Revisiting Reformasi 20 years later

Blast from the past: Tian Chua defying the riot police by sitting in front of a water cannon truck during the Reformasi movement 20 years ago.

To many, Tian Chua was the face of a historic mass movement. It took longer than he’d expected but some of the changes that people demanded back then are happening. 

Tian Chua is facing water cannon trucks and a phalanx of police in riot gear near the Sogo department store in Kuala Lumpur. The 35-year-old protest leader is on the frontline of protesters demanding for Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Moha­mad to undur (resign).

In contrast to what many people thought, when you are facing riot police who are about to charge, it is the calmest moment, according to Tian Chua,

“My adrenaline will go up. But keeping myself calm is important. Basically, you have to be prepared for the tear gas. You regulate your breathing and try not to be overly excited. And also, to prepare to receive the beatings,” he said.

The only thing to do, he said, was to be calm and to see where the tear gas might be coming from and how to walk steadily to a relatively safe place.

That relatively safe place for him was to “charge” at the riot police.

“I was accused of trying to charge at the FRU, which is a total misunderstanding. When the FRU fire the tear gas, you don’t run away.

“You run towards them as that is where there is the least tear gas. If you run away, you are running towards the tear gas canister,” he said, referring to the Federal Reserve Unit, which is the riot police.

Twenty years ago, on Sept 20, weeks after the sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as deputy prime minister and Umno deputy president, thousands of Malaysians took to the streets to ask Dr Mahathir to undur.

That was the first Reformasi street protest. As The Star journalist, I saw that historic moment.

The order from my editors was to be stationed at Dataran Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur, as we received information that the crowd at Masjid Negara would march there and then to the Umno headquarters.

“They’re moving now in your direction. Get ready!” my colleague at Masjid Negara told me at 5.40pm, over a mobile phone the shape of a brick.

I was in the belly of Dataran Merdeka, inside the shopping arcade. I came out of the building and was shocked to see that thousands of protesters – mostly Malays – had taken over the streets. I remember feeling excited and scared.

“This was probably the first genuine mass movement that we have had since the 1970s,” said Tian Chua, whose real name is Chua Tian Chang.

That night, police wearing balaclava stormed Anwar’s house in Jalan Setiamurni 1 in Bukit Damansara, Kuala Lumpur, and arrested him in connection with riots by his supporters.

In the subsequent weekends, I covered Reformasi street protests that were like a Malaysian version of Star Wars – understrength rebels against the evil empire.

The one protester that I remember until now is Tian Chua.

Here’s how it would play out almost every weekend.

A crowd of thousands gathered. The FRU warned them to disperse but they refused. Just before the FRU fired tear gas and used the water cannon trucks, I’d go behind the phalanx of riot police.

The FRU whacked Tian Chua and arrested him. And Elizabeth Wong popped up to give a press statement on his arrest.

(Wong was then with NGO Suara Rakyat Malaysia, or Suaram. She is PKR’s Bukit Lanjan assemblyman and was a former Selangor executive council member.)

Tian Chua decided to get involved in the Reformasi street protest the night of Anwar’s arrest.

“That was a shocking thing. That made many decide. Before that, it was just Dr Mahathir and Anwar in a power struggle,” said Tian Chua who was at that time with Suaram and labour movements.

“What was Reformasi?” I asked Tian Chua, who is a PKR vice-president, on Tuesday.

“When Anwar was sacked, Reformasi was taken to the streets. It was the core of the ordinary people pressing for more radical reforms.

“Reformasi became a slogan that captured the imagination of the rakyat for a better Malaysia, for a new Malaysia free from corruption, free from a one-party authoritarian rule, free from suppression of human rights.

“It was a desire for a freer society and where the system must be reformed,” he said.

“What was Dr Mahathir to you then?” I asked.

“For me, Dr Mahathir was the face of a monopolistic power. His conduct represented a repressive regime that was oppressing the urge for freedom. So, he became the contrast of what people aspired to achieve,” he said.

If this was in the late 1990s, I would not even dare to write Dr Mahathir’s name in the same sentence as Mahazalim.

But it is now the so-called New Malaysia and it seems that Dr Mahathir has mellowed.

“Back then Dr Mahathir was called Mahazalim?” I asked Tian Chua.

“Everything has a historical context. We can’t divorce ourselves from that historical process, where at that time, it was clearly shown that people who hold power through Umno had absolute power to determine the fate of others, and there was no room for people to dispute or question,” he said.

“And therefore, the executor of such power was called Mahazalim. It has nothing to do with Dr Mahathir’s character.”

On why he became the face of the Reformasi street movement, Tian Chua said it was because the media focused on an “easy name to remember”.

“There were unknown figures who were arrested eight or nine times but their names were never recorded. It was easy to pick one name,” he said.

It was also because the police thought that to break the movement it was better to arrest the head of the herd rather than the herd, he said.

Tian Chua thought that the Reformasi movement in the late 1990s would lead to a democratic Malaysia before the turn of the century. He didn’t know that it would take 20 years instead.

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Opinion , Philip Golingai , One Man's Meat


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