August 10, 2014 01:00
By Yong Yen Nie
The Straits Time
Wan Azizah, the wife of Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, is in the running for the richest state's top post
Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail was already wearing many hats before the night her life changed so drastically 16 years ago.
Back then, she was busy as a surgeon, a volunteer at a cancer organisation, a mother of six children, and the wife of Malaysia’s then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.
But the 45-year-old’s world was thrown into turmoil after her husband, also finance minister at the time, was sacked by prime minister Mahathir Mohamad amidst a recession sparked by the Asian financial crisis.
On the night of September 20, 1998, police commandos broke part of the main door of the Anwar family home in Damansara Heights and took him away.
His family members were also called up for questioning.
Anwar was subsequently charged with corruption and sodomy. He was sentenced to six years' jail for corruption and another nine years for sodomy, but the sodomy ruling was later overturned.
Wan Azizah and his supporters believed he was a victim of political persecution. The public agreed, many of them taking part in a series of massive protests in Kuala Lumpur.
In 1999, she co-founded an opposition party, now known as Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), which she still leads today. Thus, a reluctant politician was born.
In the general election that year, she won the Permatang Pauh parliamentary seat previously held by Anwar.
“She had to learn everything about running a party from scratch,” says Praba Ganesan, PKR’s former social media strategist.
"All those years of keeping the party together without Anwar by her side shows that she has a certain toughness and the ability to run the show."
Today, the 61-year-old is fondly referred to by supporters as “Kak Wan”, or Big Sister Wan.
She has been compared to former Philippine president Corazon Aquino, who became an opposition leader after her husband was assassinated in 1981.
Born in Kedah, Wan Azizah studied at a missionary school and later trained in medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.
She worked in government hospitals for 14 years, specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology. She is also a qualified ophthalmologist.
While her husband was in jail, she juggled her duties as PKR chief and mother to her young children.
When Anwar returned to politics in 2008, she quickly stepped aside.
In fact, she has made way or stepped in to take his place on several occasions since, and is seen as her husband’s best proxy.
Most recently, PKR endorsed her, after much persuasion and manoeuvring by Anwar, as its candidate to replace embattled Selangor chief minister Abdul Khalid Ibrahim.
But the incumbent is refusing to budge and PKR’s two partners in the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance – the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party and the Parti Islam SeMalaysia – have yet to agree to the power transition.
In March, Anwar tried to engineer a so-called “Kajang Move” in order to end the infighting between Khalid, a senior PKR leader, and the party’s Selangor chief Azmin Ali.
The move involved Anwar contesting and winning a by-election in PKR- held Kajang, Selangor. A win would assure him of the chief minister post.
But just before he filed his nomination papers, the Court of Appeal overturned his acquittal for sodomy, thus disqualifying him from contesting.
Once again, Wan Azizah stepped up to the plate, winning the Kajang by-election and thus putting herself in the running for the top post in Malaysia’s richest state.
If appointed, she will become Malaysia's first female Menteri Besar or chief minister.
Wan Azizah, who has always said she wanted to take a back seat in politics to take care of her grandchildren, appears ready to answer the call of duty – yet again.
“All the positions I hold are a responsibility. Even without a position, it is a service to the people,” she says.
Critics have been quick to question her ability to govern, saying she would be “too soft” and calling her Anwar’s “puppet”.
But analysts point to her track record in adapting well to new surroundings.
For instance, while conservative Muslim women generally refrain from shaking hands, Wan Azizah wears a glove on her right hand at public functions so that she can do exactly that.
During outdoor campaigns under the hot sun, she keeps cool with a Japanese handheld fan.
She has also mastered the art of eating durian with a spoon as the fruit can leave a pungent smell on her hands, which may turn some people off.
All these, says Wong Chin Huat of Penang Institute, are her subtle ways of being inclusive, and they have been effective in winning over many supporters so far.
As chief minister-designate, Wan Azizah’s immediate task is to end the infighting among PKR leaders and rebuild voter confidence.
Selangor is, after all, the PR’s jewel in the crown, being the country's most industrial state and close to the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, the federal administration centre.
“Selangor does not need Kak Wan to be a strong and decisive leader as much as it needs her to be a strong communicator and team-builder,” says Wong.