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The charm and the mettle

Daughter to a recently sentenced father; leader to an ethnic Malay community; mother to a son and daughter. Nurul Izzah Anwar has the lineage to rival some of the world’s most prominent political families and for many embodies the battle for genuine democracy in Malaysia

By Arnaud Dubus    Photography by Ore Huiying
“Nurul Izzah Anwar’s office? Over there, on the first floor,” replies a shoe repairman, sat on the pavement and nodding toward a narrow staircase. Nurul Izzah Anwar, daughter of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and vice-president of the People’s Justice Party, maintains a modest office in Lembah Pantai, a Malay majority area in southwestern Kuala Lumpur where she was elected as an MP in 2008 and 2013.
As it turns out, the smiling 34-year-old is as unpretentious as her premises. “Sorry to be late. I had to jump on a train to escape a traffic jam,” she says on her arrival.
 

Photo by Ore Huiying

 
In 1998, while still a high school student, Nurul Izzah was plunged into the troubled waters of Malaysian politics. Her father was deputy prime minister at the time but fell out with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Anwar was sacked, accused of sodomy and jailed for six years following a trial widely decried as unfair and politically motivated. He was released in 2004 but similar allegations have continued to this day. Anwar was accused of sodomy in 2008 but was acquitted by the high court in 2012. The appeal court overturned the ruling in March and Anwar was sentenced to five years in jail, with the verdict meaning he was unable to run for a seat in opposition-ruled Selangor, the country’s richest state.
With her family’s political and personal lives disrupted, Nurul Izzah has more reason than most to distrust the system. However, while we discuss the current state of Malaysian politics, she does her best to adopt a constructive view and says she hopes to “appeal to the conscience of the leaders of the country”.
 
What do you think of the personal attacks and accusations that seem to have become a staple of Malaysian politics? 
It is a sad and tragic situation for a country as beautiful and vibrant as Malaysia. It is also a recent phenomenon. If you look at previous elections, before the Mahathir years, there were a lot of attacks against religious harmony, but not the personal vilification of leaders.
Perhaps we somehow experienced stunted democratic growth. Somewhere along the way, reason was lost and leaders felt it was necessary to attack and defame a person’s character in order to destroy his or her popularity.
Speaking about my father, before he joined the United Malays National Organisation party [UMNO – the largest party in the ruling coalition], he was a very popular firebrand activist. And I think for any political outfit, the question is: How do you control such a force? You can adopt him to be part of your own, but if he somehow escapes, then resorting to personal attacks and destroying his character is perhaps the most useful way.
Many political parties in Malaysia are promoting the interests of specific ethnic groups. What are the dangers of race-based politics?
The Malays are not so much identifying themselves along racial lines, but more with a particular social class. According to the archaic criteria defining the poverty line – everyone who earns less than 800 ringgits ($245) a month is considered poor – most Malays are stuck in poverty. That creates a subservient class, supported by handouts from the government. And that gives way to racist rhetoric.
What is unique in Malaysia is that the majority needs protection rather than the minority. The government of the day will take the easy way out. It is very difficult for the current government to embrace their own One Malaysia concept [a campaign aimed at promoting ethnic harmony] because this would mean implementing reforms. So it’s easier to bank on the majority, bank on their insecurity, bank on their feeling of being victimised.
Getting out of race-based politics is a long process and we are facing challenges. There is a group called Malaysian Muslim Solidarity that is very dangerous. Moving on from religion, they go to Malaysian Muslim graduates based in Egypt and other Middle Eastern universities and spread the idea that Islam cannot coexist with pluralism. And the government loves to support this ridiculous, pathetic initiative.
The UMNO has been ruling the country since independence in 1957. Would you say that the electoral system is advantaging the UMNO?
For sure. I think Malaysia’s system is a good model for autocrats everywhere. It is so well-executed, so well-planned, so soft.  We’re a semi-democracy or a semi-authoritarian regime. How does the government hold onto power for more than 50 years? It is based on gerrymandering and re-delineation. A study by Rizman Othman, a professor at the University of Malaya, shows that every time there is a re-delineation process it always benefits the ruling party.
Traditionally, the Malaysian judicial system was strong and independent. However, many argue that in the last 20 years its integrity has been eroded. What is your assessment? 
We used to have the brightest minds of the legal fraternity. Seeing [prominent lawyer and politician] Karpal Singh, you have to accept that he came from a system that was able to produce such a legend. But things have really degraded over time, particularly after Anwar’s sacking in 1998. Since then, nothing has been done to cure the ills. Malaysia does not have separation of powers and the judiciary is not seen as an independent institution per se.
Going back to your father’s recent sentence. What do you think of the part played by UMNO leaders in the saga? 
I think they have taken the approach that their own survival matters. They feel that if my father is ever made head of country, then their own future would be destroyed. In the process, they forget to look at the extent of erosion that our civil and democratic institutions have to undergo. I am very disappointed because after the sentencing, I got the sense that, to them, this is something that must be done. Former MPs from the ruling party who were sympathetic have now taken a completely different tone. It’s a herd mentality.
 
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