Sunday, April 12, 2009

Way of the Iron Lady

The formidable Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, who was ousted as Wanita Umno chief, says she is beyond hurt. While she may write letters to the new Prime Minister on issues she feels strongly about, there’ll be none to her successor.

Since losing the Wanita Umno Chief post some three weeks ago, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz has been keeping a rather low profile.

Except for a brief sms through the media congratulating her victor and the new line-up, the Iron Lady has stayed mum on the Wanita polls.

“Don’t egg me on because you won’t get anything from me. (Under the initial Wanita transition plan) I was supposed to go in June (2009) anyway so what’s the problem? It just got accelerated in March with the big hassle and so what?

“It’s no skin off my back. There is no need to speak about it because it is done and finished. There is no anger, no rancour. Life goes on. Let’s talk about something else,” said Rafidah, who was delighted to be off to Hong Kong the next day for some shopping.

The former International Trade and Industry Minister who used to be running all over the world negotiating market access and trade agreements for Malaysia now has more time on her hands.

She can now have long lunches with friends, spend time with her five grandchildren whom she clearly dotes on and get down to writing another book.

“I am fully occupied. I find that there are only so few hours in a day. You would be surprised how time flies,” said Rafidah, who has kept herself busy with the Malaysia-Europe Forum, the Global Coalition for Efficient Logistics (Gcel) and being chairman of the Asia Logistics Council.

Rafidah was the country’s youngest senator at 31 and the first female parliamentary secretary before rising up the ranks to become Deputy Finance Minister at the age of 34, then Public Enterprise Minister when she was only 37 – a real feat for women in those days – before landing on the plum job of Inter­national Trade and Industry Minister, a post which she held for 21 years and where she made her name.

After the 2008 general elections, even though she won the Kuala Kangsar parliament seat, the then Prime Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Abdullah Ahmad Badawi dropped her from the Cabinet.

And in this year’s March 25 Wanita Umno election, her deputy in the wing, Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, who had lost the Lembah Pantai parliamentary seat, challenged Rafidah for the wing’s top post and trounced her by a sizeable 227 votes.

Women’s rights

Some have argued that when Rafidah was Wanita chief (1984 to March 2009 with a one-term break from 1996-2000 when Datuk Dr Siti Zaharah Sulaiman was at the helm), she did not do enough to champion women’s causes or rights.

Refuting such claims, she said she has been fighting for women’s rights since way back in the 1960s, “before some of these women were even born”.

She had worked with Tun Fatimah Hashim (former Wanita Umno chief and Cabinet minister) and the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO) in setting up the Women’s Department, Hawa (Secretariat for Women’s Affairs), Nawem (National Associa­tion for Women Entrepreneurs of Malaysia), culminating in a Ministry for Women.

“Who do you think got it done if not us working as a team? Shahrizat – sorry to say – was nowhere to be found then.”

Rafidah had also fought for separate tax assessment for working women, equal pay for equal work and permanent status for women in the civil service. In the past, women were employed in the civil service only on a temporary basis, which did not qualify them the perks that came with a permanent position.

“If that is not fighting for the women, I don’t know what is. But once we set up the (Women’s) ministry, we expect the minister to carry on and do the work.

“If there is any failure of the (Women’s) ministry, blame the minister concerned, which means the minister was less than efficient in carrying all that,” she said in an apparent dig at Shahrizat, who was the Women, Family and Community Minister and has just been re-appointed to the post.

As far as Rafidah is concerned, the structure for women to go as far as they want to is already in place and Malaysian women should now stop talking about women’s rights, quotas and just put their money where their mouth is.

“When a man succeeds, you don’t hear them talking about men’s rights. They just go and do it,” she says, adding that women too should just go out and do it.

For her, a person should be recognised because they are good and not because they are women.

“I don’t believe in glass ceilings. There is no glass ceiling. The concept of glass ceilings must have been put forward by men who want to put women in a psychological cage or by women who want to give excuses for not going as far as they can,” she said.

Rafidah also absolutely hates the concept of setting aside a 30% quota for women. “If there are more able women, why limit it to 30%?”

Some say that given her calibre, intelligence and experience, Rafidah would have made a good deputy president or Prime Minister but her gender stood in the way.

This is something Rafidah dismisses.

“I don’t want to. Why? Because I got other things in my life that I want to do. If I wanted to be deputy, I would be politicking, having facades and pretending that I am the best person around. I don’t want to do that.

“To me, a minister’s job is good enough and I can do the job to the best of my abilities. How many people get to be a minister for so long?” she said, adding that if any woman wants to make politics her vocation and aims to go as high as she wants, nothing can stop her.

Charm not the way

The sharp-tongued Rafidah is also quick to say that women should never resort to using their charm to get their way.

“Keep your charm to yourself and for your private moments. Don’t use your charm to win over voters or get people to agree with you. That is wrong,” she said in reference to Shahrizat, who told the women in the recent by-elections to turn their charm on voters.

“People must see the quality in you – the strength. This cannot be turned on and off. It’s either there or not. Basically, the most important thing is to know that you are a person of integrity, responsibility, and someone who can do that job,” she said, adding that she would never dream of trying to charm her way through a WTO negotiation or FTA or bilateral trade discussion when she was International Trade and Industry Minister.

“I can never charm Malaysia’s position onto the table. You have to make your point and put your point across the best way possible. We are talking about deadly serious matters – Malaysia’s trade and market. There is no time for smiling and charming your way where your national interests are concerned.”

As for Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak taking over as Prime Minister, Rafidah says that after having worked with him all these years, she is confident of his ability.

“But you must remember that Najib can’t work alone. No matter how good the leader is, he has to have a good team – one with integrity and who works with diligence to deliver what the Prime Minister has promised.

“As the Prime Minister, he can enunciate things but if the others whom he has mandated to do the job don’t deliver, there would be a gap between the leadership promise and expectation and what’s happening on the ground,” she said, adding that people’s expectations these days were so high.

She also cautions ministers against becoming “yes men” and being afraid to speak up.

“If everyone says ‘yes’ to Najib, I really pity him. In these challenging times, nobody should just say ‘yes’ so as not to offend him or to make life easy for themselves.”

Rafidah, who confesses that in her 22 years with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s administration, she enjoyed “every squabble, disagreement and every jeling jeling (a side glance away to show annoyance)” during discussions and Cabinet meetings.

“Whatever was said was with good intentions and sincere. There were no ill feelings at the end of the discussions.”

Rafidah will not be blogging nor will she be criticising Najib in public. But that does not mean that she will not say her piece.

“If I feel strongly about something, I will not hesitate to write to him. I would rather write than talk behind his back,” said Rafidah, who is known for her handwritten letters that at times caused quite a stir in the past.

“Tun Mahathir maybe has a trunk full of letters from me on all kinds of issues. Pak Lah has a few because we were together only for a few years.

“When the temperature rises and the issue is hot, my words become bigger and there are only three or four words in one line!”

But she certainly won’t be writing to the new Wanita chief.

“When people challenge the incumbent, obviously the understanding is that the challenger is the better person so surely the ‘better person’ will not accept opinions from someone who is not as good. And I don’t like to interfere anyway,” she said.

On Dr Mahathir re-joining Umno, Rafidah says she is happy to see him return.

“If you ask me, he shouldn’t have left to begin with. I regard it as a symbolic leaving because he was not happy with the previous administration,” she said.

However, while people still hold Dr Mahathir in high respect, he does appear to be meddling and there are some who chastise their former leader for this because it does cause difficulty to the Government, she added.

Ex-leaders should convey their thoughts to the Prime Minister in office, but this should be through the right channels and not through the media because when harm is done they cannot go back and repair the damage, said the Iron Lady.


No comments: