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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
Raja Petra has paid dearly for his stubborn streak.
Mark Baker is The Age's Asia editor.