It was a short low-key social visit, with the Sultan Azlan Shah Lecture being her only official public event. Amidst the tight security, Cherie Blair found time to quietly meet up with a cross spectrum of Malaysians and also for a one-on-one interview with Sunday Star
THE New York Times once wrote: “Cherie Blair is viewed as something of a wonder woman for her ability to balance her high-powered professional life, high-visibility public life and intensely consuming private life.”
Her husband, Prime Minister Tony Blair, has given his wife credit for being “...an enormous source of strength and an extraordinary person in her own right. I never know how she manages with all the different things she does –the work, the family.”
The common remark of those who have come into contact with her during her low-key social visit to Malaysia was, “she is so warm, genuine and charming”.
Because of the tight security, there was very little news about her whereabouts. Her only official function was to be the guest speaker of this year’s Sultan Azlan Shah Lecture Series, which was held at the Shangri-La Hotel on Tuesday.
But she did meet up with a cross-section of people including children, leading women, senior government officials, royalty and diplomats.
According to Datuk Seri Dr Visu Sinnadurai, who was instrumental in bringing her over for the lecture, and accompanied her to most of the events, “Her charm, intellect and personality overwhelms me, and I am sure many others. She is genuinely curious to know more about our country. In all my years organising such talks, I must say that this has been the most invigorating and rewarding experience so far.”
For the first time ever, more than 2,000 people showed up to listen to Cherie expound on the role of the judiciary in a human rights world. Prof Khaw Lake Tee, Dean of the Law Faculty at Universiti Malaya, said this was by far the most well-attended lecture since the series started in 1986.
“With the added security measures, it was a quite a challenge but our team did a wonderful job,” she said.
Cherie spoke in a smooth, measured tone, in her capacity as a well-acknowledged human rights lawyer, and kept politics out of her address.
Lawyer Raja Aziz Addruse described her speech as “excellent, the general remarks are clear enough on what she wanted to convey”.
Having been embroiled in much controversy, especially in the British media, it was understandable that the people behind her trip wanted to minimise her public remarks. One could imagine what might happen if she had to field questions from the floor after her lecture, especially if they were aimed more at her husband.
Our first contact with her was during her visit to the Islamic Arts Museum, the morning after she quietly arrived at the KLIA.
Looking fresh, with no signs of jet lag, she spent more than two hours at the museum.
Towards the end of the tour, she was pleasantly surprised when she met up with a group of students from the Sekolah Agama KAFA Al-Raihan, Kajang. The exclusive picture taken by Art Chen of her surrounded by these children appeared in The Star’s front page on Monday.
As of that point, I was still not sure if I could get an exclusive interview with her, which had been tentatively scheduled for Wednesday.
On Wednesday, together with photographer Darran Tan, we waited somewhere in the heart of the city, for the confirmation.
An SMS message came through instructing us to head for the 28th floor of the hotel. The security was extremely tight but once we got through, she welcomed us warmly like old friends.
She laughingly remarked that the batik I was wearing must be more comfortable than the suit I wore when she first met me at the museum.
The first thing she did was to autograph a copy of the front page picture to present to the school where the children came from.
It was about tea time. She looked relaxed even though her day’s events had run behind schedule.
Because of the limitations of her time, we had prepared some questions ahead but she started by asking me questions, especially about my successful battle with cancer.
It was perhaps this personal item on my CV that allowed me access to her despite her very busy schedule.
We spoke about how important early detection was and how we can all do our part to promote cancer awareness.
Despite the prepared questions, there were no prepared answers on her table. It was a free-flow chat which even included remarks about Laura Bush’s reference to the TV series Desperate Housewives.
“No, I don’t watch Desperate Housewives. It was on English TV but I haven’t managed to catch it. I understand that even your TV station is showing the series,” she laughed.
As we got on to the questions proper, especially with regard to her work on cancer, the passion resonated in her answers. She had so much to share and towards the end, I could see the anxious looks on the faces of her aides as they pointed to their watches to remind her that time was up.
Asked how she felt about the timing of her visit especially with her husband having to deal with such a serious crisis back home, she said she is glad to be able to carry on with her schedule in the same way her husband is able to do his job.
“I am very proud of my husband and very glad he is where he is at the moment.”
She sportingly posed for photographs, and as she surveyed the Kuala Lumpur skyline from the window, remarked how she wished she could see more of the country.
It was a sentiment echoed by her aides, including the officer from Scotland Yard, who hoped to be able to return to Malaysia for a longer visit.
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