My Fair (First) Lady

Posted on September 21, 2011 by

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Written by Cindi Loo

It’s not often that women get to be highlighted in the world of politics, particularly when there are only 23 female Members of Parliament out of the 222 MPs (now reduced to 22 as one passed away due to cancer) in Malaysia. But these weren’t the lawmakers who made the headlines. No, it was a fight for the role so fitting for the gender that there’s no need to discuss about gender politics in this context. The fight to claim for a “good” Wife of Prime Minister, or, First Lady.

And the Modest Lady award goes to…

Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. Credits to Wikipedia

It was announced about a month ago by major Opposition party PKR that they will feature wife of PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim, Wan Azizah in a “square-off” of sorts in comparison with our Prime Minister Najib Razak’s wife, Rosmah Mansor.  In the news report announcing the campaign, the women leaders of the campaign said this was to highlight the stark differences between Azizah and Rosmah.  They will release a series of videos interviewing his wife on how it is like being a mother, a loving wife who stands behind her husband despite the various scandals, the reluctant leader, and the humble woman. Simply put, Wan Azizah, the motherly, loving, modest lady is a better potential First Lady to the current Rosmah Mansor, often described as haughty, rich and sometimes, more powerful than the Prime Minister himself.

The media was quick to play into the foray, with  Malaysiakini (since it’s a paid website the interview was replicated in full HERE) scoring the exclusive four-parter with Azizah. She exclaimed in one article that “God forbid I will be like Rosmah”, while telling a story of why she’s not another typical minister’s wife who splurged:

“I have been overseas and when meeting with the ambassador’s wife and she would ask me, ‘Where do you want to go?’

“I said I was told the Smithsonian Museum was good. She (the ambassador’s wife) told me, ‘You know, you are the first minister’s wife to ask me to bring you to the museum’. And I said, ‘Oh, really!’ Does that answer your question?”

In the mean time, Rosmah’s appearance in the Hari Raya commercial together with the PM himself on National TV earned some scornful remarks from the Islamic party PAS. The Vice President of the party Mahfuz Omar claims that Rosmah was the first Prime Minister’s wife to have appeared on the television slot alongside her husband to deliver the annual Hari Raya message. He suggested that perhaps Rosmah asked to appear in the same television slot, which in return implies that she’s crossing her boundaries as the First Lady and doesn’t know her place, leaving the impression that she had as much power in administration than her husband.

Rosmah Mansor is considered to be the first First Lady of her kind because previous generations of wives of Prime Ministers focused on the woman’s motherliness, gentleness, and her friendly approach. The most remembered was of course, wife to former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah.

While I don’t doubt the genuine characteristics of Wan Azizah, but I do put doubts in allowing her characteristics such as humility and modesty and her brand of being the mother, wife, and reluctant leader being used in the political field. Indeed, when I saw her stories being told as it appeared on Malaysiakini, I did wonder if she was retelling the story as a chess move, as this could give her plenty of political grounds especially when it comes to supporting her husband’s cause of taking over as government in the coming General Elections.

That’s not to say that Rosmah herself is all honest and good, even if she was not the best portrayal of a simple, middle class woman which is the common portrayal of every typical Malaysian woman. Rumours of her and her husband misusing public funds for her personal gains have been rife, the latest being the alleged purchase of a ring that is said to cost USD24 million. Since, unlike our Singaporean counterpart, our Prime Minister doesn’t earn by the millions, one wonders how such a ring was procured.

Just a Rosmah problem?

The only contention about the issue is, why is the role of First Lady being defined based on the primary role of a woman? Even if the PKR campaigns are designed to go against just Rosmah, it is a rather sinister remark against

Datin Paduka Seri Rosmah Mansor.

any women who desire materials, or even to have ambitions. To some people, a woman having ambitions besides just being a wife or mother are the epitome of arrogance and women not knowing where they stand. But to others, becoming a successful woman in life is a dream.

Rosmah may not be the perfect embodiment of the First Lady, but in my honest opinion, to put so much political effort to bring her down seems to give her even more credit as a powerful woman who takes no prisoners than the campaigners intended to. Plus, the preference for gentle, motherly woman leaders made me opine for somebody who is capable of creating as much ire as Rosmah can. I’m pretty sure there are women with aspirations to become a strong and powerful woman behind their man and not just being contained to their role to be nurturing. Sure, certain practises that she allegedly have done using government funding have left a lot of bad tastes especially because she flaunts her riches that aren’t exactly belonging to her. But if she’s just another Datin Seri instead of the Prime Minister’s wife would there be so much attention as to whether she’s the one wearing the pants? Or replace any other vivacious lady as the PM’s wife. Would there be remarks as scornful or would this other lady be praised for her long sightedness of the country’s future and her steadfast beliefs and principles?

Similarly, would Azizah’s modest attitude be amplified politically if she wasn’t the Opposition leader’s wife who once hold the fort for so long during his imprisonment? It’s interesting how females are supposed to be dictated based on their behaviour and personality instead of their own achievements, in which case, I’m not sure of either have any to justify themselves to become First Lady of Malaysia so to speak.

Looking at their counterparts in other countries, most prominently the United States of America, one wonders why this was even an argument to begin. While being the First Lady of USA, Hilary Clinton, in her capacity, tried to introduce the “universal healthcare” system with the President setting up the task force and her being chairperson to oversee the progress. That in itself caused a huge uproar, and she was challenged by the Congress, especially the men of the Congress because they felt she was her crossing her boundaries as First Lady of USA. Now that, I’d say, is ballsy attitude. Meanwhile, are there any substantial policies or groundbreaking activities from either Wan Azizah or Rosmah that plays as a substantial woman’s role model besides being subjected to petty politics about one other’s personality and character?

And then the other pressing question: Will political parties look at the bigger picture where women MPs are currently grossly underrepresented in the Parliament, who are primarily the lawmakers of this country, before they sought the battleground to fight for what would have just been a ceremonial role?

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