AFTER two decades of political struggle, Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah Anwar is now the scion of Malaysia’s leading political family - her mother Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail is Deputy Prime Minister, while her father Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is widely seen as the Prime Minister-in-waiting.
Those connections could have come in handy for a plum position in the new government, and she most definitely would have been a popular pick. But speaking to her in person, with all her idealism and charisma, you'd know she wouldn't let something like a title (or lack thereof) get in the way her from her role as a proud reformist.
Despite not being part of the new cabinet line-up, Nurul Izzah has continued to be vocal on many issues.
“Reforms must be the basis on which we perform our work and fulfil our responsibilities,” she said during an exclusive interview with R.AGE.
“Politicians can come and go, but long-lasting institutional reforms would be the bulwark to protect you against transgressions from anybody.” And that includes the Prime Minister's Office, she added.
On the historic first day of Parliament under the Pakatan Harapan government, she spoke candidly to R.AGE about her role as a reformist, female representation in politics, the importance of a free press, and the big question - whether she is Malay first, or Malaysian first.
First of all, the question on everybody’s minds: is Radiohead coming to Malaysia?
It’s very complicated! We have to try and organise a discussion and address some of the problems in regards to their position vis-a-vis the Palestinian cause, and also in regards to them not performing in countries that have capital punishment. These are the considerations, but I’ll definitely pursue it. A promise is a promise, and you have to do your best to fulfil your pledge.
Was there a moment in your life that inspired you to go into politics?
The most crucial moment was the night of my father’s arrest, September 20, 1998. I was never forced to face a real gun pointed at my siblings (before that). I was scared, but I was more angry than anything else. Outraged that this could happen against an innocent man.
I told myself then that there was no way I could let them dictate my life through fear. I could not run away from the transgressions against my country, against human rights, against political and civil liberties.
That pushed my work through (human rights organisation) Suaram and Abim (the Muslim Youth Oragnisation of Malaysia), and by the time 2008 came, it was an awakening of sorts. It made me realise that politics is an important vocation, and you can really fulfil your ideals through it.
You’ve referred to yourself as a “reformist”. What does reform mean to you, and how do you think we can achieve it?
When you talk about reforms, you have to be relevant to the needs of the time, and understand that things have to be improved over time, whether it’s the political system, to ensure there’s sufficient check and balances; having a working and vibrant opposition which exists alongside the government of the day, or whether it’s the judiciary. Remember, the choice of judges, the appointment of judges - all this must be done in accordance with the rule of law to showcase our commitment for an independent judiciary.
Similarly with the media, the fourth estate, which is a work in progress. Who could imagine that TV3 or RTM would give coverage to many of us who were basically blacklisted for so long? But does it mean we are not going to improve current conditions so that we can feature politicians from across the political divide without fear or favour?
So there are many things to me which are important moving forward, but reforms must be the basis on which we perform our work and fulfil our responsibilities.
Politicians can come and go, but long-lasting institutional reforms would be the bulwark to protect you against transgressions from anybody.
I always say we have a problem because in Malaysia, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is like a leviathan of sorts. It basically swallows whole every other department and branches of governance.
There needs to be sufficient checks against the possible excesses of the PMO.
What do you think about political participation among the youth in Malaysia?
We have to be less condescending and more embracing of the young.
Of course, you can always see ways to improve, but an 82% turn-out rate on election day is something to be celebrated. If many of the young people didn’t turn out, then we would not see the change we are enjoying today.
And the process is not easy, mind you, to be part of the electoral roll. It’s not like in America where you can immediately register and vote on the same day - no way, jose.
Was there a moment during election day, or election night, when you realised - this is actually happening?
It was the first time I brought my son Harith with me. We were keeping tabs of the results and ballot boxes as they were coming in. We were in Permatang Pauh (her constituency), of course.
I told Harith to check the scores, (explained) how to tabulate, the number of seats, which party is contesting…. And then, he said “wow mama, I didn’t know Keadilan was winning so many seats!”
And when Puncak Borneo - Puncak Borneo - fell into Keadilan’s hands, that’s when we knew something was up, because a seat like that, in Sarawak… that showed this huge tectonic political shift in favour of PH.
So that was the moment, when he was saying to me: “Wait, mama did we just win this seat? Because you told me Sarawak was a fixed deposit!’
I said, ‘yeah, it is their stronghold, but who knows, maybe we’re in for a surprise?’
But I knew then that we were looking at a change in government at the federal level. It was very surreal.
Women’s rights organisations have called for more female cabinet ministers. Why is female participation in Malaysian politics still relatively low?
We have below 15% women represented in Parliament, and the numbers have not improved over the years. So in Keadilan, we came out with a (promise of) 30% representation in terms of candidacy and policy-making (positions).
I think it’s also about making sure it’s not just a push for it, there also has to be, equally, a demand for it. The push and pull factor have to gel in order to make sure it bear fruit.
And I always say this - don’t dictate. Don’t assume that everyone wants a career. Give that freedom for women. Ensure the environment is conducive for them, whether it’s through flexi-work policies, or more childcare centres, because the most important thing about empowerment is the right to choose. And I think we lose sight (of that) when we decide one way or the other. So from Keadilan’s perspective, we have to make the environment much more easy for women to participate in.
And I must tell you it’s tough, (when you’re in) campaign mode. I try very hard to shape the environment, the political scene, to fit the role of a woman, but there are moments where I felt it’s quite challenging when you’re bringing up two children. Whatever it may be, perhaps more awareness, I’m so glad there’s more pushing back against child marriages in Malaysia, as well as a degree of awareness, even in the conservative segment, against sexual harassment.
It was reported you did not want a position in the Cabinet. Can you tell us why?
[Curtly] Yes, it was reported. And I’m really tired of addressing this issue - I think I’ve addressed it a thousand and one times. And I’ve said that regardless of what was reported, my main rallying call is to ask everyone to participate and contribute to this government, because we all have ideas, our own issues we feel dearly or care for.
I’ll continue to do my work, including in the TVET committee. I want to make sure the activist in me continues to live on regardless. Sometimes, even for ministers in cabinet, they do not dictate the future of policies. Because they have to be representatives of our voice. They have to fulfil pledges and programmes that benefit us.
So to that end, it’s always good to keep an open mind, whether in or outside of cabinet.
Is Pakatan Harapan concerned about naming a Prime Minister-in-waiting who has not been democratically elected?
Right now, as a coalition, we have been very committed to fulfilling our pledges, including our akad - our promise - to each other. That’s very important.
That meant the bulk of those who were voted in have adhered and supported a set of policy moves and decisions to guide us moving forward. And that’s how I see it.
For example, when there were suggestions that another prime minister be chosen other than Tun Mahathir Mohamad, it was clearly rejected, because again, you are only worth your word. And that’s what binds us, and what makes me proud to be who I am and doing what I can do. Because if you lose sight of your own credibility, then you’re left with nothing else.
Malaysia’s first female Deputy Prime Minister (Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail) will be stepping down to, so to speak, accommodate the Prime Minister-in-waiting. Are you concerned about the message that might send to the Malaysian public?
This actually shouldn’t be discussed, even now. We all have our roles to play, and we also have clear cut decisions that have to be made, problems that have to be solved in the time that the DPM is holding office. And I don’t think this has even been discussed, so this is really more about the assumptions that are being made in this interview, rather than what’s taking place.
Of course, there may be a transition, but right now, her focus is to fulfil her roles and responsibilities, and the pledges she has made.
We hope you don’t mind if we press you a bit more on this - what we’re asking is the message it might send to the public, having the DPM to step down for the Prime Minister-in-waiting…
It all depends, in terms of the timing, whether you’ve finished the key roles and responsibilities you were assigned for… and this is not even in discussion now - that’s my response for you. I cannot hypothetically answer, when the focus, other than the party elections, is to ensure the DPM performs her role accordingly.
What are your thoughts on the state of journalism in Malaysia, and what do you think needs to change?
This Parliament session, we’ll be bringing up the abolition of the Printing Presses and Publications Act, and the setting up of a media council. That bill has been prepared since 2010, but never saw the light of day.
It’s good that we have our thoughts and ideas, but we can’t ignore the stakeholders themselves. We have to engage them in a fruitful manner and ask them what can be done to improve things.
Malaysia needs a very vibrant media, vibrant journalism, as sufficient reminder to politicians to always toe the Malaysian line.
One of the things that struck me throughout the years was that R.AGE allows for the voices of the youth to be represented - not many media outlets have that realisation.
It’s important to understand and celebrate that they want their voices to be represented in a particular way they feel comfortable with. I hope more media outlets will be more aligned with relevant issues, because I don’t like when (the media) talks about youth, you automatically equate it with fun and trivial matters; whereas R.AGE chose to address issues like sexual grooming, child marriages... and that is a testament to what youth believe in - not merely concerts, and all that jazz.
Lastly, and this is a question that was asked to your father recently - are you a Malay or Malaysian first?
My answer has always been that we are Malaysians. That’s how we have to grapple with is. Accept it. Embrace it. Doesn’t mean I’m not proud of my Malay heritage, identity or culture, and where I came from, my fatherland, Permatang Pauh. These are part and parcel of who I am. We’re about nation-building. We’re about convincing my children that this country loves them, and they have to love it equally in return. So the answer is clear. We are all Malaysians, and we need to really drive home that fact in a climate that’s often polarised on many issues and many fronts.
* R.AGE is an acclaimed investigative documentary team under The Star. It recently won the Kajai Award, Malaysia's top honour for journalism, for the second year running. Follow their stories at fb.com/thestarrage and youtube.com/rageonlinetv.