I can see the sky. Vermillion. Then a slow blue. A sparrow chirps. I turn my head to look for it. There, I see it. A little head bobbing up and down. Streaks of white against brown feathers. A darting mouth.
I am feeling cold now, and I am certain I will die soon.
My name is Delonix Regia. I am named after the most flamboyant of all tropical trees, the flame of the forest. My father, a well-known lawyer and an avid naturalist, had a particular passion for tropical flora and their Latin names.
On the day I was born, he planted a seedling in our garden. Today, it stands taller than our house, where the end of the garden meets Gasing Hill, and where the red flowers fall onto the grass like a magical cloak. As a child, I once saw a black cobra weave in and out of the flowers; this glittery black slash easing the crimson cover left and right. I was struck with fright and saw it slither into the leafy green undergrowth and disappear into the jungle.
I have long memories of rain; soft tropical showers, majestic, thunderous storms, and itinerant drizzles, which would come and go, and stay, for hours, days. The Malaysian monsoon is a vehement creature; powerful and glorious yet tender enough to soothe one into the most delicious of sleeps. This is how I remember the rains. My childhood came with the rains.
I wish it would rain now, and wash away the pool of blood I know I lie in. The alleyway is dirty, and I can smell rancid food and drains clogged with unimaginable things. The shop houses rise above me like faded photographs. Windows are still shut and it is too early for any movement.
My eyelids are getting heavier and my lungs heave to draw in more air. I do not expect to be found, and even if I am, the inhabitants of this street are not likely to call the police, or an ambulance. Strangely, I feel no pain.
I will be dead soon, and I would like to say this.
I did try. I did.
As I close my eyes, I think of a gentle rain and the red flowers.
And my father’s garden.
Standing in the eyes of the world.
Kuala Lumpur, KL. Kala Lumpa or Kala Lampur to the white man, the Mat Sallehs. City of sinners and sex. Sodom and Gomorrah. It was 1998, and the city was the ‘partay central’ of Asia. Of the world. Drugs had opened up the minds of this one-time placid society. Drugs had bayed in a new revolution, in a time where people hungered for freedom from authoritarian politicians, from the police, from their mindless jobs, from themselves.
Ecstasy had hit the town, in a way that could only be described as monumental. There were feng-tau clubs in Bukit Bintang, Cheras and Jinjang that catered to the Chinese riff-raff, the Ah Beng’s and Ah Lian’s who felt ill-at ease at the posh, uppity bars like Museum and the Backroom Club.
There were clubs for Indian gangsters in Sentul and Selayang, there were the dodgy, dangdut clubs on Jalan Ipoh and Brickfields, where the girls would dance with you, get high with you and then go down on you, there were underground clubs that opened up after the other ones closed, that stayed open till people came down from their highs.
Dealers were raking it in. MDMA was on everyone’s lips and tongues. There was pussy and dick everywhere. White. Brown. Yellow. Black.
Everybody was high.
DJ’s flew in from all over the world to play to hundreds, thousands of people who swallowed pink, blue, white pills. E. Everybody wanted E. Nobody drank alcohol, water was the opiate for the days and nights on sweaty dance-floors.
Ecstasy was prayer. Ecstasy was the new God.
The Asian financial crisis was crawling out. Billions were lost, millions gained. The ringgit had been pegged at 3.80 against the US dollar. It saved us. Our other Asean neighbours didn’t fare as well.
The Petronas Twin Towers were finally complete. The towering phallic monstrosities had transformed the city. And there were stories that bled upon other stories for fodder. It was the topic of conversation on every dinner table, every mamak stall, every kopitiam between Bangsar and Cheras, about how ugly it looked. How sterile, how un-KL, how Western.
Aiyo, so sci-fi.
Like Gotham City.
So ugly wan.
Cursed. Cursed to never be built.
Before that, it was the racecourse. Built by the British because they knew that it was unsafe for any structure taller than a coconut tree. That underneath the turf was a network of limestone caves. To build the world’s tallest twin structures above a hollow catacomb of caves was an act of folly, of utter stupidity. It was a disaster in the making. Mahathir’s “twin pricks,” that’s what it was. That Malaysia had come into its own. That “we” had arrived. That our quest to have the world’s tallest flag pole, longest beef murtabak and biggest mall in Asia had all given us the illusion that Malaysians had something, finally, something, to be proud of.
That these towers, designed by a New Yorker of Argentinean descent and built by rival Japanese and Korean engineering companies who had to pump millions upon millions of tons of concrete into miles of limestone concaves had given us the validation that Malaysia had arrived. That in fact, thousands of Bangladeshi and Indonesian workers who had slaved away on meager wages and who were crushed to death in hushed-up accidents, built it. That they died senselessly like frogs, mati-katak, for another notch in our country’s race to become a first world nation by “looking’” like a first world nation.
The towers loomed over KL, a new symbol for the city, like the Sears Tower, like the Empire State Building. We had come to be defined by two 88-storey shards of concrete, aluminum, glass and steel. Two towering hexagons, inspired by sacred Islamic geometry, of course. From distant suburbs to the Golden Triangle, the Twin Towers rose above everything else, flanked by the KL Tower, now dwarfed and comical with its pink shaft. This was engineering at its best, this was the strongest steel in the world, capable of withstanding tremors, where steel beams could bend under pressure.
It was a memorial for all those who died.
It was haunted, of course, like every other building in KL. The ghosts of the fallen would never be venerated here. Instead, people would flock to Gucci, Bally, Prada, British India and Aseana to proselytize the gods of haute couture.
The newly-built Bukit Jalil Sports Complex was sprawled out and ready for the Commonwealth Games. Malaysians were gearing up for the world stage, our time had come to show the world that we were capable, that Malaysia Boleh! Yes, we can! That we had arrived.
In September, everything changed.
On September 2nd, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was sacked by Mahathir Muhammad, the dictatorial, authoritarian Prime Minister of Malaysia who had ruled for 17 years.
On September 11th, The Commonwealth Games opened with no-expense spared pomp, fireworks and circumstance. Ella, the pint-sized Malaysian songstress performed the theme song of the games, “Standing in the Eyes of the World,” in smouldering black eye liner and poor diction.
I hope you enjois! to screaming multitudes.
On September 20th, Anwar Ibrahim was arrested.
On September 29th, he appeared in court with a black eye.
Malaysia, the beloved country of my birth, would never be the same again.
* * *
The gas is coming again!
Get into the mosque!
We ran, thousands of us like crazed fiends trying to dodge each other. Our clothes were drenched and I realized immediately that it was impossible to run effectively with soggy shoes. My hand automatically covered my camera lens. A wet lens was a dead lens. My feet slipped and slid inside my drenched sneakers, threatening a twisted ankle. I did not need or want a sprain or a broken limb. Mira grabbed my hand, her eyes wild.
Are you ok?
I nodded and ran. I heard screams as some tried to rub the tear gas from their eyes, giving in to instinct. There was nothing like tear gas to make you angry, politicize you. Those fools had no idea what they were doing. Revolutionaries were created on the street, that very day.
The protest took place a few hours before Anwar’s arrest that night. We gathered outside the National Mosque, knowing that he was going to be there. I picked Mira up from her apartment in Sri Petaling and we drove into the city. The traffic jam was horrific all the way from Jalan Parlimen, cars were inched up against each other and they snaked along the road, all the way to Dataran Merdeka. We decided to make a detour towards Central Market and managed to find a spot in the parking lot. There were thousands of people already walking towards the mosque. You could sense the excitement, the anger. It was brittle, electrifying.
Anwar was sacked for supposed sexual misconduct – specifically, adultery and sodomy. In a country where draconian, outdated laws still harked back to the time of the British, giving someone a blowjob, or having anal sex, was subject to a criminal offence.
The daily newspapers barked out offensive headline after headline, demonizing Anwar. “Sodomite.” “Adulterer.” “The rise and fall of Anwar Ibrahim.” These words unleashed a national fury and Malaysians of all ages took to the streets. It was Reformasi. The Malaysian Reformation had begun.
Mahathir’s regime had created a generation of Malaysians who were complicit and afraid. The Internal Security Act ensured that. Detention without trial. Guilty until proven innocent. You were always guilty. And even if you weren’t, you’d still be.
Mira was angry. We all were. She had studied law in the UK and was a writer, like me, at The Review, which had the tagline of “the smartest magazine in town.” We’d been colleagues for two years. We liked each other from the start, we understood each other, we both liked to drink and talk. We knew that what was happening was historic. And that it would change us forever.
By the time we got there, we could barely see Anwar, who was perched on a makeshift podium. We could only hear the hailer. I started taking pictures. All around me, I saw faces contorted with rage, anger.
Let them do their job! The media is showing us who they really are! Dogs! Anjing! Liars! Penipu! They supported me and now they want to see me guilty. Guilty! Do you think I am guilty?
The crowd roared. I heard 50,000 voices, all shouting in unison.
No! HE is guilty!
Allahu Akhbar! Allahu Akhbar!
Together our fists rose in solidarity.
“We who are gathered here in Kuala Lumpur pledge to defend the freedom and sanctity of the nation to the last drop of our blood … we resolve to revive the spirit of freedom … we will not suffer injustice and oppression in the land … we will not suffer the replacement of foreign oppressors with those raised from among ourselves … we oppose all cruel and oppressive laws which deny the people their fundamental rights and freedoms … we denounce those who corrupt our system of justice … we denounce corruption, abuse of power and the conspiracy devised by a greedy elite to blind the people to the truth in order to maintain their grip on power and wealth.”
The crowd screamed.
“We raise the spirit of freedom! We are united against oppression! We are united in our resolve to establish justice! Long live the people! Give victory to Reform! We demand the resignation of Mahathir Mohamad!”
Mira and I looked at each other. We smiled.
The revolution has begun.
Behind us, the FRU trucks rolled up and the clanging started.
As if out of politeness, the bell rang three times. And then the jets of water hit us like a torrent of stones, a merciless pounding. Water bullets. We were getting a beating.
More screams. The water was ferocious. I fell against a man behind me. He fell against someone else and together we tumbled to the ground like tiddlywinks. Arms, legs everywhere. All flailing. We got up and we started running. We tried to. There was panic, utter confusion. We ran into each other, smacking into arms, chests, elbows. We couldn’t move, there was no escape.
There was water in my mouth, in my ears. My camera was under my shirt. Mira was nowhere to be seen.
The crowd moved like a school of fish; it swayed as if to repel a predator, then consolidated with greater strength. I was enveloped in a sea of wet bodies, sweat and anger intermingling in the heat.
I heard the hailer again.
Retreat! Retreat now!
The crowd groaned to a stop. The water ceased. We were stunned, bodies were exposed in their wetness. Brown. Yellow. Black. But all eyes were ahead at the figure on the podium.
We will fight this. We will overcome this. Malaysians will rise, now! This is the time to rise!
Tens of thousands of voices, in unison.
We screamed with our lungs, our hearts, faces contorted with anger. Then Mira was there, by my side. There was blood on the side of her face.
I am ok. But we have to run. The gas is coming. Now!
And then we saw it. A canister flying above us, a metal bird, wingless. Then another. The crowd swirled to avoid it, but it was too late. Before it fell, streams of noxious gas escaped the metal, streaming out like thin white fingers. And then it began.
You stop breathing. Your eyes sting like they’re being gouged out, slowly. The nerve endings in your nose begin to explode. You panic.
I grabbed Mira.
I can’t see!
I got you. Just hang on!
To the mosque!
The gas is in the mosque!
We ran up the stairs. My slimy sneakers finally got the better of me and I slipped on the shiny marble step. My head hit the white marble floor. The camera crashed downward, my zoom lens thudded then bounced with splintering sound. Then darkness.
My cheek was shoved into carpet. I opened my eyes, my lungs heaved. The gas was in my mouth still and I shoved my nose upward to take deep breaths. Above me, the cloud of gas still hung like a thin, grey shroud. People were on the ground, retching.
There was weeping. A woman in a tudung had sprawled herself out on the floor and was openly sobbing.
Ya Allah, Ya Tuhanku, tolonglah kami.
God, help us all.
The bastards had tear-gassed the National Mosque.
Fucking assholes! Fuckers!
Mira hissed through the handkerchief around her nose. She took it off and gave it to me.
Take it! You’re ok. You’re going to get a motherfucking bruise, but you’ll live.
I grabbed the wet hanky and pushed it into my nose. Took deep breaths. The fabric felt pungent and sharp, but the moisture helped.
I looked up and I saw the domed ceiling of the mosque. This was my first time inside and the stark curvature gave me a shiver of comfort. The floor was covered with men and women; some prostrate, some lying down, come curled up in foetal positions. My ears pinged and I heard the heavy sounds of my laboured breath.
Slowly people got up, rubbed their eyes in wonder, shock. Shouts of acute pain. People were splayed all over.
The cloud of gas dissipated and soon the air was clear again. Many had started praying. Soft murmurs surrounded me. I sat up and looked around. Felt cold. My stomach was churning and I felt like throwing up. I wanted a cold beer. A salve.
I glanced at Mira and she nodded. We stumbled out, my lens was thankfully still intact, and we saw all along the street, hundreds huddled up against each other. Hugs were being shared, some brave smiles. I clicked again and again; images of solidarity after teargas. Some shouted Reformasi! The rallying cry had to continue. I clicked the camera to autofocus and captured frames of people stealthily disappearing into the streets.
It was dusk and as the azan came on, blowing out of the minaret above us, it was a relief. The mosque still had its voice.
Allahu Akhbar Allu Akhbar…It was a sudden music.
We grabbed each other and ran silently into the damp light.
Two hours later, at exactly 9 pm, masked policemen armed with sub-machine guns stormed into Anwar’s house in Damansara Heights, a wealthy suburb right next to shop lots with Italian restaurants and well-dressed evening diners sipping Chianti and they arrested him under the Internal Security Act, in plain sight of his four children and his wife.
Nine days later, he appeared for the first time after his arrest. He stood before the High Court, waved his hand and cameras from presses all over the world captured that image.
Our Deputy Prime Minister, brutalised, beaten. That black eye was printed on every major newspaper in the world. Kuala Lumpur, city of mud, city of sin, of teargas and riot police, erupted again and again.