There are a couple of interesting things that cropped up from my interview with Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz. First, is that the concept of gender is something that she has never quite thought about, despite frequently being the only woman at the negotiation table throughout her career as Minister of International Trade and Industry.
“I have never regarded myself gender first,” she says emphatically. “I always thought at the back of my mind that nobody can deny that I am a woman. If they can’t see that, they must be blind,” she says, almost impatiently, as if my asking the question was a reflection of me more than anything else.
In the 90s, Malaysia emerged as de-facto leader of the ASEAN region, standing up to the developed world, ensuring that trade negotiations weren’t one sided. Leading much of this was former International Trade and Industry Minister Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz. The “iron lady,” as she is fondly referred to was infamous for ‘battling’ with the likes of former US Trade Secretary Charlene Barshefsky and Secretary of State Madeline Albright. During her 21-year tenure as Minister, Rafidah led Malaysia’s industrialisation policy. She is credited for having opened the country to foreign investments, reducing trade barriers while being involved in tough trade negotiations and free trade agreements. Rafidah was also instrumental in the development of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and in establishing MATRADE (Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation), a trade agency aimed at raising the profile of Malaysian exporters in foreign markets.
“What people notice you for is your performance, what you deliver, your output, what you give when you are assigned responsibility,” she asserts.
What people notice you for is your performance, what you deliver, your output, what you give when you are assigned responsibility.Tan Sri Datin Paduka Sri Rafidah Aziz
Even as a student, Rafidah’s gender never cropped up. She often partook in arm wrestling with the boys while studying at Victoria Institution, even beating them! In her mind, there were only three classifications, the good, the bad or the best. And she “wanted to be the best.”
Her reply took me back to my early encounters with the former Minister, now chairman of Air Asia X. A young journalist, with little knowledge of economics, being assigned to the famously straight-talking Minister, dubbed by the media as “Rapid Fire Rafidah” was pretty intimidating. As the News Straits Times wrote when she ended her tenure at the Ministry, “Rafidah was quite likely to reach over and smack any incompetent across the head.” 15 years on and I still feared that she might do that.
The second is that Rafidah rejects the notion of talking about her successes or highlights during her illustrious career. Surprising to many since Rafidah was the Minister of International Trade and Industry for 21 years, from 1987 to 2008, and it was during her time there that a lot of the policies that are currently in place were being shaped, in particular, the Free Trade Agreement. The negotiations often becoming rife with tension with Rafidah emerging as a voice for developing nations.
Her “stand-off’ with US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky over the Information Technology Agrement (ITA) at the World Trade Organisation in 1998 put both women in the spotlight. At the summit, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Amnuay Viravan said to Asiaweek, “she (Rafidah) speaks on behalf of everyone. Malaysians are incredible. They are so forthright. They are taking a stand on behalf of all newly industrialising and developing countries.”
“Malaysia was the voice of the hundred plus developing countries. We actually helped to shape the stance of major developing countries in Africa, Asia. We were not gelled together as a group then,” she says. “I personally took the lead on behalf of Malaysia to initiate meetings with these different countries to discuss issues that divide us or that were not clearly understood by all.”
Despite being revered as a politician, Rafidah says she had never planned for a career in politics. With a Masters in Economics, Rafidah first began her career as an academic at her alma mater, University of Malaya.
At the time she was involved with various women’s groups and organisations before the late Tun Fatimah Hashim recruited her to be a part of Wanita UMNO’s first economic bureau. Soon after, the late Tun Abdul Razak enlisted her to be a part of UMNO’s Economic Bureau.
“It was then that I realised that with the right team, we could actually do things,” she says, explaining her decision to enter politics.
Though she is now acknowledged for her work on an international platform, Rafidah’s early years in politics involved basic issues that were at the centre of women’s welfare. Consumerism, equal pay, ensuring permanent work status for women in the civil service, monogamy laws and the rationalisation of Muslim law with the legal system as well as reaching out to rural women to help them cope with the high inflation at the time, are just some of the things that she worked on.
“These were real basic issues,” she says, “pressing issues for women at the time.”
These were real basic issues, pressing issues for women at the time.Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz
As part of the National Council of Women’s Organisation (which Rafidah eventually served as Vice President), there was also a push to set up a Department of Women’s Affairs during the premiership of Razak and Tun Hussein Onn.
“But we were told that the time wasn’t right because we had to focus on development, so we understood that women’s issues should come later,” she explains. “This taught me to think proactively and that if you go about things in a strategic manner, thinking about it in a manner that is clear and where a lot of people benefit from the objectives, the government will be receptive.”
For Rafidah, it has always been about pursuing what is right rather than because it is a “woman’s” thing. And she believes that if that a gender neutral mindset is inculcated, then a culture that focuses on efficiency, abilities and merit will be created.
It is the way she ran the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which was widely regarded as being the most efficient ministry at the time. And it is that philosophy that Rafidah used to guide her career resulting in her never compromising on issues she believed to be right. Her “sparring” with the likes of Al Gore, Madeline Albright and Barshefsky were legendary at the time.
“I would always go in issue orientated,” she explains, saying that there were never any nerves when entering high-level negotiations. “Straight-talking is easier when you know the facts,” Rafidah says the world has changed considerably and talk of a global economy appears to have taken a back seat as countries have begun to think unilaterally.
“The reason being is that there are issues at a global level that still cannot be resolved. Political considerations have come in and people cannot negotiate the way they should be negotiating.”
The reason being is that there are issues at a global level that still cannot be resolved. Political considerations have come in and people cannot negotiate the way they should be negotiating.Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz
Within a local context, Rafidah, who was at the centre of Malaysia’s industrialisation policies, believes that the focus has to be on the middle class.
“They are the ones who move the economy,” she says. “If the middle class are enabled to have a higher income, it will contribute to higher GDP. People tend to forget the middle class who are the backbone of the economy. We tend to talk about the GDP of a country but we forget who makes up the country.”