Malaysiakini - the heady days of Reformasi September 11, 2023 12:13

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Three of Malaysiakini and the Power of Independent Media in Malaysia, by Janet Steele, launched September 12, 2023. 

CHAPTER 3 The Reformasi Generation

If you listened carefully, you started hearing conflicting plans from Anwar and Mahathir; that was one of the things that happened. Conflicting policy announcements. But still, it came as a huge shock that day when Anwar was suddenly dismissed. And that day and that time was the trigger for a whole new awakening among my generation.

—Martin Vengadesan

Everything had seemed so good. The economy was growing; the just-opened Petronas Twin Towers and Kuala Lumpur International Airport were the envy of the region. Virtually full employment, annual GDP growth of upwards of 9 percent and very little inflation made Malaysia one of the best performing economies in Asia. Poverty had declined from around 60 percent in 1970 to about 9 percent in 1995—“an impressive record by any standard,” as the Asian Development Bank noted.1

In the center of it all was Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a political powerhouse with an iron hand, no succor for his enemies and a bold vision for making Malaysia a fully developed country by 2020. Malaysiakini’s Ajinder Kaur, a student at the time, remembered:

The country was so peaceful, he is modernizing the nation, and he is this really great guy. We are moving ahead, and Mahathir had this Vision 2020 and says, “Oh, we are going to be this developed nation,” and it was indoctrinated in our textbooks, and we were made to study and present on it, and we think wow, 2020, we are going to be the next super-power of the world.2

“And Anwar,” she added. “Everyone saw Anwar and Mahathir as a really good pair, and they are going to bring—you know, we had so much hope in them.”

For anyone who had been paying close attention, however, like journalists from the Far Eastern Economic Review and Steven Gan of The Nation newspaper in Bangkok, there were signs that all was not well.3 Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic deputy prime minister who also held the portfolio of finance minister, was known not to favor the big development projects of his boss. But these differences seemed minor until the Asian economic and financial crisis hit in 1997.

Abbot (2000: 249–50) notes that Anwar clearly favored austerity measures and cuts in government spending. Speaking out publicly against crony capitalism, he canceled a number of the administration’s high-profile infrastructure projects, including the Bakun Dam, the massive federal administrative center that would become Putrajaya, and a proposed bridge across the Straits of Malacca. Mahathir, on the other hand, favored government bailouts of politically connected conglomerates—at least one of which was controlled by his own son—and prestige companies such as Malaysia Airlines and the national car company Proton.

And then there was what had just happened in Indonesia, where President Soeharto was ousted by a coalition of pro-democracy activists that rallied around the slogan no KKN—korupsi, kolusi or nepotisme. As FEER noted, many of Anwar’s supporters believed it was the ousting of Soeharto that triggered the parting of the ways between Mahathir and his younger protégé:

In the past, Mahathir had repeatedly said he would step down as soon as he “read the signals.” Encouraged by developments in Indonesia, the Anwar camp sought to signal that the time had come for Mahathir to retire.

Anwar made a strong speech about “reform” prior to the run-up to June’s Umno assembly but stopped short of anything else. But his ally Zahid Hamidi, head of Umno’s youth wing, spoke out against “corruption, collusion and nepotism”—the same mantra delivered against Suharto. That was widely perceived as a direct attack on the premier by the Anwar camp.4

On September 2, 1998, Anwar was sacked from his position as deputy prime minister after he refused to resign. The reaction was immediate. Future Malaysiakini chief editor R.K. Anand, who was at UMNO headquarters at the time, remembered:

So we were all gathered, waiting downstairs, and the crowd is relatively calm. The Supreme Council members were upstairs in a meeting. And Anwar’s supporters, about 2,000 or 3,000 of them, were gathered down there. Before the meeting ends he comes down. He comes down and takes a plastic chair and puts it down and climbs on to it, and starts addressing the crowd with his fiery style. Says things like “you know they told me to resign; I refuse to resign. If I am going to fall, I will fall fighting. I will die as a warrior.” And that’s it. The whole crowd goes into a frenzy.

So as we were waiting there, after the meeting, after he left, the crowd was just going wild. And the police did not do anything because there would be bad press. You must remember that because of the Commonwealth Games, there was an overwhelming presence of foreign media there. So that’s why Mahathir came down. And it was for the first time that I actually saw people hurling plastic water bottles at him. His car was kicked and punched, the police had to form a human barricade around him, to get him safely into the car.5

The next day, September 3, the police filed affidavits charging Anwar with five counts of sexual impropriety (sodomy) and five charges of corruption. On September 20, he was detained under the ISA, until a preliminary hearing on the 29th at which he was denied bail.6

Meanwhile, the city erupted. Malaysiakini editor Martin Vengadesan, at that time a music critic for The Star newspaper, remembered:

So suddenly there was an increase in student activism, there were young people joining opposition parties, Parti Rakyat, the youth movement; suddenly you had five times more people than you used to. Then they formed the new party as well, Keadilan [Justice]. Every week there was some escalation. You know the picture of him being beaten up was another sign to people that this façade of a very democratic Malaysia was not true. If the second most powerful person in the country could be toppled so suddenly and fall so hard, and be bashed up behind bars, what more the ordinary person?7

Or, as Ajinder said, “So we always thought like everything is nice and beautiful, and the media made it seem that way as well. So suddenly, when Anwar got sacked, it was like, ‘Oh my God, what is happening to my country?’ ”


Young Malaysians had never seen anything like it. In an era in which even cell phones were scarce, there were protests and speeches at Dataran Merdeka, and nightly gatherings at Anwar’s house in Bukit Damansara, a posh neighborhood which R.K. Anand remembers as being full of “fancy restaurants and whatnot” but not food that ordinary people could afford.8

As friends and well-wishers called on Anwar, the atmosphere outside became almost carnival-like, as thousands of people thronged his house, night after night. Soon vendors started to arrive. “You had sate reformasi, laksa reformasi, people trying to cash in on it,” Anand said. “So it turned into this whole night market kind of thing. And DBKL [the KL City Council] came and put in portable toilets and all this.”

FEER journalists Murray Hiebert and Andrew Sherry noted a few days after Anwar’s ouster that the drama seemed unlikely to blow over, as the former deputy prime minister obviously had a lot of support. “Each day since his ouster, thousands of people—ranging from punk rockers with orange-dyed hair to bearded Islamic teachers, businessmen, activists and opposition politicians—have come to visit the former minister at his relatively modest private house in Kuala Lumpur,” they wrote. “ ‘You groom him like a son, then you kill the son,’ grumbles a middle-aged businessman sitting outside Anwar’s house.”9

A few days later, on September 20, the biggest rally began at the national mosque. Eyewitnesses described Anwar’s calls for reformasi and the display of emotion that greeted them as unprecedented, “the largest opposition rally the country had seen in three decades.” FEER reported:

Alternating chants of Allah-hu Akbar—God is great—with invective against Mahathir, the crowd roared Anwar on as he denounced what he called a conspiracy against him and called for the prime minister to resign. At Anwar’s request, the crowd then made its way to the city’s symbolic heart, Merdeka Square, where independence was declared in 1957. Breaking through police barriers, throngs that had now swelled to about 50,000 people poured into the grassy square to hear further condemnation of the government.10

After Anwar left, part of the crowd marched past the Sogo shopping complex towards the headquarters of UMNO, where they allegedly broke windows and tore down posters of UMNO leaders. Heading towards Mahathir’s residence and demanding his resignation, the crowd of supporters—now estimated at 35,000—was stopped by riot police, who began firing tear gas. Human Rights Watch reported that Anwar was arrested at his home later that night by police armed with assault rifles.

On September 21, the riot police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd that was awaiting Anwar’s appearance at the courthouse. The police made about 100 arrests, “some of them accompanied by beatings.”11

Anand remembered:

When I look back at it in hindsight, it was probably the most brilliant experience of my journalistic career. And I can safely tell you with a high degree of confidence that it was Mahathir who created Reformasi. It wasn’t Anwar. Because you would expect someone who is a deputy prime minister and a really popular leader, and the unceremonious manner in which he was sacked, you would expect protests to take place. And when these protests took place, you immediately come down so hard on the protesters, firing away with your water cannons and tear gas, just for a bunch of people who are gathering. And that stoked the anger, and that just snowballed and snowballed and snowballed, and they started seeing Mahathir as an oppressor, the whole regime as being oppressive, and it just exploded.

Eighteen Days

Each of Malaysia’s mainstream news organizations is either owned by or affiliated with a particular segment of the ruling coalition (Gomez 2004; Nain and Anuar 1998). The Star, Malaysia’s largest English-language daily, is owned by the Malaysian Chinese Association, a partner in the ruling Barisan Nasional. The New Straits Times Press group, which publishes both the English-language New Straits Times and Malay broadsheets Berita Harian and Utusan Malaysia, is owned by UMNO’s holding company, Fleet Holdings Sdn Bhd. The Tamil papers are under the control of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).

There are no better media critics than Malaysian journalists. Carefully attuned to the placement of every word and the nuance of every sentence, they also interpret editorial “reshuffles” with admirable precision. In the 1990s, everyone knew that while the press was controlled by the ruling coalition, it was Mahathir who called the shots. In remembering the events of Reformasi, Malaysiakini editors R.K. Anand and Jegathesan Govindaraju noted that a key moment had occurred about one month before the move against Anwar, when Mahathir “transferred out” senior editors in key press positions who were deemed loyal to Anwar.

FEER noticed this too. Calling it a “media putsch,” the weekly observed on July 30 that in the space of one week, Johan Jaafar and Nazri Abdullah, “both staunch Anwar allies,” had resigned as editors of Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian.

Meanwhile, over at TV3, a free-to-air television channel also owned by the UMNO-linked Media Prima group, a young producer named Wee Yu Meng, now a Malaysiakini editor on the Bahasa Malaysia desk, had received some odd instructions. About one month before Anwar was sacked, he recalled, they had been instructed to add into the daily newscast the statement that “nobody is above the law.” Although he did not fully understand “the agenda” at the time, now he knows that it was “to prepare the mindset of the people.”12

“We get academicians, we get the police, we get everybody to psych out the public,” he remembered. “Nobody is above the law.”

Once Anwar was sacked, it was even worse, Wee said:

You see it is very difficult for us in TV3 and Berita Harian. Because we are directly under UMNO. We are the ones who built Anwar’s character from nobody to deputy prime minister. We built his image, okay? And I remember doing dirty jobs for Anwar too. He attacked Sanusi Junid, the agriculture minister. For almost a month, every night I have to go to Tanjong Karang, which is about two to three hours’ drive away, to show that rats are destroying the paddy field, and the farmers are suffering. I did a lot of propaganda work. So, like I say, I have done so many many things, some of them of which I’m not proud.

At TV3, where the vast majority of journalists were Malay, there was considerable support for Anwar, and also a lot of confusion. Remembering those days, Wee said, “We were lost. Totally lost. We really didn’t know how to react. To follow orders or not to follow orders. We were so divided.”

The management at TV3 quickly brought in new bosses. Kadir Jassin came in, and Chamil Wariya from Utusan Malaysia. Chamil’s job was to “clean the TV3 newsroom.” Anyone—down to the reporter’s level—who was not in line with Mahathir was told either to resign or be transferred elsewhere.

TV3 covered the demonstrations, but it wasn’t easy. Wee remembered Anwar’s ceramah at Masjid Negara. “When he talked about TV3, the supporters started to throw ice cubes on us,” Wee said.

So Anwar says “relax, it’s not them. It’s higher up than them.” So we are saved. Then our vehicles got damaged in a few incidents. Wherever we go, we are no longer being loved. Previously they loved TV3 … so it’s totally changed, everything. They break our vehicles, they beat some of us. Things like that.

Why was TV3 even covering the demonstrations? For the slightly sinister reason that the government wanted to have a record of what happened. “Most of it was never broadcast,” Wee added.

Given eyewitness accounts, it is not surprising that the ceramah were never broadcast. Anand remembers:

He is a fiery orator. That is why in hindsight, in retrospect, when I look at it, I was truly amazed. Because this was a man who was deputy prime minister, who was accustomed to life as a VIP, and when all of that was removed from him, within a matter of 24 hours, I actually saw him transformed into a street fighter almost instantaneously. He did not even take a day or two to wallow in self-pity, to cry over spilled milk. Immediate transformation!

There were more instructions for TV3. “We must not show any crowds, people who are supporting Reformasi, things like that. But anything to do with violence, yes,” Wee said. But when they showed the violence, they also showed the size of the crowd, and the bosses realized “it’s not working; it’s backfiring.”

“So we are told to completely stop. So the producers, we have to make sure that the visuals that we transmit don’t have anything that can be negative to Mahathir’s administration.”

“To be very honest with you,” Wee added, “most of us are sympathizers. But we know there’s a lot of spies. People who will report who is what, things like that. We believe there are Special Branch people, so we are always very worried about what we say, what we do, we don’t do it openly.”

Enter Malaysiakini

It was October 1999, and Ajinder Kaur was fresh out of university and looking for a job. An English major, the two options seemed to be teaching and writing. She liked to write, and when she saw a notice in the Malay Mail classified advertisements saying that Malaysiakini was looking for a reporter, she sent an email straightaway to Steven Gan asking for an interview. The office was in a fourth-floor shop lot in Section 14 of Petaling Jaya, near the Jaya Supermarket. It had been an architect’s office.

“So being a fresh graduate,” she remembers, laughing,

you think you’re going to go to this very glamorous job, but when I walked in, there was no office set up, it was Steven and Prem, and the interview was at the back of this shop. The previous tenant had kitchen cabinets on the wall; it was the pantry! And I think that Steven was living in that place as well! I was like, oh my God, what is this office? Does this organization even exist?

The atmosphere was so warm, though, that once she heard exactly what the mission was, she knew immediately that this was something she wanted to do.

.... chapter continues...

  • 1 Asian Development Outlook 1996 and 1997. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 94.

  • 2 Interview with Ajinder Kaur, Dec. 19, 2019.

  • 3 See, for example, Murray Hiebert “Mixed signals,” Far Eastern Economic Review 161(21): 24–8.

  • 4 S. Jayasankaran “Protégé to pariah,” Far Eastern Economic Review 161(38): 13–14.

  • 5 Interview with R.K. Anand, Nov. 25, 2019.

  • 6 Details come from Abbot (2000: 246).

  • 7 Interview with Martin Vengadesan, Nov. 26, 2019.

  • 8 Interview with R.K. Anand, Nov. 25, 2019.

  • 9 Murray Hiebert and Andrew Sherry (Sept. 17, 1998) “After the fall,” Far Eastern Economic Review 161(38): 10–13.

  • 10 Simon Elegant, Murray Hiebert and S. Jayasankaran (Oct. 1, 1998) “First lady of reform,” Far Eastern Economic Review 161(40): 18–20.

  • 11 “First lady of reform,” ibid.

  • 12 Interview with Wee Yu Meng, Nov. 27, 2019.