Last weekend I had the pleasure of renewing my 30-year acquaintance with a really lovely guy I've always known as Bok, though his official name is Raja Zailan Putra Raja Dato' Seri Haji Azam.
A mutual friend introduced us back in 1979 or 1980. I knew at the time that Bok boasted a royal pedigree. I saw photographs in his modest house of colorful characters in courtly regalia.
One that stood out was of Bok's great-grandfather, Raja Muda Abdullah (right), who signed the 1874 Pangkor Treaty with Sir Andrew Clarke and was anointed Sultan Abdullah of Perak.
Things started to go awry soon after that when the British sent a colonial officer named James Wheeler Woodford Birch (3 April 1826 - 2 November 1875) to Perak to serve as advisor to the Sultan.
From the standpoint of the Malay chiefs, Birch was arrogant and insensitive to local customs. He had no understanding of the Malay psyche and absolutely no facility with the language. Birch was appalled at the local practice of capturing Orang Asli and turning them into household slaves. He ordered an immediate stop to such barbaric activities. While it may have been a laudable act on Birch's part, it was akin to forcing a bunch of carnivores to go vegetarian overnight. His missionary zeal to civilize the natives cost Birch his life.
Dato' Maharajalela, who got the bulk of his income from capturing and selling Orang Asli as slaves, ganged up with a few disgruntled slave-traders and, on 2 November 1875, assassinated James Birch while he was taking his bath in the riverine village of Pasir Salak.
This led to the Perak War which lasted several months as British forces hunted down the leaders of the Malay rebellion. Dato' Maharajalela was captured and hanged along with other accomplices, while Sultan Abdullah was found guilty of complicity in the murder of J.W.W. Birch and exiled to the Seychelles for 16 years. One of Abdullah's cousins was installed as Sultan in his stead. It is from this lineage that the present Perak succession derives.
Bok, currently CEO of an insurance brokerage, told me he's the eldest male heir in his family. As such, when his father died several years ago, the succession would have passed to him. But for a twist of fate that saw his great-grandfather Sultan Abdullah Muhammad Shah deposed by the British in 1877, I would have been conversing last weekend in Pertak Village with the reigning Sultan of Perak.
Needless to say, there are distinct compensations for not being born in a palace. For one thing, Raja Zailan Putra has always been a jovial, easygoing, fun-loving chap with a wide circle of friends. His lifestyle isn't exactly conventional and he cherishes his personal freedom to be whoever and whatever he pleases. Everybody calls him Bok anyway and even if he were to appear in the full formal regalia befitting his royal status, his friends would probably insist on calling him Raja Bok.
In short, Bok has been able to live a relatively normal life, owing to the fact that his bloodline was removed by British decree from the Perak succession three generations ago, as punishment for rebelling against the colonial masters. There are many other royals who, like Bok, enjoy a certain measure of freedom from stuffy protocol, either because they aren't on the shortlist for royal succession - or because they have outgrown the musty traditions that would severely curb their individual freedom.
Raja Petra Kamarudin is a prominent example of someone with royal pedigree who consciously chose to align himself with the public good rather than self-servingly uphold private interests and special privileges. Or at least he succeeded for a while in projecting himself as such. There are several other maverick royals I am personally acquainted with but I won't name them here, because they may not be too keen on publicity.
I hadn't seen Bok in more than 20 years, so it was a great delight to bump into him driving a 4X4 along the old logging trail just outside Pertak Village. Mutual friends had arranged a camping trip by the river and Bok decided to come. It was genuinely sweet to renew our friendship and to note that this man who should have been a king had adapted so well to the life of a commoner.
Seeing Bok was a powerful reminder that, ultimately, what matters most is the humanity each of us is born with. The outer trappings are really quite insignificant. A pirate king remains a pirate no matter how reputable his tailor. And a noble soul stays noble, no matter how dire his or her earthly circumstances.
Another friend recently revealed that he grew up in Kuala Terengganu near the Istana and used to play badminton with the young Mizan Zainal Abidin who related to him like any other kid. But when Mizan was named the crown prince, things rapidly changed. Court officials forbade the boy from mixing with his old school friends and the lad became cloistered in preparation for his future role as Sultan of Terengganu (and at this writing the Yang Di Pertuan Agong).
Over the years, surrounded constantly by genuflecting servants, wizened counselors and persnickety courtiers, anyone would turn schizophrenic. The split between public and private personas would grow ever wider. What the public is allowed to see would be a stern-faced, unsmiling, overdressed symbol of hereditary power; while the private self either becomes cynical, detached and indifferent - or turns feral, debauched and dissolute.
One of my favorite stories of all time is about the Prince and the Pauper who traded places. I've often wondered if I would do a Siddhartha and walk out of the palace if I happened to be born into a royal bloodline.
In 1989 I experienced vivid "flashbacks" and "crosstalk" from parallel lives which forced me to be a lot more open to "reincarnational" scenarios. In several lifetimes I was of royal lineage - and the experience was never entirely happy. More than once I "remembered" being betrayed and murdered by those close to me. In short, life in a palace isn't exactly a bed of roses - and even if it is, there are always a few thorny aspects.
This is why I sometimes feel great sympathy for those trapped amidst the pompous paraphernalia and robotic rigmaroles of royalty. They are like the magical nightingale in a gilded cage, imprisoned by public expectations and compelled to sacrifice their personal lives for the sake of tribal continuity.
It's easy to view each successor to the throne as a Gulliver bound by Lilliputian constraints. The Little People scurrying around the Great Personage have a vested interest in keeping the Great Personage on a short leash. Like any institutionalized priesthood, the courtiers are the ones who ensure that protocols endure, for it assures them and their posterity a comfortable livelihood.
The court officials have learnt to use pomp and circumstance and grandiloquent ceremony to shock and awe the Great Unwashed into superstitious subservience to specific bloodlines. But, ultimately, it's all a gigantic deception like ritual theater. Strip away the fancy costume, the shiny headgear and the inscrutable mask... and what stands revealed is a human being like you and me.
I told Bok I was really intrigued by his family history. He said there was a website with some information, including a detailed genealogy. I must remind him to send me the link. Who knows, the wheel of fortune is constantly in spin.
One day you could be the prime minister elect, and the next day a jailbird, and vice versa.
As I searched the web for images to illustrate this story, I realized that April 3rd happens to be James Birch's birthday. The Wiki entry on Birch names Frank Swettenham as the British Resident who succeeded Birch - a detail that gave me goosebumps, since I have long suspected that I might well have been most recently incarnate on this earth in the guise of a Maddog Englishman and empire-builder named Frank Athelstane Swettenham!
James Wheeler Woodford Birch did not die in vain, for the colonial officers who were subsequently assigned to Malaya were much better equipped and better prepared for their roles. Rather than be seen to act high-handedly on their own behalf, the Residents learned to manipulate the Malay rulers to do their bidding, knowing full well the natives' tendency to grovel before their sultans in superstitious awe. Some Malay aristocrats educated in England appear to have learned a few useful tricks from their erstwhile colonial masters.
THE PERAK SULTANATE
1. Sultan Muzaffar Shah (1528-1540 A.D.)
2. Sultan Mansur Shah I (1549-1577 A.D.)
3. Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin (1577-1584 A.D.)
4. Sultan Tajul Ariffin Shah (1584-1594 A.D.)
5. Sultan Alauddin Shah (1594-1603 A.D.)
6. Sultan Mukaddam Shah (1603-1619 A.D.)
7. Sultan Mansur Shah II (1619-1627 A.D.)
8. Sultan Mahmud Shah (1627-1630 A.D.)
9. Sultan Salehuddin Shah (1630- 1635 A.D.)
10. Sultan Muzzaffar Shah II (1636-1653 A.D.)
11. Sultan Mahmud Iskandar Shah (1653-1720 A.D.)
12. Sultan Alauddin Mughayat Shah (1720-1728 A.D.)
13. Sultan Mudzaffar Shah III (1728-1744 A.D.)
14. Sultan Muhammad Shah (1744-1750 A.D.)
15. Sultan Iskandar Zulkarnain (1754-1764 A.D.)
16. Sultan Mahmud Shah (1764-1771 A.D.)
17. Sultan Alauddin Mansur Shah (1771-1786 A.D.)
18. Sultan Ahmaddin Shah (1786-1806 A.D.)
19. Sultan Abdul Malek Shah (1806-1818 A.D.)
20. Sultan Abdullah Mu'azzam Shah (1818-1830 A.D.)
21. Sultan Shahabuddin Ri'ayat Shah (1830-1851 A.D.)
22. Sultan Abdullah Muhammad Shah (1851-1857 A.D.)
23. Sultan Ja'afar Shafuddin Shah (1857-1865 A.D.)
24. Sultan Ali Al-Mukammil Innayat Shah (1865-1871 A.D.)
25. Sultan Ismail Mu'abiddin Ri'ayat Shah (1871-1874 A.D.)
26. Sultan Abdullah Muhammad Shah (1874-1877 A.D.)27. Sultan Yusuf Sharifuddin Mu'azal Shah (1877-1887 A.D.)
28. Sultan Idris Murshidul Azam Shah (1887-1916 A.D.)
29. Sultan Abdul Jalil Nasiruddin Shah (1916-1918 A.D.)
30. Sultan Alang Iskandar Shah (1918-1938 A.D.)
31. Sultan Abdul Aziz Al-Mutasimbillah Shah (1938-1948 A.D.)
32. Sultan Yusuff Izzuddin Shah (1948-1963 A.D.)
33. Sultan Idris Iskandar Shah (1963-1984 A.D.)
34. Sultan Azlan Muhibbuddin Shah (1984-2014)
35. Sultan Dr Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah (2014-present)
JANGAN TAKUT! FEAR THEM NOT!
[First posted 2 April 2009, reposted 8 April 2014]