This is from the first section of the I-Files they gave me, covering Anwar’s early life, and it just barely predates my arrival in-country. It is the section with which I have most clearly identified, both because of the coincidence in time, and because the fellow who put together this portion of the dossier left behind a personal journal with his impressions of his time in Malaysia, and of the witnesses he interviewed and documents he gathered. Aside from his almost monomaniacal hatred of the durian – a feeling with which, depending on the durian, I can sympathise – this portion is noteworthy for its personalised feel and recollections.
It is the section that most catches my eye now, in this age of international terrorism. Anwar’s frank admiration for Abul Ala Maududi and Sayyid Qutb – the radicals who founded Jamaat-e- Islami in Pakistan and inspired al Qaeda, respectively – show a face he never showed Westerners when they were looking. Many young Malaysians under the age of 30 today have no idea that Anwar was a sympathiser of such extremists. He embraced men who would call for violent revolution to overthrow the existing social and political order to be replaced with a world of sharia law, who would reject over one thousand years of peaceful Islamic thought and learning as corrupt and decadent.
The man’s identity as given in the file is a cover. I know because I tried to look him up, here and in London, and his name simply does not exist. Who he is, where he went, or even whether he knew that the firm for which he worked was a Box 850 front, or what we used to call a “cut-out,” is apparently lost to the mists of time.
However, the material is all very well documented, and so I present his story – and the first part of Anwar’s.
He was finally going home.
He’d loved Kuala Lumpur since coming here years ago, loved the warmth and generosity of the locals, loved the beautiful Chinese girls and the food – some of the best on Earth (though he could do without the wretched durian) – and the total absence of bone-chilling fog in May. But he was being recalled to London, back to headquarters, to set up a division for all of Southeast Asia. The Company was growing, and they needed an old hand to guide that growth. With, of course, only a tiny increase in salary.
He’d found a note on his desk this morning, telling him to come see the Chief. He had quite enough on his plate, but the old man had always been good to him, and he wasn’t back in London quite yet. He grabbed his coffee and headed for the Chief’s office. He hadn’t even reached the door yet when he heard a curt, “Come in. And shut the door behind you.”
A bit puzzled, he walked in, noting that the Chief was staring at his desk and some papers on it. He gently closed the door, and was about to exchange pleasantries, when he was ordered to sit and pick up the tablet and ballpoint on the desk and begin writing. He shrugged and got underway.
“We have something special that needs doing before you leave, and we feel you’re just the chap to do it,” the Chief began.
He walked into the small room, its harsh light giving him a headache. He laid down both the envelope and the tape recorder on the table as he looked over the man sitting in the chair opposite him. Like many Malays from Penang, he clearly had some Chinese ancestry, and was a bit shorter than average. He had a ready and relaxed smile on his face, and hadn’t even glanced at the envelope.
He did get a bit nervous at the tape recorder. “What’s that for?” he asked, inclining his head and losing a bit of his smile.
“It’s for this second envelope,” the now-weary man said. A week gone and perhaps seven or eight hours of sleep that whole time. One week left to go. He pulled a second envelope out of his jacket pocket, supplementing the 600 ringgits on the table with twice that amount. A third of the man’s yearly salary should get him to relax again. If not? There were thousands more where those came from.
The second envelope did the trick. “So I understand you’re going to ask me about Anwar,” he said, neatly pulling the two envelopes over to his side of the table. He didn’t even blink as the mat salleh pushed down the Record and Play buttons. “Very well. Yes. I grew up with him – we attended school together. Knowing him as a boy and young man, you’d never see what he’s become today…”
“We need to know about this Ibrahim chap,” the Chief had begun.
The man was eternally unable to understand Malay names. “Anwar,” he began. “His name is Anwar, his father was Ibrahim.”
His boss cut him off. “Whatever his name is, we need to know more about him,” he began, gesturing to the note pad. The man began scribbling. “Word is that Mohamad” – he meant Mahathir, but was being bloody-minded about it now – “is looking at bringing him into Government. A real prize – the radical fundamentalist who can offset PAS in one fell swoop.”
The other man stopped scribbling for a moment. “Anwar in Mahathir’s Government?” he asked dubiously. “Not likely on my view. You understand that he spent time in prison for protesting Barisan, yes?” Unspoken were the allegations of Saudi ties, but those were just rumours.
The old man took out a cigarette, lit it, inhaled deeply, and gave him that don’t-screw-with-me look. “Don’t ask me questions. You’re going to ask everyone else a lot of questions. We have interviews lined up, envelopes of cash, and you’re going to spread them both around as if you have but two weeks to live. When you’re done, report back to me,” said the station chief. Another pull on the cigarette. Exhale. A manila folder pushed across the desk, with a bundle of envelopes.
“Here is your list, and the first bundle of envelopes. Come back for more as needed. Take extensive notes, do not dictate them to anyone, make them legible, and hand them to me personally before you leave.” Another pull. “Understood?”
… all subjects agree on the basics of Anwar’s early life. The son of Umno stalwarts, his mother a Malay housewife, his father having Tamil and Malay ancestry, and later in life Secretary in the Ministry of Health. As a young man, he was quiet, studious, intense, but open and friendly to everyone. He went off to Malay College Kuala Kangsar – the so-called “Eton of Malaysia.” His time there was remarkable only for his friendliness and general openness to his teachers and fellow pupils …
Anwar’s story is of a man raised by a middle-class family, with a father unusually literate in English classics, a profound belief in the value of education, and a very liberal attitude toward Islam. It is the story of a young man who came of age enjoying life and neither finding nor needing strong influences as he grew.
The last witness interviewed this week knew him at MCKK and before. Not precisely childhood chums, but friends and acquaintances of many years. He knew the rumours (discussed earlier) of Anwar’s father’s infidelity, something that clearly stung Anwar badly. The story changes when they both attended the University of Malaysia, where Anwar read Malay Studies …
The stocky Malay fellow asked for a cig, so the Englishman gave him one. He pulled out his spare lighter – his usual had run out of fuel the day before – and gave him a light unasked. “He had totally changed,” the interviewee resumed. “This easygoing guy – didn’t exactly get drunk, but the idea of Christians never offended him, we grew up with them – just gone. Pow. Like that. He’d always sort of drifted, but he suddenly became fervent.
“To be honest, he even became a little frightening,” he continued, taking a long drag on his smoke. “You see, 1968 was a weird time, lah? Kids everywhere grabbing onto ideas old and new for anything that would give them a grip on the madness everywhere. America in uproar. Vietnam. The Communists. Things most of us wouldn’t have imagined doing ten years before – all on the table.” Another drag.
“What was frightening about him?” This was a new description. They were on the second side of the tape, but he was totally engrossed.
“Everything.” He stubbed out the cigarette and leaned across the table. “You have to understand how he was before. Quiet, calm, easy-going. All of a sudden, he’s carrying a Koran everywhere. And the Chinese? Villains lurking in the crowd. Brutally oppressing Malays. The Brits – no offence – the Chinese, everyone oppressing the Malays.
“And Umno?” He shook his head, that same rueful smile from earlier coming back. “The party for Malays? Traitors. Weaklings. Probably secret Christians.” He laughed. “PAS – back then it was PPIM, but it was always the same – was guilty of the same sort of treason. Only the students knew the way forward for Malays.” He shook his head again. “The Umno kid who went beyond PAS. Anwar turned into some kind of fanatic at the time. And he had been relaxed, lah, before. What a crazy world it was.”
The Englishman found himself leaning in closer. “Did he say these things to you?”
“Sometimes,” came the reply. “It was really bizarre. As a kid, he’d always abhorred radicalism, and then he was swimming in it. When he became president of PKPIM–” he stopped at the blank look on the mat salleh’s face – “Persatuan Kebangsaan Pelajar Islam Malaysia, it was a radical Muslim student organisation – he started chumming around with the Saudi representatives on campus.” He frowned. “A bad lot, those. They would get kids to jeer at women, any women, who weren’t covered head to toe. That liquor store in the Chinese neighbourhood that burned down – what was it called? – we were all sure they were behind it.
“And Anwar fell right in with them. Like peas in a pod.”
…this subject therefore fills in some critical data about Anwar’s time at university, and explains some of the photos I have gathered. Note the shot marked ‘2’ and the rock-throwing …
A recurring theme throughout this first week’s interviews is that Anwar never had many beliefs before coming to University. The cause of his radicalisation is unknown – Malay Studies? The 1969 riots? Those Saudi representatives? A chance meeting? All of these? – but by 1970, he would have as many explanations as he had friends and acquaintances.
He would gladly tell anyone who would listen how those 13 May riots in 1969 had radicalised him. He would speak of how far-left revolutionaries inspired him – of how his heroes Herbert Marcuse, Frantz Fanon, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara would teach him that the old social order must be overthrown. Even violently. He spoke of the ‘wretched of the earth,’ as Fanon put it. He left his audiences in no doubt that he was the man to overturn everything. He was The Rebel.
The Saudis, on the other hand, were a subject for a select few…
She was nervous. Pretty, with a sweet face, though old enough to have had a few children – and likely she had. Underneath the abaya, what her body looked like was anyone’s guess.
He was skipping the tape recorder for this one. He’d also managed to catch up on some sleep.
Six days to go. He smiled, respectful of the distance between them, and invited her to sit first. She did, but she kept glancing at the door. He sat down, folded his hands, smiled, and began. “I just wished to speak to you about what you knew about Anwar Ibrahim.” Her eyes widened and her breath quickened. Good Lord, how bad had he been?
She didn’t seem to answer at first, but she took the envelope when it was passed across the table.
“Back in the 1960s, most of us did not wear the abaya. We were not sufficiently pious,” she said. Before he could say anything, she ploughed ahead. “We sometimes did unclean things, like dancing and holding hands, and reveled in them. That changed thanks to Anwar, and the Saudis…”
…This subject, like most before, described a slightly different Anwar in person than any of the others had. He was always charming, but for each, in a different way. He could be and would be whatever was needed to move ahead with each crowd. Devout or Western. Normal middle-class Malay or Islamist firebrand.
But these last two subjects suggested that he had found his core, and his first important peer acceptance, with the Wahhabi missionaries. With them, and with those who fell in with them, he would share the inspiration he drew from Abul Ala Maududi and Sayyid Qutb. These were heroes.
I have not had sufficient time to research those men, but my understanding is that both are radicals who believe in overthrowing the social order for a world of pure Islam, one that did not and has never existed. Anwar apparently found his inspiration from them …
The boy with no apparent core had become the vessel for the most extreme ideologies of his time, and not coincidentally, the love of his fellow students. They saw in him everything they wanted to be, a pillar of certainty in a time of chaos. And so they rewarded him with their support, their loyalty. No leadership post he wanted was denied him. No favour, no accolade was too high.
Everyone agreed: Anwar reveled in it.
These ideas only sharpened in the wake of the 13 May riots. The terrible violence of those times drove Anwar to preach a belief in Malay supremacy, a vision of Malays as imperfect vessels of Islam being oppressed by a wider world. The protest marches, the heated debates, the clashes with the Federal Reserve Unit in the streets – all necessary steps to a perfected world, purified of inequality, made beautiful by sharia and hudud. …
“Ahmad al-Haj Totonji.”
“Excuse me?” The interview with this subject had only just begun, the tape was rolling again, the envelope stuffed with ringgits had made its journey across the table and had been pocketed. And now he was being peppered with obscure Arabic names. Who was this? Ahmad al-Haj Totonj? More work. More information. And only two days left.
“An Iraqi. In deep with the Wahhabis. Preached violent jihad. He came looking specifically for Anwar and found him. We were certain they’d met before, when Anwar had spent time in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s with the King Faisal Foundation. The Saudis really won Anwar’s heart, they conquered him early on.”
The Englishman looked coolly at the man across the table. A deceptively young face, with no real emotion. He’d taken his envelope, placed it in the pocket inside his jacket, and simply started talking. Thinning hairline, piercing eyes. Fifteen years spent learning to read people, and he couldn’t tell a damned thing about him, not even if he was being truthful.
This was a new detail, though. “Carry on,” he said, pretending to take notes.
Whether the Malay was fooled or not, he did. “One day in 1970, this fellow, he and Anwar met for hours, and when they came out, they were grinning like idiots. They met again and again, always in secret, usually one-on-one or with a few others. They met one last time in 1972, all day, just the two of them. The next day, Anwar is flush with cash, and founding ABIM.”
Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia had come up a couple of times these last two weeks, but Anwar’s exact role in its founding had been obscure, and its funding even more so. “Are you saying Totonji funded ABIM?”
The Malaysian shook his head. “No. I’m saying the Saudis did. Anwar was everything they wanted – fanatical, dedicated, a true believer, and capable of moving thousands on his words alone. They’re bloody good investors, and they saw a fantastic investment vehicle.”
The obvious question. “Why on Earth didn’t Abdul Razak do something about this?”
Not even a flicker passed across the man’s eyes. “You have to remember that the country was still reeling from the 1969 riots. Tun Razak did a marvelous job patching everything back together, but there was still chaos and disorder everywhere. Student riots were a frequent enough occurrence that one more protesting group was just one more target for arrest. “Which of course, Anwar would discover.”
…On the other hand, the documentary evidence on Anwar’s time with ABIM is a little bit better developed than on his earlier life. He was quite public as ABIM’s face. He called for a national committee “to plan a proper programme for the implementation of Islamic laws.” He distributed chapters from a book calling for the implementation of an extremely strict Islamic state ruled by a 14th century interpretation of the Koran and sharia law.
ABIM took to the streets, and at the centre of it all was Anwar. Anwar was arrested with other student activists in 1974 under the Internal Security Act, and was detained for two years without trial.
The three witnesses who claim to know of Anwar’s time in prison are of variable reliability, and I have not yet had a chance to supply funds to civil servants to confirm that they were in prison with him. I frankly do not trust them. Nevertheless, though interviewed separately, over the course of two weeks, each was insistent on a single point: Anwar came to see the ISA not as a tool of his oppression, but rather a vehicle for when he took power.
Each claimed that prison was also his first lesson in hiding who he was, in becoming the “perfect chameleon,” as one of those witnesses put it, to advance his goals. (See File 13.) …
“And that, finally, is all, Chief,” he said, finishing the last page of notes. In twelve hours he’d be back on a flight to London via Singapore. He was ready to go. The last two weeks had exhausted him, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
The Chief, however, wasn’t done with him yet. “And prison? Is that all?”
His soon-to-be-former subordinate shook his head. “Dead end, Guv. Those three witnesses – I’ve flagged them all with red permanent marker – only had generalities to offer. They all said that Malaysia needed sharia, good and hard. Anwar told them that he would be the revolutionary who would bring it all down, and build up the perfect Islamic state in its place – a state where no man would spend two years in prison for advocating hudud law.
“But it’s empty after that.”
His boss simply looked at him, then sighed. “I’ve dropped £5,000 – through other investigators – trying to get at that time period,” he said, sounding resigned. “Every single source says what you’re saying, but it’s always quite general.”
“A few of them talked about what happened after,” the other man responded. He pulled out one of the manila folders, opened it, and started reading. “Anwar began teaching abroad, funded indirectly by Saudi money. The Wahhabis lifted their protégé from the wreckage of his career, made him the Southeast Asian representative to the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. Friends of Anwar, Wahhabi and others, greased the way – through chairs, introductions, and donations – for opportunities and teaching posts for him at places of learning that had benefited from Saudi largesse. They’re saying St Antony’s College in Oxford and Georgetown University in Washington.
“Haven’t had a chance to confirm those yet,” he noted, and frankly he didn’t intend to spend his last twelve hours in-country trying. Or ever looking back at this place again. All of this cloakand-dagger stuff on Anwar and the Saudis had spooked him. “I do have one question, though. Why all of this time and money on one student radical? Do we think he is that big a comer?”
His soon-to-be-former boss looked at him levelly. “Do you think all of this,” he said, pointing at the stack of folders, the receipts for thousands of pounds’ worth of witness statements, the three notepads of hand-scratched notes, the typed stack of analysis, “is for a man who will remain at the bottom forever? He is moving up fast, and we need these files to be complete. “I could say he has a lean and hungry look, but I’d sound like a ponce. SIS has him flagged as someone to watch, and I’m given to understand that CIA does, too. They’re certain he’s building a power base, out to make himself into some sort of saviour for a Caliphate that will yet be. He is going places, and we need his file.”
He drained the last of his coffee. “One last thing. We know you keep a personal journal. That Tan girl told us so. Leave it here before you go.” He was tired enough that he didn’t complain. He simply pulled the journal from his pocket, tossed it on the desk, and left.
Thus ends the first chapter of The I-Files. The stage was now set for Anwar’s return to Malaysia from foreign academia. Back home, he was once again the pious Muslim, the opponent of all that was wrong with Umno, Umno’s sworn enemy. For at least a while. And then he turned again, or better still, he was recruited, and he embraced his sworn enemy … who would soon become his greatest benefactor.