SCMP News : Thrust into a fight for justice

From : South China Morning Post

Thrust into a fight for justice 

When Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister fell from grace, his wife stepped up to become a politician and leader of the fight to clear his name

 

CELEBRATION OF WOMEN
Jacintha Stephens in Kuala Lumpur 
Oct 14, 2011

For five years Dr Wan Azizah Ismail’s husband, Anwar Ibrahim, was deputy prime minister of Malaysia and widely expected to take over the mantle of power from long-time leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Then in 1998 came Anwar’s unceremonious fall from political favour, followed by a long jail sentence for corruption and sodomy. The first few uncertain weeks after his arrest, when Anwar was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and denied access to lawyers and family, plunged Azizah into the lowest ebb of her life.

Now, Anwar is again fighting to clear his name in a new sodomy case. The odds continue to be stacked against the couple. And Azizah continues to stand by her husband, certain of his innocence and fidelity.

To Azizah, her husband’s treatment 13 years ago was symptomatic of a deep political malaise.

“When you are the one outside of the system, you find out all the flaws. If it can happen to Anwar, as former deputy prime minister, it can happen to anyone,” she said in an interview with the South China Morning Post (SEHK:0583announcementsnews.

Azizah, a medical doctor and lecturer in ophthalmology, felt this had to be changed for her children and future generations. And so, the “low-profile” wife of Anwar – people “hardly knew what she looked like”, she said – found herself thrust into the forefront of Malaysia’s tumultuous political fray.

“Suddenly I was the successor should anything happen to Anwar … Anwar is the one who announced it, without much discussion with me, put it that way,” she disclosed with a laugh. “When he said it, I was almost as surprised as everyone else. They were supportive, as I was the one nearest to him and would have access to him [in prison]. It was something entrusted to me. I became the face of reform.”

She was instrumental in establishing Keadilan, or People’s Justice Party, in April 1999. While Anwar was its de facto head, Azizah became the party president. “I felt grateful that people accepted a woman. I had no political background. I was a doctor. I had been an ordinary person all my life. There was no big bang to say that I was going to be the next [Myanmese democracy icon] Aung San Suu Kyi or [Philippine president] Cory Aquino or somebody.

“But it was only right that, as a wife, as a mother, as a citizen, as a Malaysian that I took on this responsibility,” she said.

Keadilan won five parliamentary seats in the general elections following its formation. Azizah stood in her husband’s constituency of Permatang Pauh and won. She successfully retained the seat in the 2004 election – the year the Federal Court reversed the sodomy conviction. “When my husband came out of prison, we felt we had achieved something because he had been sentenced for 15 years in 1999 but was released after [six] years.”

Her political achievements were never part of any plan. “When I married Anwar, he was teaching in a school for dropouts, giving them a second chance. That’s who I married. When he joined politics in 1982, it was a surprise to me.”

In the years he was in prison, Azizah was left alone with their five daughters and a son. She said their upbringing stood them in good stead. “Whether you are a child of a minister or a child of a prisoner, your values are what makes you a person. It is what you base your life on and how you live it. You have to be polite. You have to be humble. You have to have faith as a Muslim, respect for mum and dad and elders. And you must be educated,” she said.

She recounted that their eldest daughter Nurul Izzah was at “the tender age of 17” when “her dad got sacked from his position”. Azizah said: “Nurul’s friends at university were warned, `Don’t get close to Nurul. You may lose your scholarship’. People shunned her.”

After her father’s arrest in 1998, Nurul travelled abroad and campaigned internationally for his release. Azizah related with unbridled pride how her then teenage daughter’s interview on CNN “endeared her to many”. “She would do anything to defend her father. Anwar is a good father,” Azizah added. Nurul, now 30, is a Keadilan stalwart and holds a parliamentary seat that she wrested away from a popular minister and three-term incumbent.

When Anwar was released from prison and eventually became eligible to run for office again, Azizah promptly resigned from her parliamentary seat in July 2008, to pave the way for her husband to contest the ensuing by-election.

Many find it hard to understand this well-educated, cultured, remarkably composed, and cheerful family-oriented woman, who is always seen clad in traditional Malay dress and Islamic headscarf, whether she has great moral courage in defending unfairly besmirched family honour, or if she is protecting a bisexual husband.

Azizah is unequivocal about her belief in her husband. ” Of course, I believe that he is right. Of course I believe in his innocence. Family honour is one thing. [But] if he had erred or done the things they have accused him of, that would be a different story. But I know – and I feel – he is right. And I stand by that.”

In the face of the second sodomy charge levelled against her husband, an allegation Anwar is now fighting in court, she stated: “It’s not right. These are lies. It is slander.”

Earlier this year, a sex video of a man resembling Anwar and a woman said to be a Chinese prostitute was circulated, fuelling more grist for the rumour mill.

Azizah condemned it as falsehood and gutter politics in a statement she read to the media, with her children standing around her.

She insisted it was her Islamic faith that gave her direction and strength. “In Islam if you fight against slander and oppression, it’s a fight for the truth. And once you fight for the truth you are going to be blessed, you are going to be helped. So that’s my strength – you bank on the strength of your faith. One day you die and have to answer for whatever you’ve done. So for me I’m going to be able to answer to God. I have done my part. That’s all. There’s nothing magical about it.”

While her party holds her up as a role model, Azizah does not see herself as an icon. “People want to know about me, my life and I tell them I’m a small town girl from Alor Setar. That I grew up lower middle class. My dad and mum were not very rich. Mum had to help her mum sell cakes.”

Azizah may have started as an “accidental politician” but has survived a gruelling political process for a dozen years now. She continues to believe her husband will make a good prime minister. Nevertheless she said: “First lady or not, I want to be remembered as me. Even if don’t become first lady, I think I’ve made my mark in Malaysian history.”

 


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