Still as sharp, still as savvy

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 11 May 2014

DESPITE having left the political scene for many years, former Cabinet minister Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz is as busy as ever. The ‘Iron Lady’, who is chairman of three companies - Air Asia X, Megasteel Sdn Bhd and Pinewood Studios -  shares her thoughts on a wide range of issues, from GST to Malay rights’ groups and the social media in an exclusive interview with RAHMAH GHAZALI and RASHVINJEET S BEDI.

> How is life after retirement from politics?

No, I haven’t retired from politics. I just retired from my political posts. How can you retire from politics? Politics is in my blood. I’m still interested in what’s going on in life, in politics, economics. One cannot be not interested in all these things. Your life depends on all these things.

> You’ve been following the political situation closely?

Well, not closely but following enough to know what’s happening. Too closely kadang kadang not worth following. People start splitting hairs, not worth my time. I only follow the major things, not innocuous things that are divisive.

> What have you been doing since retiring from your political posts?

I’m chairman of three companies and am also in the London Speaker Bureau, so I get invited to speak in and out of the country very often. Next month, I will be speaking in Universiti Utara Malaysia, where I am a professor, and I get involved in their work pertaining to industry. Numerous organisations keep calling me (and) private sector companies invite me for their regional conferences. This means I have to be alert to what’s happening as far as government policies are concerned if I want to talk about Malaysia. I don’t just go there to talk about a subject. I make it a point to relate it to Malaysia because there are foreigners. Or even if there are local people, they must know what the government is doing. That’s why I say keeping tabs of government policies is important for me - whether it’s the insurance sector or financial sector. I enjoy doing all this. 

Apart from that, I have been travelling with my husband. We have decided to spend most of our free time travelling. Once in a while, we go off as a whole family, otherwise mostly it’s my husband and I. The rest of the time I relax at home. I go out and eat like normal people do.

> What do you think of the government implementing the Goods and Services Tax (GST)?

It has been debated for years as long as I can remember but unfortunately, we do not seem to be telling the stories appropriately. We want to use the kind of information dissemination as we would use for branding something. We use huge billboards. I see one in my area here that says GST is not charged for education. What for? That billboard is a few hundred thousand dollars. Nobody’s worried about education. There isn’t direct communication with the Rakyat. 

I see bar charts, graphs, all kinds of diagrams showing how the GST is going to be implemented. Even I at my age find it off-putting to have to slog through all that information. Too much information can be a burden to everybody. As a result, it can be manipulated. Why not have a simple way of communicating? The type of communication I know those days, we mobilise people. I was head of Wanita Umno, we arm ourselves with brochures and pamphlets and go out to the respective branches. This is the way we were doing it before.

> Do you support the GST?

Yes, I do because the government has assured there will be all those relevant exemptions and it is more efficient. In other words, the principle of having it should not be debated. It’s how you explain it and finally come up with it. Don’t talk about how we will continue to study exemptions. People will become nervous. So why not once and for all get feedback from industries and whatever, on what needs to be exempted? Come out straightaway and the rakyat will be happy. I always mention that if we have something good, let the whole world know about it.

I don’t know who we are delegating to do the explanation. It’s very human to be wary of something you don’t understand.  When we had double digit inflation back in the 70s, it was such havoc.  But we went down to the grassroots to explain. We told them that it was beyond our control. For example, (imported) milk, because it came from Australia or New Zealand and because of inflation, the price of things went up. We told these people who had children, there was a way out. If you have a baby or are expecting a baby, don’t expect to budget for canned milk. You have mothers’ milk, which is the best milk and is free. Breastfeed your baby for the next six or seven months. 

And I always made a joke, why do you think God made mothers’ milk? God made cow’s milk for baby cows and you want to feed your child that milk? The message went through. You have your own milk and you do everything to stop it from flowing. Take this herb and that herb. When you do that, don’t complain to the government because there is free milk there. 

And then men complain everything goes up. But you smoke. Your salaries are not increasing, fine. But how many packets you smoke a day? Three packets, four packets… reduce. In other words, it’s telling them that there are ways of mitigating something like this. 

For the GST, it’s not like something we cannot handle. It is something that’s going to happen. Unless we explain it properly in a way that people understand, it’s going to be debated forever. And there are people who will always exploit when they realise it’s not getting through to the rakyat. 

> What about the TPPA?

We have to make sure when we negotiate this, we do a thorough cost and benefit analysis. At the moment, we can benefit more than what we sacrifice, that’s the time you advise the government to sign it. It should never be politicised. 

I remember when we wanted to open our rice industry to the Americans those days. It was so politicised. They said the farmers would go down the drain. I said "What are you talking about? Our import from the US is a very specific rice, which we imported not only from America but other countries as well. No more than 400 tonnes a year. And we import more than 400,000 tonnes from Thailand. If you think importing rice or opening up the industry would kill farmers, then stop importing from Thailand." 

See how it can get politicised? I went on TV because somebody raised the issue and the newspapers carried it. It’s a no brainer. You open up and the farmers will suffer. Four hundred tonnes a year? You know what this rice is for? Sushi, the sticky rice. If we produce the rice and some farmer complained, I can understand. We don’t produce the rice.

Seriously, when you politicise anything, that’s what happens. And I hate to see things being politicised when it should never be. In this country, there is always someone doing it for the sake of getting some mileage or brownie points.

> What is your view on Hudud?

I don’t even read about this debate anymore because it’s of no relevance anymore.To me, (there are) better things to look at. The way it’s being debated, why should I even bother to read about it? Why waste my time and clutter my mind?

> Recently there seems to be a rise in the number of Malay rights groups such as Isma and Perkasa. How do you view these groups?

(Sighs) I don’t want to even go there. I’m a very nationalistic person. And a nationalistic Malay to boot. I’ve always been. My father was like that. I was nurtured that way but I have a different perception of nationalism as a Malaysian from Malay roots. My nationalism is equal to doing the best I can, being the best Malay and best Malaysian I can and performing to the best of my abilities. When people look at me, whatever I do, they will see the good of Malaysia and the Malaysian in me. 

If collectively this is all we do, can you imagine... people will only see the good about Malaysians. Of course if you are a Malay, it’s a boost to your own roots. That’s my idea of nationalism. 

I just don’t want to be a Malaysian or a Malaysian Malay at the lowest bottom rung of the economy.

What purpose does it serve? It gives such a bad image of my country, doesn’t it? 

So every Malaysian, every Malay, every Chinese, every Indian should strive to be the best so that they carry the Malaysian flag all the time. That is my message when I talk to universities, to private sector staff and all that. If you do the best and your company produces the best products, then you have done your duty to be nationalistic. That is my interpretation. I don’t care what others think. It’s immaterial to me.

> Do you plan your own schedule?

Of course. My secretary never organises my schedule. Once many years ago, she agreed for me to go to a dinner when I’d already made up my mind to play golf that Wednesday evening. I told her that she could go for it. She was stunned. So from that moment onwards, she has never done it again.
People will always understand if you can’t go for something, you (just) have to explain. If you have family matter, you just say no.  Don’t just say no for no's sake. Don’t just say yes for yes' sake and end up with three functions in a row without seeing the completion of any. You manage your time, not your staff.

> Why is time management important?

There are only 24 hours in a day and almost half that time is spent sleeping, leaving you 12,13,14 hours. You better make sure what you want to do, you do it that day. If you postpone to the next day, you become complacent. So I am very particular about my schedule. I have schedules on two phones and on a hard copy diary. If this phone goes bonkers or gets stolen, I have my diary as backup.

> What would you consider your biggest priority in life?

I’ve always prioritised what makes me happy, (which is) balancing time with family and what I want to do. Those days when I had a job, I had to balance with family and politics. Now my job is in a different context, so keeping this balance to the best of my ability brings me happiness and contentment. As long as I find myself content and letting it flow, that is it. That’s happiness. 
You might be surprised with this but I am always grateful and thanking Allah daily for what I have. I always tell my children aren’t we lucky that we are able to do what we want to do? After two years (of retirement), I got three chairmanships, which enables us to live the kind of life we were living before. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do the things I want to do. You cannot imagine how grateful I am. 

> Does Wanita Umno seek advice from you?

Once in a while, whenever they try to complain. Well, you choose your leaders, end of story. That’s my stark reply. I don’t entertain so much. I have no time for triviliaties, it’s a waste of time.  We have so many things to do in life.

> Do you go back to your old constituency?

No, whatever for? I wasn’t even invited for Hari Raya, they forgot. But it doesn’t matter. They did invite two days before the thing, I said what? They assumed I was invited and when they checked, I wasn’t invited. I’m not hard up to go.

I’m one of those who does not pretend. If I don’t like the food, I don’t take it. Too salty or sour, I will say. I won’t swallow what people give to me and I don’t care if I’m the MP. You know why? People have to be told. If it’s not nice, you have to tell them so they don’t repeat. 

> Do you think Malaysians need more outspoken people, like someone who calls a spade a spade?

No, we need people to say what should be said. You can brand it anything you like, do not hide behind the facade, do not twist and turn words and issues so it doesn’t come out right. Do not have spindoctors to craft messages that mean nothing, but sounds right. Don’t do that. We should have people, ordinary people, leaders at any level just say what is right and people must accept it. Don’t play politics all the time. 

You know, everybody has their own opinion on things, right? The reason why I think people don’t want to speak their minds truthfully or frankly is because people tend to politicise what you say, even when you say from the goodness of your heart.For example, I said, I’m a Malaysian first because I cannot say I am a Malay when I go overseas. When people ask me, what are you, and I say, I’m a Malay, they’d ask, where is Malay? They won’t know. Because you have Capetown Malay, Brunei Malay, Singapore Malay, Indonesian Malay, Cambodian Malay. 

But when I say, I’m Malaysian, they would say, oh right, Malaysia. And I would also say, I’m Malaysian and I am from the Malay stock and if I happen to be with a Chinese friend, she’s Malaysian also but she’s from the Chinese stock. When people say they are Malay first, that means you have no state lah. You are a stateless Malay. Is that right? 

So I speak like that, but people say I’m not nationalistic. I already found what nationalistic means to me, I would speak because I don’t care. I would say things that I feel are right.

> Is that why people call you the ‘Iron Lady’?

(laughs) Thank you lah for the moniker, it’s just me. I’m just Rafidah. I hate to be compared to (Margaret) Thatcher. No, she’s hardly me in that sense. I think the only similarity we have is that we are frank in what we say. I had meetings with her and I liked the way she said it. When I was in the ministry, there was a glowing report. It said there was a 100% increase in the (number of) applications, that was very nice. But the stupid idiot didn’t check, it was from two to four. You mean you can only get four applications the whole year? What are you doing, sitting in your armchair? If you say from 200 to 400, I congratulate you. I tend to be thorough, not meticulous. 

> Do you miss the Cabinet?

No, no, no. I don’t miss anything in my past life at all. Zero. Because I’ve always had this mindset earlier on. I’m in politics and politics is at the disposal at your leaders. If they don’t want you, they say no. So you always have to be prepared to retire. That’s why I insisted for Cabinet to pay us our gratuity when we reach 55, just like every civil servant. So Tun (Dr Mahathir Mohamad) got it, and started waving his cheques and we all got it at the same time. When you ask whether I miss it (Cabinet), I don’t. I had this mindset from earlier on, when Dollah (Tun Abdullah Badawi) said, you’re not in my Cabinet, I said, thank you very much and I moved on. 

> How would you compare Tun Dr Mahathir’s tenure and Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s administration?

I’m not in Najib’s administration so I cannot compare. But I thoroughly enjoyed working with Tun Mahathir. Of course, it was not smooth sailing but I remember I was as hard-headed as he was. We were both stubborn but it was all for the good. We had our differences and sometimes, I became quite childish because I didn’t have my way. But decisions were made the way they should be. I enjoyed it because it was about public service. In fact, my former colleagues, when we met, we talked about how committed we were to public service. It’s amazing that we just wanted to do things better. I can’t explain it,  but that’s what it was - to sacrifice time, our personal time, to make things better.

You just see us as we are, like (Datuk Seri) Samy Vellu - you see him as he is, in and out of Cabinet. There’s no image consultant us telling us how to pose, or smile, no. 

We just said it because it needed to be said. No pretences. No image consultant, no PR spinners. We only had one press secretary, who was from the media, who actually did not spin the story, but tell the story as it should be because they were professionals. So, the rakyat did not have much to pick on those issues and for me, that was a very satisfying tenure because it was there on the table and you discussed it.

You can shout for all you care if you think that is right. But that’s fine. We respected each other as friends. And, of course, I remember Tun Mahathir. From the beginning, he asked me to call him ‘Che Det’. So I said, sir, I can’t. You are my father’s age. He accepted that. And I learned from him - be friends first so that you break down all this false facade. People know you for what you are and therefore you know what you stand for. And that is important, especially when you govern the country.

> Who would you say are your good friends?

They were all my good friends because we all shared the same ideals (and) wavelength. The closest to me, because we interacted more because they were sitting next to me, were people like Samy Vellu, the late (Tan Sri) Sulaiman Daud, (Tun Dr) Lim Keng Yaik, (Tun Dr) Ling Liong Sik, and (Tan Sri) Sanusi Junid. But they left earlier than I. I stayed on a little bit longer. 

> How will you celebrate Mothers Day?

I won’t be here, unfortunately. Fortunately for us, we have our family dinners or lunches once a week. So missing this Mothers Day is not really of importance because that can be made up another day. We had our family dinner on Sunday. Normally my daughter-in-law organises the functions. For family lunches, we ask our youngest grandson. We call him the dictator.  He will tell you where he wants to go. I want them to enjoy the food, because if they go to a restaurant which we fancy, they might not like the food. I don’t like to see the grandchildren not eating.

Can you imagine, I have five grandchildren, five of them are either together looking at the gadget, or some will have their own. So iPads are banned from social gathering. And it’s not just happening in my family. It’s happening everywhere. What are we turning into? Anti-social human beings?  That is not social, that’s anti-social media. How can we be social media? Social means it helps to really connect and interact anywhere.

> Are you a tech-savvy person?

I wouldn’t say that but because of my work today, I do not have offices anywhere because I do not want to be rooted to any office space. So I work with my iPad, my smartphone. And I work through emails. Every morning, I would check my email. 

I’m on Facebook but sadly I just read (the postings) once in two weeks, something like that. I see people showing kuih, putu kacang, my God, what a waste of time on technology. Check in foursquare, coffeehouse, a post about muffin, is this what people do with their lives? Is that what you do with your high-tech phone? Once in a while, I see somebody having some real worthwhile post, such as MH370.

When I see food upon food upon food, or some fighting with their boyfriends, what am I doing? I don’t know these people, I don’t know who tagged me to their posts. How did that happen? How do I unfriend them?

> Who do you have in your friends list?

Not many people. When I started earlier on, I got my family members. And then after all the tagging and I found my niece, she said, ‘I am bored’. What the hell? Thirty-something-year-old and you’re bored? And I whacked her right there and then. You can do a lot, read something, clean up your kitchen. Of course it irritates her, but don’t tell the whole world you’re  bored. What’s stupidly wrong with you? In this life, which is so hectic, you’re bored? Surely there must be a lot of things to do.

>It is known that most politicians now have PR and image consultants to look ‘cool’ to the people.

 I think it is the culture now, people want to look good, look cool, whatever instead of being good, being cool. There is a big difference between looking something and being something. Looking fierce and being fierce are two different things. Looking sweet and being sweet are two different things. Looking smart and being smart are totally different things. 

You can make an idiot look smart but you cannot make the idiot smart. So why don’t we just be smart? The smartness will shine without being groomed to look smart. That’s how I look at it. I’m not talking about politicians but everybody. Just be yourself.

I have had this opinion from very young. When I was dating my husband, he came to my house to see me after his lectures in the evening, which is about 9pm. He asked, “are you sleeping yet?”, I said “no”. Can I come? he asked. I was ready to go to bed and had my caftan on. I had pimples and Nixoderm all over my face. When my mum asked, “don’t you need to wash off your face first?” I said, let it be. If he wants me for who I am, he wouldn’t care what I look like. This is what he is going to marry. And true enough, when he appeared at the door, he was taken aback but I didn’t care. This is what I am and if he is not happy, well, too bad (laughs). 

> How long were you dating?

From my Upper Six in 1962, we dated for four years and got married two months after graduation.

> Was it love at first sight?

For him (laughs). I mean, I don’t fall in love, because I have never read (romantic) story books or novels. What is love? I don’t fantasise you know, love, romance. It is just feeling that you care. I don’t have that kind of emotion. For me, it’s all artificial. 

> Was he your only boyfriend?

Yes. I had so my guy friends back in the days. He’s five years older than I, so he was on a different wavelength. He was mature and could easily connect with me. We bought our first car, and what did I do? I had tuition classes, earning some extra money to help pay for the car installments because he couldn’t pay for himself. And we were not even engaged then. I told my parents that I didn’t like him to walk or go to work by bus and I didn’t want to do the same thing. So it made sense for both of us to have a car so he got to send me to university.

> What is your favourite part of the house?

My bedroom. It has always been. Our bedroom is not a bedroom per se. Our bedroom has got a microwave oven, a fridge, a kettle. It’s like a mini apartment for my husband and I.

> Do you have an exercise regime?

I don’t. But I think my lifestyle is exercise. I’m not sedentary. I’m quite mobile. I go up and down doing things. Berkemas sana sini. My wardrobe is an exercise in itself, for example. Cleaning the toilets and bathrooms is one exercise.

> You do your own chores at home?

In my bedroom only. Cleaning bathroom and toilets, everything. It’s our bedroom, why should anybody enter it? Only in the hotel they allow that to happen. In my bedroom, no one is allowed to enter except family.

> Can we say you are a perfectionist?

No, but I’m a little bit meticulous.

> How do your grandchildren see you? 

I am not garang but I would say what needs to be said. I am not blunt but I am just being forthright.

> Do you think people misconstrue you?

For people who understand me, no. Those who don’t understand me have never met me. 

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Politics , Rafidah Aziz


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