Wan Azizah Wan Ismail

Bernard Krisher, a former Newsweek Tokyo bureau chief, is the publisher of the Cambodia Daily

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail gave up a successful medical career when her reformist husband was appointed deputy prime minister of Malaysia. Like the wives of many top politicians, she became involved in welfare work, focusing on children. But her quiet life in the background came to an abrupt halt in September 1998, when her husband, Anwar Ibrahim, was fired by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Dragged out of their home by masked, armed police, Anwar was jailed on corruption and sodomy charges and nearly beaten to death by the nation’s chief of police while blindfolded and handcuffed in captivity. In April 1999, he was sentenced to six years in jail for abusing his official power to cover up allegations of sexual misconduct. Anwar is now on trial for sodomy--two men pleaded guilty to having sex with him, a crime in this Muslim country--and faces another 20 years if convicted. His family and supporters say he is the victim of a high-level conspiracy because he planned to expose the regime’s corruption and was viewed as a political threat to Mahathir.

The family ordeal has thrust Azizah, the mother of six children, into what she calls an “interim” political role. She formed the opposition National Justice Party, which aims to free Anwar while reforming and democratizing the country’s political system, and gained a seat in Parliament. She has traveled overseas to rally support for her husband’s release and thereby put pressure on Mahathir. Philippine President Joseph Estrada, the chairman of Indonesia’s People’s Consultative Assembly, Amien Rais, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Amnesty International have all endorsed her cause. This is all the more remarkable because in Malaysia’s society, women have only gradually moved up in some professions. Few have succeeded in reaching the top and hardly any hold key posts in politics.

Azizah was raised by her aunt and uncle in a middle-class environment and educated in a government school run by “very kind” nuns while her father was studying psychology at a British university. At 17, she entered an elite private school until she went abroad to study ophthalmology in Ireland. A mutual friend introduced her to Anwar, who then ran a school he founded to train school dropouts. Initially a young activist, Anwar was persuaded to join the mainstream by Mahathir, who appointed him to numerous posts, among them culture, agriculture, education and finance minister. When deputy prime minister, Anwar had been Mahathir’s designated successor.


In her office at party headquarters, at her home and while driving to a political rally outside Kuala Lumpur, the capital, Azizah discussed her life and work since her husband’s arrest.


Question: What motivated the charges against your husband?

Answer: There was talk that he was mounting a challenge for the presidency of the party. Also, when he was deputy prime minister, before his dismissal and arrest, the lower house passed a bill that called for prosecution of corrupt officials even after leaving office. The bill is pending in the upper house. This prompted a lot of uneasiness among the ruling elite, because my husband supported its strict enforcement.

Q: Will the bill pass?

A: It is still stuck there.

Q: What support does your husband enjoy now in Malaysia?

A: He has a great deal of support, but it is not too visible . . . because people are afraid to show it openly. They fear they may lose their jobs, as some have, or not be paid for contracts they have completed, as has also happened. The chief minister in the state of Malacca actually canceled government contracts--with doctors, lawyers, contractors--if they supported the opposition in the last election.

Q: What about the younger people in your party?

A: They tried to demonstrate peacefully on the day commemorating my husband’s sentencing on the first corruption charge, but were stopped. On the previous day, the police . . . mapped everything out, blocked the area and dispatched riot police before anything even occurred. It showed the extent of the force mounted against us. [The young people] were preempted by the prime minister [who] issued a statement that we would throw Molotov cocktails [and that] there would be bloodshed. In reality, there was none of that. All our members aimed to do was to arrive by train, present a memorandum to the king [each of Malaysia’s nine peninsular states has a royal family with little political power, and the title of king rotates between them every five years], then pray in the mosque. The night before, however, they were prevented from boarding trains, and those found on trains were pulled off so they could not reach their destination.

Q: Has the government also restricted opposition-party publications?

A: There is a party organ of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party that used to appear twice a week, but it is now restricted by the government to coming out only twice a month and may only be sold for 10 days.

Q: What role is the Internet playing in getting out your message?

A: It gives us some advantage because the reform movement was established to capture the middle ground, the young people.


Q: You entered politics because your husband lost his freedom. Did it come naturally?

A: Being the wife of a politician is almost like being an apprentice to a master. In some instances, I just follow my gut feeling; in others, like planning for a general election, there is much I still need to learn, and I lean on others in the party to help me plan and decide.

Q: How are women reacting to you?

A: I do get a great deal of support from women who empathize with me through my ordeal.

Q: Would you at some point consider running for prime minister or president?

A: I don’t think so. . . . I am the first woman president of a party, and that actually is symbolic, a statement that women can play a more prominent role [in Malaysia]. I am . . . an image to remind [people of] how democracy is being abused in our country through what has happened to our family. The people can see someone who is actually quite helpless but refuses to capitulate.

Q: As president of your party, what are your duties? How do you divide them with being a mother to six children?

A: I try to be with the children because their father is not around. . . . Watching them grow up so fast, I consciously want to be part of their growing up, as their mother. The other part, of course, is the party. I leave a lot to our key and very able colleagues. I attend many meetings and discuss current affairs, and then there is Parliament.

Q: Do you travel to party headquarters every day?

A: I try to make it a few times a week. I visit the constituency and go to Parliament when it is in session. Whenever there is a court session, I go to the court to be with my husband and to see him in prison every three weeks. It is the only time I can see him.

Q: What is his cell like?

A: He has quite a big room. . . . I think he sleeps on a bed. He has a toilet, not a bathroom, which is not separate but with a partition like in a locker room. He has no access to TV or radio. The non-government newspaper and Internet printouts he receives from the outside are censored, and any opposition political material is scissored out. . . .


Q: Yet, you seem to be always smiling.

A: I am a very spiritual person. I read parts of the Koran: In one of the lines [in chapter 37] it says God does not give you a burden greater than what you can bear. . . . I am sure there is wisdom in everything that happens. You can’t tell. Maybe our ordeal has served to awaken the Malaysian people to the injustice in our society. . . .

Q: You used to be quite close to the Mahathirs, I would guess, when your husband was deputy prime minister. Have you talked to them since your husband was dismissed and jailed?

A: I went to see Mrs. Mahathir and told her the sodomy charges against my husband were false and unproved. The building where the incident was alleged to have occurred was not even constructed on the date cited in the indictment. I also pointed out that under Islamic law you need four witnesses to accuse anyone of adultery, and the court was accepting the word of just one person. She said she believed the charge because her uncle believed it. When I broke down and cried, she helped me wipe my tears, and said “I am so sorry for you. You just have to accept it.” So I left.

Q: Are you being watched?

A: Followed, maybe, I’m not sure; but tapped, yes. Surveillance, yes. At the height of it people coming to our house had to pass through three roadblocks where their ID cards and vehicles were checked. There were two trucks of riot police.

Q: What is your party’s agenda?

A: We have the “agenda for change.” That is our party slogan. For example, we want the judiciary to be independent from the executive. At present, the justices are chosen by the prime minister. The power of the prime minister should also be reduced on other matters. In corruption cases, everyone declares their assets to the prime minister. The anti-corruption agency ought to be under Parliament, providing for an independent body to judge corruption cases. The national oil company should also not come under the prime minister’s office. The election commission ought to have greater autonomy from the control of the prime minister. We are also aiming to give greater protection to women; their minimum wages should be the same as men’s, which is not provided for in the law now.

Q: In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi says she opposes foreign investment because it only goes into the pockets of the rulers and does not trickle down to benefit the people. How do you feel about foreign investment in Malaysia?


A: I am in favor of anything that improves the economy. I think it is good, even though a big chunk of it will be taken up by the ruling elite. If anything, we must highlight the plight of the oppressed, to alleviate poverty. If there is more to go around, that is better. We have to be pragmatic about it, because everybody wants something. This is human nature. We must consider that.

Q: What strategy, then, is available to the opposition to gain power?

A: The cards are stacked against us. The ruling party has a two-thirds majority against all the combined small opposition parties. The election monitoring is questionable. Ballot boxes are switched at the very last moment. We are restricted in disseminating printed literature. The circulation and frequency of publishing our party newspapers is severely limited. We know there are constituencies supporting us; we know there are many army votes for our party. The problem is how to reach these and other voters with our message. When we request and receive a permit to hold a rally or even a social event, like an arts forum, in a theater, it is granted but often taken away at the last moment. At some rallies we experienced the lights going out and then on again. They make things difficult for us. We must wake up the people to the fact that whatever the elite decides, the major part of the cake is for them. But they do give out cookies. That’s calculated to reduce dissent. We hope, as injustice mounts, the momentum for change will, too. *