INTERVIEW Born in 1957, Marina Mahathir, the eldest daughter of Malaysia's longest serving prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, found her niche and voice in writing on socio-political issues, and has been doing so for the last 20 years.

Deliberately intent in steering change within Malaysia, Marina is famous for endorsing issues her father vehemently opposed.

Her recent book ‘Telling it Straight', a compilation of Marina's writing since 2004, charts both the consistencies and changes in her views over the last eight years.

Indeed Farish A Noor, in his foreword, describes Marina's writing as "holding up the lamp to light the darkness within us...". It's an interesting testimony of one friend to another.

NONEThe book is cleverly divided into sub-topics on youth and education, matters of faith, public health, free speech and media, among many other issues close to her heart.

Marina confesses that her views have evolved and expanded over the years.

On education, a subject close to her heart, Marina proclaims it has not improved with time and in fact, has deteriorated.

Indeed if Malaysia is to ever achieve greatness, Marina believes that the first thing to do has to be a reformation of our education system.

"I think we have to go back to the drawing board and completely depoliticise it before we can do what is really best for our children."
As a political activist, she narrates in her book how politics in Malaysia systematically segregates and discriminates against women.

She makes clear her abhorrence for money politics, the use of sex in political scandals and knee-jerk politics widely seen in Malaysia.

Marina has made HIV/AIDS issues a matter close to her heart. She has written about this many times over the years, although she made a private pact to write about it only twice a year.

In an interview, Marina responds to questions on her life, her opinions and her latest book.

Malaysiakini: What was it like being the daughter of a prime minister?

mahathir out of ijn 121007 marinaMarina: This seems to be everyone's favourite question. It was okay, less great than most people think. It was hard to be constantly judged just by your biological connection to someone.

Often people made me feel I had to be responsible for everything he did. Sometimes I became the surrogate for criticism.

The good part was that I got to meet a lot of interesting people - Nelson Mandela being my favourite.

Have your opinions over the years changed dramatically? For example, your views on education - are they the same as  20 years ago or have they changed with your personal growth?

I don't think my views have changed so much as evolved and expanded over the years. Education, for example, hasn't improved over the last two decades; it has deteriorated so I probably have more to say now than in previous years.

Similarly the status of women, at least for Muslim women, is degenerating, rather than improving.

What topics are you most passionate about and why?

Gender inequality, censorship, injustice. Everyone needs to be passionate about these topics so there's no need for me to explain why. Unless there are people who believe these are not good things?

You are a strong advocate of people living with HIV - why are you so passionate about this?

What can I say? HIV/AIDS is a totally preventable disease but people get infected because they are often kept ignorant.

Lack of access to knowledge, to treatment, to care, are all caused by someone deciding whether these things should be available or not.

So, whether people get infected by HIV or not depends on someone with the power to decide whether they can avoid infection or not.

Health is a human right; therefore ill health is often a violation of human rights. And people cannot exercise their human right to health, if someone else has the power to block it.

In other words, becoming infected is not a natural thing that just happens to people. We can make it happen by withholding education or the means to prevent HIV, such as condoms, or we can make it not happen.

So I get passionate about it, as all AIDS activists do, because we know there is no reason for 30 million people to be currently living with HIV. But inequality and politics made it happen. It would make anyone angry.
What is your primary belief on gender equality in Malaysian politics? Do you think the participation of more women in Malaysian politics will smoothen its rough edges?

I think Malaysian politics is an unbelievably sexist field. How else can we explain a situation where a majority of members of political parties are female yet there are so few women in power?

Why do you think male politicians of every stripe get away with saying the most disgusting, derogatory things about women, especially their female colleagues on the other side of the House?

So yes, we need more women in politics and the only way to get those women in the short term is to implement our obligation under Cedaw (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) that is the 30 percent quota.

So 30 percent of all places at all political levels - in political parties, at state and federal elections - should be reserved for women.

ambiga question by police over seksualiti merdeka 071111 marina mahathirAnd that doesn't mean putting up women in constituencies where they are unlikely to win either. We want 30 percent of women in Parliament, the Senate and state assemblies, not just as candidates who then lose. What's more we should have 30 percent of cabinet seats to go to women too.

And I don't accept anyone saying there aren't enough qualified women either. The point of the quota system is that it makes you look harder.

And just as new graduates get told they can't be hired because they have no experience, yet how will they get experience if they are not hired?

Similarly women are not going to get the political experience - and therefore the ‘qualifications' - if they are never given the chance to be candidates. Besides it's not as if the men are that qualified either.

So it'll be interesting to see which political coalition is going to fulfil these obligations. At the moment, I don't see either BN or Pakatan (Rakyat) saying anything about what they will do for women. Don't women's votes count?

What are the three great fixes you think will propel Malaysia to greatness? How long do you think it will take to achieve this?

The first has to be a reformation of our education system. I think we have to go back to the drawing board and completely depoliticise it before we can really do what's best for our children.

Secondly, we need to entirely overhaul our political system. It's not just about race-based parties versus non-race-based parties. It's the entire system with our first-past-the-post system.

Is this truly representative? In some countries, they are looking at new models of governance where the people have more say, people's councils and all that sort of thing.

I also think we have to go back to having local council elections because so many things that MPs have to handle - drains, roads, etc - are in fact very localised issues. So people in those communities should have a say. Besides, local council elections allow women a better chance of getting elected.

ambiga question by police over seksualiti merdeka 071111 irene fernandez marina mahathirThirdly, its probably our legal system that just has to be aligned with international norms of human rights or we will risk looking like a backward country. I'm glad we are now talking about abolishing the death penalty, but there are so many others we need to look at, laws that are really colonial relics.

How long will this take? If we have strong forward-thinking leaders who are willing to take the political risks, we can probably do it in a short time. But I don't see any political leader right now who would do this.

What will your ideal Malaysia be?

My ideal Malaysia is one where our children can breathe. Both physically because our environment has become so choked with pollutants and metaphysically, meaning that they feel free to do what they want and achieve their fullest potential.

Right now, especially if they are female and Muslim, there are just too many things they cannot do.

What are you reading right now? Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?

Right now I'm reading Catherine Lim's ‘Miss Seetoh in the World', because I just met her and she's just so amazing and forthright. As far as influences, I guess Arundhati Roy and Maureen Dowd are great influences.

They are both female, opinionated and write so eruditely. Maureen Dowd particularly has a line in sarcasm that you'd also probably recognise in my columns.

What was the book that most influenced your life - and why?

Maybe Marilyn French's ‘The Women's Room' that I read in the 1980s. I finally understood what power dynamics in gender relations means from that book.

What are your three favorite books?

I like authors, more than individual books.

Salman Rushdie's ‘Midnight's Children', because it's just so jaw-droppingly well-written. In fact, I like most of Salman Rushdie's works.

NONEBarbara Kingsolver's ‘The Poisonwood Bible', which is about how well-meaning people can really do bad things when they don't understand other people's culture. I also like her book about ‘Frida Kahlo', ‘The Lacuna'.

‘Middlesex' by Jeffrey Eugenides, an epic story about a transgender. Almost anything written by Jeanette Winterson, and ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' by Junot Diaz.

Basically I like people who do really wonderful things with words.

Will you write another book? And if you do, what will it be on?

Yes, I hope to do one from scratch some day, rather than compilations of my columns or blogposts. I think there is a story to tell from my days working in HIV/AIDS.

What will be your advice to your readers?

Read, read, read and read. Anything and everything.

Marina's ‘Telling it Straight' will be launched on Nov 10, 2012 and will be sold at all Borders bookstores at RM39.90.