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TheAge: The prince and the pretender
By Mark Baker

3/4/2002 1:47 pm Wed

The prince and the pretender

By Mark Baker - April 3 2002

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 infamous 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 government order.

Raja Petra believes he was released because the authorities took seriously his veiled threats to starve himself to death if he was transferred from his police cell to Kamunting detention camp, where long-term political prisoners are held. 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.

It is not known whether the king, who died in November, intervened on behalf of his nephew, but pressure was certainly brought to bear on the government. "My wife, Marina, made a lot of fuss to get me released," says Raja Petra. "She and some of the other women also protested outside the police station. She yelled at them and said, 'We're not like those other wives - we're not going to just go home and cry. We're staying here until you release our husbands.' "

Raja Petra does not quite fit 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 with ventures that included a Mercedes-Benz franchise 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 MCKK old boy who had offended Mahathir - former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, the once heir apparent to the Malaysian leadership who is now serving a 15-year prison sentence after being convicted on since-discredited charges of sexual misconduct and abuse of power.

Anwar's real offence was to have challenged Mahathir's rule and mounting corruption and mismanagement 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 defence.

He became a leading member of Keadilan, the reform party founded under the leadership of Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah. He took the job of director of the Free Anwar Campaign and webmaster of its US-based internet site. A tireless publicist for the Anwar cause, he inevitably became another target for Mahathir's police special branch agents.

This week, as the hearing of Anwar's appeal against part of his sentence continues before Malaysia's highest court, Raja Petra will be back at the Federal Court in Kuala Lumpur as he has been on every sitting day so far, giving moral support to Anwar's family and friends and chronicling proceedings for the Free Anwar website. It's an improbable brief for a man who for much of his life has had an ambivalent attitude towards the former school prefect turned politician.

"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 1960s 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. I was upset. I said, 'Come on, my mother's Welsh, I'm half British.' This guy was insulting my mother."

While young Raja Petra was parroting the manners and mores of his British antecedents, Anwar Ibrahim 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 and 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," says Raja Petra. "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 during the 1980s. That included the historic leadership battle in 1987 when Mahathir narrowly survived a challenge from Tunku Razaleigh Hamzah - thanks largely to the man he would later sack and send to prison.

Despite offers from both leadership contenders, Anwar, then head of UMNO's influential youth wing, decided to keep his supporters with Mahathir. "Anwar was determined to stand by Mahathir," says Raja Petra. "He said he had given his word to Mahathir and he would not break his word. I told him UMNO was a party of crooks and scoundrels and if he wanted integrity he should go and join Pas (the Islamic party)." In the end, Mahathir survived by just 43 votes out of almost 1500.

Over the next decade, as Anwar rose to become Mahathir's deputy and anointed successor, the two former college boys again drifted apart. And when Anwar was first sacked by 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 Mahathir moved beyond the sacking and sought to destroy Anwar's reputation with allegations that 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," says Raja Petra. "Sacking was one thing, but to see him beaten up and left for four days without medical help and to hear the claims that Anwar had injured himself - given himself that black eye - that was really crossing the line. And then to see that the entire trial was rigged from the word go - the punishment didn't fit the crime. It was a 180-degree turn for me and for many other people."

Raja Petra has paid dearly for his latest commitment to Anwar. He has been abused and threatened by the authorities and his home and offices have been raided by police attempting to shut down the Free Anwar website. 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 keep paying.

"It's not pro-Anwar per se. I'm not fighting for him as much as I am fighting for what they did to him. The sultan asked me why I was fighting for one man and I told him I wasn't fighting for one man but against a whole system that sucks. When this can be done to someone like Anwar, what does it mean for the rest of us? In any other country the prime minister would have fallen for what he has done, but in this country you can get away with almost murder."

He remains hopeful that the current appeal, before reformist chief judge Dzaiddin Abdullah, will see justice done at last and Anwar freed. But he believes that even if Anwar has to stay in jail he will one day be freed and return to political prominence.

"Anwar is not finished. He could come back one day and he could come back as prime minister. And if he does come back he will be a better prime minister than if he hadn't gone through this. This has been a baptism of fire - he has seen life from the bottom of the barrel."

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. Perhaps this will show that we can fight and suffer with the people for decency and a better country."

Raja Petra has paid dearly for his stubborn streak.

Mark Baker is The Age's Asia editor.