There is quite a difference between what Wan Azizah Ismail would like to do and what she knows she has to, and will, do. Ten years from now,for example, the 56-year-old would like “to imagine herself conducting a peaceful life and spending more time with her six children, grandchildren and relatives”. Yet she knows it is an unlikely scenario. “My husband will probably need help, and I have to do what is right for my country and for my husband.”That is, after all, what she has already done for over a decade, since she was forced to deputise for her husband – Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Mr Anwar returned to active politics last year after spending years in jail on what most people believe were politically motivated charges. He has since been elected to Parliament, taking over the seat in Penang’s Permatang Pauh constituency that Dr Azizah had won in three previous elections.And he is poised to officially take over the leadership of the People’s Justice Party, or Keadilan, of which Dr Azizah is chairwoman. The party has its roots in a non-governmental organisation she established in 1999 to fight for the release of her husband. These changes are welcomed by Dr Azizah. “It is what I prefer. I feel I have come full circle. I was the wife of a politician, then I became a politician, and now I am going back to being the wife of a politician. It is fine. I am first and foremost a wife and mother.” She also admits candidly, “I will never be as good a politician as Anwar. It is right that he takes charge”.
Things are not quite like that, though. Dr Azizah lacks Mr Anwar’s oratorical skills and, unlike her husband, who was a firebrand student activist in the 1970s, she never got into student politics.
Educated first at a Catholic school, then at an elite private school, she went to Ireland to study ophthalmology while still very young. In Dublin, Malaysian politics was never a concern and she never developed political ambitions nor much political acumen. Still, when forced to enter politics, she held her own, mostly thanks to a different set of qualities that turned her into an icon of the Reformasi movement that her husband had started. To most Malaysians, she is no longer simply Mr Anwar’s wife. The first thing that strikes one about Dr Azizah is her gentle demeanour. Bespectacled, frail-looking and with a pale complexion, she speaks softly and has rarely been seen angry. The second thing that strikes one is the strength of conviction those same softly spoken words carry. It is this combination that gained her wide trust and admiration. Gayathry Venkiteswaran, executive director of the Centre for Independent Journalism, explains Dr Azizah’s trajectory succinctly. “At the beginning, she was seen as [Malaysia’s answer to former Philippine president] Corazon Aquino, fighting the injustice inflicted upon her husband. But then she was able to use the platform provided by the party to raise the profile of democracy, justice and integrity on the national agenda. That’s something she should be recognised for.
“While awaiting Anwar’s release, Wan Azizah responded positively to civil society pressures and issues, and allowed for more of these to get highlighted. In so doing, for a while, she became the face of justice and democracy.” He is disappointed that Dr Azizah sacrificed her parliamentary seat for Mr Anwar, but Sim Kwang Yang, a former parliamentarian with the Democratic Action Party and now a prolific political writer, argues that vacating her seat does not mean
she will disappear. “She has been a towering figure; she will still be involved and continue to inspire.” Dr Azizah knows she is at a new juncture. And while questions about the future remain unanswered, she can now look back and assess what she has gone through, and Malaysia’s political situation. The toughest time, she said, was having to stay strong during Mr Anwar’s trials. He was arrested in September 1998, charged with corruption and committing sodomy with his wife’s chauffeur, Azizan Abu Bakar. When arrested, he had just been stripped of the position of deputy premier and was the de facto opposition to long-serving prime minister Mahathir Mohamed. In April 1999 he was sentenced to six years in prison for corruption and, in August 2000, to nine years for sodomy. The latter sentence was quashed in a 2004 appeal. Throughout the trials, Dr Azizah never doubted her husband’s innocence and provided an image of dignity, strength and stoicism. Among the reasons that pushed her to fight, she highlighted “the need for justice” and “the family’s honour”. Faith supported her in the darkest hours. “I had to stand for justice. Facing it all was the only way to show that it was all fabricated. But I also had to keep the family together, and safeguard the honour of my family. With their father away and humiliated, I had to be there for my children. This is something that I felt very strongly about,” she said. “But it was very difficult. I am only human and I did have moments of weakness. But Islam says that you will not be tested more than you can handle. This knowledge helped me. I knew I could stand it.” Those who know her say that Dr Azizah’s spirituality is a very private matter. The most outward sign of it is the glove on her right hand; she started wearing it when her political career forced her to shake the hands of many men, something not allowed in Islam.
As she grew into the position of opposition leader, Dr Azizah had to withstand divisions in the party, electoral disappointments and harassment from the government. The latter included attacks from then-information minister Mohamed Rahmat, who argued that she was “unfit to lead the Malays” since she had been “educated in Singapore” and had “Chinese blood”. Her maternal grandfather was from Malacca (now Melaka) and had Chinese forebears, while her mother was brought up in Singapore. Dr Azizah believes Malaysia is changing. “There is hope on the horizon,” she says. “Anwar’s arrest marked the start, rather than the end, of the campaign for reform. After that, we had some reforms for a while. Then, in 2004, the prime minister changed, but unfortunately the new premier [Abdullah Badawi] did not do much. So now we have another wave that is pushing for change. But this one is Wan Azizah Ismail, wife of Anwar Ibrahim stronger; it comes from the grass-roots.” In June, Mr Anwar’s former aide Saiful Bukhari Azlan accused him of sodomy. An arrest warrant was issued on July 15. “The new accusation of sodomy against Anwar is an attempt to stop this wave,” said Dr Azizah. “It shows that we have to work more, to work harder. Because whatever we have gone through, it has not yet resulted in the Malaysia we want.” Unsurprisingly, Dr Azizah believes Mr Anwar is the right man to lead the country. She says she is being “as objective as possible”. “I think Anwar is today the best the country can offer. Mahathir was good in the early days, but he later deteriorated. Abdullah has some qualities, but I’m disappointed with what he has done. Current deputy premier Najib Razak has too many skeletons in his closet, and I fear that, with him, Malaysia will return to the darkest days of Mahathirism.” Mr Najib is slated to take over from Mr Abdullah this month.
There have been attempts to link the deputy prime minister to the murder of a Mongolian-born model, Altantuya Shaariibuu. Mr Najib has denied any involvement and has sworn on the Koran that he never met Shaariibuu, 28. Dr Azizah says Mr Anwar has not changed much from the young man she met in 1978, soon after she returned to Malaysia from Ireland. She was working at a hospital in Kuala Lumpur when a mutual friend introduced them. She knew of Mr Anwar but had never met him. At that time, he was leader of Abim, a Muslim youth group, and he had set up Yayasan Anda, a foundation to train poor Malay youths. “He was already charismatic, a good orator and a principled man,” she said. The couple married in 1980, despite initial objections from Dr Azizah’s father, a former senior officer in the Malaysian Special Branch, a police agency which specialised in “psychological war” against the communists. He was unhappy with Mr Anwar’s 1974 detention under the Internal Security Act for allegedly being “pro-communist”. Mr Anwar served 20 months for that accusation. Once married, Mr Anwar joined the United Malays National Organisation in 1982 and began a meteoric political rise – helped, Dr Azizah said, “by his ability to relate to and connect with people, but hampered by his excessive trust in others, which caused him many problems”. These two sides of Mr Anwar’s personality are still present, she said. “I also still admire his strength to bounce back.”