One might, in reading what I’ve shared so far, assume that the ex-pat community in Malaysia in the 1980s, commercial and intelligence service, were all Anwar obsessives; or at least, that those of us who contributed to the “I” Files were. This is hardly so. I, for example, was busy falling in love with my Malaysian secretary, working up the courage to ask her out, marrying her, and then beginning a family with her. In between, I worked hundreds of matters, the overwhelming majority of which had nothing or little to do with Anwar, and almost all of which revolved around ending the Soviets’ murderous regime once and for all.

Aside from Anwar’s continued ideological war on the Chinese and Christians – he had banned the singing of Christmas carols at shopping malls and public places, and rearranged the school holidays so Christmas did not fall during the long vacation period – his day-to-day doings did not significantly register for most of us.

Most of us had similar stories. The thing about Anwar Ibrahim, you must see, is that he was very different from almost everyone but Mahathir, in that he rapidly began to occupy the centre stage, and not long after he ascended to the post of Education Minister, one could not run any sort of intelligence operation in KL without running into him, his subordinates, his influence, or his financial connections.

We of course from time to time made him our focus, but usually, he simply appeared again and again on our radar. It was especially in his financial connections that he kept intruding into our daily lives, because as one soon discovered, Anwar had his fingers everywhere, directly or indirectly. There were already the Saudi ties, of course, and the House of Saud is composed of terribly shrewd investors; they choose their assets carefully, and they always take the long position.

But one did not then ascend the Umno ranks without money, and more than a few ringgits at that. Whatever his other faults, Anwar has always been a keen student of power, and he understood early the need to develop not only his own funding, but an array of financial backers who would help him rise in the ranks.

His financial empire – which has held him in good stead for decades, through good times and bad – began with the Saudis, but continued with his marriage. It continues to this day, and is how he is able to control his party’s internal elections, and how he always seems to end up in the very best hotels when he travels.

It is here that I must beg your indulgence, dear reader. To understand Anwar’s financial empire – how he built it and how he maintains it – will require that we step outside of the chronological narrative I have largely favoured to date. Nevertheless, it is a story worth telling, especially in light of Anwar’s decisions in the 1990s and after his release from prison to style himself one of the common men of Malaysia – at least in his dealings with ordinary Malaysians and Western reporters.

My understanding of the matter began as I was hunting the Communists’’ last vestiges, not long before the coup that overthrew Gorbachev and ended with the complete dissolution of the Soviet Union.

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By 1986, I had pretty well run to ground all of the Soviets’ fronts in Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. The Soviets now seem a distant memory even to those of us who spent our first adult decades hounding them and their brutal ideology to the ends of the Earth, but they were then still a true danger in Malaysia. The Communist assault on the Bukit Kepong police station in 1950 was a mere precursor to their continued infiltration of the country over the coming decades, culminating in members in the highest levels of government; Malaysia’s royal police would battle the Communist threat for decades before they had been completely eradicated.

Indeed, Siddiq Ghouse, Mahathir’s political secretary, was arrested as a KGB spy a mere three days before Mahathir was sworn in. Our file materials were vague on the veracity of that claim, but I had more dangerous quarry to hunt and so did not spend time fleshing out that allegation.

It was thus that my superior wanted the commercial influence of that murderous lot eradicated from Malaysia once and for all. This was both vital and relatively easy. Their reputation for brutality was never exaggerated, their reputation for efficiency only slightly exaggerated, their reputation for secrecy a joke to those of us who took our tradecraft seriously. I had more than my share of time on my hands, and so despite explicit instructions to the contrary, I dabbled in watching the new Education Minister work on Malaysia. In fact I did more than dabble. I worked with some friends from The Company and we worked the files extensively. Anwar Ibrahim was by now more or less completely an Umno man in every way but one: His core. Outwardly, he was a loyal party man whose allegiance to Mahathir Mohamad was unquestioned. But as Education Minister, he finally had the chance to make good on his promises to his ABIM followers and to his Saudi friends to bring a purer form of Islam into the Government – and to Malaysia’s youth, and across Malaysian society. Where Mahathir saw the Malays as needing protection, Anwar saw them as needing perfection.

And he would give it, and he would also make the Chinese and Indians suffer for it.

1986 was also the year Mahathir ruthlessly crushed PAS electorally. To most of us watching from the outside, this was the signal moment when Malaysia’s more tolerant and moderate brand of Islam finally won out over the conservatives and radicals, those who would employ what were by then the obviously more extreme forms of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia and Iran, forms that PAS backed and Mahathir – and most Malaysians – rejected.

Only later would this section of the I-Files come into my hand, and only then would I understand how wrong I’d been.

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I arrived in Kuala Lumpur at the behest of my immediate superior, who was cavorting in Bali whilst pretending to be gathering some form of commercial counter-intelligence on the Soviets.

I’m reminded, by my young Malaysian subordinates, how long ago this really was. More than the somewhat depressing change in my features over time, what would really stand out to one of my attachés transported back to that time would be how truly different the country was then, how many men who have passed into legend or would make themselves legend now were struggling to push, pull, and drive Malaysia to a destiny even they could not fully see.

Anwar Ibrahim, of course, was one of these, and his story continues here. But through the mists of time it is important to remember his patron not as Tun Mahathir, as the young of today call him and think of him – the larger than life figure whose time as Prime Minister still shapes Malaysia today – but rather the outwardly self-assured man working desperately to consolidate his power base in Umno, to pull the reactionaries and progressives into something like a working harmony in a country still finding its identity in the world. Before he was a legend, he was an unlikely Prime Minister, threatened by the men he’d defeated to reach that spot, and by PAS and a world already hostile to him outside his country.

It is this time, just before Anwar’s sudden entry into my world, that my story in Malaysia begins.

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