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Wan Azizah: Rise of a reluctant politician

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (The Star/Asia News Network)
Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (The Star/Asia News Network)
Before 1998, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail already wore many hats.

She was kept busy as a surgeon, a volunteer at a cancer organization, a mother of six children, and the wife of Malaysia’s then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Then the 45-year-old found her world thrown into turmoil after her husband, also finance minister at the time, was sacked by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad amid a recession sparked by the Asian financial crisis.

On the night of Sept. 20, 1998, police commandos broke part of the main door of Anwar’s 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 in 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. What followed was a series of massive protests in Kuala Lumpur.

In 1999, she cofounded an opposition party, now known as Parti Keadilan Rakyat, 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,” Praba Ganesan, PKR’s former social media strategist, told the Straits Times.

“All those years of keeping the party together without Anwar by her side shows that she has a certain toughness to run the show.”

Today, the 61-year-old is fondly referred to as “Kak Wan,” or “Big Sister Wan,” by supporters.

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, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. 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 maneuvering 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 alliance ― Chinese-based Democratic Action Party and Parti Islam SeMalaysia ― have yet to agree to the power transition.

In March Anwar tried to engineer a so-called Kajang Move to end the infighting between Khalid, a senior PKR leader, and the party’s Selangor chief Azmin Ali.

By Yong Yen Nie

(The Straits Times)