DATUK Seri Azalina Othman Said was predictably cagey when fz.com requested an interview just days after news broke of her intention to contest the Wanita Umno chief position in the year-end party polls. Her political aide confided that the news had severely ruffled feathers within party circles and that her boss had been advised to reserve all comment on the matter for the time being. An agreement was therefore reached that while the question of her candidacy would be raised, she would not be badgered into obliging it with an answer. The interview was eventually arranged to be held in the most conspicuous of spaces – the parliamentarians' workstation in Parliament. It was the last week of the inaugural post-GE13 Parliamentary sitting. Ever so often, the door beside us would swing open as elected members strode in and out. And it was right there, after barely five minutes and without single furtive glance around her, that Azalina, the former Puteri chief, said, "I feel that this is the right opportunity to offer myself for a position that I find I am adequate to take on". "I've been in the party leadership system and I've been in a decision-making position so I believe that in terms of my progression and age, this is something that I am capable of doing." And with that Azalina, 50, had set the course for the rest of our conversation. We were going to talk about the former Youth and Sports and Tourism minister's run for one of the most powerful positions in Umno, whether it trampled on toes or not. Ups and downs The announcement of her candidacy came as a surprise to the many who had written her off as political history. The abrupt nosedive that closely followed her meteoric ascent was assumed to have dimmed the lights on her political career. Devoid of both Cabinet and party position, Azalina had been left with only the parliamentary seat in Pengerang, Johor which she had won uncontested for two consecutive terms. Her move to defend that seat in the GE13 was met with unkind jibes about her wasting time securing a victory that would not be a return ticket into the Cabinet. In typical fashion, Azalina ignored the mocking and went on to win the three-corner fight. Her third term in Pengerang has now formed the basis of her argument that her candidacy is not a sign of a "comeback" but a mark of "consistency and progression". It is the latter trait that she wants rooted more strongly in Wanita Umno by convincing its members that the time for them to step forward as leaders is long overdue. The Umno womenfolk are party loyalists with a fierce dedication to campaigning for the hearts of the electorate even outside an election season. Yet despite their crucial role, only one of the party's 170 divisions is headed by a woman. That lone division is Pengerang. "The women at branch and division levels should have a stronger voice and be given more recognition," Azalina stressed. "They should hold more leadership positions". "Unfortunately none of them are interested in this progression because it's safer to follow than stand where it's easy for others to pick on you. Especially if you're an unmarried woman like me." 'No' to reinvention This last statement was uttered matter-of-fact and with a touch of amusement. Azalina knows too well that she is viewed as an atypical Malay woman but she has never been compelled to reinvent herself to fit a different mould and she is not about to do so now. This could complicate things for her current political quest. During her tenure as Puteri Umno chief, her leadership style was described as "brash and aggressive" and this may not sit well with her peers. "To be fair, Puteri Umno was new at the time and I had no choice," Azalina explained. "If I didn't do that the girls wouldn't push themselves and they had many changes to make". But she is nevertheless keenly aware that leading "politically inexperienced young girls" in Puteri Umno is entirely different from taking up the same mantle among the "very experienced political force" that is Wanita Umno. And hence she has planned to take the same leadership approach as she does in her division and constituency. "I deal with veteran party members and constituents differently than I did with Puteri Umno," she said. "I respect that their opinions are different and I don't force my views on them." "This is why I have been the Pengerang MP for three terms. If I was really so brash and aggressive I don't think I would have lasted especially in a conservative Malay environment." Does she recall an old interview in which she shared a candid observation that Umno disliked strong women? Azalina smiled. Yes, she did remember and no, nothing much had changed since then. But it is her opinion that this change is badly needed for Umno to remain relevant in the next general election. "Umno's relevance depends on it going beyond certain perceptions," she said. "I always use this analogy. If I was a good heart surgeon it would be irrelevant whether I'm a strong woman or not". "You would seek my services to save your life. So why shouldn't the same concept work in politics? The GE14 is about Umno's survival." Fighting the plague of irrelevance If that was her subtle way of saying that her brand of leadership is Umno's antidote to the plague of irrelevance, then the question is whether Wanita Umno will view it from the same standpoint. Azalina replied that a lot of explanation and personal interaction would necessary from here on to convey those sentiments to them. And then she finally tugged her beleaguered but still influential rival into the conversation. "I have nothing against (Datuk Seri) Shahrizat (Abdul Jalil)," she firmly said. "I will not attack her personality nor will I raise the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) issue". "I respect her so much because I have known her for so long. But I believe I can offer more as a leader because of the change in society. The younger generation wants to see a change in leadership." "This is why I am offering myself. It has nothing to do with Shahrizat as a person. She is a great leader but I believe that her leadership will not apply to the GE14." According to Azalina, the response to her candidacy from within the women's wing has been encouraging to date. Yet the odds could still be heavily stacked against her especially if the party's top leadership backs her opponent. Azalina isn't going to lose any sleep over this possibility, though. Her previous political "demotion" has taught her the art of acceptance and trust in God's plan. "I believe in God, and I believe that sometimes things happen for your own good," she said. "You must be true to yourself and cannot make positions the ultimate aim in your life". "If Wanita Umno doesn't accept me and the change I'm bringing, then c'est la vie, what will be, will be. But at least I offered myself, right? I'm not going to be sore if I lose. I'm strong, yes, but I'm also accepting."
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