Many wondered why Anwar Ibrahim waited until late in 2006 to announce his intention to contest the Twelfth General Elections. There are prosaic explanations and convoluted ones, ranging from the simple fact that his failure to overturn his corruption conviction meant that he was uncertain of his legal ability to contest a seat, to terribly interesting and unlikely explanations about secret plans and gathering support amongst Umno backbenchers.
As a chum of mine from the American Midwest likes to say, Hogwash! The truth is that November 2006 was only important for Anwar’s true believers, who waited, certain that his announcement that he would contest would elicit a wave of revolution, rather than fall behind the news of the growing war of words between Abdullah Badawi and Mahathir Mohamad.
While there are important details that followed on Anwar’s release from prison – details that will become important later – the real story begins in 2007. It is there that Anwar showed the world that he had remembered his old ABIM tricks and the lessons of 1998 and 1999; and the world noticed.
Whatever else may be said of the world’s intelligence agencies in Malaysia, they became quite good at tracking the movement of Anwar’s resurgent financial empire, especially as funds began pouring back into Malaysia.
With some outside help, of course.
So in 2006 and 2007, analysts in Langley and Vauxhall Cross tried to puzzle out why millions of pounds were flooding out of the network and into the holding accounts of small, heretofore largely unknown civil society groups.
Secret services were already familiar with Anwar’s close association with George Soros and the manner in which they had funded ex nihilo a host of nominally independent groups who promptly sprang to life, decrying Malaysia’s Government and faithfully parroting the Opposition’s every utterance. Intelligence services tended to treat these as useless as sources of information, but a useful sign of a healthy civil society. After all, a society in which one may be a moron on behalf of idiotic minority politicians is a very free world indeed.
But what, they asked themselves and each other, is the purpose of funding this HINDRAF?
It is important to understand that massive rallies do not simply happen. One of the most pernicious ideas in all the world is that the mass of the repressed proletariat is ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice, forming a mob ready to topple the existing order and form a utopian society in its place. That has happened, in rare instances. But it didn’t happen in most places – and not back in 2007.
Anyone who has tried to bring a dozen friends to the cinema at the same time knows how foolhardy an idea this is. Even today, with SMS and Twitter and other such tools, bringing together enough people to perform a spontaneous dance routine in a shopping centre is no mean feat, something the Bersih people discovered in 2011 whilst trying to hold a protest at a shopping centre and instead got a dozen mostly befuddled people in yellow shirts together for a day of browsing.
What that rather pathetic but amusing stunt did not have, that the first Hindraf and Bersih rallies did, was co-ordination, funding, logistical support, and trained professionals prepared to stir up a mob.
What they had, in other words, was the backing of Anwar Ibrahim.
Anwar brought not only his own street experience – somewhat dated since his glory days in the 1970s and even the late 1990s, but not wholly irrelevant by any means – but also organisers from labour and political movements in the West used to creating large rallies, communications channels and techniques; and perhaps most importantly, money.
The stories of both Bersih and Hindraf – the two rallies less than a month apart that shook Malaysia – begins as with so much else in this story with pre-existing structures corrupted by Anwar’s money machine. For Hindraf, the initial organisers were just a handful of men and women deeply exercised over the destruction of Hindu temples. With Bersih, a group of reformers and relatively unimportant Keadilan personages began discussing electoral reform by e-mail.
Anwar’s money changed all of that, beginning in late 2005.
Beginning in 2005, the Bersih group found itself awash in funds so that by 2006, despite protests of being non-partisan, it had become an open stalking horse for every Opposition party in existence, with sufficient funds to set in motion logistics of which most labour groups would be proud; HINDRAF went from being a group complaining by email in early 2006 about Hindu temple destruction to organising what they reasonably expected would be tens of thousands of outraged Tamils for a mass rally.
The stories of how both groups ended up being Anwar’s tools move in parallel.
There was, first, the money. The consultants came next, but the money was offered first, and so men and women with little experience with money, let alone thousands upon thousands of pounds’ worth of it, were naturally overwhelmed.
There would be no special conditions, no puppet-strings, no control. Just funds for the betterment of Malaysia. Are not clean elections in everyone’s interest? In a Malaysia where religious minorities always fear PAS is influencing Umno, are not preserved temples a positive good? It was all quite plausible.
But men and women with no experience with money simply do not know how to use it; and so – again, without any conditions – consultants with experience in public relations and organising and marching, vendors who could produce signs that would read clearly on the telly, a veritable army of men and women who could help the Bersih group and what would eventually become Hindraf navigate a harsh world in which very few public demonstrations were allowed, especially after Anwar’s stunts in the late 1990s.
But these men – and they were virtually all men – were loyal to Anwar, and so through them Anwar received essentially an open line of communication that poured the activists’ hopes and dreams and worries and fears to him; and that gave him the opening he wanted.
In short order, Bersih’s upper echelons were flooded with Opposition politicians and activists, who out of years of practise could sound the same themes of Bersih, though they cared not a jot about any of it.
But Hindraf was a different problem, and required Anwar’s special touch. So he travelled and met with their leaders, and spoke of his heartfelt desire that Malaysia should be a place where all faiths were accommodated, where all might freely choose their beliefs and practise them without fear.
That he had made a career out of rubbishing such talk was lost on them.
Would it not, it was put to them, be wise to make a single, eloquent gesture? Throw so much power and symbolism into a single event that even Umno must notice? Why not throw the entire matter at the feet of the British, who had abandoned the Indians and the Chinese to the Malays and Article 153? And would this not embarrass Abdullah Badawi and the Government before the British and the world?
This turned out to be a wildly popular idea.
It was here that the consultants entered on cue. Would it not be spectacular to have a rally before the British High Commission? Would it not be absolutely brilliant to have the rally at symbols with deep, national and spiritual meaning?
Two lawyers from a firm with offices on three continents spoke up. They had been at the meetings in Riyadh in early 2005 and had played no small part in every stage of events to date.
The American spoke first. “You should file a class-action lawsuit,” he said, happening as if by chance on an idea almost peculiarly American that also resonated with a people used to their Opposition leaders filing lawsuits for publicity purposes.
The Brit spoke next. “You should have Her Majesty the Queen pay for the suit, as you have been left too poor by her abandonment of you to afford such a thing.”
A general rule of street organising is that at best, for every 5-6 people contacted, one shows up. This is because outside of absolutely intolerable situations – where the ratio is more like 3:1 – the average person has better things to do than risk being crushed by a mob, sprayed by a water cannon, punched by a fellow protester, punched by a police officer, and put one’s beliefs and energy into standing in the sun for hours on end.
But with enough money, expertise, and manpower, a good riot can be had whenever one wishes.
The point of a rally, or a riot, or a mob, is not to cause directly a government’s overthrow. It is to generate sympathy in the greater population for one’s cause. It is to generate that CNN moment, preferably with tear gas on camera. The marchers must be the demonstrative sacrifices to a brutal state, or the men and women who stayed at home will continue to stay at home. They must see their neighbours, their friends, their family bludgeoned and gassed, even though they may have attacked the police in the first place.
This was the motivation behind the Bersih rallies and the 2007 Hindraf rally. It is why Bersih 2.0 was turned into a provocation against the police, and why Anwar made his widely-viewed gesture to storm the barricades at Bersih 3.0. With the tools of power denied him, Anwar fell back on his old days of street rallies, just as he had when his coup attempt failed.
Images of red-shirted PAS thugs attacking the police destroy the narrative.
So the plan, as it existed on paper, was brilliant, and in many ways worked as desired. The poor chaps who marched at the Hindraf rally never made it to their intended destination; but of course, Anwar had never intended that they would. Bersih and Hindraf degenerated into batons and tear gas and public chaos and disorder.
Just as Anwar had wanted.
But even brutalised marchers are not enough. One must have a great national or religious symbol as a backdrop, a tie that brings together shared feelings with the sympathy of sacrifice. Anwar’s men decided that Bersih should be aimed at the King (with Anwar of course leading the procession), and Hindraf should be held under the shadow of the Petronas Towers (with another at the Batu Caves temple), with a march to the British High Commission, a move deeply symbolic of Britain’s role in Malaysia’s history and of its close relationship with Putrajaya.
And there must be adequate satellite coverage.
And so when Bersih’s simple march turned into a reminder of Indonesia’s riots, CNN was there. When the tear gas flowed at the Batu Caves, photographers were available and already prepositioned. When the rioters at the Petronas Towers were gassed, Al-Jazeera already had camera crews on standby.
The Opposition feasted on the images. For the first time in a decade, it seemed as if Malaysia might be again coming apart.
One rally followed the other, and deeply moving photos and stories were disseminated by email, mildly dim foreign media, and by a Wikipedia campaign well in advance of the proprietors’ understanding of how their site was being used for propaganda.
Though the rallies were marked by water cannon and tear gas and moving pictures sent by internet and satellite dish; though they took place before symbols of Malaysian nationalism and unity and before profoundly meaningful religious symbols; though they were everything Anwar and his merry band imagined, they were yet another overreach by Anwar, though he had not yet realised it.
The same cycle would repeat itself in 2012, when Anwar’s hijacking of Bersih became complete, and when a rally under a more tolerant regime was once again turned into a series of CNN moments. There again, the consequences for Anwar would be in the longer-term, but would be no less significant.
The chameleon never learns.
Malaysia is not in fact a third-world Hell-hole. Whilst Anwar wanted to portray the country as coming apart at the seams in its fervour to cast aside Barisan Nasional, the real effect was to waken every major intelligence service in the area from the stupor into which they had fallen.
Whilst Foreign Ministries and State Departments issued sternly-worded denunciations of police action, spooks from the United Kingdom, Singapore, Australia, and the United States once again came to understand exactly how dangerous Anwar was.
Malaysia is not merely not a third-world Hell-hole, it is also one of the rare bulwarks of stability and democracy in the Muslim world, a fact rarely appreciated in-country but a cornerstone of Western planning. Anwar was placing this in jeopardy, and by all accounts did not particularly care if he brought the whole thing down if it gave him his one chance at power.
It was the job of those men in the shadows to care. With the help of a few ex-spooks and their friends – who by then had already compiled quite the set of data on the former Deputy Prime Minister – the intelligence services increased their monitoring and worked to penetrate his organisations at all costs.
Their greater understanding of the man would be a part of his undoing over time.
Anwar was oblivious to this, and so, as his exile from electoral politics came to a close, he prepared to stand for election, certain that once and for all, everything would change.
And so it would in 2008 – though not as he apparently expected.