©The Sunday Star
(Used by permission)
by Andrew Sia
A doctor turned accidental politician has survived the
political roller coaster of the past 10 years and now promises some vitamins to
improve the nation’s health.
SHE was a talkative Convent schoolgirl in Alor Star, then a medical student (and part–time sales girl) in Europe, and now she is the first woman Opposition leader–designate of Parliament in Malaysia’s history.
It’s been quite a journey for Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, 55, president
of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
In what we come to learn is a typically self–effacing manner, she accepts the honour on behalf of her gender rather than personally: “It’s an honour for Malaysian women. I would like to express my sincere thanks to my colleagues from Keadilan, DAP, and PAS for entrusting me with this role,” she says in crisp English.
“I hope to be able to fulfil the role, even though (Lim) Kit Siang (the former Opposition leader) is a tough act to follow. There will be more ‘vitamins’ added into Parliament now with more equal debate on both sides,” she says.
The vitamin analogy is fitting, given that she is a medical doctor and ophthalmology specialist. And she hints of stronger medicine.
“We like to remind people that we are not the Opposition, but a Government–in–waiting, ha, ha,” she says cheekily when we speak to her on Monday.
The three Opposition parties have agreed that Dr Wan Azizah will be Opposition leader until her husband, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, PKR’s de facto head (who will be eligible to contest a by–election after April 14) becomes a Member of Parliament himself.
While she is Opposition leader, Dr Wan Azizah announced recently that she will highlight five priority areas. Firstly, boosting the economy by speaking out against corruption and wastage.
“We were once on par with Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea,” she says. “We have the resources, good God, the oil alone, not to mention the human resources.
So where has it gone wrong?”
Her other priorities are building inter–racial harmony, rebuilding the judiciary, promoting a free and fair media, and, lastly, upholding human rights.
Those don’t quite sound like the words of someone who has been called a “proxy member” of Parliament just waiting to give up politics and let her husband take over the show.
Yet, during the elections, she was quoted as saying, “I am an accidental politician and do not have any political background and ambition. I was pushed into politics due to circumstances.”
The plan, supposedly, was that she would vacate her Permatang Pauh (Penang) seat so that Anwar can contest it in a by–election.
Recently, however, she has been quoted as saying that it would be “up to the voters of Permatang Pauh to decide, as they voted me in to represent them”.
“She is not just a seat–warmer,” says Latheefa Koya, a PKR central committee member.
“It’s not like she will vacate her seat just because her husband asks her to give it up. If anything, it will be a party decision. And besides, PKR has 31 seats to choose from.”
So, will she be involved in politics over the long haul? That might seem a tad surprising, really, especially when we come to know of her distinctly apolitical youth.
She was not very involved in politics even when Anwar was a minister.
She didn’t give up her medical practice lightly although she was expected to attend official functions once Anwar was made Deputy Prime Minister in 1993: “I cried for two weeks when I took optional retirement.
I really enjoyed my job, and had fond memories of many of my patients,” she says. The convent girl definitely never had plans beyond becoming a doctor.
A Chinese nun?
Born in 1952, Dr Wan Azizah received her early education at the St Nicholas Convent School, Alor Star.
“I was there from Standard One to Form Five. I really enjoyed my school years. It was an English–medium school then, and the nuns taught us manners, how to be a wholesome person, to think and talk well, and to have minds of our own,” she recalls.
Being brought up in a Catholic school, she heard the Lord’s Prayer regularly and can still remember it verbatim. And she proceeds to recite the whole prayer, “Our Father Who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name...” while smiling at this writer’s surprised look.
After Alor Star, she continued her education at the prestigious Tunku Kurshiah College in Seremban, where she garnered top prizes for Biology and the General Paper in the Higher School Certificate exam. She then went on to read Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland.
“My goodness, on the first day of college, it was so difficult to understand the Irish with their thick accents. And the cold weather ... I arrived wearing thin Malaysian clothes, and sometimes felt like going home,” she remembers.
A woman doctor friend (who prefers not to be named) who lived in the same house with Dr Wan Azizah for six years in Ireland says, “There were only five of us Malaysians there and lots of Irish, Norwegians, other Europeans, and some Asians.
“Wan Azizah had no problems mixing with everybody unlike nowadays, when we see Malaysian students overseas sticking together.
“She was one of the top students, and very talkative. She won a (faculty) prize (in obstetrics and gynaecology); her name is still up on the board in Dublin,” says the doctor friend, sounding quite proud.
Unlike Anwar, who is renowned for having been a firebrand student activist during his Universiti Malaya days in the 1970s, Dr Wan Azizah never got into student politics. “Wan Azizah can cook very well, and I remember she used to make spaghetti with a type of light curry. She used to bake cakes and bread, too,” continues the friend.
“Some time in her second year, she began to wear the tudung (headscarf) and some classmates joked that she had joined a religious sect or something – after all, this was when there were still hippies and other eccentrics around!”
Dr Wan Azizah herself recalls, “When I wore a tudung, it was still very rare in Europe then. Some people thought I was a Chinese Catholic nun!”
During holidays, she worked as a sales assistant in the Boots pharmaceutical store at Marble Arch, London.
“I had a small scholarship even though Malaysia was not so rich then, as we had not yet found petroleum. Nowadays, they only give out student loans,” says Dr Wan Azizah.
In 1978, Dr Wan Azizah returned to Malaysia. It was while she was working at KL’s Hospital Universiti (now Universiti Malaya Medical Centre) that one of Anwar’s friends brought him over to be introduced. “It was not so much that kind of ‘dating, dating’ thing that youngsters experience nowadays. It was more conservative,” recalls a family friend.
“At that time Anwar was the leader of Abim (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia, a Muslim youth group) and he had also set up Yayasan Anda (a foundation to train poor Malay youths).
“Wan Azizah was among the first overseas graduates to come home wearing the tudung, and I believe that attracted Anwar.
“After he got to know her better, he proposed. She didn’t accept it straight away. She performed special prayers to seek guidance from God. Only after she felt the signs were right did she say yes.
However, when she wanted to marry Anwar, her father, a senior officer in the Special Branch who had specialised in the “psychological war” against the communists, objected. After all, Anwar had been detained under the ISA for 20 months (for allegedly being “pro–communist”) after leading the massive 1974 student demonstrations against corruption and rural poverty.
“Anwar was known as a student activist,” says Dr Wan Azizah. “So my father was reluctant, you know, demo, demo, and all that. But after a while, he was agreeable to the marriage.”
The couple married in 1980 and they now have five daughters – Nurul Izzah, Nurul Nuha, Nurul Ilham, Nurul Iman and Nurul Hana – and one son, Mohd Ihsan. The eldest, 27–year–old Nurul Izzah, is, of course, the “giant killer” who defeated incumbent Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil in the elections.
Anwar joined Umno in 1982 and began a meteoric political rise while Dr Wan Azizah worked as an ophthalmologist at the Universiti Hospital.
“I would just go to work and come back. I always kept a very low profile.
“I really enjoyed my work, operating on cataracts and glaucoma. I was happy in my white coat and in my realm, I was Dr Wan,” she remembers.
And then came the epic events of 1998, when Anwar was sacked, arrested, and beaten up.
In a previous interview with this writer last year, Dr Wan Azizah recalled the harrowing experiences of the night of Anwar’s arrest when machine gun–toting commandos wearing ski masks took him away.
More difficult moments, albeit not as emotional, perhaps, were to follow. For one, suddenly, Dr Wan Azizah found herself as the leader of Parti Keadilan Nasional, a new political party. (PKN merged with Parti Rakyat Malaysia in 2003 to form PKR.)
“Those were difficult times. At that time, I felt like a student of politics,” she says. “Yes, I was a politician’s wife, but being a politician is something else.”
Ivy Josiah, the Women’s Aid Organisation’s executive director, recalls that almost immediately after Anwar was arrested under the ISA, women’s groups visited Dr Wan Azizah to give her moral support.
“We were struck then by how naive she was about the use of the ISA against many activists in previous years, especially during Operasi Lallang of 1987 (when more than 100 people, including environmental and social NGO activists, were arrested).
“Well, she has certainly risen to the occasion and learnt fast! And she is much admired for remaining gracious, warm, and focused in the face of personal and political crisis.”
We get a glimpse of that aspect of Dr Wan Azizah when we ask her about the letter written in 2000 by (former PKN vice–president) Marina Yusuff accusing PKN’s then deputy president Chandra Muzaffar of “harassing” and “scolding” Dr Wan Azizah until she was close to tears during the 1999 elections.
“I am not the pushy sort but I do hold my own even though I am considered soft,” she replies simply.
Fortunately, Dr Wan Azizah had the support of family, friends, and many young people of the Reformasi (reformation) movement sparked by Anwar’s arrest.
“Nurul Izzah was my strength,” she recalls. “She took time off from college to be with me. It was tough but we plodded along. Meanwhile, the core members kept the movement alive.”
Dr Wan Azizah is also deeply religious.
“She wakes up at 4am to pray, seeking fortitude and guidance,” says the family friend. “That’s the source of her inner strength. Otherwise, I think it’s difficult to survive in politics with all the pressure. That’s why some people say that Wan Azizah is Anwar’s greatest asset.”
Apart from watching a mattress allegedly stained with Anwar’s sperm being paraded before the world in a highly controversial court case involving sodomy, she herself also had to endure some personal attacks.
In May 1999, the then Information Minister Datuk Mohamed Rahmat alleged that Dr Wan Azizah was “unfit to lead the Malays” as she had been “educated in Singapore” and had “darah cap naga” (dragon brand blood), an euphemism for Chinese blood or lineage.
How did she feel about such allegations?
“Naga, naga okay lah, what’s wrong with that? We are all human.
“Anyway, a dragon is considered a strong being. Besides, I am also born in the year of the Dragon, so never mind lor...” she smiles, showing us that slightly mischievous side we experienced earlier.
Her maternal grandfather was a Malacca Baba while her mother was brought up in Singapore.
“My brother looks very Chinese. He’s a professor in USM (Universiti Sains Malaysia). When he goes into any mosque, he will often be told, “Oh, ini tempat orang sembahyang punya (Oh, this is a place of Muslim prayers).”
Holding her own
Elizabeth Wong, who is now part of the new Selangor State Government Exco, was Dr Wan Azizah’s parliamentary aide for two years.
“I look on her as role model. Some people say she is just Anwar’s proxy, but she held the party together all those years while Anwar was in prison (1998–2004) and has evolved into an accomplished politician.
“Her softness is her strength. She does not believe in the aggressive approach, but she is very firm on principles, people don’t see that side of her.”
Latheefa says, “Kak Wan conducts meetings in a very democratic and consultative manner. I think it’s because it’s in a woman’s nature. She asks everyone what they think, and we can give our input into party decisions.”
She adds that Dr Wan Azizah is down to earth and easy–going: “We can talk about anything with her. There’s no high and mighty ‘I am the Leader’ aura about her.
“Perhaps because of her demeanour and traditional image, people don’t realise that she actually has quite strong feminist views. For instance, when some of the guys try to crack off–colour or sexist jokes, she won’t laugh or approve of them ,” she says.
“And her old car used to have a bumper sticker saying, Satu Isteri, Satu Suami (One Wife, One Husband), quoting the Quran, which says if a husband thinks he cannot be fair to all wives, he should stick to one.”
“She sticks to one style of prim and proper dressing, a traditional baju Melayu with a plain, never a floral, tudung. She also has a hand fan.
“As for the silk glove (that she often sports on her right hand nowadays), I think that’s because she has to shake hands with so many people,” says Lateefa.
She calls Shahrizat a “very nice and friendly” person, and refuses to criticise (former PKN deputy president) Dr Chandra Muzaffar, despite his very damaging comments – among others, that it would be “an unmitigated disaster for Malaysia” should Anwar become Prime Minister – just before the elections.
“I don’t know why he said all that. But I appreciate what he did when Anwar was arrested, and his contributions in forming the party, times were difficult for us then.”
That non–confrontational approach may help build consensus, especially since she believes that Barisan Nasional will be compelled to reinvent itself.
“Even some of the Barisan MPs, when we talk to them privately, they agree with our views, but they tell us, ‘Well you know–lah...’.”
Apart from the five focus areas she has highlighted, Dr Wan Azizah also says: “Being a woman, I will also have a gender perspective but I will look at issues in toto,” she says.
When asked if she has had a role in subtly influencing PAS’ patriarchal and paternalistic policies (the party fielded women candidates for the first time in these elections, two of whom have since become State Excos in Kedah and Kelantan), she admits that she might have softened the party’s stance somewhat.
“I think it helped for me, as the president of another (political) party, to be seated together with (PAS President) Tok Guru (Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang).
“And then their own Muslimat (women’s) wing pushed more. However, (Malaysian) politics is still (largely) a man’s world,” she smiles.
How does she feel about the Malay response to moving away from the New Economic Policy (NEP) towards PKR’s multi–racial Malaysian Economic Agenda?
“Some Malays are worried. Oh, tak ada lagi? (Oh, no more?).
“When the NEP started, it did some good.
Then it was hijacked by people who knew how to press the right buttons.
“But we say that we will help all races.
After 50 years of independence, we’ve had enough of playing the racial card.”
“Harmony is not just about cultural dancing and kongsi raya rituals, it should be much more than that. It’s about time we really become true Malaysians.”