Man at His Best

What I've Learned with Rafidah Aziz

What makes 'the government's voice of conscience' tick after decades in politics?

BY Marc Jitab | May 2, 2018 | Money & Career

Photographs by Azrul Abdullah

When (intolerant) people get publicity, you know, human beings, they become elated, they become champions of some stupid cause.

I was brought into government by the late Tun Hussein Onn. One day he just called me at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon—and I was doing my thesis at the time—and said he was bringing me into the government, and I had to decide by that night. Four hours after that call, I called him back to accept. He made me Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister of Public Enterprise and he told me that after a year, he would promote me to Deputy Minister. He kept his word, exactly a year later.

My life has been ups and downs and very few things faze me. I understand what it is like to have and also not to have. You're at a time where there were gaps in society and when you're at the lower end you realise how the upper end operates and lives and it gave me that determination to succeed.

My late father was a founding member of Pemuda Umno, so politics was always in the family. My house was just a few yards away from their regular meeting place in the Sultan Sulaiman Club in Kampung Baru, so I was there peering under the verandah when I was eight, at what the men were talking about. Tunku Abdul Rahman and all these familiar men were there, and later I actually saw them in the Umno Supreme Council. It was amazing, being on the same table with Tun Razak when I used to see them as a kid.

My father quit his job many times. At that time, all his bosses were colonialists. I suppose it was nationalistic pride not to be told how to do something by the whites and if he didn't like something, he'd quit.

If I do not have money, then I should study hard. Do something so that I can be proud of myself. That determination carried me through to life: if I wanted to do something, I should be able to do it.

I was given a Colombo Plan scholarship to study economics in Australia, but my then-boyfriend dissuaded me to go because he wanted to marry me. So I rejected the scholarship, and got a Bank Negara scholarship to do it locally instead.

Our Malaysian space has always had enough for everybody. Let us just that project that and make that the thing that people should always think about. I studied in a convent, crosses everywhere. They had mass. They had catechism. I could recite the Scripture better than the stuttering Christian girls. The nuns would say, “Rafidah, stop prompting her!” It didn't occur to me it is wrong. If you fear somebody else's religion, it means that your own belief is so veneer-thin, period.

When you start to analyse you realise that there are some people who just can't tolerate, let alone accept, others who are different. But there are many who can accept, so let the many prevail.

When my daughter was still in Convent Bukit Nanas, one day, nearing the end of the year, they already had singing, carols, and the usual. Then one uztazah announced on stage, “All the Muslim girls can go back to class. This do is only for the non-Muslims.” All the Malay girls cried, because they had been practicing their carols. My daughter is like me: no crying business. She stomped on stage and said, “I am singing!” Every teary eyed friend of hers went up on stage and did the same. I reported this to Cabinet and Tun Mahathir, that very Saturday, was quoted in The Star asking what was happening. It wasn't a school policy. It was the thinking of a lone individual who was given that position, and the headmistress didn't want to mess with religion.

Developing the mindsets and skills of people to perform like first world citizens, with their global values, is not for the government to do, it should be nurtured in families. The government shouldn't be running families. How many parents take it upon themselves to nurture this in their children?

In the 50s, we were taught to be competitive without using the word “competition.” We were told to do our best and if our ability is 80, don't aim for 40 or 50. Today, we can use words like “global” and “competition.” The phrases are different but the idea is to tell people to not be so complacent. This needs to be nurtured first in the house.

The leaders I knew before, all they talked was the country and the people. All told, you find that if you are a person that can do things for their country, that's what matters, not what you can show people.

This article was first published on 7 February 2016.