THURSDAY, April 23, 1997


Really, Really Rafidah

An Industrious Success Story

By Beverley Hon
Pictures by ONG SOON HIN and courtesy of DATUK SERI RAFIDAH AZIZ

heís known for speaking her mind and not for suffering fools easily, so the prospect of inteviewing Malaysia's International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz is, er, how do I put it? - downright scary?!!

So there I was in her office at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m., tape recorder in hand and butterflies in stomach. She's as punctual as she's made out to be and just as impressive as I'd been told. I'm supposed to ask her about childish pranks and dating?! But she does have a reassuring smile, which she flashes as she stands up to greet us.

As we seat ourselves, photographer Ong Soon Hin removes a view-obstructing pen from the penholder/paperweight in front of Rafidah. But she tells him to leave it there Ė a penholder should have a pen in it, she says. It's all right if the pen isn't there, you know, we venture.

"No, itís not all right. Itís not natural," counters Rafidah firmly.

Itís a telling bit of by-play for, as we discover during the course of the interview, Rafidah has always been much aware of the way things should be and of making sure they are just that way. No flights of fancy for this woman, not even when she was a teenager. Her penholders have always had pens in them.

That no-nonsense attitude that is now famous began showing itself as early as her childhood when she decided that role models would be superfluous. Eh? You'd think someone who once aspired to be a doctor and a lawyer and who has achieved so much in just 55 years would have had at least one role model.

But, "there were no influences," says Rafidah. "I don't believe in being influenced by anybody. I just had my own targets. Nobody influenced me, I don't have role models."

Born in Selama, Perak, Rafidah moved about a bit during her early years, growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Kelantan and Johor Baru as her father, who was with the Information Department, was transferred around the country.

Perhaps this is why she says: "I didnít have much of a childhood because I grew up very quickly. So I do not have these favourite movie stars and all that sort of thing.

"I wouldn't say I matured but I grew up very fast so I didn't have the kind of childhood that 'normal' children have. I played games but they were not like masak-masak; I played marbles and kites with the boys. So I don't have these fantasy things. Tak ada," she stresses.

Wow, talk about .a reaction! Okay, so she wasn't into make-believe and day-dreaming. What about setting goals, then? But, according to Rafidah, she has never set any goals for herself - "I just work" - and when she was in school, she just wanted to do her best. Surprisingly, the Minister also never aspired to getting eight or nine As as it would have meant putting pressure on herself.

"No, I donít believe in doing that. But when you try to do your best, you eventually achieve some measure of success. I would say, to a great extent, I have achieved things I feel I should have achieved.

Not that Rafidah was an all-work-and-no-play kind of girl. Although a hard-working science student, Rafidah was also "a very playful person" when she was in school. When we asked her to elaborate, what a treasure trove was discovered!

"We would take iron filings from the lab and put them where we were sure our friends would touch them. The iron filings would get into their skin and clothes and theyíd become so itchy theyíd scratch the whole day, " Rafidah recollects.

"And mercury .. we would dip whatever we could find in the mercury. I remember some of my friends would dip gold bracelets into mercury and watch them just dissolve. Yes, we were very naughty!

"We would also play with mirrors when the Maths teacher was writing on the board. The person sitting nearest the window which had the sun shining through would bounce the light off a mirror (into the teacher's eyes) and the teacher would get a shock. We would just keep quiet, of course.

"And hiding teachers' purses. I loved to do that. The teacher goes somewhere, toilet, ke mana, takes out her purse, leaves it behind and doesnít realise it. We'd hide it somewhere and at the end of the day she's frantically looking for it!"

Can you imagine it? The dignified minister scurrying around, playing her mischievious pranks - we love it! But, as Rafidah points out, they were harmless pranks; and, according to her, it was all a part of growing up and "challenging authority when you're young."

Pranks aside, Rafidah was also active in extra-curricular activities; in fact, she was in "everything," including debates, plays, singing, dancing, sports, the Girl Guides, Brownies and Rangers. Phew! But amidst all those good times, there were bad times too. Unlike you guys nowadays who complain about early curfews, Rafidah experienced the real thing: curfews during the Communist Emergency after World War II. In those days, breaking the government-imposed curfew meant more than getting grounded or scolded; sometimes, it meant getting shot!

When her father was transferred to Kelantan, Rafidah recalls that he would come home from work and talk about how many people and soldiers died, and how he had to inspect the bodies as he had to "make up the news for the media." Despite the trying times and despite not being very well off, Rafidah's parents were very supportive of their eldest daughter, especially when it came to her education. In fact, she feels they were the ones who actually "opened up all avenues" for her to be "what I am now."

If she needed anything they could afford, they would buy it for her and, although there was "not much," Rafidah got the basics. Her parents were not stingy about facilitating her education but she never asked much of them because she knew they couldn't afford much. For instance, she rarely asked for books "because I could go to the library."

From 1966 to 1976, Rafidah studied and lectured in Economics at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, where she earned her Bachelors and Masters degrees in Economics whilst making a living teaching.

"Life as a teacher is very good because you get to meet a lot of students and you try to impart something to them in the hopes that they make (something) good out of it," says Rafidah. Several other former students now work in her ministry. In fact, one of her former students is none other than the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

Since she seems to be in a pretty good mood at this stage of the interview, we decide to bite the bullet and broach the sensitive subject of dating. Well, hey, whaddaya know? She's cool about it! So were her parents.

"My parents were open-minded because they knew that I was in a mixed science class," she says, adding that she was 18 when she first started dating.

She had an understanding with her parents that, should she get to know a boy, she would take him home and introduce him to them. And so Rafidah always brought all of her friends home, from her classmates to her then-boyfriend (now husband). And she's taught that to her children as well.

"I want to know. I don't object-lah but let me know who they are. At least when I meet them on the road I can greet them," says Rafidah the mother.

What in the world did teens back then do on a date, you ask? Some pretty interesting things, we discover. Most dates (in Kuala Lumpur, anyway) began with a movie and then an adjournment to Oasis or Kowloon. The former was the place for tea and ais kacang while the latter was a nifty - not to mention respectable - nightclub with a live band and room in the open air to dance the cha-cha and the rhumba and break occasionally for titbits.

So did she do gab fests with her best gal pals, we wonder? The answer is suprising coming from someone who was obviously one of the more popular and sociable girls in school: "Iím not one for best friends," says Rafidah.

"Everybody is a friend, with some being closer or having different interests but I do not believe in a best friend concept. You are your own best friend.

"You use your own common sense as others can only advise. You alone have to decide what is good and bad for you so I don't have best friends. Never!

"Some best friends, they tell each other all their secrets. In the end, if you quarrel, finish for you! I have many friends but they are all at the same level, arm's length."

(All you guys who write in to us about how your best friend betrayed/dumped you /stole your boy/girlfriend, take heed!)

Rafidah still keeps in touch with several of her childhood friends and schoolmates though - although they do not "deliberately get in touch" with each other as they all have their own lives. They do, however, get together "once in a while" or at reunions where they "have a good laugh."

We can't get hold of her friends to ask them how success has affected the Rafidah they know, so we decide to ask her: How has her success affected her and the people around her?

"Frankly speaking, when you talk about success, you shouldn't judge yourself. It's for others to judge whether I'm successful or not," answers Rafidah.

"I see that my family has not been affected by my personal achievements or success, if that is called achievement or success.

"At home, I am not the Minister. I am not what I am outside so my children see me as a mother and my husband sees me as a wife. No change at all but, because I am a minister, we perhaps have a better life and things like that.

"All the perks that come with being a minister, my family gets them as well and it has, of course, made their life that much better. But as a person, I don't think that there's been any change at all because at home I'm a completely different person."

Compare your growing-up years with those of your children's.

"Oh, they're living in a different world altogether where they, perhaps, do not know what it is to want. But that is our own doing as parents. We don't want them to want so that they can study hard.

"I don't believe in holding back from them simply because I had a childhood that didn't give me everything. That was a different time. I cannot take it out on my children. My children are different. Their parents are better off so you cannot compare at all. They're in different worlds ... they play with computers."

What is your idea of the perfect moment?

"There's no such thing. You see, I don't believe in this perfect thing, that perfect thing, because that's only fantasy.

"Your life can have millions of (perfect) moments, it depends on what you appreciate in life. For me, if I see a very beautiful flower, that's a perfect moment in nature already.

"I wouldn't say 'perfect' because perfect should be only one. I would say joyous moments and moments I treasure and cherish: So very many. Many! Cannot say, too many good moments in life!"

What has been your most embarrassing moment?

"Let me see ... well, there was one time when the Agong (then the Sultan of Perak) was visiting a chemistry lab at the Universiti Sains campus in Perak.

Somebody was doing some work and everyone was quiet when a test tube suddenly dropped and I sort of commented something. Terkejut, melatahlah. And the Agong said "Wah, melatah!"

"There were things like that where, at that point in time, it's embarrassing but nothing to make me remember with much shame," laughs Rafidah.

If you had just one wish, what would it be?

"One wish? I don't know. You see, I'm not the type who fantasises. I'm a practical person ; that's why you can't ask me this kind of question.

"I know most people will try and think up something. You cannot because how could you wish for one thing? Life is so diverse and there are so many things you'd like to repeat if you can."

What is your favourite colour?

"I used to like brown. Every other baju was brown. I donít know why and that's a fact. Brown, every shade of brown and I was already brown so you could hardly see me in my baju. It was crazy! But as I grew older, I became more adventurous. But I can assure you, brown was my only colour when I was young."

Any favourite foods?

"I've always liked noodles. I'll always remember mee and rojak. In the context of my childhood there wasn't much to choose from, so eating mee and rojak was a luxury because these were bought foods. I never knew what yong tau foo, tom yam and kuey teow were, only mee.

"Ais krim potong was common. Five sen in school. You turn the (numbered) wheel around and then you'll get two or three. There were also ice balls with nothing inside, just covered with syrup or orange (juice). These were the luxuries that I knew."

What makes you enjoy life so much?

"I told you, life is varied. Life has so much to give you, from the smallest to the biggest, (so) you must enjoy life. Otherwise, what is the purpose of being here?

"And when you enjoy life, you enjoy your work, your family and you enjoy being yourself. That's very important to me. I enjoy being myself.

"When you want to be someone else, you'll never be happy in life. Now, you're asking me the secret of being happy. I'm happy because I'm happy I'm me. Whether others like it or not, that's their problem. To each, his or her own. Very simple isn't it?

"My family is like that. You be what you are because if you aspire to be something that you're not, you'll never be happy."

So if you could live your life all over again, would you change anything?

"Nothing, because it's not possible. Again, you're asking me an impractical question. (We're cringing inside at this moment!) I will never talk about living my life over again because it cannot be, so why dream?

"Again, it's a useless thing (to dream about it). Once a person does that, I believe you're going to be very unhappy. What's the point? Why do you want to live in regret?

"You don't say, 'What if?' It's bad for you. Why think about the past? It's gone, it'll never come back, ever. So live for now and the future."

Is that your motto?

"Oh ya. Live for now... You can quote this (showing a paperweight which displays a quote by Etienne de Grellet): 'I expect to pass this way but once; any good, therefore, that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.'"

Hmm, she's obviously a woman who lives very much in the present - and that's something teenagers can relate to, don't you think....


Date of birth: Nov 4, 1943

Place of birth: Selama, Perak

Husband: Datuk Mohd Basir Ahmad;
Daughters: Rohaiza, Rohaila;
Son: Alfian;
Son-in-law: Fazrin Azwar;
Granddaughter: Raihanna Azwar

SM Kampong Baru, Kuala Lumpur (1948 to 1950)
SM Convent Bukit Nanas, Kuala Lumpur (1951 to 1953 and 1956 to 1958)
Zainab School, Kota Baru, Kelantan (1953 to 1955)
Convent, Johor Baru (1959 to 1960)
Victoria Institution (1961 to 1962)
Universiti Malaya (BA in Economics in 1966 and Masters in Economics in 1970)

Career: In 1974, Rafidah was appointed Senator and, in 1976, Parliamentary Secretary to the Public Enterprises Minister; between 1977 and 1980 she was Deputy Minister of Finance. She was elected a Member of Parliament in 1978. Rafidah was Public Enterprises Minister from 1980 to 1987; since 1987 she has been serving as International Trade and Industry Minister.

From the V.I. Archives

Rafidah (back row, centre),
V.I. (1961)

Rafidah reunited with fellow V.I. debater, Prof Norman Foo, Sydney (2005)

VI The V.I. Web Page