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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Interview with Nurul Izzah Anwar: Rebuilding a Nation Long Divided

By Ooi Kee Beng, Penang Monthly, September 2017.

Nurul Izzah, Daughter of the Reformasi, and of the jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, was pulled into politics as a young girl. Now 36 years old, she has become a major figure in Malaysian politics. The future looks bright for her, and many see her as a future prime minister. Sometimes called a giant killer for her electoral successes, she had had to suffer much over the last two decades, including a broken marriage.

She and her mother Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, chairman of Pakatan Harapan, visited Penang Institute on July 29, 2017 to attend its event “Symposium Pemikiran Anwar Ibrahim: Penampilan Demokrat Muslim”. Penang Monthly took the chance to chat with both of them.

Ooi Kee Beng: Thank you for taking the time to meet me. Should I call you Nurul or Izzah?

Nurul Izzah Anwar: Izzah. We are five girls and one boy, and all the girls have “Nurul” in their name. Nurul just means “Light of” in Arabic, so you need another name to go with it. [Izzah means Might or Power].

OKB: The last time we met was at a lunch following a talk in December last year at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. The Pakatan coalition at that time was not in good shape, I remember. Today as we meet, the picture looks very different. After July 14 this year, Pakatan Harapan looks promising after the parties managed to agree on the coalition’s power structure. Do you feel it is more hopeful than Pakatan Rakyat was?

NIA: These are in different contexts and it would be flawed if we equate these developments to be one and the same. In 2008 the opposition obtained an agreement for one-to-one fights across the board, and Pakatan Rakyat came into being only after the results proved impressive. And then there was agreement on a policy framework that bound everyone together. Pakatan Harapan (PH) came about after a split in PR. There was a trust deficit, and a degree of cynicism had permeated the scene. Therefore there was greater urgency to galvanise ourselves especially since Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition, had been imprisoned. Every opposition per se would face problems of cohesion; we are not exempted from that. So I would say, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed and the other old warlords who had been ejected from Umno eventually coming together in the party called Bersatu provided an opportunity for them to join our new coalition. So, it’s a very different situation. You are looking at former victims of Mahathir coming together with the perpetrator…

OKB: It’s a very strange situation.

NIA: Strange, but we are left with limited options. Therefore it goes back on the institutions that have to be quickened in pace to be further strengthened because they act as bulwarks against possible derailment of any reform agenda. You are dealing with players who are frenemies, ya. They are not traditional allies and so you have a different socialisation process. We have to prove we are different. In order for any coalition to work, there has to be some degree of trust built because we are not just about winning elections. We have to win hearts and minds and eventually rebuild a nation that has long been divided. I would argue the bulwark has to be civil society, different stakeholders and the reform agenda itself. Citizens and civil society shouldn’t shy away; they shouldn’t be quick to dismiss things; they should be reminded of their own role in all of this, and [be encouraged] to participate even more than before, precisely because of the dynamics that have come about.

OKB: What I can sense after July 14 is a new buzz. People are seeing that maybe PH is getting their act together.

NIA: A sense of excitement is all well and good. But it is also a tragedy for a nation to be such a victim of the politics of “Divide-and-Rule”. We are such a victim, otherwise why would Mahathir be a choice, even as chairman of PH? Things are so polarised and starkly so. People in the north of the peninsula are different, people in East Malaysia are different; and they have their own complacent normalisation. They feel quite comfortable with certain leaders to the extent that it really suppresses the emergence of new talents.

OKB: I remember 2008. It was the coming of a new generation. But two elections later, we have the oldest politician around [fronting the opposition]…

NIA: Maybe because you can’t really take a short cut; you can’t short-circuit. But I am hopeful. For me, it is also the undoing of the enigma of Mahathir. He has to learn from it and to remedy things through his actions.

OKB: He has been seeing the things he thought he had nailed into place before he retired unravelling before his eyes, hasn’t he? So he went against former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, he went against Datuk Seri Najib Razak…

NIA: Well, who knows? People can only guess as to the motives. But you can judge by their actions. It’s still early days. What is crucial is the nurturing of the processes of decision-making. How else can we guide [developments]; how else can we guard against any derailment of the reform agenda? Of course people are excited, but if you look at any movement, be it the Arab Spring or the Iranian Revolution, never overestimate the importance of any particular personality.

OKB: Yes, of course. When we talk about movements, we are talking about people moving, a whole society moving. At the same time, you do have personalities who manage to capture the tenor of the times, the lay of the land at a precise moment. In that context, your meeting with Mahathir in London was watched with great interest here in Malaysia, I think. Would you be willing to say something about that?

NIA: We have to be guided by conscience; and we have to be guided by our sense of purpose and prioritise the nation’s well being. I knew that people were expecting clearcut, cohesive coalition. We have had our issues; we can’t afford only vague interactions between the coalition parties. Therefore, I felt we were at a stalemate, ya. I was going to be in London anyway, and [Mahathir] happened to be there. I felt that it was crucial to engage continuously, and it does not mean that we are seeking his support or agreement. But it would showcase that there are many areas where we have consensus, on many things within the reform agenda. And I would like to carry that message forward. For me, regardless of what happened in the past – and I don’t mean we should forget the past – it is still important for Mahathir to understand what had happened, and one way to do that is through engagement – for him to understand the system and the flaws that he allowed as enablers for Najib’s [misdeeds].

OKB: Was that what you met him to talk about?

NIA: First and foremost, you have to create a bond. You create a bond and then people understand what your concerns are. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

OKB: You grew up at a time when Mahathir and Anwar were very close, right?

NIA: I was in government school, and we met once a year for a meal. But of course, Mahathir was the prime minister of my generation, right? I am of Generation Mahathir, in a sense. Back then I felt very proud of our government but of course, there were many problems. And these were highlighted by my school mates in Assunta [Secondary School in Petaling Jaya] – how national heritage was being destroyed, the issue of Bakun Dam, corruption, cronyism. I think 1998 was very important because it was wake-up call. I grew up alongside activists – from Suaram, from Abim. It really helped forge a deep realisation and commitment on my part to the understanding that Malaysia needed reforming. In Islam, constant renewal is taught to be a normal thing, through which you strengthen your resolve and improve outcome.

OKB: It was in London that Mahathir said he didn’t mind your father becoming the prime minister, right?

NIA: He did, in an interview with The Guardian.

OKB: Was that connected to your meeting with him?

NIA: Well, you know, I can’t take credit for everything.

OKB: You met him a couple of days before the interview… so that leaves us room to speculate about the connection.

NIA: Let’s leave all that in the realm of urban legends.

OKB: This new phase in Malaysian opposition politics began with Mahathir suddenly turning up in court to meet your father. Did Anwar know he was coming?

NIA: Only on the day itself. But with Mahathir, you never know, you can’t believe it until it actually happens.

OKB: In the pictures of that sudden meeting, I thought your father behaved very gracefully.

NIA: My father is always very graceful, that’s one of his great aspects. That’s him. We were not that gracious. We had to act as a bulwark against any possible derailment.

OKB: Mahathir had decided to go on, perhaps not a charm offensive, but he was moving to change the whole terrain, and the first people he had to win over was your family, right?

NIA: I wouldn’t call his overtures a charm offensive, but he tried to engage, right?

OKB: He persisted as well.

NIA: He persisted. But it was him attending the vigil for Maria Chin Abdullah when she was detained – that illustrated some degree of commitment. And he also moved from just calling for the overthrow of Najib to calling for reforms. That was crucial.

OKB: Your family has been experiencing shock after shock to see him do this.

NIA: God moves everyone’s heart, right? But at the end of the day, we will judge him from his actions. Who knows what life will impart.

OKB: Looking at his actions over the last year or so, would you say that this is Mahathir’s way of saying sorry? Saying sorry does not come easily to him, so he is doing it through actions. And along the way, your family comes round to giving him the benefit of the doubt.

NIA: Some would tell me that, you know. Some would tell me that. But again, it is not only a family matter. But really, we just need to move forward, you know. There is no more time for personal grievances. I mean, why are we chosen as legislators? Why was I chosen as a wakil rakyat? It is to be focused on the agenda. You cannot keep a chip on your shoulder when you are dealing with matters of national interest.

OKB: I wish more politicians would think that way.

NIA: That’s how my father brought me up.

OKB: Today, here at Penang Institute, we launched the Malay version of a book that puts forth your father as a thinker more than as a politician. Now as he is being celebrated as a political thinker, it is a good time to ask you if you see yourself as a political thinker as well.

NIA: I have a long way to go. One of the greatest prides of my life is to know that my father is a thinker, an intellectual who loves to absorb and read the ideas of philosophers, celebrates academia. That is such an important contribution as a father – I am not touching on the nation yet. It was such a beautiful thing to grow up in such an atmosphere. It enriches you in so many ways, and as I said, I have a long way to go but I continue to be inspired, I continue to learn. And for us as a nation, we have to understand the need of engagement with and celebration of these different spheres if we are to move forward.

OKB: There is really a Reformasi Generation? And that is the one now leading the charge, as it were?

NIA: And it is beautiful. We discuss the Asian Renaissance… I mean, Mahathir didn’t have a vision that… I mean, his is all very, very stark. You need to have a sense of people developing their potential. Anwar has that. Malaysia has tended not to accord people their rightful place in history even if they are not victors. And that is the worst disservice you can do to the nation. Even with the Baling Talks… I mean, I condemn communism and all that, but it is important that we learn what actually happened, you know.

OKB: Yes, the details are what tell the story. Over the last two or three decades, the major leaders have been Mahathir and Anwar, right? Now you have the two of them trying to get over their falling out, and coming together on the same side against all the others who came after in the establishment. Behind them, you have members of the Reformasi Generation, and they are the ones pushing in the end. To me then, these older people – and that may include your father – are now a transitional group paving the way for the younger ones. I don’t know if your father would think of himself that way – simply as a facilitator.

NIA: It’s important to see ourselves as facilitators or enablers. You need to celebrate talent. My only concern is a lot of efforts are killed off [at source]. So much Machiavellian politicking goes on that kills off any sort of effort before it can flourish. I think that was what happened to Anwar.

OKB: Since your father was first dismissed from office and arrested in 1998, we have seen the rise of three new Malay parties. This is quite astounding. What is happening? Is Malay society maturing, splitting? What?

NIA: Time doesn’t move in a vacuum. There are always players interacting. The problem we have are leaders who actively advocate through their policy and their governance, the politics of race and religion – in our education system in our curriculum, in our media, in our socialisation process. So how do you escape it? A simple example would be my children. I made sure when they were toddlers that they would go to a multicultural pre-school. That was a conscious decision. I wanted them to grow up knowing that there are people of other faiths. From there, you build further. It’s a socialisation process. Solid interaction across the schools can be done, but this has to come from a desire for that. There must be political will to forge a Malaysian bond. It’s not being done.

OKB: I find it interesting to compare your father’s party, PKR, with Mahathir’s party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. They came about at different times for different reasons. Back in 1998, Anwar’s sacking and arrest surprised him and his supporters. In fighting back, Reformasi started and PKR came into being. Taking a stance at that point required them to take a situation that is in polar opposition to that of Umno and BN. So they adopted good governance and that line of discourse. Now, when Bersatu was formed, it did not differentiate itself by becoming a polar opposite to its opponent, Umno. It couldn’t anyway because that position is already taken by PKR. What it did was to position itself as an ideologically recognisable alternative to Umno, and so it took the word “Pribumi”. The point is for it to be a party that moves on a train track running alongside Umno in order to capture voters who are discontented with Umno. They can now leave without having to make ideological adjustments that are too painfully great. But now when PKR and PPBM do work together, they theoretically cover a very wide range of anti-Umno sentiments. This would and should worry Najib and Umno. Would you agree with that description of the situation?

NIA: That would be a best-case scenario. But like many things in life, success depends on being able to [convince] society. Whatever we do or think will be useless if we can’t communicate it to the people, to the ground level.

OKB: The hope that many have is for Malaysians to be less and less susceptible to politics of fear and distrust.

NIA: It all depends on the active players, on what they advocate. Time is not a vacuum; people tend to think that the march of history is forward. It does not have to be. Look at Syria, look at Saudi [Arabia]. Who could have thought that they would be more malicious and convoluted than they were five years ago. And look at America. Democracy is an active process; it’s ongoing. There is no end of history, as Francis Fukuyama postulated. Democracy can provide a balance, a check on various aspects.

OKB: We now have the scenario where Mahathir and your father are on one side, and Najib and Umno are on the other. We have a Malay-led opposition fighting a Malay-led government now. That makes identity politics a harder game to play. I see that as the significant development going into the GE14.

NIA: That would not be accurate in that in PH, there is no party dictating over the rest. In BN, Umno dictates over the rest. PH parties have more equitable roles to play. Aesthetically, it helps [that the two coalitions are seen as Malay-led], because everyone agrees that it is the rural Malay vote that has to be targeted in terms of generating confidence and trust among the Malays. But it doesn’t mean that…

OKB: But beyond just a press strategy, it does reflect something different doesn’t it? You are appealing to the rural Malays to vote not based on race.

NIA: It’s about overcoming the trust deficit. You have to overcome the demonization process that BN has been carrying out [against the DAP]. Primordialism is so cliche. Do the rural Malays care that it is an MCA minister taking care of their concerns? No, because they already have overcome that doubt. They know that Umno is dominant, and no one has demonised the MCA. Give me a month of TV3 running down the MCA to the ground, I can assure you that Liow Tiong Lai [president of MCA and Transport Minister] will face a crushing defeat.

OKB: The tool to overcome that trust deficit would be the coalition? We are back to the Alliance idea, right?

NIA: Not 100%. You can say maybe to 80%. There has to be some improvement. I am not going to give up what I have fought for just to go back to that formula. No way. That would be a pathetic regressive movement.

OKB: It’s not a bad idea – it did work for a while.

NIA: Yes, consociationalism.

OKB: But let me ask you about your family if I may. If I were a fiction writer looking at your family… I would think, “My God, the material there!”
[Laughs] I wouldn’t know where to start. You got drawn into politics because of what happened to your father in 1998, you being the oldest.

NIA: My father asked me to take six months off to help with the family. And of course the six months became a year, right?

OKB: And now you are a major figure in Malaysian politics.

NIA: You see, I always thought of my father as an activist, and I was among many activists. In the end, I refused to take up law because I didn’t want to be a politician and all that jazz. All that helped my mental frame of mind. We all have to be a bit more humble in understanding our purpose and our role in the bigger scheme of things. Many politicians want a bigger piece of the pie, a bit of the glamour. But it’s not glamorous, right? It’s hard work. It’s not about getting accolades. I think it is about knowing what to do and how to manage collective decisions in a very constructive manner… People dream of it as glamorous, but it is about training youngsters, managing their incentives as they join politics…

OKB: I am sure it makes you feel older than you are. You are in it for good now, are you not?

NIA: What I love about it is this: I have had this chance to have such a steep learning curve. It’s amazing. I wouldn’t have had this opportunity to learn if it weren’t for politics. I can’t really complain. And I thank Mahathir’s government for forcing me to go into politics. It was their transgressions against our human rights and our civil liberties that compelled me to be the politician I am today. All of us have to be in it for good, and not necessarily in one particular scope. I mean, we all have to be committed. It’s not a joke anymore, you know – there is so much that is invested in this. I love my children and I want them to have as much time with their mother as possible, but I started in recent years reminding them of how important my life in politics is for their future… civic engagement. If you don’t take time to explain to your children how much your work means to you, how do you expect them to accept it?

OKB: I remember a few years ago, you talked to me about wanting to start a think tank…

NIA: We are still working on it, but of course nothing as flashy as Penang Institute…

OKB: From that, I see you realise how you need to have people around you to help you think.

NIA: Yes, yes. Definitely.

OKB: I just sent a selfie of you and me to my wife, who texted back the question: “The future prime minister?” People do think of you in that way.

NIA: If only they knew the sacrifices that a prime minister has to make. I just have to think of two names, right? Yingluck Shinawatra and Benazir Bhutto.
I mean, anyone who really knows what it takes and what she is in for would definitely not be begging for that post.

OKB: History seems to be pushing you in that direction.

NIA [Laughs]: Well, whatever we can do to make things better… I have said I was a Daughter of the Reformasi, and I meant it. If I had differences of opinion, I would make it heard to my father, and I think that is how I am most useful – not as a blind obedient participant but as an active constructive partner in the struggle.

OKB: Well, we have had a few interactions over the years; I must say you have clearly grown into your role.

NIA: Too kind, too kind. One must read lah. Reading is important.

OKB: Thank you, Izzah, for taking the time.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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