Reformasi: Eleven Years on, Anwar Ibrahim is still making history

Reformasi’, ‘Reformasi’, was the call from the massive crowd in the streets while the bus I was in was entangled in the traffic jam caused by the police blockade


‘Reformasi’, ‘Reformasi’, was the call from the massive crowd in the streets while the bus I was in was entangled in the traffic jam caused by the police blockade rather than by the crowd of pro-reform supporters. The driver was angered by the call for ‘reform’ and shouted that if anybody on the bus was for the ‘reformasi’ he or she should get down now.

After a few illegal turn, beating some red lights, the driver stopped the bus at a junction which was not affected by the ‘reformists’ and repeated his ‘orders’, adding that it was better for the police outside to catch the ‘reformists’ who were in the bus. I thought he was a member of some ‘gestapo’ movement and was aware of the presence of pro-Anwar Ibrahim supporters in the bus. But this proved to be untrue with the unfolding of events in the bus.

“I think you must shut up and drive otherwise you will get a share of my thoughts,’ I shouted at the driver. I was late for a meeting and with the police blockade things turned uglier. The supporters of the ‘reformasi’ were now shouting ‘Free Anwar Ibrahim’ and ‘Mampus Mahathir’ and this seemed to have angered the elements of the FRU – or Federal Riot Units – clad in their dark colored uniform and the red helmet. They appeared to be moving towards the crowd that was lining up the footpath under the railway line of the Masjid Jamek LRT station.  In those days, to hear Malays (who were the core of the reformasi supporters) say ‘mampus’ to Mahathir was like a shock to many.

Anwar Ibrahim, the man that Malaysia’s history will not forget unlike many other heroes of the nation, was apparently in court and the crowd that came to support him was apparently being dispersed with gas and water cannon as they were being cleared from the High Court. I cannot recall if Anwar Ibrahim was really in court but what I know for sure is that there was a huge crowd of his supporters that was being heckled by the FRU. Was it the infamous day the ‘stained’ and ugly mattress was brought to the court? Anyway, May 2009 marks the 10th year of this terribly untactful event.

The members of the FRU signaled to the bus driver to take another route and he swerved to the left to force his way to the Lebuh Ampang road. He turned and looked at me with bold eyes, saying in Bahasa Melayu: “Kau suruh aku diam, nanti aku bagi kau betul2,”

I replied in Bahasa that he will have to stop the bus right now and we both go down for me to able to brush his head against the tires of his own bus. And still in Malay, I told him that I would be pleased to get him to know that I am not who he thought I was, that is a feeble foreigner.

“Cepat,” I said, urging him to stop the bus while standing and looking at him. The expression on his face changed from fierce to shock as he heard me speak in Bahasa and with the mood that I had, he knew it was not going to be an easy challenge for him to deal with.

To my surprise, two Malay looking guys sitting near the bus driver shouted ‘reformasi’ and told the bus driver to continue driving. Someone in the bus said they were Indonesians but that did not matter to me. They added a few stuffs in Malay to him and that made him shut up for the entire journey to the Ampang Park.

That day in the month of May 1999, we left the ‘reform’ movement behind but history was being made in Malaysia and now on the eve of the month of May 2009, it is high time for me to recall who the man behind this historic change in Malaysia is.

Some 11 years ago the ‘reformasi’ movement started in Malaysia with his brutal arrest and the descent (fall) into hell of one of the most peaceful nation in South East Asia. Today, the call for reforms in Malaysia is still going strong and is even stronger than ever.  In 1998, the reform movement of Anwar Ibrahim did not rally the non-Muslims as it did bring together a significant section of the Malay community. In 1999, with Anwar Ibrahim behind bars and the ‘culture of fear’ written by some blogger on a Yahoo culture Soc site making waves, the ‘reformasi’ was not going too far. Yet the Barisan National (BN) was shocked by the massive electoral push made by the Barisan Alternatif (BA) – now known as the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) – in December 1999.

The election results, in which the Party Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) registered its best electoral performance in history to date, was significant of the displeasure of at least 45% of the population of voters against the BN. This was also a sign that the future was not going to be as smooth as the past has been for the BN and the United Malays National Organization (Umno).

More than a decade later, Malaysia will remember that it is Anwar Ibrahim that changed the course of Malaysia’s political history, not once, twice but three times in a row!

Anwar Ibrahim’s name will resonate with ‘refomasi’. He is the ‘revivalist’ since like the phoenix that comes alive after it is destroyed; the astute and brilliant Malaysian politician seems indestructible so far.  And cunningly enough, Anwar Ibrahim, cut off from the party in a bid to finish his political career, became the ‘Albatros’ to the Umno since they cannot get rid of him that easily now.


This is the man who survived the brutalities to which he was subjected while in jail, blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back. A future Prime Minister and the current Deputy Premier cum Minister of Finance in 1998 and seen as one of the most powerful Malay and Malaysian political figure in the country was on the brink of entering the pages of Malaysia’s history in a very peculiar manner.

This is a fact that cannot be denied since others before Anwar Ibrahim, from the days of the British Empire’s presence in Malaya to the time of the struggle of personalities like Dato’ Harun Idris, most of those who soldiered against the ‘establishment’ had their political career cut short by unfortunate events. The events that befell Anwar Ibrahim was intended to finish him off politically but his revival in 2008 and the crushing victory he was given by the folks at Permatang Pauh in Penang represents the popular vindication of a man who cannot be finished off as of yet.

In the year 2000, while seeking the support of the Umno to build a web portal for the Malay community, stories of how some Umno members were supportive of the ‘reformasi’ were told me. “My grandson of 5 will shout ‘reformasi’ at home and when we ask him why, he would reply: ‘Hidup Anwar’,” was one story. This is where Anwar Ibrahim will draw more support, I thought to myself, and it was the youth. It is the pool of young Malaysians who would want change in the country and they would have to support someone like Anwar Ibrahim to get the country to change. And it is happening in many ways though I have to say that many of the ‘reformasi’ supporters of 1998 are not teenagers anymore but they are still attracted to the ‘reform’.

The year 2008 was iconic in many ways. While I was far away from Malaysia during the March 08 elections in the country, I knew beforehand that the PR will snatch more states and will even grab more than 60 seats in the August Parliament of Malaysia. What I did not know was that 5 states would fall and the PR would grab 82 seats in Parliament and Malaysia-Today editor Raja Petra Kamarudin was one person who predicted such a tsunami. I was at Senegal covering the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) Summit at Dakar when Anwar Ibrahim made history once again. Leading the PR while unable to be a candidate himself, he wrecked havoc against the BN and sent massive tremors within the Umno, tremors that are still being felt and may be felt for a much longer time to come.

During an interview with a Senegalese TV station, I was asked to explain the political situation in Malaysia. My answer was that it’s the inevitable that had happened in Malaysia and that this may be the last time the BN may win the general elections. The interviewer asked me why would that be the case, and I said that the people of Malaysia was a wonderful people and they had chosen change for the better or for the worst and by choosing change, they have created history in the country since never before had an opposition coalition or opposition party garnered so much ‘national’ support like the PR did under Anwar Ibrahim.

I added that: “It is not really the Prime Minister’s fault that has lead to the BN to be close to defeat in March 08 but it is the BN itself and its rigidity as well as its refusal to accept reality,”

“Reformasi,” resounded again at Permatang Pauh and it was the crushing victory of Anwar Ibrahim and his historic return to Parliament that may finally be the turning point in Malaysia’s political future. Will the PR win again in future by-elections or in the next General Elections? The answer lies in the hands of the Malaysian people, not in that of pundits or journalists.


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