Asiaweek DECEMBER 31, 1999 - JANUARY 7, 2000 VOL. 25 NO. 52
A Woman of Grace
In a year of pressure and heartache, Wan Azizah faced the challenges with courage and dignity
By SANGWON SUH and ARJUNA RANAWANA Kuala Lumpur
She would have been even more of a headline-maker - if Malaysia's government-controlled press were not prone to giving short shrift to the opposition. But she grabbed plenty of attention anyway. Emerging from the ashes of her husband's political demise, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail became a tireless campaigner for justice, transparency and change. Whether traveling around the country addressing crowds or appearing in court during her husband's corruption and sodomy trials, she became, in the eyes of the nation, a potent symbol of the reformist movement - and, equally important, of grace under pressure.
Wan Azizah, 47, is an unlikely newsmaker and an unlikelier opposition leader. Soft-spoken and demure, she is the one who said her husband, former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, was "the politician in the family." Her background certainly does not cast her as the type who would challenge the established order. Her father was as establishment as you could get: He was a top official in the secret police and in charge of psychological warfare against communist guerrillas. He initially opposed her marriage to Anwar, because the latter was a former student radical who had spent time in jail under the Internal Security Act.
While Anwar's star was rising, Wan Azizah stayed in the background. As the spouse of a leading political figure, she engaged in such activities as being patron of the National Cancer Council, but otherwise she left the limelight to her populist husband. Like a dutiful wife, she even retired from her profession - she is a Dublin-trained ophthalmologist - when Anwar became deputy prime minister in 1993.
Then came the events that shattered this picture of domestic idyll. In September last year, Anwar was controversially sacked from his government and party posts, and Wan Azizah was rudely thrust into the center of national attention. After Anwar's arrest and jailing, she found herself at the helm of the reformasi movement that her husband had launched to fight against what he claimed was a corrupt political system. Many had doubts as to whether she was up to the task. She was too soft, they said, too naïve, too inexperienced for the rough-and-tumble world of Malaysian politics. Not a few expected her to crumble under the pressure.
But they did not reckon with her inner steel. Not only did she keep the flame of her husband's cause alive, she also gave organizational form to the movement by launching Parti Keadilan Nasional - National Justice Party - in April. She cooperated with established opposition parties to form the Barisan Alternatif (BA) alliance that contested the recent general elections - the first time the government was challenged by a united opposition.
For BA members, sticking together is no easy feat, given that they include parties as disparate as the conservative, Malay-oriented Parti Islam SeMalaysia and the secular, Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party. That the coalition has remained intact is in no small part due to Wan Azizah. Not only does she represent the unifying cause of justice for Anwar, she appeals broadly to Malaysians of all races. Nik Mahani Mohamed, a Malay accountant at a Kuala Lumpur bank, thinks Wan Azizah's mediating role within BA will continue: "She should be the one to whom all the other members come to resolve their differences."
Wan Azizah's significance, however, goes beyond just being a key opposition figure. What has struck a chord with many Malaysians is who she is as a person. She has maintained remarkable composure and dignity throughout the whole Anwar ordeal. She steadfastly stood by her husband while his name was being trawled through the mud in the press and in court. When the government launched personal attacks on her during the election campaign, Wan Azizah described such efforts as "low and mean" but did not respond in kind (though the same cannot be said of some of her allies and supporters). Says feminist writer-scholar Cecilia Ng Choon Sim: "She has come to symbolize inner strength and resilience."
"The way Anwar was treated has made Malays angry," says Nik Mahani. "Malay society emphasizes moral etiquette and values. They ask what values we can pass on to our children if this is the way our leaders act." By contrast, Wan Azizah is seen as embodying such values in her manner, her conduct, even her clothing (her modest attire is a world away from the gaudy garbs of some officials' wives).
In the elections, Keadilan did not fare as well as hoped: It got just five parliamentary seats (one of them won by Wan Azizah in Anwar's old constituency of Permatang Pauh). Still, it managed to garner 11.2% of the popular vote - not bad for a party just seven months old. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was dismissive of Wan Azizah's performance: "You can get sympathy votes when you go from house to house crying with your daughter. But the question is whether she can contribute anything at all." By providing a channel for Malay disenchantment - and doing it so gracefully - Wan Azizah has already contributed significantly.