The stainless steel ‘Iron Lady’: Rapid-fire Rafidah

In true Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz style, her autobiography – aptly titled ‘Rapid-Fire Rafidah: Being Malaysian First’ – spares no one.


December 12, 2022

KUALA LUMPUR – A former firebrand minister pulls out all the stops in her no-holds-barred autobiography

SHE may no longer be involved in politics, but don’t expect Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz to stay silent – she continues to boldly speak up on political issues.

The former minister has graced social media platforms with her interviews, giving her a wider reach now.

In fact, during the recent general election campaign, she spoke at a ceramah to support Pakatan Harapan candidate Hannah Yeoh.

She’s not called “Rapid-Fire Rafidah” for nothing. While she didn’t sound as loud since she was still recovering from Covid-19, she remained the same assertive Rafidah that we know and love.

Last week, the autobiography of Malaysia’s longest-serving female MP and International Trade and Industry Minister was launched by the Sultan of Perak.

In true Rafidah style, the book, aptly titled Rapid-Fire Rafidah: Being Malaysian First, spares no one. It is punchy and to the point. Rafidah calls a spade a spade.

Those who know Rafidah a.k.a. the Iron Lady, will know that she took her job seriously, with zero tolerance for incompetence or sloppy work.

Ahead of her book launch, she texted me twice to remind me to be “punctual and be seated by 9.15am sharp” and “come in a suit or in batik”.

In her book, she reveals how her Miti (International Trade and Industry Ministry) staff dreaded being given a drubbing by her because they could not answer questions on their department or ministry.

But the journey begins with her childhood days growing up in her grandparents’ home in Selama, Perak, and subsequently in Kuala Lumpur, where she studied at Convent Bukit Nanas (CBN).

Her grandpa had reservations about enrolling her in a Catholic school but “I did not become a Christian, nor was I influenced by Christianity,” she writes, though she never forgot the moral values instilled in her.

The sisters reminded her that “if one found a five sen coin on the floor, one should not take it because it could be someone’s recess money, or bus fare home.

“One should give it to the teacher to find out who has lost the five sen, and to return it to the owner.”

It had a lasting impression on Rafidah on the importance of discipline and honesty.

In CBN, she took part in choirs, singing Silent Night and other Christmas carols, and “again, all that did not push me into Christianity!” She said these were just songs and part of the year-end festivities, especially for Christmas.

Given her background, Rafidah shares an incident when her daughter, who was then in Form Five, and other students were banned from taking part in a concert which involved singing and dancing.

“On the day of the concert, there was an announcement that ‘All Muslim girls must go back to their classrooms and not participate in the concert.’ No reason was given. And this was in Convent Bukit Nanas!”

But her daughter, with Rafidah’s DNA in her, marched back to the hall with some girls and took part in the concert.

A fuming Rafidah brought up the matter at the Cabinet meeting and then prime minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad related the story in a speech.

Rafidah said, “That was 30 years ago and today, it has worsened,” asking “how do we forge a Malaysian society when in school there are those who impart their own subjective interpretations of religion (and race) to the young?

“Worst, they carry such perverted values and impressions into adulthood.”

Rafidah has devoted a large part of her book to the need for all of us to embrace diversity and while we have our own racial lineage, “each and every one is a Malaysian.”

“I cannot understand why there are those who believe in and stand for the ketuanan (supremacy) of their race” and “when any group stands for supremacy of their race and religion, marginalising and denying others dissimilar to them, this is, to me, the most divisive and fractious elements that can erode the basic tenet that we as Malaysians stand for: unity in diversity.”

Rafidah, like many of us, fears what is coming, calling for a need to nurture the young at home and in school, including kindergartens, with acceptance and respect for diversity, and the concept of being Malaysians.

Ketuanan or supremacy of the Malays, she wrote, “is an extreme, inward-looking and divisive attitude, driven by an unbridled ego,” adding that it is meaningless in today’s borderless and competitive world.

But the best part of the book for me is how she handled complex trade negotiations, which sometimes ended in a deadlock, and how she would tackle them.

She provides plenty of real-life cases with world leaders who would try to get the upper hand in agreements which favoured their nations, but Rafidah, despite representing a small nation, would stand in their way.

Instead of narrating these cases in a dry academic manner, she provides interesting anecdotes.

In Moscow, she told her colleagues at the breakfast table that the tasteless fried chicken served was in dire need of chili sauce.

“The next morning a small bowl of chili sauce was on my table. Did the table have ears? Suffice to say, I showered with a sarong draped around me from that day on!”

This writer had the opportunity of travelling to Bosnia just when the war ended – with Rafidah and others in the Malaysian delegation led by Dr Mahathir – where we stayed at the Holiday Inn, which had been the scene of heavy fighting.

I remember my room had no windowpanes and was only covered with a big plastic sheet. Most of the hotel walls had plenty of bullet holes while a few Malaysians said there were bloodstains on the walls of their rooms.

Rafidah writes: “On my floor, on one side of the wall was a sign that stated, ‘Do Not Enter’. It was not a prohibited place. It was simply that there was no wall beyond the signboard!

“The entire part of the hotel on that side had been destroyed by the bombing during the war.”

While Rafidah calls herself a technocrat politician with a disdain for petty divisive politics, much of her book is about her entry into politics in Umno, and how she worked her way to the top of the hierarchy.

The former Universiti Malaya lecturer, who taught economics for 10 years, names Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as her former students.

In 1975, she took her oath as an Umno supreme council member, and she walked into the old Umno headquarters at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman six days after giving birth!

She spoke of the late Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, as Umno president, asking “you baru bersalin, Rafidah?” and she replied, “Ya Dato, hari ini enam hari.”

Datuk Syed Nasir Syed Ismail, another Umno leader, then asked loudly, “You belum lepas pantang? Baru enam hari dah berjalan. Tak bentan ke? (Referring to having post-delivery pains if one does not take care).

Rafidah, as expected, has made sure she took potshots at hypocritical politicians, especially those who pretend to be pious and religious but are instead corrupt and greedy.She describes them as “chameleons, changing their attire, tune and demeanour to suit the audience they happen to be addressing. It must take a lot of effort (and practice) to ‘act’ out different roles ever so often, merely to obtain and retain support and votes”.

Rafidah also takes a dig at politicians who must have a full complement of staff and supporters around them when they are travelling, visiting constituencies, and “even checking into the hospital”.

“It appears that the more people around the person, the more important he or she feels, or appears to be!

“And yet, when we leave this world to meet our Maker, we all must go ALONE! Regardless of what position we hold in life.”

And how did Rafidah earn her “Rapid Fire” moniker? She can’t recall but only remembers it was mostly used by Dr Mahathir for her quick responses to anyone, and in her words “and I mean ANYONE”, including her family members.

Her memoir should be compulsory reading for all the new Cabinet members to emulate her discipline and dedication to serving the nation, and certainly, making us proud in the process.

It’s a cliché, but they don’t make ministers like they used to. And I hope this book will be translated into Bahasa Malaysia as the predominantly Malay audience is crucial.

Thank you, Rafidah, for always speaking up for all of us Malaysians!

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