Wan Azizah Wan Ismail arrives late for our appointment; it’d been a strenuous day in Parliament debating against a crucial motion on electoral redelineation. She apologises, but still makes sure not to miss her afternoon Asar prayer. Immaculately dressed in a neat light-coloured headscarf and baju kurung, Wan Azizah is a perfect picture of Muslim piety, modesty and moderation.

The good doctor has sandwiched our appointment between her parliamentary duties as Leader of the Opposition to object to a motion hastily pushed through by the ruling party—a common occurrence in Malaysian politics—visiting her husband, former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. He’s currently in jail on a sodomy charge that many believe was politically motivated to prevent him from contesting in the coming elections. The authorities have said that Anwar will be released from prison on 8 June 2018.

On the day of our meeting, Anwar’s recuperating in hospital from a shoulder operation; a blessing in disguise, as the hospitalisation allows him daily family visits instead of the once-a-month permitted prison visit, separated by a thick pane of glass with no physical contact, that the family has endured since 2015. The pleasure is visible on his wife’s face.

But there’s bad news, too. That afternoon, the highly-criticised motion on electoral redelineation was bulldozed through with a simple majority. Many see the redrawing of the boundaries as a case of blatant gerrymandering to benefit the incumbent coalition, Barisan Nasional, in the coming elections to be held on 9 May.

“It still hits me hard when it happens, that our country’s democracy has come to this”

“It’s to be expected… But it still hits me hard when it happens, that our country’s democracy has come to this. This erosion of democracy,” Wan Azizah laments.

Ignoring the way in which different ethnic communities live in close proximity in Malaysia, the electoral boundaries had been redrawn in such a way that the ethnic Malays are almost neatly divided from the ethnic Chinese populace, possibly based on an assumption that Malays are more likely to support the Malay-dominant government while the Chinese lean towards the opposition. It relegates opposition constituents to super large constituencies—in some places, these constituencies are 10 times larger, in terms of the number of voters, than pro-Barisan areas. It’s an oft-used strategy to exploit the weakness inherent in a first-past-the-post electoral system, ignoring the popular vote in favour of representation in Parliament.

“This is among many of the ways Barisan puts us at a disadvantage. But it has never been so blatant,” says Wan Azizah. Fellow opposition veteran leader Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party was suspended from Parliament following a heated debate during which he questioned the embargoing of the motion until the eleventh hour, thus losing another critical vote.

 

The skewed playing field

The United Malays National Organisation, more commonly known as UMNO, has ruled Malaysia with its coalition partners under the umbrella name of Barisan Nasional since the country gained independence from the British in 1957, making it the world’s longest-ruling coalition. Its unbeatable record is thanks to a combination of strict controls over the media and civil liberties, elections plagued by allegations of vote-rigging and corruption and compromised public institutions. According to the Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, Malaysia is described as only “partly free”, with an aggregate score of 45 out of 100.

In the last few years, the government under Prime Minister Najib Razak has been embroiled in a massive corruption scandal described by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions as “kleptocracy at its worst.”  Sessions revealed that nearly half of all the corruption proceeds seized by the US government is related to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a government investment fund spearheaded by Najib. Funds raised by 1MDB and guaranteed by the Malaysian government have allegedly been used to finance lavish spending sprees ranging from expensive artworks, jewelries, real estate, a luxury yacht and two Hollywood movies. Red Granite Pictures—whose CEO Riza Aziz is Najib’s stepson—agreed in March to make a forfeiture payment of USD60 million to resolve legal action taken in relation to its role in the 1MDB scandal.

“Give us time for change. The PM has an expiry date”

With such a high-profile scandal hogging headlines, Najib is doing all he can to maintain power. According to some observers, this election is nothing more than a desperate bid for a third term to avoid potential arrest.

The electoral redelineation isn’t the only piece of legislation that Najib’s government has hurriedly bulldozed through Parliament. The Anti-Fake News Bill was passed in early April, just a week after it was first tabled. It was then gazetted as the Anti-Fake News Act on 11 April, ensuring that it’ll be in effect during the election campaigning period. The broadly-worded law gives the government the power to determine what is or isn’t “fake news”, triggering fears that the law will be used to muzzle opponents and silent dissent.

But despite such unequal grounds of contest, Wan Azizah still believes that change is at hand. “I am optimistic. I have to be. Anwar’s incorrigible optimism has rubbed off me,” she says. “We never expected Congress in India and Golkar in Indonesia to fall. I never thought they [would] fall, but they did. So give us time for change. The PM [Najib Razak] has an expiry date.”

 

A baptism of fire

Time is something Wan Azizah is accustomed to. She was thrust into the political limelight twenty years ago when Anwar Ibrahim was sacked as Deputy Prime Minister and jailed on a corruption charge relating to sodomy which many believed was politically motivated. Anwar’s political differences with then-Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had come to a head during the Asian financial crisis in 1998.  

Anwar was arrested at his home in the night of 20 September 1998. It was an overly dramatic display of force: balaclava-clad special forces stormed the family home, pointing automatic machine guns at unarmed civilians consisting of Wan Azizah, their children, relatives, friends and supporters.

That night still haunts her and had a lasting effect on her youngest daughter, Nurul Hana, who was only five at the time. Wan Azizah recounts the traumatic events in her memoirs (link in Bahasa Malaysia): “They stormed our house during Isya [night time prayers] pointing their sub-machine guns. It was so tense, uncalled for and inhumane. There were children, relatives and our supporters at that time. My husband, father of my children, was dragged [out] in a humiliating and frightening way in front of his children.”

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail - New Naratif
Wan Azizah was thrust into the spotlight after her husband Anwar Ibrahim’s arrest in 1998. Danny Lim

During the six years Anwar Ibrahim was imprisoned, Wan Azizah, who never had any political ambitions, stepped up to lead the fledgling Reformasi movement started by her husband. The movement later evolved into the only viable opposition coalition to challenge Malaysia’s one-party system. Her strength, she says, was derived from her personal tragedy and her faith in God.

“I steeled my heart, strengthened my spirit. Because I know, if I fail, my children will fail. Perhaps, my husband will not make it. Only my prayers and surrender to Allah with the effort I put in,” she wrote in the memoirs published on her blog.

Anwar Ibrahim has spent a total of nine years in jail and is regarded as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. The personal anguish suffered by Wan Azizah and her family was transformed into a movement to free Anwar, giving ammunition to the Reformasi movement to fight against the tyranny of Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest-serving Prime Minister.

Today, the efforts of Wan Azizah and her supporters have undergone a subtle transformation, coalescing into a movement for justice to free the country from a system of governance that breeds corruption, symbolised by Prime Minister Najib Razak. But a greater change has occurred, one widely described as a potential game-changer as Malaysia heads to the polls.  

 

The Mahathir drama

A controversial leader, Mahathir was credited as the architect of Malaysia’s economic power. Among his local detractors, he was known as “Mahafiraun” (The Great Pharoah) and “Mahazalim” (The Great Evil One)—in short, a dictator with no tolerance for dissent. Now, in a tale of karmic retribution, the 92-year old, horrified by Najib’s alleged corruption, has come out of retirement to contest in the 14th general election against not just the party that brought him to power, but against the man he hand-picked to be prime minister. And he’s doing it in Wan Azizah’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) colours.

Campaign posters of Wan Azizah and Mahathir, both medical doctors-turned-politicians, standing side-by-side leading the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) in a bid to oust Najib Razak is a sight to behold, and a great irony not lost on both supporters and detractors.  

“Can a leopard change its spots?” asked The Economist after Mahathir’s appearance in court as Anwar stood trial for another sodomy charge. The two men shook hands. It had been 18 years since they’d last met; back then, Mahathir had been the prime minister and Anwar the out-of-favour former deputy prime minister facing his first sodomy charge.

I ask Wan Azizah if she’s really able to forgive the man who had caused so much pain to her family. “He came to us. Mahathir. We did not seek him out,” she replies. “It was hard for many, some are victims of Mahathir. But Anwar thinks more of the future. He doesn’t hold any grudge. That is his strength.”

“Perhaps Malaysia is not ready for a woman prime minister, but a deputy, yes”

It was because of her husband that she was able to forgive the former prime minister. “It was difficult for us initially. Me and my children were more wary of his move,” admits Wan Azizah. But she overcame that personal grudge because she believes that Mahathir has had “time to experience what we went through.” And the people—the rakyat—and the future of the country should come before her own personal feelings, she says.

The ice melted when Mahathir’s wife, Siti Hasmah, paid a visit. Meeting after 18 years was an emotional experience for the two women; turning a strategic public relations event into a genuine reconciliation. The tearful meeting became a hot topic for the Malaysian electorate, garnering thousands of ‘likes’ on social media.

That public portrayal, as well as its response, points to a difference in framing when it comes to gender and politics: while men are occupied with forging strategic partnerships, women are shown to connect for heart-to-heart gatherings. Such a depiction obscures the fact that Wan Azizah is not just a politician’s spouse, but a prominent figure in Malaysian politics in her own right.

Despite having led the opposition for many years, Wan Azizah has stepped aside to field Mahathir as the candidate for the premiership, while she stands as deputy. In the event of a Pakatan Harapan triumph, the plan is to seek a royal pardon for Anwar Ibrahim; Mahathir will then vacate his seat for his former deputy. Wan Azizah’s non-committal when asked if she’s ready to be the first female prime minister of Malaysia, should the occasion arise: “Perhaps Malaysia is not ready for a woman prime minister, but a deputy, yes.”

 

Early years

The potential to be the first female deputy prime minister of Malaysia didn’t figure into Wan Azizah’s aspirations growing up. Born in Singapore in 1952, Wan Azizah received her early education in a convent school in Alor Setar. She went on to study medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, where, in 1978, she became the first Malay to be awarded the MacNaughton-Jones Gold Medal—an award endowed by Irish otologist, gynaecologist and ophthalmologist Henry MacNaughton-Jones for the student who scores the highest marks in obstetrics and gynaecology in his or her qualifying year. She went on to serve as a government doctor for 14 years.

Wan Azizah credits her father as her inspiration to serve in public hospitals: “We were raised with the message that life is to be shared with the people, and to contribute as much as we can [with] society. This was the principle that was cultivated in me and my siblings.”  

Her father, who had served for 30 years as a government intelligence operative, initially opposed her choice of husband, regarding Anwar Ibrahim as a “troublemaker” student activist who had spent time in jail for demonstrating against rural poverty. She married him anyway; at that time, none of them could have known of the rollercoaster ride that was to come.

Unwillingly thrust into the rough and tumble of political life, the mother of six has since been a politician longer than she’s been a doctor. “I was a good doctor,” she says. “But I would say I have done rather well as a politician, I have no regrets.”

 

Kak Wan the Politician

Despite her stellar academic background and long years in politics, many people still see Wan Azizah as a seat-warmer for her husband. Even her campaign for justice has always been linked to justice for Anwar. It’s obscured her position as a politician in her own right, relegating her political achievements to merely being Anwar’s wife and representative, holding the fort in his absence.

Some observers say she isn’t outspoken enough to make an impression. “She appears to be always in the shadow of Anwar. She is not vocal. We don’t hear her much, her personal statement or her principles and vision. Does she always wait for the party statement?” says Dr Ruhana Padzil, a gender and politics lecturer at the University of Malaya.

“She appears to be always in the shadow of Anwar … we don’t hear her much”

Politics in Asia has long been seen as a masculine vocation; many of the female Asian political leaders have inherited the legacy from powerful male family members. Wan Azizah is no different in this respect, but it’s still hard to compare her to the likes of Corazon Aquino, Benazir Bhutto or Aung San Suu Kyi, who have fired the imagination of their people.

“Corazon was also a housewife,” Ruhana points out, adding it didn’t stop the Filipina from making her voice heard and leading the People Power Revolution to topple the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

But while one can argue that leaders are molded by circumstances, realpolitik is often seen as aggressive and masculine. How can a woman navigate these gender traps and still be seen as a politician in her own right? Will she always be judged by whether she’s too masculine or too feminine, rather than be measured by her own abilities? Do women need to be attached to their husbands or fathers in order to be recognised in politics?

These are questions that needs to be asked and in answering them, Wan Azizah’s “failure” to live up to the model of an aggressive or dominant politician is perhaps as much a critique of the masculine political culture she belongs to.

“Dr Wan Azizah has a subtleness as a person in which I find positive in order to bring new dimension in the culture of doing and engaging in politics. I wish she can do more to bring a more nurturing and sustaining culture of politics as the leader of opposition,” says a social political observer who asked to remain anonymous.

“Perhaps men need to explore this side more, so this too may change the culture of politics. I believe this is what politics is about, creating and engaging in politics,” she adds.

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail - New Naratif
Wan Azizah is sometimes criticised for being too passive or “not vocal enough”. Danny Lim

To her credit, Wan Azizah has an excellent election record, be it a parliamentary seat or a state seat. She stood as a candidate in the Permatang Pauh constituency in the 1999, 2004, 2008 and 2013 general elections—she won every time. She voluntarily stepped down from the seat in July 2008 to trigger a by-election so that her husband could contest the seat, in a bid to return to parliament. She returned to contest the seat in 2015 after her husband was forced to relinquish the seat after his second sodomy conviction, winning it by over 8,800 votes.

Despite criticism of her perceived passivity, Wan Azizah has participated in every facet of political life as a party leader and a member of Parliament. She’s spoken at the local and international level, campaigning and rallying the people, being active in Parliamentary debates and attending to her constituents. She has also been the Vice-Chair of the Malaysian Parliamentary Caucus for Democracy in Myanmar and a member of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus. And she’s achieved all this without stooping to the mudslinging that’s common in Malaysian politics.

Wan Azizah has also led her party through some challenging times, particularly in the run up to this year’s elections. Amid speculations of competing factions breaking out within the party over the candidate list just weeks away from the elections, Wan Azizah told reporters: “There is only one camp, my camp.” As an politician better known for comments about consensus and cooperation, the assertion of “my camp” was an uncharacteristically strong position—and provided a meatier soundbite for the press.

Holding the party together over the last two decades—neutralising internal power struggles and fending off competitors to maintain the top post for her husband—is perhaps the best demonstration of Wan Azizah’s strength and ability.

“Yes, politics is masculine. But there are many ways to skin a cat. I don’t have to shout. I don’t have that oratory skill, I wished I had. But [the party sees] me as a mother figure. Everything we do is by consensus and they accept me,” she says.  She often credits the respect, support and consensus of her party members and coalition partners for her successes.

Her image as a steadfast wife and motherly figure can sometimes also act as a coat of armour, shielding her from the concocted scandals or serious political attacks suffered by other opposition politicians. It’s a protective perception that perhaps also extends to her daughter, Nurul Izzah, vice-president of PKR.

When Nurul Izzah was arrested for sedition for questioning the judiciary over Anwar’s conviction during a 2015 speech in Parliament, many Malaysians were outraged by what they regarded as a low blow. Even some UMNO members expressed their displeasure. Nurul Izzah was released after a night at a police lock-up.

“In the same way, if anyone tries to hurt Wan Azizah, Malaysians will rise up. She is too nice to be harmed,” opines Dr Ruhana.

As a politician, Wan Azizah is less divisive than her husband, appealing to the ordinary men and women on the street. Known by her supporters as Kak Wan (Sister Wan), she has won admirers among the citizenry for her humbleness and gentleness. Snapshots of her grocery shopping in Tesco or taking public transport are often shared on social media, comparing her humility with the excesses of the prime minister’s wife, who often flaunts pricey Birkin handbags, expensive jewellery and extravagant holidays abroad, even while her husband is embroiled in a major corruption scandal.

 

Women in politics

Interestingly, Wan Azizah has never been seen as a vocal proponent for women in politics. Almost treated as the token woman leader in Malaysian politics, her presence in the scene is never played up as anything special. Despite her husband’s seemingly never-ending controversy, she herself appears to have largely avoided sensational headlines, attracting neither effusive praise nor vitriolic animosity. After twenty years in opposition politics, she’s still widely seen as a gentle, motherly figure.

But one of her coalition’s election promises aligns with a feminist struggle to recognise housework—often assumed to fall under a woman’s responsibility in the household—as legitimate work. It’s the first time in Malaysian history that any election manifesto contains a promise to provide housewives with social security under the Employer Providence Fund (EPF) system. Under this proposal, husbands will contribute 2% of their earnings into their wives’ EPF accounts, while the federal government contributes RM50 (USD16.50) a month. It’s based on the principle that homemakers should be compensated for their work—and therefore not left financially vulnerable in their old age— but some husbands are already grumbling. As one male Barisan minister asked: “So does it mean wives are working for their husbands?”

“We are offering this scheme in our manifesto as we see many cases of single mothers having to fend for their children after their husbands left the family,” Wan Azizah explains in one of her campaign speeches. She herself was left with six children to fend for when Anwar was dragged to jail. Wan Azizah and Siti Hasmah, Mahathir’s wife, are now campaigning to get Malaysian women to vote—an effort that hasn’t garnered major media attention.

Despite her husband’s seemingly never-ending controversy, she herself appears to have largely avoided sensational headlines, attracting neither effusive praise nor vitriolic animosity

Wan Azizah might not be able to match her husband’s oratory skills, or project herself as a political firebrand, but she’s upheld the vision of a progressive multi-racial, multi-religious society based on religious moderation. She’s also been a role model to her eldest daughter, Nurul Izzah, herself a prominent figure in Malaysian politics.

“I learned patience from her. She is very simple and heartfelt,” says Nurul Izzah. “Being sincere is a rare commodity nowadays. They [party members, but also average Malaysians] see her as a figurehead, she cares about the right thing. The usual politician could be blasé and a turn off to others. So I think that could be part of her strength.”

 

Not just a politician’s wife

Wan Azizah has made no secret of the fact that everything she’s done in politics has been for her husband’s sake. But in doing it for Anwar, she’s convinced that she’s also doing it for the good of the nation, she writes in her memoirs.

“My fate is that I have a husband who is involved in everything that is called politics. As a Muslim wife, I strive to be an exemplary wife and a good mother,” she writes in her memoirs. “I have gifted my whole body and soul to my husband for his struggle without regrets. Because I realise his struggle is not for himself, nor only for our family. It is clear, ever since I met him to this moment, his struggle was for the people and the country. That philosophy of his has never changed.”

“As days go on, I no longer look back for even a second”

But she also makes clear that this outlook—the drive to be a devoted Muslim wife and mother—should not be mistaken for passivity or submission: “As days go on, I no longer look back for even a second. I realised that I am no longer an opthamologist, and I am aware I am not a wife to a husband who has a ministerial post. And I am not only a mother to my children. I am now a politician who brings the ideology of universal justice that so it may be celebrated [in] this land.”

In many ways, it’s astonishing that Wan Azizah has lasted as long as she has in the ruthless arena that is Malaysian politics—one need only look at her family’s experience to see how difficult it can be to challenge the powerful. And she hasn’t simply clung on; she’s also led a fledgling movement to become the strongest challenge to the political status quo in Malaysia’s independent history. Only time will tell if she succeeds in her mission.

 

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Jules Rahman Ong

Jules Rahman Ong is a freelance writer, fixer, producer and an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker. He holds a permaculture design certificate and is passionate about creating a world where humans live sustainably with animals, plants and mineral.