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“Reformasi changed everything”

DURING the March 2008 general election, election campaign posters for Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) parliamentary candidate Nurul Izzah Anwar showed her smiling. Wreathed in a glowing aura, she seemed to be gazing into a bright Malaysian future.

Nurul Izzah campaign posters during nomination day, March 2008

Now the parliamentarian for Lembah Pantai, she is still seen as a poster-child for Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s younger set of politicians. Her test — forging a distinct voice from under opposition leader and father Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim — is emblematic of the challenge her entire generation is facing.

The Nut Graph talks to Nurul Izzah about growing up as Anwar’s daughter, the pressing issues in Malaysia today, and what she thinks the country she has already inherited should be, going forward.

TNG: We are all pendatangs. Where do you come from?

My mother has some family members in Pasir Mas, Kelantan; the rest of her family is from Kedah. I think we’re quite diverse: my maternal great-grandfather had some Arab blood, and my great-grandmother had Korean ancestry, somehow — hence my Chinese-looking eyes.

But everyone in Malaysia is, somehow or another, like that.

My father is from Permatang Pauh: a place called Cheruk To’kun. He told us a lot of funny stories from his childhood, while he was in prison. One was quite vulgar — about this old man:

There was a dog running after him, so he ran up a coconut tree. He was wearing kain pelekat, and the kain pelekat fell, and all the kampung folk came to look at him. So the old man said — and my father’s storytelling abilities are better than mine — “Dunia punya luas, hangpa kena tengok sini buat ‘pa?”


It was really funny when he said it, right.

My father usually leads these childhood-story-telling times. He had a very vibrant childhood. Very well loved, very obedient. Anwar Ibrahim: everybody likes the old kid from the block.

How did your parents meet?

They were introduced by mutual friends. This was when she was doing her housemanship in General Hospital Kuala Lumpur.

Nurul Izzah pullquote and picture

When he was courting her it was quite controversial, because my grandfather was attached to the special branch. My father was, of course, Anwar Ibrahim, the soon-to-be-detained student activist, then. No father would have been happy with the fact that his daughter was going to be marrying this guy.

What was growing up like?

Most of my life, it was about being daughter of the Deputy Prime Minister, or the Finance Minister, or the Education Minister — those labels always came first. There was a lot of pressure. I definitely felt that I had to put on a certain character, to be at my best behaviour.

I remember my disciplinary teacher calling me up when I was 10. I had been running around on the first floor of the school block. She said: “You should be ashamed. You know who your father is.”

The fact that I grew up under my father’s influence helped me become a little bit more obedient, I guess…

I remember my secondary school classmates, after Form Five, asking for my help. They were rejected from local universities: there weren’t enough places, and all that. They sought my father’s help.

How did 1998 affect you?

Reformasi 1998 changed everything. Rule of law was transgressed, we didn’t have an independent judiciary. I already understood civil society-related issues, but I think all those events (in 1998) really made me understand the importance of safeguarding democratic institutions in the country.

And it helped me be really proud of my father’s achievements. At least he stood up for what’s right. He could have easily bought tickets for the whole family, to move overseas. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad offered that option.

What are your thoughts regarding Malaysian identity? Where do you think we are going?

We’re in a process of change, in terms of a national identity. I used to think that we were trapped in “mediocrity mode”. We championed it as something excellent — there was no real effort in ensuring our society continued to strive for excellence.


What I’m going to say will not be very popular, but this is what I went through.

Nurul Izzah pullquote

I went to a private university for a while: Tenaga Nasional University (Uniten). In most of our classes it was a mix of races. They’d be Chinese (Malaysian) students and Malay (Malaysian) students. Sometimes I’d stay back with my Chinese (Malaysian) friends, and we’d be cramming for a particular course. I saw many Malay (Malaysian) students falling behind, and having to take diploma-rated courses, because of their bad results.

I think the relative ease in the way they get into university, the relative ease, in terms of passing marks, et cetera, contributed to this.

By the way, this is in my experience. I’m not saying this happens across the board.

To me, these things will not benefit Malay (Malaysians) in the long run. Because we’re losing out! My Chinese (Malaysian) friends worked so hard. You want to have that drive for everyone. I think that when you feel your space is getting smaller, in terms of access, then you’d probably be forced to strive for excellence.

It is ironic that this idea — that a race is going to lose out, and that the space for a particular race is shrinking because their rights are being taken away by all the other people that are closing in — is still being propagated by the powers that be. We have to get rid of this victimised mentality.

We always hear certain quarters clamour for the need of Malay Malaysians to stand up for ketuanan Melayu, or risk losing it.

Malays will always make up the majority of citizens in this country. Our birth rate — myself included (gestures to her pregnancy) — is the highest!

So why should we be fearful of the future? More the reason why we have to start relying on our soft skills: relying on our brains, our academic performance to excel. All this talk and fear-mongering tactics that race-based parties utilise are just nonsensical.

I try to bring issues like this up. It’s not easy, because it’s not popular.

When my father first criticised the New Economic Policy (NEP) in a Malaysiakini interview a few years ago, we were in disbelief. My husband and I went: “Did he just say that? Oh my God, we’re so dead (politically)!” We supported such criticism, of course — but it’s another thing, bringing it to the electorate. Of course we got attacked by racist groups; my father bore the brunt of it.

Nurul Izzah at work

Nurul Izzah during a walkabout for Vaisakhi and Tamil New Year, 13 April 2009

Is this knee-jerk reaction still around today?

There is more space for discourse than before. The 8 March (2008) general election has helped us to start something. Striving for excellence needs a paradigm shift. You need to start thinking, having discourse.

When you criticise the NEP, people don’t generally say “You’re doing something against (Malay Malaysians),” anymore. I think it’s slowly sinking in that this is not tenable.

Things are changing, despite Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s skewed 1Malaysia. Not necessarily everything Pakatan Rakyat has done is right. But at least the process has begun, and that’s how you begin to find out what’s good for, and what’s bad for you.

Right now, I remain optimistic. There is always hope for a better future. TNG favicon

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12 Responses to ““Reformasi changed everything””

  1. Andrew I says:

    Well said, Nurul. Any father would be proud to have a daughter like you.

  2. Keep up the good work to serve the rakyat and communities regardless of race, religion and ethnic group. Thanks.

  3. Salak says:

    “…Not necessarily everything Pakatan Rakyat has done is right. But at least the process has begun, and that’s how you begin to find out what’s good for, and what’s bad for you. …”

    About time the young speaks the bare truth … instead of losing generations in fruitless space trips!

  4. Su says:

    New vision for new Malaysians particularly Malays!

  5. Rajindar Singh says:

    I generally avoid long articles about politics but I read this one through. What makes me glad is the reality that has sunk in here, she realises and knows that the BN has set the path for the destruction of their very own by proverbially giving the fish rather than teaching how to fish.

    She is right – the Malay majority will increase over the generations due to birth rates which are directly proportional to the belief systems but do we want a large population of average Malay Malaysians or do we want a majority of Malaysians to be competitive and strong?

    The basic systems like education and upbringing lay the foundation for the strength of a generation, be it Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazans, and other tribals and aborigines. So it is up to us all, want any easy handout and suffer the long term deterioration or do we want to struggle now for long term success, improved standards of living and enhanced livelihood?

    It is our choice, let’s make it!

  6. Naoko says:

    I feel like crying, but for a good reason.

    Glad to know that in the midst of all the doom, gloom and stupid power grabs, there ARE young politicians who know what the people want, and that they (the politicians) want it for themselves because it’s right, and not because it’s what the electorate wants to hear.

    Kudos, Nurul Izzah.

  7. djambu says:

    Every generation needs a key-figure to emulate. Nurul Izzah can be one if she stands out more in the crowd every now and then. I would like to see more of her ‘in action’ in the Dewan Rakyat. You can’t ‘tumpang nama ayah’ forever, kan?


  8. Jason Sim says:

    We need more young politicians like her in Malaysia. The old ones are becoming more and more out of touch with reality….

  9. roastpork says:

    Great article!

    Nurul Izzah brought up a good point. With the current trend in birthrate, there will soon come a time when Malay Malaysians make up a great majority of the population. Say in 50-100 years Malay Malaysians/bumiputeras make up 80% of the population. This makes affirmative action policies irrelevant. What advantage does one gain from special treatment if almost everyone also gains from it?

  10. Steve McCoy says:

    Nurul Izzah is a breath of fresh air. She rightly points out that what we need is nothing short of a paradigm shift. However, the million dollar questions are from what, to what, and how – a broad subject, of which I will make one comment.

    While the high birth rate of Malay Malaysians which ensures the majority share of Malaysian citizenry may well cut through Malay nationalistic fear-mongering – for example, Ahmad Ismail’s comment ‘we will be forced to push the Chinese in the interests of our own survival’ made at the Permatang Pauh by-election recently, this kind of argument is a double-edged sword, and I fear the other other side of the blade is far sharper.

    The Malay Malaysian fertility rate is one of the highest in Asia this side of the sub-continent. This fact needs to be understood within the global context of 6 billion people already living beyond the carrying capacity of the planet (we are already using up about one and half earths, a luxury we can ‘afford’ for a short time only because the planet has built up resource stores over many millennia).

    When this is added to the fact that the world is increasingly ‘flat’, with a swelling middle class and the consumption patterns that go with it, and the fact that world population figures are set to hit 9 billion within half a lifetime, celebrating or being complacent over the high fertility rate in one section of our population, no matter how politically expedient now, does not get us where we need to be in the long term. Unsustainability in any area shouldn’t be part of the new paradigm we seek.

  11. Emily says:

    Did TNG add in all the (Malaysian)s? Sly. In any case, the phrase “Malay-Malaysians” should be more widely used. Go.

  12. Ahmed Lim says:

    Way to go Nurul Izzah! You’ve created the Neo-Malay generations!
    Say GOODBYE to old-school Malays […].

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