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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Rebuilding A Nation Long Divided: Interview with Wan Azizah

Politics is very much in her blood now. It was not always this way. It all began in 1998 when Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail led the Reformasi movement after her husband, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, was sacked as deputy prime minister by then prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. In 1999 Wan Azizah led the Social Justice Movement (Adil) and later established Parti Keadilan Nasional. Later in 2003 she brought the party to merge with the older Malaysian People’s Party, to establish the People’s Justice Party (Parti KeADILan Rakyat, PKR).

Wan Azizah became its first president. But being a leader in the male-dominated political arena is not an easy task. It is even tougher when there are many different roles to play at the same time – mother, wife, grandmother and an ordinary citizen.

What keeps her going? Her answer is: “Hope for a better Malaysia”.

Wan Azizah and the interviewer.
Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

Izzuddin Ramli: People see your role as a wife, a mother, a grandmother and also the leader of a political party. How would you define yourself?

Wan Azizah: First and foremost, I see myself as a servant of Allah. Allah gave us all responsibilities, and the responsibility given to me is as the leader of a reform-based political party that calls for change and the betterment of this country and its people. I also try to fulfil my responsibilities as a wife, a mother and a grandmother, although I feel I have much more to do.

While people would consider me a leader, I also see myself as a citizen. I feel that as a Malaysian, and of course in my personal capacity as a wife, a mother and now a grandmother, I want to contribute the best I can – not only for myself, but also for the future of the country and the next generation.

How do you manage the different interests and goals at the individual, family and national level?

With some difficulty – sometimes I feel guilty because attention given to my family is sacrificed when I feel the interests of the nation need to take precedence. Now as I age, I try to be more spiritual, but looking at what is happening around me, I feel that I can’t just sit back; I need to partake in the future of my country, and also to fight against the injustice that has happened to my husband.

How do you see Nurul Izzah – more as your own daughter or as your fellow politician?

I see her as others also do – as the voice of young Malaysians yearning for change and reform for this country, one of the many prominent young parliamentarians and young leaders from Pakatan Harapan (PH). She is also the future of Malaysia. As a mother I am proud of her achievements and presence in Malaysian politics. I also feel that sometimes, she is exposed to the risks and hardships of a life in politics and I pray for her constantly.

As a mother, I want the best for [my children]. I get a bit emotional when I talk about this. I have seen them grow and I want their future to be better. But I don’t know what kind of future is awaiting them; they have to go through their own trials in life.

But as a mother, I wish Nurul Izzah the best. I pray for the good of this life and hereafter.

Of course I am proud. I have seen her do well in her education – she has a master’s degree. Seeing her father in prison and realising that she is the child of a prisoner could have been bad not only for Nurul, but also for the rest of my kids. They have coped very well and I continue to pray for her and all my children and family.

You have been in politics for almost 20 years now since the dismissal and arrest of your husband. You formed Adil and contested in elections. How would you consider your political life now without the direct presence of your husband?

It is more challenging now compared to 1998. Although there are similarities, the circumstances and challenges differ. We contested the 1999 and 2004 general elections without the direct presence of Anwar. I would like to think I am more experienced and wiser, Insya Allah (God willing).

We would agree that the person responsible for the dismissal of Anwar was Tun Mahathir Mohamad. He was the one who sacked Anwar over political differences and subsequently dragged him to serve six years in prison. Interestingly, the political development that we are seeing in this country today, I would say, has turned upside down – the long-time sworn enemies are now standing together as friends and partners. But how would you consider the situation now? Do you consider taking revenge for what he did to your husband?

The Reformasi movement was about institutional reforms and change for the betterment of the country and its people. It was never about revenge or any personal vendetta. Currently our country is in dire straits. Under the leadership of Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Malaysia is better known as a nation headed by kleptocrats. Mahathir, the man who groomed and handpicked Najib to be the prime minister, has himself lost confidence in Najib’s leadership and has joined us, the opposition, to demand change and reform. The Reformasi movement is open to everyone who shares this passion.

Do you still see Anwar as the foremost candidate to become prime minister?

In our constitution the MP who enjoys the support of the majority is given the prime minister’s post. If that happens and if I am given that support, I feel I am duty bound to take that position – maybe on an interim basis. However, in all honesty, I think that Anwar would be better at the job.

If we consider that Anwar’s political career is over and he has served his time, would you still continue your struggle in politics?

The struggle for the betterment of our country and our future continues. It will never stop; it is a continuous process. Time will determine the future, Insya Allah.

Many think that you have a soft personality – you don’t seem tough, you are a reluctant politician whose actions are scripted. What is your take on this?

Leadership-wise, I prefer the consultative and more democratic approach. I do understand that this particular approach is seen as “weak”, especially since we are dealing with a patriarchal mindset in a Third World setting. It is not about “an individual”; we cannot allow the prime minister to dictate everything. In PH, we operate on consensus and team effort. We have many and mostly young, charismatic, energetic and – most importantly – “clean” leaders to formulate and implement better policies and manage our beloved country along the right path.

Are we ready to have a female prime minister?

This blessed land we call home has seen and experienced the leadership of women for some time. Currently we can see women as captains of industries as well as holding top positions in the government. More importantly, I do believe that Malaysia is ready to have a principled prime minister – one who is willing to fight for the rights of Malaysians and to stand up for justice. It should not matter if the leader is a woman.

Wan Azizah and the interviewer.

In Gender and Electoral Reform, an alternative solution advocated by the Penang state government together with the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC) and Penang Institute to curb gender inequality especially in politics, there is a proposal to introduce “Women-Only Additional Seats”, where non-constituency seats are allocated 100% for women in order to mitigate gender imbalance. What do you think of this proposal?

It is a good proposal and I support it.

We have come to the point where Malaysia is ranked 55th among 176 corrupt countries by Transparency International. This is a disquieting development. How do you imagine Malaysia to be in the future, especially under the newly branded coalition of PH?

Actually we have the system of checks and balances; it is just a matter of implementation – once we put things on the right track, Insya Allah, I think we can steer our nation to a better future. We have to have the dignity of being honest and this needs to be taught to everyone.

What are your hopes for the party?

Of course, to win the elections. PKR is a party for reform and justice. However, the vital thing is that the struggle must continue whether we win or not and whether we form a new government or not.

We also have to be attractive to youths. We have a lot of young people in the party such as Nurul Izzah, Rafizi Ramli, Saifuddin Nasution, Azmin Ali, Fahmi Fadzil and all the others. These young people attract other young people to the party.

We also hope and pray that the authorities will allow the nation to have free and fair elections and not use any excuse they can to implement draconian laws – which still exist – to negate the results should it turn out that BN is defeated.

Thank you for your time and for sharing.

*This interview was first published in Penang Monthly, September 2017.


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