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.