Tuesday, April 30, 2013


By Mansor Puteh

I happened to be visiting Ghazali Basri at his rented apartment near the Columbia University in New York City campus sometime in the summer of 1981.

(American President Barack Obama had just enrolled at the university a few months earlier to work on his bachelor’s degree.) 

But he was not around, so I sat with his wife, Noriah, when the phone in the apartment rang, so I answered it. It was William Roff, who was then teaching at the same university, who said, ‘Anwar sudah sampai’ and breaking into English. He thought I was Ghazali.

I then found out that it was the Anwar Ibrahim, then president of Abim or Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia had arrived at Kennedy Airport in Queens, and he would be meeting some students of Columbia, before going off to go to another university where he had been invited to speak to the students in a Malaysian students convention.

But I declined to attend the gathering with Anwar, as he was just a mere president of Abim.

I do not know how many Malaysian students of Columbia and from the other universities in New York City met Anwar. There must be so few from Columbia as the Malaysian student population at this university was so small.

So that was why I wanted to study at this university because of that, which also meant that the university is good, compared to the other universities in America which had more than one thousand students, which only meant that they were the non-competitive universities.

I proved to be a better judge of character when I declined or refused to meet the then president of Abim who had a reputation of some sort, which many others thought was interesting, being a firebrand person.

Compared to the many others who trusted Anwar fully by supporting him until they were willing to become accomplices to some of his unmentionable social and personal deeds, and who would later turn around to condemn him.

Blame should also be on Dr Mahathir for not seeing through him, for bringing him to the fore, from being the mere president of Abim to get into his cabinet and coterie of trusted individuals, who would later found to be undesirable to Mahathir.

Alas it was too late. It’s the case of ‘nasi sudah jadi bubur!’ (‘Rice that has become porridge!’).

Unfortunately, the porridge has become stale and now poisonous.

But as a student of Columbia and majoring in film directing, I could see beyond and above all that artificial veneer of authority; I was not awed by his stature as the mere president of Abim or fell for his early speeches, which many could say and in better ways without being crass and convoluted.

Dr Mahathir and Anwar could become the best and worst of what Universiti Malaya had managed to create, a university that has not been known to have created internationally acclaimed intellectuals but local heroes who could achieve some measure of international repute by virtue of them having held official posts in the government mostly, but not on their own personal achievements or merit.

Even today, one can hardly ever to out of the country and show his degree from Universiti Malaya and get the others to stand up to pay obedience to him.  

What is the president of Abim anyway? And I had no idea why was the association give too much credence by the Malaysian public?

It was definitely an odd association of Muslim youths, with no real philosophy or direction and who were their members?

Even now one wonders what Abim is all about, if it still exists, and what it has done for the Muslim Youths of Malaysia.

The only other Malaysian personality who came to New York City, who I agreed to attend the gathering he had with the students, was Musa Hitam, who was then deputy prime minister of Malaysia, and who was in the city on an official visit.

The gathering with Musa was held at the Malaysian Consulate in New York City.

Musa asked for all the students in the room to introduce himself or herself, one of who was his niece, Aloyah who was sitting beside me at the end of the long table.

I knew what Musa was aiming at, by asking for our names; he wanted to know if I was Chinese or Melayu.

When I mentioned my name in full, he was relieved to learn that I am Melayu after all, so the short speech he gave had more Melayu bent, giving the students – Melayu students – some friendly and fatherly pep-talk, which could be useful.

After the meeting, we had some lunch, and Musa was kind enough to offer me a plate after he saw that I was on two crutches, which I had to walk on after the surgeries on my left knee I just had had at the St. Luke’s Hospital and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.

I did not ask any of my friends or Ghazali what Anwar had said in the gathering they had had with him, as we were all caught up in our own personal affairs afterwards to be bothered with Anwar or the meeting. This could also mean that the meeting was just a meeting with no substance. 

One of the Columbia students who was working on his doctorate was Wan Manan. He also attended the gathering and came to know Anwar.

However, when he returned to Kuala Lumpur for a holiday, he met Anwar at the Abim office as a courtesy, but was given the cold shoulders.

I also did not speak with William Roff who had come to Malaysia in the 1960s or 1970s to work on his doctorate thesis, where he managed to learn a bit of Bahasa Melayu, where he also met Anwar who could be one of his respondents for his research, and became close to him.

I recently communicated with Roff again, after so long, and found that he had long retired from teaching at Columbia and am now living with his daughter somewhere in Edinburgh, Scotland, aged about eighty years old.

Ghazali would in later years joined and support Anwar after Anwar was expelled from the Mahathir Cabinet in 1998. together with him, there were those in Abim and the Cabinet and other individuals in Umno and also Barisan Nasional who pitied and sympathized with Anwar, and enough to also be willing to suffer being incarcerated during the ‘Reformasi’ year.

Ghazali and the others who joined the Anwar bandwagon would later run in the 1999 general elections, but many of them lost.

Yet, not long later, most of them left Anwar to become his severest critics; with many of whom are people of standing in academia and also the industry.

There were many people some who have impressive academic backgrounds and were also lawyers of some repute who also ran in the 1999 elections representing Parti KeAdilan Rakyat or PKR and lost.

Yet, surprisingly, they were not people who could judge characters, which I found to be strange, as the more one travels the world and studies deeply into one’s own specialty one could see beyond the veneer that some others had managed to create about himself.

But it was quite obvious, that despite that, they were not able to do so, and they end up supporting blindly certain characters who many consider to be shady.   

I do not know what William Roff will say to me if we meet again. He probably will say, ‘Anwar takkan sampai…’ (Anwar won’t be arriving…)

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