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Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz reflects on her career

In conjunction with International Women’s Day, Prestige Malaysia takes a look at some of Malaysia’s women of substance from previous issues.

There are a couple of interesting things that crop up from my interview with Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz. First, is that the concept of gender is something that never enters the equation for her, despite frequently being the only woman at the negotiation table throughout her career as Minister of International Trade and Industry.

“I have never regarded myself gender first,” she says emphatically. “I always thought at the back of my mind that nobody can deny that I am a woman. If they can’t see that, they must be blind,” she says, almost impatiently, as if my asking the question was a reflection of me more than anything else.

“What people notice you for is your performance, what you deliver, your output, what you give when you are assigned responsibility,” she asserts.

Even as a student, Rafidah’s gender never cropped up. She often partaked in arm wrestling with the boys while studying at Victoria Institution, even beating them! In her mind, there have only been three classifications – the good, the bad or the best. And she “wanted to be the best.”

Her reply took me back to my early encounters with the former Minister. A young journalist, with little knowledge of economics, being assigned to the famously straight-talking Minister, dubbed by the media as “Rapid Fire Rafidah” was pretty intimidating. As the News Straits Times wrote when she ended her tenure at the Ministry, “Rafidah was quite likely to reach over and smack any incompetent across the head.” 15 years on and I still feared that she might do that

The second is that Rafidah rejects any notion of talking about her successes or highlights during her illustrious career. Surprising to many since Rafidah was the Minister of International Trade and Industry for 21 years, from 1987 to 2008, and it was during that period that a lot of the policies currently in place were being shaped, in particular, the Free Trade Agreement. The negotiations often became rife with tension and Rafidah frequently emerged as a voice for developing nations.

Her “stand-off’ with US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky over the Information Technology Agrement (ITA) at the World Trade Organisation in 1998 put both women in the spotlight. At the summit, then Thai Deputy Prime Minister Amnuay Viravan said to Asiaweek, “she (Rafidah) speaks on behalf of everyone. Malaysians are incredible. They are so forthright. They are taking a stand on behalf of all newly industrialising and developing countries.”

“Malaysia was the voice of the hundred plus developing countries. We actually helped to shape the stance of major developing countries in Africa, Asia. We were not gelled together as a group then,” she says. “I personally took the lead on behalf of Malaysia to initiate meetings with these different countries to discuss issues that divide us or that were not clearly understood by all.”

Yet, Rafidah says she had never planned for a career in politics. With a Masters in Economics, Rafidah first began her career as an academic at her alma mater, University of Malaya.

At the time she was involved with various women’s groups and organisations before the late Tun Fatimah Hashim recruited her to be a part of Wanita UMNO’s first economic bureau. Soon after, the late Tun Abdul Razak enlisted her to be part of UMNO’s Economic Bureau.

“It was then that I realised that with the right team, we could actually do things,” she says, explaining her decision to enter politics.

Though she is now acknowledged for her work on an international platform, Rafidah’s early years in politics involved basic issues that were at the centre of women’s welfare. Consumerism, equal pay, ensuring permanent work status for women in the civil service, monogamy laws and the rationalisation of Muslim law with the legal system as well as reaching out to rural women to help them cope with the high inflation at the time, are just some of the things that she worked on.

“These were real basic issues,” she says, “pressing issues for women at the time.”

As part of the National Council of Women’s Organisation (which Rafidah eventually served as Vice President), there was also a push to set up a Department of Women’s Affairs during the premiership of Razak and Tun Hussein Onn.

“But we were told that the time wasn’t right because we had to focus on development, so we understood that women’s issues should come later,” she explains. “This taught me to think proactively and that if you go about things strategically, thinking about it in a manner that is clear and where a lot of people benefit from the objectives, the government will be receptive.”

For Rafidah, it has always been about pursuing what is right rather than because it is a “woman’s” thing. And she believes that if that gender neutral mindset is inculcated, then a culture that focuses on efficiency, abilities and merit will be created.

It is the way she ran the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which was widely regarded as being the most efficient ministry at the time. And it is that philosophy that Rafidah used to guide her career resulting in her never compromising on issues she that she believed in. Her “sparring” with the likes of Al Gore, Madeline Albright and Barshefsky were legendary at the time.

“I would always go in issue orientated,” she explains, saying that there were never any nerves when entering high-level negotiations. “Straight-talking is easier when you know the facts,.”

Rafidah says the world has changed considerably and talk of a global economy appears to have taken a back seat as countries have begun to think unilaterally.

“The reason being is that there are issues at a global level that still cannot be resolved. Political considerations have come in and people cannot negotiate the way they should be negotiating.”

Within a local context, Rafidah, who was at the centre of Malaysia’s industrialisation policies, believes that the focus should be on the middle class.

“They are the ones who move the economy,” she says. “If the middle class are enabled to have a higher income, it will contribute to higher GDP. People tend to forget the middle class who are the backbone of the economy. We tend to talk about the GDP of a country but we forget who makes up the country.”

This interview was first published in the March 2015 issue of Prestige Malaysia