Aliran Eye-witness Account

Justice for All
Azizah receives a rapturous reception in George Town while Karpal apologises if he had hurt the feelings of Muslims

by Anil Netto and R.K. Surin

8.30 pm, Monday, 1 February 1999
Dewan Sri Pinang, Penang

The 4,000-strong crowd at the auditorium fell silent - you could hear a pin drop - as veteran DAP politician Karpal Singh walked slowly up to the rostrum to respond to a politically charged question from the floor.

A Muslim member from the audience had asked Karpal to explain his previous strong stand against the setting up of an Islamic state in Malaysia. Almost a decade ago, Karpal had ruffled PAS members when he declared that there would be "an Islamic state over my dead body." PAS' goal of setting up an Islamic state has, in the past, been a stumbling block in attempts to forge a united opposition front with the DAP.

"I was very hurt by your remarks," said the Muslim who had dashed to the mike as soon as the question-and-answer session started to ask Karpal to explain his stand. Baiting Karpal, someone in the crowd yelled, "Tarik balik!" (withdraw the remarks), adding to the pressure on the DAP leader.

How would Karpal handle this delicate situation? For the first time, a DAP forum had succeeded in drawing large numbers of Malays - a mix of ADIL supporters, disenchanted UMNO members, and PAS faithfuls, all exuberant and high-spirited - besides the usual non-Malays and NGO activists who had come in the spirit of Reformasi.Would Karpal put the Muslims off again? Indeed, the DAP veteran's response would have a significance that would extend far beyond the confines of the packed auditorium: it could either further cement or break the new-found sense of unity among opposition parties.

"We in the DAP are not anti-Islam," Karpal began. "If I had hurt anyone by my past remarks, I apologise." At this, sections of the audience - probably Muslims - burst into applause. One Malay following the proceedings over one of the closed circuit screens outside shot a 'thumbs up' sign.

Karpal explained that the Constitution regards Islam as the official religion. "We accept that," he continued, but pointed out that the Constitution also provided that all other religions may be professed in peace and harmony. "All religions are for fairness and equality," he stressed. His remarks seemed to placate the Malays present.

This episode illustrates the underlying differences and tensions within the Reformasi movement, which comprises a whole spectrum of Malaysians of various ideological strands - Islamic groups, DAP supporters, pro-Anwar UMNO members, ADIL activists - seeking justice. Indeed, the Islamic state issue is likely to be a stumbling block - though not an insurmountable one - in efforts to unite the various parties in the Reformasi movement.

Karpal went one step further and offered to provide free legal aid to relatives of victims of the Memali tragedy - a move that went down well among the Muslims in the crowd, one of whom had complained bitterly about the authorities handling of the incident in the mid-1980s.

Earlier that evening, as we were driving to the Dewan for the 'Justice for All' forum, we got stuck in a massive jam about a kilometre away from the venue. The police were deployed at a road-block and were scrutinising each vehicle.

"Oh no," we thought "Here they go again ...." On our left was a red sporty Proton Satria - with a big Reformasi sticker on its back windscreen. On our right, another car - with a "Justice for Anwar" sticker. We were on the right track....

The police "checked" our road tax, and then, hurriedly waved us through. "What a relief!"

After parking near the venue, we hurried across to the Dewan. Already scores of people were making a beeline for the hall. The talk was to start at 8.30 pm, but by 8.15, the organisers could not admit any more people as the hall was already packed with about 1,500 people.

We had a look around outside - four close-circuit television sets had been placed at strategic locations outside the hall and huge crowds had already gathered around them. Looking around, we spotted friends and colleagues who had all along been secret - and unlikely - Reformasi supporters. It was like a big "coming-out" party - people whom you never expected to be there were there, including many middle-class Malays: it was like innocent employees by day, Reformasi supporters by night.

Faced with a huge crowd pressing in, the organisers finally relented and opened the doors for everyone. A sea of humanity surged into the already packed air-conditioned auditorium. By now, it was standing room only. On stage were DAP secretary general Lim Kit Siang, Karpal, poet-cum-human rights lawyer Cecil Rajendra, journalist and ADIL protem committee member Rustam Sani and…the biggest attraction of them all, Dr Wan Azizah!

Still, the crowd kept streaming in.... Already Malays, Chinese and Indians had filled the hall to bursting point. So packed was the auditorium that the organisers resorted mid-way through the forum to inviting women who were standing to come up on stage to sit on rows of seats placed behind the speakers.

The Chinese guy on my right was reading Harakah and then turned behind to the Malay gentleman seated behind me to start an animated political discussion. Elsewhere in the hall, others were engrossed reading Aliran Monthly!

Someone said that he had seen the Penang chief of police in uniform coming in earlier to take a seat in the hall. The police presence was barely noticeable although a few police trucks were discreetly parked outside. Still, the place must have been swarming with plainclothes police personnel!

When Azizah entered the hall, people of all ethnic groups rose to their feet as one, chanting "Reformasi!" The auditorium shook with their thunderous heart-thumping cries. Those near Azizah mobbed her, photographers jostled and cameras flashed. The crowd broke out in rapturous applause, as she inched her way forward to the stage.

More and more, it seems that Azizah, who heads the new Social Justice Movement (Adil), is the only person who can bring together all the different strands in the Reformasi movement. "It was electrifying - that this humble person could command so much admiration from the crowd," observed an Aliran member in the audience, of the superstar reception that Azizah received. There was no doubting who the crowd's favourite was, despite the presence of veteran politicians such as Karpal and Kit Siang, on whose home turf in Tanjong sits the Dewan Sri Pinang.

The organisers kicked off the evening by thanking the Police for allowing the talk to go ahead (credit has to be given where it's due).

Rustam recounted the injustice surrounding his father's detention in the 1960s, while Cecil spoke as a concerned Malaysian citizen about recent disturbing political developments and ended his speech with a couple of stirring poems.

When it was Azizah's turn to speak, she greeted the crowd in Mandarin "Ni how mah?" (how are you?) in typical Anwarian style. In a soft, soothing, almost mesmerising voice, she recounted the ordeal that she and her family had to go through after Anwar was sacked as deputy prime minister. When she saw the multi-ethnic crowd present that night, she said it gave her hope.

Allaying the uncertainty hanging over Chinese Malaysians, she stressed that the Reformasi movement does not condone rioting or violence from any side. Quoting from Confucius, she spoke about taking "the middle-path," about not going to extremes. Above all, she envisioned a Malaysia that is peaceful, harmonious and prosperous, and one that is free from corruption and abuse of power. The crowd hung on to her every word.

Kit Siang was the last to speak. He highlighted his son Guan Eng's plight in prison and the exorbitant highway tolls following privatisation - or 'piratisation" as he calls it. Throughout the evening, one or two people in the audience would pepper the proceedings with shouts of 'Undur Mahathir!' (Mahathir, resign) at which the crowd would laugh. Outside, vendors did brisk business selling the by-now famous Reformasi iced drinks and a host of Reformasi paraphernalia: books, magazines, tapes…

Someone was even selling T-shirts with the message 'No matter how hopeless…" on the front. At the back was written, "we will never surrender" with a portrait of Anwar raising a clenched fist.

That night in Penang was a beginning - and an important one. For the first time, Malays including PAS members had thronged a DAP event on Penang island, turning it into a multi-ethnic event. For the first time, DAP leaders had addressed a DAP forum in Penang island almost entirely in Bahasa Malaysia. For the first time, Wan Azizah had addressed a major public forum in the heart of Georgetown, bringing the message of Reformasi to a predominantly ethnic Chinese area.

The questions relating to Islamic issues raised by PAS members during the question-and-answer session appeared to make some of the non-Muslims feel a little uneasy. But the very fact that PAS members were at a DAP talk in large numbers and raising issues peacefully was a significant breakthrough in forging a multi-religious and multi-ethnic opposition.

It also marked a logical progression in the Reformasi movement to a stage where differences are not glossed over but tackled honestly and forthrightly. The process of exploring what Malaysians have in common - a quest for justice based on universal values - while recognising, accepting and respecting differences in ideology may be painful at times. But the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow - a new society founded on the ideals of justice and truth - promises to make that journey well worth the effort.