SMH: Royal revolutionary pays price for backing Anwar
By Mark Baker
30/3/2002 2:27 am Sat
March 30 2002
A prince is fighting for a man he used to dislike, writes
Mark Baker in Kuala Lumpur.
He was held for 52 days in solitary confinement in a
filthy windowless cell. When they brought him out for the
daily interrogation sessions he was always blindfolded and
handcuffed. For the first five days he refused food and
water until he came close to physical collapse. Then the
abuse and threats of the jailers were replaced with sweet
talk and fast food.
In early April last year, Raja Petra Kamaruddin was one of
10 opposition activists rounded up under Malaysia's
Internal Security Act and accused of plotting the violent
overthrow of the government of Dr Mahathir Mohamad. A year
later, no evidence has been produced to substantiate the
sensational allegations, but most of the group remains in
prison - detained without trial for two years by
Raja Petra thinks he was freed because the authorities
took seriously his veiled threats of another hunger
strike. His death in custody would have posed more than
the usual complications: his uncle was the king of
Malaysia, Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah, the sultan of
Selangor, who died last November.
Raja Petra does not quite fit Dr Mahathir's description of
a bomb-wielding revolutionary. A prince with a
distinguished Malay pedigree and a Welsh mother, he was
educated at the exclusive Malay College Kuala Kangsar -
"the Eton of the East" - and was a successful businessman
before embarking, in his late 40s, on a new career as an
author and journalist.
Raja Petra's real crime was to have taken up the cause of
another Malay College old boy who offended Dr Mahathir -
Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister and once
heir apparent to the Malaysian leadership who is serving a
15-year prison sentence after being convicted on
discredited charges of sexual misconduct and abuse of
Anwar's real offence was to have challenged Dr Mahathir's
rule and mounting corruption within the Government. When
Anwar was sacked from the cabinet, dumped by the ruling
party, jailed on fabricated charges and bashed in custody
by the then chief of police, Raja Petra sprang to his
The prince became a leading member of Keadilan - the
reform party led by Anwar's wife, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail
- and headed the Free Anwar Campaign and its US-based
Internet site. Inevitably, he, too, became a target for Dr
Mahathir's special branch.
This week, as the hearing of Anwar's appeal against part
of his sentence continued before the Federal Court in
Kuala Lumpur, Raja Petra was there giving moral support to
Anwar's family and friends and chronicling proceedings for
the Free Anwar Web site. It is an improbable brief for a
man who for much of his life has had an ambivalent
attitude towards the former school prefect turned
"I didn't like him, to tell you the truth," Raja Petra
says about their early relationship. "He was always a
rabble rouser. That was back in the early '60s and
Malaysia had just gained its independence. We were
brown-skinned Englishmen. I didn't speak a word of Malay
until I was in my 20s. But Anwar railed against all that.
He attacked the British colonialists."
While young Raja Petra was parroting the manners and mores
of the British, Anwar was building his credentials as a
political activist. He helped to found ABIM, the Muslim
youth movement that championed human rights and social
justice issues, a role that gave him a domestic political
springboard and an international profile.
"It was not until the late '70s that I got to rediscover
Islam, became a born-again Muslim and cut out all my beer
drinking," Raja Petra says. "When I did my first Haj in
1981, I met a lot of people and everyone knew about Anwar
Ibrahim and I was quite impressed."
While wary of the ruling United Malays National
Organisation and its leader, Raja Petra agreed to work on
Anwar's campaigns after he joined UMNO and ran for various
executive posts in the 1980s.
As Anwar rose to become Dr Mahathir's deputy and anointed
successor, the two former college boys again drifted
apart. And when Anwar was first sacked by Dr Mahathir in
1998, Raja Petra had little sympathy: "I thought it was
his problem. He chose this partner, he got screwed and he
would have to live with it."
But as Dr Mahathir moved beyond the sacking and sought to
destroy Anwar's reputation with allegations he had been
involved in a string of illicit homosexual and
heterosexual affairs - and had abused his position to
subvert police inquiries - that attitude quickly changed.
"Not only me, but many people who up to that point didn't
give a damn changed our minds. Sacking was one thing, but
to see him beaten up and left for four days without
medical help ... that was really crossing the line."
Raja Petra has paid dearly for standing up for Anwar. He
has been abused and threatened by the authorities, and his
home has been raided by police trying to shut down the
Free Anwar Web site. His arrest last year - when he was
dragged from his car in front of his wife and children in
a crowded street - was an experience almost as humiliating
as his detention. But it is a price he is willing to pay.
He remains hopeful that the current appeal will see
justice done at last and Anwar freed. Either way, he
believes Anwar will eventually return to political
As for himself, Raja Petra sees the struggle for democracy
in Malaysia as a chance to rebuild the credibility of
royalty in the eyes of many disillusioned Malays. "Perhaps
I can show that the royal families are not a total bunch
of useless leeches."