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Reformasi: The Struggle Continues

The past few days the country has gone through a roller coaster ride. On March 7, the Court of Appeal overturned Anwar Ibrahim’s acquittal in the Sodomy II case. On March 8, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 carrying 239 people lost contact. At the point of writing, the flight is still missing, making it one of the most puzzling flight disasters in history.

I was 16 when Anwar was sacked in 1998, and subsequently imprisoned for the first case. I still remember how shocked everyone was at the incident. Although young, I was an avid reader of politics and knew of the institutional destructions that Dr Mahathir Mohamad had wrought on the royalty, legislature, judiciary, civil service and press.

But the disgusting and outrageous slander and assault on Anwar were something else. After the chaotic 80s when Mahathir was challenged and he responded by shaping the state to his image, he then projected a vision of a developed, liberal and democratic Bangsa Malaysia in the year 2020. Vision 2020 took a severe beating when Anwar emerged with his infamous black eye, and has never recovered since.

The revulsion stirred a nation as massive street protests emerged, and the government responded in the only way they knew – with violence, arrests and even torture.

Now, a drama based on the same script is emerging again, simply to persecute Anwar. Similarly, the prosecution seemed like a comedy of errors, if only the charge and consequences were not so devastating. The timing was clear, to upset the Kajang move to put Anwar in Selangor that had confounded Umno-BN so dearly.

Those of us, like me, who could recall the surreal years of Reformasi, now find ourselves in déjà vu. Mahathir may be retired, but Mahathirism is alive and kicking. The days when political opponents are slandered and imprisoned under false circumstances have not ended. Beneath the veneer of transformation and moderation of the Najib Razak administration, we are facing more of the same.

It is crucial that we do not let this moment pass. Cynics might argue that this is the case of Anwar the individual. But it was the dawning of political consciousness for many young and previously apathetic Malaysians. Lest one forget, many thought Reformasi to have died when the opposition, particularly Keadilan, did disastrously in the 11th general election. Some predicted the end to be Anwar’s release in the same year, as they perceived Reformasi to be simply a free Anwar movement.

But Reformasi has a much bigger meaning. When one notes the massive political changes in the 12th general election and the following five years that culminated in the subsequent election, it is a mistake not to look at how Reformasi played a major role in allowing this to happen.

One of the most powerful consequences of Reformasi was to put the issue of civil liberties, democracy and social justice at the centre of Malaysian politics after decades where race and religion dominate the discourse. Until today, the powers-that-be continue to try to dictate the agenda to be the same divisive issues. The sacking of Anwar brought a new low in Malaysian politics as the establishment sought to respond to their political rivals through gutter and violent politics, instead of reasoned argument.

We must not let them triumph. Reformasi, the 8th of March 2008, Bersih and the 5th of May 2013, brought to the fore many young Malaysians who voice and acted for change in many different and courageous ways. If anything, we should seize the tragedy to remind ourselves that the struggle must go on. We must show that the imprisonment of Anwar will not deter us, but instead inspire us to stand up for our rights and make the country right again.

Let us also not forget the other major event that shook the country this week that I mentioned, the MH370 disaster. Let us all pray for the safety of the passengers, the crew and their loved ones.