I REMEMBER VERY very well the words the president used. We were all summoned to a big hall. It's always like that with big people, generals, presidents and the like; the longer you wait around picking blackheads and scratching your arse, the more important they must be. At any rate when the president finally arrived he smiled at everyone and shook hands with his ministers, but behind that smile we all sensed a grim and very determined mood, that's what I remember. Determined and also a little angry; that was his style. It was very effective. Everyone was scared of the president. In his speech, which was long and rambling as usual, he warned that there were elements intent on sabotaging the country's progress and that these elements must be crushed. He said, and I remember his exact words, 'These elements are from the extreme left.' We were all a little taken aback.
Not long afterwards the director, Sujono was his name, summoned a small group of us to his office. He looked flushed and angry. First of all he said we weren't doing our jobs properly, which is why the president was so angry. Then he offered us a chance to redeem ourselves. A special department was to be formed. Its job would be catching communists. 'They're like lice, everywhere,' the director said. 'We must redouble our efforts and not relax for one moment until they are crushed.' The director held up one hand for us all to see and rubbed his index finger against his fleshy thumb, as if crushing lice. Actually, crushing communists wasn't all that much more difficult – especially with the weight of state power behind us. Back then I felt proud to be engaged in a struggle so central to the nation's survival – this battle against the extreme left. Not just left, mind you; extreme left.
Starting out in government some years earlier, I recalled the arrogant behaviour of the communists when they had the upper hand. They forced us to join their discussion groups and donate money to the party; they warned us openly that if we refused we'd all be eliminated once the party won power. One of them even asked if my house had a garden so he could grow orchids when the revolution was won. They were more arrogant than the Dutch.
The truth is that even before the president's angry speech we'd been catching communists for many years and an awful lot of them had been processed through the security ministry where I worked. Their files were stacked high and gathered dust behind locked doors. We used red string to tie them together – red for communist.
'These are dead people, all dead,' my colleague Syam would say, as he stacked the files.
'How do you know?' I asked him.
Syam was once a field agent. He'd accompanied the army on 'Operation Rub Out' in the Semarang area of central Java in 1966. 'I saw whole villages of widows,' he sniffed one day when we talked about that period, which he didn't like doing. He had a faraway look in his eye, as if he'd seen ghosts – too many of them.
I heard other stories from Syam. 'A lot of communists surrendered and asked to be killed immediately. Yes, it's hard to believe but they were so scared they actually submitted to death like goats being slaughtered by the roadside on the prophet's birthday.' It's said that the rivers in this part of Java ran red for weeks.
Of course the commies knew their days were numbered and were scared of being tortured or humiliated, which is why they turned themselves in. This surprised me because I'd been told the communists were shrewd and would struggle to survive by any means. The army told us that the communists were armed and ready to launch their revolution, and that being Godless they had no fear of torture. 'We killed them all. All of them,' Syam insisted. 'This,' he said pointing to another stack of dusty files, 'this is just a waste of time.'
The president didn't think so and Sujono generally aped the president's every move. His eyes flashed and he raised a hand, one finger pointing skyward. 'Wrong, wrong. All we've managed to do is scratch the surface. Mowing the grass doesn't destroy the roots. They're everywhere, millions of them. Do you think their revolution takes a vacation? They're eating away at the fabric of the nation like acid, inciting resistance and preaching their Godless ways. They come alive at night and fill the dark void like spirits, plotting the downfall of our nation.'
The director perspired when he got excited like this. 'You can see it wherever you look,' he said, bringing the raised hand down hard on his desk. We all nodded vigorously. It was unwise to disagree with the director because then your own personal environment became suspect, and before you knew it the word 'communist' was being breathed behind your back.
So that's how I came to work here in Special Department Number 31. We simply moved our files and typewriters to a bungalow along Jalan Tanah Abang Dua. The idea was that we pretended to be a trading company. The company was called PT Abadi Export. We even had a fake emblem, something involving a globe and a snake, made into a sign. The place belonged to a Dutch army colonel once. It was here, from rooms once inhabited by our former colonial masters, that we redoubled our effort to catch communists. That was almost twenty years ago. I remember it all clearly.
THINGS WENT QUITE well for the first few years. Our intelligence was pretty damn good. The director was right – there were communists everywhere. Political parties were riddled with them; schools and universities too. Anyone with a sharp voice or critical tone would sure enough turn out to have a communist past. Those new factories springing up on the outskirts of the city making a new kind of sports shoe were plagued with communist union leaders. They were fairly easy to identify. Take anyone who complained or criticised the government openly, make a cursory check on his or her background, and as sure as the foreskin on a Christian there were traces of communism. The way we put it: they were 'environmentally unclean'. Those suspected of polluted backgrounds were questioned. They would talk about universal rights and freedoms, which we knew from our training was the basic propaganda of their communist ideology. They wanted everything for the people: there was talk of social justice, equality of ownership, land reform – a lot of shallow rhetoric. Christians were suspect; so were the Chinese. All their names came to us at Department 31, where it was our job to catch communists and to clean the environment.
And that's how I came to know Din. Din Shamsul was his name. He came to us as an informant from East Java, a dark-skinned man with a wispy goatee who walked with a slight limp. 'Very useful,' was how the director introduced him. 'As a member of the Militia Mujahiddin Murni he's pure and untainted. His dad fought the commies in '48 in Madiun.'
The mosques were a great recruiting ground for our cause. The left attacked the religious scholars when the Communist Party had influence. They accused the ulama of plotting to establish an Islamic state. So when the communists fell, naturally the faithful rallied to the call to eliminate them. Department 31 relied on Muslim militia groups to track down and eliminate communists – the army preferred not to get their hands dirty.
Din showed up one day at our Tanah Abang office wearing a white cap and wrapped in a coloured cotton headscarf in the manner of the Arabs. He had a kindly look in his large, expressive eyes and spoke softly and slowly. After years of studying the holy book in a madrassa under the tutelage of an old Yemeni scholar, his Indonesian had acquired a guttural quality, as if he was really speaking Arabic. He used phrases like 'ya Allah!' He used Arabic words. Instead of saying goodbye, he said 'go in peace'.
I later learnt that his Yemeni teacher had taken Din's recently widowed mother as a bride. Din was given the task of surveying our files before returning to his home base in East Java to track down communists, rather like a hunting dog given the scent of its quarry. Din seemed to enjoy the work for he came back again and again. I liked him and befriended the young religious scholar, for that's what he seemed to be. We spent long hours together after work usually dawdling over coffee after a rich bowl of soto at one of the nearby food stalls.
'Why do you do this – go after communists?' I asked him one day.
'Why do you ask?' Din's eyes narrowed with suspicion.
'I suppose you could spend your time doing something less distasteful. Have you ever thought of teaching?' I chose my words carefully and tried to sound innocent, you'll understand. These were difficult times and we were all vigilant – even in our own office.
'There is no better path in life than in the service of the faith. This is a holy war, a jihad, to rid the land of communists.'
'Yes, but all the killing, the violence ... it goes against the faith, no?'
Din stopped eating and placed his spoon and fork carefully on the table beside the empty bowl of soto and wiped his mouth with a tissue. He seemed in no hurry to respond. There surely was no justification for the taking of human life before God. Then he looked at me squarely and said the words I have heard many times since: 'In such a war, a holy war, the normal rules of peaceful coexistence are suspended.'
THE YEARS PASSED and our department seemed to have been forgotten as the country rushed headlong into a frenzy of development. The politics stayed the same, but everything else was changing fast. People with money started driving large new cars and wearing expensive clothes. New banks opened with brassy sounding names and a new kind of development called shopping malls sprung up. The whole country seemed to be transformed and our president was widely praised for his wise economic policies.
Yet still we received files at Department 31, indicating the survival of communists. When factory workers complained about low wages or the conditions in which they worked, there was almost always a communist organiser. If a journalist wrote an article critical of the government then the journalist's environment was deemed impure and in we went, like office cleaners. If a political party challenged the government – the entire party membership was suspect. These communists seemed to be everywhere, breeding like rabbits. The government's modernisation drive, which forced pedicabs off the streets, brought communists out into the open demanding justice for the pedicab drivers. Imagine that! Commies were agitating right under our very noses in the backstreets of Tanah Abang.
Then one day the Berlin Wall came crashing down and the world declared the end of communist power in the West. 'Don't be fooled,' our director said. He was older now; he dyed his grey hair and wore a smart new safari suit. A gold watch dangled loosely from his wrist and he was driven to the office in a shiny new Volvo sedan.
He said 'The defeat of communism in Europe has made the communists more desperate to succeed in Asia.' Our communist catching was clearly making some progress, for we were all issued with new computers and worked off a data base of new names. The new machines went further than that; they made sure that none of those named could get credit from a bank, or buy a new home, or even get a passport and go abroad.
'That's great,' old Syam said one day. 'This way you don't need to physically kill them; they'll die of shame or starvation anyway.'
Din visited us more frequently, even though we had fewer files to give him. But now he seemed to have less time to sit and talk idly over coffee. He came and went more purposefully and said he had urgent meetings around the city. Sometimes he held prayer meetings in the little back room reserved for staff to pray. Instead of the tales he used to tell about tracking down communists in the backwoods of East Java, Din spoke furtively about the holy war in a wider sense. 'It's not just a question of killing lefties anymore,' he said. 'We need to see more clearly the threat to our Islamic way of life, and it comes from outside.'
We all attended these prayer meetings, in part because we felt obliged as Muslims, but also because of a creeping sense of insecurity and unease. Sure, we were happy to be waging a crusade against communism. We appeared to be winning the struggle. But there were some of us, myself included, who felt uneasy about this new brash world of development, the world we were building free of communism. In this new world, one's status was no longer defined by who you were and what you did, but by how much money you had. We used to process rich commies and poor commies the same way – all trash. But now people with money were treated well. Sometimes a request for questioning was rejected or a dossier simply disappeared, and usually this turned out to be someone with a good income.
I for one found it harder and harder to make my salary stretch over the whole month. My wife scolded me for not being more adventurous. 'You think it's all okay because you work for the government, but look how little they pay. Hah! See Mrs Sugeng next door? Her husband works in a bank owned by the president's son. You know what he gets paid?'
It was true – Sugeng suddenly had a lot of money because he'd bought a new car and came home later than usual, which suggested he could afford a mistress.
WHEN I THOUGHT about these things, which was often because the number of new communist suspects was slowing to a trickle and I had a lot of spare time, it became hard to concentrate on the job. I knew that the communists had campaigned against capitalism, and that capitalism had triumphed over communism in the West. But there I was feeling the pinch; what was I getting out of all this capitalist development? My salary was shrinking, my wife was complaining, and my neighbours were growing more prosperous. Something was wrong.
I remember the first time that Din mentioned Ustaz Nasir. We were still reeling from the latest round of price rises and there was talk of a student demonstration outside the parliament. I was too distracted, wondering if I could any longer afford enough sugar and rice for the family to worry whether or not there were communist rabble-rousers at work on campus. In fact, a small voice inside urged me to drop my guard and take pity on the students. 'What's wrong? Isn't your life hard enough? What has development done for you? Just ask yourself.' The voice nagged me all day, like a mosquito whining in my ear, and I worried that people around me could hear what was going on inside my head.
That afternoon Din invited me to one of his prayer meetings where he passed around a small booklet. On the cover in bold print the booklet declared: A New Jihad. The picture on the cover was badly reproduced but it represented a coffin that appeared to be stuffed full of banknotes. Across the lid was written the words 'Coffin for Corruptors'. I asked Din what this meant. 'Why it's the new jihad. Look around you, my friend. Who benefits from all this development? You see all the big guys in their big cars? They are the big capitalists. Their life is far from the true path of Islam; they steal from the people and make laws that suit them so they can legally use public money to reward themselves. It makes me cry as a Muslim to see how corrupt they are, truly it does.'
We all nodded. 'And what can we do?' asked a junior officer.
Din flipped through to near the middle of the booklet and held it up. 'Follow this man,' he said.
We all stared. The man in the picture was elderly and avuncular. He wore a white headscarf and wire-rimmed spectacles and could have been the grandfather of anyone of us. 'His name is Ustaz Nasir. He believes that the only solution for this country is to make Islamic law the basis of the state. This is the only true law before the eyes of God, and it is only with this law that we can defeat corruption.'
Din put down the book and stared at us each in turn, his big eyes like sponges soaking up the remnants of our suspicion. We were silent. We understood what Din was saying.
That year during the fasting month I spent more time in the mosque than ever before. I listened closely to the sermons and reflected on the imperfections of my faith. During long afternoons before the end of the fast, when the lack of food made my head spin and left my throat as dry as old leather, I sat with my back to the wall of the mosque allowing the plastered wall to cool my body. Around me were others who either slept or quietly pondered the scriptures. There, before God, I began to see more clearly that the many problems with the country could not be laid at the door of the extreme left but were the result of a loss of faith. Din explained that the country had turned away from the true path and had fallen under the influence of the Great Satan in the shape of the United States.
I was confused at first, because I had all along believed that the United States was our ally in the war against communism. In this I was mistaken, Din said. 'The United States has forced us into a long and wasteful conflict that has resulted in the killing of many thousands of our countrymen, for no real reason.'
I was of course shocked to hear this – especially from Din. In my mind I saw all those files tied with red ribbons, each one representing a dead communist, like so many paper tombstones. 'It was America that taught us to hate communists; it was America that influenced all our thinking by manipulating everything from the media to the school curriculum, so that we would all be influenced to be capitalists and make money to spend money on American goods. That's the game, and the object is to enrich Americans.'
LATER THAT SAME year my wife fell ill and needed an expensive operation. The doctor said it was cancer of the cervix and only a full hysterectomy would save her. The operation was costly and the meagre savings we had were gone in a week to pay for initial treatment. The hospital was shiny and new, the product of our nation's rapid development. The ward they had my wife in smelt clean and all the floors were spotless. There was a lot of imported machinery around the ward. I felt proud of the nation's achievements to have such a place. But there it was; I simply could not afford what needed to be done to save her. So we walked out of the shiny new hospital with its up to date life-saving equipment and all the drugs that were needed to save my wife; we walked out and rode a filthy three-wheeled bajaj back to our dimly lit home in Tebet.
I appealed to Sujono the director, of course. But he said there were no funds for this kind of thing. I'm afraid I got a little emotional in his office. I asked him; 'For what then have I been a loyal servant of this department these past few years?'
The director looked down at his desk and mumbled something about service to the republic. He shuffled his papers and coughed without looking at me again. I walked back to my office and stared at all the files piled up high behind my desk. 'All those ghosts,' I heard Syam's voice say. Poor Syam fell under a train, or at least that was the story – I think he killed himself. Perhaps because he'd seen too many people go so willingly to their deaths it wasn't so hard for him either. Were the communists so different after all? All those people who wanted justice, the pedicab drivers and the textile workers?
Three months later my wife died. A doctor told me the operation we could not afford might have saved her.
I still went to work everyday at Department 31, but in truth the place had become rather sleepy. There was so little to do. Criticism was now officially tolerated as our president had decreed the need for more openness. He was forced to do so by the foreigners who brought in their dollars to help pay for all the shiny new glass buildings. The director had started smoking cigars, which he proudly boasted came all the way from Cuba. Someone said they thought Cuba was a communist country. 'Ah yes,' said Sujono, 'but the Americans have them pinned down with their boycott. It's only a matter of time now. And besides they make great cigars.' From what I could judge, reading the papers, it was the president who was now the focus of people's anger. Clearly not everyone was a communist.
It was a little embarrassing to sit there all day long drinking tea and playing computer games. I read a lot and helped Din with some of his literature, secretly using the office computer to compile the booklets in which Ustaz Nasir's fiery sermons were printed. The director was a pious man, I reasoned. He would understand. There was even a little money in it for me. Din took pity on my somewhat difficult circumstances and handed me the odd envelope stuffed with cash. 'We have generous supporters,' was all he would say about where the money came from.
It was very helpful, I must say. One day I asked Din if I could meet Ustaz Nasir. Din's face fell and he clasped my hand. 'I wish you could. But you see he's fled the country to avoid being arrested.' This came to me as another shock. Why would so loyal and pious a man have to flee his country? 'I know what you're thinking,' Din said. 'When the time is right he will return. You'll see; the struggle will succeed.'
WHEN I WAS first approached, it must have been a year or more after the department had finally closed. Sujono was rewarded with an ambassador's posting in Romania – seeing as he had spent his career chasing communists, the government thought it was appropriate to send him to a country where communist rulers had been violently overthrown and shot. The rest of us were made redundant. I was a little idle, sitting at home mostly, doing my best to conserve the meagre pension by having just one meal a day and sleeping as much as possible at the mosque. Around me great changes were taking place in the country. The president with the fake smile that masked his anger was forced to resign and we had first a new president, and then several others. There were daily demonstrations and yet no one was accused of being a communist. I found the mosque a peaceful haven, not only to contemplate my fate, but also escape the cacophony and confusion of political change.
Din found me there in the mosque one day. He asked if I needed help and offered a little money. 'Ustaz Nasir has come home,' he said. 'You want to meet him?' I nodded appreciatively and tears welled up in my eyes. Then we embraced. I suppose it was from that time you could say that I became part of the movement.
My first meeting with Ustaz Nasir took place outside of Jakarta. He was preaching from a small and rather shabby pondok pesantren or religious school on the outskirts of Jogyakarta. You drove there from the city, passing through some rather poor Javanese villages where the houses were made of packed mud and the children ran around in rags. 'A long time ago, this area was a communist stronghold,' said Din, as we flew past villages perched on the edge of the road that overlooked terraced rice fields cut like fleshy wounds into a narrow ravine.
I was amazed. For all those years in Department 31 I had this image of communists as devious plotters living in jungle hideouts and corrupting the people of the Desa. But no, they were the villagers themselves. It was easy to see from their hardship how appealing communism might have been. The religious school was nestled in the heart of a more remote village along a dirt track twenty kilometres from the city. The housing complex was rudimentary; it consisted of some wooden sheds that to a city boy like me looked like chicken coops. Only the mosque was built of brick, and it was here, late in the afternoon, that I first encountered the frail but charismatic cleric who altered the course of my life.
I remember his first words. 'You are blameless. You have done nothing wrong. It was your religious duty.'
'What duty?' I asked him, bewildered.
'Why, catching communists,' said the older man with a smile. 'The past is behind you. We have a new enemy to fight now.' His eyes burned intensely behind thick lenses, which made his pupils look much smaller than they really were, like the eyes of a bird of prey. He had a long beaked nose, and his skin was pale, almost European or Arabic, in hue. He truly had the face of a warrior, which impressed me.
We spoke for a while, after which I listened to him preach. There was something magnetic about the man, and a compelling logic to what he had to say. Of course the Muslim community were unable to realise the rewards of their faith because the government obstructed the full implementation of Islam as a way of life. There was also his wider concern for Muslims in the world at large. 'The Jews have long made enemies of the Muslim community,' he said. 'Now their campaign has acquired a new impetus because these Zionists have managed to persuade America to fight for them – in Afghanistan, in Iraq and beyond.' These were powerful words, and they hypnotised me completely.
I became a valuable asset for the group because of my intelligence background. I was asked for information and given a computer to work with at home. What were they looking for? Names. They wanted to know where all the influential Chinese and Christians lived. We knew all this because these were the people who used to fit the communist profile, mostly. Din had asked me to make copies of old files from Department 31 before it closed, and he now handed me these on a computer disk. 'Go to work for the cause,' he said and did not contact me for another three weeks. I had no idea what they were planning. I was not involved in their meetings. The list I gave them was mostly names and addresses. Now that I recall, it included a number of prominent church organisations.
When the first church bombings happened, I must confess that I felt somewhat responsible. You see, I helped them locate the churches. But you must believe me when I tell you that I had no idea what was planned, and I was certainly never told of any intention to kill people. I knew that communists were being killed in the early years of Department 31. I always told myself that my job was clerical – I was simply filing the names of people who had already been condemned.
Who was I kidding? I also saw the ghosts that drove old Syam to his death under a train. They were stacked in neat piles behind me, tied with red ribbons in a paper mausoleum. And I knew that Din had blood on his hands. He'd tell me about the different ways they despatched the communists in East Java, mostly with rifle butts to save bullets. He told me how the victims were buried in shallow graves they dug for themselves over which the villagers planted banana trees because they grew so fast. Now they do the killing using bombs instead of rifle butts.
When you came to arrest me, I told myself that I would come clean and tell you everything. I have no reason to live any longer, for my whole life has been harnessed to the murderous and destructive impulses of our nationhood. I am deeply ashamed of this and I surrender to your will in the hope that justice can begin to make amends. I believe in God, but don't blame Him if He abandons me.
I'm tired now, so I would be happy if you would let me rest. I'll sign anything you wish. Give me peace and please, please turn off the light. Leave me with the ghosts – there are so many I will never feel lonely.
I CAN'T SAY that Daud Suleiman struck me as much of a grenade thrower. I first met him at a party in Malacca organised by the youth wing of the ruling party for a group of mujahideen on their return from Afghanistan. He wore a neatly trimmed beard and metal-rimmed spectacles that sat squarely on his prominent Arab nose. Fresh from Peshawar, he wore loose-fitting South Asian garb, a white dhoti and felt waistcoat. A small white cap perched on his luxurious head of black hair, worn long.
Despite the get-up he looked more like a shy, bookish scholar taking time off from the library as he stood alone and watched the throng of eager young Malay students beating tabla drums and shouting slogans against the infidel. The year was 1989. We were all caught up in the crusade against the Soviets in Afghanistan. We were doing God's work, as a clean shaven political officer from the American Embassy put it to me at the very same party. In those days, as you know, we were funded by the Americans. Our jihad was their crusade against communism.
Many students like me wanted to go to Afghanistan but were held back by the fear of parents or interrupted studies, so it tended to be fresh graduates who signed up. Daud was two years ahead of me in college. The mid1980s were lean years; jobs were hard to come by. The funding for Afghanistan was generous. Travel, see the world, do God's work; what was wrong with any of that?
'It's safe – safer than the Seremban Road on a rainy Friday night. The Afghan Muj do all the fighting, we just train for eventualities,' Daud told me after we'd been introduced by Khaled, a soft spoken and earnest intellectual whom we all thought leant a little too far towards the mullahs. As students we were plagued by dogmatists who could cite the Koran and any number of hadith to justify taking a narrow-minded view of every aspect of life. Living life like the Prophet and his followers in eighth century Arabia was their goal. Once I was scorned for taking my meals alone at a refectory table and not joining our Koran study group on the floor eating like Bedouins in a desert tent, with my hands.
Daud was different. He was sophisticated and disarming. His face radiated a natural charm reinforced by a handshake that managed to pull you in rather than fend you off as is often the case with people who are powerful or popular. Magnetism is a natural phenomenon often used to describe human character and it described Daud well. I was pulled towards him just as surely as an apple falls to earth.
We spoke about the war and he said, 'Afghanistan has mobilised the umma in a way that Muslims all over the world have not seen in a thousand years. If you ask me the Soviets did us all a favour. There we were, believing somehow in this notion of a community united by faith, and yet scattered to the four corners of the world, divided by race, language, and sect. We couldn't even bring ourselves to capitalise on the Iranian revolution because it was led by the Shiites. My God! What kind of world faith is this? Afghanistan restored my faith in Islam because it showed that swords and stingers could turn back the great Soviet army.'
As I listened in rapture, it dawned on me that Daud Suleiman had the sort of bearing and erudition that marked Malays either for the Muslim clergy or politics, or both.
SOME FIVE YEARS later, the world had moved on and Daud Suleiman had changed a great deal. The beard was trimmed down to a hint of goatee, like a charcoal smudge under the chin; the loose white dhoti was replaced by a tight fitting pair of khaki slacks, a button-down, blue shirt and a navy blazer. 'Georgetown,' he told me the day we met by chance at a reception held at the Shangri La Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. 'I was doing a masters degree. Washington is such a pretty place. Have you been?'
These were giddy times for Malaysia. The stock market was booming and a lot of foreigners brought their money to invest in local companies which made a lot of Malaysians exceedingly rich. Just a generation ago they were planting paddy or tapping rubber. Now they received share allotments in the mail along with their phone bills. Everyone who could do so borrowed lots of money, bought land or condominiums and large luxury cars. We were told that Malaysia was capable of anything; 'Malaysia Can' was the slogan of the day.
I graduated and found myself swept along in this capitalist slipstream. Who would have believed that a master's degree in Islamic studies would land me an executive position with a local stockbroker? I was soon wearing the same button-down shirt as Daud, and the suits were made of Zegna and Armani cloth.
Around this time Daud Suleiman did two things that brought him to the attention of Malaysians and the wider world. His decision to stand for election as a member of parliament for a small independent multi-racial party was controversial. It mattered little that he lost the election by a huge margin, as happens in Malacca; what mattered more was that a Malay with an unimpeachable Islamic pedigree opted to throw in his lot with a multi-racial party. He was flayed in the Malay language press. Judas, they called him. There were speeches in parliament calling for him to be stripped of his citizenship, even flogged and jailed as an apostate. 'Support for the idea of a multi-racial Malaysia doesn't make me any less Malay or Muslim,' he told the media.
As the controversy raged, Daud was lionised in minority circles and seen at every cocktail party and international gathering. He delivered fiery speeches attacking notions of racial purity and religious dogma. His book, Visions of a Modern Muslim World, was an instant hit. In it Daud harked back to the golden age of Islam in Andalusia; he sang the praises of Ibn Batuta and Ibn Khaldun; he unearthed the story of a little-known Arab trader, Abu Mu'uaya, who is reputed in the Chronicles of Malacca to have brought geometry and medicine to the Malay princely state hugging the muddy waters of the strait. His message; Islam is a religion of enlightenment and progress rather than dogma and tradition. Daud Suleiman's ideas were radical, at least for Malaysia.
Secretly, many of us admired him. For understandably in the Malay political milieu, it was hard to reconcile Daud Suleiman, the veteran mujahiddeen, with Daud Suleiman the earnest intellectual and progressive pluralist. Why would someone risk his life (despite his denials and protestations) for Islam, and then gamble the future of his race by supporting a multi-racial opposition party? It simply didn't make sense, but we admired his guts because it brought out the fighter in him.
Daud Suleiman had charisma and to be honest we live in a country with a charisma deficit. People seldom stand up for what they believe, either because they fear or feel beholden to their peers in some way. Sadly, most Malaysians tend to bend with the political wind and go with the flow of funds. One time Daud Suleiman caused a stir at a public conference on culture and development when he pulled out a thousand ringgit note and waved it at the audience. 'I received this note today when I registered for the conference. I can only assume, since I already agreed to participate in this conference for no fee, that someone would like me to shut up and go home. I tell you, I can't be bribed. No one can afford the price of my silence, because the truth is priceless,' he said to thunderous applause.
People remembered the occasion long afterwards because no sooner had he finished speaking than Daud Suleiman stood up, walked off the podium and made for a young girl in a wheelchair in the front row to give her the banknote. The next day, the papers, all of which slavishly tow the government line, reported that Daud Suleiman had staged the incident to make up for the poor response to his speech.
IN MALAY SOCIETY political power and influence are measured by the size of one's entourage, by the number of people waiting to see you, either at home or in the office. Perhaps there is no better barometer of influence than the throng which gathers each year at idul fitri, or open houses. The year Daud Suleiman returned from the United States and embarked on his political campaign was a particularly prosperous one for Malaysia and lavish open houses were held by all senior figures in the cabinet and the ruling establishment, not to mention the business world. Forced to eat plate after plate of rich, coconut-saturated chicken curry, not to mention all the sweets, I started to seriously worry about cholesterol levels. But of course I wouldn't have missed Daud Suleiman's open house, for as much as the size of the crowd indicated a certain level of power, the composition of the throng was a valuable guide to its virulence and rate of decay.
Daud Suleiman's modest bungalow in Damansara Heights was clearly straining to hold the sheer number of people pressing forward to greet the man foreign correspondents had started to describe as the new voice of Islam in the East. The police sent a traffic cop to manage parking and a tent had to be erected over the street to accommodate the crowd. Daud worked the crowd wearing a natty silk baju melayu in bright green complemented by a silver songket samping. He would have shocked the conservatives with his two-cheek kisses and earnest hugging. Beside him, his wife Aisha looked subdued and only faintly happy, perhaps a little overwhelmed. Aisha was from a good family in Kota Bharu on the east coast, pale-skinned and quite a beauty. Daud insisted that she scorn the modest tudong that covered the entire head. Instead she wore a more relaxed silk scarf that allowed her to show off her thick shiny black hair. The couple had two children, a boy and a girl.
People came and went till late in the evening, so it was only after eleven that Daud was able to relax around a round table set up in the garden with a few friends and followers. By this time I was proud to be numbered among them. 'You should be careful Datuk. There are people out to get you,' I said using the honorific title Daud had recently acquired from the state of Malacca.
'No, no, I am nothing to them,' Daud retorted with one of his generous laughs. 'Really, I am nothing more than a mosquito. Why, I couldn't even get myself elected to parliament.'
Daud sat back and savoured his modesty, which in Malay society is an admired trait in charismatic figures. In his eyes flashed an altogether different message: a hunger for power.
Later that evening Daud pulled me aside and asked me to work for him. I must have sounded hesitant. After all, I was pulling in good money as a stock broker and had just bought a house in Sri Hartamas. I also had a wife and two small children. 'Politics is risky at the best of times,' I told him. 'Your politics is positively dangerous.'
'Come now,' he said with that winning smile of his. Then he grabbed my arm and moved me inside the house. It was a calculated move designed to impart trust and intimacy. Here among the family pictures and chintzy porcelain handed down from one generation to the next, I saw for the first time the face behind that magnetic mask. In contrast to the affable intellectualism Daud Suleiman conveyed in normal discourse, I saw naked ambition and deadly intent. The lines on his face hardened, the ready smile was replaced with an icy cold countenance that aged him. 'Think carefully,' he told me. 'I will be Prime Minister within five years, you know. This will be worth your while.'
I left the house that night shaken, but of course loyal.
MALAY POLITICS AT its dirtiest is stealthy and lethal. Soon enough there were flying letters. The allegations were scandalous and libelous, but since no one could be identified as their authors, there was no legal action. Most of the letters painted a picture of Daud Suleiman as a sexual predator and adulterer. Several also questioned the source of his financing. They were distressing to read and of course impossible to take any legal action against, because they were unpublished and anonymous.
Daud hit back with effective attacks on the establishment. He criticised the government for creating a culture of excessive orthodoxy. 'The politicians have empowered the ulama and power has gone to their heads. They stalk seaside hotels on weekend hoping to catch Malay couples engaged in khalwat; they patrol the hawker's stalls hoping to catch Muslims eating pork. What kind of society are we creating? My faith is the responsibility between me and my God. It's not the business of state officials to dictate how good a Muslim I am or am not.'
These kinds of statements earned Daud great kudos in the non-Malay and international community. He grew even more popular on the cocktail circuit, but more difficult to meet in traditional Malay circles, where if not shunned, he was politely sidelined. At one official function attended by the Prime Minister, officials went out of their way to ignore Daud, who as ever was surrounded by a coterie of young Malay anti-establishment intellectuals.
My wife grew more concerned. She warned me not to associate too closely with Daud. 'He's a dangerous man. You can see that in his eyes, they burn with the intensity of a furnace. You know it truly scares me to be close to him.' I was taken aback, for I took this intensity for passion and staying power, qualities lacking in most of our political leaders.
I found myself increasingly drawn to the centre of Daud's circle. There was a curious fluidity and contradiction about the group that fawned at the hem of his ever more expensive tailored suits: idealistic intellectuals who waxed passionately about the new world of progressive Islam; greasy political opportunists offering Daud the grass roots support he needed to win office – for a fee, of course; and the corporate carpetbaggers, a motley crew of polished parvenus wrapped bespokely in Faberge and Ferragamo and touting shady schemes that promised untold wealth.
We moved from the domestic living rooms and low-rent coffee shops to five star hotel lobbies and country clubs. Once we drank hot tea and ate one dollar curry puffs, now we sipped exotic mocktails and nibbled on salmon canapés served by pretty waitresses who knelt down to serve us. Some of us even took up polo and horse riding.
Daud Sulaiman was increasingly celebrated abroad. Americans in particular were drawn to his liberal interpretations of Islam, just as they started to fear the rise of radicals in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia. The Taliban was already a rising power in Afghanistan, dispensing arcane Islamic justice with the noose and the sword in dusty football fields; the wahabi movement from Saudi Arabia was funding conservative Islamic education worldwide; and the Muslim Brotherhood were winning hearts and minds on the Arab street across the Middle East.
Suddenly the word jihad had acquired a different and altogether more sinister meaning. The Soviets were long gone. Who was the new enemy of God now?
A fearful West latched onto Daud and his comforting vision of coexistence between East and West, of the accommodation between great faiths and a renaissance of knowledge based on the rediscovery of long-forgotten cultural interconnections. It was as if he was some kind of mysterious alchemist; the West saw in Daud a chance to divert the course of history away from confrontation. Some governments launched a quiet campaign to support his political aspirations.
Daud was interviewed by major global publications. He made the cover of Time, Newsweek and Der Spiegel; he was asked to comment on CNN and the BBC. He attended global conferences and spoke at Brookings and Oxford. Wherever he went he was asked the same raft of questions: Is Malaysia turning fundamentalist? Why do Muslims criticise the West? Why do Muslim women who eat McDonald's and listen to rock music still cover their heads?
One television interviewer put it like this: 'Daud Suleiman, you talk about a new golden age for Islam growing out of Asia, but I see reports that more and more people are sending their children to religious schools and support shariah law. Isn't this a step backwards for Islam?'
Neither ignorance nor prejudice seemed to throw Daud, who rode this growing and wholly distorted fascination with the Muslim world for all it was worth. Rumour had it that Random House had offered him a six -figure sum for his next book. He even contemplated a visit to Israel until a group of us talked him out
But while it was easy to sound rational and reasonable to foreigners, Daud's views were harder to press at home. All this talk about a new Islam smacked of quackery. Heartland Malays, rather like my Uncle Rahman and his wife Hindon, preferred to think of their religion as ancient and traditional, a way of life preserved much the way it was lived in eighth century Arabia; no one ever told them about a golden age in Spain. 'Isn't Spain a Catholic country?' asked old Uncle Rahman one day when we sat arguing about Daud, which became a national pastime after Friday prayers.
The government watched Daud's growing fame with alarm. The system wasn't designed to accommodate iconoclasts. In traditional Malay society charisma and profile are regarded as a challenge to established leadership. I should have known this all too well. On several occasions tutors had warned me not to argue too much with my professors in college. 'Why not,' I shot back. 'Isn't the point of a university education to constantly challenge the boundaries of knowledge?'
Sharifah, one of my favourite tutors, would look at me in a kindly way, for she had a generous heart and a soft spot for my prose. 'Yes of course, but in our tradition it is bad manners to show up the leader – not unless you propose to go all the way and replace him. For that you will need to prove you have the support of all Malays. That's not possible, my son. You are still young. When you grow older you will learn that winning support is not about what you know but who you know and how much you can pay. Trickery and treachery determines the contest between men for power, not knowledge. It has been this way for centuries, since Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat. Don't be fooled by the West. It's the same in their system really – you're just made to feel that your views are being heard. Democracy doesn't really mean that your view as an individual counts; it simply means you have the right to say it.'
I should have recalled Sharifah's warning when I opted, after much argument with my wife, to leave the brokerage where I earned ridiculously large sums of money to join Daud Suleiman's burgeoning think tank, the Institute of New Learning. There was no shortage of resources at the Institute, which occupied a brand new pink marble building on the edge of the fashionable Kuala Lumpur suburb of Bangsar. We all had spacious offices and brand new computers. There was a library and large seminar room with a polished teak-wood table. Our task was to build on Daud's vision of the new Islam and set to work on ambitious policy papers with titles like 'The Role of Islam in the New Information Age' or 'Cyber Religion and the Path to Peace'. Not that it was easy to concentrate; the Institute was forever holding seminars, or hosting visiting diplomats and international foundations. Daud kept an office there, but was never around long. We travelled to overseas seminars and held flashy high-powered conferences where Daud was invariably the keynote speaker.
We honestly believed we were building a better world for Muslims: a world in which Islam was treated as a modern faith not a medieval relic; a way of life in touch with modernity, not stuck in a feudal desert past. We established links with modern technology, computer science and aircraft engineering. We licensed a locally assembled laptop that had a full Koran embedded in its hard drive. There were plans for the first Muslim short-haul airliner to be built in cooperation with Iran and Indonesia. We even nominated a Malay scientist to join the European Space Agency. Faith and technology, these were our watchwords. For Daud Suleiman they were part of a badge of international fame and respectability.
DAUD SULEIMAN WAS arrested one afternoon as he was preparing to leave for a political rally on the east coast. The police barged in as he was dressing and took him off to police headquarters at Bukit Aman. He was regarded as a sensitive political prisoner, detained under the Internal Security Act and denied bail. After the initial shock, we were convinced that the government had made a terrible error of judgment. 'Daud is an international figure. There will be a global outcry for his release. It's only a matter of time,' I reasoned with friends.
When the police first interviewed me about the Institute of New Learning I acted a little too cocksure. I should have detected the unmistakable signs of trouble and cooperated. Instead, I resisted and they fingered me as a hard-core supporter, confronting me with allegations that the Institute was financed by funds illegally siphoned off from the brokerage I once worked for. The police showed me papers I had signed and bank accounts in my name. I had no idea about any of this, since I had left all the paperwork to an assistant. All the police wanted from people like me was an understanding that I would sing if required to do so and not make any further trouble. They told me that my activities would be watched and advised me to go back to my old job where, despite the gravity of the allegations made against me, there appeared to be no resistance to having me back.
There was a global outcry for a few weeks. Daud was hailed as a misunderstood visionary and a victim of political persecution. His plight highlighted the survival of arcane security laws held over from the period when colonial authorities used detention without trial as a means of suppressing the Communist Party. Those of us who were considered Daud's close supporters continued to be harassed by the authorities using these draconian measures. We organised some street rallies, but the numbers were small because every gathering needed a permit and permits were not issued. There was lots of tea and sympathy from the foreign embassies which had lionised Daud, but little in the way of material support. After a while, the young embassy political officers who buzzed around us like flies in the early days, stopped calling and eventually did not even recognise us when we met at functions. Slowly but surely, with Daud languishing out of sight in detention, and with no trial on the horizon, our movement withered and became little more than a media memory.
SO FOR THE next two years I went back to making a pile of money and building a sizable nest egg for my growing family. I heard little from Daud. There was the odd letter or appearance in court. Once or twice a snatched phone call facilitated by a friendly prison guard. 'Keep the faith,' he told me. There was an air of desperation in his voice, which moved me to feel a little embarrassed. 'There will come a time soon when everything we believe in will be vindicated. We will triumph. This oppressive system cannot hold.'
The next time I saw Daud Suleiman was in a grainy photograph taken somewhere in Afghanistan. He wore a longer beard and a distinctive brown felt pashtun cap. In one hand he held a sub-machinegun, grinning for the camera. The news report described the man in the picture as Abu Hassan, one of Osama bin Laden's key lieutenants, said to be of Malaysian origin. There was no mistaking the dark eyes and the firm confident features. He looked almost the same as when I had first met him all those years ago at the party for returning mujahideen in Malacca.
So he had returned to Afghanistan after all? No doubt doing more than just 'training for eventualities'. Whatever happened to our Islamic new world? Where in the rocky deserts of Afghanistan was he going to find the nexus between faith and technology, I wondered? Judging from his expression in the photograph, Daud Suleiman remained just as committed to that goal, and judging from the growing sophistication of Al Qaeda's audacious terrorist attacks, he was finding new ways of expressing that vision.
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