Former Chief of Staff of Anwar Ibrahim shares his personal story working for him

Mr. Anwar, the once heir-apparent to leadership in Malaysia’s ruling party UMNO, which has ruled the country since its founding in 1963, was previously sacked in 1998 on what were widely considered politically motivated charges of sodomy. The ruling was overturned in 2004, only to be reinstated later. In 1998, Mr. Anwar’s sacking resulted in an outpouring of political support as Malays took to the streets in protest, an unprecedented challenge to the decades-long rule of UMNO.

Photo courtesy of didiz rushdi/Flikr

img-timcastWe recently narrated a story following Mr. Anwar’s  former chief of staff, a young American who worked for the opposition leader’s campaign to unseat the ruling party after his acquittal in 2004. Using social media, technology and the latest techniques to counter a media blackout enacted by state-controlled news organizations, the young strategist one day found himself in a very difficult situation. The story provides an insider look at both Mr. Anwar’s complex relationship with the government and how his team overcame major obstacles for him to win his seat back in Parliament, almost toppling the ruling regime.

It also provides an interesting insight to the current 50 year-rule government.

This story was first recorded February 2013.  Aasil was interviewed by The Islamic Monthly Editor in Chief, and That’s Some American Muslim Life founder and executive producer, Amina Chaudary.   The story is narrated by Amina.




FULL TRANSCRIPT:  TIM-site-new-sidebar-v7_1fsf_01

AASIL: It’s tense going through immigration because when they scan your passport that’s when presumably the computer puts the alarm off saying “don’t let this person out”and I was wearing a baseball cap and I was just trying to sneak through. So he scans the passport and no problem there, which is good, and then just sitting in the waiting room. So essentially once you scan the passport you’re out of the country right, and nothing can be done.

I’m waiting for the flight and I’m sending text messages to my brother and he said “is the guy next to you peaking over the paper seeing if you’re the guy who is wanted in the newspaper?”Because literally my picture was in all the Sunday papers.

So, then they are boarding the flight and it’s one of those where we have to walk out in the tarmac and there is just all this security there and I was like, “what the heck are all these police men doing out here?!” You know like, why? At this point I am almost out.

TSAML: This week on “That’s Some American Muslim Life” a young American political strategist named Aasil.   I’m sure you’re wondering, but yes, he did make it past the police, and the flight did take off.  If he were caught, though, he would have been jailed.

It’s an interesting story, sort of like Netflix’s House of Cards, but international edition.  It involves politics, scandals, lies, a lot of deception, love, sex, prisons, but at the heart of it, an incredibly genius system to override media bans on a political opponent.

The story starts years before, in 1998. Aasil’s professor focused one of his classes on political life in Malaysia, but particularly the story of one politician, named “Asian of the Year” by Newsweek Magazine, and the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia: Anwar Ibrahim.

anwar timeIt was that same year that Anwar was sacked from office arrested, beaten and sentenced to 15 years in prison. For what?  As Aasil put it: “trumped up charges of sexual misconduct and corruption.”

Anwar was accused of consensual sexual relations with his 19 year old male chauffeur and his male speech writer.

In Malaysia, sodomy is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

And while he is in prison, Anwar’s wife would win elections to hold on to his Parliament seat.

When Aasil graduated, he’d do the ritual fresh out of college consulting job in Washington DC.  But he was still so intrigued by this politician on the other side of the world and he would read up about it as much as possible.  But then, big news would break.  In September 2004, the verdict was overturned and Anwar Ibrahim was released from a six year solitary confinement.  He was free. And the news was that he was moving to Washington DC.

This is a “right place right time” type of story.  An email started to circulate if there were any photographers in the area who could take a headshot of Anwar.  Aasil replied by email immediately.  A few days later, Aasil, with his Nikon N80, was pulling in to the driveway of this recently released from prison politician of one of the most important Muslim countries in the world.

Aasil went in as a big fan of Anwar, but Anwar was also really impressed by how much Aasil knew of the case and understood the stakes at play.  They would keep in touch off and on over a few years.  And then, Anwar offered him a job.

Aasil would quit his job and join Anwar’s office in DC.  But, let me help you get a better picture of what Aasil was like at this time. I’d say, think of Matt Damon in the movie Syriana, who would hang around the progressive Arab reformer with enemies in many places.  That was Aasil.

AASIL: We had this joke that I had to justify leaving my job to go work for this guy who was a convicted criminal and had virtually no political future in Malaysia. And so they said, “Well, you’ll be the Chief of Staff” and I say, “Oh, that sounds good.” I go from being a senior consultant to being chief of staff.  The first day I got to the office there was no one else there. I was the only one there. I said to myself, “What have I done?” So the joke was Aasil is Chief of Staff, but no staff.

TSAML: Pretty soon, Aasil was attending these big important global summits and rubbing shoulders with big shot world leaders with Anwar.  But he also understood that Anwar had plans to run for office again and his work would take him back to Malaysia.  Anwar would be banned from elections for any type of office until the middle of 2008.  And the government set the election for one month before to prevent him from running. Aasil followed Anwar to Malaysia to help elect candidates from Anwar’s party.  Aasil would essentially become Anwar’s right hand man.

AASIL: Being associated with Anwar was a huge liability for anyone and if you, as a student or as a business owner or a teacher or whatever, decide that you want to go and show up at Anwar rallies, you lose your job, your kids lose their scholarships, you can’t get credit, your bank starts giving you problems. They have a lot of ways of enforcing this sort of one-party oppressive rule without actually physically harming people. They kind of hit you where it hurts.

TSAML: Again, Aasil literally gave up everything, a good job, comfortable home, friends, and even a love (we’ll get to that in a minute) just to work for this man that he believed in, moved to this foreign country where he doesn’t speak the language, has no staff and very little funding.  The real challenge was that, no radio, TV stations or newspapers could report on Anwar at all.

Aasil would work on get out the vote strategies.  A few days before the election on March 8th, rallies were taking place all over the country and Aasil would accompany Anwar to some of them

AASIL: When we were driving into or out of one event, there were people just all around, couldn’t even move the car, Malays, Chinese, Indians, young people and old people and he’s like this has never happened before. And I remember that ride back, he literally got out of the car at a rest stop at a highway, jumped on a flat bed and gave a rally right there. It was just so exciting. It was so phenomenal to see that excitement about what was going on. He’s like yeah, I can feel the ground shifting. We could feel the percentage points coming toward us.

TSAML: Aasil’s strategy worked to get the messages out and make it go viral.  So the untold story about Aasil is how he did it.

What he did was essentially revolutionary.  Again think maybe Arab Spring.  So remember, they cant advertise an event on paper, TV, or radio, and many times the police would forcibly change the location of the rally a few hours before it was to start. It seemed that the best method would be phone, but calling was expensive and to send one text took about 10-15 seconds. It would be nearly impossible to get through a list of several thousand names in a few hours.  He created a massive cell networking strategy where he plugged 15 cell phones into one computer and sent 15 text messages at one time and had all those text messages be forwarded on to other numbers.  He was reaching hundreds of people within minutes. Because this was never done before in Malaysia, people were getting excited.

AASIL: In Malaysia he’s basically a rock star. I traveled with him to a couple of rallies in the north, which are these rural areas. Thousands of people would come and see him, walk for miles and sit in the dark and sometimes in the rain and he was just a great charismatic force.

We were getting reports that week like we’re actually winning one point a day. The government went berserk and they basically dedicated six, seven, or eight pages a day in the major newspapers to attacking Anwar. He’s an American agent, he’s a Jewish agent, he’s a Chinese agent, and he’s a homosexual. All these things that they have been doing constantly for the last ten years, they put it in total overdrive.

What I think happened is that the government went so overboard in that campaign that any halfway intelligent person is going to look and say this doesn’t make any sense. This person couldn’t be that bad.

TSAML: On election day in America, when you watch the election results on CNN you see the results in real time.  But in Malaysia, you may not have as sophisticated of a system.  And of course there is tight control over the media.  As the results were coming in, the news channels were only reporting on the victories for the current government.

AASIL: That’s all they were announcing. They weren’t announcing anything else. So seven o’clock, eight o’clock, nine o’clock just keep on repeating the same results. What’s going on here?

TSAML: Texts and Facebook, messages were spreading about local victories for Anwar’s party, so news stations had to start reporting other victories.

AASIL: So there was no news available because their servers were so overwhelmed that they couldn’t handle the traffic because everybody was coming and saying, refresh, refresh, refresh. We’re getting like fifty times the traffic and all they were doing was putting up the results. I think they had placed reporters at the polling stations in the twenty or thirty key seats that were kind of up for grabs and they were showing results after results. We were winning. As it was happening we were just jumping up and down in the office like I can’t believe this is happening.

DSC_9118Then Anwar calls me, about 9 o’clock and he says, “Get everybody together at my house. Call a press conference. We’re forming a new government.” I was like, “What? Are you sure about that?” He said, “Yes, we’re forming a new government. Go.”

TSAML: So, there’s another part to this story that’s really important.  And adds another sense of drama to Aasil’s escape out of the country.   While all this was unfolding, Aasil was also trying to win a girl’s heart back at home in the US—and impress her family too.  The pressures he faced were pretty intense. This girl, Nadia, was also trying to maintain a long distance relationship with Aasil.  Since they were celebrating in Malaysia, he used this time to go visit her, and her family, and told Anwar he was going for a short trip.

AASIL: I was a little worried about the impression I was leaving with Nadia’s family that here’s a guy who is now doing something in Malaysia, you know is this really the type of person that you want to have your daughter marry?

He was like, “Oh take your time. Take your time.” I said, “No, I will go home and I had to meet the Mrs., the would-be Mrs., and try to give some confidence that I was actually a responsible human being. I came home for just about a week, saw her once and then flew back. The reason I flew back is, around April 14th of that year, Anwar gave a press conference in which he said. By September 16th, which is Malaysia Day, it’s like one of their independence days, Anwar is going to essentially topple the government and get enough members of parliament from the government’s side to crossover to his party and he’s going to form a new government. And I was like, “What?! I don’t want to miss that!” So I kind of rushed back.

TSAML:But just as he got back, there were new allegations brought out against Anwar, this time by an intern, named Saiful, who had started working in Anwar’s office during the election.  The allegations were that Anwar had sexual relations with him. Even worse, raped him.

AASIL: I couldn’t believe that this whole same charade would repeat itself ten years later so I get a cab and I head back to the hotel and when I get to the hotel, it’s like a zoo in the lobby. Media everywhere and people running around, it’s like crazy. Oh my gosh! What’s going on and everybody is like, “Crap! Are they going to come and drag him to jail? What is going to happen?” because last time that’s what happened–they brought police with face masks and automatic weapons into his house and they dragged him off to jail and beat the crap out of him, almost killed him.

We just didn’t know what was going on, what the government would do so I was trying to call Nadia, “listen, this is happening. It’s crazy.” I couldn’t get through to her because the connection wasn’t good.

What we decide to do that night is sneak Anwar out of the hotel into the Turkish Embassy. So, around 3 or 4am, we sneak him out the back of the hotel.  Nobody knows and he ends up at the Turkish Embassy.

TSAML: Aasil would spend this time sending messages on behalf of Anwar through alternative social media ways about the ruling government’s laws.  But one message in particular started to stick with the people.  The government had reduced subsidies for gas, doubling the price of gas.   The message that Aasil was sending for Anwar: “If you make me PM today I will reduce the price of gas tomorrow.” People started talking about this, to the point that a junior minister named Shabbery Cheik challenged Anwar to a debate on live television. This would be Anwar’s first time on live TV in ten years. More than 4 million people would watch the live broadcast and it would repeat on television that night and the next morning. Anwar’s proposal was being talked about by everyone.  He was winning hearts.

The next day when he was returning home, the police swarmed his motorcade in front of his house.

AASIL: A bunch of police cars surround him, people jumped out of the woods, like out of the field that has tall grass. They literally jumped out of the grass, wearing ski masks and holding automatic weapons and they stopped his caravan. They pulled him out of his car.  He’s with his lawyers already, so his lawyers are there. They take him out of his car put him in the police car and they drive him to the police station. They essentially arrested him.

TSAML: They would let him go the next day.  Aasil, Anwar and the team determined that it was time for Anwar to get in to Parliament.  Now remember his wife held on to his seat since before the sodomy trials the first time. She would step down, automatically calling for a by-election for the seat.  Anwar would race against another candidate from the ruling government party.

AASIL: As we started doing this people got really excited. Because everywhere the truck would stop you would get a mini rally assembled there.  People would say “oh what is this?!” They had never seen it before.

TSAML: Once in Parliament, Anwar was designated opposition leader.

Aasil had less to do at this time, since politics pretty much slowed down.  It was a waiting game and so here he was a political strategist with nothing political to strategize. He set out to plot his proposal to Nadia and flew to visit her.

NADIA:  So we decided to go to the beach and I was like, “I’m a good Muslim girl, I don’t go around with a random guy” but I was like, okay fine, he came all this way so we should just go to the beach. We went to the beach and then we went dune buggy riding, and I lost my shoes; it was very hot in the sand.

AASIL: And so I was just there, there was just like a full moon or something or like a half-moon, and we were walking around the dunes in the dark and the water is there and I proposed. And it ended up being one of those things that you couldn’t have planned it more, you could have tried to plan it but it would probably be too orchestrated. So it just kind of happened.

So I proposed to her and she thought it was a joke because as far as she was concerned, I mean she is probably more conservative than I am, she thought that essentially from the day that I started talking to her that was essentially the proposal and everything else was just details after that. And I was like, “No, no this is the proposal.”

TSAML: They were married two months later. Aasil would return to Malaysia to start a new election consulting company.  Then, something would happen.

AASIL: I see the news that churches in Malaysia, eight churches, had been attacked–sort of arson attacks, fire bombs, whatever. No serious damage, nobody killed but really disturbing for Malaysia, you don’t have that kind of violence in Malaysia.

TSAML: The churches had been bombed by protesters over a court ruling that allowed Christians to use the word for “Allah” in their Bibles.

AASIL: So maybe a week after that happened, I saw a report in the news saying that the police were investigating Anwar Ibrahim on the arson attacks, saying that he may have been involved. So I forwarded that to Anwar and I said “look they are accusing you of this now.” He said like yeah what’s new. Anything that happens they accuse Anwar of being involved whether it rains, if it snows or if it’s bad weather, whatever it is, it’s Anwar’s fault.

TSAML:But a stranger thing happens. Now imagine this, here is Aasil, successfully proving to Nadia and her family that his work in Malaysia is real and safe, just newly married, back in Malaysia, working hard on political strategy, preparing to bring his wife over to settle in.  One day a friend of Aasil’s who was a journalist called him and said: “did you see the report about you?”  Aasil gets up and finds a bunch of emails with forwards to news magazines that have his name and photos all over it.  He was on the front pages of all major newspapers.  Aasil was now being accused of being behind the bombings.

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 12.06.12 AMAASIL: It’s a Saturday night, so I am all alone in my office and at that point I am really worried that I won’t be able to get home because I don’t know if there is a police car waiting for me downstairs. So instead of taking the elevator, I take the stairs down.  I like peak around the corner. There’s nobody in the parking lot so I get in my car and I drive back to my apartment and I locked the doors and I start figuring out what am I going to do. So apparently on Sunday, the Malay papers, embellished on the story and said that I was involved with a non-profit organization, an NGO in the United States in Washington D.C., which had raised money to send to the churches to help them rebuild. So that’s a code word for saying that the whole operation was financed in the United States by me, an extension of the office of Anwar Ibrahim, essentially, CIA money or whatever else and we basically financed the whole thing so we probably burned the churches down and then paid to have them rebuilt.  Like, that’s the context there.

So, that really bothered me.  Knowing about these church stuff is “go-to-jail-don’t-ever-get-out-of-jail” type of thing.

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 12.07.23 AMNADIA: Ever since Aasil started working in Malaysia, I had set up Google alerts for his name, but I forgot about it. But then all of a sudden, one day, I was in midterms, I started getting like 10,000 Google alerts, seeing like his name pop up, and like random Malaysian newspapers.  So I Google translated everything, and I saw that they were calling him like a Pakistani spy.  We just called him, “all right, okay, it’s time to get out now.” Then Aasil was kind of like taking his sweet time, and he wasn’t moving, he was like, oh I’ll go to this meeting and that meeting, and I was like, “no you just pack for yourself and get out.”

AASIL: I was not going to tell anyone until I figured out what exactly I was going to do, but then she started getting these Google alerts. She’s like, “what the heck is going on, like get out of there!” I needed to actually go through my apartment and clean my apartment out. Because if someone would have come and raided it like I’d have a tough time saying that I was just a tourist in Malaysia, you know.

TSAML: He’d stay overnight in his own place and then early next day, a friend of Aasil’s would help him sneak out of his apartment and would drive him to the airport.

AASIL: So finally we take off and safely land in Singapore. I sent a text message to Anwar saying “I’m in Singapore.” And he’s like “I know.”

He said all my text messages and all my calls had been transcribed and everything was monitored and they knew all of the things that Nadia and I were doing, where we were going, what we were doing.

TSAML: He would keep in touch with Anwar as discretely as possible.  Back in DC he would live with his wife and look for a new job. Anwar was put back on trial.  In January 2012, he was acquitted.

AASIL: I mean, it was a total, total surprise when he went to court to hear the verdict on his case after almost 2 years of trial. I called him up just a few hours before he got to court, and I said, “I just wanted to talk to you and hope everything goes ok. God willing I would talk to you soon.” He said, “Things will be okay, don’t worry.” And that was that. I thought I wouldn’t talk to him again for six years or ten years. And then he walks into court and the judge drops the whole case.

But there continues to be a wave. I think the Arab Spring has inspired somewhat of a Malaysian Spring-a sort of clamor for change. I am optimistic. I think there is a chance that Anwar can become the Prime Minister. I think it’s kind of his destiny but then again, with politics you never know how things are going to happen, so you have to also be sort of prepared for the worst.

TSAML: Aasil has since started a company related to elections in the U.S.  called Votifi which is an online platform providing impartial information about candidates, and allowing voters to share their opinions, find common ground.  Anwar Ibrahim has plans to run for Prime Minister in the upcoming elections in 2013.


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