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28 April 2011

Johor sultan coming for old time’s sake

By Cathy C. Yamsuan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 05:14:00 04/27/2011


MANILA, Philippines—Nothing fancy for this royal though the Palace gardener drives a Porsche. Bagoong will do, thank you.

An informal call by Sultan Ibrahim III of Malaysia on President Benigno Aquino III on Thursday renews a friendship that began 30 years ago with a frequent house guest in Boston dressed in dungarees and fondly called “the king.”

The President’s eldest sister, Maria Elena “Ballsy” Cruz, said that in 1981, the unassuming young Malaysian, who was also called “Yem,” spent most of his free time hanging around in the Aquino residence in Boston.
The then Crown Prince of Johor “did not act like a future king,” said Cruz in a phone interview. “He wasn’t like Prince William in the sense that he had a stately air around him. And he was pleased not to be called ‘Your Highness.’”

Proclaimed Sultan of Johor in 2010 after the death of his father, the Malaysian was a student at Harvard University in 1981 when the late Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., the President’s father, came to address the students.

A fiery speaker, Senator Aquino was clapped in jail by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos when martial law was declared in September 1972. He was temporarily released to undergo a heart bypass in Boston in May 1980 and remained in the United States as an exile until August 1983 when he returned to Manila to rally a divided opposition against Marcos but was assassinated at the airport.

“There is no specific agenda. This would just be a visit by a friend. This is not an official visit. The king doesn’t want the tour-tour stuff. Probably just a courtesy call and a simple dinner in Malacanang,” said the President’s uncle, Antolin Oreta Jr.

No parade

Formally known as Sultan Ibrahim Ismail Ibni Almarhum Sultan Mahmud Iskandar Al-Haj, the visitor wants no parade, Oreta told the Inquirer. “I want to rest, see Noynoy and visit the Philippines,” the sultan is quoted as saying.

“There wouldn’t even be a tour of the Palace. Perhaps because the king already has many palaces in his country … We’re still thinking of how to keep him occupied here,” Oreta said.

Oreta said the visit was considered after Mr. Aquino and the sultan failed to meet in Singapore during his state visit there last March. Johor, Oreta noted, is the Malaysian state nearest Singapore.

“When P-Noy went to Singapore, a meeting was considered but the sultan had already left for Argentina when P-Noy had free time,” he said.

“Later, the king called and said, “I want to see Noynoy in Manila. Tell him to invite me,” Oreta quoted him saying. The sultan arrives via private jet Wednesday afternoon.

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said the meeting will take place on Thursday afternoon.

Hanging out with Noy

Perhaps the prince was impressed by the senator’s eloquence in his Harvard address in 1981 that he found himself a frequent guest in the Aquino home for the next two years.

“He was often in the house to eat. He was always in jeans, we called them dungarees then, and a leather jacket. He looked like a typical college kid. He did not have security detail or perhaps it was so covert nobody noticed it,” Cruz said.

She recalled that the prince “would hang out with Noynoy.”

“They were always together because they were both boys,” said Cruz.

“When we would go to the grocery, he would join us in our station wagon, it was very comfortable. There was no awkwardness at all. He did not act like royalty,” she added.

Stalled car and ‘bagoong’

Oreta said there was one time when the late senator convinced the prince to push his car along the highway when the engine conked out.

“Ninoy told the prince that he just had a bypass so he’s not supposed to do any strenuous activity. Of course it was true. It was the reason why he went to America in the first place,” Oreta said.

After that trip, the prince reportedly complained in jest, “I had to push that car in the highway! I am the Crown Prince of Johor!”

One time, Aquino’s wife Corazon cooked bagoong—shrimp paste—for the prince during one of his visits.

Apparently, it was unforgettable. So now, bagoong is one of the things the sultan is looking forward to.

Detour on final journey

The Malaysian royalty’s involvement in the political lives of the Aquinos would probably just be another proverbial footnote in Philippine history had it not been noted by journalist Ken Kashiwahara, an Aquino in-law, in a New York Times article—“Aquino’s Final Journey”—that the senator took an unrecorded detour to Malaysia shortly after landing in Singapore from Los Angeles on Aug. 14, 1983.

“In Singapore, (Aquino) was met by the son of the Sultan of Johor and whisked across the border to Malaysia where he met with high-ranking officials from Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia to explain why he was going home and what he hoped to achieve,” part of Kashiwahara’s NYT account read.

Oreta recalled this incident vividly.

“Ninoy called me to meet him in Singapore with the Crown Prince at that time. He was brought to Johor undetected because when he passed through immigration, he was coursed through the royal lane (reserved for) Malaysian (nobility). At that point, the Philippine authorities did not know where we were,” Oreta said.

“Supposedly we were to have lunch with the king. Yem’s father offered sanctuary to Ninoy. He told Ninoy, “if I were you, if you like, you can go to the Philippines through the back door via Sabah. You can use my people, my helicopter so you will be safe,” he recalled.

Asylum offer rejected

But Ninoy reportedly answered, “Your Majesty, I am a Filipino. I have to pass through the front gates of my country.”

“Ninoy did all the talking for three hours. The king was impressed he forgot to serve lunch. So we had it at 4 p.m.,” Oreta said.

“After that, we were escorted back to our hotel. Our room had security people inside. It was what the king ordered,” he added.

Cruz corroborated this detail. She said the sultan’s father “was grateful to Dad for taking care of his son. So when he visited them in Johor, the sultan asked Dad to stay with them for a while.”

Prior to this visit, the erstwhile prince also came to the country shortly after the 1986 EDSA people power uprising.

“When he was about to get married, he came here in the Philippines. The prince wanted us to meet the woman he was going to marry,” Cruz said.

Porsche gardener’s car
Oreta said the prince also went to Senator Aquino’s tomb at Manila Memorial Park in ParaƱaque City.

“He stayed at the Century Park Sheraton and paid a courtesy call on Cory,” Oreta said.

“In this visit, the king said he will bring his eldest son who is now the new Crown Prince,” the President’s uncle added.

Since the sultan is a known luxury car enthusiast, Oreta expects the two leaders to talk about cars.

“The king has about 350 cars—Benzes, Bugattis, Rolls Royces and Ferraris. He was amused about the furor caused by President Aquino’s second-hand Porsche. Where he comes from, a Porsche is what his gardener drives,” Oreta said. With a report from Christine O. AvendaƱo

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