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It was September of 1998 when the Malaysian political crisis took a turn for the worse. The country's Deputy Prime Minister and heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, was sacked. Two weeks later, he was arrested by masked gunmen armed with sub-machine guns and placed under detention without trial. The victim of the draconian Internal Security Act. Dissatisfied with the mainstream media reports over what was happening, Sabri Zain decided to file his own reports on the internet.

A compilation of his internet writings has now been published by BigO Books. Face Off: A Malaysian Reformasi Diary (1998-99) is Sabri's eye-witness account of the winds of social and political change that swept the country in the wake of the Anwar Saga. Interview by DAYANEETHA DE SILVA. Pictures by COLIN NICHOLAS.

Where and how did you learn your journalism?

I certainly didn't learn it from university — I was trained as a civil engineer. The writing was certainly in the blood — my late father started his working life as a script writer, then Head of Malay Drama in what was then Radio Television Singapore, eventually became Radio and Television Malaysia director-general and finally an independent film producer. Being a voracious reader helped a lot as well. The mechanics of journalism was pretty much learnt on the job — in the Star, and working with journalists on the other side of the fence as a PR man.


But the soul of journalism — that questioning mind, that insatiable curiosity, that fascination with things happening around you, that foolhardiness that takes you just to the edge — now, that you can't learn from books or dad or working. Don't ask me where that came from, because I don't know.

As a writer, what are your influences? Who continues to inspire you?

I'm not fussy with my literature — I am as comfortable with de Maupassant's Boule de Suif as I am with the latest Tom Clancy action thriller. But if one were to pin it down to one or two individuals, I would probably rate George Orwell and Woody Allen as my all-time favourites — I could read anything by them. My desert island book would undoubtedly be Orwell's Homage To Catalonia, chronicling his experiences as a volunteer with the Republican militias during the Spanish Civil War. But I have always been fascinated with any personal account of the great historical events that often and quite unexpectedly sweep past our usually humdrum lives. John Reed's account of the Russian revolution. Dennis Bloodworth's The Reporter's Notebook. Edward Behr's Anyone Here Been Raped And Speaks English?, which is about his experiences as a war correspondent in India, Pakistan, Vietnam and Algeria.

History itself is also an obsession with me, especially the history of Malaya. I'm a keen student of the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals — the history aside, I think it's a world-class literary classic. Like any literary work of the medieval age, it has its downright boring moments — the endless geneaologies of rulers, every girl must be of peerless beauty, no army or fleet numbers less than "the thousands past counting..."


But, on the other hand, the sheer narrative power is electric in many passages. It is most brilliant when the author admires the cunning or cerdik of the peoples of the peninsula — time after time, the "men of Melaka" are just too clever for the foreigner and there is sheer artistry, wit and humour in the way the Melaka men (and women!) frequently outwit, outflank and befuddle all and sundry — from the Emperor of China to the largest Siamese fleets. Sorry, a deep sense of history is very important to me, and I can go on and on about the subject! We didn't defeat our enemies with brute force in those days — we just used our wits and cunning. Something our current crop of "rulers" can perhaps learn from.

What is the role and tradition of journalism in Malaysia? Is nation-building the paramount role of the press?

I don't like the term "nation-building" — it has a fascist ring about it. It elicits images of flag-waving and chest-beating; big, tall skyscrapers; big, fat, factories; miles and miles of glitzy shopping malls; miles and miles of superhighways where pristine forest used to be. I prefer "society-building."

A nation can have all the biggest, tallest, longest skyscrapers, factories, shopping malls and superhighways in the world — but if its society is a weak, grovelling mass of spineless protoplasm, I wouldn't want to live there.

The paramount role of the press is to be the eyes, ears and voice of society. The press helps shape its ideals, guards its values, defends its dignity, fuels its courage, protect its weak and fights the brave fight. It propels society forward — spiritually, culturally and intellectually — instead of trying to hold it back. That's what the press should be. Unfortunately, the tradition in Malaysia has primarily been flag-waving, chest-beating, skyscrapers, factories, shopping malls, superhighways... and protoplasm.


What spurred you into posting your Reformasi Diary on the internet in the first place? At the same time as these events in Kuala Lumpur, Indonesia were in upheaval and there was evidence of mass displays of courage as well as hysteria which the press there were an integral part of. Were you in contact with journalists in Jakarta?

Well, for one thing, Indonesia had absolutely nothing to do with it. Zip. Nada. Of course, like any other decent human being, I cheered loudly when they gave Suharto the kick up the arse. Of course, like everyone else, I too was appalled at the violence and atrocities. I was also a little curious of what the Indonesian people would now do with their newly-found democracy. But that was it.

As far as I was concerned, Malaysians are a completely different society, we have vastly different problems and the solutions would be vastly different as well. The demonstrations here had no racial overtones whatsoever, unlike the riots in Indonesia. Much of the dissent here was sparked by injustice and outraged dignity, rather than the grinding poverty that was the case in Indonesia. As far as I was concerned, what was happening in Indonesia might as well have been happening on the moon.

In my case, it started from the day Anwar was sacked, when the local media went to town with reports that Anwar was a depraved bisexual and adulterer; was corrupt; a traitor; a CIA spy; a leaker of state secrets; probably even a murderer.

I was no fan of Anwar but the media onslaught definitely turned me over. I was outraged — this was not journalism. Worse still, the press were treating us as though we were stupid. I had had enough. I knew I couldn't trust anything at all I read in the local media, so I began collecting reports by foreign news agencies and emailing them to friends. Then I started writing my own pieces — and that was beginning of the diary.


What is/was your experience of working in the mainstream press? How heavy and how often was censorship? How different do you think this is from the way the mainstream press works in, say, the UK?

Well, I certainly experienced the Mother Of All Censorship when I started working with the Star — the paper was closed down by the government less than a week after I joined! This was during Operation Lallang in 1987. We were re-opened five months later, but the Star was never the same after that. During my next few years in the paper, I really didn't experience much censorship — I wrote for the IT beat, so not much room for muck-raking and rabble-rousing there.

It was only when I was on the other side of the fence, as communications manager for World Wildlife Fund, that I saw press censorship first-hand. I would work for weeks, sometimes months with journalists, on environmental exposes — a nasty road project going through a park or a factory spewing filth into a lovely river, or a dam going up in the middle of pristine rainforest, or yet another resort killing coral reefs.

Then suddenly, the poor journalist would get called up by some faceless editor and be told that the story was being spiked, or to stop pursuing it. Eight times out of 10, the reasons would always be the same — the Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) or minister or corporate fat cat or some other big-shot is not going to like it. The ultimate scare, of course, would be if the PM didn't like it.

Of course, you can get exactly the same thing here in the UK — stories can be killed or watered down by a newspaper because someone rich, powerful or influential would not like it, though they would do it more subtly. But you know what the main difference is here in the UK? If one newspaper does not publish it, there are a dozen others which will. In Malaysia, if one story is killed by a newspaper for political reasons, don't dream that another newspaper is going to pick it up.

Let's tackle some enduring myths here (but they endure for the good reason that they serve a purpose). Although the debate on press freedom is often portrayed and seen as an East/West dichotomy, you are, I'm sure aware of the fact that the media in India, Thailand, Philippines is diverse and generally freer. Indonesia, in its agony and upheaval, has some shining examples of truth-telling, brave reportage.

Errr... yes, agreed. Your question?

While Reformasi has seen many pro-Anwar websites spring up, what do you think of the quality of Malaysian journalism? Are there enough trained journalists to maintain credible, objective reporting?

I don't think training is going to help much. You can train someone to write like Hemingway — but it would be just so much fodder for the spike if he works within a system that strangles free expression and open debate. I work with journalists from around the world — and I can honestly say that, in terms of writing ability, investigative skill and commitment to their craft, Malaysian journalists can be right up there competing with the best in the world. But they are not allowed — and even sometimes do not allow themselves — to be everything they can be. The change has to come from within society, not from the profession. All journalists can do now is to help change that society.

One of the classic reasons for maintaining censorship of the media is that the public is not ready to participate in the democratic process without resorting to violence, in other words a "guided" democracy must be practised until people are ready. Are Malaysians mature enough for a free, uncensored press?

If people are not mature enough for a free press, what makes them mature enough to elect their own leaders? If we are not mature enough to participate in the democratic process without recourse to peaceful assembly or protest, why did we even bother to be an independent country in the first place? Unless, of course, independence is only exchanging some white-skinned Tuans (masters) for some brown-skinned ones. If we do not believe that Malaysians can rule themselves without the guiding hand of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) or, worse still, one very powerful individual in UMNO —why did we bother getting rid of the British at all?

What if those thousands of demonstrators lining the streets of Kuala Lumpur were transported 43 years ago and were shouting "Merdeka!" instead of "Reformasi!", shouting "Freedom and Liberty!" instead of "Truth and Justice!"? Would UMNO have called them "trouble-makers," "traitors," "rioters"? Would they have said, "What are these people doing? The British give us a good life, we have enough to eat, they build roads and tall buildings and nice monuments. Why must these people do this? We don't want to be like Indonesia and the Dutch. It will scare away the tourists!"

Is the call for "Truth and Justice!" so different from that of "Freedom and Liberty!"? Should we just stop at "Merdeka!" or go on to the next stage of building our democracy? Do we really want a democracy? Or just a Malaysian "Tuan" who will tell us what to think, what to do, who'll say "just leave it to me, I'll take care of you?" Is that what we really want?


You have followed events in Malaysia closely since September 1998. Recently, Singapore's Senior Minister made these comments at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur (Aug 17): "When I met him (Dr Mahathir) in Davos last year, shortly after the Anwar arrest, I asked him: Why did you arrest him under the ISA (Internal Security Act)? How can he be a national security threat when only four weeks ago, he was your deputy for five years, and he told me - and I was flabbergasted - that he did not know that Anwar was going to be arrested under the ISA..." He also said Dr Mahathir had nothing to do with the assault on Anwar. The Senior Minister said his "sympathies are with him (Dr Mahathir)." In a later interview with Reuters, the Senior Minister said the Western media "gave it a spin that I was criticising him (Dr Mahathir)." As an Asian journalist, what do you think?

But "spin" is what vibrant journalism is all about! The western media gives the story a "LKY slams Dr M" spin; the Singapore media gives the "LKY sympathises with Dr M" spin; the Malaysian media gives the "LKY ungrateful guest" spin.

But in a democratic state, you get the opportunity to read everybody's spin — and the reader makes up his own mind about where the truth lies — and there are usually nuggets of truth in almost every version of a story. A free press assumes, and quite rightly, that people can think for themselves. In our society, however, the only approved "spin" is the government "spin" — they assume we Malaysians are stupid sheep who can't think for ourselves.

An UMNO Youth goon recently commented that it does not support even peaceful demonstrations by the people because giving them the right to assembly would be like "giving knives to children." That sums it all up — the people are just a bunch of naughty kids who occasionally need to be kept in line with the Federal Reserve Unit's rotan. It didn't stop UMNO Youth from staging a noisy, violent demo in front of the Chinese Assembly Hall a few weeks later, though. At least we know now who the real brats are.


While you were writing your Reformasi Diary and posting it on your website, were you ever afraid of being arrested?

I used to spend hours thinking of reasons why they would not want to arrest me, or why they would want to, and try to figure out the probability of it happening. I would place myself in the shoes of my very worst enemy and try to think of the pros and cons, the advantages and disadvantages of arresting Sabri Zain. But, in the end, I came to the conclusion that it doesn't really matter. You can't hope that evil, desperate men would make reasoned decisions, so you prepare for the worst.

I used to keep a small bag near my front door. In it was a small towel, a bar of soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, underwear and my asthma medication. I kept there just in case I would get that call at three in the morning from the police and they wouldn't give me time to gather those few essentials. I even had a readily-prepared email letter that friends would send out in the event of my arrest. So, sure I was scared of being arrested. But, when you prepare yourself for it, it doesn't bother you so much. It also helps when you know you have done nothing wrong in the eyes of your Maker.

What are the most important qualities of being a journalist in countries where censorship still rules?

Courage, cunning and an affected innocence. You need the courage to write what you feel is the truth, whatever the outcome. If your editor won't have any of it, you'd then need cunning to re-write your story in a way that would be palatable to the powers-that-be, yet still shed some truth on the issue. And if your editor runs the story and the s*** hits the fan, you will need an affected innocence to pretend you don't know what all the fuss is all about!

There is some talk that you "ran away" to Britain to avoid a clampdown in the wake of the Reformasi movement. Would you like to comment?

I really wish it was that exciting — persecuted dissident evades police terror and makes dangerous journey abroad into self-exile! Unfortunately, the truth is much less glamorous — I found a great job overseas. For many years, I'd been planning to work for wildlife conservation on the international scene. If anything, I would have probably left the country much earlier had it not been for the Anwar crisis. I turned down a job in the Netherlands in late 1998 and again in 1999 because I felt there was still too much for me to do in Malaysia. My current job in the UK actually fell vacant in early 1999, but even then I hesitated. But this was a dream job for me — helping to monitor international wildlife trafficking and poaching — and I realised I had to go sooner or later. So I left in October 1999. I have always been — and still am — committed to a career in nature conservation — politics was just something that was thrust upon me, like a pile of bricks!

What do you think of the current Islamisation of Malaysian politics? Is politics the only game in town?

No... I don't think it's just politics — but it's not just religion either. I think that the Islamisation has been happening for at least the past decade. As the country progressed beyond leaps and bounds, as we built the region's best superhighways, its highest buildings and towers, its largest and most glittering shopping malls — the Malays especially began questioning — where is this all leading us to? We Malays are a deeply spiritual people. We saw our material world surging ahead at breakneck speed but, spiritually, we were standing still, going nowhere.

The economy was in bloom, but there was no corresponding flowering of the arts, culture, thought, expression. As far as our leaders were concerned, all that was nice but will it get us a World Record-beating monument to our economic greatness? Our stomachs were full, but our souls were starved. So Malays turned to our religion for nourishment.

The Anwar affair was only the straw that broke the camel's back. Dignity is a very important part of the Malay psyche and that dignity was trampled on. We were ashamed of the headlines screaming sodomy., ashamed of self-inflicted wounds, ashamed of policemen who behave more like thugs, ashamed of stinking mattresses gracing our highest courts of law.

And I think many of us were ashamed of ourselves for allowing all this wickedness to happen. With all semblance of dignity lost, the only thing we could turn to for comfort is religion. This thing about maruah, dignity, it's a very Malay thing — and I am constantly baffled how UMNO, of all people, fails to understand this. They have not reacted to this crisis the way a Malay would react.

You dedicated your book to the OKTs (orang kena tuduh — the accused). What else do you think should be done either to highlight their plight or for them?

What has happened to these people is unjust. They were exercising their constitutional right to express themselves and to assemble peacefully. They were dispersed with brutal violence, detained under harsh conditions and are now being squeezed through the cogwheels of a discredited legal system. It is unfair, it is wrong. These people, their families, their loved ones, do not have to go through all this trauma. Some have lost their jobs, some have even been abandoned by friends and family.

They need financial help, legal help, moral support, in fact, any help that anyone can give. But I think, most of all, more needs to be done to tell everyone that these people were not the rioting looters and thugs that UMNO and the local media make them out to be. These were not politicians or NGO activists or criminals.

These were ordinary people — security guards, fast-food restaurant supervisors, taxi-drivers, clerks — people like you and me. They had nothing to gain from being heroes — and everything to lose. They didn't wake up one fine morning and say to themselves, "I want to do something heroic today!" They simply found themselves in situations where they had to make choices — either standing back and folding their arms or getting involved, either doing what was right or doing what was wrong. And what made them heroes was they did get involved and they did what was right — no matter what the implications would be on their lives.

They are the real heroes in this tragic episode of our history — not the politicians or the lawyers or even the writers. These people showed courage and care for others — attributes any Malaysian should be proud of — no matter what side of the political fence you are on. That is what I want future generations to remember.

We know that the Reformasi movement managed to galvanise a people. But it is still a loose grouping of people whose coordination (between them) could have been much better. What do you see then as the faults and failures of the Reformasi movement?

I think the biggest success of Reformasi is that it managed to galvanise people of all races. It was the most significant political issue to have rocked our country since Independence and, remarkably for Malaysia, it was not a racial issue at all — despite all the attempts by UMNO and the media to racialise the issue, to divide and conquer. That is perhaps also the root of Reformasi's biggest failure — it did not accomplish enough in galvanising the non-Malays in the country.

I don't see the "loose grouping" and "lack of coordination" as too much of a bad thing. I think Reformasi was at its strongest in those early days of October 1998, when the Opposition parties were still coming to grips with this Reformasi phenomenon, but tens of thousands of people were still gathering in the streets — no one asked them to go, no one organised or "coordinated" them, their only "leaders" were their conscience and their keen sense of justice.

I talked to some of these people on the streets. They're not hardened criminals or anarchists or revolutionaries. There were marketing execs, teachers, postmen, housewives — the kind of people you'd meet in your office or at a party. They have as much stake in guarding their rice-bowl and the economy as any of us have. None of the people I met had met any of these mysterious "organisers" UMNO goes on and on about. Why did they come? They just hoped against hope that other Malaysians who were as frustrated as they were would be there too. All other avenues for venting their concern and anger at what has been happening to this country have been denied them — a fair media, public forums, independent-minded elected representatives — what else can they do?

It was not politics then — it was a mass re-awakening, a mass consciousness. Reformasi today is perhaps a little different — but I hope this book reminds them of what it was then, and I hope we don't lose that sense of mass renewal.

The great Malaysian apathy and our reluctance to say what is wrong, what can be changed... is that the real problem?

Apathy has always been the great Malaysian malaise. It was not aggressive conquerors who colonised out country — it was apathy. It was not particularly clever politicians who corrupted our government — it was apathy. Our discredited judiciary, our servile media, our Gestapo-like police force — these were all not part of some grand design — they are there because of our apathy.

But I think September 1998 has changed all that. True, there is still a strong undercurrent of apathy running through our society, like a big, yellow streak of cowardice. But if you had told me just two years ago that tens of thousands of peaceful, unarmed Malaysians would face off with riot police armed with water cannons, tear gas, batons and automatic rifles, I would have called you a lunatic. But it happened. Where did all those people come from? How many of us realised we were living among such heroes in our apathetic society? And those people are still among us today and they may yet again drag Malaysian society kicking and screaming out of its apathy.

The issue of national boundaries, censorship/control of information is one that is becoming untenable in the age of email and the internet. But most countries have something to say on this... you are a test case, in a way... what are your thoughts on this? And how do you see Malaysians and the Malaysian authorities coming to grip with it?

I've been called a head case many times, but never a test case! The Malaysian authorities are finding it difficult to influence public opinion on the internet — how can they when their grasp of the medium is so pathetic? Some government websites do have pretty pictures, stunning Java effects and dazzling design — but little in terms of good content. And whatever content they do have is rarely updated. Much of it is cosmetic and also displays little of the sense of urgency and dynamics that made the pro-reformasi websites so popular.

More importantly, the government seems to disdain the Net's penchant for free discourse, debate and alternative views. Having 100 websites and 100 writers posting to every newsgroup and list server is useless if the content that is posted is no different from the official propaganda found in the newspapers. For the government to make its presence more credible on the Net, it must be willing to be more transparent, more open to criticism, freely admitting mistakes when they occur and more willing to accept alternative ideas. Until that mental paradigm shift occurs, no amount of technology can make official propaganda sound more than what it really is - just official propaganda.

Note: The above was published in BigO #118 (October 2000).

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