As I’ve noted elsewhere in this tale, Kuala Lumpur was once a very different place. It was dirtier, but it was in many ways more fun – easier to get a draught of beer, easier to find a way to discharge some of one’s wild youth under a clear sky. By 1998, KL was much like it is now, with the gleaming, new Petronas Towers dominating the landscape, and so much of Malaysia’s controlled vibrancy on display.
It was this way of course until Anwar’s trial began.
It is a bit hard to describe the tumult and chaos of those days, but perhaps this will suffice: I have seen reports that among the protesters and anarchists, the throngs gathered around to view history, and of course the legions of local and foreign reporters, camera crews, and aides, there was a witch doctor present.
As anyone who spent any time around that court house knows: Bollocks. There were three. Two worked in tandem, even exchanging their foul-smelling head dress as they changed shifts. I have no idea why they did what they did, but they felt it terribly important that at any time a Western reporter was present, so should be a witch doctor, and preferably the same one – to Western eyes.
It was the third one whom I found so very interesting. He just stood off to the side whilst every carried on, then stopped forward at odd moments to shake what I believe to be a rattle manufactured in Guangdong and chant incoherently.
After seeing him perform this little manoeuvre for three straight days, I finally approached him and asked what it was he was doing. He grinned at me with bright, white teeth and said in an accent that could have been right out of Sydney, “That bloke in there is the Devil. Completely starkers. Gotta send him off.”
This struck me as hilarious, and by the time I’d asked if he meant Anwar or someone else he was gone, suddenly pressed for interviews by American reporters who’d discovered a ‘local’ who could speak English.
I never knew if he meant Anwar or the presiding judge. Probably both.
I tell this tale not merely to provide you a glimpse of what the biggest trial of the decade (with the possible exception of the strangeness going on with America at the time) looked like from the sidewalks, but to illustrate the hundreds of small details lost in any momentous event unless one happens to be in exactly the right place or the right time. Most of us must spend small fortunes on information gleaned from dozens of sources, eliminating the chaff and getting pieces of data at a time.
During the event itself, without being in the midst of all of the action and chaos, one is largely left with the sorts of things everyone knows – or could know, if they only paid attention. This was the most turbulent time of all for the I-Files, as many of our usual sources were either in fear of police detention, in fear of Anwar, or in fear of Mahathir. What we were able to glean during the events was dearly-bought – very dearly.
For that reason, this installment and the next will not focus so much on what we all know – Anwar was duly charged with sodomy and corrupt practices in two separate trials, the Western world claimed the trial was a political sham, Anwar was convicted of both … the tale is welltold. Instead, I will attempt to focus on the details that our boys managed to acquire between September 1998 and Anwar’s conviction for sodomy in August 2000.
We will begin with notes.
By then, Anwar’s extensive press operation – the one he had managed to build and fund outside his extensive network in the regular press in Malaysia – was not well-known. Today, it is not only found in Soros-funded online operations in Malaysia but in nominally grassroots efforts in the Peninsular, Borneo, Australia, and the United States.
I noted before our surprise at the gorgeous press kits Anwar’s supporters provided the reporters, clearly bespeaking the involvement of slick designers and Western media advisers. It was a surprise to receive, in return for a little over ten thousand ringgits, a copy of a pre-draft of a press release prepared for Anwar’s review just after he was released from detention.
There were several edits in red ink and meticulously written in a bold hand. I was particularly struck by one edit in particular: the ghost writer, apparently knowing Anwar’s penchant for the Bard’s works, had included a paragraph with Anwar comparing himself to Richard III, and quoting from the famous soliloquy in that play. Anwar – or whoever made the edits, though I was given to understand that it was Anwar – had scratched out the section and written, RICHARD II in its place.
Shakespeare’s Richard III was of course the story of the vicious, unnatural and monstrous tyrant thwarted before he could consolidate power. Richard II was a tale of a weak man who was unable to stand for himself in the end.
I do not understand why Anwar bothered keeping either. Henry IV would have been better, and at any rate had more appropriate speeches.
There were also notes about the compatibility of Islam and democracy – ironic from Anwar of all people – and a pre-emptive declaration that the courts which Anwar as DPM and Finance Minister had spent the past decade praising and defending were now too biased to provide a fair trial.
Although it appears that the fellow who procured this for me was a bit too anxious – the exact text as written never made it into Anwar’s diatribes – it was a useful preview of what was to come.
Bundled with that speech were a handful of ink-jet printed pages with talking points. I chuckled as I saw COMPARISONS and beneath it SAKHAROV, GANDHI, MARTIN LUTHER KING JUNIOR. Added in red ink were SUU KYI and MANDELA. Beneath that was a section titled CORE MESSAGES, which I reproduce below, with the notations and strikethroughs included.
And yes, I noted the American spellings as well.
THE CHARGES AGAINST ME ARE POLITICALLY MOTIVATED. Mahathir’s afraid that his corrupt practises are finally catching up to him. I have bravely exposed his system of favoritism and cronyism and am paying the price for it.
I REPRESENT A NEW REFORM MOVEMENT. Much as in Indonesia, the old tyrants are falling before
democracy people powerdemocratic reforms. I worked to bring free market and democratic reforms to Malaysian society and have been firedsacked, tortured and imprisoned for it.
SODOMY IS NOT A CRIME. The law under which I have been charged is a relic of Malaysia’s colonial past, and modern nations recognize that relations between two men should not be a crime.
I AM INNOCENT OF THE CHARGES AGAINST ME. I am a devout Muslim, and I have never engaged in adultery, let alone this sort of act. My former driver has been threatened, bribed and intimidated into lying about me and my stepbrother. Even Malaysia’s biased judiciary will recognize this. This is clearly a plot by the Government to hide my status as a political prisoner.
I did not know it then, but of course these would become Anwar’s talking points for the next fourteen years.
I thumbed through these pages and noted a single point, one that would recur with frequency for years to come. Anwar’s most vociferous denials were always about the sodomy, but the corruption allegations seemed almost irrelevant at times. At that point, in November 1998, with the corruption trial just getting underway, I was struck by this contrast.
I considered the report Philip had delivered to me the week before. An informant had managed to somehow acquire firsthand knowledge of Anwar’s last chance to redeem himself before Mahathir and the Umno Supreme Council.
There, Anwar had argued that his moral weaknesses were not unique, and that others in the Cabinet were guilty of the same thing. He compounded this error by refusing to admit that he’d moved for a succession too quickly, and instead demanded that Mahathir step down as a “relic” who was out of touch with Malaysia. He also suggested that he knew of indiscretions on Mahathir’s part, and that those could come to light as well.
Mahathir had demanded that Anwar leave immediately. The rest was history.
Why was sodomy so much worse than corruption?
I would never learn the answer to that question, but as time went by and Anwar angrily responded to every allegation made against him with vociferous – and apparently well-paid-for – press releases; as the Free Anwar movement was born a mix of well-intentioned souls believing Anwar’s ridiculous claims, well-intentioned souls not particularly caring about Anwar’s claims, and of course Anwar’s cronies, desperate for another day in the sun; and as Malaysia slowly returned to its more pacific ways, we were able to secure more information by turns.
One was a stack of internal memoranda from foreign intelligence services’ in-country shops.
Almost all of it was concerned with four essential questions: Firstly, did Anwar do it? Secondly, what would he do next? Thirdly, what would the effect on Malaysia’s opposition parties be? And fourthly, would Mahathir tolerate a new political party formed around Anwar?
The American Embassy worked to quash this investigation from its intelligence services – especially the first part – for reasons that were never altogether clear to us. However, after personnel changes at the Embassy in December 1998, the investigation apparently took off as Embassy opposition ended. Despite these suggestive facts, we have never been able to determine if the change in the Embassy stance was innocent or not.
Regardless of all that, the intelligence services’ verdicts appeared to be that Anwar had indeed partaken of numerous corrupt practices during his time in Government, but that although Anwar may have engaged in sodomy at some points in time, the specific allegations against him for this sodomy trial were likely not true. There was a conflict on the latter point, and many of the reports simply suggested that in the absence of definitive proof, they would presume innocence.
What Anwar would do next appeared to be a sort of chaotic, shambolic rush from one idea to the next. With his corruption trial underway and Mahathir promising a Royal Commission of Inquiry on the abuse Anwar claimed to have suffered in detention, Anwar was in the weakest position of his political life. His abuse was the subject of a gold-standard review, and the crimes he was least prepared to deny were coming to a head.
The Opposition was, as usual, in a bit of a mess. Just a few months before, Mat Sabu had offered his unsolicited opinion that Anwar would be a worse prime minister than Mahathir. Karpal Singh, as I noted before, had denounced Anwar as a homosexual. The distaste that Lim Kit Siang had for Anwar would be hard to express in mere words. I am reliably informed that Nik Aziz thought Anwar beneath contempt.
Intelligence reports suggested a flurry of calls from Anwar to his former enemies, calls promptly placed on ice. A second flurry of calls went between the men who had been Malaysia’s opposition for decades as they worked to decide whether to accept into their midst a man who had spent over a decade and a half not merely opposing them, but working to undermine them and attack them at every turn.
For PAS, this was no great decision; politics and allegations of homosexuality notwithstanding, Anwar had been their sort of chap for years before joining Government, and once safely ensconced there, had shown a satisfying tendency toward the sorts of policies PAS always held dear.
DAP presented a dilemma, one which even the famously opportunistic leadership of that party had a hard time abandoning. Anwar had ruthlessly worked not merely to hold the status quo on bumiputra favouritism, he had worked relentlessly to undermine the Chinese and any Christians in Malaysia. To embrace Anwar was to embrace one of their worst enemies, better only than Mahathir. It was to betray their voters and their party rank-and-file.
Naturally they were the first to reach out to Anwar and welcome him into Opposition.
The question of what Anwar would do next and how Mahathir reacted would be answered just before the first verdict against Anwar was handed down.
By the end of March 1999, Anwar’s corruption trial was clearly drawing to a close. Informants from inside the government informed us that the general elections would not be held until at least this verdict was complete, as Mahathir had spent the last several months working unsuccessfully to combat Anwar’s public relations machine in the West and at home. The old man clearly wanted to be able to say that if Anwar was cleared of corruption charges – to his mind, the worse offences Anwar had committed – then he would be able to stand for election.
The so-called Reformasi movement had fairly obviously been intended as a political vehicle since Anwar launched it at the end of the prior year, and many of us were surprised that it had not simply started life as a political party. While we understood – better than most – that success often involves preparing the ground early, Anwar’s self-made role as martyr was such that he could have launched the movement and formed the party at the same time.
One might be inclined to offer him the benefit of the doubt, as he had a great deal on his mind at the time; but as time has passed, I’ve come to see that Anwar’s great skill in rising the ranks at Umno was either a gift he had lost or a gift he’d borrowed from those around him. Without a surrounding cast of cronies and enablers situated to aid him, Anwar’s skill with politics seemed meagre indeed.
Nevertheless, in April 1999, after months of staged difficulties in registering as a political party, at Anwar’s behest Wan Azizah executed what can only charitably be called a leveraged buyout of a tiny regional party and re-named it Parti Keadilan Nasional, apparently because Anwar has no sense of irony. It was great theatre: denied a chance to challenge the evil Barisan Nasional, the plucky rebels take on an existing party and transform it into a vehicle for Justice.
The problem with this narrative of course was that even though PKN would face the same challenges that had allegedly forestalled the creation of a separate party, its registration sailed through.
In another dodgy bit of trouble for Anwar’s story, the RCI concluded that Anwar had been abused and that Inspector-General of Police Rahim Noor should receive the blame for that abuse. The story of the lawless country run amok at the hands of the tyrant was weakened.
All of this was on my mind when I received a call on 14 April to tell me that Anwar had been convicted of corrupt practices.
Much of the rest of this part of Anwar’s tale is well-known. Anwar was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, a verdict that would ultimately be largely upheld but for a single count being reversed. PKN formed a strategic alliance with DAP, PAS, and PRM to form an Opposition alliance that would make it through the general elections and then promptly fall apart over the eternal issue of hudud law.
Anwar’s sodomy trial picked up steam in June as the government prosecutors and Anwar’s defence team entered into an informal competition to see who could bungle the entire thing worse. From my vantage, it was a draw.
Anwar would write to his old Islamist chums extensively from prison, some of which became available to us. In 1999, Anwar wrote from prison to one of his co-founders at the IIIT: “In the quiet solitude of prison, I’m able to recollect vividly our meetings in Riyadh beginning more than 20 years ago. In spite our shared ideals, we were always engaged in heated debates on the issues of wasilah and fiqh awlawiyyat. Unfamiliar as I was with loud Arab rhetoric, I had to force a readjustment of my subdued mannerisms – in other words, my Malayness – just so I could be heard. But, each time, it was the diplomatic mastery of Dr Ahmad Totonji that brought about an amicable end to our debates.”
Totonji, of course, was the Iraqi fellow who had helped Anwar join up with the Saudi backers on whom he would rely for the rest of his life. But he was also so much more.
It is with the sodomy trial and the world’s reaction to it – and the things the world neither learned nor cared to learn – that the next chapter will concern itself.