Next year will be the 30th in politics for Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz but the Cabinet’s ‘Wonder Woman ’ shows no sign of slowing down.In fact,she seems set for another term of office,writes JOCELINEE TAN.
THERE is something very interesting about Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz these days. The extraordinary Wanita Umno leader and Minister of International Trade and Industry seems to be moving from strength to strength.
In recent months, the perception among many Umno politicians is that her skills and knowledge are so unique that she can be assured of joining the post-Mahathir Cabinet.
Her position in the party has never been steadier or more on-course. Her Wanita colleagues speak glowingly of her and during the last party general assembly, she was mobbed by the women members every time she stepped down from the stage.
They would begin to gather near the steps of the stage or by the door at the end of each session for a chance to say hello and to shake hands. So many of them wanted to have their photographs taken with her that reporters were often asked to do the clicking.
The more elderly ones would hold her hands or hug her the way they would a daughter who had done them proud, never mind that this Umno politician will touch 60 at the end of this year.
If the man of the day at the last Umno general assembly was Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the woman of the day has to be Rafidah.
As far as the Umno women were concerned, they had a celebrity in her.
Much of it also has to do with the way she held the movement together during the party crisis following the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim. She had demonstrated her leadership without trepidation.
“She has also done a fantastic job at Miti,” said Johor Mentri Besar Datuk Ghani Othman.
At a recent Thai-Malaysia dialogue on business and technology partnership in Langkawi, think-tanker Tan Sri Dr Noordin Sopiee introduced Rafidah as “a Malaysian institution.”
And the minister did not disappoint. She spoke expertly, virtually without notes. It was vintage Rafidah – you get your money’s worth, and more.
At one stage during question time, she even urged the participants in her crisp-as-keropok voice: “Come on, come on, ask me more questions. I’m here to answer any of your questions.”
“She was just great. I’m very proud of her,” said Kedah executive councillor Rosnah Majid, a long-time admirer.
The minute her session at the dialogue ended, she and Rosnah rushed off to meet local Wanita Umno grassroots leaders.
As usual, she knew many of them by name, even those whom she had not seen for some time. This is one of her talents – an ability to remember almost everyone she has met by name.
She talked to them about preparations for the general election, about keeping up to date with their “Kumpulan Sepuluh” programme, where each Wanita is assigned to be in charge of 10 households.
“She moved from an international scenario to a kampung setting just like that, so naturally. I’ve seen her do it so many times and still I am amazed,” said Rosnah.
Rafidah, it is said, was peeved when told she was enjoying a new popularity.
Her loyalists, like Kangar Wanita division head Azihani Ali, insist that their lady boss has “always been popular and well-liked.”
“She is so outstanding but when she comes down to the kampung, she behaves like one of us,” said Azihani who was only 10 when Rafidah visited her house in Perlis to see her father, who later became Mentri Besar of the state.
But her supporters seem to have forgotten the time when she lost by a slim margin to Datuk Siti Zaharah Sulaiman in the Umno polls of 1996. Rafidah was already at her peak as Miti Minister and the defeat stunned everyone.
The criticism against her then was that she was too involved in her ministerial duties and had neglected her responsibilities as a woman political leader.
Many, especially the men in Umno, insist that she has mellowed a great deal although that has not made her any less driven in her work since her comeback in the 2000 party polls.
In fact, it is hard to find many men in Umno who are critical of her these days. Alternatively, it could be that the men have decided to accept her for what she is.
“Most of us guys admire her, some openly, others grudgingly,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based Umno professional.
Even Kelantan politician Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who can be quite stringent in his compliments, has described her as “so intelligent and hard-working.” He also likes to add for the benefit of his listeners that Rafidah used to be his deputy in the Finance Ministry.
Said Rozai Shafian, assemblyman for Sungai Tiang, Kedah: “She enjoys real respect especially among the civil servants. I have always been a silent admirer.”
Yet, just four or five years ago, many of the men in Umno had little to say about her.
They conceded that she was brainy and a capable minister but chastised her for a variety of reasons – for not wearing a tudung, for what they saw as her impatience and arrogance and for not going down to the ground more frequently.
They even made unkind remarks about her figure, dressing and hairstyle.
One of those who have begun to see her in a new light is Sri Gading MP Datuk Mohamed Ali who had openly campaigned for Siti Zaharah in the 1996 Wanita leadership challenge.
Mohamed now goes around singing Rafidah's praises. He has even told some of his parliamentary colleagues that Rafidah would be prime minister material had she been a man.
Rafidah is a party vice-president by virtue of her position as Wanita Umno chief, but however much the men in Umno may admire her now, they are simply not ready for a woman prime minister.
Yet, experience-wise, she is senior to any of the three vice-presidents.
A former university lecturer, Rafidah began her political career in 1974 under Tun Razak Hussein who had a penchant for spotting young Malay talent. He made her a senator when she was only 31.
Two years later, she was appointed parliamentary secretary in the Public Enterprises Ministry, Deputy Finance Minister in 1978, Public Enterprises Minister in 1980 and Miti Minister in 1987.
Rafidah also used to come under attack from Umno’s arch rival PAS, whose leaders used to take a dismissive view of women in politics.
Ironically, PAS is now trying to push its women to the forefront in an attempt to match Umno’s woman power. But even the most cursory comparison of Rafidah and PAS’ Dewan Muslimat head Fatimah Zainah Ibrahim would suggest how far behind the PAS women are compared to those in Umno.
In the decades that PAS has kept its women in the background, women like Rafidah have sprinted far ahead. And PAS cannot claim that Rafidah’s success as a politician and career woman has been at the expense of her family. She is one politician who enjoys a close-knit family life.
In fact, Rafidah often announces during top-notch conferences that she is a grandmother and when she goes down to the kampung, she has no qualms about fishing out from her handbag a fat photo album of her grandchildren to show Wanita members.
Her grasp of complex and ever-changing international trade issues and regulations is unrivalled and makes her an indispensable member of the Cabinet.
In the early days, her overseas trade missions used to leave the businessmen in the countries she visited in awe of her gumption. Nowadays, her reputation precedes her.
Rafidah's enduring edge is that she has no parallel in her abilities as a trade minister. The ministry today is virtually the product of her last 16 years of endeavour.
She also enjoys the advantage of the moral high ground for she has managed to steer clear of controversies.
She used to tell people that she would retire when Dr Mahathir goes, but lately she has been heard saying she would continue “to contribute,” political-speak for another term of office.
“I think she will go for another term,” said Datuk Napsiah Omar, her former deputy in the women's wing.