(A Story in Many Parts)
By Jonathan Smith
KL will always be my home away from home, and to my mind, Anwar Ibrahim will always be part of it.
Back in the early 1980s, this was a sleepier place, much more laid back. Getting a good beer was fairly easy, and the smell of halal food mixed with the nearby savoury smell of sizzling pork. Gossip was cheap and frequently more right than not.
Anwar was the talk of the town when I first arrived, the young up-and-comer who had put aside his revolutionary ways to join Mahathir’s circle, the Islamist radical who liberally quoted Shakespeare and TS Eliot, and, on occasion, Ho Chi Minh. No one doubted his keen mind or his ambition.
Aside from that, no one knew anything about him. But we’d soon learn.
Those of us in the expat community – Brits, Yanks, Aussies, Canadians, the odd German – had a vested interest in learning more about this remarkable fellow. We figured that any business we did here would run through him eventually. The station chiefs for the CIA, MI-6, and KGB also wanted to know where he’d come from and where his allegiances lay. With Umno, with PAS, with the Saudis? But whatever he’d been before, he was now an Umno man, and he kept his counsel close, and his past as much a mystery as possible.
That didn’t stop any of us from digging, and later on pouring more money than might seem reasonable into finding out. We could all tell that this was a man on the way up, and sleepy Southeast Asia was soon poised to take off. Big time.
Then as now, money loosened tongues. Men and women would talk off the record and on. Some would tell you the unvarnished truth, but most would mix truth and lies to keep you coming back. We all knew the game. Many of us had intel backgrounds, so some of this was familiar territory. Stories had to be checked and cross-checked, rumours run to ground. Even then, a lot of what was out there was speculation and hearsay. Over the years, each of us compiled our own files on the man. Each of us used what we had, and we traded among ourselves, much as we did for other key Umno men who ruled the country. But Anwar’s file was worth almost as much as Mahathir’s, and in time, even more.
When he eventually made his move on Mahathir, we –
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is a story of the man without a face, or, if you prefer, the man with many faces, the man who could be everything to anyone, whose every move was calculated to advance his own goals. It is the story as we saw it and as we learned it. It is the story told by documents and eyewitnesses.
It is a personal story, because I lived it, too. I spent decades, off and on, following this trail, through smoke-filled dives in Bangsar, Georgetown, Kuching, and elsewhere; through clandestine meetings in Putrajaya and Singapore and Ankara; through conference rooms and board rooms in Malaysia, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States.
This is the story of Anwar Ibrahim. We put it together over the years, a group of expats, old hands, if you will, who were good at comparing notes. Much of what is in here is simply documented fact that has disappeared in the mists of time. More is based on in-person interviews with principals and eyewitnesses. Some is hearsay and rumour, unreliable intimations from unreliable sources – but remarkable for how it predicted the world in which we now live, and showed us what Anwar would do and did.
This is the story of the greatest, most nimble, most articulate, and ultimately the most flawed opportunist of our times. A chameleon. A charmer. A brilliant but ultimately tragic persona. What you will read over the coming weeks is the result of collecting these stories, these interviews, these files, into a single work. I’ve always considered these to be the I-Files – though the reason I chose that name would likely surprise you.
How all of this information was gathered – who has the goods on whom, who were the narrators, who the interviewees – is so classified at Langley and at Lambeth and Vauxhall Cross that I didn’t even dare question it. That would have gotten me into far too much trouble. With Malaysia facing Anwar’s last chance at becoming Prime Minister; with the man who put in motion a decades-old plan to radicalise this tolerant and easy-going nation so keen to take power; with so much of his story untold, I knew it was time.
It is high time that this story was told.
Kuala Lumpur, April 2012
It was a steamy night in Little India, around eight in the evening, in September 1991. The air was thick with foreboding, or at least with humidity.
A burly Western businessman, by his pallor and his eyes most decidedly British, strolled along the Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman. His beige linen jacket was slung over his shoulder, and the telltale stains around his under-arms were proof of the extreme humidity of this September evening, even by KL standards.
He knew he wasn’t being followed. He knew that the average Malaysian looking at this obvious mat salleh couldn’t have cared less where he was going. He knew he would look odder if he spent all his time looking suspicious.
He knew all of this, but he couldn’t help it. For a decade and more he and his fellows had tracked their quarry, and seen leads and secrets and even some of the men carrying them vanish. He was in no mood to join them.
Finally, at the grubby and rundown door to an even grubbier restaurant, bar and hotel, the Englishman paused, looked furtively around, and then entered The Coliseum.
With its stained-white walls, worn tile floors, and threadbare linens, the place had plenty of atmosphere, and the waiters had plenty of attitude. This was, and remains, perhaps KL’s greatest colonial relic. The Chinese waiters, wearing white long-sleeved shirts un-tucked, looked like they had worked here since the place opened back in 1921.
The chicken chops were sizzling in the kitchen, and the tables were full of mat salleh tourists, a sprinkling of expat businessmen, and a few locals in search of authentic (but greasy) Western food. The expats liked to imagine Somerset Maugham pausing for a glass of fine, chilled draft Tiger at the bar, before retiring to his room.
On this particular evening, the Englishman sat down across from a starched-shirt American, who was sporting a crew-cut, a Brooks Brothers blazer, and a look of nervous intensity on his squarejawed face. The American was officially known to the community as a commercial attaché at the U.S. embassy, but expat business executives knew better. It was a small world in KL, and many of these men had moved back and forth through two worlds for their entire adult lives.
The American was actually station chief, and had been here for more than three years, since the late 1980s. The Brit was the Managing Director of a major multinational.
It was a most peculiar meeting, in a most predictable place. The two men greeted one another, ordered a round of Tigers, and seemed to mutter to each other rather than speaking in conversational tones, almost as though they were sharing a secret.
“I trust you are well,” began the Englishman, pleasantly enough.
“Let’s get to the point,” barked the American, cutting off his interlocutor with a glance. “Your company has both American and British shareholders. And you have a big opportunity here to conquer the Malaysian market. And that means going through the new Finance Minister.” He took a pull on his Tiger, and gave a short, dry laugh. “You need to go through that Umno man who used to be a fan of Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh. The one who then got in good with Mahathir after first making his name as an Islamic firebrand. The one everyone says is Dr M’s new blue-eyed boy.” Another short, staccato laugh. “Well, lemme tell you something: Washington is also very interested in the new Finance Minister.”
The Englishman put his Tiger down, mopped a bit of beer off his moustache with a slight gesture of irritation, and stared for a moment at the American.
“Yes, dear boy, I know of our mutual interests. That is the reason we are here,” snapped the Brit.
“Right,” said the American. “Then let’s get started…”
For the next two hours, the two men talked, and the Brit was amazed to watch the man work. Nervous intensity or not, the fellow simply absorbed every intricate detail handed off to him as if he’d know it his whole life. When it was over the American spook handed the businessman a dossier. Neither looked at it, and both went their separate ways. A lot of information had gone right to Langley in return for this binder; it had better be worth it.
When the Brit got back to his hotel, and opened the file, he was more than a little surprised. The materials here narrated a psychological and political profile on Anwar Ibrahim that the Americans were keeping, drawn from dozens of sources, but which in its entirety, had never been shared outside the embassy. One might say it supplemented his own file, but that is like saying that the Earth supplements the Moon.
It was the story of the child of two Umno stalwarts, born, raised, and schooled in moderation, who imbibed the worst currents of the late 1960s – Communist sympathies, violent radicalism, and Wahhabi Islam.
It was the story of the student radical who would marry the daughter of one of the men who ran psy-ops against student protesters, the Islamic firebrand who would fall into line at Umno and become the right-hand man to the Education Minister who had had him imprisoned.
It was the story of the former radical who would later become the shrewd, charming Deputy Prime Minister in that most Establishment of Governments, loved by the foreign press for being somehow different from that very Establishment. It was the story of the prodigal son who became would-be successor to the throne – and, though he couldn’t know it then, later the would-be usurper.
It was the story of a man so shrewd, so cynical, and so self-absorbed, that he would say anything, do anything, if it helped him to squash his enemies and get ahead.
But that was all still years away.
Right now, as his eyes feasted on the dossier, the British businessman marveled at the detail. This was better than Le Carrè. There were photos, eyewitness interviews, and even reports on American government officials. CIA’s reputation was overstated in the movies, but they were very good at building files, and often doing nothing at all with them.
He kept reading. The psych profile told that at Anwar’s core were only two things: A love of himself so great as to be clinical narcissism, and opportunistic ambition unrivaled even in the energetic political classes of Malaysia.
The first was a big fad in psychology at the time, but the more he read, the more the Brit thought it might fit.
And after the file was sitting on the coffee table, in a specially locked briefcase, hidden by a wave of cigarette smoke, one thing was clear: If there was a single theme to Anwar’s zig-zagging life and career, a single motivation, it was indeed opportunism.
He did not know it then, but over the years, the file, passed from confidant to confidant, would grow, and grow. It would tell a tale that reached back decades and ran more than twenty years beyond that day.
It would tell of the man who seemed like Dr M’s blue-eyed boy, but who was a Trojan Horse for the worst impulses of the Saudis, a man who would play with the minds of a generation of Malaysian youth and instill them with thoughts of racial supremacy and extremism, a man who hated the Chinese and their schools and saw them as a threat to his project. He was the Caliphate in a Zegna suit, the man the Wahhabis would fund and guide for decades in their drive to make over Malaysia in their image – and they chose well. Not even Hasan Ali could imagine achieving so much in his wildest dreams.
The files would hold the story of a man whose compulsive drive for power was already incredible by the time he entered Government – and who grew more morally corrupt and hungrier for power as time went by. It would record his management of his wife’s, and his own, wealth into not merely a source of luxury, but as a lever to climb Umno’s ranks. It would note the way he developed more and more funds to buy his way into political power, to enjoy the office of Deputy President of Umno, and to use that money and that power to prepare to take down Dr M.
It would tell the story of the man who started as an Islamist radical, but pivoted into the Shakespeare-quoting “voice of democracy” – for foreign journalists and leaders, who ate it up. They saw him as their own Shah of Iran; but at his core, he would remain in their eyes the Saudis’ man through and through. He was their perfect replacement for Dr M, who was too pragmatic, too moderate for the hard-core Islamists.
And, as the files would show, he would nearly be Dr M’s downfall – but his pride and his ambition brought him into the open too early, and he blew it. Never to be outdone, he went from the Malay and Muslim supremacist to the liberal, from oppressor of the media to tortured martyr, and he would rise again as Dr M’s successor left the judiciary free to release him.
Sources would add to the file, telling the story of secret Western and Saudi attempts to free him, and the warm welcome they gave him when he was freed. They would pick him back up and bring him back to money and power, always wanting him for their own ends. And he would oblige them … but perhaps to his own ambitions? Was he Puppet or Puppeteer? Agent of Change or Double Agent?
Later on, thanks to “I,” the story would climax in GE 12, and the Opportunist’s finest hour. The quest for power roared again in that tumultuous 2008, and the files revealed the biggest bluff, the dashed hopes, and the tragic political error of the infamous September 16th promise, the failure of his own making. It would tell of the new sodomy allegations, the ones all of the foreign intelligence services were convinced were true, but one that may have been a honey trap….or not.
And it would tell of the followers and allies, friends and faithful, whom that flawed man used and cast aside, and used again. It would tell of his fragile coalition, held together out of raw hatred of Umno and mutual distrust. It would contain witness statement after witness statement of the man’s own pride and self-regard sabotaging his chances, and his coalition’s. It would tell of his cunning understanding of the human mind, how small rallies like Hindraf and Bersih could turn into giant stories – all manipulated, stoked and exploited for his own glory and power. In the end, those files would show the lack of a core in this man and how that would mean the lack of a core in his own coalition.
Finally, it would tell the story of Sodomy II from the inside, from its start to its stunning finale. It would contain notes from reporters who met with that flawed man, and how he could not help but make himself into what they wanted, all over again – but be caught out, this time. It would tell of how he and his Saudi and Western friends used Turkey, the embassy, the ties with Erdogan and Gul, and how he grew overconfident in their protection. How his every word was suddenly subject to scrutiny, and he, unprepared for it, suffered.
It would tell of how the man the old Western spooks once feared was now the man they quietly mocked as the eternal loser, the man who would be martyr but was actually his own worst enemy. It would tell of how even the West eventually decided to leave him behind, and how he raged at them, as even his own party and coalition pulled away.
It would record, in scorching detail, his ultimate failure. Back in 1991, however, much of this was still to come. Now, groggy with fatigue, the Brit shook his head, stubbing out his cigarette. He fell into an uneasy sleep, his mind absorbed in the story. He took the file with him, and he shared it among those close to him – competitors or not, they knew this was one area they’d need a common strategy. Anwar was said to already be on the move, and commerce became almost impossible without paying homage to a mysterious figure in Malaysia known as “Mr. Ten Per Cent.” Favours were traded, large sums exchanged off-ledger, and over time, the file disseminated to a select few.
Those same few expats found their lives still revolving around Malaysia years and even decades later. Some married local girls. One or two even converted. Most couldn’t stand to be away from the energy and excitement. They did business. They prospered. And they all watched Anwar.
They watched him rise and fall and rise again, creating groupie love before him and bitter anger and fear in his wake. They all saw his narcissism come to flower in his total lack of empathy for his closest friends – and his worst enemies. He was a guru, a spiritual guide, to his followers, until the moment he turned on them. In the late 1990s, when he finally went after the Old Man, he miscalculated. He failed. He was so convinced of his own importance that he denied to himself the clear signs that Mahathir was ready to strike back at him. It was to happen again, with the September 16th crossover ploy, and this a full decade after the failed whispering campaign and coup attempt against Dr M.
The expats took it all in from their perch in servant-filled Damansara houses or downtown KL luxury apartments. They talked about him over the weekly golf match. They watched Anwar for years and years as he advanced what they believed to be his only real goal: himself. And then, finally, after an extended reflection during a heady weekend retreat in Langkawi, they decided to get the story out. Once and for all.
This, then, is his story, and the long and perilous hunt for his story. This is the full history, as the spooks and businessmen and diplomats and their myriad local and foreign sources and secret documents revealed it. This, then, is what the expats called The I-Files.