It’s the wee hours in Bangsar Baru, and one after another, strangers are walking into Nasi Kandar Pelita to literally break bread together.
Some come alone, others with friends. In this city where it often feels like nobody has time for anybody anymore, they pull up a chair and smile at the person next to them. Roti telur satu. Teh tarik, kurang manis.
It’s Puasa For Malaysia (#Puasa4Msia), an annual event organised by the social activist Marina Mahathir, where non-Muslims can join Muslims during Ramadan and get a sense of what it’s like to fast for a day. Elsewhere around the city, similar groups are gathering to share a pre-dawn meal, and maybe find some solidarity in these trying times.
Marina herself appears, wearing a grey T-shirt, grey sweatpants and slippers. She walks around, greets each person, shakes hands.
Adam Ragu, a 21-year-old student pilot, says he’d never met her in person before, though he’s followed her on Facebook for a while. He’s here because “I support her views and opinions. Malaysians should not be separated by religion.”
For many of the non-Muslims, this is their first-ever sahur. But this is about more than bridging faiths. At the three long tables, the conversation easily extends to the state of the nation, which is, how shall we say, not good.
“There are many things going on in this country,” says Soo Ho Hock Meng, the 54-year-old owner of a commodities trading company, digging into a roti canai. “Time to do something positive. Now’s the time for Malaysians to stand up and be counted.”
Malaysia’s leadership is in disarray, says another first-timer, Yeoh Ee Ping, 24, who works in corporate communications, but “at the grassroots level, we are much stronger than above.” After all, she adds, as she waves her hands around her: “We are literally sitting at a table full of strangers.”
Afterwards, they gather on the sidewalk—about 50 of them—and sing a Hari Raya song.
It is all very Marina.
For more than 20 years, the oldest child of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has forged a singular path as a social activist, starting with her work with HIV/AIDS in the ’90s. For someone who comes from political blue blood, she has emerged as an unlikely spokeswoman for those on the fringes of society, the oppressed and the voiceless.
Along the way, she has earned the admiration of a widening swath of Malaysians. At a time when elected leaders shock and disappoint, she’s come to represent something about what Malaysia can be, and should be, to those who no longer recognise the country they grew up in.
“We do need the Marinas of Malaysia,” says Lyana Khairuddin, a 32-year-old Universiti Malaya virologist and HIV researcher, and columnist with The Malaysian Insider. “We have become a society that is so black and white. Either you are in government or opposition. What about the rakyat? She fills the void very nicely.”
Her critics—like her fans—span the spectrum, and range from conservative Muslims upset with her views on Islam and women, to progressives frustrated by her refusal to at least acknowledge that her father’s strongman legacy helped set the stage for the excesses and abuses that came later.
What’s clear is that, at 58, the same age as Malaysia, Marina is one of the most recognisable people in the country, with an appeal stretching across generations and ethnic groups.
What she does next, with that reach and that influence, is going to be interesting.
I first profiled marina in the mid-’90s for Agence France-Presse, the Paris-based international news agency, and then again for the Asian Wall Street Journal in 1997.
I found her a riddle. In this country, the children of powerful men are usually busy making money, or spending it. They are not usually hanging out in the city’s blighted neighbourhoods, talking to sex workers and drug users. Or writing columns in a national daily that call out injustices, including those perpetuated by the government of the day. Especially when that government is led by their father.
I had questions. Boy, did I have questions.
Did her father approve of her causes? Did he ever tell her to tone it down? Or was Marina really her father’s secret alter ego, saying in public what he himself could not? Was she, as the corporations suddenly rushing to donate for HIV/AIDS outreach clearly hoped, a direct conduit to her father? I mean, what did they talk about at family dinners?
I remember interviewing her at her office, a terracotta-tiled back room in a pre-war shophouse on Jalan Pudu Lama. She was gracious but guarded. Chatty when it came to her work, but barely hiding her impatience when it came to questions about her relationship with her father.
Yes, the family remained close, she said. No, her father did not try to curb her activism. Work was work. Politics was politics. Family was family.
She may have rolled her eyes at one point. I can’t be sure. It was a while ago.
Soon after the story ran on the front page of the Asian Wall Street Journal, I bumped into her. She laughed and said the newspaper’s trademark pixelated portrait had made her hair look like a pile of spaghetti.
One afternoon last month, I drove to her current office, in a small ’70s double-story link house on a quiet street in Bangsar Baru. An assistant buzzed me in.
Marina came down the old-fashioned wood plank stairs, wearing a beige Indian-style kurta blouse and blue jeans. She led me back up to her office, in a converted bedroom upstairs.
On a wall behind her desk was a large painting by her oldest daughter, Ineza, done in a child’s confident hand. It was of rows of spectacles, each with a different shaped frame, against a bright green background. Ineza is now 28 and a documentary filmmaker in Kuala Lumpur. Marina’s stepson, Haga, is 27 and lives in Jakarta. Her youngest daughter, Shaista, is 16 and heading to boarding school in the UK this year.
Her desk was crowded with framed photographs of family and friends. One showed her dad, in a grey suit, sitting on the edge of his bed in Seri Perdana, the prime minister’s residence in Putrajaya. He’s lifting little Shaista up in the air, kissing her face. The photo was taken the morning of his last day as prime minister, in 2003.
Other snapshots show her with friends in the activist world, the same ones who often clash with officialdom. There’s former Bar Council president and ex-Bersih chair Ambiga Sreenevasan; Ivy Josiah, former chief of Women’s Aid Organisation; and Zainah Anwar, co-founder of Sisters in Islam, among others.
This too was very Marina—the juxtaposition of worlds when it comes to what she holds dear.
These days, she’s stepped down from her work with HIV/AIDS, but her calendar is still packed, and not just with sahur dates with strangers. She’s on the board of Sisters in Islam and a member of the International Advisory Group of Musawah, a coalition that advocates equality in the Muslim family. She’s also on the board of the Maybank Foundation and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the Board of Trustees of the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh. She’s just started a website for women travellers, Zafigo.com.
We settled in armchairs to talk. She was warmer, more relaxed and more talkative than at our previous encounters.
She had just returned a day ago from Kelantan, to check on temporary housing for flood victims built by the humanitarian aid organisation Mercy Malaysia, with funds from Maybank Foundation. She had posted photos on Facebook of village children she met.
“I like to go and see these things,” she said.
Marina mahathir was born in 1957, two months before Merdeka, in Alor Setar, Kedah.
“It was typical small-town life,” she said. Her parents were disciplinarians, she said. As the oldest of the couple’s four biological children—they adopted three more—she “got scolded more than the rest,” since she was expected to set an example.
Her younger brother Mokhzani remembers when a teenage Marina, in cahoots with an American exchange student hosted by the family, decided to paint her room in psychedelic colours. Were her parents mad? “Put it this way,” he said in a phone interview, “it was repainted very quickly.”
Marina later spent three months with her friend’s family in California. “That may have opened her mind to more liberal things,” said Mokhzani, a businessman who is No.26 on Forbes’ list of richest Malaysians. When I checked with her later, Marina said she remains in touch with that friend. “I guess California in the ’70s made me see a bigger world if you like,” she said.
Marina completed a degree in international relations at Sussex University in the UK, and back in Kuala Lumpur, worked for the US-based public relations firm Edelman, and later as a writer at Her World magazine.
In 1989, she began writing a fortnightly column—“Musings”—for Malaysia’s biggest-selling English daily, The Star. Topics ranged from her personal experiences bringing up children to diatribes against political shenanigans. The Star is owned by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), an ally of the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno). On occasion, it has refused to run a particularly pointed column. These days, when that happens, she simply publishes it on her blog, Rantings by MM.
In 1993, Marina agreed to be president of the Malaysian AIDS Council, a grouping of non-governmental organisations involved in outreach and prevention. Nik Fahmee Nik Hussin, who was the council’s executive director for 10 years from 1998, remembers Marina as being “very critical and analytical” in searching for solutions, as well as ever willing to show up, “sit down and show kindness… to a community living in fear.”
Female, Muslim and straight, she was an anomaly in the field, and helped to scrub the stigma against the disease in Malaysia, raising millions from corporations to help those afflicted and at risk.
Her work with the AIDS Council, she said, gave her a focus in life. “Suddenly, I was hanging out with drug users and sex workers and all sorts of people. It was a world that was completely alien to me at that time.”
She met people with the virus who couldn’t get jobs, who couldn’t get medical care. It was the start, she said, of “the education of Marina M.”
Working with HIV/AIDS gave her a lens to wider human rights and “society as an ecosystem.” She began putting her energies into women’s rights. For 10 years up until 2010, she produced an educational TV program titled 3R—Respect, Relax and Respond—for women aged 15 to 25.
There were run-ins with the censorship board; in those instances, the Mahathir name seemed to hold little sway.
Each episode began with a three-minute skit on the topic of the day, which might be about work, relationships, technology or health. One time, censors baulked when a Malay Muslim host played the role of an Indian woman, wearing a sari with a bindi on her forehead. Another time, the problem was an earring on a male interviewee. They ended up pixelating the offending piece of jewellery to comply with a broadcasting rule that prohibited cross-dressing. One episode, where two women talked about how their families supported them after they came out as gay, was canned altogether.
In 2006, Marina wrote a column for International Women’s Day headlined “No Cheer for Muslim Women.” In it, she compared the religious and legal confines on Muslim women in Malaysia to that of blacks in South Africa under apartheid. “Non-Muslim Malaysian women have benefitted from more progressive laws over the years, while the opposite has happened for Muslim women,” she wrote.
Conservative Muslim groups accused her of religious ignorance and the resulting firestorm was covered by local and international media, among others, BBC News and National Public Radio (NPR) in the US.
That same year, Marina started a “Let’s Read the Quran” campaign, urging people—Muslim and non-Muslim—to read the holy book in whatever language they understood and blog about it. The message was that people should interpret the Quran for themselves and not leave it to holy men to do it for them.
“How is it possible for women to be treated so badly according to religion?” she asked rhetorically when we met. “How can you be happy if you are being beaten? It can’t be right.”
She said she is encouraged when she meets young Malaysians these days who are more curious and questioning about religion.
“What have religious authorities given them?” she asked. “Absolutely nothing! Nothing to feed their souls. Everything is about what they cannot do. We’re so bent on form over function.”
In 2010, she joined the board of the progressive Sisters in Islam. There was a clear fit between her views and the non-governmental organisation’s promotion of Muslim women’s rights, said SIS founder Zainah Anwar.
With Marina’s 71,000 Facebook followers, 26,500 Twitter followers and almost everything she says or writes on current affairs amplified by the media into headlines, “we get the kind of reach that Sisters does not get on its own,” said Zainah. Marina has also helped Sisters in Islam through lean financial times, by urging corporations who invite her to speak to donate to SIS.
“Marina takes the best from her parents,” said Zainah, speaking by Skype during a work trip to Geneva. “The courage of conviction from her dad, and the graciousness and generosity of spirit from her mum.”
Marina is well aware that she’s become a go-to person for the media, the guaranteed supplier of a sensible quote in an increasingly senseless world.
“It’s a terrible burden,” she said, only half joking. “It’s a little bit like carrying a kavadi.”
She’s also aware that, in this time of heightened political tension, where activists, journalists and opposition politicians have been sued and, in some cases, arrested and locked up overnight, she could be fair game for a government under pressure.
“I don’t think about it,” she said, but admits: “My husband thinks about it all the time.” Her husband is Tara Sosrowardoyo, the Indonesian photographer. “He wants me to tone down, but I can’t help myself. How do you keep quiet? I’m like my dad.”
But on at least one thing, she’s been resolutely silent: her father’s role during 22 years in power in helping to create some of the country’s problems today.
Some see that as deliberate myopia on her part. In a column for Malaysiakini in 2012, the columnist Josh Hong, noting that it was under Mahathir that corruption flourished and the judiciary and other institutions were brought to their knees, wrote: “I am not here to judge Marina personally, for I do support many of the good causes that she champions and appreciate her timely support for Bersih and other just-minded social movements.
“My opinion,” he continued, “is simply that she cannot go on criticising all that has gone awry under both Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Najib Razak, without also taking a deep look at what preceded them.”
Marina is unapologetic about compartmentalising when it comes to her family.
“I have never criticised my father,” she told me. “I have never criticised my brother (Mukhriz, who is Kedah Mentri Besar). I just talk about the issues.”
Of her father, she said, “Some things I think he could have done differently. But I do believe he does what he believes is best for the country.” But wasn’t it Mahathir who started the state-funded religious departments she now rails against, as a way to beat back the opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS)?
“During dad’s time, the only way to counter religious extremists was to speak in their own language,” she said. “Dad was very knowledgeable about the Quran and very tough on religious authorities. He set them up, but kept them under control. It’s only now, with nobody
Perhaps the late Barry Wain, the former Asian Wall Street Journal editor who wrote the deeply researched 2009 biography Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times, put it best, during a conversation we had a few years ago about Marina.
“Well,” he said, “she loves her father.”
Marina has repeatedly said she has no interest in standing for election. She says she can’t see herself joining any existing political parties. And in Malaysia’s party-based politics, an independent candidate is unlikely to get very far.
In fact, her disdain for politics is part of her appeal. “She’s idealistic,” said her brother Mokhzani. If she tried to enter mainstream politics, “she’ll get swamped. Politics is very messy.”
That doesn’t mean she could not end up a political force. “She has a following,” Mokhzani said. “It is up to the people in power to make sure that following is heard before they put pencil to paper in the voting booth.”
Ivy Josiah, a veteran women’s activist and longtime friend of Marina’s, said they have batted around the idea of creating a local version of Emily’s List, the American organisation that works to elect Democratic women to office. A Marina’s List, if you will, of candidates she would endorse and help fund and campaign for.
After I spoke to Ivy, I emailed Marina to ask her about it.
“Ivy and I have 1,001 ideas all the time and that was idea No.76 or something,” she wrote back. “If we could use it to support women candidates, as well as male ones, who support women’s rights, then we might be able to get some good women candidates into Parliament, not just those who toe the male party line.”
So far, both have been too busy to take the notion further, she said.
“I still think it’s a workable idea though… maybe for the next GE?”
First published in Esquire Malaysia's August 2015 issue. Photographs by Delvin Xi-An. Styling by Andrea Kee. Art direction by Rebecca Chew. Assisted by Suraya Nasaruddin. Makeup by Joey Yap. Hair by Angeline Low. Shirt by Uniqlo. Serpent ring by Bulgari. Earrings and pearl ring both by CH Carolina Herrera. Pants, Marina's own.