The Birth of Reformasi

2 09 2009

By Ron CK Sim

reformasi-blackeyeThis date, 11 years ago, I received a phone call at three minutes past 8 pm from my then girlfriend. I was asked whether I had heard the breaking news. I replied curiously, “No, what is it?” I was then told that DPM Anwar Ibrahim had been sacked. I thought my girlfriend must be joking. “No, the news has just been reported in Buletin Utama!”, she replied. I immediately switched on the little TV in my room and yes, it was real.

That moment marked the start of my curiosity and interest into the ‘black, dark world’ of Malaysian politics.

I was aged 21 then, in the 2nd year of my Mechanical Engineering course in UPM, Serdang. Up to that day, I had always thought that our country was very well governed by the BN coalition. We had a very ‘well-groomed’ and ‘professional-looking’ team of PM and DPM. Both of them looked the part, and could speak good English and stand comfortably side-by-side with any world leaders. I was of course a very naive young man, having just legally entered into adulthood.

For the subsequent days and nights, I was glued to my old-style desktop searching and reading all the related news available on the internet. I learnt about how Anwar was given the ultimatum by Tun Daim Zainuddin to resign his DPM post or be prepared to face serious consequences. Of course Daim was acting as a trusted messenger of PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad. I learnt about how Anwar was forced to leave his office on that very afternoon without being allowed to collect his personal belongings. I also learnt about how Anwar and his entire family were kicked out of the official DPM residence on that very same evening after electricity and water were cruelly cut off.

I wondered, how could Anwar be treated in such an uncivilised manner by Dr Mahathir just hours after being sacked as the 2nd most powerful man in the country?


For the following four weeks, Anwar embarked on a nationwide tour to kick-start the Reformasi movement against the Mahathir regime. That was the start of the “Reformasi!” cry. For whatever reason (probably because the 1998 Commonwealth Games were on-going in KL), at least Dr Mahathir did not order Anwar’s immediate arrest despite the many ‘illegal rallies’ taking place. I must confess that I did not attend any of the Anwar’s rallies although I was following very closely the events surrounding Anwar.

What happened subsequently are well known to Malaysians of at least my age. The balaclava-clad commando-style arrest (non-ISA, then ‘changed’ to ISA), the ‘self-inflicted’ black-eye, the long-drawn kangaroo trial in Augustine Paul’s ‘Irrelevant Court’ featuring Anwar’s star-stubbed team of lawyers (Raja Aziz Adruse, Christopher Fernando, Sulaiman Abdullah, etc) against the current Attorney General, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into then IGP Rahim Noor’s martial art skills, and many more.

Awareness among my fellow students in UPM (and I am quite sure in other local universities as well) were high as evidenced by the sudden long queues at new voters’ registration desks located at every faculty building. Young Malaysians and students like me would like our voices be heard in the coming 10th General Elections which were expected to be held in late 1999 or early 2000.

Shockingly though, the Election Commission, clearly under the thumb of Dr Mahathir, managed to do the unthinkable by denying these 680,000 new voters their rights to vote! The EC’s excuse? All these new voters could not be incorporated in the electoral roll in time for the GE in November 1999, more than a year after my registration! God knows what would have happened if these 680,000 new voters (i.e. on average 3,000 more voters per parliamentary seat!) were allowed to vote in that GE. The ‘Political Tsunami’ might have happened 9 years earlier than 308.

No matter how the mainstream media were trying to spin, I for one knew for a fact that local universities’ campuses were pretty much in anti-government mode. A Reformasi banner was being hung openly at our Engineering lab; Anwar’s black-eye posters were prominently posted on building walls; some lecturers gave 3-minute ‘political speeches’ before starting their lectures proper (as well as ‘lectured’ us to boycott M&M chocolates – for the less imaginative ones, M&M being the initials of a certain PM!); RPK’s “Free Anwar” and “Free Guan Eng” petitions were passed around during lectures for students to sign on their free will; KeADILan, PAS and DAP car stickers were selling like hot cakes and being displayed proudly by students and lecturers alike; and leaflets for opposition’s ceramah were distributed openly by students, for students.

After GE10, came the infamous Birotatanegara (BTN) Seminar conducted by lawyers and senior civil servants from JPM for my batch of final year students. At the Q&A session, every single question directed at the panel of speakers was anti-government kind of questions while the answers given were utterly unconvincing and full of arrogance, threat and ridicule towards those who were brave enough to stand up and ask. I empathised with some female Malay students who could not take the insults hurled at them (e.g. “graduan yang bodoh dan tidak berakal”) and had their tears flowing out. Not having planned to speak up myself, I just could not stand the bullying and hence stood and spoke up at the very end.

I said to those arrogant speakers, “Each of you managed to shoot us down not because you were right but because you were fierce. After this seminar, I am sure what you will report back to your bosses would be one of clear, unequivocal, and overwhelming anti-government sentiment from a huge majority if not all the students in this hall!” For that end-of-seminar salvo, I received a standing ovation from almost all my fellow students!

Those young Malaysians studying in local universities in 1998/99 and 1999/2000 would surely be able to relate to what I have described above. We were the first generation of “Reformasi Babies” and many of us have gone on to achieve great heights in our respective careers. Some have carried on their Reformasi spirit and joined the struggle for change, either in direct politics or through NGOs. But there are also a huge majority who had abandoned their Reformasi spirit or have not at all felt the need for change as they think whatever that have been happening have nothing to do directly with their lives. 

This day, let us all reflect on those early days of the Reformasi movement and ask ourselves what we should do from now on as individuals or more effectively, as groups of individuals. This is not a struggle for one man, but a struggle for righting everything that is wrong with our country today.

Last night, I picked up a quote from watching for the first time the movie “Letters from Iwo Jima”. An American mother wrote to her young soldier son fighting in Iwo Jima, urging him to “do what is right, because it is right“.

I hope my generation of Reformasi Babies will decide to do what is right for our beloved country.


Quote of the Day: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world – indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~  Margaret Mead (1901-1978), an American cultural anthropologist

Injury Time: Re the UMNO-sponsored cow-head protest in Shah Alam – Doubt not that the right-thinking Malaysians of all faiths are with you, our dear Hindu brothers and sisters. Those senseless protesters will have to answer to their Creator come Judgment Day!




2 responses

3 09 2009
Ron CK Sim

Following are the Comments posted on The Malaysian Insider for the article “The Birth of Reformasi” published on its website on 2nd Sep 2009:

written by Afif, September 02, 2009

UPM 1999, I totally feel you brother!

written by zik, September 02, 2009

Yes, I one from the reformasi that point I even asked my family to vote for DAP!!And what had frustrated me so much althou I registered, with all the trick, Im unable to vote..
USM 1998.. I also feel you brother!!!

written by yunnan, September 02, 2009

Thank you, Mahathir.

You created the conducive environment for the evolution of Anak Bangsa Malaysia.

written by susie, September 03, 2009

Keep doing what is right. Our nation needs it badly when our leaders do not do what is right. People’s power need to restore Malaysia back to doing things right legally and lawfully. Unlike our present leaders who pay lip service only and twist and turn the judicial and attorney general’s office and the police to do their will and political expediency. I wonder why people in the police force do not wake up to their senses that they are being used by their leaders for all the wrong reasons!

written by sid, September 03, 2009

Taylor’s College 1999, i feel you brother!

3 09 2009
Collin, Klang

Gone were the days of mutual understanding and respect for other races. How I wish the government would open their eyes to look around beyond themselves and see what is actually happening to the decline of our beloved country, which was once a rising star. The feeling is mutual my dear Brother, so are the frustrations. I agree we should fight today. Fight for our next generation to a better Malaysia so that they can proudly say that they are indeed truely a Malaysian of different races but one same nationality.

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