Remembering that fateful day in Memali
FEB 22 — Excerpt from Memali incident chapter
My hosts were determined to make my stay the best research trip ever. They took me to the school Chin Peng, the then-leader of the Malayan Communist Party, once hid in and where the Balings Talks took place.
We went to the hot springs in the middle of the afternoon, and spent the rest of the day larking about. Pak Su, Mak Su’s husband, was a demon of a driver. We weaved in and out of traffic, screeched past villages, with an almost busted gearbox.
We screamed when we saw lorries approaching us, and held our breaths when the Kancil careened all over the roads.
We were on our way to meet Tok Bedah, Pak Su’s mother and a healer, who could speak in tongues. Her home was nearby, and made for a quick visit before we met with Ustaz Hilmi, one of Ibrahim Libya’s former students. Tok Bedah had healed thousands of people, Mak Su said.
The house was small and simple. A concrete box, it housed Tok Bedah and a grandchild who was mentally handicapped. She was praying when we entered her house. When she finally came out of her room, I saw that unlike Pak Su who was tall, lanky and had Pakistani looks, Tok Bedah was fair, and had Chinese features. She must have been a beauty when she was much younger.
She looked at me.
“Have you ever heard of saka?” she asked.
The few days I had been in Baling, I marvelled at Mak Su’s and the villagers’ fascination for the paranormal. Anything unusual — it had to be the work of poltergeists or evil intentions sent by the wind.
Saka, in short, is a spiritual inheritance in the form of a ghoul, djinns or spirits. It is not the privilege of the rich and royal; farmers of the old kept them too, to take care of their sawahs. It all depends on the contract: Did you want your ghoulish slave to care for your descendants, or is there a specific need?
“She’s here to do some research on Memali,” Mak Su said.
“You have saka,” Tok Bedah told me.
I gasped. “Eh? No, no, I don’t. I’m just tired from travelling,” I protested.
“You better get rid of it if you want your travels to be safe,” she said before lapsing into Thai.
Her hands danced in the air, and her eyes were closed. She spoke in Thai rapidly.
“Get up!” She spoke in Malay.
I sprang to my feet, looking back to see if there was anything behind me.
“Sit with your legs out front and recite Al Fatihah! I’m going to send your saka back to where it came from!”
“But I don’t…” and whup, whup, whup! Tok Bedah whacked my head with a sejadah.
Aku nak berpisah dengan kamu
Aku tak ingin dengan kau lagi
Jangan ganggu aku lagi
Keluargaku dan keturunanku
Dari dunia ke akhirat!
“Gone!” and Tok Bedah started talking in Thai again.
Mak Su and Pak Su peered at me. “When you feel much better, we’ll go see Ustaz Hilmi.”
From a torture session, we arrived at the mosque Ustaz Hilmi frequented amidst young men revving up their souped-up kapchai motorbikes.
Memali and Baling, if I had not mentioned earlier, are towns forgotten by the rest of Malaysia. In Memali, especially, there is this stillness, and despite the sprawling greenery, I felt that I could not breathe. Maybe it was all psychosomatic, I imagined too much of the tragedy, but Memali is unsettling.
When I stood by the road next to Ibrahim Libya’s home, I remembered a story an editor friend told me. When he and a television crew came to the house to film the family, a flash of light, almost like lightning, flashed through the van and the vehicle shook.
The crew and he dashed out of the van, quite shaken by the experience. My editor friend had spent time in Afghanistan and war-torn countries, and what happened in the van was something he could never explain.
The mosque, despite the various stalls and shops surrounding it, also had an air of abandonment. Yes there were men and boys praying in and walking around the mosque, but the best word perhaps to describe the atmosphere was sunyi.
Pak Su went into the mosque to look for Ustaz Hilmi. A slight man, in his 50s, wearing the baju melayu and sarong, came out with him.
“Oh… you’re the one who wanted to stay in my pondok? Mintak maaf… so many warga emas came to stay… perhaps next time?” he said softly.
A motorcycle with two young boys in it drove past us, leaving a trail of exhaust fumes. Ustaz Hilmi got up to speak to them. “… I have guests… quiet?...”
Krang! The boys sped off.
He came back, shaking his head.
“What is it that you want to know?”
“We were told… you were there. During the tragedy.”
He sighed and looked away. He frowned and bit his lip. He scratched his cheek. After sometime, he turned back to us, and said, “Well, this was what happened to me.”
Hilmi was not a student of Ibrahim Libya’s, but he knew of him and his ceramahs. He was about 20-years old in 1985, and after secondary school, he was unemployed for two years. He decided to pursue religious studies, and began a spiritual journey at pondoks, with the ulama.
The one topic that came up in his education was “… isu kezaliman dalam politik dan kerajaan…”. His eyes opened when he learned of how Islam was abused by the powers that be. “Terputik dalam hati untuk memperjuangkan Islam”… his interest was fanned even further by his observations of how Muslims had left their faith.
“Now, at that time, Ibrahim Libya was holding court in his kampong. He had opened his school, the one you visited, and he had many students. One of my friends was his student, and asked me to attend one of the ceramahs. So I went over during a break, and learned from Arwah Ibrahim Libya.”
Hilmi didn’t consider himself actively involved in his scholarship with Ibrahim Libya. He was just seeking knowledge, he reiterated. But he had heard of the rumblings, that Ibrahim’s school and he would be captured “… oleh kerajaan.” That particular morning, Hilmi was supposed to have gone back to his school but he was trapped in the midst of the siege.
At eight in the morning, “… I think it was the police, the FRU, they came in a convoy from Sungei Petani… we were all inside Arwah’s house. They came and surrounded us, and began negotiating with Arwah. They wanted Arwah to surrender.
“We couldn’t see anything. The negotiation happened about 15 ela from the nearby mosque. Bila… ini berlaku… at 9am, the police shot teargas at us. Children were affected, some of us fainted, we couldn’t breathe. Our eyes teared up. But we refused to surrender.
“Then they came. In tanks. Then there were shots. A friend next to me was shot and fell down. I laid down and soon, friends fell down by my side. I just left it to God to decide my fate. Trucks and more police arrived. It drizzled slightly that day.
“We were kicked, kena terajang. We heard more gun shots. They said we had weapons. But we didn’t have any. Maybe pedang. To cut grass. We didn’t have guns or bombs. No M16s. “
When they were all caught, they were sent to jail in Tanjung Pari. The seriously wounded were sent to a hospital in Sungei Petani. Those who were wounded slightly, were left unattended. “But still, wounds hurt. The next day we were sent to Sungei Petani for two weeks.”
They were given old, used, unwashed clothes to wear. “They looked like old army fatigues,” he said. They were allowed to pray and read the Yasin, however.
“We were told that we were arrested for having M16s. But we didn’t have them! So we were beaten up. Kita kena hertak kat kerusi! From the beginning, I thought as I observed them beating us up, these men may be Muslims but had the hearts of orang Yahudi. You’ve caught us, that should be enough kan?”
He was lucky to have had youth on his side, but it hurt him to see his friends being hit. The friend who had asked him to attend Arwah’s ceramahs was beaten until he was unconscious. Weak.
Then after two weeks, they were separated from each other. They survived through prayers. Then he was sent to Kulim for the next three months. “Imagine. 12 orang duduk dalam lokap! Banyangkan la betapa keciknya tempat tu. There was one toilet and pipe for water. Heh.”
His faith never wavered, but like everyone else, he wondered when he would be set free. Would he be like others? The police would tell them that they would not be set free.
“Mungkin tiga bulan tu tak panjang… dah Alhamdullilah tiga bulan saja… tapi… tension gak tu,” Hilmi said.
Their cell had a tiny hole as a window. They’d crowd around the hole to see what was out there. Hilmi laughed. What could they see from a hole? A paddy field. But to the prisoners, it was a respite from the hell they were in.
He was grateful though for a considerate policeman who looked after them. He gave them Yasin books, and they were considered as special prisoners. They were not jailed, or mingled with “… orang jahat. Heh. Kiranya kita ni spesel kot,” he smiled. Migrants, petty thieves, criminals were moved to another side of the prison.
Their routine was prayers, meals and they slept a lot. What felt like five hours of sleep was really an hour’s.
One day they were taken to Alor Setar, and had to give their statements to the police. It was a strange room that they were in. the walls and floor looked like they were wallpapered with skin and foam. “It’s so that when prisoners were beaten, no signs could be found on the walls and floor.” Oh, he was beaten too.
However, another police officer told his colleagues to not beat Hilmi up. “Maybe he was a man who went to the mosque. He told them in English, ‘Don’t touch him. Apa-apa pun kau jangan apa-apakan dia’.” It was a relief because in Sungei Petani he was tortured with a water hose.
Every statement he made, it was the same. How else could he have elaborated? There was nothing to say except the truth.
“Would you like to see Arwah’s grave? And then after that, see my pondok? We can continue the story at my home.”
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.