I do not mean to digress overmuch – a sin of which I am already guilty – and I appreciate your patience as I indulge my proclivity for drama and for narrative. But I assure you that all of my writings concern real events, and I ask that you bear with me again as we step out of the chronology into which we have settled as we turn to our subject’s trial for sodomy – and more importantly, what we learned during those tumultuous days.
I would like to return to two topics that saw perhaps their greatest change at the time: Anwar’s public relations machine, and Anwar’s money machine.
Let us begin with the public relations.
Few Malaysians are aware that most Westerners are unaware that Anwar Ibrahim was tried twice after his fall from grace, once for corruption, once for sodomy. Indeed, most Westerners who know of Anwar are convinced that he was tried for sodomy only, and that his trial was part of a political manoeuvre by Mahathir Mohamad to dispose of his reforming deputy prime minister once and for all.
One might credit this to a number of things, not least being that Western society is vaguely obsessed with sexual intercourse of every kind; that then-American President Clinton was being tried in Congress for lies about sex under oath, and so sex, so to speak, was in the air; or that the majority of Western reporters are liberals on sexual matters, and so were horrified that anyone could be tried for sodomy anywhere and quite lost the thread over the whole thing.
All of these things are true. But they are not the truth. The truth is that Anwar, whatever his failings, is a devilishly clever practitioner of public image control, and he mobilised his considerable resources toward the goals of enhancing his image abroad, and in turn using that to create a perception of inevitability at home.
I have remarked before that the ruthlessly competent Anwar who had worked his way from Youth and Sports to Education to Finance to Deputy Prime Minister had disappeared on being cashiered. In his place was a man one might reasonably mistake for an uninhibited Ego, who so believed in the power of his foreign backers and his carefully-crafted image that he believed street protests would bring down Mahathir Mohamad as they had the Indonesian dictator Suharto, a miscalculation of both Indonesia’s political culture and Malaysia’s.
But for all of the loss of his talent in politics, his gift for presenting the best face possible to the world never waned. Indeed, it seemed to blossom in a way it never had before. And so Anwar found the right notes to sing, and the right speed at which to play them, for his most fervent and gullible audience: foreign reporters.
It was with wry amusement that I read in the Wall Street Journal in late 1998 and early 1999 that Anwar Ibrahim, the reforming Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, had been tortured, thrown into prison, and charged with sodomy as part of the autocratic Mahathir Mohamad’s attempt to stop Anwar’s reforms once and for all, with the whole sodomy bit being a mere façade.
Oh, Mahathir was certainly an autocrat, and if the Royal Commission was to be believed, Anwar was certainly beaten, and he had certainly been charged with sodomy. Indeed, the truth or lack thereof of those assertions, made over the course of weeks, was not where the humour lay.
It was instead in the way the story built over the course of days and weeks in the Journal, the Economist, and other publications – those with whom Anwar had once been intimately familiar as Finance Minister, and with whom certain boutique consultancies in New York and London had close ties and easy access.
Having used and counseled some of those same consultancies, I recognised their fingerprints. The first, breathless revelations; the sudden twists and turns that have been known in-country for weeks; and the relentless messaging in friendly outlets. Whatever else may be said of Anwar Ibrahim, he pays for the best public relations experts, and he gets them.
Anwar’s opponents were not so well-prepared. Mahathir did himself no favours with his management of the situation. Years of unchallenged power, the Team A/Team B fiasco long behind him and even the King essentially reduced to a raw figurehead, the ease with which he had vanquished Anwar’s uprising – all of these things left the Prime Minister, who was generally disinclined to explain himself overmuch anyway, absolutely unprepared for what was coming.
Complicating the matter was the Government’s prosecution of Anwar’s sodomy charge, which might charitably be called incompetent. I refer not merely to the horrific state of the alleged physical evidence, but to the preparation of the witnesses. I distinctly recall shaking my head when reading that Azizan Abu Bakar had testified that he had been repeatedly sodomised, roughly a dozen times, between 1992 and 1993. The attempts to explain away poor evidence handling and contradictory testimony obscured what many with any real knowledge of Anwar believed to be an entirely accurate charge.
Anwar’s public relations teams feasted on the chaos. Foreign reporters no longer needed to come to Kuala Lumpur for live updates on the case and every Government misstep. Mahathir of course made it worse.
At some point, he took it on himself to assert the judiciary’s independence to any foreign questioner. One would expect no less, but he chose as his crucial proof the Team A/Team B matter. This became his stock response to queries from journalists, writers, and foreign leaders.
It did not take them long to uncover Mahathir’s reaction to the courts’ decisions in the Umno schism, or the subsequent moves in Parliament to permanently cow the judiciary. They found it particularly easy to discover this when Anwar’s public relations teams practically deluged them with the relevant clippings, constitutional changes, and photographs.
I know this, because many of the largest public relations firms are desperate to place copy far and wide, and even a poor facsimile of a real publication can receive their material on a simple request. I therefore received the same media packages in my capacity as principal of The New Bahasa Times, a publication with a mailing address at my father-in-law’s home and a total circulation of my group of ex-pat chums.
We duly sent thank-you notes.
These same consultants would form the nucleus of his public relations team through his time in prison (paid for out of Anwar’s and his Saudi masters’ funds) – but we shall return to their work in a later chapter. What was particularly impressive was the level of co-ordination Anwar managed with his financial and public relations teams whilst in prison, a particularly spectacular feat given the government’s surveillance of his correspondence.
Would that he had put half this much élan and daring into his coup attempt.
At home, with the domestic press largely foreclosed to him, Anwar needed alternative channels for his messages. Funds funneled through George Soros’s Open Society organisation allowed the creation of several online ventures, some of which remain today, whose slavish devotion to Anwar’s gospel made at least one of those public relations experts, whom I later hired, blanche. Soros, of course, needed no encouragement to accuse Mahathir of every crime imaginable, and so made it a point to maintain a steady flow of his own and Anwar’s (well-disguised) funds into Opposition media for over a decade.
But Anwar’s greatest work was in the Western press as a lever for domestic consumption.
The core message pushed out to Western reporters was, I thought, brilliant: Appeal to their sexual liberalism, their desire to champion the weak against the strong (even when the weak are wrong and the strong correct), and their belief in their own indispensability. Continue the Shakespeare allusions and bring them back to their days at university where they imagined themselves as literate in every field as the specialists. Provide them “exclusive” copy so that they felt wanted and appreciated. Wine, dine, and in an industry already frightened of what the internet would do to their livelihoods, help them live well.
I chuckled to myself as I looked through some notes on Anwar’s press contacts at Time, Newsweek, The Financial Times, The Economist, and the Wall Street Journal. I decided to set up a bit of an office game to see how each publication would work to convince its readers that Keadilan’s latest manouevre or Anwar’s latest tribulation was somehow important to their lives.
Amongst ourselves, we were only curious as to where what we were beginning to realise was his astronomical financial empire had gone. It was August 1999, and we largely believed Anwar a spent force.
We were, broadly, mistaken.
As Anwar’s sodomy trial ground on, and our investigations into his financial resources continued – as I discussed before – one of our overarching questions was not merely, How much does he have? but also Where did it go?
Mahathir had discerned quickly – through the use of open and covert pressure – part of Bank Negara’s role in Anwar’s money machine, and as a spigot for the funds to enter Malaysia, the institution’s days were over. Hong Leong was similarly largely separated from Anwar’s financial dealings as a security risk, though over time they would be welcomed back into the fold. The entirety of Anwar’s carefully-controlled crony network was unceremoniously seized, bullied, or dissolved.
Al Baraka Bank would remain a centre for Anwar’s dealings, because with the importance of the House of Saud to the Hajj, Mahathir was unwilling to completely dismiss Riyadh from Malaysia, an entirely rational move that would nevertheless allow Anwar to pour funds into Keadilan and his other in-country ventures as needed.
One of the details Mahathir’s investigators came across were the International Institute of Islamic Thought transfers amongst the Bank Negara records – hence the notations in Murad Khalid’s statutory declaration – and so Mahathir demanded that the United States close the institute or at least freeze its funds until the investigation was complete.
The Clinton Administration was long since irrevocably opposed to Mahathir and more than slightly in favour of Anwar, and so categorically refused. When Mahathir personally rang President Clinton to note that the IIIT was apparently channeling funds to known terrorist organisations, the line of communication was simply cut altogether. The IIIT would serve as a vital conduit and safe house for Anwar’s finances until a new President took office – and ironically swept in the neoconservatives, who were Anwar’s implacable allies but never placed in domestic policy.
With Hong Leong and Bank Negara essentially closed to Anwar’s funds, Al Baraka’s importance grew. Contacts in Riyadh passed along data to those of us growing the I-Files that the House of Saud was so invested in Anwar that they gladly recouped Al Baraka’s losses from Anwar’s inactivity, and helped re-create the financial empire with their man out of commission and his crony network broken.
Gone, obviously, were the front companies with names of variations of ‘black rock.’ Instead, new funds came into existence with names like ‘Independence’, ‘Liberty’, ‘Freedom,’ ‘Reformed’, and others in a similar vein, with offerings made to Anwar’s foreign backers (who generally could not otherwise afford the subscription fee) and invested in growth areas such as China, Turkey, the United States, and Brazil. It took the better part of a year for the entire operation to come fully into effect, but by the time the chaps in Riyadh and the fellows from the ruins of BCCI in Lahore completed their handiwork, the entire operation was fully functional again, albeit along different channels than before.
All told, Anwar had lost something on the order of over 1 billion US Dollars – a not trivial portion of his wealth – but the Saudis had plugged the leak and repaired much of the damage.
As I’ve said, the Saudis play the long game. Anwar never faced death for his crimes, and using his funds and theirs had quickly placed himself back in the political game, this time as the martyr for the Opposition. While PAS was hardly an idea vehicle for the Saudi agenda – PAS tend to have the subtlety of a tsunami with none of the visual appeal – Anwar’s path to political power, though diverted, was not permanently foreclosed. Anwar and his backers therefore dug in, certain that the street rallies and political unrest would give Anwar his opportunity sooner than later.
They were of course incorrect, but no one knew it then, and in the wake of Barisan Nasional’s poor showing at the Tenth General Election, many things seemed possible.
In early August 2000, I met with a couple of old chums, fellow compilers of the I-Files, to discuss the things decent men start to discuss as they age – family, investments, taxes, luxury automobiles, and women with whom they would never cheat on their spouses, though they sometimes almost wish they could. We were in Singapore, the air was alive with the raw energy of the place, and it was with no small amount of fear and awe that we discussed the cost of sending our various offspring to university.
We turned after a time to Anwar’s sodomy trial, which had just concluded the month before. I confess that by this time I was beginning to centre my operations elsewhere, and I had therefore begun to pay smaller amounts of attention to the day-to-day of Malaysian politics than had been true for most of two decades. Nevertheless, the whole, over-100-day-long affair had finally come to a conclusion, and so we discussed the likely outcome.
After expounding on the entire matter and the shoddy nature of the Government case, the Irishman to my left knocked back his Dewar’s and sagely said, “Oh, he did it. And they’ll doubtless convict him, though I’m not sure I would. What a fooking mess.”
I nodded at the last. “To think, it took over 100 days to arrive! Gentlemen, we missed our calling. We should have been lawyers.” A round of drinks followed that as we toyed with that. We were turning to sport – well, truthfully, we were turning to another round of drinks and perhaps a wobbly trip up to our separate rooms to sleep off the effects of too much alcohol and too much age – when our fourth companion showed up, impolitely sober.
“Anwar has been found guilty,” he said, and we all toasted each other for no reason at all other than being on the wrong side of drunk. Our sober friend gave us all an odd look, but by that point, none of us cared, or even knew exactly why we were toasting.
Anwar was of course convicted of sodomising his driver, a defeat he quickly turned into yet another public relations coup. He was imprisoned, politically neutralised for a time, and clearly biding his time.
Over the next several months, we would compile the data I have provided here and in earlier chapters on his financial empire as we worked to reconstruct how this man who started with relatively little came so very close to success, and to the status of ultra-rich by any national measure.
But the story of his political resurrection – a story on which I have only touched briefly – will be the story of the next couple of chapters.