Why the daughter of Malaysia’s opposition leader embodies the hopes of the democratic reform movement.
- By Deborah LohDeborah Loh is a freelance reporter with experience in television, print, and online journalism in Malaysia.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Last month, a young opposition member of Malaysia’s Parliament, Nurul Izzah Anwar, was scheduled to speak at a university forum on the country’s impending general election. You’d think that that wouldn’t have been a problem: Malaysia’s rulers, after all, routinely portray their country as a thriving democracy.
In this case, though, the guardians of democracy weren’t having any of it. Anonymous officials quickly intervened, pressuring the university to pull the panel and replace its members with speakers less inclined to criticize the government. But Nurul Izzah refused to leave it at that. She attended the event as a member of the audience, and then used the question-and-answer period to speak her mind.
Nurul Izzah is used to fighting the odds. At the age of 32, she’s spent a lifetime battling the powers-that-be. And now, as Malaysia embarks on a watershed national vote on May 5, she finds herself at the center of a vicious battle to defend her seat. The ruling party is pulling out all the stops to defeat her. But the question remains: Why would this mother of two pose such a threat?
Nurul Izzah became an opposition member of Malaysia’s parliament in 2008 after winning in a multi-ethnic, mixed-income Kuala Lumpur suburb where she plans to run again. How she fares in the coming election will mirror Malaysia’s political journey from a one-party system, sustained by sectarian politics and ethnic patronage, to a competitive, multiethnic, and egalitarian polity. The People’s Pact, an opposition coalition led by Nurul’s father, the 64-year-old Anwar Ibrahim, is up against the National Front (Barisan Nasional, or BN), which has ruled Malaysia for the past 56 years. BN is dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a party that serves as a political vehicle for the ethnic Malays who make up over half of the country’s population. (Malaysia also boasts strong Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities, both groups that are represented especially heavily in Anwar’s coalition.)
Cracking the dominance of BN won’t be easy. During his four years in office, the current prime minister and BN leader, Najib Razak, has presided over strong economic growth (5.6 percent last year) and has attempted to placate discontent by implementing a few modest liberalizing reforms. But the biggest challenge facing the opposition is BN’s deeply-rooted control over Malaysia’s most important institutions, from the mainstream media to the national election commission. In the run-up to the national election, indeed, Nurul has seen fit to file a claim with the commission alleging tampering with the voter lists for her constituency. One of her party workers was also recently beaten up by unknown assailants.
Despite these obstacles, however, she does have some powerful advantages on her side. An articulate and charismatic speaker, the U.S.-educated (and confessed Radiohead fan) Nurul Izzah has considerable appeal among the educated and globalized elements within her country’s remarkably diverse society. (After getting her undergraduate degree at a leading private university in Malaysia, she earned an MA at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.) As a headscarf-wearing Muslim, she combines her cosmopolitan credentials with both a sense of religious propriety and decorum that has put her in good stead with the staunchly conservative ethnic Malay society.
She also enjoys excellent name recognition, thanks to the long political saga of her father. Anwar Ibrahim lost his position as deputy prime minister in September 1998 in a showdown against Malaysia’s long-entrenched prime minister and political strongman, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Placed under arrest, Anwar was beaten while in police custody, and then charged with sodomy (a crime in Malaysia) and corruption. He spent the next six years in prison, and in 2004 was acquitted on the charge of sodomy and released. But the "sodomite" label stuck. Mahathir used it to justify Anwar’s inability to be a leader, and today supporters of the BN government still use it to demonize the People’s Pact.
The resulting political storm was a trauma for then-18-year-old Nurul Izzah, but it also gave her a formidable education in politics. She traveled the globe campaigning for her father’s cause, speaking at international forums and hobnobbing with world leaders. "I did really think he would be freed," she told me. "You just had to believe it in order to keep going." Her mother, Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (now 60), remained behind in Malaysia with her five younger children. Nurul Izzah’s efforts earned her the nickname Puteri Reformasi, "Princess of Reform."
Her critics say that Nurul Izzah owes her rise to her father’s fame, and that is, to some extent, true. But her work for the past five years in Parliament as part of Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) has shown that there’s more to her success than a fortunate name. In the March 2008 national election, following a groundswell of public ire over widespread corruption and perceptions of pro-Malay ethnic bias by the government, Nurul Izzah and other People’s Pact candidates rode the crest of a political tsunami that had gathered under years of stifling one-party rule. But among that host of political neophytes, she has stood out as one of the very few who can claim true future prime ministerial potential. Following the election, the ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament, winning only 51 percent of the popular vote. Opposition parties won 5 out of 13 state governments.
Malaysian politics has been in overdrive ever since, with voters trooping off to the polls for 16 by-elections prompted by deaths and resignations among legislators. Unfortunately, the constant politicking over the last five years has allowed communal politics to rear its ugly head, with ethnically motivated demagogues striving to capitalize on every potential political situation. Such incidents have included a group of Muslims stomping on a cow’s head to protest the relocation of a Hindu temple, hysterical claims that Malaysia is on the verge of adopting Christianity as the national religion, and, more recently, calls to burn Malay-language Bibles.
The western press often describes Malaysia as a "model moderate Muslim country." But ethnicity and relig
ion remain powerful forces in politics here. The most controversial policies are those that retain affirmative action privileges for Malays, who form a majority population but are economically disadvantaged. Religion adds to the volatility because the Malaysian constitution defines Malays as Muslims, causing Islamic agendas to be often conflated with political and civil liberty issues. Anwar’s People’s Pact has promised to replace long-established affirmative action programs with needs-based policies. That’s a popular line with Malaysians citizens of Chinese and Indian descent, but it’s a harder sell among the ethnic Malays who have long benefited from government-safeguarded benefits. Anwar will win only if he and his fellow oppositionists can pull off a tricky political balancing act.
Like her father, Nurul Izzah is both Malay and Muslim — but she has built her political career by appealing for a more open definition of both. She frequently cites the Muslim reformist scholar Tariq Ramadan, who argues that Islam must embrace multiculturalism. Such ideals, however, have yet to gain mass appeal. When in 2010 Nurul Izzah called for a reassessment of Malay-Muslim dominance in favor of pluralism, she ruffled the feathers of a few elders within her own party. "They were afraid I would make the PKR lose support among the Malays," she says.
That shows just how entrenched ethnicity remains within the Malaysian political psyche. Even the opposition parties of the People’s Pact coalition (with the exception of Nurul’s own PKR) are dominated by a single ethnic group. The Democratic Action Party (DAP) admits all ethnicities but is run by a Chinese core with a socialist bent, while the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) is exclusively for Muslims. Given the ideological polarity, it has been no mean feat for the three parties to stay together. The PKR under Anwar’s leadership is regarded as the lead opposition party that keeps the coalition intact — and whoever inherits his mantle must continue this dicey task. If Nurul Izzah is to rise higher in her party and in the coalition, she will need to take a position on Islam that the PAS can swallow.
As a result, she’s hedged her bets by building links to her father’s old grassroots network of Islamic revivalists, the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (Abim). Anwar, who got his start as a student activist, was serving as the group’s president when Mahathir spotted his talent and brought him in to the UMNO. (It’s not clear whether Mahathir saw the young Anwar as a potential successor or as a future rival to be contained.) In 1998, Abim lent its support to Anwar during his incarceration.
Nurul Izzah cultivates allies with influential Muslim groups as a strategy to keep Malaysia on the middle path. "They [Abim] understand the need to expand democratic space, [and that] the struggle for only one race or one religion is un-Islamic. We have to keep engaging Abim so that we will always share these ideals," she says. "As it is, even for Muslims now, there is little room for free discourse. We attempt inter-religious dialogue but officers from the government religious department won’t attend because they think pluralism is a threat to Islam. We have to keep enlarging the space so that things can be different."
Underscoring the difficulty of widening democratic space among Malaysian Muslims, she was severely panned by critics in November 2012 when she remarked at a public forum that Malay Muslims ought to enjoy the freedom of religion just as other ethnic groups do. (Malaysian laws penalize Muslims who leave Islam with rehabilitation, jail, or fines.) It is still difficult to openly discuss certain personal freedoms like religion and sexuality in conservative Malaysia without repercussions.
Yet even as she has worked to make Malaysian politics more issue-driven, her success in the coming election is likely to depend on the gritty details of everyday politics. Her resources for wooing voters are nowhere near those of her likely opponent, Raja Nong Chik Zainal Abidin, who as the current federal minister in charge of urban development has plenty of patronage to dispense. Nurul Izzah claims that he has already used this position to his advantage, since his federal portfolio gives him considerable power over infrastructure and services in Nurul’s constituency that especially affect lower-income voters.
This mirrors the broader approach of the Najib government, which has been busily dispensing electoral goodies to voters at a pace that’s probably equivalent to a major economic stimulus program. The BN has offered cash payouts to low-income households and smart phone rebates to young people, and stepped up an affordable housing scheme aimed at college graduates and young adults. That the BN is targeting the youth vote is no surprise, since they form the majority of new voters.
Then there’s the issue of electoral manipulation. Over 15,000 new voters have appeared on the electoral roll in her constituency since the poll in 2008. The Election Commission has said that the additions are newly registered voters, but Nurul Izzah believes the spike is a deliberate attempt to use "ghost voters" to water down chances of her reelection. (Her margin of victory in 2008 was a mere 2,895 votes.)
Nurul Izzah isn’t the only one with suspicions. According to official figures, the number of voters on the national roster has increased by 2.4 million (some 18 percent) since 2008. (The government attributes this dramatic rise to its own voter registration drive.) A year ago, the last street demonstration by the Bersih reform movement, which has been marshaling popular support for clean elections, urged the commission to weed out irregularities in the electoral roll and to improve election procedures. The peaceful rally, which drew up to 80,000 protestors, turned violent when police allegedly began beating and harassing journalists. One hope this time around is that the ubiquity of social media, which is now widely accessible to most Malaysians, can boost transparency by offering an alternative to traditional media dominated by the government.
But not everything is working out the way the government wants. A court last year overturned the home minister’s declaration that Bersih was an illegal organization. In February, critics assailed the deportation of an Australian senator, Nick Xenophon, who was in Malaysia as part of a fact-finding mission on election processes. An official inquiry is under way into an alleged citizenship-for-votes scheme during the Mahathir era which is also chipping away at the credibility of the BN administration.
The national race is still too close to call. While senior opposition leaders are confident of wresting federal power away f
rom Najib and his ilk, observers say the Pact could narrow its margin with the BN. When Nurul Izzah ran in the 2008 election, she beat her formidable opponent, a third-term incumbent and a top leader in UMNO. It was a win that said more about public sentiment towards the BN than Nurul Izzah’s political capabilities at the time. But she has proved her worth. She ran in the 2010 internal party elections and ended up with one of the highest vote totals in the race — though she claims she found evidence that some of her rivals of engaging in dirty tricks. There are some within the party who are already maneuvering to succeed Anwar as leader, and that is likely to mean plenty of challenges for her as well.
The coming election in May will determine Nurul Izzah’s future in politics. It may also decide whether the ideal she represents — the establishment of a truly democratic multiethnic society — will ever have the chance to take root.