change them so many times, even allowing the prosecutor to place the sodomy incidents at an unfinished condo at an unknown date and time. The accused was supposed to have committed the act from one date to another, which amounted to several months in total. No specified day or time. Only many specified days and times. And the “honourable” court allowed that.

Image result for Mattress carrying in Anwar case


Then came the trial of Anwar, with sordid details and the unforgettable parading of mattresses in and out of the courts. The court allowed this funny but shameful act while the prime minister and his Cabinet watched from the comfort of their homes – in glee, I assume.

No one said anything about how the law and justice was shamed and desecrated. No mufti said anything. No vice-chancellors said anything. No highly paid public servant said anything. The whole nation watched as one man’s honour, dignity and integrity was raped in front of RTM, TV3 and the newsprint.

Finally, Anwar was convicted – not of sodomy, but of “abuse of power” by asking the Police to extract a confession on a planned political assassination. So he was convicted and sentenced to six years in jail. He was imprisoned before the trial, during the trial and after the trial.

Outside the prison, the then-President of UMNO mercilessly bashed Anwar’s legacy, character and contributions at every UMNO convention – no different from the antics of Rahim Noor, punching a blindfolded man whose hands were tied. For this, the UMNO President was considered a Malay hero with a morality second only to the Prophet. The great Malay hero berated his rival, knowing full well that the man in prison had no means of rebuttal. Such was our prime minister then – the great leader.

What did this all mean to me?

In 1998, I was appointed as an Associate Professor at a public university in the south. I was 36. My career was just beginning to take off, with my books, media articles, public talks and television appearances on the issue of Islamic and heritage architecture.

While building up my career, I read every piece of news and attended every ceramah on Anwar and the Reformasi at every chance I got, sometimes dragging my wife and two daughters to wet padangs filled with mud puddles. I bought every CD I could find on speeches by PAS leaders and Ezam, Saifuddin, Azmin and Mat Sabu. I still have the CD of the Deklarasi Permatang Pauh where the Reformasi was born.

The first thing I learned from the first decade of Reformasi was that a prime minister could be powerful enough to let Anwar be taken off like a terrorist without his loved ones knowing where or how he was. It was hard for me to imagine how my wife and daughters would feel if I were in Anwar’s shoes – not knowing where her husband was or whether their father was dead or alive.

I was shocked not only at the sheer amount of power but also at the attitude of our highly paid religious officials, professors, judges and civil servants. Never mind the police, they were acting like the personal army of the prime minister and Umno. Wahhhhhh, I thought, you can simply pick a fellow up in the middle of the night while brandishing an M16 at him, his wife, his children and his unarmed friends, then take him, beat him up and come out telling us that he punched himself in the eye.

Is the prime minister a person elected by the people in trust to uphold law and justice and preserve the dignity of citizens, or is he no better than a godfather or triad boss who can toy with lives at will? I cannot describe the shock to my social, psychological and religious system of life and understanding.

Before 1997, we were the darling of Asia, looking towards a multiracial and multi-faith nation under the hardworking ethos of Mahathir and the civilisational values of Anwar. Before 1997, I thought we had discovered the Malaysian Renaissance as opposed to the Melayu Reminiscence. But in 1998, we became, under the Prime Minister’s colourful leadership, a third-rate nation ruling with guns and murders. That was when I understood that what we had was not democracy, but a modern feudal version of the old Malay raja-ship criticised by Abdullah Munshi for being uncivilised and unIslamic.

If Najib Razak popularised the term “cash is king” in 2016, in 1998 it was “titles and projects are king”. I learned that the higher the status of a person in society paid by taxpayers, the quieter one becomes in accepting what would normally constitute indecency and pure unadulterated corruption of power.

The new generation of Malaysians shouting at the steps of the education ministry and the 30-something-year-old NGO activists must know that Anwar could have easily left the country in the months before the commandos stormed his house. In fact, I think the prime minister and Umno would have loved it if Anwar had followed those of his friends who fled to another country and were safe as houses. But Anwar stayed on and went on a whirlwind ceramah tour until the Prime Minister and UMNO saw the damage and unleashed their “private muscle”: the Police. The Police were supposed to be an institution enforcing what is constitutionally right, but the leadership of the force understood only “titles and projects”. Harapkan pagar, pagar makan padi.

If Anwar had left the country, we would not be where we are today, I think. Knowing the gullible Malay society, as long as there was UMNO and a Malay presence in the Cabinet, the universities, the army and the police, things would go on as before.

I am not a professor of political science, but I think Anwar’s unjust incarcerations on two occasions not only brought down a despicable racist party in UMNO Baru (formed by Mahathir after the 1987 tussle with Ku Li), but also put a serious dent in the vast institution of the Judiciary, Police and shameful public universities.

Of course, historians are always quick to point out that one man alone can never take charge of the course of history, but truth be told, history is littered with the ideas and suffering of individuals: one Muhammad, one Gandhi, one Mandela or one Martin Luther King. Today’s activists and students may cry foul upon reading my article and say it is melodramatic or worse, a propaganda piece paid for by the Anwar camp.

But I have been writing for 20 years against the mainstream of Malay and official Islam, which has nearly cost me my career. I have done so because of my sentiments following the first 10 years of Reformasi. That decade was my coming of age as a Muslim, a Malaysian and an academic.

We must know who the rightful leadership of this country should be, and the only clues we have are in our history. Who was the victim, and who was the leader who became corrupted by power? I believe people can change through great suffering. Leaders who have never tasted true suffering can work with anyone and make pacts with any party as long as their personal agendas and egos are satisfied.

The first decade of Reformasi taught me never again to fully trust politicians in power, high or low ranking religious officials proclaiming the morality of Islam while collecting honourifics and projects, vice-chancellors of public universities without conscience, and the police force which has neither the morality nor the integrity to uphold the law.

In choosing a leader, I would prefer one who has gone through great suffering because of his beliefs, not one who switches camps and approaches like riding a wave, as if he were the great emancipator. My choice is governed by what I witnessed in the first decade of Reformasi.

The new generation that woke up and came in at the end of the second decade of Reformasi does not understand its origins. If the new generation does not learn to choose a leader from an appreciation of history, then I think our new-found democratic freedom does not serve an honourable path for our country. It only serves our own selfish and narrow perspectives and a false, egotistic comprehension of truth, justice and integrity.

The childish poem of a Prime Minister titled “Melayu Mudah Lupa” may be true in many senses, but this Melayu has never forgotten and hopefully never will.

Tajuddin Rasdi is a professor of Islamic architecture at UCSI University.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

9 thoughts on “What the 1998 Reformasi taught me

  1. We may never know the exact details and reason between Anwar-Mahathir fight. It frankly sounds like both were at fault. BUT what Mahathir did to Anwar created Najib so Reformasi is a page of Malaysia history that had to happen. Anwar won the debate on that and Malaysia grew from that.

    BUT it appears the growing is not done, we are far from being a strong society and culture that will withstand abuse of the self-serving, the malicious, the self-righteous and over-entitled. We are still weak and dependent on simplistic ideas and mindset.

    Truth be told the frontline of change is impossible without socio-equitable economics and development first. BUT even before we can focus on it, we are attacked by those who promises not reality but fantasies of possibilities that detracts from the basic necessity in the first place.

    We are a society with deep weakness and need to be careful while we work on it. We cannot wait to work on it. We must confront it even as we deal with the basic necessities.

  2. For me, Anwar became the symbol of Reformasi. He was the politician many of us supported, not because of his track record of accomplishments (which were factually unimpressive), but because he was the only feasible choice we had in defeating UMNO BN. There was no other leaders in the Opposition capable of leading the charge.

    Whether he was quilty or not of sodomy was academic.

    In fact, we supported Tun M for the same reasons. We wanted to defeat UMNO BN.

    Now that we have succeeded in changing Government, we must not fall into the trap of believing unquestionably our leaders who had given us the election victory. Let’s not forget why we supported Anwar and Reformasi. Let’s be clear always we voted not for Anwar or Tun M or LKS, but for Reformasi, for change and a better Msia.

    Many Malaysians now ask which Anwar will we get after he becomes PM. It’s valid question because Anwar has a history changing political stands, from ABIM to UMNO to Reformasi. It’s also valid when he attempted to spoil PH’s victory and break up PH’s unity when PKR insisted on challenging Tun M’s LGE appointment.

    Does Anwar’s Reformasi simply mean PKR replacing UMNO in the role of dominating the new ruling Coalition?

    We will accept Anwar as the next PM. He will finally get the chance to lead the country as PM. But, we must not stop questioning. From now on, we must judge Anwar, not by his Reformasi struggles or his sufferings in prison, but by how he performs as MP and as the next PM.

    The biggest contribution of the American Founding Fathers was not winning the Revolutionary War, but leaving behind a Constitution and a system of Government that provided generations of Americans the ability to self governance by the people, for the people.

  3. Dato

    Aside from such injustice happen to Anwar, would you think he is the right person to bring Malaysia forward? If not Anwar or Mahathir then who do you think will be the next generation leader? Thanks

    Yes, Teck. He is a good man. Malaysians must decide.–Din Merican

  4. Judge politicians (most of them anyway) by what they do, not what they say.
    Exhibit Number One is MO1.

    Politics is all about perception, and usually involves negotiations and compromise too (especially in a coalition government).

  5. Reformation 1998 is the matter of archives today because then the 10 year olds are now in their 30s and above and must have voted to kick BN out but NOT because of Anwar’s so called reformation shouts. The same kids were not even had any knowledge of Anwar’s sodomy charges and who was Anwar then. It’s the change they felt was necessary after the ‘cash is king’ attitude of Najib who went on openly plundering the country’s wealth with his gang of UMNO cahoots. During the same period, what role did Anwar play other than being in and out of the prison? GE12 and GE13 had not given any positive results to show the sympathy of the rakyat to favor Anwar. Would he have made it at GE14?

    Within less than 2 years, Tun had to break to form this PH coalition and penetrated the Malay heartland like felda and other Malay majority areas to win the hearts of kampong folks. Would it had been possible for Anwar to carry out such a move even if he had been out of prison? What would have been the response from these Malays with strong belief in UMNO?

    Injustices and wrongful prosecutions of the past could not be the reason to plead for votes in this by-election at PD for Anwar to be parliamentarian so that he would be the PM-in-waiting elected to replace Tun. Prof, please think of the time now and then before you could sympathise with Anwar. Anwar is not what he was then. I too was a great sympathiser of Anwar before; likewise many would have formed the same opinion like me after he was released from prison. All these I believe, he attributed to his own weaknesses to sow the seeds of hatred. Had he been humble and gone to lecture at Oxford > his own wish soon he was released, I think he would have been liked by most people of both generations but instead he has gone overboard speaking and doing matters did not augur well to many like me.

    • My son and daughter are 22 and 25 respectively and went to the poll om 9th May 2018 and voted for PH not because of TMM but more towards bringing Najib regime down.

      They are indeed the reformasi children been there at numerous ceramahs and demos eg at the Kesas highway with both their parents.

      There is no qualm in my immediate family (the four of us) that DSAI will be PM one day.

  6. ‘ Is the prime minister a person elected by the people in trust to uphold law and justice and preserve the dignity of citizens, or is he no better than a godfather or triad boss who can toy with lives at will?

    The previous pack (BN ) was broken in GE14.

    The decades of bad political leadership and gross mismanagement is slowing unfolding, with gross and unprecedented abuse of power and rorting by all levels of the government.

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