Moving out of a father’s political shadow

When Nurul Izzah Anwar was elected last month to one of the senior leadership posts in the People’s Justice Party at the age of 30, she became the youngest person to hold such a position in the Malaysian party’s history. Her success in contesting one of the four positions of vice president came just two years after she was elected to Parliament, but her public image has been more than a decade in the making and is inextricably tied to one of Malaysia’s most recognisable politicians.

By Liz Gooch

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Published: Fri 31 Dec 2010, 10:18 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:18 AM

The eldest daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, Nurul Izzah traces her political birth back more than a decade, to when Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, was jailed on charges of sodomy and abuse of power.

The jailing of Anwar, who was released in 2004 after the sodomy charges were overturned, was a pivotal event in his transformation into the leader of Malaysia’s opposition. It also propelled Nurul Izzah, just 18 at the time of her father’s arrest, into public life, beginning with an impassioned plea for her father’s freedom before the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

Now, as her father, who was re-elected to Parliament in 2008, faces a second sodomy trial that he denounces as a government conspiracy to thwart his political return, Nurul Izzah’s own political star is rising. Her recent victory has cemented her position as a key player in the People’s Justice Party, which her father founded and of which her mother, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, is president.

While some analysts view her election to one of the party’s top posts as an important step toward emerging from her father’s shadow, others take it as a sign that Anwar’s family is engaging in dynastic politics. In an interview in the opposition offices of the Malaysian Parliament, Nurul Izzah, the only one of Anwar’s six children to follow their parents into political life, insisted on her own independence. “At the end of the day, I am a legislator in my own right,” she said. “I have to fight my own wars, and I have my community and constituents to serve. I am answerable to them.”

She emphasised that she was not appointed but rather elected by the party’s members after campaigning against 17 contenders for the four vice-presidential posts. “I am proud of the fact that we had to fight,” she said of the internal party contest. “I believe the fact that we have implemented direct elections as a way to choose our leaders was the best way to celebrate democracy in the party and to prove that no one particular individual can hold sway in terms of affecting the decisions or the outcomes.”

It was her work with human rights organisations as well as her father’s arrest, she said, that gave her an understanding of “the things that matter in Malaysia - the state of our judiciary, the state of our civil and political liberties,” and convinced her that politics offered an opportunity to effect change.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering in Malaysia, Nurul Izzah completed a master’s in international relations at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She returned to Malaysia in 2007 and was coordinating the People’s Justice Party’s activities in Lembai Pantai, a suburban Kuala Lumpur constituency, when the party asked her to run for Parliament in the 2008 election. She defeated the three-term incumbent Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, who is now the minister for women, family and community development, contributing to impressive gains by the opposition and, for the first time in nearly four decades, the governing party’s loss of the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to amend the Constitution.

Her father’s most recent tribulations inevitably give rise to the question of whether Nurul Izzah could eventually step into his shoes as leader of the opposition.

As his second sodomy trial proceeds, the People’s Justice Party has said that there is a succession plan in the event that Anwar is jailed again. Last week, he was suspended from Parliament for six months for linking the government’s “1 Malaysia” national unity programme with a similar campaign in Israel.

Ong Kian Ming, a political analyst and lecturer at UCSI University in Kuala Lumpur, believes that Anwar would continue to be the party’s de facto leader even if he returns to prison, and that the next step for Nurul Izzah would probably be the deputy presidency. Ong said that any critics within the party had so far kept any resentments about her rapid rise to themselves, and that the young politician had yet to be vigorously tested by internal or external opponents. Nurul Izzah has repeatedly stressed the need to overcome ethnic and religious divisions in Malaysia, where tensions periodically flare, like the firebombing of places of worship early this year.

She has warned that Malaysia is at risk of becoming a “failed state” if it does not address such tensions and take on issues like the quality of the country’s universities, corruption and laws that prevent free speech.

While her rise through the party’s ranks has been rapid, overcoming such challenges is likely to require a sustained effort. But Nurul Izzah emphasises that she is in for the long haul. “In terms of promoting and advocating reform,” she said, “I think it should be a lifelong struggle.”


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