Reluctant Wan Azizah in the spotlight again

Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail campaigning in Kajang.

WIFE of Malaysia's opposition chief Anwar Ibrahim.

Mother of star politician Nurul Izzah Anwar.

President of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

And soon, it is likely that everyone can add one more title for Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail: Kajang assemblywoman.

The 61-year old is a candidate for the Kajang by-election, replacing her husband who has been disqualified from contesting after a sodomy conviction was upheld in court.

"Dr Wan Azizah is once again forced to be the reluctant saviour - the loyal wife who has to dig deep into her inner energy to be many things all at once," said Mr Yang Razali Kassim, senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"She is the alter ego of her husband, mother to her children, and the alternate glue that binds the disparate opposition parties together."

Campaigning started last Tuesday following nomination. Voting is on March 23.

Dr Wan Azizah - Kak Wan, or Elder Sister Wan to her followers - will face off against Madam Chew Mei Fun, 50, vice-president of the Malaysian Chinese Association.

Often the reluctant politician, the former eye surgeon stepped up for the Selangor state seat to help douse bitter infighting in PKR. The job that was supposed to be carried out by Anwar has now fallen onto her lap.

The fighting between PKR deputy president Azmin Ali, who is also the party's Selangor chief, and Selangor Menteri Besar Abdul Khalid Ibrahim has marred the reputation of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance.

And the by-election itself, dubbed the Kajang Move by the alliance, has caused disunity within PR. Leaders of its ally in Selangor, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), are not convinced that it was necessary, and are against the plan to remove Tan Sri Khalid as Menteri Besar of the country's richest state.

Anwar was supposed to take over from Mr Khalid to tamp down the fight with Mr Azmin but, with his disqualification, analysts are asking whether he would now nudge Dr Wan Azizah to take over the Menteri Besar's post.

Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia newspaper pooh-poohed Dr Wan Azizah's nomination, calling her a "recycled candidate".

This was in reference to 1999 when she stood as a candidate for Anwar's Permatang Pauh parliamentary constituency in Penang when he was jailed six years for corruption.

Still, it would be wrong to underestimate her ability to draw votes precisely because of her image as the reluctant politician and the long-suffering Muslim wife who protected her family and defended her husband.

"She should win easily in Kajang," said Mr Ramon Navaratnam, chairman of the Centre for Public Policy Studies. "And after that, we shall see whether the party wants her to take over as Selangor Menteri Besar, and what would then happen if Khalid refuses to step down,"

When Anwar was sacked from government posts in September 1998, she stood by him staunchly.

Their six children were very young then, with the eldest Nurul Izzah just 18 years old.

Anwar's alleged sex trysts with several men were aired in newspapers and on television.

Dr Wan Azizah struggled in the early days to rally support for her husband as many top politicians cut off ties. Instead, she found support from the street rallies under the banner of Reformasi (Reform).

In April 1999, with help from a small but growing group of loyalists, Parti Keadilan Nasional was born. It later merged with the left-leaning Parti Rakyat Malaysia to form PKR, with Dr Wan Azizah as president - a title she still holds today.

In 2008, she quit the Permatang Pauh seat and allowed Anwar who had served his prison sentence to re-contest. He won.

Since then, the PKR president has been seen regularly beside 66-year-old Anwar, the party's chief, but rarely opens her mouth to talk about political issues.

Only since her nomination could observers see the political side of Dr Wan Azizah again. And the woman who goes around with a gloved right hand and a folding fan is still in defensive mode over her husband.

On nomination day last week, she said: "This (by-election) is a referendum to the injustices that happened - yes, my family is affected - but it is a referendum for the whole justice system."

reme@sph.com.sg


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