CHAPTER TEN: ANWAR IN FREE FALL

September 1998 was actually quite pleasant, as the climate goes. The temperature did not seem much above 30 degrees, and there always seemed to be a breeze waiting about.

It was also the end of the third chapter of Anwar’s life, and the beginning of the fourth. Despite what he would have you believe, his sacking and his rapid race to the streets, followed by his trip to court, did not augur any change in the weather, nor did it change his political fortunes. It did, however, completely alter the way Malaysia functions as a polity; it energised and – paradoxically – permanently neutered the Opposition, adding a different old face to the old faces already so prevalent in the DAP and PAS.

But that is getting ahead of things a bit.

I am going to break from the narrative format in which I have engaged to date, as the story of Anwar’s final fall and the days that followed is not appreciably more interesting with notes of my goings-on at the time. Suffice it to say that, as I said before, I made a great deal of money by predicting and helping foreign entities through the change in the Government’s structure, and that my tightly-knit group of ex-pats met frequently, especially when the riots began, to determine if Malaysia was descending slowly and inexorably into chaos.

So we begin with the first week of September, when all that Anwar had built finally crashed down upon him.

On the evening of 1 September 1998, Mahathir summoned the Mentris Besar to a room in his private residence, after it had been swept by one Malaysian, one British, and one American security firm for electronic listening devices. A military-grade ‘static’ device was activated to eliminate electronic eavesdropping from a distance. Each MB was patted down. Mahathir himself submitted to the pat-down to demonstrate that this was serious.

To each man, Mahathir handed a thick folder of photographs, bank ledgers, invoices, communiques, electronic mail, and corporate records. Each was a synopsis of the file the old man had kept on his Deputy Prime Minister for years, grown with the frantic investigations of the last three months. Mahathir walked them through each photograph, each document, each note.

Anwar’s financial dealings, his Saudi ties, his coup attempt, his backdoor dealings with PAS, everything was in those files in some level of detail. The photos included pictures of Anwar in compromising positions with – I am told – both men and women.

Mahathir was never one to let on weakness where others could see it, but he was actually seeking these men’s counsel. Could Anwar be saved even now? Should he be?

They gave their verdict, to which Mahathir said nothing. Each copy of the file, even Mahathir’s, was shredded, burned, and liquefied with acid. To this day, I bitterly regret not paying an acquisition fee for more than a summary of those files.

The press, by that point camped outside of Mahathir’s and Anwar’s residences, was oblivious to most of this, as usual.

The next morning, Mahathir summoned his lieutenant and demanded his resignation. Anwar refused, and Mahathir gave him an afternoon deadline to reconsider. Anwar’s response was to begin preparations for street protests, and to send carefully-worded messages to foreign reporters and politicians that the same riots that had brought down Suharto in Jakarta a handful of months before.

Anwar’s supporters began to gather at his residence and, in a particularly clever move, started to hand out candles to women in the group to light that evening. Reporters, massing before this, became a throng.

That evening, Anwar received the letter notifying him of being sacked. The candles were lit. Praying began.

Wan Azizah left, allegedly to say farewell to Siti Hasmah. The story quickly leaked out to anyone who would listen that the two women had hugged and wept. Anyone who loves the theatre could appreciate it.

The crowd swelled through the night, and when Anwar made his departure (after enormous fanfare) the next day, they followed him to his private residence. There, he gave what is now a famous press conference, the theme of which would become Anwar’s chorus for over a decade: I am the victim of a plot at the highest levels of Government. They have targeted me because of my reforming spirit. I’m the best chance for democracy in this hell-hole, and that is why they are after me.

As we listened to his interview on CNBC that evening, we were struck by a man who had twisted and corrupted governance to his own end, taking by theft and graft untold billions in the process, who had worked to turn Malaysia into a redoubt for Wahhabi theocracy, who had launched attacks on the Chinese and the Christians, and who had worked to launch a bloodless coup against Dr M, tell the world that it was his reforming spirit that brought him low.

I lie. We were not struck. Once we were able to close our jaws, we laughed.

Anwar made a show of heading to prayers for the cameras as the Umno Supreme Council began to assemble for the meeting Mahathir had called. Well-placed and well-paid Anwar supporters began to throw garbage at those considered Anwar’s enemies, especially Najib Razak and Mahathir.

When Anwar arrived, strategically-placed reporters began to chant “Reformasi!” for the cameras.

This was no accident. Suharto had fallen before exactly that cry in Indonesia months before, cast aside by the military and his party’s leadership, and Anwar was trying to convince credulous reporters that Mahathir was poised on the same razor’s edge.

Anwar was unceremoniously drummed out of Umno by a unanimous vote.

Anwar emerged to give a speech to the crowd, which by then was largely composed of paid Anwar supporters. If the man understood anything in his heart of hearts, it was street theatre. He called for quiet, and with wads of ringgits in hand, the crowd went silent. Anwar told them that the charges against him were false, and that he would fight them to the end. Anwar’s lieutenants called for applause, and chants of Allahu Ackbar! rose from the crowd. CNN’s and BBC’s cameras picked up every instant of it. As well they should have; Anwar’s people had spent hours helping them set up in precisely the right spots, clearing the crowd as needed.

The protesters took some time to throw more garbage at Mahathir and the rest of the Supreme Council as they left. They then promptly went home, got a good night’s rest, and waited for the next cash drop.

What happened next raises a single question: Was the ABIM Anwar ever truly gone, or had he merely gone into hiding for a decade and a half?

Anwar made a great show of beginning a nationwide tour, to fight against corruption and cronyism. His press operation, which we had theretofore believed limited to Malaysia, distributed professional-quality press kits to foreign and domestic media, including high-quality glossies of a righteous Anwar exhorting some faraway crowd. Those photos would be used in newspapers domestic and foreign, and in international television shows covering the event.

The photo was from a handful of years before, at an Umno gathering, denouncing Lim Kit Siang’s allegations of corruption in Umno. Perhaps most damningly, it was a Reuters photograph, and yet no one at Reuters seemed to recognise it. Or if they did, they did not bother to mention it.

Anwar’s ‘national tour’ was cancelled once, then cancelled again. His stated reason was fear that he would be subjected to violence. The press ate it up.

The real reason was that he was mobilizing the money he had put into play to bring down Mahathir to try to re-create Indonesia’s chaos from six months before, to force Mahathir to step down. All of the talk of a nationwide tour was kabuki theatre; nationwide tours are for politicians hustling their trade, not revolutionaries trying to accomplish by violence what democratic procedures could not.

Across Malaysia, protesters were paid thousands of ringgits to come into the streets and cheer, and so out they came, and cars were set on fire, and marches held, and riot police and water cannons deployed.

The United were dominating Premier League football that season, so one supposes these chaps felt they weren’t missing much by not staying glued to the telly. United of course had an historic run, so those chaps not only got a face full of water cannon, they also missed history.

Anwar was at their head, and Anwar was in the streets. He was reliving his youth, leading cheering masses demanding what they had been paid to demand. He was working to throw Malaysia into chaos, and the camera crews were lined up to see it all.

He was Anwar. He was BJ Habibie. Mahathir was Suharto. The end was nigh.

It was here that we not only saw that the old Anwar was either back or had never truly gone, but also that Anwar had developed a profound streak of incompetence somewhere along the way, for he got the entire process quite backward.

Suharto faced months of riots over increasing poverty, social disruption, and years of brutal, totalitarian government of a kind never experienced in Malaysia. Only after all of this was done did his support in his own party and in the armed forces dry up, forcing him to step down for his successor.

Mahathir’s successor had lost the support of his party, had been cast out, and then small-scale riots erupt, led by Anwar’s men and made up overwhelmingly by those paid handsomely to appear.

Worse for Anwar, by then, Habibie’s increased international and national stature had begun to bring out some of his less desirable qualities – his corruption, his tendency to be all things to all people, and his grasping ambition.

He was every bit the con artist Anwar was, but not the con artist Anwar wanted anyone to think him.

Leading riots – a frontal assault on Malaysia’s democracy – was the final straw for Mahathir, and so Anwar was arrested under the Internal Security Act. When he was beaten in custody,

Mahathir demanded that heads roll, and I am given to understand that he meant that precisely. He understood that Anwar was playing the martyr for the whole world to see, and that anything that took away from his corruption and lawlessness was not merely criminal, but criminally stupid.

True to form, when Anwar appeared in public, he played every inch the wounded hero. The exaggeration was obvious – he famously threw off a back brace during his trial whilst he thought no one was watching – but he had another critical piece of his puzzle as the beleaguered martyr.

The Saudi Foreign Minister sought to intervene to protect their investment, ringing Mahathir directly and begging for forgiveness. Mahathir was and is many things, but inclined to have his commitment to Islam questioned – as his interlocutor did – he is not. The call ended with the Saudi cut off mid-word.

The United States sought to intervene, threatening Malaysia with an end to foreign aid and sanctions the likes of which had crippled South Africa a decade before. They too were ignored.

Anwar was charged under the ISA, and then charged with corruption and sodomy. The story of his trial is for next time, but I briefly wish to return to something I mentioned in my last installment.

I am not altogether comfortable discussing Anwar’s sex life, and not merely because I believe him a repulsive person. The rumours of his infidelity, with men and women, were such that I received credible reports that his wife paid private contractors to follow him and his paramours about. These rumours, which began not long before he became Education Minister, only increased in frequency over time.

So widely believed were these stories that Karpal Singh – who would later unabashedly declare them defamatory – repeated those same stories in public during Anwar’s tenure in Government.

Although I do not know Anwar’s sexual proclivities and have little desire to explore them in any meaningful way, it is not the uncertain nature of the charges that stays my hand.

The strain on Wan Azizah is the source of my reluctance. The lady is no child, and matches Anwar’s ambition with ease, far surpassing him in cunning and brilliance. But she clearly loves her husband, and these stories clearly wounded her then and wound her now.

Thus, if the stories are true – and a raft of evidence, video and otherwise, court decisions, whispers on the ground, the testimony of victims, and Wikileaks cables strongly suggest they are – then Anwar Ibrahim is not merely a ruthless radical whose corruption in Government is matched only by his incompetence out of it.

He is also a cad, a small man who abuses the most precious gift a woman can give a man: her trust. And I do not like bringing it up for what it does to his wife, because my father raised me better than that.

But then again, isn’t that the story of Anwar’s life? One betrayal of trust after another? Of his ABIM allies, of Umno as he brought ABIM values into it, of his mentor and father figure, of his wife, of his Government?

That question would in its own way occupy centre stage along with protesters, witch doctors, and a bizarre cast of characters over the course of nearly three months. From the crucible would emerge the Anwar the whole would could come to love, a new Anwar whose old infatuation with poetry and clean governance would sweep aside for so many the man who’d corrupted a generation of Malaysian youth and liberally helped himself to so much graft.

The next chapter in Anwar’s life was set to begin.

CHAPTER NINE: THE FALL

I have always had a lurking admiration for those who could keep their lies straight. It’s a deucedly hard thing to do, so I’ve generally left it to others. I have had the advantage, in both government and private work, of being disbelieved by many with whom I interact by the nature of my job for most of my life, so I’ve been free to be honest to a fault. Just by being honest, others keep better track of what I say than I do.

Anwar Ibrahim has gone a long way by never being honest the same way for any two groups of people. I truly believe that this stems from a fundamental defect at his core – I’ve suggested before that he is a man without a face, who can put on whatever face is needed for the occasion.

According to the Company’s best psych-profile of Anwar, he is a genuine narcissist. And like most narcissists, he truly believes he occupies a special place at the centre of the universe, and this appears to make his constantly-evolving statements and self-characterisations honest, if not necessarily true.

We used to laugh out loud at Anwar’s utterly unabashed self-descriptions as being the next great martyr, the next Nelson Mandela, the next Aung San Suu Kyi, whoever struck his fancy that day.

In retrospect, this was terribly small of us; it’s rather like laughing at the fellow who truly believes he’s Napoleon.

However, whether this was a mental disorder or a personality defect is beyond my capacity to diagnose. What we do know is that this critical trait gave him the ability to seamlessly move between completely contradictory social circles and groups, always telling them – and seeming to believe – exactly what they wanted to hear. And he lived quite well off of it.

To this day, many still believe the first image he gave them. For American liberals, he was the earnest, moderate reformer. For PAS types he drew to Umno and his old guard in ABIM, he was the radical out to make Malaysia a perfect Islamic state. For the neoconservatives, he was a bulwark against what they perceived as the next great threat: Islamic radicalism. To Western reporters – whose policy preference overlapped strongly with American liberals – he was the Shakespeare-quoting, dedicated believer of reform from within. To Mahathir Mohamad, he was the capable son and political heir, the outsider who became the insider and who saw Mahathir as a surrogate parent.

To them all, he was a man of the people, a man of principle and honesty. Nonsense. Anwar Ibrahim is a man who made a great deal of money and power out of corruption and graft, and has never bothered to apologise for it. He is a man who all but banned Christmas in Malaysia and was on track to drive the Chinese out and close down their schools.

In the days before the internet and social media was an everyday fixture, this sort of duplicity was easy. He played them all for fools.

But as an American president once said, you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you simply cannot fool all of the people all of the time. The Asian Financial Crisis encouraged Anwar to let his mask slip, and he did; and when the fooling ended, the real game began.

It is little remembered now, but in 1998, Karpal Singh, then already a supremo in DAP, publicly accused Anwar Ibrahim of homosexuality, sodomy, and fornication with both men and women other than his wife. He demanded, in public, at a DAP conference, and in the Dewan Rakyat, that Mahathir explain why he was keeping such a man in his Cabinet, and demanded that Anwar be dismissed or resign, for the good of the nation.

Then as now this was not a charge lightly made. Although Mahathir was publicly and angrily denying it, this sent a minor shockwave through the world of politics. The news of this demand made it to my desk along with a number of other details that, for the first time, told me that Anwar was on uncertain ground.

It was a warm evening, and a humid breeze wafted past. I was reviewing the stack of pages accumulated over the last month as I leveraged every bit of information at my disposal to beat alpha during the Asian Financial Crisis. I’d decided a few days before to end our holdings in the ringgit, gambling that Mahathir would win out and take the currency off the foreign exchanges. Here was a hastily scribbled copy of a note Chandra Muzaffar had sent to Anwar begging him not to try to bring down Mahathir in the midst of this terrible crisis. Now was not the time, he said here and elsewhere, to “take down the captain of the ship.”

Here was a note on the ringgit’s fall against all major currencies, with both public and private ratings on its creditworthiness. Private analysis said that foreign investment would only return with Mahathir’s mega-projects, and that Anwar’s attempt to dismantle them all at once would destroy the currency and the economy.

Here was a list of interviews with business reporters at the New Straits Times, Utusan Malaysia, the Star, and TV3, all of whom had been summoned to Anwar’s office for specific instruction on how his programmes were to be portrayed in print. One print reporter was ordered to transition into broadcast work; when she refused, she claimed, Anwar threatened her until she in turn threatened to go public with the story.

Here was Newsweek naming Anwar ‘Asian of the Year.’ The story barely bore reading, but months later, when Newsweek was a laughing stock for having buried the story on President Clinton’s affairs in the White House, the catastrophe the newsweekly had become was complete.

I sipped some scotch. My sons were in bed, my daughter in her crib, my wife was doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle. I should have been enjoying a quiet moment. Instead, I was trying to determine how this saga played out next.

I turned back to the handwritten notes I’d received on Mahathir’s meetings with his private circle. It was by now fairly clear that the war Anwar had started in Hong Kong and that had continued through the fall and winter was coming to a head. There was already talk that the Umno General Assembly in June was when Anwar would make his move, trying to force Mahathir to step down once and for all.

My intelligence sources all concurred that over a billion ringgit was in play for the final move, from Anwar’s own holdings at Hong Leong and Al Baraka. It was the Ghafar Baba Operation all over again, but on a far grander scale.

Another sip of scotch as I breezed through the executive summary of 50 Reasons Why Anwar Can Not Be Prime Minister, a delightful tract that accused the Deputy Prime Minister of everything from murder to embezzlement to fornication to sodomy to being a CIA spy. That last was particularly funny. I knew all of the CIA spies in Malaysia’s government, and Anwar was definitely not one of them.

The important thing about 50 Reasons was not its allegations, but rather the fact that it was not merely being published, but widely distributed as well. Mahathir was clearly firing a warning shot at Anwar, who was by that point either too proud or too taken with his own cleverness to understand what was coming.

Anwar’s men were already telling anyone who would listen that the upcoming Umno General Assembly would be entirely about cronyism and nepotism, especially in Umno, and especially in the contracts doled out for the mega-projects. Of course there was cronyism in those projects!

The Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister had personally seen to it.

Undoubtedly, the targets were Mahathir’s family, and the families of other Anwar enemies in Umno. Anwar was trying to recreate the Indonesian regime change that was in the process of happening as I sipped my scotch – he was trying to make Mahathir into Suharto and, laughably to anyone who knew Habibie, Anwar into Habibie.

Suharto was a corrupt autocrat whose children were granted monopolies over critical industries. Mahathir was the duly-elected prime minister of a democratic nation, whose children were associated with both successful and unsuccessful ventures in competitive industries.

As I sat watching the moon rise, I rather wondered if Anwar understood that the difference was more than semantic. Without widespread discontent and the resulting domestic and international pressure, as Suharto had faced, there would be and could be no leverage to force the old man to step down. Whatever Mahathir’s faults, whatever may be said of Malaysia’s political system in 1998, the comparison was simply ridiculous.

To top it off, word was that Daim Zainuddin was being recalled from semi-retirement to essentially take over Anwar’s portfolio.

For the first time, on the eve of the Umno General Assembly, with what felt like the world crashing down on us, I understood that Anwar was probably a spent force, and simply did not know it yet.

June 1998 was probably the month when Anwar realised he had lost his gamble.

Things started inauspiciously when Anwar picked the first week of June to begin his attack. He issued a public call – echoed by his crony, Umno Youth chief Zahid Hamidi, to stop cronyism in Umno and in the bumi mega-companies. By now his plan was out in the open – too out in the open – and so most everyone recognised this as the beginning of the putsch on Mahathir, rather than as a sincere call for reform.

Anwar seemed nonplussed by the collective yawn he received.

Less than a week later, Zahid promised to produce examples of corruption in Mahathir’s megaprojects at the General Assembly. Ahead of the event, lists – prominently featuring Mahathir’s son – were distributed to anyone who might even seem to have a passing interest.

Unbidden, Mahathir announced that there was no split between him and Anwar.

By then, Anwar was cagey enough to understand that Mahathir was letting his protégé know that the game was over, and there was still time to back down. We will never know why Anwar went ahead: Was it because he felt he had no choice? Did he still think he could win? Was he hoping to push Mahathir to announce a retirement timetable?

On June 18, 1998, the Umno General Assembly began, and every attendee was on edge. Copies of 50 Reasons were liberally handed out. Early copies of the lists of corrupt bumiputra projects were distributed. Behind the scenes, Anwar sent Mahathir a letter gushing with praise, promising that the future would be as glorious as the one Mahathir had made as Prime Minister.

Anwar did not know then that Mahathir had convened almost the entire Supreme Council for three hours on the night before the General Assembly began.

Zahid released the list of corrupt projects and ventures, and at the top, for all to see, was Mahathir’s son.

On June 19, 1998, a new list was released, that of the shareholders in privatised bumiputra companies. Anwar’s family and cronies were liberally represented, with millions of shares held between them – his father and brothers holding millions alone.

But everyone knows that story. The real coup came that night when the Supreme Council – through Najib Razak – announced that the Government would be releasing lists of the recipients of privatised projects for the sake of good governance.

In one move, Mahathir had managed to surpass Anwar’s reformer credentials, used his hated rival Najib to deliver the blow, and most importantly tell Anwar that all of the Deputy Prime Minister’s shady dealings would now be public knowledge. In the space of a day, Mahathir neatly disarmed Anwar once and for all.

I am reliably informed that Anwar raged and wept by turns that night. There were rumours that he buried his pain in an extramarital liaison that night, but I’ve long believed those to be fantasy.

Anwar publicly denied any desire to try for the Presidency of Umno in the next year’s elections. Mahathir took the occasion to say he would support Anwar against any challengers for the number two spot in Umno. No challengers appeared. By now, Anwar understood the message: His political survival was in Mahathir’s hands. Two days later, he made a public profession of support for Mahathir – amusingly, in a pantun – publicly chastened and brought down to Earth.

Mahathir was not finished with his wayward disciple. A handful of days later, he appointed Daim Zainuddin, Anwar’s predecessor, as Special Functions Minister – a post specially created to aid in implementing Mahathir’s policies in response to the Financial Crisis, taking on many of the roles of … the Finance Minister. Daim would of course report directly to Mahathir.

Both Anwar and Mahathir made clear that there was no threat to Anwar in this, and that Anwar retained Mahathir’s full confidence. Neither believed it.

It was obvious to all of us by early July that Mahathir was both punishing Anwar and giving him a final chance at salvation. Everyone knew that Mahathir kept private files on everyone in his Government, and he has clearly opened that file on Anwar.

But one must remember the back story: Mahathir himself had fallen from grace, once. He had campaigned with PAS while in exile, he’d gone to war with Umno, but in the end, he’d been brought back in from the cold and rocketed to the top.

I believed then, as I believe now, that Mahathir was testing Anwar under pressure. If Anwar had pledged himself a faithful servant – which he did – and then stood by that pledge – which he did not – Mahathir would have let the whole matter disappear.

And Anwar’s public professions of loyalty were frequent, they were widely publicised, they appeared earnest, and they showed up in every major daily.

But behind the scenes, it was a different story. Instead of taking the entire episode as a lesson in humility and better planning, Anwar took it as a sign that his last chance was slipping away. A flurry of urgent emails and calls went out to Anwar’s friends at home and abroad, through proxies and third-parties, begging for an increase in the international pressure. Bank Negara officers lined up to support Anwar and turn a blind eye to capital flows back into Malaysia from offshore havens. Editors in print and media played up his statute and loyalty while reminding the nation how poorly the economy was performing under Mahathir. George Soros opened his direct lines to Anwar, and the entire American foreign policy establishment began unsubtly calling for Mahathir’s resignation. The IMF floated the idea of aid being tied to Mahathir’s absence. Tony Blair, still getting his stride at Number 10 (Number 11, really), spent hours on the phone with Anwar, working to leverage out the old man.

Everyone with business concerns in Malaysia was on edge. Mahathir was a known quantity, but Anwar had made his entire public career out of being the precise opposite. Every foreigner was looking, desperately, for someone with in-country experience and a network of informants and contacts for that most precious thing of all to every investor: certainty.

In the three months following the Umno General Assembly, I made back every penny I’d lost during the Financial Crisis.

Anwar lost nearly everything he had spent twenty years building.

August was so very quiet. Everything seemed balanced on a knife’s fine edge. Reports leaked out of both Mahathir’s and Anwar’s offices about what was happening. Mahathir had demanded Anwar’s resignation. Anwar had threatened to take compromising pictures to the press. Anwar had resigned. The men had eaten together, hashed out their differences, and were stronger than ever.

That last rumour almost certainly came, indirectly, from Azmin Ali. We all disregarded it.

The daily affirmations of loyalty from Anwar continued. Mahathir remained largely silent.

We now know how August went: Anwar diligently worked to shore up his badly-damaged position in Umno whilst Mahathir built up a legal case against Anwar – he knew in July that Anwar was still working to topple him. By mid-August, he had sufficient evidence – so everyone in his office believed – to try Anwar for corruption and embezzlement, without destroying the people’s faith in the Government Mahathir had built.

It was careful, it was complex, it was deliberate, and it was ultimately successful; but in the end, the damage Anwar did in his political death-throes was almost as great as the damage he’d done in office.

Wan Azizah stoically complained to the Borneo Post, late that August, that Siti Hasmah had snubbed her at National Day celebrations in Penang. The two had once been terribly close; by now, it was obvious that every relationship Anwar had cultivated was in danger.

Mahathir began a quiet sweep of the newsrooms, and began isolating Anwar’s editors as he had Anwar when he brought in Daim. Ahmad Dom, the Bank Negara governor, and Fong Weng Phak, his lieutenant, resigned. Both men had been in Anwar’s circle of cronies; they knew their time was nearly up.

It is hard to imagine now, but the tension as the Sodomy II verdict approached, or in the aftermath of the Twelfth General Elections, was a fraction of what the nation experienced that August. Hot, balmy days became filled with a terrible electricity. Everyone knew that something was coming from one man or the other or both; no one knew what.

Or rather, those of us who had watched Mahathir slowly eviscerate every political enemy he’d ever faced, leaving them ground in the dust, knew. And I think – as did everyone still living who contributed to the I Files – that Anwar did, too. In those last two weeks of August, Anwar slowly realised that the Americans and the Brits and the Turks and the Saudis had nothing left to offer him. He realised that there was virtually nothing left for which to fight.

For the first time, the Faceless Man stood alone.

When September began, the world seemed to come unstuck, and Malaysian politics would never be the same again. But that is a story for next time.

CHAPTER EIGHT: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING

I thank you for your indulgence as we leapt ahead of the bulk of this story in the last chapters to speak of Anwar’s Turkish connections and money machine. There will be more on Anwar’s finances as we go on – as I said, they can truly be likened to an ocean – but for now, let us return to the wreckage of Ghafar Baba’s career and the blossoming of Anwar’s.

Anwar Ibrahim was a man for whom fortune did not merely smile, it offered to carry his briefcase. But his incredible run of luck, his numerous talents, and what appeared to be a void in his soul that allowed him to be anything and everything to anyone and everyone else would have been wasted but for Mahathir’s patronage – a patronage that would very soon prove very dangerous and mistaken in the end.

Explaining how Mahathir missed all of this for so long requires understanding some things about the man lost on the young – when I first told my sons this story, what should have been a quick five minutes instead turned into an hour-long history lesson on Malaysia, the details of which seem lost to the mists of time today. For this, no secret files are needed, merely the accounts of eyewitnesses who lived there.

Well, perhaps a few semi-secret files.

As I’ve mentioned before, Mahathir had fought his way out of the political wilderness all the way to Prime Minister by his own force of will and by his predecessor’s almost accidental decisions. Once there, he’d spent almost the entire 1980s cementing his control of his own party and ruthlessly driving PAS into permanent minority status. In the process, his tendency to Malay chauvinism and his response to the Umno Team A/Team B split had opened fissures in Barisan Nasional that he would spend the next decade unsuccessfully repairing as he drove Malaysia toward the 21st Century.

Mahathir, you see, really was preparing to hand over the reins to Anwar – but he wanted his legacy, and Malaysia’s future, secure first. The old man clearly believed Anwar his natural heir as the outsider who’d come in determined to conquer the world. It was yet another case of Anwar being Anwar, being everything to everyone. A master manipulator. He even fooled Dr M.

And so Mahathir was obsessed with Vision 2020, and Putrajaya, and Cyberjaya, and bringing Malaysia into the foremost of the ranks of nations. Formula One teams, infrastructure development, all of that talk of ‘green spaces’, all of the things that other nations take for granted, Mahathir wanted for his beloved country.

The first thing was to eliminate the power of Malaysia’s royalty to stymie his programmes, a feat he accomplished in 1994 by constitutional amendment and publicising the alleged extent of the corruption, viciousness, and venality present in some of their households – and all because one hockey coach was beaten. With that remaining threat eliminated, that meant Mahathir’s only real opponents would be inside his own team.

This ruthless consolidation of power would earn Mahathir several well-deserved titles, ‘autocrat’ among them. He was a man who tended to see politics not as the give and take of opinion, but as a war that must be won at all costs. Political opponents should not merely be defeated, they should be crushed and if necessary imprisoned.

And it must be remembered, he still faced war in his own party.

This was no small thing, much as it is no small thing for Najib now. Then as now, an old guard who believed in personal advancement before public service – and were therefore a drain on and impediment to large-scale infrastructure projects – was riddled throughout Barisan Nasional. Mahathir had only a few years before he succeeded in reunifying his party, and did not have enough internal political capital to toss aside those old warlords, even as they worked to undermine him again and again.

What this in turn meant was that Mahathir had to tolerate a certain level of corruption even while working behind the scenes to stem it. He had a macro-plan for Malaysia, and he was thinking big. He therefore tolerated corruption in his mega-projects – Anwar’s corruption, quite often – in the Peninsular and in Borneo, believing the cost was worthwhile. Anything that stood in his way needed to be eliminated or suborned.

Mahathir fought these pitched battles even as he guided his country into its position as one of the ‘Asian Tigers,’ the economies taking off so rapidly and, in theory, showing the old West how to beat the world.

It was in this environment, with his trusting patron occupied, that Anwar would expand, and finally become too comfortable, and too secure. It is here that his certainty that he would always win would finally trigger the chain of events that led to his downfall.

It is important to remember that while Anwar is a bit of a bumbler these days, perhaps a bit too busy to keep his own coalition unified, back in the 1990s he was on top of his game. So many aligned with him on the strength of his force of will, his charisma, his intelligence, his canniness …… and of course, his graft and scheming.

It was a good time to have business concerns in Malaysia.

I had gone, since coming here, from being a salaried field agent to being the deep cover MD of a small multinational, to opening a specialised consultancy that brought the best of both worlds together. I had never cheated on my taxes or in business, I had worked hard, and I had been blessed with a brilliant local wife who somehow managed to raise our children and provide me the sort of shrewd outsider’s view that is so vital to anyone running a complex set of activities and surrounded by chaps who all see the world the same way.

But being in Malaysia in the 1990s made everyone involved with making money look good.

I nevertheless insisted on getting my hands dirty. My father instilled in me lessons learned from his time in the Air Force: Stay in, stay engaged, support your wing, and you’ll both come home.

So it was that one beautiful morning I discovered that the Prime Minister was taking an extended holiday in Italy, and making his Deputy Prime Minister his temporary replacement.

Looking through the file notes my assistant had worked up, I asked, “Why does the name Paul Wolfowitz sound familiar?” The other names were immediately apparent – William Cohen, Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright, all members of the American Cabinet or its foreign policy apparatus – but the name was tickling me for some reason.

“Former Reagan Administration official, and old friend of Anwar’s,” Philip responded. He’d left our old shop shortly after I had, and I’d gladly taken him on as my associate. “He’s in touch with the Republican opposition, sort of an intermediary between his old friends at State and Defense.”

I nodded. “Why on Earth are these names arranged here as if they’re somehow important?”

“Anwar has been preparing the ground for a sudden takeover. He’s trying to get it pre-cleared with the Brits and the Americans. Those are the Americans he’s contacted who we can confirm are Anwar-friendly, and they’ve all given him the thumbs-up.”

To say there was no love lost between Mahathir Mohamad and the Americans is to understate the matter. Reagan had respected him for what he’d done to the Communists, and the elder Bush had found Mahathir’s positioning on the Israelis unhelpful, but Bill Clinton saw in Mahathir everything he hated: Protectionist, chauvinist, stern, proud, authoritarian, and prone to bucking the President of the United States in all but the direst of situations.

In Anwar, finally, here was a Malaysian politician that the Democrats could appreciate. The perfect chameleon. The man who seemed to share the values of the American establishment. Anwar did not drink, but even by the mid-1990s the tales of his alleged infidelity were thick on the ground, and he had meanwhile decided at some point that in economics, he would be a neoliberal.

Neo-liberalism clashed with Mahathir’s more guarded approach of sheltering – one might say favouring – certain industries and companies until they were strong enough to compete on the global stage, but the friction this caused between the two men was minimal: Anwar yielded where Mahathir was most insistent, and with the raging economic boom in the region, everything everyone did seemed to turn to gold.

But to the Americans, neo-liberalism was the only acceptable form of economic policy, and Anwar played them well. Mahathir’s open anti-Semitism was a particular affront to Western leaders, who treat that behaviour as a sickness – a view Anwar nurtured. According to first-hand reports, Anwar actually won over Wolfowitz by seeming to be pro-Jewish and by condemning Mahathir behind his back. Coupled with his bold and eloquent proclamations at various international fora – Shakespeare and TS Eliot quotes at the ready – here at last was the Malaysian for whom the world had been looking: a Malaysian who could prove charming in Washington, D.C. and right-minded in Whitehall, a Malaysian who could mutter to Wolfowitz that it was a shame Mahathir was such a Jew-hater.

When Anwar came to them and let them know that he hoped for change in his country and that Mahathir would soon be gone, they were overjoyed. Anwar made himself into a hero of the State Department and the East Coast Jewish establishment, both Democrats and Republicans.

But it was not just abroad that Anwar began to work in earnest for the takeover, with a special emphasis on his portfolio in Finance. As I mentioned before, he understood the importance of media control. The business editors and reporters of the New Straits Times and Utusan Malaysia were threatened and where appropriate replaced or supplemented with ‘deputy editors’ who would see to it that coverage of Anwar was not merely favourable, but glowing. The editors of those papers and at TV3 exercised final control, and worked diligently to reinforce the message.

It was here that Anwar began to overplay his hand. Mahathir, for all of his many flaws, is not a man who believes in luxurious holidays. Anwar’s unrelenting caginess had finally slipped, and when given the chance to exercise power as Acting Prime Minister, his pride overwhelmed him.

We were all a bit surprised by Mahathir’s decision to go on holiday, and decided that the old man was either testing Anwar’s fitness to be Prime Minister; preparing to step down himself; or – and this is something I frankly did not believe at the time – testing Anwar’s loyalty. To this day, none of us quite know why Mahathir did what he did. He’s been cagey about it all these years, and I personally suspect he is still hurt by Anwar’s betrayal. Regardless, off he went. Anwar stepped hungrily into the gap.

One of his first major acts was the Anti-Corruption Act, a facially commendable move designed to replace the 1961 Act and to root-out the perennial corruption in Malaysia’s political system. Of course, we all noticed that he waited until the probe of his political secretary Azmin Ali had been shelved and then appointed cronies to fill every slot created or reformed by the ACA. Rumours were that he almost appointed Azmin to head the agency, but common sense finally got the better of him.

Eliminating corruption is one of those noble things politicians like to talk about, and that a handful actually want to do. Anwar was not one of those. He directed his appointments to begin investigating every enemy he had in Umno, fairly transparently to develop files on each for later use. He even sent his best men tunneling into Mahathir and his family, hoping to prepare the trump cards needed to win out in the leadership battle he saw coming.

This was all obvious to any intelligent observer at the time. My only question – answered in the negative both by my associates and by later events – was whether Anwar realised that Mahathir already had a box of files deep on him.

By this point, we were largely resigned to Anwar becoming the Prime Minister. I was in a meeting in July when one of my juniors raced into the conference room to tell me that there was a panicked call coming in from our subsidiary in Bangkok: The government there was set to float the baht. What had up until that point been concern about Thailand’s finances was now dangerously close to becoming a financial contagion.

The chain of events this set in motion completely rewrote Malaysia’s political landscape.

The Asian Financial Crisis had struck. We all lost a great deal of money.

Anwar would lose far more.

One by one, the Asian Tigers started to falter and collapse. Real estate prices cratered. Centuries-old trading houses were crammed down in vicious takeovers. Governments faltered and in a handful of cases fell. Malaysia, stronger in its own way than many, was pushed to the brink: shares fell by over two-thirds, the ringgit nearly collapsed, foreign direct investment plunged, and riots began.

The West stood with its mouth agape. When it finally realised the extent and the depth of the crisis, it reached for the only policy tool it had at hand: The International Monetary Fund.

The IMF is a curious institution, and certainly a polarising one. Its opponents accuse it of neoliberalism and neo-colonialism; its supporters describe it as one of the bulwarks of the international system.

It’s really just a group of clods.

The IMF’s policy prescriptions are almost invariably associated with loans and conditionality; its loans, with its policy prescriptions; and its policy prescriptions, with demands for austerity and some sort of governmental reform. This tends not to work, because financial crises tend to be immune to easy resolution by any system.

It is here that most observers believe they know the story: Anwar sided with the IMF. He blamed ‘cronyism and corruption’ for the crisis, never explaining how his own cronyism and corruption and the system he created and maintained as DPM was not a key factor. He implemented austerity programmes, including cutting government expenditures and ministerial and government salaries by upward of 20 per cent, and stripping funding from the enormous infrastructure projects into which the country had poured so much effort for so long.

He also let every press outlet with a Singapore or KL office know that he was a sudden and devout convert to the cause of free market capitalism. Mahathir, by contrast, blamed the entire crisis on foreign currency speculation, was not about to be dictated to by the IMF, and was not about to see Anwar and his friend the international financier George Soros win the day.

Mahathir claims to have been vindicated by history, a claim greater in the telling than in the proof. Those Asian Tigers who adopted austerity and free market reforms recovered as quickly as those that did not; and at any rate, Mahathir’s almost paranoid insistence on blaming the crisis on the Jews seemed deranged and also alienated Western nations at a critical time.

As the story goes, so began the rift between Anwar and Mahathir in earnest. And it is true, so far as it goes.

But the real story is deeper. In Hong Kong in September of 1997, the major economies of the world were working desperately to avoid an international financial collapse, and to get the Asian Tigers running again. While there, Mahathir and Soros began taking potshots at each other in the assembled international press, with everything from attacks on preferred policy (Mahathir called for an end to currency exchanges, Soros called for a variation on the IMF prescriptions) to personal attacks.

Into this free-fire zone Anwar leaped. He began immediately explaining away Mahathir’s comments, taking Soros’s arguments as his own, and even occasionally directly undercutting Mahathir with hundreds of reporters about. He portrayed this to the gullible reporters covering the event as his heroic attempt to save Malaysia from Mahathir’s ill-considered rhetoric.

This was not mere insubordination. Malaysian civil society was on the brink. Anwar was damaging Malaysia. Seeing where Indonesia was headed, he was inciting anti-Mahathir sentiment. It worked because some foreign investors were frightened of Mahathir’s rhetoric,; and Mahathir was frightened of the enormous damage those same investors had just done in the region. The question of how to stabilise the ringgit and to keep Malaysia from devolving into chaos was not a trivial one, nor an easily-resolved one.

Indeed, Anwar began working in secret and in earnest with the American delegation to pave his way to the top, pointing up Mahathir’s ‘dangerous’ talk. Members of the Clinton Administration – from Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (in Hong Kong) to Defense Secretary William Cohen – told Anwar that Washington was behind him. Wolfowitz and his allies in the Republican Congress also sent their encouragement. Wolfowitz was enthusiastic, according to one of his aides, and determined to see Anwar become Prime Minister.

Anwar’s Saudi backers, delighted at seeing their Islamist protégé finally reach his goal, pledged billions of ringgit to aid Malaysia after his ascent. Their funds would be credited to Anwar’s leadership, and would sweep him – and his radical real agenda – into a lock on power greater than Mahathir’s ever was.

Word was sent back to Anwar’s cronies to prepare for the sudden change, to be executed in 1998.

On Anwar’s return to Malaysia, he doubled down on his austerity programme. He felt emboldened; after all, Mahathir had done nothing more than dress him down in private. Anwar had truly begun to believe the image he had crafted for himself.

Mahathir was incensed, but more importantly, if he had harboured any doubts about Anwar to that point, they were finally vanquished. On his return to Malaysia, he summoned his closest advisors – those who he could be sure were not Anwar’s – into a private meeting at an advisor’s home. Seri Perdana had not yet been completed, and everyone assumed there was no safe place in any government building for this meeting.

While Mahathir was designing the currency controls and reforms that would ultimately stablise and save Malaysia, he appointed his most loyal followers to another cause: Determine whether Anwar could be saved, or whether he was past redemption. He was not ready to let Anwar go yet, but he was still loathe to destroy the man he’d once thought of as like a son.

It was some time later that Mahathir finally began to use the weapons at his disposal to destroy his deputy once and for all. He opened his files to his allies, not just on Anwar, but on Anwar’s friends, allies, cronies, and family.

In the end, it was his corruption, and not his dalliances, that would bring Anwar down.

But that is a story for next time.