Malaysia's political princess a rare liberal gadfly
Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir inherited the maverick gene from her father Mahathir Mohamad
KUALA LUMPUR: She has a title and a famous father, but among Asia's political princesses Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir is something of a rebel.
Unlike half a dozen dutiful daughters from Pakistan to the Philippines, Marina -- as she likes to be called -- has not followed an illustrious male ancestor into power.
Instead, she appears to have inherited the maverick gene from her father Mahathir Mohamad, formerly one of Asia's most controversial leaders, and plays the role of liberal gadfly to Malaysia's conservative political and social establishment.
The title she bears -- along the lines of "Dame" in Britain, Malaysia's former colonial power -- was bestowed not for her political background but for her voluntary work, including the presidency of the Malaysian AIDS Council where she has become the voice of the victims.
Marina's liberal streak emerges in her column in a major English-language newspaper where she campaigns for progressive causes sometimes opposed by her father and in a weekly television programme promoting women's rights.
On a continent where demure women are prized, and particularly in this mainly Muslim nation, Marina's opinions are a blast of liberal modernity.
One example is her attitude towards censorship in Malaysia, which was run by her father for 22 years until he retired as prime minister in October 2003. The government regularly bans books, movies and television shows for their political, religious or sexual content.
"Censorship is one of my favourite subjects because apart from pornography and violence I don't think anything should be censored," she wrote in her book "In Liberal Doses", a collection of newspaper columns published during her father's tenure.
"The very idea that some unknown civil servants should decide (what we should or should not see and hear), based on some arbitrary values, really gets my goat."
And in another column: "It often occurs to me that the most vehement opponents of the very mention of sex in this country must be either getting too much or too little of it. Either way, it addles their brains."
In a country regularly ranked among the lowest in the world for press freedom, she wrote of the Internet: "The beautiful thing about the Internet is that it is totally anarchic and nobody can control what's on it, not the West nor the East."
But, oddly enough, Marina says, her father is responsible for this liberal outspokenness. Despite his scorn for much in Western society, Mahathir and his wife -- both medical doctors -- sent their eldest daughter to Britain to complete her high school and take a degree in international relations at Sussex University.
Her views now differ from those of her father on many issues, she told AFP in a recent interview.
"But we have no problems disagreeing with each other. Which people find hard -- I suppose it's unAsian also, you know. It's like disrespectful to your father to publicly disagree with him. But between us we have no problems."
Wearing charcoal-grey slacks, a light pink blouse, shoulder length brown hair uninhibited by the Muslim headscarf, Marina, 47, laughs often and sprinkles her rapid-fire speech liberally with modern colloquilisms.
One belief she and her father appear to share wholeheartedly is that women can do anything men can -- and often do it better.
Until his retirement last year, Mahathir chided Malay men over the fact that women were beating them at university, telling them in his own abrasive style that they had grown lazy on privileges designed to help them catch up with the Chinese minority who hold economic power in Malaysia.
Asked to name the most important value her father imparted to her and her six brothers and sisters, Marina says without hesitation: "That nothing comes for free, that you have to work to get whatever you want.
"We would only get something if we had done something, you know, did well in exams, or whatever. Our parents really instilled that in us.
"They used to laugh at us entering competitions -- 'you think it's going to be easy, that you will win a free ticket to London just by writing a slogan? That doesn't work.'"
Now, Marina says, voluntary work and family consume her time. Her sparse AIDS council office in a modest suburban house is decorated with a child's painting by one of her two daughters. The bookshelves reflect an eclectic reading habit -- covering her father, architecture, Islam, cooking, AIDS and feminism.
Her rebellious streak was perhaps first indicated in her eight-year marriage to a Frenchman, at a time when her father was famed for his attacks on Western society as greedy and decadent. She says, however, that Mahathir got on well with her husband.
"He has a lot of Western friends, so it's not like it's personal. He makes these sweeping statements, and I'm like, 'don't be ridiculous', you know."
Asked whether she is interested in a political career, perhaps becoming Malaysia's first female prime minister, she laughs. "I'm too old already. If I wanted to do that I should have started long ago.
"I'm interested in politics as anyone who cares about their country should be, but being active in politics, no. I think the way it is structured is a bit too difficult, I'm no good at toeing the line."
One of her major political interests is women's rights, and Marina believes Malaysia's attitude is comparatively advanced.
"Among Muslim countries we are pretty well off. Just look at literacy rates -- in some Muslim countries people can't even read, most of them women," she says. In Malaysia schooling is compusory for girls as well as boys for at least six years.
"As far as Western countries are concerned, sometimes I don't know whether it's even a fair comparison. The only way is to look at things like human development -- whether people are educated, have enough food to eat: the well-being indexes.
"Apart from that, Western women might seem free in many ways but they are not free in many other ways, such as trying to fight off media images of what they should be etcetera. That's a different type of pressure."
She acknowledges the Western stereotype of Muslim women as particularly oppressed, saying both they and Islamic fundamentalists have got it wrong.
"It's a funny thing, I meet people who think exactly that -- Muslim women don't have any rights, can't say anything.
"I say, well I'm Muslim. Then both non-Muslims and these very strict fundamentalist types agree on one thing -- I must be a bad Muslim," she laughs.
"Islam is meant to be a just religion, a non-discriminatory one, but like many things has been hijacked by patriarchal ideas and some people are still holding on to it."
Despite her liberal views, Marina is firm in her identity as a Muslim and does not entirely dismiss her father's cherished notion of "Asian values", separate and distinct from the values promoted in the west.
"Sometimes you do feel certain things are Asian. I remember when I went to school in England I found myself being surprised or startled by things and I would think 'Oh, that's the Asian part of me'
"It doesn't make the other person a bad person, it's just a different way of upbringing."
Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"