Malaysia's Other First Lady: Part 2 of an Interview with Wan Azizah Wan Ismail


 

Malaysian journalists, opposition leaders and rights activists recently denounced Malaysia's tough media laws as an international media watchdog named Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad an enemy of the press.

Wan Azizah speaks to journalists during a press conference at her house in Kuala Lumpur , flanked by her lawyer Sankaran Nair 13 February 2001.

In comments marking World Press Freedom Day, they repeated calls for the Printing Presses and Publication Act (PPPA) to be abolished and protested at the government's move to consider tightening media laws.

Mahathir was for a third straight year named among the top ten enemies of the press in a list published by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

The Printing Presses Act makes the publication of "malicious news" punishable by jail terms and empowers authorities to ban or restrict the circulation of local publications. 

Last year authorities severely curbed the circulation of the opposition party newspaper Harakah and closed down two smaller publications.

Zulkifli Sulong, editor of Harakah, is also on trial for a separate alleged offence of sedition over an article in the newspaper.

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, has been on the forefront in calls for press freedoms and reform of current laws.

In the second part of a three-part interview with iviews.com, Wan Azizah spoke about the political atmosphere in Malaysia since the arrest of her husband and her desire for change in that country. The interview was conducted Monday, April 9 2001 at their home in Kuala Lumpur. To watch this portion of the interview, click here.

iviews:  Sister, it has been two-and a half years, all of us around the world have read and heard the stories.  Would you brief us your side?

Wan Azizah:  I have been given this test and jolted into a life that is very different and unexpected.  following the tragic events that my husband has had to undergo the latest is that he is suffering from a ...slipped disc, most likely caused by the assault on the night of his arrest. We had another sad event, the demise of his beloved mother, which happened on April 3, of this month. That actually affected my husband very much .  Even though his morale is not down, he feels sad and very aggrieved at the loss.  Otherwise, things have been moving steadily toward positive things, insha'Allah, towards change in the political arena, a change in the mindset of the people, a change for the present government. On the personal level, of course, is the price my husband has to pay. If the sacrifice is to have the upliftment of Muslims and the betterment for Malaysians, so be it.

iviews: We all recognize that this is the first time in the Malay culture that something like this has happened where people have revolted against the system to a large extent.  Do you see this as a paradigm shift in the culture and this has far reaching ramifications for the society at large here?

Wan Azizah: Yes, never before has there been an upheaval. The Malay culture is such that you do not bring shame to a fellow Muslim.  I think the Arabic word is the same, aib.  You do not give aib.  The way the dismissal of my husband was done, is such that it affected the Malay psyche.  Malay in Malaysia is almost interchangeable with Muslim. So they have reacted negatively towards that and that has caused the Malay heartland to shift their support to the alternative, the Islamic party and the lead party which comes from the root word adl, which is justice.

iviews: We understand that you currently chair the National Justice Party, and this I believe works toward reforming the structure, cleaning up the corruption and so on, can you elaborate a little bit on the charter of the Justice party?

This hand out photo shows jailed former Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in prison several days after he was beaten by former police chief Rahim Noor on 27 April 1999. A book containing the full report by the Royal Commision of Enquiry's investigations into the injuries of Anwar Ibrahim while in police custody, including several pictures of his injuries, was published and is being sold to the public at 20 ringgit (5.27 USD) each.

Wan Azizah: Of course the Justice party was founded based on the blatant injustice that was done.  It was almost a movement ...which [had to take] form. It has to become a political party. It started off in a non-governmental body and a lot of people came forward, but it was never registered.  We applied for registration. they refused and did not give us reasons for not allowing registration.  There was somehow an old political party that was still functioning. It was just alive and so [the movement took over].  That is how we became into being.  To seek registration is very difficult.  This party came about, and we had what we call an agenda for change -- to bring about reform in the system, to have corruption weeded out and to (achieve) balance in the judiciary.  [We also] wanted to limit the term of the prime minister, to have the separation of the judiciary from the executive, to have independence of the judiciary, to have the media free, and a host of other agenda that we have put under reform, or agenda for change.

iviews: You mentioned freedom of press.  The part of the world that we come from, freedom of press probably is true to its word to a great extent, and we understand there were some Web sites and newspapers that were clamped down on in Malaysia and I don't know to what extent that you're allowed to be true to your heart, to say the truth to the world.  Are you also restricted to say what you want to say?

Wan Azizah: There are many laws and acts:  the Police Act, the Printing and Press act, the Internal Security act, the Sedition Act. These are things that restrict what you want to say.  We inherited the internal security act from our colonialist masters.  In those days, they had to have that to repress the indigenous [population] and the communists used that for a while. Now that act has been used against political opponents.  But because of international outcry, they have not resorted to using that.

Let me re-cap that on the night of the arrest of my husband, because it was so different the way he was arrested, they had a special squad to come with...submachine guns after 'Isha prayers. Even though we had many, many supporters that particular night...we had thousands at our house. After 'Isha, we were going to have a press conference and the police just came in ...with submachine guns. Luckily no one resisted, because I think it would have been a bloodbath.  It would have been a very simple answer 'that they resisted...we had to attack,' and well, alhumdulillah, it didn't happen. 

Going back to the restriction of us, because one time after my husband was arrested, when they came to fetch him, they said it was on the charge of misconduct, but the next day because I think he was assaulted, they changed it to the national security act because it was detention without trial.  For sixty days, you have no contact with your lawyer, your family.

This was what happened and during that time, I was quite worried because I heard rumors that he was injected with the HIV virus. And then I voiced out my concerns, and I was given the Sedition Act. I was interrogated and I was told that I could be charged under the Sedition Act.  They also have the official Secrets Act. One of the ministers who is still serving in the cabinet now...has had evidence. [She] chaired a meeting where they give allocation of shares, and it was given to her son-in law, so they have a case against her...but it was stopped from proceeding. One of our youth wing exposed it and because of that, he is now under the official Secret Act.  He is now going to face trial. They have not given the dates yet. So you can see there are laws to keep us in check.  Every publication will have [to undergo] the Printing and Press Act.  You have to renew your license every year. They did it to Harakah, the [publication of the] Islamic party, which used to publish twice a week. Now it's twice a month. 

It was very popular and now they have difficulty getting that publication. All publications deemed to be vocal and anti-government will have to undergo the same laws and acts. But we have the internet, alhumdullilah, because it is the brainchild of Mahathir, ironically, because he wanted to have this multi-super corridor of internet...and because of that he actually gave the guarantee that he's not going to have censorship. Because of that, it's been able to flourish.  Recently, we had this misunderstanding, a technical error, where the server problem was at fault, not the government.  We have an internet paper called malaysiakini, which has been under attack. It's a concerted effort, and [has been accused of being] funded by a foreign agent. That has been branded to us.  [They say:] 'The opposition is being used by the Americans and CIA'.  And brother Anwar has been branded as being a CIA agent, which is very funny because in his youth he was branded a Muslim radical and on the other hand, he's now a CIA agent.

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AFP contributed to the background on this report.

To read the first part of this interview, click here.

 

 

 

 


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