Malaysia’s champion for ‘invisible’ women

Malaysia’s deputy prime minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail is the first woman to serve as second-in-command in Malaysia’s government. (Roslan Rahman / AFP Photo)

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Malaysia’s new deputy prime minister, said one of the darkest moments of her life came in 2015 when her husband Anwar Ibrahim, the former opposition leader, was sent to jail for a second time.

In hindsight, she ended up appreciating the moment in one sense as it pushed her back into politics in an effort to free him. Today, Anwar is out of jail and considered a possible prime minister, while she has become the first woman to serve as second-in-command in Malaysia’s government. Wan Azizah has also taken up another cause: Improving the lives of women who haven’t worked outside the home.

“Men must be contributing to the empowerment of women,” Wan Azizah, 65, said at her office in Putrajaya.

In a country where the median household income stands at 5,228 ringgit (US$1,287) a month and about 2.8 million women don’t seek employment because of housework, according to government data, Wan Azizah says its time to help these “invisible” women. As she was brought up by a mother who had only a basic education, Wan Azizah said promoting the financial protection of this group is a key goal.

An eye surgeon by training, Wan Azizah spent much of her married life as a housewife before she was drawn into a political career about two decades ago. She became a more significant national figure when her husband, Anwar, was first jailed in the majority-Muslim nation on charges of committing sodomy and abusing power, allegations he denied.

Anwar was released in 2004 after a judge overturned the guilty verdict. Then, he was jailed for a second time in 2015 on a separate sodomy charge before receiving a pardon from the king after the current government took office in May. During those years, Wan Azizah went on to establish the forerunner of what’s now known as the People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat), of which she is president, and was elected a lawmaker in the constituency that Anwar once held.

Wan Azizah later became president of the Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan), which included Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s party. Her role as deputy prime minister was agreed upon by the allies before the election.

Retirement savings

She is advancing several proposals to help women who haven’t worked outside the home. One would raise the ceiling on the government’s contribution to homemakers who voluntarily save 600 ringgit (US$148) a year, up from 250 ringgit (US$61), with the national pension fund. Another would allow wives a share of payouts from their husbands’ state-run pension plans.

The plans were well received despite initial concerns that they may add to the burden of married men. Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, who holds Malaysia’s purse strings as Mahathir’s government slashes costs to pare debt, has said he fully supports the idea as it would fulfil a campaign promise.

Among Wan Azizah’s other goals are to tighten laws protecting children against sexual violence. In the long run, she said her ministry will look at social security programs for those who are not supported by the current system. Challenges posed by Malaysia’s aging population, falling productivity and duplication of government agencies are other key issues she wants to address.

Strong message

Wan Azizah’s appointment as the highest-ranked woman in power was greeted with enthusiasm by many - particularly women. Yet even her supporters acknowledge that she needs to overcome a perception that she’s just a supporting actor to her husband as she tries to help reverse stubborn sexism and misogyny in Malaysia.

“Initially people were saying: Oh, she’s a seat warmer,” said Angela Kuga Thas, executive director of Empower, a Malaysia women’s rights group. “She’s now proving them wrong. It sends a strong message to the Malaysian people that women can hold top positions.”

Wan Azizah holds a second portfolio as the minister of women, family and community development in a new administration formed after Mahathir, 93, was elected again as prime minister after 15 years in retirement. She heartily campaigned for Mahathir, despite the fact her husband had a bitter falling-out with the premier in the late 1990s.

While her husband, Anwar, was the de facto leader of an opposition group that had made progress in previous general elections culminating in the Alliance of Hope’s historic election in May, Wan Azizah held the disparate parties together with official duties during Anwar’s absence. He continues to have restrictions on his political involvement.

Medical background

Wan Azizah graduated as an ophthalmologist from Ireland’s Royal College of Surgeons where she was awarded a gold medal in obstetrics and gynaecology. She worked as a government doctor for 14 years before quitting to focus on volunteer work when Anwar became deputy prime minister in 1993.

During the years in opposition, reporters and supporters fondly called her Kak Wan, a Malay term for an elder sister. Though she was respected, her maternal image and a record of vacating her parliamentary seat to make way for her husband’s return to politics raised questions about her seriousness as a politician.

Wan Azizah’s traits of diplomacy, patience and passion for her job will serve her well as a leader in the government, said Faisal S. Hazis, head of the Centre for Asia Studies at the National University of Malaysia. Still, he maintains that her leadership style hasn’t been strong enough to play the role effectively, at least not yet.

“She’s not a politician to start with and she’s basically there to warm the seat for the husband and became the proxy leader for Anwar,” Faisal said. “It’s a lot about the leadership vacuum that’s very glaring in the Alliance of Hope without Anwar in the picture.”

Wan Azizah’s leadership skills recently were questioned when she failed to speak out against child marriage after a recent report of a 41-year-old man marrying an 11-year-old girl sparked an uproar, Faisal said.

Still, Empower’s Thas said the public must be fair in judging women leaders and allow Wan Azizah some time to gain experience as a newcomer to a Cabinet role.

For her part, Wan Azizah dispels any notion that Anwar - who held her position as a deputy prime minister in the 1990s - is schooling her on how to do her job. Instead, she says she’s adapted lessons from stories he had told when he was a minister.

“I don’t think he had to offer me advice because I think I could learn it very fast myself,” Wan Azizah said. “People would think I am in the shadow of Anwar, but for me, the most important thing” is having the respect of those who have worked with me, whether as a physician or a politician. - Bloomberg