Once given up for dead, Suresh Rajan, 54, believes nothing can stop him now
When Suresh Rajan migrated from Bangalore to Perth in 1975 with his family as a boy of 15, he found himself the only Indian amid a sea of white faces at school.
“It was a terribly Anglo white Celtic place, very much based on English migration,” says Rajan of the isolated Western Australian capital city. But adds that at the same time it was a fascinating place too.
“We had to wait for ships that would come to the docks at the end of each month to get rice. Coming from somewhere like India, where you could get anything you wanted, all the different pulses, there was nothing here,” says Rajan.
With roots in several countries, and nearly 40 years after he arrived in the strange new land, Rajan has become one of Western Australia’s best known advocates for multiculturalism.
For years he has acted as a mouthpiece for minorities, speaking out in the media against high profile cases of racism as president of the Ethnic Communities Council of WA, and getting groundbreaking legislation passed supporting ethnic communities in the state.
Now approaching 54 and having suffered a heart attack and life-threatening stomach cancer less than two years ago, Rajan is far from easing back from his fight. In fact, he’s kicked things up a gear, stepping into politics as the WikiLeaks Party’s candidate for the Senate in WA.
“They had pretty much given me up for dead, I wasn’t expected to survive,” says Rajan, who is also a financial planner and advisor and makes regular appearances in the media as a finance expert.
“I just took the view, my boys are 11 and nine now, I needed to be around for them and there is a lot of work that needs to be done in the ethnic community space that isn’t being done,” he says.
Rajan says he was moved to step into politics after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced his controversial hardline PNG solution, under which refugees are being processed in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
“I have always been a firm believer that we cannot abrogate our responsibility under the convention (the United Nations Convention on refugees) to other nations,” he says.
Before signing up to the WikiLeaks Party — which was officially launched on 25 July with founder Julian Assange appearing via Skype from where he is currently holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London – Rajan did a little investigating to see whether it was the right fit for him.
“I had to see whether or not the party was completely focused on Julian Assange, or whether there was more to it than that. Having a look at the other candidates, like Alison Broinowski (standing in New South Wales) and Leslie Cannold (standing in Victoria) — that was what tipped me in favour,” he says.
“They’re highly intellectual people who I have high regard for, so the party to me represents more than just simply the Julian Assange issues… [although] keeping government honest and accountable are a critical part of the party,” he adds.
Rajan’s decision to stand for the WikiLeaks Party has turned him into something of a celebrity in his home state of Kerala, with his candidacy and that of his party mate Binoy Kampmark, who is of Bengali Indian decent, making headlines around India.
Born in Singapore to parents who migrated from Kerala, Rajan lived in Brunei, a state on the coast of Borneo, until he was 10 years old when he was sent to school in Bangalore.
“Dad and mum decided my brother, sister I needed to learn about our own culture so we were sent to boarding school in Bangalore. I went to a school called Bishop Cotton Boys’ School which was one of these terribly English schools. In 1947 [before India gained independence from Britain] it was a white only school — it was very much expat,” he says, and adds that students had to wear blazers and caps to school “in bloody hot weather”.
After immigrating to Australia and finishing high school, Rajan completed a bachelor’s degree in commerce and masters in business administration at the University of Western Australia.
He began hearing the stories of other immigrants and Australia’s indigenous peoples while working as president of the Ethnic Communities Council of WA, the peak body for ethnic groups in the state.
“I came in when the World Trade Centre events occurred and you had to deal with all the massive Islamophobia that was starting to develop in this country,” he says.
“I dealt with some major issues but my crowning glory was the passage of racial vilification legislation in our criminal code. Up until that point racial vilification would result in a two year maximum jail sentence and you had to prove the intent of person was vilification,” says Rajan. “By the time I finished, I worked with the then Premier Geoff Gallop, and we put through amendments in parliament that took it to a 14-year maximum sentence,” he adds.
Rajan also worked on an anti-racism steering committee for the Gallop government that resulted in a Charter of Multiculturalism for the state, the first of its kind in Australia.
Multiculturalism has long been a contentious issue in Australian politics but Rajan is optimistic about the future.
“We are becoming more culturally diverse than we ever have been — 32 33% of people were born overseas, approximately half were either born overseas or has one parent who was born overseas. “It will always be a contested issue while you have a dominate culture but that dominance is certainly reducing as the years go by,” he says.
Rajan says the current political debate around 457 visas and refugees was shadowed by uninformed opinion.
“Unfortunately it’s become a very emotionally charged issue and the facts seem to have been lost,” he adds.
In October 2011, Rajan suffered a heart attack.
He underwent a quadruple bypass, after which doctors discovered he had stomach cancer and he was forced to go back to hospital for a partial gastroschopy, four months of chemotherapy and three months of radiotherapy.
He finished treatment 12 months ago but because the cancer was so serious it will be five years before doctors can determine whether or not he is in remission.
“It was a grade 4 out of 5, fairly aggressive and very large,” he says.
“The critical issue was how I felt – was I able to endure an election campaign with the health issues I’ve dealt with? I decided I wouldn’t know unless I gave it a shot. The party provided me with the resources and assist me with support,” he adds.
Even while undergoing treatment Rajan didn’t ease off entirely from his role in the public eye.
In March last year he went into the ABC studio in Perth and gave an emotional interview about his fears and hopes for the future, while wearing a belt bag that was feeding chemotherapy chemicals into his body.
Rajan is realistic about his chances of winning a seat, saying he predicts the party will win one seat in Victoria but will “struggle to get anything more than one”.
But he also believes the 7 September election will see some kind of protest from the community against the major parties.
“There is a ground swell of resentment against the major parties, and it’s not going to the Greens, I think it’s going to alternative parties,” he says.
“I think the important thing for people to know is WikiLeaks (the party) is about more than simply the Julian Assange factor. This is a party that will have policies on every aspect of our lives in Australia and people should inform themselves as to what the party is about,” he adds.