Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail: Dignity & Courage Under Fire

Learn about Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail’s resilience and unwavering dedication to advancing the ideals of justice, equality, and democracy in the complex Malaysian political landscape – through the words of her own daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar.

Hailing from Passions, Vol. 56, this article has been repurposed for the digital age, finding its new home here on VOICE OF ASIA.

I grew up very much in the shadow of my father, the larger than life figure of then Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. And my mother – Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail – up to very recently had always played the part of a supportive spouse.

For the better part of her adult life, from the time my father was first appointed to the Cabinet in 1983 as the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports, Mama never had any intentions of influencing any government policy, preferring instead to focus on her medical profession and raising her six children.

But in September 1998, as I turned 18, father was sacked from the Cabinet and Reformasi took place amidst a maelstrom of unlawful arrests, detentions without trial, political activism and personal anguish – and all these propelled Mama to the forefront of the reform movement.

It was during that time that Mama underwent a transformation before our very eyes.

For more than two weeks after that fateful September, Mama stood side-by-side with father every day as he held press conferences in our home and called for Reformasi (Reform) in the country.

Then on the evening of 20th September, in an event which shocked so many people here and abroad, our home was raided by special balaclava-clad police operatives armed with automatic weapons. They smashed their way into our home and took away my father.

My father, who only 20 days prior was Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister, was treated as though he was a dangerous terrorist. I remember the incident, the shock and anger among those who clamoured for Reformasi, and most of all the anguish and fears of my mother.

Yet despite her own obvious worry, the first thing Mama did was to reassure all her six children. Later that evening, she would address the Reformasi movement, reminding everyone that despite father’s arrest, the struggle will continue. It was very typical of her, putting the concerns of others before her own.

It was at that point that Mama came into her own as a leader, as she took on the mantle of Reformasi. Having sought to avoid the limelight for years, she was now thrust into the epicentre of it all.

Mama was the driving force behind the formation of the Social Justice Movement (ADIL), and then later National Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Nasional, or PKN) which subsequently merged with Malaysian People’s Party (Parti Rakyat Malaysia, PRM) and became the People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat, PKR). As such, she became the very first woman in Malaysian history to lead a political party, and when she won the Permatang Pauh seat in the 1999 Elections, she became the first woman in Malaysia to head a political party with Parliamentary representation.

Dignified Courage

Mama is renowned as being gentle, soft-spoken and very patient – traits that are normally not associated with the rough-and-tumble world of politics. But she also has one other quality that only the best have: courage.

She has nerves of steel that allow her to remain calm and collected in the face of many trials and tribulations. I have always wished that I could attain her gentler and more patient side. She braves incoming challenges with grace and little complaint – if any, she would begrudge the time stolen from her to fuss over her band of grandchildren. Her courage and dignity as well as her humility and faithfulness have won the respect of many.

When I started travelling to raise awareness of Reformasi overseas, my mother was my biggest supporter. I was only 18 at that time and still studying, and without her backing, I doubt I could have done what I did.

Because of father and her, I have learnt not to let things be, but to fight the good fight. And I believe I am correct to say that Mama has also inspired many young people in Malaysia, both men and women, to stand up for what is right.

After the 2008 Elections, Mama became Malaysia’s first female Parliamentary Opposition Leader, and technically speaking, was just 30 seats away from becoming the country’s first woman Prime Minister (not that she wanted to be a PM). When my father’s ban on contesting in elections was lifted, Mama gave up her seat to allow him to contest, which he won handsomely).

Mama was also thrust back into the spotlight as the victorious Pakatan Rakyat candidate for the Kajang state seat, after my father – who was supposed to be the candidate – was sentenced on the 7th of March to five years in prison, in a shocking reversal of the High Court’s earlier acquittal. It is déjà vu for not only our family, but for many Malaysians as well.

As I grew up to be the woman I am today – cognisant of my many weaknesses but keen to soldier on for a better future – I continue to learn from women around me. My mother is everywoman. Gentle outside, strong inside; the love and care that she has for her family, is the same care and love she has for the nation. Mama could not have done the many things she has done without the support, love and care of many others, and in return she gives back every day, in every way she can. I hope I can return the favour one day.

Contributor Profile

Nurul Izzah Anwar
Former Member of the House of Representatives of Malaysia

Prior to being an MP, Nurul Izzah was and still is a strong proponent of human and civil rights with a special interest in prisoners of conscience and the rights of women working both at the national and international level. She has worked with a number of agencies and institutes on advocacy work, among them being Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), Women Leaders International Forum (WLIF) and Friedrich-Ebert Stifung (FES). She has also advocated on behalf of Malaysian political prisoners and Malaysian human rights movements at the international level, most notably being an intervention in the main session at the 55th Commission on Human Rights, Geneva.

Nurul Izzah’s political career began with the creation of the People’s Justice (Parti Keadilan Rakyat – PKR) in 1998 when she played a vital role in its establishment and was the Head of Division for Lembah Pantai. Prior to entering politics, she earned her Masters’ Degree in International Relations (with a specialisation in Southeast Asia Studies from School of Advanced Studies) from John Hopkins University. Her Bachelors’ Degree was in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from University Tenaga Nasional from which she graduated in September 1998.

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