The mark of a true reformist

Raja Petra Kamarudin

There are just so many reformists. Almost every country has at least one. Some are still living. Most died a long time ago. Some have been reduced to legends and we no longer know whether they really existed or were mere myths. Some brought about reforms in their lifetime. Some never lived to see the fruits of their labour. Most, however, never claimed to be reformists. This label was given to them by others. You are great not because you claim greatness. You are great because others say you are. History would eventually judge you.

True reformists fight not for their own ends. They fight for a cause and for the good of society and the nation. They struggled, suffered and sacrificed but they never saw themselves as doing so. They struggled, suffered and sacrificed not thinking they were doing so. They struggled, suffered and sacrificed because that was the natural thing to do. And they struggled, suffered and sacrificed with only one thing in mind; that they were doing so for the people and not for glory, rewards or recognition.

That is the mark of a true reformist.

Most reformists were not reformists in their lifetime. Reformists are what they became after they had left this world or went into quiet retirement. Some were offered an opportunity to abandon their struggle and end their suffering. But they refused the easy way out and continued their struggle and endured the sacrifice that comes with it.

Many could have opted for the walk to freedom. But they shunned freedom. They instead endured incarceration. Some faced death unflinching and steadfast in their commitment to their cause. Incarceration is a small sacrifice in the pursuit of one’s ideals. Death was accepted as ‘norm’ and a necessary price to pay for resistance and dissent. Come hell or high-water, the cause overrides, all else has to be taken in one’s stride.

That is the mark of a true reformist.

Reformists are just too many to name. Some are remembered. Many have disappeared from our minds. And some have gone unnoticed and un-chronicled in the history books. But all were men and women of substance, integrity and honour.

A true reformist does not seek power. A true reformist shuns power. A true reformist opposes those in power. A true reformist knows that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power is not what the true reformist strives for. A true reformist strives to check power and seeks an equitable balance between those in power and those they have power over.

That is the mark of a true reformist.

How does one recognise a reformist? What makes one a reformist? Who carries the mark of a true reformist? Examples are so many, both living and dead. Let us look at just three such personalities, those familiar to Malaysians and whom Malaysians can relate to — Jose Rizal, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. These three would be the benchmark that can be applied to all reformists. Those who meet the standards of these three can qualify to be called reformists. These three are reformists who struggled, sacrificed and suffered for their people.

There are of course many, many more such reformists from Asia, Africa, Europe and the American continent — even closer to home like Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Burma, etc.– who can qualify for membership to the Reformists’ Hall of Fame. We need not go back centuries. We just have to look at the last 100 years to find people who stood firm on their principles and refused to compromise what they fought for, even if it meant extended and continued incarceration, or even death.

Anwar Ibrahim too imagines himself as being amongst this league of freedom fighters and reformists. Would this be over-amplifying and exaggerating Anwar’s standing? Would this demean what the others did in their lifetime? Does Anwar deserve membership to this club? Has he, as they say, earned his stripes?

Reformasi in Malaysia was borrowed from Indonesia. But this does not in any way make Malaysia’s reform movement inferior. Imitation, as they say, is the best form of flattery. But Jose Rizal chose death and gave the freedom movement a martyr, which allowed it to flourish and gain strength. Gandhi went back to prison each time he was released, sometimes just hours after his release, and spent a good part of his life behind bars. And Mandela rejected many offers of freedom if the price of freedom meant he had to abandon his struggle. Anwar, however, fought for freedom every day of his incarceration and abandoned the struggle the instant he saw freedom. This separates Anwar from the rest of the reformists.

Anwar is yet to attain the status of a reformist. Anwar is just a politician, and the objective of politicians is the attainment of power. Anwar was released from prison on 2 September 2004 after six years of incarceration. Three days later he left the country and has been touring the world ever since, living and flying first class and enjoying the status of an ambassador and the pomp of royalty. In the meantime, the Reformasi movement back in Malaysia has floundered and been left for dead.

Anwar is due back next month. He was first due back last year. Will he again postpone his homecoming?

Anwar fears Reformasi. Anwar does not want to be associated with Reformasi. Anwar is distancing himself from Reformasi. The word ‘reformasi’ has not been heard from Anwar’s lips for some time now. Anwar worries that Reformasi carries a negative image and this may rub off onto him. Anwar does not want any negative perception to become an obstacle in his pursuit to become Prime Minister. So Anwar kills Reformasi.

But will Anwar again ‘adopt’ Reformasi when realisation sets in that the seat of Prime Minister is not his for the taking? Will he again shout ‘reformasi’ from the top of Damansara Hill? Let us look at what made reformists out of Jose Rizal, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and see whether Anwar can walk in their shoes.

Jose Rizal: A Biographical Sketch
By Teofiloh H. Montemayor

JOSE RIZAL, the national hero of the Philippines and pride of the Malayan race, was born on June 19, 1861, in the town of Calamba, Laguna. He was the seventh child in a family of 11 children (2 boys and 9 girls). Both his parents were educated and belonged to distinguished families.

His father, Francisco Mercado Rizal, an industrious farmer whom Rizal called “a model of fathers”, came from Biñan, Laguna; while his mother, Teodora Alonzo y Quintos, a highly cultured and accomplished woman whom Rizal called “loving and prudent mother”, was born in Meisic, Sta. Cruz, Manila. At the age of 3, he learned the alphabet from his mother; at 5, while learning to read and write, he already showed inclinations to be an artist. He astounded his family and relatives by his pencil drawings and sketches and by his mouldings of clay. At the age 8, he wrote a Tagalog poem, “Sa Aking Mga Kabata,” the theme of which revolves on the love of one’s language.

In 1877, at the age of 16, he obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree with an average of “excellent” from the Ateneo Municipal de Manila. In the same year, he enrolled in Philosophy and Letters at the University of Santo Tomas, while at the same time took courses leading to the degree of surveyor and expert assessor at the Ateneo. He finished the latter course on March 21, 1877, and passed the Surveyor’s examination on May 21, 1878; but because of his age, 17, he was not granted license to practice the profession until December 30, 1881. In 1878, he enrolled in medicine at the University of Santo Tomas but had to stop in his studies when he felt that the Filipino students were being discriminated upon by their Dominican tutors. On May 3, 1882, he sailed for Spain where he continued his studies at the Universidad Central de Madrid. On June 21, 1884, at the age of 23, he was conferred the degree of Licentiate in Medicine and on June 19,1885, at the age of 24, he finished his course in Philosophy and Letters with a grade of “excellent”.

Having travelled extensively in Europe, America and Asia, he mastered 22 languages. These include Arabic, Catalan, Chinese, English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Malayan, Portuguese, Russian, Sanskrit, Spanish, Tagalog, and other native dialects. A versatile genius, he was an architect, artists, businessman, cartoonist, educator, economist, ethnologist, scientific farmer, historian, inventor, journalist, linguist, musician, mythologist, nationalist, naturalist, novelist, ophthalmic surgeon, poet, propagandist, psychologist, scientist, sculptor, sociologist, and theologian.

He was an expert swordsman and a good shot. In the hope of securing political and social reforms for his country and at the same time educate his countrymen, Rizal, the greatest apostle of Filipino nationalism, published, while in Europe, several works with highly nationalistic and revolutionary tendencies. In March 1887, his daring book, NOLI ME TANGERE, a satirical novel exposing the arrogance and despotism of the Spanish clergy, was published in Berlin; in 1890 he reprinted in Paris, Morga’s SUCCESSOS DE LAS ISLAS FILIPINAS with his annotations to prove that the Filipinos had a civilization worthy to be proud of even long before the Spaniards set foot on Philippine soil; on September 18, 1891, EL FILIBUSTERISMO, his second novel and a sequel to the NOLI and more revolutionary and tragic than the latter, was printed in Ghent.

Because of his fearless exposures of the injustices committed by the civil and clerical officials, Rizal provoked the animosity of those in power. This led himself, his relatives and countrymen into trouble with the Spanish officials of the country. As a consequence, he and those who had contacts with him, were shadowed; the authorities were not only finding faults but even fabricating charges to pin him down. Thus, he was imprisoned in Fort Santiago from July 6, 1892, to July 15, 1892, on a charge that anti-friar pamphlets were found in the luggage of his sister Lucia who arrive with him from Hong Kong. While a political exile in Dapitan, he engaged in agriculture, fishing and business; he maintained and operated a hospital; he conducted classes – taught his pupils the English and Spanish languages, the arts.

The sciences, vocational courses including agriculture, surveying, sculpturing, and painting, as well as the art of self defense; he did some researches and collected specimens; he entered into correspondence with renowned men of letters and sciences abroad; and with the help of his pupils, he constructed water dam and a relief map of Mindanao – both considered remarkable engineering feats. His sincerity and friendliness won for him the trust and confidence of even those assigned to guard him; his good manners and warm personality were found irresistible by women of all races with whom he had personal contacts; his intelligence and humility gained for him the respect and admiration of prominent men of other nations; while his undaunted courage and determination to uplift the welfare of his people were feared by his enemies.

When the Philippine Revolution started on August 26, 1896, his enemies lost no time in pressing him down. They were able to enlist witnesses that linked him with the revolt and these were never allowed to be confronted by him. Thus, from November 3, 1986, to the date of his execution, he was again committed to Fort Santiago. In his prison cell, he wrote an untitled poem, now known as “Ultimo Adios” which is considered a masterpiece and a living document expressing not only the hero’s great love of country but also that of all Filipinos.

After a mock trial, he was convicted of rebellion, sedition and of forming an illegal association. In the cold morning of December 30, 1896, Rizal, a man whose 35 years of life had been packed with varied activities which proved that the Filipino has capacity to equal if not excel even those who treat him as a slave, was shot at Bagumbayan Field.

Mahatma Gandhi while in South Africa

10 January 1908: Arrested for failing to register or to leave Transvaal and sentenced to two months imprisonment. On 30th January, following a compromise, he was released.

7 October 1908: While returning from Natal, as he was unable to show his registration certificate (or identity card if in Malaysia), which he had burnt, he was imprisonment with hard labour.

25 February 1909: Arrested and sentenced to three months imprisonment at Transvaal for not producing his registration certificate.

6 November 1913: Arrested after the ‘great march’ at Palm Ford, then released on bail on the 7th.

8 November 1913: Again arrested and released on bail.

9 November 1913: Arrested and sentenced to nine months imprisonment. At Volkhurst was sentenced a further three months but unexpectedly released on 18 December 1913.

Mahatma Gandhi back in India

16 April 1917: While touring Champaran was served with a notice to leave the district but was not arrested.

10 April 1919: Arrested at Palwal on his way to Amritsar and was taken back to Bombay where he was released on 11 April.

10 March 1922: Arrested near Sabarmati Ashram for writing three articles in Young India and sentenced to six years imprisonment. Released unconditionally from Yervada prison on 5 February 1924 after an operation on 12 January 1924

5 May 1930: Arrested at Karadi near Dandi for violating the Salt Law and imprisoned without trial and released unconditionally on 26 January 1931.

4 January 1932: Arrested in Bombay and taken to Yervada Jail and released on 8 May 1933 after he launched a fast.

1 August 1933: Arrested early morning at Bombay following his March towards Rass and released on 4 August at 9am but was asked to leave Yervada limits by 9.30am. He did not comply, so at 9.50am he was arrested again and sentenced to one year imprisonment. He launched a fast on 16th August and was released unconditionally on 23rd August due to serious health conditions.

9 August 1942: Arrested under Defense of India Rules in the early hours of the morning following the ‘Quit India’ resolution and was incarcerated in Agakhan Palace Jail. He was released unconditionally at 8am on 6 May 1944.

India gained independence soon after that on 15 August 1947.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

Not long after his return to South Africa, Mandela was arrested and charged with illegal exit from the country and incitement to strike.

Since he considered the prosecution a trial of the aspirations of the African people, Mandela decided to conduct his own defence. He applied for the recusal of the magistrate on the ground that in such a prosecution a judiciary controlled entirely by whites was an interested party and therefore could not be impartial, and on the ground that he owed no duty to obey the laws of a white parliament, in which he was not represented.

Mandela prefaced this challenge with the affirmation: I detest racialism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man.

This is the closing remark of Nelson Mandela’s 10,691-word, 20-page statement from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the Rivonia Trial Pretoria Supreme Court on 20 April 1964 called ‘I am Prepared to Die’:

Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy.

But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy.

This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Mandela was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment. While serving his sentence he was charged, in the Rivonia Trial, with sabotage. Mandela’s statements in court during these trials are classics in the history of the resistance to apartheid, and they have been an inspiration to all who have opposed it.

Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment and started his prison years in the notorious Robben Island Prison, a maximum security prison on a small island 7 kilometres off the coast near Cape Town. In April 1984, he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and in December 1988 he was moved the Victor Verster Prison near Paarl from where he was eventually released.

While in prison, Mandela flatly rejected offers made by his jailers for remission of sentence in exchange for accepting the bantustan policy by recognising the independence of the Transkei and agreeing to settle there. Again, in the 1980s, Mandela rejected an offer of release on condition that he renounces violence. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Only free men can negotiate, he replied.

Released on 11 February 1990, Mandela immediately plunged wholeheartedly into his life’s work, striving to attain the goals he and others had set out almost four decades earlier. In 1991, at the first national conference of the ANC held inside South Africa after being banned for decades, Nelson Mandela was elected President of the ANC while his lifelong friend and colleague, Oliver Tambo, became the organisation’s National Chairperson.

Nelson Mandela has never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and learning. Despite terrible provocation, he has never answered racism with racism. His life has been an inspiration, in South Africa and throughout the world, to all who are oppressed and deprived, and to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation.

In a life that symbolises the triumph of the human spirit over man’s inhumanity to man, Nelson Mandela accepted the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of all South Africans who suffered and sacrificed so much to bring peace to the land.

In prison, Mandela never compromised his political principles and was always a source of strength for the other prisoners. During the 1970s, he refused the offer of a remission of sentence if he recognised Transkei and settled there. In the 1980s, he again rejected PW Botha’s offer of freedom if he renounced his struggle.

Apartheid legislation was gradually removed from the books and the first multi-racial elections were held in 1994. The ANC won by an overwhelming majority and has been in power ever since.