Politics of the poisoned pen
FLASHBACK SEPTEMBER '98 Fourteen years ago this day, the nation was shocked to learn about the sacking of deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, setting the path for a political crisis which has permanently, changed Malaysia's political culture. A few days earlier, AHMAD IRFAN of Impact, London, wrote this cover story.
In the neo-feudal Malaysian political culture, if you cannot deal with someone politically, you circulate a poison-pen letter. In the last decade and a half, quite a few poison-pen letters have been going around the political circuit, one time or another, but none as obscene as the one which went into circulation mid-1997.
The target: Anwar Ibrahim, Deputy Prime Minister, Deputy President of Umno (United Malays National Organisation) and the named successor of Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed; named by Dr. Mahathir himself.
Clearly the poison pen letter writer had someone else in view as the next prime minister, and, therefore, the first step was to throw mud at and discredit Anwar Ibrahim before putting forward the name of the rival candidate. For a moral politician like Anwar, more appropriately, the charge had to be immorality, adultery.
The police tried to investigate, but gave up when it thought it could go no further. The prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, who is also the home minister, counselled his deputy to ignore the matter and not to worry unduly about the slander. Those who knew Anwar did not believe the accusations. Neither did the average Malay buy the defamation story, and the gossip died its natural death but the poison pen pushers had no reason to feel discouraged.
The days before the Umno general assembly last June, a book-length poison pen letter entitled '50 reasons why Anwar cannot become the next prime minister' (50 Dalil mengapa Anwar Tidak Boleh Jadi PM), made its debut in the Malaysian political scene. But unlike most previous poison-pen letters, the 50 Dalil had an author as well as a publisher. It carried a by-line Khalid Jafri, ex-sports editor of Utusan Malaysia, editor-in-chief of the now defunct Harian National tabloid newspaper, an undischarged bankrupt.
Delegates arriving at the Umno general assembly had a copy of the poison book included in the party documentation handed over to them in the complimentary bag. This happened despite the passing of an interlocutory injunction by a high court judge only a day earlier, against the distribution and dissemination of the defamatory book. It was something quite odd and many at the assembly were trying to put two and two together.
The Umno Youth leader from Negri Sembilan, Ruslan Kassim, had done a little checking with the Registrar of Companies which linked the book's publishers with the disgraced former chief minister of Malacca, Abdur Rahim Tamby Chik and his wife, Zabedah Abdullah. Ruslan Kassim had also heard from the Federal Territory Umno that the party secretariat had been used to distribute the book. This pointed at the party secretary general, Sabbaruddin Chik. Who is actually behind this drama, asked Negri Sembilan Umno Youth leader.
But none of the two Chiks were willing to admit to anything. (The book was reported being sold now in the form of a magazine in Klang and as photocopies in Jalan Petaling, but the police chief Abdur Rahim Noor said nobody had reported it to them and they can take action only if a report is lodged with the police).
Tamby Chik said he was aware of the allegations, but rather than deny them, he promised to make a statement. Sabbaruddin Chik promised to investigate "maybe one or two persons (from the Umno secretariat) were involved" but he was not sure.
But how did Umno officials happen to violate a high court injunction against the distribution of the book? The deputy home minister Tajol Rosli thought one needed to find out whether the book was distributed before or after the court order. He seemed to suggest that if officials at the Umno secretariat had already put the book in the conference bag before 17 June, then probably the ban had not been violated!
For the Negri Sembilan youth leader, however, the matter was serious enough to warrant action under the Internal Security Act (ISA). He saw the drama as a clever plot to drive a wedge between Mahathir and Anwar and to destabilise the country, especially at a time when Malaysia was facing a serious economic crisis. But we don't use the ISA that way, we use it against drug and forgery offences, explained Dr. Mahathir.
He was correct. Only two months after he had rejected the demand to use ISA against those who had published and were spreading slander against his deputy, the home ministry did take recourse to the very ISA and allowed the police to detain three young Malaysians for allegedly spreading rumours of a kind that seemed comparably much lighter than the message of Khalid Jafri's book. Presumably what these young Malaysians had done was that they had simply downloaded an email message which someone had sent them. The email happened to be about reports of commotion in the downtown Chow Kit area and they thought they should warn their friends to avoid the locality. The rumours themselves were not entirely baseless. These were probably triggered by a visible police presence in the area. Moreover people learnt that the local hospital had received a prior police warning to be ready for a possible emergency.
But the 50 Dalil book seemed to be a different affair. At the general assembly, the Umno youth rank and file was demanding stern action against any party member involved in whatever way in the publication of the book, but the party president replied it was up to the party's Management or Disciplinary Committee to take action against any Umno member involved in the printing and distribution of the book. However, Dr. Mahathir also said: We want to know who did it why he did it and whether what he stated has any basis and whether the owner of the publishing house premises (Abdur Rahim Tamby Chik and Zabedah Abdullah) is involved.
In a written reply in Dewan Negara (senate) last month, Dr. Mahathir pleaded helplessness. It is difficult for the government to prevent completely the printing and publication of publications like 50 Dalil Mengapa Anwar Tidal Boleh Jadi PM, he answered Senator Datuk Zainuddin Maidin who wanted to know what the government planned to do to ensure that such books were not written, published or distributed in the future. We could ban a book, however, if its contents were found to 'disturb the peace, safety or moral of the public,' he went on to add. He apparently did not think, the book 'disturbed' any of these.
The Kuala Lumpur High Court judge, Datuk Wira Haji Mohamed Noor bin Hj Ahmad, who confirmed his earlier injunction found 50 Dalil to be a 'long poison pen letter put together in the form of a book'.
Nevertheless Dr. Mahathir's approach towards a book which tried to assassinate the character of his deputy and his named successor Anwar Ibrahim seemed extraordinary ambiguous at best, protective otherwise.
So, was the prime minister behind the book plot? "No I don't think so", says Anwar. "In fact I am sure he is not," he adds emphatically. "It's some other people and other interests who are trying to sow doubts and misgivings in Dr. Mahathir's mind and to drive a wedge between us".
With what end in view? "Their ends may be narrow and personal but they really hurt the progress and development of the country. Although it has long been agreed and publicly announced that there is going to be no contest for the first two positions in the party and government, they keep telling Dr. Mahathir that I was going to challenge and oust him from the leadership. Given my clear and categorical position, I did not think I had to say it overloudly, yet some people keep stoking the fitnah and I am, therefore, going to make it clear yet again that I have no intention to challenge Dr. Mahathir's leadership."
"I have said this many times, but it has all been for nought," but "right here in front of my Penang friends, I want to announce my full support and loyalty to Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamed for him to remain as party president."
Anwar Ibrahim was speaking at the ceremony to open the new Penang Umno headquarters by Dr. Mahathir (12 August) his home state of Penang. He said he wanted to "kill all rumours of a rift [between me and the prime minister] and to declare that any rumours that I am vying for the presidency [of Umno] are all lies."
"Dr. Mahathir is not a new leader. He has vast experience in all matters. If you compare me to him, I am just a student. I can never go against my mentor, much less my father. We may have some differences but it is impossible to believe that these petty differences will split us up. When it comes to important matters, including economic issues, we stand united."
Therefore, said Anwar: "I have spoken about this to all Penang Umno leaders and at the state liaison committee meetings. The state Umno will nominate Dr. Mahathir as party president." And added jocularly, "don't forget to put me as his deputy."
There was spontaneous applause from all those gathered at the meeting and both the state leadership and Umno grassroots who were constantly bombarded with all kinds of rumours felt very much relieved by Anwar's speech that despite all rumours the party leadership remained united.
Anwar made his speech in Penang on Tuesday 11 August, and next day the police in Kuala Lumpur booked the author of 50 Dalil on a single charge of publishing false and malicious news that Anwar Ibrahim had fathered an illegitimate child with a named woman.
Probably interesting, but it was just coincidence because the police had earlier said that they were going to make an announcement on that day. The author was granted bail and the Sessions Court has fixed 7 December for the hearing of the case. The offence carries a punishment of a maximum prison sentence of three years and a fine of up to RM20,000.
However, of the other slanderous accusations, the Inspector General of Police said they were still looking into the rest of contents of the book. But in the meantime, the police did take an early interest in one Nallakaruppan, because they found his name in the book as Anwar's tennis partner and as some kind of pimpish character in the former's allegedly immoral doings.
Looking into Nalla, as it were, the police stumbled into 125 rounds of Fiocchi 6.35mm live bullets which he had at his house without any lawful authority. He was also charged on 12 August, but under the Internal Security Act. The offence, if proven, carries a mandatory death sentence. Nalla, 52, is an MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) official and public affairs director with Mangum Corporation. He too pleaded not guilty to the charge; his case comes up for hearing on 9 November.
It is significant that while the gunless bullets were found in Nalla's house on 31 July, the police spent almost two weeks interrogating him before charging him formally before the Sessions Court. Although the court had remanded the accused at Sungai Buloh prison, the very next day the prison Director General ordered his transfer to police headquarters lock up at Bukit Aman. It was done to facilitate investigation of matters involving the security of the country.
The police say the Nalla case has no connection with Khalid Jafri's, but that is why the whole police approach to the 50 Dalil affair becomes questionable. The Malaysian home ministry's decision not to ban the 50 Dalil and to let the question of libel be dealt with by the High Court was quite correct even though it is doubtful that the ministry would have dealt with the matter in the same manner had the subject of the slander happened to be the home minister himself, Dr. Mahathir. Presumably, in that case, before long the author, printer, publisher, distributor and the lot would have found themselves locked up in Bukit Aman, helping the police to unravel the conspiracy against the security of Malaysia.
But in the case of the 50 Dalil, instead of letting the court decide on the alleged libel, the line of police inquiry appeared to be directed at helping the author of the slander by trying to dig 'dirt' and to find 'witnesses' who would incriminate Anwar Ibrahim. That would seem to add yet another theory to the couple of conspiracy theories already going round in the Malaysian capital.
According to this theory, as the accusations of immorality are not likely to stick, the police might be trying to extract an appropriate confession from Nalla that would implicate Anwar in some kind of a political conspiracy to overthrow Dr. Mahathir. This ties up with another conspiracy theory, held by Dr. Mahathir himself, that the Malaysian and, for that matter, the whole Asian economic crisis was in fact an international conspiracy against Malaysia and the rising tiger economies of Southeast Asia.
There was indeed an international dimension to the sudden crash of the tiger currencies, but it was a moot point if the crash was orchestrated, because the fault lines lay within the very capitalist structure of Malaysian economy: interest and speculation, greed and grab, false money and unearned income. There is little point in blaming Soros or his alleged Shylockian behaviour when Malaysia itself had its own fair share of Muslim Shylocks.
Nevertheless, that's how the conspiracy theory went along and since Anwar was not showing any solidarity with the Malaysian Shylocks and was resisting attempts to bail them out at the cost of an already short-changed taxpayer, some clever guys threw up another conspiracy theory: that Anwar himself was part of this international conspiracy.
Of course, it is always possible to take away the finance portfolio from Anwar Ibrahim and relegate him as a perfunctory deputy prime minister by appointing a second deputy prime minister, but it may prove to be costly politically. Moreover removing Anwar from the finance ministry could also create a problem of confidence in the market. He does have reputation as a finance manager who is known to reason even with the prime minister if he believes that a certain action or policy is not in the best interest of the country. Therefore, if Anwar has to be got rid of, it has to be through some non-political method.
The 50 Dalil accuses Anwar Ibrahim of being a CIA agent (sic) and even goes on to remind one of his earlier detention under the ISA because he was working against the security of the country.
Khalid Jafri also says that the home ministry guys are against Anwar. All this would then lend credence to the theory that the 'guys' who dislike him are also plotting to cook up a holding charge against Anwar which would force him to resign. While he may be exonerated eventually, though not as far as it would lie in the hands of the Malaysian Shylocks, the stratagem would at least disable him politically for a long time to come.
To make things simple, the Jafri book says that before he passed away, Anwar's uncle, Haji Sulaiman Palestine, had advised Dr. Mahathir to appoint after him either Abdullah Badawi or Sanusi Junid as the next prime minister, not Anwar Ibrahim.
In fact rumours were going round in Kuala Lumpur two weeks ago that Anwar was about to be arrested and that the present foreign minister, Abdullah Badawi, would be appointed deputy prime minister in his place.
Where does Mahathir stand amidst all this? He does believe that there is an international conspiracy against him. Does he further believe that his deputy too was an accomplice in that conspiracy? Most probably he is caught in a dilemma and he does not hide it. He says he does not want to believe but people do keep telling him that Anwar Ibrahim is going to challenge his leadership. Although Anwar Ibrahim declared it, yet again, last month disclaiming any intention to contest against him, even if some members of the party happened to nominate him, but the same people tell him "who knows?"
There could have been no worse time for the economic crisis to hit Malaysia. It hit suddenly and at a time when Dr. Mahathir was at the height of his political career and when he could possibly look forward to retiring gloriously into history.
Now the crisis has brought him face to face with his own human vulnerabilities. The need to protect the interests of his children makes him depend more than before on the so called cronies who were useful and obliging in the past and who too have their own interests to serve and to protect, more than their master's.
However, the economic crisis has exposed a sharp variance of approach between the prime minister and his deputy on not only how to, but also how not to, deal with the crisis. Dr. Mahathir does feel bad when Anwar tries to argue against policies which, he believes, benefit only a few but hurt the long term interests of the country. However, for the same reason the prime minister is also unhappy with the governor of the central bank, Bank Negara, Ahmad Mohammed Don.
Only the other day, he accused the governor for playing into the hands of the IMF and compounding Malaysia's financial problem by resisting lowering the interest rates in order to rescue the ailing companies. But Ahmad Don objects to what is obviously giving public money, and cheaply, to those companies which have not performed well with the loans that they already hold and have in fact been an accomplice in the crisis with foreign money traders. The governor offered to resign last May and last week (August 31) he and his deputy, Dato Phong Weng Phak, resigned.
Anwar, too, is known to have been advising against bailing out the non-performers by helping them out from the public and trust funds like the Tabung Haji and the Employees Provident Fund. Then the cronies pop up to say to Dr. Mahathir that we told you already your deputy was following the IMF to thwart your plans for economic recovery.
And this, they go on to add, shows that both the IMF and CIA are sabotaging your efforts in order to put Anwar in your place, that is why, according to the conspiracy theorists, on the one hand international agencies down grade Malaysian rating and the international media like the Time magazine, Asian Wall Street Journal, Asiaweek, the CNN et al have been so supportive of Anwar Ibrahim's policy prescription as against your desire to bail out the troubled corporate sector.
Whether or not Dr Mahathir believes this version of conspiracy theory, he does have a weakness for his children. He is more beholden to his cronies for offering helpful advice than to Anwar who is advising against doing anything that might bail out only a few at the cost of a multitude of small entrepreneur. It would appear that Dr. Mahathir is building defences around himself, and has to move fast to freeze the influence of his named successor.
In quick moves after the Umno general assembly, the prime minister replaced the editor in chief of Utusan Melayu and group editor of Berita Harian Malay newspapers as well as the director general of the TV3 channel because they behaved 'no better than the foreign
Anwar's powers as finance minister were already circumscribed by the creation of a National Economic Action Council last year. Dr Mahathir recently appointed his close friend and the foremost Malay billionaire, Daim Zainuddin, as Special Functions Minister as an undeclared economic supremo. Rumours suggested that Anwar was going to resign in protest, but he refused to oblige those who had wished him to go in a huff. Appointing anyone as cabinet minister was the prime minister's prerogative and the rumours of his resignation were baseless, he said.
However, more critical observers of the Malaysian scene do seriously believe that there is indeed a conspiracy-- not exactly against Dr. Mahathir, but against this rising Southeast Asian Muslim nation. With the neighbouring Indonesia already immobilised and pushed more than 40 years behind in its social and political development-- or in the words of Dr. Mahathir this 'largest Muslim nation in the world now has submitted to actually the Jews'-- a similar scenario is probably going to be played in Malaysia as well.
Dr. Mahathir has tried to court and cultivate the Zionist entity by opening Malaysia's doors to visits and trade by Israelis. Only a year ago he personally sponsored a visit to Malaysia by an Israeli youth delegation headed by the deputy director general of Israel's education ministry as well as allowed an Israeli team to play cricket in Malaysia. Earlier in 1996, Israel's largest bank, Bank Hapoalim, signed a ground breaking agreement with the Malaysian Public Bank in order to facilitate direct financial transactions between Israel and Malaysia. But it is doubtful if anyone in Tel Aviv is beholden to him more than they are to Yasir Arafat.
Anwar Ibrahim, on his part, has been trying to cultivate a suave and urbane image of an Asian Muslim leader for himself. He lays stress on democracy, human rights and civic society and no one can fault him for any trace of fundamentalism. The Islamic Youth leader of the ABIM days has long matured into a world class statesman.
Like Margaret Thatcher, Dr. Mahathir believes in speaking his mind and telling as it is to western leaders. Of course he also tries to sweeten the impact of his words by rewarding them with business carrots. Still, those who take the carrot do not feel good about being lectured by Dr. Mahathir.
Anwar Ibrahim's style is to engage in dialogue and seek a common ground. They cannot object but want an equal dialogue with an Asian politician.
In any case, who would the big powers and the IMF prefer to lead Malaysia in the years ahead? The answer is 'NEITHER.' Neither the pro-Israeli Malay nationalist, nor the mellowed 'Islamic radical'.
Dr. Mahathir has done great. A man of realpolitik, he opened up the country to international capitalism and led a process of quiet westernisation. A country whose constitution declares Islam as State religion is equally comfortable with beauty contest as well as with contest for the reading of the Qur'an. But at 72, he is disappointed to see Malaysia's 'record of economic growth suddenly eroded'. It means an unsympathetic IMF doesn't have to do any more than to let the economic crisis run its own course and to let the coffers of the state be emptied one by one.
Anwar Ibrahim is a 'moderate', but being 'moderate' is quite dangerous. It is easier to deal with someone who makes all the radical noises and has no intellectual or political ability to translate his radicalism into policy. It is also quite easy to demonise and finish off a radical than a to repel the persuasive intellect of a moderate.
With a radical past and a moderate present, and at 52, Anwar Ibrahim represents a great ability to take Malaysia on the course of greater social, economic and political independence. Do the IMF and CIA want such a politician to succeed Dr. Mahathir as prime minister of Malaysia?
The conspiracy would then be to get Anwar Ibrahim first and the rest would follow.