DE facto Law Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz is one Barisan Nasional (BN) leader whose exact position on issues is difficult to pin down.
On one hand, he trumpets the usual BN line by supporting the Internal Security Act and denying that there is discrimination against non-bumiputera Malaysians. His predecessor, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, also accused him of breaking the government’s word by revealing the amount of ex-gratia payments made to the judges sacked in the 1988 judicial crisis.
On the other hand, Nazri has also surprised critics with occasional, unapologetic deviations from what appears to be the standard BN position. In November 2008, Nazri was the lone BN Member of Parliament (MP) who supported the integrity and independence of the judiciary parliamentary caucus set up by the opposition. In fact, he called on more BN MPs to support the caucus.
And while several of his BN counterparts did not hesitate to capitalise on media exposure of intimate pictures of Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s Elizabeth Wong, Nazri said: “This should not happen because she is a wakil rakyat (people’s representative) and she is doing her job as one; to get her down through such methods is not good. I hope she can find the strength in herself to endure this and ignore it.”
So what exactly is the kind of Malaysia Nazri wants? He tells The Nut Graph in an exclusive interview in Parliament on 2 March 2009.
TNG: Where were you born?
Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz: I was born in Ipoh, Perak on 12 May 1954, which makes me 55 years old. And I’m the eighth child of 11 — seven boys and four girls. Big family. Two have died.
Did you grow up in Ipoh?
My father was the state secretary of Perak when I was born. And then he was transferred to Kuala Lumpur on a federal appointment. And I remember staying in a flat in Bangsar, which was then a separate town from Kuala Lumpur.
I went to school in Kuala Lumpur. It was called Pasar Road English School 2. The first half of the year the session was in the afternoon, the second half of the year was [in the] morning. This was the system.
Then I went to Victoria Institution from Form One to Form Three. And I went to Malay College (Kuala Kangsar, or MCKK) from Form Four until Upper Six, from 1970 until 1973.
Can you trace your family tree? Where were your parents or grandparents from?
My father was born in Keroh in 1916, which is near the Thai border. Our dialect is a bit different. It’s more like Kelantanese. Very different from Perak. Perakians will say “ayor” for water, we say “ayer”. And of course we [originated] from Patani.
My father went to King Edward VII to do his secondary education. Then he worked as a civil servant, and did law in 1948. He was a queen’s scholar. I suppose that was what inspired me to be a lawyer also. Because, you know, to be a Malay from the ulu, and to do law in 1948, my father must have achieved something.
He was also MP for Padang Rengas, for which I’m an MP now. And then he was also [chairperson] of Mara, which I was also. Jadi, more or less, I ni nak ikut dialah. Except that he didn’t have a chance to become minister because he was only there for one term (before passing away).
The places you grew up in, like Ipoh and KL — what is your strongest memory of them?
I can’t remember when I was in Ipoh, because I was born in 1954, and in 1958 we came here (Kuala Lumpur). But I remember growing up in Kuala Lumpur, I used to live in a government punya house dekat Padang Merbok, near Lake Gardens. And I used to walk to Central Market to take the Sri Jaya bus to go to my school. The bus fare cost only five cents, for a one-way trip. So my memory of old KL was that we had to walk to Central Market, across Royal Selangor Club and all that.
When I was in afternoon school, I would come back in the late afternoon, pukul lima, pukul enam, and you could see the mat sallehs playing tennis at Selangor Club. And I used to pick balls for them and get paid 20 sen. Jadi budak bola, kalau dia pukul terlebih kita berlari ambik and then pass to them.
What are some of the stories that you hold onto the most from your parents?
Well, I was determined to do law from the very beginning, but my father, he had so many sons. So he put his faith in my other brothers to do law. He didn’t think of me as someone who could do law. I remember I had to fight with him when I got my HSC results. I couldn’t get into MU (now Universiti Malaya) to do law. It was tough. You needed 4As. I wasn’t a good student. I was just average.
Finally he said to me, “You sure you can get into Lincoln’s Inn?” He didn’t know that I had already applied earlier and I had already been accepted. So I showed him my acceptance. But at that time I had the presence of mind to give him a photostat copy, because he took the photostat copy and tore it up (laughs). I kept the original.
I was in MU, I was doing an arts degree, but I didn’t like it at all. So on my own I wrote to Lincoln’s Inn and I got in with minimum qualifications, which was then two principal Cs. I got a B and a C. I wrote to them a personal letter, telling them it was always my ambition to do law, my father did law, my mother’s brother did law in Lincoln’s Inn. Rupanya orang putih ini, dia suka. It shows you are interested.
But did your father manage to tell you, “You did it”?
Yes, he was so happy. He was a lawyer, and he wanted one of his sons to do law, typical of people in those days. So when I was called to the English bar (in 1977), I remember him sending me £200, big money then.
When I came back, I actually went to the office with him. He was so proud, telling everybody, “This is my son who was just called to the bar.” But he didn’t see me called to the Malayan bar before he died. I was called to the Malayan bar in November 1978, he died in August.
What does this mean to you now as a Malaysian in this day and age?
Whether you like it or not, in every country, there must be a core racial group. You talk about the US, it’s the WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants). In Thailand, it’s the Thai Buddhists. This is the core community. It is the same in Malaysia. This is not to say the Malays are superior to other communities. But the Malay community is the core community.
People put videos on YouTube saying I am racist — I am not. I think we politicians have to be very careful. The people down there know how to be Malaysian. It is the people up here who are the rascals. In order to win posts in party elections, kalau election Umno, then they have to do something which is so pro-Malay at the expense of other races. MCA pun serupa jugak. Nak menang kena jadi chauvinist. Gerakan is also the same. These are the people responsible for dividing the rakyat.
Personally, are there any aspects of your life you struggle with more than others? Is there one thing that challenges you particularly?
Ya, being a politician at a very young age. I got into Umno Youth (national) exco at the age of 24. Those days, in the party constitution kita ada provision for members of the Umno youth exco — two must be under 30.
When I got into politics, I think my family was sacrificed. A lot of time was spent starting my firm, being involved in politics. In those days Umno Youth lain, unlike now. Those days we knew nothing about projects, we knew nothing about, “What do I get?” It was all, “What can I do for the party.” We were very idealistic.
Would you say the party has been your life?
It has always been my life. I remember saying to a person at a time when there were talks about Pakatan Rakyat wanting to get some of the BN members to cross over. I told my friend, “Look, if you succeed in getting all the BN members to your side, you know there would be one Umno MP left, and it would be me.” This is how I feel for the party.
Whatever it is, this party has done so much. Somehow it has been misunderstood. Maybe it’s our own fault, too. We may have acted in such a way that people dislike Umno. But we have got no choice. We have to repair, we have to be more committed, we have to be more moderate, and we must know how to package our struggle. And we must also know how to articulate ourselves.
I, too, notice you have been criticised by many quarters. But there are times that you do put yourself on the line. Like when you spoke up against what was being done to Elizabeth Wong. And in 2005, when the Jabatan Agama Islam Wilayah Persekutuan raided Zouk nightclub, you came out and said we don’t want to become a Taliban state. So what is the Malaysia you want to leave behind for future generations?
A united Malaysia where Malaysians respect each others’ rights in this country. I think we can. You know, as an MP, I have a house in Padang Rengas, it’s like an estate house. Ground floor tu tak da dinding. I stay upstairs. So my constituents come to my house, they eat in my house. Chinese, Indian, kampung people. So we can be Malaysian. I hate to say it, but the politicians are the ones ruining everything.
Even in Parliament, I have said we have lot to learn from sportsmen and sportswomen. Like Datuk Nicole Ann David, when she’s on the court, she doesn’t think she’s Indian or Chindian, she competes as a Malaysian. In badminton, like Datuk Lee Chong Wei, his coach is a Malay [Malaysian]. And then bila dia menang, dia tak fikir apa, they hug each other. I really cannot understand how human beings can grow up and hate each other because of skin colour.
We can never truly be united like the Brazilians, for example. They don’t care if you are white or black or brown — they are all Brazilian. You know why? Because they are one culture, and maybe they are united by football, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because they are all Catholic. So we can never actually be Malaysians the way Brazilians are Brazilian. But we have to respect each other, otherwise we fail as a state. Respecting each other is basic.
I have ambivalent feelings towards Nazri.