Wan Azizah: Getting down to business
Stephanie Jacob 

“We have come so far and now we want to achieve more. Hopefully we can,” says newly minted Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

It has been just about a month since the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition stormed to a surprise win at the 14th General Election on May 9, unseating Barisan Nasional which had held power for 61 uninterrupted years.

For Wan Azizah, it was a culmination of what started almost 20 years ago when she took up her husband Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s mantle after he was sacked from the DPM post by the same man who is now her boss, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Along the way, she has managed to make history as the first female leader of the opposition and now, the first female DPM. Long touted as merely a seat warmer for Anwar, she is keen to leave her mark as DPM and Women, Family and Community Development Minister.

“When I took the oath, I was not saying that I will be a seat warmer. I took the oath as deputy prime minister. It is important that I deliver or else try my level best because I want to contribute to the betterment of our country,” she says.


Battling corruption

Among the many important tasks at hand is erasing a growing culture of corruption, says Wan Azizah. She references a study in which a majority of university students surveyed said they would engage in bribery, as symptomatic of the scale of the corruption problem and why it needs to be dealt with quickly.

“We have to bring back integrity and dignity … these need to be instilled as Malaysian values. Rather than if you can get away with it, why not?” she argues.

She says PH under Mahathir has the political will to weed out corruption in the government. She adds it is determined to show that in cases like the 1MDB scandal, it does not pay to be corrupt.

That said, adjusting to life as the actual government has been a steep learning curve for Wan Azizah and her colleagues. Ministers are discovering that even when trying to be honest there can be fallout as a result of what they say.

This was seen when disclosures on the size of the national debt and the abuses at 1MDB roiled the capital markets. However, the DPM believes that it is a necessary period of adjustment as the government identifies problems and moves to solve them.

“We need to diagnose it and [then] surgically cut it out,” she says, falling back on the medical terminology she is so familiar with. Before becoming a reluctant politician, Wan Azizah was an ophthalmologist.


Instilling confidence

“We need to deal with it. But the most important thing is to be responsible, to be accountable and to be transparent,” she adds.

She is keen to reiterate that the fundamentals of the economy remain strong. She believes that this, coupled with efforts to clean up the government, will instil confidence in the economy and help it grow.

These efforts will likely extend to the many agencies and organisations connected to the government, including government-linked companies (GLCs). Long the target of criticism that they crowd out private enterprises, these organisations, their structure and leadership are now under renewed scrutiny.

Many believe these powerful GLCs have strayed from their original mandate to help nurture Bumiputera businessmen and instead are competing with them. In many instances, they also suffered from too much political interference.

Wan Azizah acknowledges these concerns and says there are ongoing discussions on how to bring GLCs back to their original purpose. She notes that the leadership of some of these groups might have to be replaced with independent candidates capable of refocusing these organisations.

“I think we need to unearth more [and see if it is] because of political patronage and ties. Because there had been some political appointments on how they [GLCs] have been structured … The people who are in charge now may have to be changed. [We must] put the right people in the right place,” she adds.


Ready to stamp her mark

Eventually this could lead to less government interference in business which is the goal, says the DPM. She repeats the popular adage that “government has no business being involved in business”, adding that eventually the government will want to adopt a more regulatory role instead.

Since becoming DPM, her life has taken a new turn. Does she spend less time now with her grandchildren? “Well no, because my grandkids are around and Nurul Izzah (her daughter and MP for Permatang Pauh) stays with me. So sometimes, when you go home and the grandkids run and give you a big hug, all that [is worth it].

“But sometimes you feel overwhelmed because there is so much to do and so much I want to do. I want to be successful and so that is a bit of a push and some pressure. And I must learn the mechanics of it,” she says.

After conquering the roles of a doctor, wife, mother and grandmother, she is well prepared to stamp her mark as DPM. FocusM

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 285.