Thursday, March 20, 2008


"Mati ayam, mati tungaunya (if the fowl dies, its ticks perish too)" - an old Malay saying.

As far as I’m concerned, Umno-BN is deceased. Finito. R.I.P. Kaput. What happened on March 8th was a gigantic Samurai sword that moved so swiftly the 10-headed hydra of Might-Is-Right that has terrorized us for the last 25 years lost all its heads. The BN survivors of the March 8th debacle are all operating in Safe Mode now, their operating systems having crashed big-time. Perhaps the Umno-BN hard drive can still be booted up a few more times and some useful data saved - but the motherboard itself is on the verge of terminal malfunction. So let's not speak ill of the dead.

Anyone who hasn’t been brainwashed by establishment pundits with vested interests can see that Anwar Ibrahim has got what it takes to steer this floundering ship back on course. And what it takes is intelligence, courage, stamina, adaptability, good humor, experience, and most importantly, ethical sense. His resilience has been proven over the last ten years by his capacity to transmute tragedy into triumph, transforming himself from victim to victor - all the while maintaining his dignity, clarity, and focus.

Whatever his early political agenda, the Anwar Ibrahim of 2008 has been forged in the furnace of personal pain and endurance. In 1998 he could have taken the money and run - become an academic or corporate CEO. But he didn’t. He stood up to Mahathir (right) and fought like a man. That’s how he gained my respect and admiration and trust. There are very few in our midst today that I can describe as “heroic.”

Is Chandra Muzaffar a hero? He might have been once, back in the early 1980s when he left academia to battle the monstrous menace of Mahathir. But after his ISA experience in 1987, Chandra’s spirit buckled. He left Aliran to establish JUST and for a few years he continued to say the right things. But he had lost his fire, his fighting spirit. He had gone the way of Lee Lam Thye.

Is Raja Petra Kamarudin (left) a hero? Most certainly. He stood by Anwar Ibrahim in the early days of his rebellion against monumental odds and was arrested under the ISA for his efforts. He was a tireless webmaster for the official Reformasi website and that subsequently led to his launching Malaysia Today - a "no holds barred" local news portal that has played a crucial role in exposing the dark side of Umno-BN and gained an immense readership. Indeed, RPK grew to be such a thorn in BN's backside a police report was filed against him by an Umno hatchetman and he was interrogated for eight hours. He threw his energy into the Opposition campaign as a featured speaker at many ceramahs (political rallies). Although a bona fide prince, RPK has always been accessible, down-to-earth and his finger is firmly on the pulse of the people. A large part of the credit for what happened on March 8th must go to RPK.

[Since this essay was written, much has transpired that warrants the inclusion of a footnote: RPK was arrested under ISA in September 2008 and sent to Kamunting; in November a courageous high court judge ordered his unconditional release, and RPK subsequently went into self-imposed exile; recently, RPK turned petulant and began attacking Anwar Ibrahim, although it appears to be more a personal than political feud. This has dimmed RPK's heroic lustre to a serious extent, even if he remains a positive force for change.]

Is Tian Chua a hero? I would say YES! But his career as a politician is only just beginning and he has a lot of learning to do, especially in terms of his approach. Even so, his fearlessness in the face of police violence has inspired many to speak up or march for justice. There are many other heroes I can think of: Lim Guan Eng, the new Chief Minister of Penang, for example, jailed by Mahathir for speaking up on behalf of a schoolgirl gang-banged by the former Chief Minister of Melaka; Tony Pua, who sold his successful IT business to launch his political career as an outspoken blogger and DAP candidate; Sivarasa Rasiah, who has spent the last 20 years defending human rights... it so happens they are all in the Barisan Rakyat.

And then there's Steven Gan, managing editor of Malaysiakini, who stuck to his guns as a political journalist and quit The Sun when he rubbed the establishment up the wrong way. In 1999, at the height of Reformasi fervor, Steven teamed up with Premesh Chandran to launch Malaysia's first news portal. Over the years Malaysiakini has survived several police raids and the confiscation of its computers. For invaluable services rendered to truth-loving Malaysians, this news portal deserves a standing ovation - and a thousand-fold increase in subscribers!

But to my mind nobody can match what Anwar Ibrahim has accomplished: he has led us through the Chapel Perilous of racial politics and now, for the first time since Merdeka, we can look around and appreciate the beauty of our own diversity and say, “Vive la difference!” On March 9th I was blissed out by a tangible feeling that we are no longer stuck in the rut of ethnocentric tempurungism, that we have finally outgrown all that “Bangsa-Ugama-Tanahair” hot air. I went to town and felt the genuine goodwill and jubilation that shone from every face I saw - Malay, Chinese, Indian, Orang Asli, Dan-lain-lain!

What has been missing all these decades is the possibility that we can love one another as humans, regardless of skin color or creed - that’s because cold-blooded ambition and ruthless greed have no use for empathy and warm feelings, nor does it encourage compassion, kindness, and spontaneous joy. No, it feeds and fattens itself vampire-like on fear - other people’s fear. And now, on that bright Sunday morning after GE12, the fear had dissipated like a bad smell in the winds of change. PKR flags fluttered proudly against a glorious blue Selangor sky, proclaiming that the people's eyes were open at long last.

In the climate of fear Mahathir created during his 22-year reign, anybody who dared speak the truth became a hero - or martyr. Anwar Ibrahim, more than any other political icon in the country, succeeded in transcending his own childhood prejudices to embody the universal values that will unite rather than divide us as a nation. That is indeed the mark of a hero. Let us honor this hero (who nearly became a martyr) by giving him what he fully deserves - the chance to serve as prime minister (at least till he tires of it or we tire of him). At the same time, let us all aspire to become heroes too, so that we will no longer be scared children in need of a grown-up to lead us across the street. Let us each become, in time, self-governing individuals whose relationship to our political leaders is akin to an orchestra’s respect for the conductor, knowing full well that his job is to create a symphony from the potential cacophony of so many different instruments.

[Illustration by Antares from Two Catfish in the Same Hole; photos pinched from various sources]