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.
Americans stood out in Malaysia in the 1980s, more so than Brits or the other mat salleh types increasingly on the ground. Reagan was in the White House, the Soviets were on the ropes, and after the debacle of the 1970s, America had her swagger back. Her sons were fanning out across the globe, preaching a gospel of free markets and democracy that would take root in different ways over the coming years, getting rich and living high in the world.
Three of those Americans were gathered in an air-conditioned conference room in Georgetown, Penang, nursing their alcohol of choice. With them was a Canadian, the head of the Commonwealth division of their company, and oddly for a Canadian, every bit a match for the Yanks in swagger.
It was he who had spoken, drawing the attention of the other men there. He continued. “With this fellow as Education Minister, I think this will be a very bad country in twenty years. I realise all Muslims sound the same to you – and fair enough, they basically sound the same to me, too – but this one is different. Have you heard about how he speaks about the Chinese?”
Reading any Chinese daily in this state was a fast insight into what Anwar thought of them and they thought of him, so that was largely a rhetorical question. One of the Americans absentmindedly swirled his chilled Blanton’s as he toyed with this idea. The other men in the room deferred to him, not only because he was their boss, but because he had a better feel for the country than most Americans ever would.
“Ok, Jim,” he said, taking a sip of the bourbon and setting it down on a coaster on the marble conference table. “I’ll humour you. Is this about the schools?”
“In part,” the Canadian replied. “He’s trying to force them all to use Bahasa for instruction, he’s coming down hard on the Christian schools, and he’s threatening to close a lot of them or at least make their lives miserable. I think he sees them as a rival power base – and God knows he hates the Chinese.”
“So does Mahathir,” one of the other men quipped.
Jim shook his head. “No,” he began. “Mahathir, for his sins, is a Malay chauvinist who feels his people were done wrong, but he has nothing personal against the Chinese. Anwar is different, Anwar actively hates them.” He sipped at his gin. “And worse is the brand of Islam he is pushing down the children’s throats.” He pulled out the report he’d had his right-hand man prepare and passed copies around the conference table.
…Anwar’s growing presence in Malaysia and abroad may be directly attributed to his propensity for quoting famous Western authors in policy speeches, a personality trait he inherited from his father. A significant number of local bureau chiefs – from the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and so on – have become enamored of Anwar, seeing him as a worldly Muslim as against Mahathir’s more strident form of Islam, mainly because he quotes from Western sources.
Credible reports have now surfaced of extensive Saudi ties and funding, however, which those local bureaus have largely avoided – much as they appear not to understand his days as a student radical. In this sense, Anwar is not so much the ideal, “moderate Muslim,” but rather a delivery vehicle, a container, for a radical strain of Islam largely unknown in Southeast Asia. The Caliphate in a Zegna suit, if you will. He quotes Shakespeare, but he thinks Sayyid Qutb.
This is in fact borne out by Anwar’s activities as Education Minister. Beyond the “Bahasa Melayu” matter discussed above, Anwar has worked to advance the spread of Wahhabi Islamic doctrine in the schools.
First and foremost has been the matter of the teachers. Traditionally, Islamic studies teachers in this country were trained here, in Singapore, or infrequently in Indonesia. Now, they are sent off for instruction to Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, and especially to schools set up, funded, and directed by the Wahhabis. There are now – and will before the foreseeable future – hundreds and thousands of these teachers importing an alien strain of Islam directly into the minds of the young.
Anwar appears to understand that education may begin at home, but it is sealed in the classroom.
He has not stopped merely with the teachers, and instead appears determined to re-align Islam even at the academic level, presumably both to continue the Wahhabi influence at all levels of education and to make certain that no teachers slip through the net. That leads to the International Islamic University Malaysia, which bills itself as the leading international Islamic university, with English and Arabic as medium of instruction. Many of its students come from abroad, and many come from Saudi Arabia and from its mission schools abroad.
The school is nominally funded by member-states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference; in practice, this means that Saudi Arabia provides the bulk of the funding and guides the selection of faculty. Although formally established in 1983 by Mahathir, Anwar clearly sees the institution as a vital tool in his Wahhabification program. It would appear that Anwar’s recent ascension to the Presidency of the University was itself engineered by Anwar.
The faculty of IIU is almost entirely foreign-born, and under Anwar, has been vetted for conformity to the Wahhabi strain of Islam. It is thus that Anwar appointed IIU’s second Rector, Abdul Hamid A. Sulayman, an academic from Saudi Arabia and an influential part of the most violent faction in the Muslim Brotherhood. With this lineup of characters, Anwar has worked to create radical cells among the students, both local and foreign-born. He is involved in a dark and subtle plan to change Malaysia, to make it a more Islamist and conservative society. And the old man does not seem to have figured it out.
There is also the “Policy to Imbibe Islamic Values,” which Anwar is personally promoting. An offshoot of the so-called Islamization of Knowledge – a stalking-horse for radical Islamic beliefs that suggests that all knowledge and learning should be seen as Islamic and with an Islamic character – the Policy is an attempt to re-order Malaysian society from the top down, in line with a more radical take on Islam than is native to Malaysia.
Thus, the national schools, heretofore multi-ethnic and multi-religious in character, have begun preaching more of Anwar’s peculiar ideology. Muslim prayers are publicly recited, Muslim sermons preached, and Islamic festivals celebrated – all as part of the curriculum. This is a radical departure, but one Mahathir is endorsing apparently in his attempt to shore up his base against PAS.
Perhaps most worrisome is the approach taken to female students and teachers, who are beginning to face religious pressures heretofore unknown in this region of the world. Women are coming under extraordinary pressure in the national schools to wear the tudung, experiencing mark-downs in grades and limitations on their academic careers if they elect not to do so. Segregation of the sexes is also beginning to take shape, at a level again unknown in Malaysia before this time.
…Anwar’s elevation to Education Minister is seen as a virtual anointing, as the job of Education Minister is usually a precursor to Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister thereafter. This suggests that Mahathir is deliberately grooming this apparently closet-Islamist to take over in future.
…The party elections last April and the bitter contest that followed have provided Anwar with the perfect cover to advance his agenda, with Tengku Razaleigh decrying Mahathir’s nominal extremism. By allying himself more closely with Mahathir during the Umno split and the battles with the judiciary that followed, it seems clear that Anwar finally had the space needed to impose his more radical Islamic, Malay superiority views in the schools. As Education Minister he is creating Islamic cells everywhere, influencing the curriculum, finding a thousand ways to push his own people toward a more Saudi interpretation of Islam. He is creating sleeper cells through the school system. He is playing with the minds of an entire generation.
Mahathir is either ignoring this or has not yet fully realized the full extent of Anwar’s deviousness. He is also constrained by his desire to completely eliminate PAS as an electoral force. Led by his old enemy Yusof Rawa, the man who took his seat in the Sixties, PAS may be defeated electorally, but it both reflects a conservative strain in Malaysian society and is determined to leverage that strain to return to power. Anwar is thus a useful foil who can effect policies both distant from Mahathir and to which he can point in the face of PAS attacks.
Mahathir appears unaware that Anwar is essentially attempting to Arabize Malaysia.
…which in turn leads to the issue of the Chinese schools. Anwar has disclosed to numerous interviewees that he perceives the Chinese and their educational system as impediments to his vision of Malaysia as an Islamic paradise. Hence the recent increased inspections of, speeches attacking, and constant administrative threats against Christian schools and English- and Chinese-language Chinese schools. It is somewhat surprising that Mahathir does not perceive the threat to his own coalition…
Roger looked up from the report. Jim had been a good addition; the fellow had a keen eye for detail and a way of sniffing out detail. This report was, in part, going into the “I” File. “I’ve been meaning to ask,” he said, knocking back the rest of his bourbon. “What is ‘Bahasa Melayu’?”
Jim idly flipped through his copy, not looking at it. “It’s just plain old Bahasa,” he replied. “But Anwar has decided to rename it. Bahasa Malaysia means the Malaysian language. Bahasa Melayu means the Malay language. So you see,” he said, taking a sip from his gin, “When Anwar tries to force Chinese schools to teach in Bahasa Melayu, what he’s not-subtly doing is telling them to submit to the Malays.”
His CEO nodded. “What’s this about the Saudis? Is this something about oil?”
The Commonwealth Division President shook his head. “Saudi Arabia has two main exports: Oil and an intolerant and vicious strain of Islam. You’ve seen the pictures of the women clad head to toe in black? You don’t see that here, but it appears Anwar has wanted that in Malaysia for a very long time. Those mujahedeen in Afghanistan? Overwhelmingly Saudis. Anwar makes no secret of admiring their view of Islam.
“The Saudis have been bankrolling him since the late ‘60s. He’s why their missionaries are now slowly working their way into Malaysia, setting up cells of their strain of Islam everywhere, infiltrating the mosques, changing Islam under the nation’s feet.” His face darkened. “This won’t end well. Look at the concluding pages of that report – he’s teaching their beliefs in the schools now – generations of children learning that women must be kept from learning, hand-holding is punishable by whipping, Christians and Jews are targets for killing. He’s brainwashing a whole generation.
“Funny thing, though,” he continued, finishing his gin. “Most of the sources we have suggest that Anwar is a deep cover plant by the Saudis, and there’s a lot to suggest that he’s the perfect man for them. Maybe too perfect – too fanatical, too much of a true believer. But I wonder if maybe that’s too simple an explanation. He’s gotten in so far with Mahathir by being everything Mahathir wants. Maybe he’s gotten what he wants from the Saudis by being everything they want?”
Jim had been a wonderful addition. One of the other men piped up. “Where to next, boss?” he asked, turning to Roger.
“Write it up,” Roger replied. “Every last word, every last thought. Send it to me. I have somewhere to be tomorrow morning.”
I’d known Roger since not long after he arrived in KL. Marvelous fellow. He’d give you the shirt off his back, but he expected you to be ready to follow him into Hell on a moment’s notice.
We met on his yacht before making for the Strait of Melaka. Roger regularly had his men sweep the yacht for ‘bugs,’ as even we used to call them back then, and then had the men he trusted sweep again after that. It was a safe place to talk, to knock back a few drinks, and to enjoy a day away from the office.
And to share gossip on research targets. After all, work never ends.
“So have you finally asked out that secretary of yours? She’s close to thirty and won’t wait forever, you know,” Roger began, with that irritating and endearing tendency to blunt openness that Americans have.
“Indeed I have,” I replied. “I’ve even worked my way up to proposing marriage.” I fought back a grin and lost.
Roger didn’t even try. “All right!” he yelled, gripping my hand in a bit of an over-firm handshake. “A drink for the condemned man!” He poured me a glass of that bourbon he loved so much, then another for him.
We settled in companionable silence for a few minutes, enjoying the cool breeze as we worked our way out to deep water. The American finally broke the silence. “What do you know about Anwar Ibrahim?” he asked.
I was a bit startled to hear that name outside of my office. I knew that the various intelligence services had their eyes on Anwar, but I didn’t know commercial firms other than British ones were, too. “Quite a bit, really. Why?”
“Wanna do some quid pro quo?” He had a troubled look on his face.
My curiosity was getting the better of me, but orders were orders. “Can’t,” I responded. “I have been officially instructed not to accept or seek any information on him. I’m hunting Russians in Perak instead,” I finished, trying to keep the contempt from my face, if not my voice.
Roger grinned. “How about this,” he said. “You get so drunk that you tell me what you know, and I accidentally leave part of a copy of my file to date in your hands when I drop your drunken ass off at your flat tonight. You can then accidentally leave that part of the file in your firm’s file, too.”
Americans are strange, but they can be quite clever, too.
Jim looked up as his intercom buzzed. “Yes,” he replied, trying to make the IBM-PC clone on his desk work. This DOS thing was absolutely dreadful, but he supposed it was the way of the future.
His secretary’s voice came through, tinny but clear. “Roger needs you in his office, I quote, ‘Now, please, but mostly now.’”
Jim walked into Roger’s office and noted that the corner room, normally flooded with sunlight, was dark, with all of the blinds drawn. “Everything all right, man?”
His boss turned in his swivel chair and Jim noticed the sleeping mask and the ice pack. “Did you at least manage to beat up the bottle as much as it beat you?” he joked.
Roger managed a wry grin, which in turn quickly became a grimace. “I’d forgotten how much Brits can drink,” he noted ruefully. “Get everyone to packing. We’re moving the office to KL by the end of next week. Call New York, London, and Sydney. We are also adding staff dedicated entirely to government intelligence.”
Jim nodded slowly. Roger was not prone to flights of fancy, and the only thing that had changed since he’d last seen the man two days before was a fishing trip and the discussion of Anwar. “Is this about the Education Minister?”
Roger forced a smile. “I knew it was a brilliant idea to promote you,” he replied. “I want the inside track on the next Prime Minister of Malaysia – and I want to know when we have to leave the country, at least a year before we have to do so. This Anwar is bent on transforming Malaysia, right back to the Twelfth Century.”
Looking back at the time, I’m still amazed at the extent to which Anwar managed to transform Malaysia. He perceived, correctly, that the future and the present belong to the young. Mahathir, caught up in intra-party combat and his subsequent march through the judiciary, missed this critical moment, and allowed his Education Minister – at the time, more and more his hand-picked successor – to undermine his otherwise-impressive legacy.
Not even Hasan Ali could imagine what Anwar managed in his wildest dreams. The hudud law debates, Islamisation of the schools, PAS’s call to join the Taliban fighting the Americans in Afghanistan, to destroy Israel – all lie at Anwar’s feet.
But that is only really understandable in hindsight. At the time, we knew that Anwar was a ruthless climber who was headed up the ladder to the big chair. He wanted the power Mahathir had carved out for himself, and he wanted it soon. That, in turn, meant being rich, and being backed by even more money than that.
And it is in the accumulation of that wealth, and how he husbanded it, that I return to the story.