Wan Azizah ready to be first woman DPM under 'changed' Mahathir if opposition wins

Wan Azizah ready to be first woman DPM under 'changed' Mahathir if opposition wins

wan azizah
Opposition leader Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail speaks to Channel NewsAsia. 

KUALA LUMPUR: In January 2018, at the Malaysian opposition's annual convention, the wife of their incarcerated leader Anwar Ibrahim was on stage. 

And in tears.

"After everything that we have been through, I now ask that we invite the opposition's candidate for Prime Minister to deliver his speech ... Dr Mahathir Mohamad," Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail announced, her voice barely audible over the cheers from the former prime minister's supporters.

This was a scenario no one could have imagined even a few years ago.

Dr Mahathir had infamously sacked Anwar as his deputy in 1998, then blamed for the corruption and sodomy charges Anwar faced soon after. This was a "tactic" Anwar claims Prime Minister Najib Razak's government adopted as well, by sending him to jail once again three years ago on a sodomy conviction.

Still, Dr Wan Azizah was there to welcome on stage the man whose feud with her husband had sparked a national "Reformasi" (Reformation) movement.

To top it off, she had just been named his deputy, should the opposition come to power.

"I was reluctant to be in politics in the first place. I never thought I would ever be in any of these positions, but I am now," she told Channel NewsAsia, recalling what was going through her mind that afternoon.

"I didn't think I could perform my duties and perform them well. So at the time, I thought: You have to be realistic, Anwar is still in prison. We need someone with the credentials and also the experience to lead us.

"Dr Mahathir (had agreed to us being around and the reformation agenda) ... so I introduced him ... but that's not without feeling that we've gone through so much before under his rule."

Dr Wan Azizah said Dr Mahathir approached the opposition about joining forces after he quit the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in 2016, unhappy with Prime Minister Najib's leadership and alleged corruption.

While two decades of resisting him and UMNO were hard to forget, the People's Justice Party (PKR) accepted Dr Mahathir's Parti Pribumi Bersatu into the opposition alliance - banking on them to help secure the ethnic Malay voters the opposition needs to take power.

Dr Wan Azizah, however, could not have predicted that she would one day be in her husband's shoes - deputy to Dr Mahathir - until Anwar is released from prison and can find a way to take over as prime minister, which Dr Mahathir has agreed to.

"I think Dr Mahathir is changed now," she said, when asked if Anwar has given her any tips on how to work with him.

"I'm together with him to help reform and therefore bring back the country to reforms and better governance."


Dr Wan Azizah was a doctor for 14 years before she quit when Anwar became deputy prime minister.

When he was fired then imprisoned, the mother of six found herself entering the political arena. In 1999, she co-founded what is now known as the People's Justice Party (PKR) before contesting and winning her husband's former seat at Permatang Pauh in Penang.

The 65-year-old is now the president of PKR, an MP and a state assemblywoman in Selangor for a seat Anwar was meant to contest before being convicted.

By her own admission, this political career was never one she wanted.

But now, Dr Wan Azizah could become the country's first woman to hold as high an office as deputy prime minister.

"I actually have to remind a few people I'm the first woman opposition leader of Malaysia," she said.

"I feel and believe corruption is a cancer, dangerous and pervasive, and you need a surgeon's touch. I happen to be a woman and I happen to be a surgeon, I think that helps very much."

Tackling corruption, improving healthcare and education are all causes close to her heart as a mother and grandmother as well - and she plans on tackling them if she makes it to office.

But Dr Wan Azizah's time there, like Dr Mahathir's, may not be long. 

She may once again step down as MP so that Anwar can contest her seat and ascend as prime minister once he is released from prison.

"For Anwar to enter into active politics, he needs a seat," she said.

"Our laws do not allow a senator, an appointed senator to hold the office of the prime minister.

"Last time, I resigned for him to contest in my constituency, our constituency (Permatang Pauh) and I think there may be a repeat of that."

Her repeated "making way" for Anwar has raised some eyebrows - but Dr Wan Azizah said someone will have to do it, given he is the opposition's pick for prime minister in the long term.

She does not believe it would be "politically correct" for Anwar and her to serve side-by-side in office as a husband-and-wife team.

However, Dr Wan Azizah doesn't have an answer on who would replace her as deputy prime minister if both she and Mahathir are out of the picture.

"We will come to that when it comes," she said.

But would her political career end once Anwar's finally in government? "Not quite," she said.

"If my services are needed, of course I'll continue. After all, I've been doing it for the past two decades."


Dr Wan Azizah's immediate challenge in the weeks ahead is rallying support for her party, with polls widely speculated to be called before Anwar's release in June.

"The biggest challenge is actually to get the Malays to vote for us against all the propaganda that goes on and to actually get the young people," she said.

"There's a movement to say don't vote, there's no difference between the two of us (Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan) but of course there's a lot of difference!

"We've been in the reformasi movement for so long and Mahathir himself says he's going to be governing with us around; not his usual BN group from the last time when he was PM - so it is so much different."

PKR will also have to convince existing supporters to trust that this alliance with Dr Mahathir was necessary too.

"We all go through phases in our lives, we make mistakes," she said. "But we must be given a chance to try and redeem ourselves.

"If Mahathir can come and say he wants to change the country for the better - that's what we wanted in the first place."

Dr Wan Azizah said even Anwar, while initially sceptical, has come around.

"It's not just about what we feel as a family and what many of the reformist supporters went through in their lives (opposing Dr Mahathir)," she said.

"(That struggle) has been a big part of our lives - two decades is not a short time - but we have to move on, we have to think of the future."

That future, she said, will be bright under Anwar and Pakatan Harapan's other up-and-coming leaders.

The opposition wants to replicate their success governing Penang as well as Malaysia's richest state Selangor across the country.

"Remember Anwar Ibrahim's sacrifice in jail," she adds.

"He was our deputy prime minister, he was our finance minister and gave us our first surplus budget - so there is light at the end of the tunnel.

"I want voters to think about that and to vote for us."

Source: CNA/de