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.
She was absolutely gorgeous, her raven hair spilling down her shoulders, her smooth face smiling lightly, her onyx-almond eyes staring into mine. She was also politely trying to get me to stop staring at her and pay attention to the message she was trying to convey.
I have never been very good on long flights, and stepping from the air-conditioned private cabin into KL’s muggy heat did nothing to alleviate this. Being approached by the virtual goddess who would become my secretary and distraction for years to come did not appreciably help, either.
Nevertheless, I gave it the old try, smiled as charmingly as I knew how, mumbled a thank you,and took the sealed envelope. My bags were being loaded in the car as I opened the envelope and took my first look at Anwar Ibrahim.
More accurately, I took my first look at a piss-poor photo of Anwar Ibrahim, with some sort of pepper sauce stain on the corner. His obvious intelligence shone through even that somewhat grainy photo, but beyond that, and his somewhat pinched features, I was at a loss as to why this picture of what looked like a Malay off the street was looking back at me.
Belatedly, I realised that the other papers in the envelope might shine some light on it. Working not to turn completely purple under the slight smile of my secretary, I fished out the other contents and started reading as the car took off. The first document was a memo from an American of all things, to my superior. I remember it clear as day.
DATE: AUGUST 9, 1981
Greetings, you old bastard. Hope you are enjoying your involuntary “retirement”. I have precleared permission to join you on a fishing expedition in Thailand next month that you did not know you were attending.
Enclosed you will find the information in my files, less appropriate redactions, on the new lead on our M. Gives some local color. The Company men in my office who don’t think I know they’re Company men are convinced that this fellow will be important over the next few years. I know this, because they told me he wouldn’t be.
I’m given to understand that your old firm had a drop box location here that did some digging on this fellow last year. I know this because the Company men are adamant that nothing of the sort happened. You may wish to talk with them.
You owe me. We’ll discuss in Thailand.
I realised then that Americans are odd.
I was absorbed in the contents of the file as we zipped to what would be my office for the next two years. At the end was a handwritten note from my superior telling me to grow the file.
…the time is 18.21, and the date is 11 August 1981. The following contains my first notes from reviewing the file materials presented. Please stamp this record A36-HIGH.
Although my warrant is on Anwar Ibrahim, a review of our files on the new Prime Minister – without whom this report will be largely meaningless – shows them woefully lacking. I have therefore taken the liberty of providing additional research on Mahathir Mohamad in order to supplement these files.
…and thus Mahathir, rightly, perceives his status as self-made; his life is the story of a man who dragged himself into the ruling class by his own keen mind and force of will. He clearly perceived early on that the improvement of the Malay lot must be his first political task.
So it was that his loss in 1969 was both a political setback and a crucial moment in defining his career focus thereafter. Yusof Rawa was able to convince Mahathir’s constituency that Umno had failed them, and that the future for Malays lay with PMIP (now PAS). Although Mahathir blamed Chinese voters swinging to PAS, it seems clear that even he recognised that the problem was internal to Umno and intrinsic to PAS.
Mahathir therefore came to believe that any future battles must be within Umno first – for allowing the party to be defined as insufficiently pro-Malay – and PAS second – for the dangerously fundamentalist threat they represented and for their ability to eliminate Umno dominance in Malay areas.
…The 1969 general elections and the 13 May 1969 riots represented yet another development that crystallised Mahathir’s perception of Umno vis-à-vis Malays. His famous letter to then- Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman (now in the M File) set out his grievances with Umno and Abdul Rahman. He was summarily sacked from Umno’s Supreme Council and entered into the political wilderness.
The important thing to understand about this period is that it reinforced every, single perception Mahathir carried about the Government. He would have to drag himself back into Government by his own efforts, and Umno could not be counted on to defend Malays from the Chinese and from PAS. This is why he has gone to such lengths to deliberately and purposefully crush PAS at the polls again and again, and to consolidate his power base in Umno.
His precarious position after his return to Umno, even despite Cabinet-level appointments, simply confirmed his perceptions and drove him to work harder…
…It is therefore apparent that Mahathir is working desperately behind the scenes to consolidate what appears to be an almost accidental premiership, and is beset by both internal opposition from Razaleigh Hamzah and others from his predecessor’s time in office and growing strength from PAS. Sources in the PM’s office tell us he is looking to undermine PAS by taking a critical figure from its fold. Or even beyond its fold.
Anwar Ibrahim, who has a prison record as the head of ABIM, seems the most likely choice. He has made close alliance with both the Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood the centrepiece of his current identity, and appears to have closely aligned with PAS abroad and at home. Political intelligence in the Prime Minister’s office suggests that Anwar may be ambitious enough to be tempted into office under the guise of increasing the Islamic influence there.
I am not certain that Mahathir has fully understood the quantity that is Anwar. The file materials before me indicate that the man is an Islamic radical to the core, a closet proselytizer, and he is likely to join PAS. Even if he comes into Government – an unlikely turn of events – he would probably be a destabilising rather than buttressing force. A loose cannon. Mahathir could be making an error here.
That concludes the note review. As instructed, I will move on to primary source materials and witness interviews from this point out.
I was sitting at my desk when my secretary handed me my compiled, dictated notes. They were immaculate. I smiled at her and somehow managed not to seem like a complete dunce as she smiled back and walked away.
I continued to watch until she turned and I could no longer see her. I believe she caught my looking from the corner of her eye and smiled a bit more.
Reviewing my notes and the report to date, I cross-checked against my questions for the first round of interviews. I straightened my tie and headed out, making a note to thank my superior for the secretary he’d assigned me.
“Call me Mohd,” the tall, lean fellow said, with a perfect RP accent. He waited patiently as I handed him the envelope. He handed me a thick set of folders marked only with the letter “I.” “As promised,” he noted with a grin.
I managed not to groan. “So I’m quite interested in Anwar Ibrahim,” I began, gently moving the folders to my side. “Is he looking to join PAS?”
The Malay fellow – he was using the name ‘Mohd’ though we had his identity pinned down before he ever came in – took a drag off of his cigarette, looking contemplative. “We all thought so, at first,” he began. “The Indonesians certainly tried to convince him. But he calls them ‘losers,’ and ‘perennial seconds.’ I think he thinks their faith is in the right place – he’s gone with a few of them to Saudi Arabia, that sort of thing – but he thinks they’ll never take the big chair.”
Another drag. “There’s also the matter of Iran,” he noted.
Please stamp this record A36-HIGH.
The three subjects interviewed this week are former colleagues of Anwar Ibrahim, of varying degrees of familiarity. They largely echoed each other, but the most comprehensive was ‘Mohd’ [True identity in Subject 36, I File]. I will therefore largely reference his remarks and a summary of the files he provided in this report. All notes are included in their original, following after this memorandum.
Analysis to date echoes the notes we have received from the Box 850 drop. It appears that Anwar’s ties with the Saudis go deep – and go a long way to explaining why they are using him as their stalking horse, or better still, as their Trojan Horse.
Initially, it appears that Anwar and his associated networkers were perceived as part of the Saudis’ ordinary approach to religious expansion – recruiting sympathetic Islamists in more moderate, predominantly Sunni nations, and using them to undermine the established order. For the first decade of his interaction with his Saudi handlers, based on the frequency with which they traveled to the country or brought him to Riyadh, they followed the same pattern they used elsewhere.
But what had been a liberal application of oil revenue and spiritual guidance changed with the Iranian revolution. Suddenly, Iran was a regional threat, an expansionist Shi’ite power dedicated to purging Sunni influence from its own country and from the region. All of that paled next to the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November 1979.
The House of Saud styles itself the protector of Mecca, and its legitimacy rides on this claim. The public relations debacle of having the Haj hijacked and its armed forces decimated while trying to retake the Mosque convinced the House of Saud that the Iranians were a greater threat than they had ever imagined. Although Iran was quick to blame the seizure – undertaken by members of elite Saudi families and assorted dissidents – on the United States and Israel, Box 850’s files suggest that the Iranians were behind the attack, and the Saudis know it.
PAS – and some elements in ABIM – were oblivious to this, and saw only theocratic perfection.
PAS began making overtures to Iran, and PAS Youth has a trip to Tehran scheduled this year. …
It is likely that this is the reason that the entreaties to join PAS have fallen on deaf ears. Anwar’s backers perceive Iran as a mortal threat. Further, PAS sees Iran, and the Ayatollah’s takeover, and appear to have decided that only the ulama should lead. PAS Youth are already saying as much.
…from a purely geopolitical standpoint, it is clear that the Saudis perceive Anwar as a necessary beachhead in Southeast Asia, part of a policy of encirclement to offset Iran’s large, restive, missionary population. The Iran-Iraq War is being played out with Saudi funds supporting the Iraqis and their procurement of Western materiel, and the Saudis clearly intend to shore up their influence outside the region. Thus the numerous documented meetings between Anwar and Ahmad al-Haj Totonji, an Iraqi-born and Saudi-bred operator whose ties to his country’s government we have not yet been able to document: It is clear that Anwar is and must be a vital element of the Wahhabi expansion in Southeast Asia, a matter in which the Iraqis have a vested interest as well. Totonji was assigned to cultivate Anwar and to help propel his rise in Malaysia. Files even indicate how he worked behind the scenes to get Anwar infiltrated into Mahathir’s establishment.
One place Anwar appears unwilling to jeopardise himself is with his money. Some of the files from ‘Mohd’ showed that the Saudis directly threatened ABIM’s funding over growing ties to the mullahs in Iran. Although Anwar appeared to be active in Malaysia on a permanent basis now, it was clear that he relied on the Saudi funds and networks that had seen him lecturing abroad to fund at least some of his lifestyle.
Furthermore, Anwar is not a member of the ulim, and as such he has no future in PAS.
…Mahathir’s entreaties are therefore more appealing to Anwar than they were a mere three years ago. What is remarkable is the extent to which Anwar appears to have kept these matters to a very small inner circle; it is not clear whether his new wife understands the extent to which he is following the Saudi lead.
It is quite clear that Mahathir does not.
I rubbed my eyes. I had started pulling long nights again, a habit I thought I’d shed after university.
The files I’d received, from ‘Mohd’ and the Box 850 drop, and from the witness interviews I’d taken, told what seemed a bizarre story to me. At first, I’d thought Anwar’s life was probably not all that unusual for Malaysia; after a few months in-country, I was convinced that this story was as strange for Kuala Lumpur as it would be for London.
What stood out to me, that late night, was not merely the web of hard-core Islamist and Saudi connections that seemed to dance about Anwar, but the manner in which he seemed to move between them. He seemed a man utterly sure of himself, able to be anyone to everyone, but so sure of his ability to fool anyone and everyone that he very nearly got himself killed more than once.
I did not then know that narcissism is a clinical condition. I just thought him a stupendously effective liar and radical.
This quality, whatever one calls it, made him occasionally reckless. In the files ‘Mohd’ gave me, there is a record following his elopement with his wife the year before. Apparently, her father – who had once been behind Anwar’s time in prison – stormed into Abdullah Badawi’s office and announced his intention to “murder the little bastard.” His unholstered gun was perhaps more of a statement than his words themselves. Abdullah managed to dissuade him (something that, with the benefit of hindsight, he may occasionally regret these days), but I have never been able to tell if Anwar appreciates how lucky he was that day.
Wan Azizah would be the perfect complement to Anwar – driven, dedicated, ruthless, but with a charming demeanour that disarmed almost everyone who met her. She was also ideologically attractive – she wore the tudah before most others did, before she met Anwar. Her part in this story would not be obvious for years yet.
There was more, most of which would make no sense then, but would be illuminating in later years. But for all I learned of Anwar in those files, what changed my life most is what happened just a few months after, not long after Mahathir had succeeded in bringing Anwar into Umno.
Yawning, I locked up the file, turned off the light, and lay down on the couch in my office.
Months passed. The Anwar job had finished, and I was in the middle of doing commercial research when the big news broke: Mahathir had named Anwar Minister of Culture, Youth, and Sports. It was a signal moment: Anwar had been the perfect counter-point to PAS, and part of the strategy that had allowed Mahathir to roundly crush the fundamentalist party once and for all. Dr M clearly felt he had the upper hand – he’d neutralised two threats at once, and brought a young up-and-comer into his inner circle. Now a Minister, fresh off taking the top spot as head of Umno Youth, he was surely an Umno man forever after.
The day Anwar had joined Umno, Mahathir had been beside himself over the coup he’d managed. I was not so sure. I’d thought of Mohd’ and what he’d given us on Anwar.
I’d thought of the man who had aligned himself with the Wahhabis, and how they had influenced Anwar, and I’d wondered how such a man ties himself to a man like Mahathir with any sincerity.
Returning to my desk, I asked my secretary to contact headquarters and get ready for a report on the new Minister.
It was not I, however, who compiled that report, and it is here that my direct involvement ends for a time. My superior believed my talents wasted on the man whom he had not long before thought worthy of all of my attention. Instead, I was tasked with gathering intelligence on a KGB front operation working out of Penang, and supervising my juniors as they gathered data – but not witness interviews – on Anwar.
We eschewed witness interviews because even then, people who knew too much about him had a way of disappearing.
Anwar would become the consummate Umno man, and in many ways he was the perfect protégé for Mahathir. Mahathir undeniably carried with him the impression he’d formed decades before that the Malays needed every advocate they could find, and resented anything that made them seem second-class; after all, he had famously insisted on a Chinese driver for years specifically because most drivers in Alor Setar were Malay.
Anwar played the old man and played him well. But where Mahathir was a bit of a Malay chauvinist, Anwar was a supremacist. Where Mahathir believed that Malays should receive special privileges until they were no longer needed, Anwar believed they were entitled to those privileges to the end of time. Mahathir was capable of being an effective leader of a multi-racial coalition; Anwar was not and – still today – is not.
Whether from necessity, distraction, or a legitimate lack of understanding, Mahathir never perceived this difference. And so as Anwar advanced in Government, winning plaudits for his time as Minister of Culture, Youth, and Sports, he brought into his ranks operatives from his time in ABIM, men whose real allegiance to PAS and the growing influence of Iranian and Saudi radicals was only barely hidden. Because they could truthfully mouth the sorts of things Mahathir wanted to hear, he seemed deaf to the radical threat they presented.
Whatever the source, Anwar’s wealth grew appreciably during this time, as did his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood (in the open) and the Wahhabis (in the background). He learned that working closely with banks tied to those groups could be decidedly lucrative, and he began to develop the taste for international travel that is perhaps his best-known feature today.
He clearly also understood the importance of a large war chest when challenging for leadership spots in Umno; from his first day in the party, he began courting wealthy Malay and Chinese interests with an eye to the future.
He assuredly made more than his share of enemies, but he was always careful to cultivate as foes only those men who were already opposed to Mahathir. Already entranced with his young understudy, Mahathir came to identify Anwar with his own causes and concerns, and shielded Anwar when he ran into better-entrenched parts of Umno.
Here, I and my fellows leave the story, except as narrators, until after Anwar’s ascension to Minister of Education and the damage he wrought on a generation of Malaysian youth. That, however, is a story for others, and is told mostly in their words next.