Aliran Eye-witness Account

The Birth of Parti Keadilan Nasional:
As Good As It Gets

By Dr Maznah Mohamad

The Renaissance Hotel, Kuala Lumpur
10 am, Sunday, 4 April 1999

Much energy, passion and fanfare surrounded the launch of Parti Keadilan Nasional, the newest party in our midst. The crowd was huge, not only filling the expansive ballroom to the brim, but also spilling over into the two floors of the hotel ballroom’s foyer. The emotional and spirited clamour for "reformasi" was contagious. By ten in the morning, at the start of the programme, the air within the ballroom was already highly charged. Loud applause and standing ovations greeted prominent personalities ranging from Anwar’s defence lawyers to opposition party heads as they walked in.

When the time came for the president of the party, Dr Wan Azizah Ismail to enter the hall, she was greeted by an even more thunderous applause and deafening shouts of "reformasi". A "refomarsi" signature tune sung by a well-known local pop group was aired inside the ballroom as she inched her way through the throngs of admirers and well-wishers onto the stage. The launch began with all Supreme Council members taking their seats on the stage.

Shouts of "re-for-ma-si" and takbir of "Allahuakbar" punctuated the speeches that followed. The crowd, it seemed wanted change and they wanted change there and then. And even more than that, "change" seemed to be within their grasp.

The launch started with the organizing committee Chairman, Anuar Tahir giving his opening address. We were told that the organizers had spent six sleepless days trying to put the grand event together with the launch on the seventh day. One could impute all kinds of significance to the launch. It was held at a place called the Renaissance Hotel. It was held on Easter Sunday, the day Christ was resurrected. It was held on 4 April, with the two fours taken to mean "die-die" in Chinese numerology; it was held exactly two weeks before the Muslim New Year, or Awal Muharram; and it was held on one of the clearest days that Kuala Lumpur skies had experienced.

In his speech, Anuar Tahir who was also party secretary-general, explained the significance of the party’s logo. It was a stylised picture of two white crescents, on a background of sky-blue, which can also be visualized as a blue globe encircled within a white oval sphere, looking like an open eye.

Azizah, the party president, was then invited to the podium to deliver her maiden address. As she took her stand on the stage, wild applause and cheers erupted for the woman who had overnight become the single most powerful symbol of a political awakening in this country.

She read out from a prepared speech, at several points, haltingly. The speech was an attempt to spell out the justification for the party, as well as to discredit the present government’s obsession with mega-projects and wasteful structures at the expense of the people’s demands for justice, equitable development and human rights. Although the contents of the speech could have been much improved to focus on laying down the principles of the party, she compensated for the speech’s lack of astuteness and colour by injecting into the address her own brand of impromptu humour and insinuations against the present regime.

While explaining the further significance of the party’s logo she described it as representing an eye. She was an eye doctor, Anwar had a black-eye and the eye was also the mata-mata (colloquial Malay for policeman) who was supposed to be entrusted with the protection of the people. Her warm-heartedness and almost carefree rendering of the brutality of the system made her a most likeable personality and showed that there would be room for a new style and ethos of leadership. The speech was not important. It was as symbolic as was Wan Azizah the persona.

Anwar’s former political secretary, Mohamad Ezam who had just returned from temporary self-exile then read out Anwar’s speech on his behalf. Mohamad Ezam tried hard to emulate the Anwar’s upbeat and forceful oratory style amidst two or three minor scuffles from the floor. Apparently, reformasi supporters blocked some media representatives from a well-known television from entering the hall to cover the event. The speech was quite predictable and lacked any new angle or sparkle on reformasi. About the only thing that was memorable - though unoriginal - in the speech was Anwar’s reference to cronyism, nepotism and corruption, which needed to be expunged from the system. His plea was for building a more just, moral and upright society.

After the speeches ended, the audience was treated to the highlight of the launch. The lights were dimmed, and background music in what sounded like the soundtrack from the film "Star Wars" was played. Wan Azizah pushed a button and a laser-light display of the party’s logo was flashed snappily and in rapid tempo on and around the ceiling of the ballroom. For at least three minutes, the music, sound and lights left not a few people breathless.

The final part of the programme showed clips of the widely circulated "Laungan Reformasi" videotape. There were two gigantic screens on both sides of the stage. The video images flashing onto the screen were a heart-rending reminder of Anwar’s ouster and an even more moving testimony of the power of the people. Anwar’s fiery speeches together with the stupendous sea of people, the wave of masses, the stream of humanity filling the streets and the massive stadium in Kota Baru to listen to his side of the story. It was enough to convince all who were in the ballroom of the tremendous yearning for the system to be righted.

Having been swayed by the hype of emotions surrounding the launch, one could easily forget that an opposition party, no matter how credible it may be, might still be rejected by the vote-casting masses. Memories of a defeated Semangat 46, which failed to caputre the imagination of the Malays; memories of the 1990 elections in which the opposition failed miserably to deny the Barisan its two-third majority; and memories of the Sabah state elections, which saw even a most discredited government resoundingly return to power are enough to jolt ourselves back to reality. We need to do a validity check. Can this new oppositon party loosen Barisan’s grip on power?

There were some give-aways. The opulence of the hotel’s Grand Ballroom, the free distribution of glossy brochures and badges to those invited, as well as the dazzling, dramatic way that the sound and light display was put up to symbolize the party’s launch could have easily convinced those present that here was a party that might just be able to take off and soar to heights that other opposition parties were unable to reach. Here was a party which did not look that it was short on resources. The organisers were certainly no strangers to the business of "rousing" the people and certainly had skills that were borne out of some experience with an efficient and well-endowed party machine.

Is the Parti Keadilan Nasional going to assume the form of a reformed UMNO in a different clothing? Is the Parti Keadilan Nasional going to be able to live up to its professed multi-ethnic platform and principles? Is it going to be able to respond effectively to the multifarious demands of a more complex electorate, that may defy dissection by ethnicity and religion? These were questions that one might want the leadership of this brand new party to answer.

Furthermore, can this party really be the bridge that will close the gap left open by the other opposition parties? It was said that the other strong opposition parties can only appeal to their own uniquely particular constituencies; PAS with its predominantly Malay-Muslim voters and the DAP with its predominantly urban Chinese supporters, while the PRM among an even smaller group of disparate lower-middle and professional class voters. Assuming that it is middle-Malaysia that is going to be the deciding factor for a Barisan loss or victory, would Parti Keadilan be able to come out as its most serious challenger?

The press conference that was held immediately after the official launch was a window to the state of the party’s preparedness. Azizah convened the conference by summarising in English, for the benefit of foreign reporters, the names of the Supreme Council members, as well as the aims and justification for the party. She ended her short and barely audible speech by remarking that she was simply following the path of Cory Aquino. Admitting that she was a political novice, she acknowledged that she would symbolically lead the party.

She fielded most of the questions with short, vague answers and sometimes rhetorical responses. To a question on whether UMNO and other opposition party members would be allowed to join the party, her answer was that everybody was free to do so. When asked where and whether she would be standing for election, she left the question unanswered. To a question on whether she would consider becoming prime minister, she said that it was up to the majority of the people.

The more "complex" questions as to whether the party would still subscribe to the New Economic policy, as to whether the party would countenance having a non-Malay/non-Muslim prime minister, as to whether a Muslim country can accept a woman as prime minister or as to how Anwar Ibrahim could assume leadership of the country if he was convicted were all answered by party deputy president, Dr Chandra Muzaffar.

One would suppose that the party was still a tabula rasa yet to be charted and constructed. For now, the common goals of restoring justice and ridding the system of some of its features of gross injustices would do. For many who have had to endure and observe successive governmental violations of constitutional and democratic principles, such seemingly narrow goals would suffice. History and experience have proved that democracy and justice are the hardest causes to live and to die for.

The press conference ended within an hour while special guests, party officials and organisers adjourned for lunch. Outside the press conference room, masses of people were still milling around, almost expecting more excitement to unfold from the morning’s event. Many people were entertaining themselves at the numerous kiosks set up to sell reformasi paraphernalia, books and clothing. And outside the hotel, liveliness and exuberance permeated the air. Traffic crawled as literature, flags, and badges of the new party were distributed to motorists. Of course, one couldn’t really tell if the honkings meant that motorists were endorsing the new party or that they were simply irate at being caught in the snarl. The overall gut feeling was that nobody would have dared to sound off their annoyance, not when one side of the street had a few hundred people fearlessly chanting their shouts for "reformasi" and "keadilan" (justice) while holding up finely designed posters of Anwar Ibrahim and protest banners. Some were spotting headbands with the impressive Parti Keadilan logo on the front.

It was a most unique Sunday afternoon event, second only to the events of 20 September 1998, when Anwar Ibrahim was arrested after leading one of the biggest public rallies in the heart of the city. On the 4 April 1999, at the site of the most expensive piece of real estate in Kuala Lumpur, flanked by the Petronas Twin Towers on one side and the Kuala Lumpur Tower on the other, a historic beginning heralded a new epoch in this country. Given the grievous circumstances that led to its launch, given the task of trying to defeat a Goliath, this party is as good as it gets. In its birth, the party has issued its unequivocal message for "reformasi". It awaits the people’s vote.