In the second of her two-part series, Zeenath Kauser looks at how the women’s empowerment in the early Kaum Ibu movement manifested itself again in the Reformasi movement.
After independence, over the last few years, when the country got enshrouded with the dust of corruption, injustice, kleptocracy and such other evils, it was again a brave and intrepid woman, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who rose to the occasion.
She echoed the call of Reformasi, which her husband, the ousted Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, had used to speak out against corruption, cronyism and other evils before he was arrested on 20 September 1998.
Her call was answered by anti-corruption activists, justice-lovers and others promoting reforms – men and women from all ethnicities, languages and religions. They were lately joined by veteran and young Malaysian politicians and leaders of opposition parties.
Together, under the mutual leadership of the twin-towers of Reformasi, Anwar and Wan Azizah, and later, the high-spirited towering figure of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the ex-fourth Prime Minister, and other rising opposition leaders, a new kaum emerged, Kaum Reformasi.
Kaum Reformasi turned the tables on the Barisan Nasional government and took over the reins of government, opening a new chapter in the history of Malaysia.
From medical service to political service
The Reformasi queen, Wan Azizah, now Deputy Prime Minister, was born on 3 December 1952 in Singapore, which was then a British colony, and raised in British-ruled Malaya. She received her early education at St Nicholas Convent School, Alor Star, and continued her education at Tunku Kurshiah College in Seremban.
She then studied medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, receiving a gold medal in obstetrics and gynaecology, and later took up ophthalmology, qualifying as an ophthalmologist. Wan Azizah returned from Dublin in 1978 and two years later married Anwar Ibrahim.
Anwar, then 32, was a fiery young Islamic speaker and emerging politician. He soon made his mark as an engrossing leader and was appointed culture, youth and sports minister in 1983, education minister in 1986, financce minister in 1991, and deputy prime minister in 1993.
Wan Azizah meanwhile served for 14 years as a government doctor and offered voluntary services to several health-related centres. Both she and Anwar enjoyed a happy family life with their six children until he was arrested in 1998. Thus began the sad and turbulent side of this story.
During the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, when Mahathir was the Prime Minister and Anwar was his deputy and Finance Minister, a bitter clash erupted between them over the policies and mechanisms needed to respond to the financial crisis.
Anwar criticised the rise of nepotism and cronyism within Umno and BN and wanted to stop it to save the country from economic crisis and moral decline. But he was sacked from the cabinet on 2 September 1998 and expelled from Umno two days later. This prompted Anwar to launch a reform campaign rally on 20 September 1998 in Kuala Lumpur which drew over 50, 000 people.
But the authorities used internal security laws and detained him the same night, and charges of corruption and sodomy were later filed. From that time, Anwar suffered three prison terms totalling 11 years between 1998 and 2018.
The allegations against Anwar were condemned as politically motivated by various human rights NGOs, foreign governments, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists Commission.
Throughout this long and painful 20-year period of Anwar’s life, Wan Azizah and her family went through tough and turbulent times. It was under such trying circumstance that she entered the world of politics, shifting her focus from medical service to political service to bring reforms to the country.
Wan Azizah’s Reformasi mission
In 1998, the Reformasi movement under her leadership, took shape as a civil society Movement for Social Justice (Adil) to bring political, economic and social justice using peaceful and democratic means. On 4 April 1999, Adil evolved into Parti Keadilan Nasional (National Justice Party) and Wan Azizah became its president.
Parti Keadilan Nasional joined the other opposition parties to formed an electoral alliance known as Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front) and contested the 1999 general election. The party won five parliamentary seats including Permatang Pauh, won by Wan Azizah.
Parti Keadilan Nasiontal merged with Parti Rakyat Malaysia to form Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party) (PKR) on 3 August 2003 and contested the general election the following year. But PKR could only retain one seat, Wan Azizah’s.
But in the 8 March 2008 general election, PKR won 31 seats, and Wan Azizah again retained her parliamentary seat. The opposition coalition made her the first female leader of the opposition in Parliament. She remained in this position until 31 July 2008.
Anwar’s ban from taking up any political office expired in 2008. Wan Azizah vacated her parliamentary seat to make way for Anwar to contest in a by-election. He won and returned to Parliament after a lapse of 10 years. But he was arrested later that year on allegations of sodomy.
In the 5 May 2013 general election, BN won 133 out of 222 parliamentary seats while Pakatan Rakyat took 89, of which PKR picked up 30. This time, the opposition alliance actually won more of the popular vote than BN.
Wan Azizah contested in a by-election in 2014 for the Selangor state assembly seat of Kajang and duly won. She also emerged victorious in a parliamentary by-election in Permatang Pauh the following year after Anwar Ibrahim’s acquittal for sodomy was overturned and he was sent back to the prison. Wan Azizah again became the leader of the opposition coalition from May 2015 to early May 2018.
Throughout this period, Wan Azizah’s main mission was nothing but ‘reformasi’ for the country. For this, she not only remained in political power all those years, but was also engaged in reaching out to the public, giving talks, attending meetings and convincing the people that reforms were inevitable to wipe out corruption.
She one said: “I feel and believe corruption is a cancer, dangerous and pervasive, and you need a surgeon’s touch. I happen to be a woman and I happen to be a surgeon, I think that helps very much.”
Apart from political activism, Wan Azizah has also been in several social programmes locally and internationally, in UN-sponsored programmes. She has been part of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus and vice-chair of the Malaysian Parliamentary Caucus for Democracy in Myanmar.
First female deputy PM
While Wan Azizah with her party members and Reformasi supporters were involved in the reform movement, leadership of the country changed hands twice. Dr Mahathir Mohamad stepped down in 2003 after serving for 22 years and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over. He was replaced in 2009 by Najib Razak.
But Najib’s tenure was marked by a number of disgraceful charges including the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. With the nation plagued by rampant corruption, kleptocracy and other evils, Mahathir, the ex-fourth Prime Minister, resolved to end corruption and clean bersih the country.
For this, Mahathir took certain historic steps: he resigned from Umno on 29 February 2016 and then formed his own party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Malaysian United Indigenous Party) on 9 September 2016.
Then he not only took a few main opposition leaders into his confidence, but also made a sort of rapprochement is made with them including Anwar, whom he had sent to prison 20 years ago, and Wan Azizah, who suffered the most all this time. It is said that Anwar and Wan Azizah agreed to work with Mahathir, leaving their grievances aside for the noble cause of saving the country from corruption.
Mahathir was then announced as the opposition coalition’s prime ministerial candidate on 8 January 2018. With the former prime minister at the helm, Pakatan Harapan clinched an historic victory on 9 May 2018 and Mahathir was sworn in as the seventh Prime Minister the following day. Mahathir also facilitated in securing a royal pardon for Anwar on 16 May 2018 on the basis of a ‘miscarriage of justice’.
This totally freed Anwar from the prison sentence and a subsequent five-year ban from holding public office. He was received by huge crowds chanting “Reformasi! Reformasi!”
Mahathir then appointed Wan Azizah as the first female Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia and she was sworn in on 21May, 2018. She was also made minister of women and family development.
Women’s empowerment: Still a way to go
This is how women’s empowerment in Malaysia evolved. What started off with Kaum Ibu walked a long way to Kaum Reformasi. Although the pace was slow, the momentum continued.
Undeniably, the percentage of women in Parliament and in the cabinet has been low since Independence.
According to one source, the number of women in the Malaysian Parliament ranged from 1.9% in 1955 to 11.3% in 2008 and 10.4 percent in 2013. Still, the percentage of women in Parliament has risen from 10.4% in 2013 to 14.0% in 2018.
As for women cabinet ministers, the number has ranged from one to three since 1957. But the 2018 general election saw a marked difference with the appointment of Wan Azizah as the first female Deputy Prime Minister.
With these signs of hope, we may soon see a substantial increase in the representation of women in Parliament and in the cabinet and perhaps Malaysia will soon appoint its first female prime minister.
It was encouraging to hear Wan Azizah alluding to this possibility. She once said: “We have many qualified candidates. A female can be prime minister. What’s wrong with that?”
On another occasion, she said, “With more women participating in decision-making roles, particularly politics, we could be a force to be reckoned with.”
And in one of her articles, “Women in Politics: Reflections from Malaysia”, she wrote: “If women are enabled to maximise their potential, they will be able to contribute to the empowerment of all citizens in society. This can happen without denigrating the social, cultural or religious obligations that are part of every woman’s life.”
The above statements by Wan Azizah suggest that the process of women’s empowerment in Malaysia may yet reach greater heights.
Dr Zeenath Kausar is a former associate professor at the Department of Political Science of the International Islamic University, Malaysia. She is the author of Muslim Women at the Crossroads: Rights of Women in Islam and General Muslim Practices; Modern Political Ideologies: An Islamic Critique; and Woman as Head of State in Islam? Women’s Empowerment and Islam.