Divorce in Malaysia’s Kelantan Shines Light on Royal High-Jinks

Little has changed in the behavior of Malaysia's Sultans in the nearly 200 years since the ethnic Malay writer Abdullah Abdul Kadir derided them for greed, lust and abuses of power which brought misery to their people and ruin to their states.

The Sultan of Kelantan has just divorced his Russian wife of a few months, Oksana Voevedina, the former Miss Moscow, who had given birth to their male child only two months before, sending her back as if covered by Amazon’s no-questions-asked return policy. She appears to have had no say in the matter, the divorce being done through the sharia court in Singapore and requiring only that he recite the Arabic word for divorce “talaq” three times.

The Sultan also is understood to have disinherited their child, a statement from the Kelantan royal house saying that the Crown Prince of Kelantan is the current sultan’s brother, not his son. The statement also said that no one should refer to themselves as consort of the sultan without a declaration from the royal house. In other words, Oksana has no status.

Whatever the nature of the relationship before the break, the sultan’s behavior is a stark reminder of the feudal and misogynistic nature of Islam still prevailing in “modern” Malaysia, and the above-the-law attitudes of the sovereigns, who are supposedly the religious leaders of their states and whose often-appalling behavior is kept hidden from the public eye by sedition laws.

As Asia Sentinel reported in April, Many of the sultans, although revered by Malays as defenders of Malay rights and Islam, have been brutish, incompetent and spendthrift with the public purse. And although legal immunity was stopped 26 years ago, the royalty today still act pretty much any way they want without facing arrest. A couple of them have reportedly left huge gambling debts in London and Las Vegas casinos to be picked up by Malaysian state governments. The Johor royal family is considered to have been particularly abusive.

The Kelantan, Sultan, Mohammed V, now 49, balding and fat, married the 25-year-old beauty queen Oksana in Moscow last year, she becoming Rihana Oksana Petra. At the time he was not merely the Kelantan sultan but king of Malaysia – the Yang di Pertuan Agong -- under the system by which the title of king rotates among the Malay sultans.

The marriage caused consternation at the time and was probably behind his decision in January this year to abdicate as king only two years into a five-year term. The divorce proceedings appear to have begun almost immediately after the birth of their son Tengku Ismail Leon Petra in May. The gallant Mohammed V has thus apparently unilaterally ditched his wife and disinherited his son.

But it is not the first spectacular departure of a once-loving – or loved --bride. In 2008, a leggy Indonesian-American 16-year-old model named Manohara Odelia Pinot fled Kelantan and her husband, the royal prince Tengku Fakhry, charging she had been physically and mentally abused. A year later, Fakhry attempted to woo her back, buying her a car as a birthday gift and inviting her, her mother and her half-sister on a pilgrimage to Mecca via private plane.

After the pilgrimage, the mother and half-sister suddenly found themselves abandoned at the airport in Mecca as Fakhry took off with Manohara, who presumably didn’t want to go. The mother held a press conference to denounce the abduction, complaining that Malaysian authorities had stopped her from attempting to go to Kelantan to check her daughter’s safety. It turned into a diplomatic incident when Indonesian authorities demanded to know why the mother had been denied entry. Then-Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was forced to dodge questions on a state visit to then-Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Eventually Manohara escaped in Singapore with the help of her mother as Kelantan bodyguards attempted to stop her from fleeing her hotel. She reached Changi Airport and made for Jakarta, aided by the US Embassy in Singapore, complaining that the crown prince had abused her. She later became a television personality in Jakarta.

Malaysia courts later ordered her to return to her husband, which she refused to do.

Then, in 2010, another confusing squabble erupted in Kelantan after months of crisis in royal household when another of the sultan’s sons, Muhammad Faris Petra, suddenly deposed his ill father, who had suffered a stroke, and named himself the new ruler after a feud with his mother. It appeared that the elder Sultan refused to go, with two royal open houses going on on the same day. Two of the sultan’s daughters sided with the new sultan, another with the father.

At one point, apparently, Malaysia’s Special Branch was called in and stopped the father as he attempted to escape to Singapore. Legal wrangling then ensued, with suits filed on both sides. It was this sultan who married Oksana.

Malaysia’s sedition laws have kept the wraps on much of the royal hi-jinks. For instance, earlier this month, a high court in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Shah Alam sent Wan Ji Wan Hussin, an independent imam, to prison for allegedly making seditious statements about the Sultan of Selangor – seven years ago – despite public vows by the reform government elected in May 2018 to do away with sedition laws.

Whatever the statements were against Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah isn’t known. But the Selangor sultan is one of the lesser-accomplished of the brood. Selangor is arguably Malaysia’s most modern state. Kelantan, on the other hand, is the most conservative, and most Malay, of all the states and has long been ruled by the PAS, the Islamist party. The royal family remains serenely in place.