Category: Politics

Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz

Rafidah Aziz

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.” 

Maria Chin Abdullah

Maria Chin Abdullah

Maria Chin Abdullah’s legacy is nothing short of amazing. Aside from being a Member of Parliament for the Petaling Jaya constituency, Maria identifies herself as a feminist and a human-rights activist. Determined and strong willed, Maria has been an integral part of Malaysian women’s movement for over 30 years. Maria’s efforts in women empowerment have not gone unnoticed, as she has worked on gender, development and democracy issues in women’s rights groups such as the All Women Action Society, the Women’s Centre for Change, and the Women’s Development Collective. 

It was when Bersih was revamped as Bersih 2.0 in 2010 that Maria began to be at the forefront of the calls for electoral reforms. 

In 2016, on the eve of Bersih 5, Maria was arrested and detained for 28 days. She was blindfolded the entire time with it being removed only during interrogation. 

“I thought it would be the usual detention,” says the former Bersih 2.0 chairperson. “That I would be out after the rally. But when I was told I was detained under Sosma (Security Offenses (Special Measure Act), I was shocked and became uncertain.” 

During the 2016 rally, the authorities clamped down very hard. Maria even received death threats against her and her family, as did Ambiga. There were moments of fear, she admits. 

“It is certainly not easy,” she says, referring to overcoming those fears. “But what’s important is the support around you. In Bersih, we have built a strong group. I don’t move forward by myself and that gives me the confidence.” 

The 28-day detention, however, brought with it feelings of insecurity. During interrogation, there were suggestions that there would be consequences for Maria’s family. 

“I was worried but I knew I had to stay strong.” 

Maria Chin Abdullah

At the time Maria was certain that her detention would last more than 28 days, but thanks to the “people’s power,” Maria was released. During her detention, the “Free Maria Campaign” was launched resulting in crowds gathering at Dataran Merdeka nightly to demand for her release. 

“You have to cross it as you go along,” she says about the detention. 

“It’s not about me as the leader. People will not stop moving even if I am arrested. That was what I was very confident about.”

Maria Chin Abdullah

Maria assumed the position of Bersih 2.0 chairperson from Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan. It was a tall order, she admits, as the bar had been set high. But what she also observed at the time was that the people were ready for change. 

At the last general election, Maria contested the Petaling Jaya constituency, winning with a majority of 57,000. While she stood as an independent, she contested under the Pakatan Harapan banner. Now that she is part of the government, Maria is still focusing on pushing through the reform agenda. 

Activism was something Maria was exposed to as a student in London. At the time many issues had come to the forefront, including those about South Africa and Palestine had started to garner international attention. 

“That is what shaped my ideals and principles.” 

It was at this time that Maria also came into contact with other like-minded women who focused their attention on Malaysia, highlighting concerns about women’s rights. Upon her return to Malaysia in 1985, the group organised a forum, attended by a thousand women to talk about violence against women. 

“It was the first time so many women came forward to talk about rape, battery, sexual harassment,” she states. “That played a part in my journey as well.” 

Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan

In July 2011, a reported 50,000 people, defied authoritarian threats, and took to the streets as a show of discontent, demanding for electoral reforms and a just government. The protest moved to a global level with Malaysians taking to the streets in different capitals around the world. Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan who was Bersih 2.0 chairperson at the time, is quite dismissive of her role in galvanising the crowd, till reminded of those protesting in Melbourne wearing masks of her face. 

She laughs, remarking, “They did that didn’t they…” 

Ambiga first entered public awareness when she became the Bar Council president, organising the Walk for Justice which saw some 2,000 lawyers walk from the Palace of Justice to the Prime Minister’s Department. 2018 was a year of change for Malaysia, and Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan played a big part in making it happen. Chairing Bersih 2.0, the lawyer and human rights advocate played a big part in the rally in Kuala Lumpur that showed how united Malaysians were in the pursuit of a brighter future for the nation. 

A former president of the Malaysian Bar, Ambiga is the founding partner of Sreenevasan, Advocates & Solicitors. Carrying over three decades of experience with her, she has the distinction of numerous reported cases at the High Court, Court of Appeal and Federal Court. Her plethora of achievements serve as a distinction as to her ability to make it in yet another field that has always favoured men.

Her convictions, she attributes to her father, the late Datuk Dr. G. Sreenevasan. 

“He was very clear cut about these issues, about justice, peace, doing the right things. During dinner, he would talk to us about everything that goes on in the country, so we were all very aware of things going on around us.” 

Taking on an activist role, however, brought in challenges that were initially unanticipated. Initially, Ambiga was quite unfazed about taking up the position of Bersih chairperson. “I thought free and fair elections, nobody could possibly oppose something like that but I was completely mistaken.” 

It was then that fear began to set in as the “whole machinery of the State was thrown against Bersih.” 

But Ambiga quotes the late Nelson Mandela, “It is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it,” adding that she is still unsure whether she has fully triumphed over it. 

However, the massive turnout for Bersih 2.0, she stresses, must be looked at as a Malaysian story, as it showed that Malaysians regardless of age, race and gender, overcame their fears to stand up against the State. Ambiga was arrested during the protest. It was something that she had expected and was prepared to take the risk. 

It is not easy but it is the knowledge that you cannot back off and you cannot weaken because the moment you as the person who is leading the movement does that, the whole movement is weakened. So it is a responsibility and it is that responsibility that kept me going.

Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan

“It is not easy but it is the knowledge that you cannot back off and you cannot weaken because the moment you as the person who is leading the movement does that, the whole movement is weakened. So it is a responsibility and it is that responsibility that kept me going.” 

Ambiga hopes to see women playing a greater role in government. “We own half the sky so it should be equal, shoulder to shoulder. There is no reason why it cannot be (that way). We have some excellent women leaders – Yeo Bee Yin, Zuraida Kamarudin, Hannah Yeoh – who are just getting on with the job.”


For her part, Ambiga sees herself as continuing to be a critic, calling authorities out when there is a failure to act. A recent example is the controversy surrounding child marriage.

“We really need to push the narrative that we need to value the childhood of our girls and the federal government must step in. We cannot allow our children’s youth to be taken away from them.” 

Hannah Yeoh

Hannah Yeoh for Prestige Malaysia

The beauty of youth is that you are allowed to act, perhaps somewhat impetuously. That was certainly true of Hannah Yeoh, who at the age of 29, made the decision to run for public office, contesting for the Subang Jaya state seat during 2008 general elections. 

“The good thing about being young and not exposed to politics is that I didn’t know the magnitude of what I was getting into,” she says. “Also I didn’t have time to think. I was given maybe about two weeks before nomination day to say yes.”

Often described as an “accidental politician,” Hannah’s interest in politics was stirred with over a simple discussion about voting. At the time, she was not even a registered voter and ironically, the first vote she cast was for herself. Her decision, she says, was largely driven by her faith, which prompted her to give herself for a “higher purpose.” 

If one were to go by the results of the election, the decision to venture into politics was certainly the right one. Hannah who contested under the Democratic Action Party (DAP) ticket defeated the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA)’s Ong Chong Suan by a whopping 13,851 majority. 

Nonetheless, Hannah admits that she had a mixed reaction to the huge mandate she received. At that point, she realised that her life was no longer her own.

Hannah Yeoh in Tie Dye Silk Georgette Blouse, Wrap Skirt & White Linen Crepe Jacket from Michael Kors

“It is not something where you can tender your resignation after one or two years,” she states. “It is not about myself anymore. We were not prepared for impact it would have on our marriage and on our youth. But we gave our commitment and we have to honour it. The good thing was that although everyone said it was impossible, the impossible happened.”

Though gender wasn’t an issue for her in an urban seat like Subang Jaya, she describes 2008 as being a “pioneering” time for women in politics, where one has to work especially hard to prove oneself.

“You have to have the capacity to learn and function in that role. Then once you establish a reputation, it makes it a lot easier to convey that message.”

Hannah Yeoh

Now, she informs me, the Selangor state assembly has the highest representation of women, boasting 15 women in the house. 

When it came to overcoming the age factor, Hannah worked to turning her lack of experience into a positive.

“Yes, I had no experience but no experience in corruption.” 

It was a good feeling, she recalls, walking into the state assembly where took an oath and pledged to her best. 

Looking back at her early years as an assemblywomen, Hannah admits having bit a tad overzealous during her first term. 

“There is a big difference between my first term and my second term,” she says. “During my first term. I had no problem opening my mouth and firing away. Then you understand that politics is about building relationships. It is about interacting with another person or a group of people. If you are not happy with an issue, don’t attack the civil servants who are executing but deal with the issue.”

Some stern advice came from a DAP stalwart Theresa Kok, following a newspaper headline proclaiming, “Hannah Yeoh lashes out,” after the then first time assemblywoman criticised civil servants who absent during a state assembly sitting.

“She told me that you don’t achieve anything like that,” says Hannah. “Now I look at younger reps and advise them that there are many ways to skin a cat. You don’t need to be so harsh and direct. Age as well had made me wiser.” 

In 2013, Hannah returned to the Selangor State Legislative Assembly, this time with an even a greater mandate, winning with a majority of 28,069.  Her second term at the Selangor state legislative assembly became all the more significant when she was named Speaker of the House, the first woman and the youngest to occupy that position. 

They didn’t have the intention of appointing the first woman speaker. When it happened, we then realised that it had never happened before.

Hannah Yeoh

“They didn’t have the intention of appointing the first woman speaker,” she says. “When it happened, we then realised that it had never happened before.”

Stepping into the role did prove to be stressful. For starters, the Speaker of the House must know all the seats, 56 in total. Her youngest was also just three months at the time. 

“As the first woman Speaker, I knew there would be no room for mistakes or else they will say a woman is not suitable to be Speaker,” she explains. “I was also hoping I would be able to control the House and I knew I could not afford to be seen to be impartial. If you start off right, then you will have the reputation of being fair.” 

Her intentions, however, haven’t wavered from the reasons that she entered politics in the first place.

“My aim is to be just a role model,” she states. “I want to show that you can go into politics, remain clean and excel in the work that you do. I believe that in every election you have nothing to lose. If you don’t win again, that’s fine. I know that I can always go back to law.”

She asserts that it is about living for a greater purpose than oneself. 

“If you are just working to pay bills, you can get very disillusioned but when you are living for a purpose that is beyond you, even when you have nothing at the end of the month, it is still rewarding.” 

Young people, she says, have a lot of energy and ideals. Thus, it is important to channel that in a positive manner.

“Find that purpose beyond you and identify that cause you can live for.”

Nurul Izzah Anwar

“The late Member of Parliament for Titiwangsa Dr. Lo’ Lo’ (Mohd Ghazali) told me that women sometimes feel timid to air their voices, their views. If you don’t speak up or voice out, who will be the person who airs those grievances. Please speak up,” she opens. 

At 17, Nurul Izzah Anwar was thrust into the limelight when her father former Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was sacked from office and subsequently imprisoned. Despite still being in her teens, she became a symbol of reform when she was dubbed “Puteri Reformasi,” and alongside her mother, the former Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail galvanised the nation, in a quest for justice.

While she played an integral part in the early days of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), it was only after she completed her education that she decided to throw her hat into the political ring, contesting in the hot seat of Lembah Pantai, during the 12th general elections. In 2008, she defeated the veteran Tan Sri Shahrizat Jalil and retained it in 2013.

During the elections in 2018, Nurul Izzah contested in her “fatherland” of Permatang Pauh, the seat once held by her father, winning with a majority of more than 15,000. After stepping down from her position as Vice-President of PKR, Nurul Izzah has focused her attention of battling drug addiction, pushing for the use of harm reduction programmes instead of punitive measures conventionally adopted by authorities. A pilot programme has been launched in Permatang Pauh, using Naltrexone maintenance treatment as a means of helping addicts cope with addiction.

“When I went to visit my father in prison, there were so many drug-related cases. I felt so sad that many of them were from the B40 group and I felt that I needed to do something to address their plight.”

She is also looking to empower the women in her constituency with the Permatang Pauh women’s project.

“You have to own every decision you make. It wasn’t easy but we took it one day at a time. I really believe that sometimes life has to be more than just the pursuit of financial stability. It should be more than just living a comfortable life.”

“We each make our own decisions based on the cards we are dealt with,” she says. “There was a part of me that wanted to do my bit as a gesture of appreciation because so many supported our movement, our multi-racial entity and the struggle to free an innocent man. The party needed a new generation to continue the quest or the effort for further democratisation and reforming Malaysia.”

There was an element of being thrust into the limelight but it was a conscious decision. It wasn’t just about “freeing one man,” which many detractors accused her of doing at the time but because she wanted PKR to have a generation of leaders who believed in a progressive and multi-racial Malaysia.

Nurul Izzah continues to be a strong advocate of human and civil rights with a special interest in prisoners of religious prejudice. In December 2018, Nurul Izzah announced her resignation as the party’s vice-president as well as chair of its Penang chapter, and currently serves as as the Member of Parliament for Permatang Pauh.

Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir

Women empowerment is at an all time high, and it is due to the voices of untiring activists such as Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir. An example of Marina’s frank and open voice was in January 2018 when she warned that the Islamisation of Malaysia would tear the country apart following a viral incident of a Muslim man slapping a Muslim woman for not wearing a hijab.

Besides being a voice for feminism, the eldest child of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is also an active socio-political blogger and patron of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation. In 2010, she was awarded UN Person of the Year for her good work in combating HIV/AIDS. The founder of Asian women traveller’s portal Zafigo.com, she exemplifies the undying fire of fighting the good fight. She is also on the board of Sisters in Islam.

“No one really looks at the real issues of women who are having a difficult time,” says Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, referring to her work with Sisters in Islam. “Instead they are looking at us and commenting about how we look and how little religious knowledge we have. Basically they don’t like women who talk back and that’s what we do.”

The organisation refuses to accept notions of Islam being a religion of inequality or injustice.

“We are fighting against that and some people don’t like it,” she states. “Not because they know anything about those issues but simply because they don’t like the idea of women speaking up.”

Sisters in Islam, she says, had to deal with so many attempts to silence the organisation. Their books have been banned and legal suits have been aplenty but these “ups and downs” are part of the process.

“When you have these challenges, you grow as a person, you grow as an organisation. It’s nice to have an easy life but if you never get challenged, you are never going to grow and test the limits of what you can take.”

Nonetheless, advocacy has its moments of frustration. And this has to do with obstinate people who are unwilling to really understand what’s going on, on the ground. Marina points to the recent case of a woman who was attacked in the lift. The suggestion that the victim should not have been out at all left her dumbfounded.

“I really can’t believe people say that. Someone said, you shouldn’t be out walking alone. So it’s the fault of the victim? That’s so 1950s. This is 2019 and we are still talking like that.”

Marina counters this frustration through her many encounters with young people. They give her hope, she says, and that means this “frustration” can be brushed aside as she looks to the future.

Marina describes herself as an “accidental activist.” It all started when she was invited to join the Malaysian AIDS Council. Through her involvement, she discovered that HIV/AIDS is a particularly difficult field. But she embraced the challenge and led the AIDS council for 12 years.

“I really grew as a person and learnt how to do advocacy for certain causes, how to communicate with people, how much knowledge you need and what leadership needs.”

Being an advocate for HIV/AIDS was difficult, she says, because it dealt with a lot of taboo subjects – sex, sexuality, gender equality – a lot of things that people don’t really want to think about. But in some ways, she says, her work with Sisters in Islam can be harder because of the limited space for women to air their views.

In the context of “Malaysia Baru,” she says it is important for civil society, including activists like herself as well as the general public to call out those who are not doing things right.

“We are all part of this project,” she says. “And we should all be working to make it happen.”

Marina received the Prestige achievement award in 2016