New Voice in Malaysia
Spouse Silenced, Wan Azizah Ismail Leads Reformers
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 19, 1999; Page A13

KUALA LUMPUR, MalaysiaAsia has a long history of strong-willed women stepping out of the political shadows to pick up the banner for martyred men. Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto, Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, Indonesia's Megawati Sukarnoputri are following in the footsteps of their fathers; the Philippines' Corazon Aquino came to power after the assassination of her husband.

Now in Malaysia comes Wan Azizah Ismail, the soft-spoken wife of East Asia's best known political prisoner, the ousted deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar is now behind bars, beginning a six-year prison term after a show trial on bizarre sex and corruption charges that many Malaysians believe were trumped up by Anwar's former mentor and erstwhile rival, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. A second trial, on sodomy charges, began last week, effectively eliminating Anwar from active politics for the next decade.

And so it has fallen to Azizah, a 46-year-old ophthalmologist, to pick up the banner of Anwar's struggling reformasi (reform) movement aimed at ending Mahathir's nearly 18-year rule and ushering in an era of democracy and political openness.

Azizah is aware of the historic moment of her new and unlikely role and she accepts the comparison with other strong Asian women. But "with a slight difference," she says, "because my husband is still around." She adds, "I have to learn from them."

Of Asia's other women politicians who have butted heads with dictators and autocratic regimes, Azizah says she has the most in common with Aquino. She met Aquino on a visit to Manila. "I also see myself like Mrs. Aquino in a way that we're housewives and had this thrust upon us," Azizah said. "The difference is that I have my husband; she had to go it alone."

Azizah has formed a party called Keadilan, or National Justice Party. >From his cell, Anwar is its inspirational leader and mentor -- and the party's name is invoked in the slogan "Justice for Anwar" that has appeared, along with images of the infamous black eye from a police beating, on Post-It stickers and T-shirts.

But while Anwar is the motivating force, Azizah says the party's future falls on her shoulders. "People do ask whether Anwar is behind this," she said. "He is, in a way, but he's also behind bars. So I have to sink or swim."

Azizah recognizes that her task will be difficult, more so even than that faced by "people power" protesters who toppled Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Suharto in Indonesia. Since Anwar was fired and jailed last September, Mahathir appears more in control than at any time in his long rule. He told his party this week to prepare for elections, without specifying a date.

"Realistically, we have to deal with a power entrenched for 17 years," Azizah said. "They have the money. They have the media, and they are using it to the hilt. The good thing is that it's not working -- the people have seen through all of this."

The country's economy, which has bolstered Mahathir against discontent for most of his tenure, has not fallen as precipitously as those of other Southeast Asian countries. Many Malaysians -- while privately saying they deplore Mahathir's treatment of Anwar -- are content with their comfortable homes, secure jobs and new cars. They shake their heads at the apparent injustice, the excesses of Mahathir's police as revealed in the first Anwar trial and the malleable judiciary that convicted the popular former official. But Malaysians also value stability and harmony, and they view with alarm the kind of ethnic bloodletting underway next door in Indonesia.

Mahathir has been able to exploit this fear of upheaval, and many, including Azizah, believe pro-government infiltrators among Anwar's supporters may have instigated the violence that erupted on the day of his conviction in an effort to discredit the reform movement.

What Azizah hopes to achieve at the ballot box is difficult. One of the anomalies of Malaysia's autocratic system is that there are noisy and functioning opposition parties. Mahathir's United Malays National Organization stays in power at the head of a multiethnic coalition, because the opposition is deeply divided, ethnically and ideologically. And for the country's majority Malay population, the only Malay party alternative is the Islamic fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, called Pas.

Azizah is trying to unite that opposition. She wants to reach beyond traditional voting patterns and build a multiethnic opposition united around the call for justice, with her husband as the unifying figure.

One spring evening, Azizah left the family house in motorcade to attend a late-night Pas rally, which was replete with Anwar souvenirs, including cassettes and videos of his speeches and T-shirts adorned with his black eye. "A lot of people think that the Islamic party is extreme," she said. "But I think it has become more understanding. We have to be united to bring about change."

But the high visibility of Pas in the emerging opposition coalition unnerves some Malaysians -- even those with little love for Mahathir. "I'm sympathetic toward Wan Azizah, but I'm no supporter of Pas," said a prominent Malaysian political scientist. "The minute Pas comes in, I go out."

There are questions of whether more established opposition parties, like the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, would make room for the National Justice Party. "We are discussing, and I hope we can reach -- I believe we can reach -- some kind of accommodation," said Democratic Action Party chairman Lim Kit Siang. Azizah said she is considering running for a seat from Mahathir's district to try to unseat him from Parliament -- a formidable task, since he would have the advantages of incumbency. But so far, she said, "I haven't made up my mind."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company