Khoo Boo Teik reflects on how Wan Azizah’s understated qualities helped her to navigate Keadilan/PKR through the turbulent days of Reformasi, a severe setback in 2004, and now cooperation with her husband’s former nemesis.
Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail’s life in the past 20 years has been tragic, inspiring and mystifying.
The tragedy is personal. Anwar Ibrahim’s fall in September 1998 pitched the wife of the axed deputy prime minister and mother of six young children into a maelstrom of personal anguish.
The inspiration is political. From that vulnerable point, a retired ophthalmologist with no previous role in politics has become opposition leader in Parliament and now Pakatan Harapan’s ‘deputy prime minister-in-waiting’.
The mystification lies in popular perception. The public first saw her as Anwar’s wife, caught in a clash between Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar. Now, however, they do not see in the ‘deputy PM-in-waiting’ either Mahathir’s commanding figure or Anwar’s charismatic personality. Instead, they hear that she is preoccupied with Anwar’s fate, indecisive and unfocused.
How should an external observer regard such cries and whispers as the general election approaches?
Her public record is kinder to Wan Azizah.
She was a founding member of the hastily-established Parti Keadilan Nasional (Keadilan). She led the party when several of its top leaders were detained under the Internal Security Act in 2000. Later she oversaw Keadilan’s merger with Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) to form Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
PKR’s multi-ethnic leadership began as an uneasy fellowship of four political types. They were Anwar loyalists who left Umno; PRM’s veteran socialists; experienced civil society dissidents; and young activists inspired by Reformasi.
The party was organisationally undeveloped and ideologically ill-defined. Internal disagreements and external inducements caused a few leaders to defect who then condemned the party and its imprisoned ‘icon’.
Those were tough times which left Wan Azizah as the party’s ‘last MP standing’ after the 2004 general election setback. But she laboured with others to hold PKR together. To their credit, the PKR did not mutate into an ersatz Umno, whether ‘Umno-Plus’ or ‘Umno-Lite’.
Only after the 2008 ‘tsunami’ could one properly appreciate what Wan Azizah did to nurture a Reformasi-driven generation by preventing her fledgling party from succumbing to its shock of birth, teething pains, and virulent attacks.
In fact, Wan Azizah did not botch up, keel over, give in or sell out.
She performs competently in parliamentary debates, party assemblies, manifesto launches and press interviews. She is visibly present in rallies, marches and vigils. Her oratory lacks Anwar’s charm but it has disarming sincerity.
She has done better than many leaders of other parties. Yet some say that she has succeeded despite being a woman. Such a view is wrong for two reasons.
The first reason owes to the image of Wan Azizah as “Anwar’s wife”. That image of Wan Azizah as an extension of her husband’s powerful persona, long eclipsed her individuality and achievements.
Thirty-five years ago, Judith Nagata, author of The Reflowering of Islam in Malaysia, wrote that “Anwar’s own wife (married in 1980), who is a practising medical doctor, trained in Ireland … observes the strict dress requirements of her faith and follows Anwar in his belief that female doctors should only treat female patients.”
Nagata offered no evidence to back the bizarre notion that this specialist doctor followed her lay husband’s ‘belief’ in her professional conduct. So, I consulted a medical colleague of Wan Azizah’s for a ‘second opinion’.
I received this reply: “That is utter nonsense. The author should be sued! Azizah is a very warm and caring ophthalmologist, she sees all patients with a cheerful demeanour, regardless of their gender, race, age or social class.”
For good measure, the second opinion continued: “Those were fun times, we had to work very hard but she always had a joke or funny story to tell.”
During an interview last January, Wan Azizah was asked to respond to “criticism that you cannot be just a seat-warmer for your husband”.
“A seat-warmer,” Wan Azizah gently chided, “is like a hot water bottle.”
Then she added, “I’ve thought about that question. I’ve done my share. Even though I’m seen or considered to be accidental as a politician and all that … I’ve come to this level. I never thought I’d be the opposition leader.”
There lies the rub. Women and men use family or other connections to get started in politics. The test of their worth is an earnest struggle to “do one’s share”.
Strength of womanhood
The second reason is tied to Wan Azizah’s status as a woman politician.
Some might defend her by blaming doubts over her ability on gender bias. They have a point. Gender should not disadvantage a woman in politics but male chauvinism is rife among our politicians.
“As a Malaysian woman,” Wan Azizah noted, “I’ve contributed in many fields, and not only because I was a woman medical student. I’m a doctor, a mother and a grandmother. Those are contributions, too.”
Of course they are. Yet there is a deeper way to explain how being a woman shapes the quality of Wan Azizah’s politics.
Wan Azizah has come this far in politics partly because she is a woman. She draws on the multi-dimensional strength of womanhood that arises most clearly in times of crisis. ‘Woman’s intuition’, allied to her intelligence, informs her politics.
Consider how she rejects the ‘baiah’ (pledge of allegiance) of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas) by which a member who leaves the party should be divorced from his wife.
“Who can accept this baiah? A pledge of allegiance that pawns a wife?” Wan Azizah asked in public. “How can we do this to a wife who jointly raises a family? Just imagine. I cannot conceive of this. If this is how one governs one’s own family by tying it to politics, I cannot accept it.”
Could a male politician, going by ‘gut instincts’, have dismissed Pas’ baiah in this reasoned and, for women, an emotionally powerful manner?
For that matter, Wan Azizah spared a thought for Dr Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali over Mahathir’s return to politics: “I feel as a wife. I know that it’s not an easy task for a man that age and probably [Siti Hasmah] also felt that they had to go through it again and it’s not as easy [when you’re in opposition] as when you’re in power.”
Sense of compassion
Wan Azizah did not reserve such considerations for women – because her sense of compassion goes beyond “women’s feelings”.
Compassion is absent in those who rule with little care for those who suffer. Compassion is essential, though, when those who struggle for reform call for sacrifice by others.
It was a “painful decision” to work with Mahathir, Wan Azizah conceded. Others assumed that she alluded to her family’s suffering. But she said, “I feel for the people who had gone through the Reformasi years and how they feel towards this choice.”
Even so, she urged, “What we went through made us stronger, made us more experienced … We are there should there be another sort of crisis, and I think that Tun Mahathir has come to terms [and accepted] that we need change.”
From my former colleague, Maznah Mohamad, I learnt of this quality in Wan Azizah. In the chaotic milieu of Reformasi, Pergerakan Keadilan Sosial (Adil) was set up as a reformist movement. The principal sponsors declared that they did not plan to set up a political party. Barely a year later, Adil was set aside in favour of Keadilan.
It fell to Wan Azizah to justify Keadilan’s formation at a small meeting. As Maznah recalled, Wan Azizah did not forget Adil’s stand. She called a spade a spade: the new decision was a ‘U-turn’. She apologised for it: drastically changed conditions demanded a new strategy. Only then did she appeal for continued support.
None of this implies vacillation. In life, it means making painful decisions but with regard for others. In politics, it is called accountability. And it should be required of men no less than women.
The older doctor
By a twist of history, two medical doctors will fill the two top government posts if Pakatan Harapan wins the coming general election.
How have they worked together so far? “It’s been good actually,” Wan Azizah observed, “because we’re both doctors. It may be a little difficult but he listens.”
In the old days (good or bad, readers must decide for themselves), the older doctor prided himself on his medical approach to politics. He diagnosed disorders of the body politick; then he treated them. Others feared that Mahathir’s medical style involved surgical strikes against his opponents.
Pakatan’s younger doctor has not said much about placing her medical skills at the service of politics. By melding a softer side of healing to politics, however, she advances Anwar’s 2008 vision of a ‘New Dawn’ when ‘humane economics’ blends efficiency with compassion.
Another twist of history could make “Anwar’s wife” prime minister. She would then belong with Corazon (Aquino’s wife), Megawati (Sukarno’s daughter), and Yingluck (Thaksin’s sister) who had ‘greatness thrust upon them’ by national crises and the enforced absence of their men.
Should that come to pass, Wan Azizah, practitioner of the curative science of ophthalmology, might well create an art of politics that allows us to envision a new a nation, whose sight has been impaired by vanishing funds, official secrets, and truly, truly fake news.
First published in Malaysiakini.