Up close with Rafidah Aziz

  • Business
  • Saturday, 20 Nov 2010

THE notion that contentment is bliss seems most clearly reflected in her mood and facial expressions these days.

Flashing a reassuring smile as she greets the StarBizWeek team, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz exudes a sense of warmth and friendliness that makes one feel so welcomed and at ease to engage in a casual conversation with someone of her stature, particularly one who's known to be a strong-headed, unwavering and no-nonsense woman.

I am me... there are no pretences here, Rafidah says matter-of-factly. Having been involved in politics for more than 30 years, the former International Trade and Industry Minister concedes that it's time to take things easy at her age, while expressing her desire to retire soon from the field that has coloured a large part of her life.

Rafidah was one of the longest-serving Cabinet ministers in the Government until she was dropped two years ago despite having managed to retain her Kuala Kangsar parliamentary seat during the last general election in March 2008.

From day one that I joined the Government, I've always reminded myself that politics is of no definite tenure. It's not a contract, so one must be prepared as and when one gets dropped, Rafidah explains.

The only regret (and one that had been widely reported before) for her, though, is that she was not informed earlier of such intention. If she had known earlier, she says she would have made way for someone else to contest the Kuala Kangsar constituency. It's no joke going through elections, she says of the gruelling work involved in the process.

Serving still

Regardless, the unexpected turn of events in her political career has its bright side. I'm enjoying life now, she says, adding that she's savouring every moment with her family members and loved ones.

She makes it a point to travel with her husband, Tan Sri Mohd Basir Ahmad, to different countries within the region every other month, and with the rest of her family members her children and their spouses, and her grandchildren to countries further away from the region at least twice a year.

Amid the jet setting, though, she still finds time to serve her constituency, which has been her stronghold since 1986.

Politics is a vocation. It is about service, not about making speeches. And it involves hard work. So unless one is prepared to sacrifice, one doesn't enter politics, she says.

And for that reason too, Rafidah says she has never encouraged nor discouraged her children from joining politics. It's not something that people can encourage you to join. You must have it in you, otherwise it won't work, she says.

Old ambition

For Rafidah, entering the political world was simply a natural progression. Raised by parents who were both politically active since the 1950s, Rafidah was exposed to local political movements from a very young age.

Her father was one of the founding members of the UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) youth wing and was involved in the local movement for independence from colonial rule.

Those days, the young Rafidah and her friends would peep through the windows, sticking their noses into the political meetings that her father regularly attended at the Sultan Sulaiman Club in Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur.

Still, it never occurred to her then that she would one day be involved in politics. In fact, she was studying very hard, trying to pursue her dreams of becoming a doctor.

Carelessness, however, caused the top student to fail in her favourite subject, chemistry, which was then one of requirements for entrance into the science stream at pre-university.

On the bright side, Rafidah discovered economics as one of the more interesting subjects, and later excelled in it at university.

And as fate would have it, Rafidah's qualifications later catapulted her to the position of the economics bureau chief for Wanita UMNO. She was 24 then when the venerable late Tun Dr Fatimah Hashim appointed her to the position without her knowledge.

Six years later, at 30, Rafidah was appointed a senator. In 1987, she became International Trade and Industry Minister and remained in that position until 2008.

Iron lady

During her tenure as minister, Rafidah earned the nickname Iron Lady of Malaysia. People like to label. It's ok to me. In fact, I find it quite flattering as it's an acknowledgement that I get things done for my country, Rafidah says.

In the international arena, she had often been compared with the likes of Britain's Iron Lady and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as well as US former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

I don't like to be compared with anybody because I am what I am. Maybe we do share the same faade of exterior sternness or aggressiveness, but for me it's not just a faade, it's really me, she says.

International leaders know too well that it's never easy to move this tough cookie, or to convince her to change her stance. My basic principle is this: I'm working for my country and its people, and I won't compromise my country's interest for anything, Rafidah explains.

Future in the young

Rafidah maintains that no matter how significant one's career is, it is important to maintain a balance between work responsibilities and the needs of one's family.

It's a very simple thing to do, actually. When you are in the office, you devote wholeheartedly to your career. When you return home, you should just drop everything else and focus on your responsibilities and role in the family, Rafidah says.

For me and my husband, we have always consciously done that to keep the family together, she adds.

Recalling the way she used to discipline her children, two of whom are lawyers and one a chartered accountant, Rafidah says: They learnt it the hard way' my pinching them when they are naughty.

She laments the fact that there is a lack of discipline and a rising social problem among the youths nowadays. Not meaning to sound rhetoric, but merely to emphasise the truth, Rafidah says: The young is our future... nations can go haywire' or into basket-case situations if their young do not lend support to nation-building. We have to grill into the minds of the young and find ways to guide them to the right path, she says.

Nation building

Says Rafidah: I believe that as Malaysians, we all share the same destiny, so to me 1Malaysia is not just a concept, it's a reality.

In that respect, it is understandable that she gets so upset when she talks about people who are just echoing 1Malaysia without explaining and understanding its true meaning.

We won't get 1Malaysia by echoing what the PM (Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak) says. Neither will we get 1Malaysia by having logos printed on our t-shirts, Rafidah explains.

The PM has set the direction. The rest of us, please roll up our sleeves and do our bid to realise that vision, she adds, while voicing her concern over the rising number of politicians playing up racial issues to gain political mileage.

It also pains her heart to see some Malaysians criticising and condemning the Government to the foreigners. Our country is practically heaven. I know because I've travelled all over the world, she says.

Rafidah reckons that allegiance to the country and the semangat muhibbah are values that must be cultivated from young, but she stresses the importance of feeding the people the right information the truth about what the Government has done and what it has not done to prevent misunderstanding.

Look, we are a country (made up) of human beings, so do not expect 100% perfection. If anyone wants perfection, then please, die and go to heaven that's where perfection is, she jibes.

True to herself, Rafidah never minces her words. But all said and done, she says: I believe in this: Don't do harm or bad things to other people. People can do bad things to you, but you shouldn't respond the same way or harbour any hard feelings in you.

PERSONAL: Married to Tan Sri Mohd Basir Ahmad, with two daughters and one son, and five grandchildren

HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: BA Economics, Universiti Malaya 1966; and Masters in Economics, Universiti Malaya 1970.

CAREER: Politician; Member of Parliament for the constituency of Kuala Kangsar (since 1986); former Minister of International Trade and Industry (1987 to 2008); former chief of United Malays National Organisation's Woman Wing; and Chairman of MATRADE since 1991


HOBBY: Evolves according to different phases of life from collecting various ornaments, including animal figurines such as ducks, birds and oil lamps to golf and window-shopping

VALUES: Always strive to do the best that you can in everything

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