The ladies have been all aflutter over the news that Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said was pulling out of the contest for the Wanita Umno leadership. News about Azalina’s change of heart broke on Monday and Shahrizat may be on the way to retaining the top post uncontested.
The Wanita Umno leader was in a chatty mood when The Star arrived at her house for a scheduled interview on Wednesday. She seemed prepared to talk about almost everything except the Azalina development. Her response when pressed about it was cool, to say the least.
Shahrizat is a seasoned politician and she was not going to be drawn into a premature discussion of what may or may not happen.
Whether Azalina is in or out will be confirmed on Sept 21 when those vying for posts in the Wanita, Pemuda and Puteri wings of Umno file their papers. Until then, Shahrizat is taking a wait-and-see stance.
Journey continues: Shahrizat is in a good place at the moment after a tumultuous year during
which her political career was almost derailed.
Her press secretary Eikmal Rizal Ripin and her long-time aide Rose sat in at the interview. Rose is actually her aunt although they are like sisters. She is very protective about Shahrizat and watches over her like a mother hen.
Shahrizat has regained her centre of gravity now that the worst of the storm over the National Feedlot Centre or NFC issue has passed.
Her appointment as adviser to the Prime Minister on women entrepreneurship and professional development has brought added purpose to her role as Wanita chief. She is brimming with ideas and plans about what she wants to do in her new post and, a day earlier, she had invited several women NGO figures to her house for discussions.
But it is Shahrizat’s role or rather grip over Wanita Umno that fascinates those in Umno. The Umno men have been asking each other: How on earth does she do it?
Umno members were upset with Shahrizat when the NFC issue erupted but they admit that the lady has emerged stronger than before. She is arguably one of the most powerful figures in the party today.
It is also ironic that Azalina’s attempt to topple her has instead resulted in reinforcing Shahrizat’s clout in the Wanita wing.
Some of the Umno men had initially thought that Azalina had a fighting chance but the notion quickly fizzled out when it became clear that the majority of the women were staunchly behind the woman whom they know simply as “Kak Ijat”.
Shahrizat’s support from the Wanita grassroots also opened the eyes of the men to a new phenomenon – the days when the male division chiefs could compel the Wanita heads in their division to vote for the Wanita leader whom the men preferred are over. The women have finally come into their own.
Actually, Shahrizat’s charismatic hold over the Wanita wing was already on full display at the special Wanita gathering at the PWTC last year, shortly after the NFC issue broke out.
Everyone, including Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, was stunned not only by the way the women packed the three halls at PWTC but by their emotional outpouring for Shahrizat. There was electricity in the air and, looking back, Shahrizat admitted that she was as flabbergasted as everyone.
“I think all those women knew what I was going through. They felt for me,” she said.
The thing is that even when she was down, she stayed loyal and continued to work hard for the party.
Bukit Bintang Wanita chief Mariany Mohd Yit who was with Shahrizat during the general election campaign had this to say: “Everywhere she went, the women came out in force. She went down, she worked very hard.”
A journalist who was looking through some of Shahrizat’s tweets realised that she was everywhere in the weeks leading to the general election and throughout the campaign.
“She didn’t get much press coverage after losing her minister job. But did you know she was in Lahad Datu when Parliament was dissolved? After that, she was in remote places in Sabah and Sarawak,” said the journalist.
She could not be there for the graduation of her only daughter Izzana Salleh because of the election campaign. Izzana, or Yana as she is known, graduated with an MBA from the Imperial College London on May 1.
Shahrizat had tweeted: “Yana, you r graduating now and I can’t join you. Lump in my throat.”
Another tweet followed moments later: “I had to miss your graduation. I love your pix. MBA Imperial young woman, Alhamdulilah.”
Izzana is no spoilt brat despite her privileged upbringing. At a previous interview at their home, Izzana was the one who moved about serving food and clearing plates. Her mother only had to tap on her empty glass and Izzana would jump to her feet to fill up the glass.
Lack of support
Azalina’s camp has portrayed her backing out as the action of a party loyalist who does not wish to cause a split. But everyone knows that the Pengerang MP and former Puteri leader was staring defeat in the face.
“It is better to withdraw than to lose. Azalina has been going around all the states. Surely she knows she does not have support,” said Pahang Wanita chief Datuk Rosni Zahari.
Several of Shahrizat’s supporters are openly scornful of the withdrawal. Kedah Wanita chief Datuk Maznah Hamid was quoted in a leading Malay daily as urging Azalina not to withdraw but to fight on. It was her attempt at being sarcastic and ironic. Unfortunately, the reporter took it rather too literally and the comment came across as support for the challenger. Poor Maznah was bombarded by calls from her Wanita friends and she had to make another statement in the same Malay daily, this time minus the sarcasm.
“I wanted to tell her that if she still does not know how the ground feels, she should go ahead and find out by contesting. I wanted her to contest, to lose and keep quiet for three years,” said Maznah.
There is speculation that the Umno president had personally asked Azalina to reconsider her bid for the Wanita post. He is said to have told her that Umno needs to consolidate after a bruising general election and that she has a role in the party even if she does not contest.
Azalina’s willingess to compromise also stems from her desire to preserve her legacy as the founding leader of Puteri Umno. Getting crushed in the Wanita contest would diminish her early success.
Azalina is also said to have had a secret pow-wow with Shahrizat during which Shahrizat is said to have indicated that this may be her last term as Wanita chief.
Sources from Azalina’s camp have since suggested that Azalina should be “rewarded” with an appointed post in the women’s wing for pulling out and that she could be the next Wanita information head. Her supporters have even suggested that she is the “future face” of Wanita Umno but that is another three years down the road – and that is a long time in politics.
During the interview, Shahrizat simply could not be pinned down on what sort of role Azalina could play in the Wanita wing. The question was asked six times in six different ways and she side-stepped it in as many times.
But the point is that Shahrizat is negotiating from a position of strength – she is the incumbent and she has support from the women. It is for Azalina to ask and for Shahrizat to agree or disagree.
Shahrizat’s grassroots support stems from the fact that she has made real effort to push for legislation that defend and promote the interests of women. In her time, she has been able to translate government policies on women into programmes and action.
Within the party, she has set up the political infrastructure for the Wanita members on the ground. She ensures that the women have resources and funds to run political activities and carry out programmes. For instance, if she sent down laptops for the women leaders at the division level, she would also send people to coach the women on how to use the computers.
She was also keen to clear the air on opportunities for Puteri girls after they graduate into the Wanita wing. She rattled off names of ex-Puteri politicians who had been successfully incorporated into positions in the senior wing.
She often reminds her ladies that, “Puteri adalah anak kita, bukan madu kita”. She wants her ladies to nurture the Puteri girls like their own daughters rather than as “madu” or honey, an innuendo for second wife or rival.
“They will not be sidelined but things cannot come on a silver platter. They have to work for it, to compete. We senior ladies built the highway, the younger ones will drive the vehicle,” she said.
The women’s overwhelming support for Shahrizat’s re-election has been an important part of her recovery from what she calls her “family tragedy” aka the NFC issue.
It is only now that she is able to talk about that dark period when she felt the world crashing around her. Asked which was the lowest point of that period, she said it was the day she accompanied her husband to court to face charges and her eldest son stood up to post bail for his father.
Many people had noted her remarkable composure throughout the family’s problems. She said she “carried the tears in my heart” and allowed the tears to flow only when she was alone in the bathroom or when everyone had gone to sleep.
“I accept my fate,” she said.
She said recently that it is all those women in Wanita Umno who have helped her to smile again.
“Getting support from my Wanita ladies is like getting the cake. The support from the top leaders is the icing on the cake,” she said.
The journey continues for Shahrizat.
Joceline Tan firstname.lastname@example.org The STAR Online Home Opinion Columnist Sunday September 15, 2013