FACE OFF: A Malaysian Reformasi Diary (1998-9) by Sabri Zain (BigO Books, 2000, 198 pages)
If you’re the type to follow the news (well, you must be, since you’re reading a newspaper) you might be experiencing a rush of déjà vu. That is, if you were alive and sentient during the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim almost exactly ten years ago.
You may choose to recall the events of the time by gathering your grandchildren around and regaling them with heart-warming stories, such as “The first time Grandpa heard the word sodomy mentioned on TV was…”
Or you can read this book. Face Off is a compilation by someone who was hitherto not known as a journalist. The word ‘blogger’ didn’t exist then either, but the Internet did, and it’s the Internet that made Sabri Zain’s name.
He was an ordinary Joe, with no party-political affiliations, who happened to be present during those anxious months. He would often post his reports on reformasi demonstrations and ceramah within hours of the events. I used to read them on the Sangkancil mailing-list, where the other stalwart was the late MGG Pillai.
Although the wonderful Pillai often indulged in conspiracy theories, Sabri’s was a more ground-level gaze. His very first posting, A Spark Is Lit, is an account of the massive demonstration in KL on 20 September 1998, just a few hours before Anwar got arrested. The article immediately got forwarded all over the place and was printed in the alternative print media.
The reason it was so widely read: People started to really distrust and even hate the TV and newspapers. Utusan Malaysia honcho (who would later become Information Minister) Zainuddin Maidin defended himself thus: “We’re biased. But we don’t tell lies.”
But it was Utusan Malaysia that accused all women at a demonstration of being prostitutes. And so it’s up to Sabri to wonder if the actual prostitutes were not the ones who wrote the report.
What distinguished Sabri from the many other commentators at the time was that he could write. Each article unfolds like a keenly observed narrative with suspense, pathos, and not occasional humour. He is particularly good at capturing the ground-breaking camaraderie and optimism of gathered crowds, when people of all stripes came together to express their disgust. When an all-Malay panel can convene at the Chinese Assembly Hall, you know the country’s in for an interesting time.
Nowadays, if we want to feel like ‘we were there’, most of us would resort to Youtube. Sabri could give you that rush purely with words, and this is what makes Face Off probably the finest example of Malaysian first-person reportage in book form.
This is not to say that Sabri was unbiased. Who was it that said, “Objectivity is a kind of ignorance?” He was fully behind the people who would start Parti Keadilan and does not apologise for it. But, compared to the system embodied by Zainuddin, he came across like a shining voice of reason. I am sure his tone – passionate but measured and witty – managed to convert quite a few to the cause.
Sabri has been living overseas for some years now. I don’t know if this has anything to do with the libel suit against him by a justly-forgotten personality of that era. But in his place there are many others who now bear witness, just not as consistently, eloquently or urgently.
His last article in the book takes place exactly a year after the first.. You can’t quite imagine that so much was packed into those 12 months; it’s like the nation is still reeling from it.
Reading Face Off now might make you sigh, because you miss the time when certain personalities existed more as icons than mere, fallible politicians. But you can’t stay pessimistic for long, because, as it emerges, the true heroes in this book are not the adored leaders but the ordinary people who demonstrated courage and resilience in the face of a massively entrenched, hegemonic system.
This book is currently out of print. But the good news is that all the articles in it can be found online, which is where they started. They form a valuable portrait of a time when Malaysians decided to not be so afraid.
(Malay Mail, 13 August 2008)