Nurul Izzah – A Stateswoman in the Making

Ever since I met this brave and courageous girl in Geneva several years ago, fighting for her father’s freedom, she has never fail to amaze me. When she made her speech to the world’s foremost human rights delegates in the big conference hall of the United Nations, you can even hear a pin drop as everyone present was simply awed by this brave and articulate girl.



In April of 1998 she left her family for the first time to attend college. Then, one semester into her degree, her father, Anwar Ibrahim, was fired as deputy prime minister and finance minister. Nurul Izzah rushed back to be with her family. Anwar was dragged from their home before her eyes and later charged with abuse of power and sexual misconduct. A lurid trial followed that was rife with homosexual allegations against her father. It ended with Anwar sentenced to six years in prison. At the time just 17, Nurul Izzah watched her mother, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, take up Anwar’s political struggle and launch Keadilan, the National Justice Party, which will contest upcoming elections.

Before long, the shy teenager was herself traveling the globe and making impassioned, if unpolished, speeches. When she wasn’t doing that she was attending her father’s trial and looking after her five siblings. Nurul Izzah’s sudden plunge into the spotlight drew criticism from certain quarters that she was being used to prop up her father’s political support. Even close relatives expected her to crumble under the strain. And yet, much to her own surprise, she has endured – proving, perhaps, that Nurul Izzah is very much her father’s daughter.


An innocent, sweet smiling girl…will she be a leader one day..

Nurul Izzah was born into politics. When her father and mother were courting, Anwar was still considered a radical and hence an arrest worries. Wan Azizah’s father, Wan Ismail Wan Mahmood, suggested that the couple wait until the political climate improved. They went ahead and married in February of 1980. Ten months later, on Nov. 19, Nurul Izzah (Light of Success) arrived. Early on, her mother recalls, the little girl demonstrated an ability to ride out emotional and physical pain. When she was about three years old, Nurul Izzah fell and hit her head. The cut required two stitches, without anesthetic. “She cried a little,” says her mother, “but she was pretty tough.”


Wan Azizah did not have her second child until Nurul Izzah was four, so she spent a lot of time with her first born and they developed an extraordinarily close relationship, even for a mother and daughter. Eventually, the house was filled with the chatter and play of six children, five girls and a boy. From the beginning, Nurul Izzah played the capable big sister to the rest.


Wan Mahmood recalls a “very active little girl, very cheerful, very bright.” They would sing English and Malay songs together, with Nurul Izzah holding a cup like a microphone. While many people say the girl later became shy, her grandfather, who ran the government’s Psychological Warfare Unit for some 30 years, says from the beginning he saw “her quality, her personality, which is extroverted, not shy. She could get along with anybody, young or old.” It was after Nurul Izzah started school, recalls her uncle Rusli Ibrahim, Anwar’s younger brother, that she became more withdrawn and focused on her studies. “Her heart was in her education because she’s the eldest,” he says. “With five under her, she had to show the best to her younger brothers and sisters.”


There is no need to fear…as we trust Anwar would have obtained permission to hold Nurul Izzah.

During her early childhood, Nurul Izzah did not see much of her father; his political career was just taking off and he was always busy. Things changed, however, when she was 12; Anwar had been named deputy prime minister and, she recalls, he decided to make more time for his family. When her father went overseas with her mother, she says, he called his children every day. “We always tried to have family dinner three or four times a week,” says Nurul Izzah. “Most days, he’d come home for lunch and we’d discuss.” Politics, however, rarely intruded, and Nurul Izzah says she made it personal policy not to ask her father about his job. Until, that is, her friends at school began complaining to her about the controversial Bakun Dam project in Sarawak. Then she asked her father “why it was still on when all the nature foundations were condemning it. He would say: ‘What can I do?’”


During those days, the family lived in the seven-bedroom deputy prime minister’s official residence in Kuala Lumpur’s Damansara district. In truth, Nurul Izzah never liked the place. It was old. There were termites. The plumbing was cantankerous. And the grounds were almost surrounded by jungle. It was creepy at night. “We were used to our own house, and this was so grand,” Nurul Izzah recalls. “It was not ours; it was government property. My father would scold us if we didn’t turn out the lights and would tell us not to waste electricity.” Farang, one of Nurul Izzah’s friends, slept over and recalls they wouldn’t move around in the house at night but would lock the bedroom door and listen to CDs.


Nurul Izzah’s room was crammed with books. Among her favourite writers were Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and the World War I British poet Wilfred Owen, of whom she had posters. Owen seems a strange choice for a contemporary girl, but Nurul Izzah says his verse struck a chord. “When I read it, I saw the value of life, how war destroys everything. The notion of death and how you should treasure life.” Although she was in the science stream at the Assunta Secondary girls’ school, Nurul Izzah wanted to do English Literature as an A-level subject, so she took outside tuition. “We would argue about literary terms,” says her former teacher, Veronica Loo. “She’s very artsy and has a literary streak which she inherited from her father.”


At home, Nurul Izzah played the piano but later took up the guitar – inspired by her favorite band Radiohead, a British alternative act. She especially likes the song “Paranoid Android,” which goes like this: When I am king you will be first against the wall/With your opinions which are of no consequence at all/Ambition makes you look very ugly/Why don’t you remember my name/Off with his head.


An A student, Nurul Izzah was a prefect throughout school. At first she was reluctant to take the post. “She wanted to keep a low profile,” Loo recalls. “She was afraid of the prefectship that was offered because of who she was.” By all accounts, Nurul Izzah made a good prefect – “stern,” says her pal Farang, “but not too strict.” But Nurul Izzah didn’t like the job. “It reminded me so much of the police,” she says. “I had to give out detention slips.” Her friends recall a quiet student who wanted to be treated like everyone else and shied away from being photographed. Nonetheless, Nurul Izzah revealed a talent for the stage and was active in the English Literary and Debating Society, which put on regular concerts. In 1996, she played the Lady of Shalott in a dramatization of the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem. Her parents were in the audience. “I ‘died’ in front of them,” she says. “I loved it!”


That was before Nurul Izzah began wearing a tudung, the headscarf favoured by traditional Muslim women. She insists there was no pressure from her father, that it was her decision. “I was growing up. Everyone wants to look beautiful, but it’s a form of decency and modesty.” By then, Nurul Izzah had finished her O levels and was preparing to start university. In the interim she studied the guitar, French and the Koran. “My father didn’t want me to waste my time,” she says. When she wasn’t busy studying, Nurul Izzah and her friend Farang went to movies and slept over at each other’s homes. “But I didn’t meet boys,” she says. “My parents were quite strict.”


Nurul Izzah decided on a bachelor of science in chemical engineering. “I wanted to go to Cambridge, but my father wanted me to go to a local university because he was promoting local studies. I understand what he was saying now. I can always do my masters overseas.” Farang recalls “there were lots of tears” when Nurul Izzah headed north to Petronas University of Technology in small-town Tronoh, Perak. Farang and Wan Azizah went up to Tronoh to settle Nurul Izzah in. They hung up her Radiohead posters and pertinent sentences from the Koran. “It was my first time living away from home,” says Nurul Izzah. “My father called me every day.” On Aug. 9, the day before Anwar’s 51st birthday, she wrote to him. “I said: We’re so lucky our task in life is only to study, get good grades and get a degree. I don’t have to fight for a cause. I’m reminded of your time [as a student radical] and I wonder how you did all that. It was amazing. I wish I had something to fight for.”


And her wish came true…


This article was received by email, published in 1999. The original source is unknown, but content has been verified by sjsandteam.


With head held high...hopefully she will be able to lead this nation one day with other able youngsters...without the advice of trouble-giving oldies...

With head held high…hopefully she will be able to lead this nation one day with other able youngsters…without the advice of trouble-giving oldies…



2 Responses to Nurul Izzah – A Stateswoman in the Making

  1. Patricia says:

    Yes, I agree she is the one to watch. Brains and beauty is a rare gift, and she wears both well. I look forward to hearing more from and of her. Our country needs people like this to achieve our true potential.



    I like your caption of father and daughter. Someone’s hit the ridiculous button, lately, no?
    Yes, I met her one cold morning in Geneva, years ago and we spoke about her father’s serious spinal problem and how much he was in pain. Later she spoke at the United Nations Human Rights Conference where we were attending and the response from world delegates were just too overwhelming. I was totally impressed.

    Ridiculous button might be an understatement.

  2. Jarod says:

    nice and inspiring article. 🙂
    As always, thanks for your support, Jarod. TC.

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