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.