DARK CLOUDS OVER THE HORIZON
SEISMIC SHIFT EAST
Something about the new government of the young radical Malay Doctor had galvanised the otherwise seemingly disinterested and apolitical rural Malay. This new government by its leader appeared to have the character of being nationalist, Malay and at the same time possessed of a uniquely Malaysian quality to it, embracing all things Asian with pride.
The government had become a magnet for foreign investment. And much of it now from sources other than Britain, the USA and Australia Malaysia’s traditional and its largest foreign investors and donors of aid. These three countries had for years been Malaysia’s major sources of aid, investment capital and technology.
The rigidity of dollar and pound of the Taipans now was now being swiftly replaced by the exotic and seductive charm and influence of Yen of the Zaibatsu of Japan and the Won of the Chaebols of South Korea two new flavours in the Malaysian economy. It appeared that neither of the two new commers careed much that the Doctor had snubbed his greatest benefactor on numerous fronts and was being a tad unkind to them by diluting their centuries old priviledges of being Tuan in his new Malaysia. He was said to have “bitten the hand that fed‘ his nation all these years, hinting at a change in British fortunes in their former colony.
The sun appeared to be rapidly setting in one sphere of the globe, rising brightly in another it seemed. Nightfall in England promised a new dawn in Malaysia.
It was 1978. An overbearing conservative, a patronizing and condescending woman had recently been elected Prime Minister of Britain. Its first female Prime Minister. Britain by then, perceived to be a spent economic and military force in the world was in a state of rapid decline. Its new Prime Minister wanted the world to know that the spirit of Churchill was not quite dead. At least to the extent the ghost of the old cigar chomping grandfather of obstinacy and unbridled optimism remained alive and intact in her soul and in her political ideology. She would revive the spirit of the Blitz.
SLEEPERS AND OLD RETAINERS
Also at the other end of the world in 1978, in another of the former colonies was a faithful servant of the old school. A stalwart of everything British and of what Britain expected of its former subjects. Unquestioning, prissy and loyal, the old retainer was always ready to do the bidding of his former colonial master to reclaim the lost glory days. Not sufficiently big or able enough though to deter or discourage the young Doctor from charting a course all of his own for Malaysia. He was a perfect match for the ever enduring master of the entreport city of Singapore.
And just to its north of the island state lay the peninsula Malaysia. A little over decade merged with two of the regions most resource rich crown jewels. The states of Sarawak and Sabah in North Borneo. It was the hope of Britain that the old retainer in the island entreprot state with their assistance would emerge as overlord of the new merged states by mesmerising the local native population with his rhetoric about equality and a meritocracy which was never to be.
A nation to which it was always an integral part till Britain severed its ties to the mainland in a deal with the sultan of Johore giving Singapore its unique status of separate non federated state and the potential to be more than merely physically separate from the Malay mainland.
Malaysia stood out then is it does today as a Muslim nation with all of the asymmetry of a model secular state. However it did not subscribe to the Churchillian or colonial revivalist mood nascent in Britain. In fact an outlook quite antithetical to that emerging in Britain and extant in Singapore was brewing here. Malaysian’s, led by its previously dormant almost non existent Malay elite were readying themselves to forever shake off the shackles of colonialism and to look east for their salvation.
A CHANGE IN PROTOCOL NO MORE KOW TOW
Lord Carrington arrived in his VC 10 at Kuala Lumpur’s Subang Airport the international airport of Malaysia at that time. He was met by his equal number, the Malaysian foreign minister and not the Malaysian Prime Minister who, it was said was entertaining a visiting Japanese delegation of investors. It was seen by the British as a snub.
Many within Malaysia’s cabinet had quietly expressed their disapproval of the conduct o the new Prime minister in not going out of his way as his predecessors had done to greet the British Lord Carrington. This was a new broom and it was sweeping fast and frenzied all the cobwebs of history to usher in a new era in Malaysian politics.
Protocol demanded that the foreign minister greet Lord Carrington and so it was. But the old guard still had the ‘Kow Tow’ mentality where Britain and the US, Australia and other western states were concerned.
WHITEHALL’S EYES AND EARS IN AN OUTPOST
The second secretary of the British High Commission Collin Hughes in a clear breach of diplomatic protocol invited one of the old guard of the pre Mahathir cabinet, Zainal Iskandar Ibrahim to a private meeting in neighbouring Singapore. The secretary was returning to London on diplomatic business and the foreign office in Kuala Lumpur was duly informed of his impending departure with the High Commission supplying details complete with dates and destinations as was routine to the foreign office in Kuala Lumpur on Hughes’ behalf.
Hughes would be stopping over in Singapore and would be paying a courtesy call to the British High Commissioner there apart from also indulging in a little bit of shopping and visiting old friends. Malaysian foreign office functionaries trained by the British in the art of counter intelligence and monitoring movements of foreign diplomats had their antenna switched off on this occasion.
The British were still very much embedded into the Malaysian public and civil service and that was not hard to do. Moreover diplomatic ties were still as good as ever and there was no hint or suspicion of anything sinister or out of place in the offing to warrant anything more than a cursory glance at the documents.
Ibrahim (or Abe to his western friends) still held a torch for all things British and was annoyed and unhappy at the Doctor’s snub of Lord Carrington. He believed Malaysia was in for trouble on the economic front now that Margaret Thatcher had been briefed of the snub by this new upstart in the former colony.
Britain had significant economic interests in Malaysia in arrangements it believed native Malaysians were incapable of managing independently or disturbing. A foreign office report to the British Prime Minister on Malaysia and Britain’s interests in Malaysia appeared to indicate that it would take the Malaysians decades before they would be able to raise the necessary local talent to a standard required to independently run anything larger than a local bus company.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Rubber, Cocoa, tin and oil palm were the backbone of Malaysia’s economy and many of these interests were owned by private British interests through the corporate structures of listed entities on the London Stick Exchange. Many were tightly held but the spreads in each of these lazy London companies made them ripe for take over’s something the Foreign Office report had clearly overlooked.
Malaysians under the Doctor had an appetite for a first world fight on their hands. Many of these were highly educated and experienced professionals in law, accounting, economics and finance. These were graduates of England’s finest tertiary institutions with traditions that pre date the colonies. Cambridge, the London School of Economics and Oxford University.
British engineers built the outdated ports and other infrastructure. Much of these financed with British foreign aid. ‘Who would replace Britain in Malaysia as a significant foreign investor?’ the old guard pondered and lamented. ‘The man’s a fool’. ‘He does not realise who it is he is toying with’.
The phones, telexes and personal meetings were fast and furious between capital cities. There were personal heartfelt messages of apology. Profound apologies preceded official and unofficial meetings between leaders visiting dignitaries and businessmen alike as long as the big man was not present. It was simply not the Malaysian way of doing things.
SECRETS IN AN OPEN SOCIETY
Masonic meetings which end with the ‘festive board’ (a ritual late night supper that followed the Masonic monthly meetings before they would depart into the night) were dominated by discussions of the irreverent and brash man at the helm in Kuala Lumpur.
Visiting Masons made note of the mood in the elite of the public service, the judiciary and legal practitioners all of whom were well represented in the fraternity. It was Britain’s recruiting ground for their establishment in the far east. A badge of honour, a mark of trust, dependability and loyalty to the Crown to those fortunate enough to be initiated and admitted as brethren. And that exclusive enclave was open to and included Royalty, the legal fraternity (a natural extension of great English lodges of Inner Temple and Middle Temple) members of the judiciary, the uniformed services, cabinet ministers and diplomats. The Doctor had a deep mistrust of the organization and what it stood for. Unmeritorious elitism.
And just for good measure and an abundance of caution in case Ibrahim’s travel arrangements were interrupted by his minders or an over zealous Special branch operative, the ‘Festive Board’ provided some excellent cover for the purpose. Both Ibrahim and Hughes were Masons. There was a private room at the lodge near the Moorish landmark the Kuala Lumpur Railway station.
FROM THE INNER GUARD THE INTRUDER MUST GO
At a late supper in mid August 1978 at the Festive Board Abe passed on a handwritten note to Hughes in the lodge. Hughes an MI5 agent stationed in Kuala Lumpur was clearly nervous. Notes, especially hand written notes was a anathema in the business Hughes was engaged in. This was an important occasion and Abe made sure Hughes read it understood it and then light up their cigars with it outside the hall. Hughes made his displeasure at having to receive a hand written note clear to Abe.
The message was clear. The note contained a brief message signed by 8 prominent members of parliament who had all served in a servile role in previous administrations wanted the new PM gone. They wanted to inform Whitehall directly and they wanted Whitehall’s help.
“Whitehall cannot do anything for you old chap” was Hughes’ response to the note. “I’ll see you and Tengku as planned?” he inquired before getting into his car to fade away into the night. This was not the Tengku who won independence for Malaysia that Hughes was referring to.
Whether the meeting took place as planned in Singapore that month is the subject of much controversy and speculation. One source says it did whilst another equally reliable source claims Hughes left before the appointed day and a Singaporean operative familiar to the group met them instead under the watchful eye of another Briton, not a diplomat but a Naval officer from the Woodlands naval base.
A BLACK JOB
Subsequent clandestine meetings between each of the signatories of that note from Abe to Hughes at the lodge did take place however. None of the participants (being the signatories) were privy to the instructions or information given to each of the other conspirators. Each was carefully separated from the others under pressure. Their controllers (whether British, Australian or American) having sufficient damaging information on each of them to intimidate each of them into compliance and secrecy.
A group of Indians from the plantations (with a string of criminal convictions and counter insurgency training to their credit) would be hired and trained to carry out a “Black job” in Kuala Lumpur. The event would be significant enough an event to allow for an immediate suspension of the federal constitution and a take over by the Royal Malaysian armed forces. All of the subsequent events were vetted by legal experts in Britain to ensure minimal criticism of the new order.
The replacementof a civilan government by the army would be an act approved under the constitution. All of it legal. Any backlash against the minority Indian community from any quarter would be contained by the army and supervised by aa third force. The Doctor is after all part Indian and these were still vey early days of his untested mettle and that of his maverick administration.
The man was not as popular yet with the Malays who were curious of a head of state who spoke a language that resonated so louded and clearly in their minds. He talked their talk and waalked their walk. He had thus far achieved little apart from getting up the nostrils of the British establishment and their ‘friends’ so deeply embedded in the legal, political and commercial infrastructure that was then Malaysia.
A caretaker government had been identified. A young Malay Muslim, a radical former student leader was picked as the potential candidate for a hardline post military civilian government. His psychological profile was tested by MI5 and found to be suitable. One agent even remarked how similar his profile was to that of Suharto the then president of the neighbouring republic of Indonesia. Psychometric test results from a previous test the candidate undertook for a position in an American organization filled in the gaps.
There were side issues to consider. The impact of any ‘event’. The economic and socio political fall out. There would be winners there would be losers. There was enough though to go around to keep the peace and everyone satisfied in 5 years time.
Although a team of experience Chinese Triads who had been on the pay roll of the British and local intelligence for the dirty jobs existed under wraps at the time, Malaysia could not afford another backlash against the Chinese like that which occurred in the May 13th incident in 1969 for any reason.
WHAT ABOUT THE CHINESE?
The Chinese were too valuable an ally and an asset of the west in this key sea lane, resource rich strategically placed archipelago to destablise. China to its north was still communist with a historic foothold in the region. They would quickly exploit any internal anti Chinese sentiment in the region and the Viet Namese already battle hardened by their victories against the Americans were on the move. They called it the domino effect. Malaysia was in its path as western observes saw it.
The Indians were struggling in Malaysia like a rudderless ship in a storm. Loyal and compliant they did not pose a threat to national stability. But amongst their fragmented communities were the Tamils. Many amongst this group were exploited by their own leadership which formed part of the national coalition.
This would be an attack on the much hated leader of the Tamils in the coalition of the Doctor’s government. The Doctor would be a collateral casualty in the process. Taking out the Tamil leader would serve as the official line on the deemed objective of the assassins. It would serve to minimize any racial motive in a racially polarised Malaysia for the job.
The majority of Malaysia’s Indians still laboured in its many rubber and oil palm plantations, in labour lines (long rows of temporary timber terraced houses) in a life worlds away from their more affluent fellow citizens in suburbia a few hours away. There was always the physical distance that allowed for convenient protection for them against retaliation by Malays if it did occur. They had security in numbers and the Chinese would work with the army to ensure the plantation business was not interrupted in the aftermath.
THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PAST
Lt. Col Paul Walthers a former COIN (Counter Insurgency) specialist in the British armed forces who had once served gallantly in Malaya (as it was then known) fighting the communist insurgency there had been brought out of semi retirement in Rhodesia for consultation.
Many of the men he personally trained in Malaysia for such jobs were still around and kicking. Each had been discreetly sounded out in top secret discussions for a possible role in Malaysia after the event. Many of these would be appointed regional ‘civilian liaison officers’ or councilors once the military had settled its place in a Malaysia after the event. Advisors.
Prominent members of the Malaysian Chinese Association and the various chambers of commerce were consulted without raising any hint of suspicion of what was being planned. The typical way of broaching the subject at meetings which were conducted between businessmen (agents) from the UK and businessmen in Malaysia.
“What’s likely to happen to our relationship Mr. Tan? Our grandfathers built this relationship before this lunatic was even a glint in his mothers eye”. No reaction. The Chinese have always been very pragmatic about business. “Hey it will endure even after all this and this fellow. Remember the communists? Remember Sukarno? Where are they now?” Tan asked his troubled guest.
PAY OFFs AMIDST THE RUBBLE OF CHAOS
The plan was this. Rubber, Tin and oil palm prices would soar overnight on release of the news of what was about to go down. It wouldn’t be all bad news. At least to some it wouldn’t be bad news. There was a little frantic buying in Lee rubber stocks and in the stocks of the larger British plantation companies that was a bit un seasonal and unusual.
And when nothing happened a couple of months down the track prices fell way below what they were before the rumour that only did the rounds with those on the inside lane.
Lt. Col Walthers briefly visited Malaysia and Singapore in 1978. A social visit it was. He met with the Sultan of the northern state he was once most active in. They played a round of Polo, rode the sultan’s stable of fine Argentinian bred horses and discussed the past. Walthers was careful not to mention any other subject. When asked by his highness what it was he did now that he was out of the armed forces (or was he?), he simply replied, “I am retired. I write when I can. And when required I train local militias in Lesotho and Orange Free State (later Namibia) to kill communists like I did here all those years ago” he replied. The sultan did not respond.
WHAT ABOUT THE NEIGHBOURS?
Singapore would be kept in the dark about the plan. It would benefit from the supply of essentials being a key international sea port. And supplies of all varieties would be available in abundance at short notice to be shipped north even if at a premium. Britain and the other members of the five nation pact Australia and New Zealand would subsidise the reconstruction if it were required. There was no love lost between its leadership and the Malay dominated government of the federation of Malaysia.
The newly merged states of Sarawak and Sabah, rich in oil, gas coal and timber and physically isolated from the peninsula would require attention. Both states had a Muslim minority and Christian/ animist tribal majority of Malays (Kadazans, Dusuns, Muruts and a host of other tribes).
The central government in Kuala Lumpur had already set in motion a plan to increase the numbers of Muslims and federal government troops in the area to assert control over a restive bunch of native leaders who prior to merger had done much as they pleased.
Merger it appears had little effect on their daily lives except for the intensity of deforestation by its Chinese merchants cashing in on the timber industry and oil palm boom. The natives had little or no say in such development. Some in the region did not approve of the Malaysianization of Sabah and Sarawak.
Singapore had demonstrated that an iron hand and a bucket of carrots in this region could work wonders with its people. Productivity and economic progress in Singapore forged ahead of even many of its western competitors. A thought had crossed the mind of Hughes as he discussed certain aspects of the fall out with Abe back in Kuala Lumpur at a pre Christmas party on his return from the UK.
Abe was stunned about the extent of what might happen and the prospect of what it was he and his mates were gambling away just to get rid of the young brash Doctor. But he like the rest of his partners in crime now had no one to complain to, had no fall back plan and had no clout to counter the audacity of the British plan.
THE PRICE OF MISCALCULATION- THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS ARE FOR
Abe like the other signatories did not like the Doctor. That was not the world’s greatest sin. But disliking the Doctor and getting rid of him were two different things altogether and not what they had bargained for. After all they were Malays and human beings like everybody else. They were entitled to their mistakes, their likes and their dislikes. These were ‘friends?’ Abe and his mates were seeking assistance from.
What disappointed and angered Abe was this. It was not a pound of flesh his ‘friends’ were asking for in return for assiting with a favour. It was a pound of flesh and the right to spill all the blood necessary as well in the process whilst carving up the body!
“Damn it” Abe screamed in silence. “I’d rather drink poison than to go through with this”. “I don’t care what the rest of them have in mind”. “Its not what I bargained for”. Hughes and his mates know about my properties in London, the country home in Wiltshire, the apartments in Hong Kong and Sandra McGinty and our son. What would happen to Soraya and the children if it all came out in the wash? Damn it damn it Allah what have I done?”
WINDS OF CHANGE USHER IN FATE
A month later Tun Datuk Zainal Iskandar Ibrahim “Abe” was dead. It was reported that he had died of a heart attack. The Shah of Iran had been deposed. It was 1979 and Afghanistan was about to be invaded. The US had no stomach for any more foreign adventures or intervention under President Jimmy Carter or to engage in another foreign war. Australia increased its intelligence presence in the region as the domino theory began to take on a different dimension with China invading North Viet Nam and being severely mauled and humiliated by battle hardened Viet Names troops.
The Doctor kept his head and his job. It is widely rumoured he was informed of a plot against him (but not the extent of it) at the very late stages of preparation. He brought the young radical former student leader closer to him in an attempt to refine the man and his ideals to a more conventional type of leader.
In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution and the information gathered by Iranian students at the US Embassy siege in Tehran, a treasure trove of sensitive documents were thrown up from the US embassy shredders and carefully pieced together like a hundred giant jig saw puzzles. They were re assembled by the revolutionary guard who would prize open the oyster and identify intelligence operatives, their cover and other precious sensitive and valuable information sufficient to break codes and to force the jettisoning of any other sinister plot to overthrow governments of the region. The student radical flew to Teheran to meet the Ayatollah against the Doctor’s advice.
Malaysia continued to attract record foreign investment. Britain without warning increased the cost of education in Britain displacing many Malaysian students who could scarcely afford the existing ‘lower’ cost of education that prevailed in Britain before her move.
The Doctor arranged for Malaysian students to move elsewhere to more student friendly third countries creating a huge hole in Britain’s ‘invisibles’ driving the British pound down. Malaysian students then comprised the single largest group of foreign students studying in Britain at the time.
The Sultan of Brunei having deposed his father, Sir Omar Saifuddin an Anglophile, embolden by the Doctor’s rebuke of British foreign policy on his country asked Britain to relinquish its control over his tiny oil rich state. He was prepared to work towards this goal in stages. First he asked that as a first step his new role as head of state, include the title and power of supreme commander of all armed forces stationed in Brunei. That included the Gurkha contingent placed there for his protection by the British and commanded by a Briton. Britain refused. The Sultan slighted by her refusal to grant his request appointed American and Japanese managers to his countries vast treasury till then a British prerogative. It included state and personal fortunes from oil revenues. The pound near collapsed as a result.
Neither Britain nor any of Malaysia’s traditional allies forgave the Doctor for his slight on the Empire. To their credit and in their interests they were however willing to work with him but not for him. In many ways he would be alone. It is unlikely that Britain or Australia will forget the man in a hurry. They still continue to do anything possible to destroy his memory now that he is old and frail. And there appear to be a small loud army of baggage carriers of the British and Australians who are ready to rewrite history or to bear testimony to a revision of history if it vilifies the man.
This is the second installment of “Spies in our midst”. It is a condensed version of the full text. Some names used to describe characters in this story and their similarity to the names and characters of people living or dead is purely coincidental.