Papa Don’t Preach: An Interview with Marina Mahathir and Nurul Izzah

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It’s been 4 years since we published this interview with the daughters of our country’s former PM and his once-upon-a-time no.2. To say a lot has changed in our country since then would be an understatement — at the time when the interview was published, commenters were saying that we photo-shopped the pictures because they believed that there was no way these daughters would even be seen together in public. After all, their fathers were rivals.

Today, with Dr. Mahathir and PKR’s de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim once again working together as Pakatan Harapan chairman and adviser respectively, it seems more like we’ve come full circle. With signs of the impending General Elections looming, and Father’s Day tomorrow, JUICE has decided to run this piece as it originally appeared in the pages of our now-defunct brother-magazine CLIVE. If not for nostalgia, then at least as a reminder that politics is unparalleled to family.

Images Choen Lee (Bear+Bunny Pictures)
Venue Wondermama

They say fathers are closer to their daughters. Could it be or maybe it’s just that fathers put more pressure on themselves and their child when it comes to their firstborns. I spent my afternoon speaking to Marina Mahathir and Nurul Izzah Anwar about the relationships they shared with their fathers and their strangely normal upbringing. After spending 15 minutes chatting away about what our notorious Editor has been up to (Ed – new fans of my band!), and snacking on curry fries, I finally asked them the first question…

When was the last time you had dinner with your dad?
Marina Just the two of us? I think it was March 2011 in London. He wanted to bring his whole [entourage] but I said, “no, I cannot afford to pay.” We meet here in KL during family occasions. I met a young hairdresser in Singapore once and he told me he hasn’t been home for two years but he calls his mother every day. He said, “You cakap sekali sebulan, dia tak tahu apa nak cakap, tapi tiap-tiap hari you cakap 10 minit, dia happy.” (Translation: If you call home once a month, they won’t know what to talk about, but if you call home every day for just 10 minutes, they’ll be happy.) I keep telling myself to do something similar but I don’t.
Nurul We don’t have one-to-one lunches because we’re a big family, so, usually my in-laws will join us. The recent one was along election week because throughout the campaign my sister in-law who works in the States was here, so, that was about three weeks back. I don’t know what he’ll say to me when it’s one-to-one…
Marina Sometimes it’s better not to have the one-to-one (laughs).

Do your conversations around the dinner table revolve around work-talk mostly?
Marina What is work-talk?
Nurul That’s a good point. What is work? After a while, work, politics, daily life, it gets morphed into the personal because it’s engraved in you.
Marina Like anybody’s conversation, it goes all over the place. First you’re talking about your kids, then a little bit about politics and work.

What was the sternest action taken by your dad to discipline you?
Nurul My dad gives the evil eye. He just has to say “Izzah…” in his lowered tone of voice and I know I’m in trouble. My mum was more of a disciplinarian.
Marina I used to get spanked when I was little because I didn’t want to go to school.

Do you personally believe in “spare the rod and spoil the child”?
Marina I don’t agree with it. When you become a parent, you will understand why the temptation to whack them will come. It’s normal to think about whacking them but it’s not normal to actually do it.

Not even raise your hand to falsely threaten?
Marina Raise voice, yes, but not the hand. I remember when my older one was a little baby, I don’t know what she did but I smacked her lightly and my dad said, “Don’t touch my granddaughter!” And he’s the one that use to pinch me when I was little. I can’t do it, as tempting as it gets, I can’t.
Nurul I think it’s also what we went through as children. My parents didn’t do that, although my mum would threaten us with a ruler when she teaches my siblings and I, but I think right now we’re learning a lot from self-help books, “How to talk to children so they listen and how to listen so they talk to you”. This morning in fact, my son didn’t want to bathe so I had to draw and explain how the shower rod works and I was already late for work but after 10 minutes, he finally responded. I guess there are different techniques with different generations. I do believe now it has a lot to do with psychology – listening to them and trying to be their friend. Mind you, he’s four.
Marina I think this generational thing, it’s normal to change. I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to bring up my kids quite the same way as I was brought up. I think my husband and I are a bit more democratic with our children, which, of course, means the democracy bites back. But, on the other hand, my parents benefit from the way we bring up our children. Our children are more demonstrative, they’re not shy to say “I love you” and they [grandparents] benefit from it.

At this point in the interview, Nurul begins to share about the time her father sent her off to a local university for her first semester and kissed her on the cheek and forehead in public. “That’s not how I wanted to start my first semester in Uni!” she says, sounding like every other teenager. “He’s like that, he’ll hug and kiss us good night. It was different for us in that sense. Imagine going to Assunta Secondary School, the last thing you need is the Deputy Prime Minister to come and kiss you.” Marina also reminisces the times her father would visit her while she was studying in Tunku Kurshiah College and how stunned her classmates were when she held her father’s hand when they walked together. “It was normal for us to be that affectionate but I don’t think a lot of them shared the same relationship.”

“There was one time my parents went to US for an official visit and I wanted them to buy me a Radiohead CD. I was 17 then and they were like ‘no we can’t buy it for you, it’s an official visit, we’ll be busy’… They came back and had separately gone out and bought me the CD so I had two of the same record! Mum said, ‘don’t tell dad’ and he said, ‘don’t tell mum.’” – Nurul Izzah
While we’re on the subject of enthusiasm, were there any things your dad didn’t allow you to do?
N My dad allowed me to do everything I wanted, of course, he forced me to read Mochtar Lubis and all these depressing Indonesian poets but other than that, I could very much do whatever I wanted. My mum had more rules!
M When I was in school there was this trend where everyone would have pen-friends, I could have pen-friends from anywhere, except Israel and South Africa – no apartheid countries. I think my parents probably regret a lot because they allowed us do what we wanted and that resulted in none of us becoming doctors.
N I did want to be a doctor. One day I followed my mum to University Hospital to prepare myself for what I wanted to get myself into and after one visit I was like, “You expect me to work like this?” It was painstaking to see because doctors in government hospitals work so hard, it changed my mind – Engineering it is!

Being the eldest child, did your dad put more responsibilities on you in comparison to your siblings?
M I suppose so. I don’t think it was spelled out quite like that because I was also the only girl, I think he expected the same from all of us. School was not negotiable. We could do what we wanted but we had to finish University. Don’t even bring up the topic of wanting to take a gap year, not that we knew there was such a thing then. I think I had to set the good example for the rest, that’s it.
N That’s true. My father really put an emphasis on academic achievement but at the same time, he sort of understood. In ’98, we made a joint decision that I was to take one year off just to be with the family plus my siblings were very young at the time. When he was in prison, the last two were doing very badly. They were failing and it took them some time to get back to the rhythm but now, thankfully, they have finished with IBs and are going to college.

Has your mum ever been too busy that your dad had to play the mum role?
M Never! When my dad was MP, we lived in Alor Setar and when parliament was in session we could always bribe lah and make him feel guilty. “Can you go to the record store and buy me this record?” Because Alor Setar is a small town, got nothing so kena lah bawa present. But no, I think my mum held everything together – as mothers do.

Were there any new bands he got you to listen to?
M No lah. I was always very specific. I do remember him having Chubby Checker’s ‘Let’s Twist Again’.
N There was one time my parents went to US for an official visit and I wanted them to buy me a Radiohead CD. I was 17 then and they were like “no we can’t buy it for you, it’s an official visit, we’ll be busy”, so I said fine. They came back and had separately gone out and bought me the CD so I had two copies of the same record! Mum said, “don’t tell dad” and he said, “don’t tell mum.”

Did your dad sing lullabies or read bedtime stories to you?
N He does until today, but to my children now. I still have to listen to it because we all live together. He sings an MGR song to my son and I’m like, “You’re singing the song fluently in Tamil?” I think it’s very good because my daughter starts dancing and she loves music. It’s a lot to do with his influence.

Curious, I asked Nurul what song represented her relationship with her dad, to my surprise she said ‘Unchained Melody’ because that’s what her dad made all his children sing. “Thank God, rock music changed my life!” Nurul quips.

What’s the manliest thing your dad has taught you?
N (laughs hysterically) I’m not going to say anything.
M Yeah, me too. My mum taught me how to pack. That’s not manly. But she’s the best packer in the world. I was so proud because just recently, I taught her a new way of packing. She accepted it and this was a major achievement. We all pack with cubes – modular packing. My mission in life is to get as many packing converts as I can.

When you were younger did you ever have to work for your allowance?
N I was always forced to go to Reject Shop and Bata so there was nothing. My mum was so strict. But it was easy to talk to my dad, I could tell him anything. In fact, before I got married we discussed a lot of things which you’d think would be better discussed with your mum.
M A little bit. I had to wash the car, do chores… it was for 20 cents. Child exploitation but you know our allowance was very small those days.

Did you take any road-trips as a family?
M Yeah! My mum’s side of the family lives here in KL and we lived in Alor Setar, so every holiday we’d pack ourselves into the car and drive all the way down – I use to dread it. In those days, I don’t think there was quite a thing as air conditioning and there were quite a lot of us. We’d all get carsick and I remember it as misery. My views have changed now because we have nicer cars and better highways!

What was the first movie outing you took as a family?
Titanic was the most momentous. He laughed when we cried, “Ya lah, of course Jack had to drown, there’s only space for one person!” He said that while our hearts were broken!

Did your dad ever help with your homework?
M No, thank God! I would die. He used to do things like during dinner he’d start asking us math questions and that would pressure us. Pressure already, cannot think, so cannot answer, then everybody around the table would start crying because of one simple question. My dad was this really smart boy in school, it’s terrible. My mum was a bit more understanding if we didn’t do so well – both my parents did medicine in Singapore and it’s a six-year course. They started dating from first year but my grandfather said they couldn’t get married until she graduated. My mother then fails her first year and has to repeat it, then fails the last year and has to repeat it! So my dad had to wait extra long for her which made her a bit more sympathetic when we didn’t do so well since she’s been through it. They taught us how to be honest, which can be one of the worst things. During one term exam in school, I had just passed maths. We were going through the answers with my teacher and I discovered she had marked one wrongly, I actually got that question wrong. I put up my hand and told her and because of that I failed. When I went home, I got scolding because I failed and was given no marks for honesty.

Have you ever asked him if you could keep a pet?
N Our pets kept dying! First, the fishes – my brother decided to shampoo them because they were dirty. We had stray cats… We all have asthma, my grandmother has asthma but she’s got 10 cats. My second sister has severe asthma, she was hospitalised couple of times and my son has severe eczema. So we decided no more pets.

Nurul’s story of her brother’s pet caring activities was extremely hysterical. Once we calmed down, we realized it would be most appropriate to mention that Nurul’s brother was only eight years old when he shampooed his fishes and no other animals have been harmed since. Be calm, Animal Rights Activists.

After sometime, you just stop thinking about what people think because there’s nothing I can do to change that.” – Nurul Izzah

“I get really annoyed when people throw the ‘blood is thicker than water’ argument at me. I don’t care what anyone says about my dad, they’re entitled to their own opinions but if it is truly unfair, I will say something.” – Marina Mahathir

Was there anything your dad did on purpose to embarrass you?
When I’m talking to a potential boyfriend, he picks up the other line and goes, “Hi Izzah! So… you’re not sleeping yet? Goodness, gracious, look at the time!”
 Even though I was 18, I was given a 12 o’clock curfew, that was a bit embarrassing because I’d have to ask my friends to send me back at 11.30 – that’s when everyone would start hanging out, right?

What was he like when you first started dating?
M I don’t tell him. I just surprise him and say “here!” I’ve always wanted to start an Eldest Daughter’s Club and host a yearly seminar, “How To Manage Dad.”
N I should have dated more.

Was your dad very comforting when you had your heart broken?
M When you go through your teenage years, you don’t particularly understand why you’re sad or angry but my dad stuck around and tolerated it.
N I think the time he comforted me was not due to heartbreak, it was when Tan Sri Yahaya (founder of DRB Hicom) died in a tragic accident. I’m not close to many of my father’s friends but Tan Sri Yahaya and Puan Sri Rohana Othman were tight knit with my siblings and I. They were killed in a helicopter crash and my father was very comforting then. He said, sometimes we just have to accept, pray for them and move on.

What’s the one thing you two have in common?
M I suppose being in the spotlight and constantly being talked about in reference to your parents. It is so tiring. I get really annoyed when people throw the “blood is thicker than water” argument at me. I don’t care what anyone says about my dad, they’re entitled to their own opinions but if it is truly unfair, I will say something. When I get the “blood is thicker than water” routine, it’s like “I got no brains, is it?”
N We have zany humor. After sometime, you just stop thinking about what people think because there’s nothing I can do to change that.

Have you ever had to distance yourself from your dad to carve your own name?
N Sometimes you do things because it’s right. You should be comfortable and accept that this is my father. It’s important because it has shaped me into who I am today.

“I think my dad appreciates someone who isn’t overly in awe. It’s kind of nice to have normal people around you.” – Marina Mahathir

“Now I think just giving him his space is most important and as his family, he expects you to understand a lot…” – Nurul Izzah

Did he say “I love you” frequently or did he have a different way of showing affection?
M I think my dad came from a generation who shows more than they say but I grew up feeling secure no matter what. He shows a lot of affection to his grandchildren, that’s for sure!
All the time. He calls us up when he’s overseas and when he was in prison it was our letters which connected us because that was the only way to communicate, so we shared a lot of things through that medium. Now I think just giving him his space is most important and as his family, he expects you to understand a lot – my husband can tell you that (laughs).

There’s a saying for women that you’ll end up marrying men like your fathers, is that true?
M Funnily enough, during my first wedding celebration my [then] husband and I were sitting on the pelamin and all my friends said, “How on earth did you find a Frenchman that looks like your dad?” I was surprised because I didn’t see any kind of resemblance but no he wasn’t like my dad. I don’t think I married my dad. My husband is a lot more bohemian.
N I watched my mum growing up. Essentially, she loved being a doctor but had to sacrifice that part of her life because she was my father’s wife. That left an impact on me, so when I found my husband I wanted someone who could be there for me. Of course, I didn’t envision myself being in politics – poor guy! He’s very different from my father and partly because I think I wanted someone different; he’s very quiet and serious.

What’s your father’s relationship like with your spouse?
M I did a video for my husband’s 50th birthday and I interviewed my dad. He said, “Well you know, I guess he kind of grows on you, like a carbuncle!” But I think he’s come around to my husband partly because we’ve got a daughter whom he adores. I do hope my dad realizes now that Tara is really good for me.
N Shahrir is a consultant. He tries very hard to help out my dad in any way he can. From time to time, they have discussions, also my husband takes time to be drawn out.

If there was one activity you could see them doing together, what would it be?
M Just hanging out, really. I think my dad appreciates someone who isn’t overly in awe. It’s kind of nice to have normal people around you.

How does that work? Like, “Don’t turn page, I’m not done yet”?
No, like different books but in the same confined area (laughs)!

“…the only time my father cried was when his mother passed away. In all the 6 years in prison, not once.” – Nurul Izzah

“I would say he was someone who tried hard to do what he could for his country and not everyone agreed with his methods but that’s what he had to do.” – Marina Mahathir

Did your dad cry when you gave birth to your first child?
I gave birth to my first in Japan, my mum was with me. I think there were bi-elections or something, it was 1987, so my dad was in Sarawak. There’s a picture of him walking along and listening to the phone because my mum was telling him “now you’re a real Datuk!” He came to visit within a month. I decided to surprise him by taking the baby all the way to the plane so when he stepped out he saw her and was very happy. He loves his grandchildren, he’s got 17! 12 of whom are girls so, girls rule! My brothers are very productive, the daughters not so much.
N When I gave birth it was a huge affair! My entire family was present. My father was extremely happy but the only time my father cried was when his mother passed away. In all the 6 years in prison, not once.

What is he like as a grandfather?
N Brilliant! He likes to manja but he’s also very strict so it’s a good combination. He doesn’t bother drawing though. It’s my mum and I that will do the “Let’s read this book together! Let’s try to implement all the recommendations.” My father is more old school.
M He spoils them rotten and they just walk all over him! The next time I want something done, I will just ask through them! “Could you please change the law?”
N When Michael Jackson came, Azmin Ali (Deputy President of PKR) got the private viewing because he used the Anwar Ibrahim channel. What did we have to do? Wait and queue up for hours and see him from afar. I think we should exchange notes!

What’s the best advice your dad has given you that’s stuck through all these years?
M When I was 16, we hosted an American student and our families became very close. My dad really believes in travel as a way to see the world and learn something new. So after Form 5, he wanted to send me off to the States to stay with them but before I left he had to give me the talk, “You’re going over there, it’s a different culture but we are who we are,” and to understand that just because you come from a different background doesn’t mean you give it all up. Also “to remain true to yourself.” That’s always been something I kept close to me.
N One was for public speaking. He’s probably one of the best out there and the first time I was expected to speak, I had no debating background aside from being a researcher in high school. He told me to make sure I never tried to emulate anyone’s style. Not to worry about what people say, how bad I am, or if they compared me to him, just to do my best. The second, was when I didn’t want to go to the staging of Raja Lawak. I think at the time Tiara Jacquelina was in and he was so upset with me. During that period I was very interested in English Literature and he said, “You must always stay true and appreciate your local culture as well as English lit.” He was really giving me a huge lecture, and, of course, I was dragged to Raja Lawak, but I enjoyed myself.

What’s the biggest misconception about your father?
N He’s too hungry for ambition and success. If you know him, he means well. He does what his heart tells him to do and this is something not everyone sees. Of course, as a daughter I see it.
M He’s extremely shy. He doesn’t know how to socialize or make small talk. His idea of a nightmare is a cocktail party (which is also mine) because he doesn’t know how to be social. When it comes to work, talking about policies – all possible. Chit chat? No go.

And what will you be getting him for Father’s Day?
M I don’t normally get him anything. Maybe a card.
N A book, because for our birthdays when he was in prison, he used to send us the books that he received.

If or when you two become grandparents and your grandchildren ask what their great grandfather was like, what would you tell them?
M I would try telling them everything. I would say he was someone who tried hard to do what he could for his country and not everyone agreed with his methods but that’s what he had to do.
N I would tell them that their great grandfather was a very principled, courageous man despite the worst fears we had. He just decides to do things because he believes in them.

Despite both Marina and Nurul giving me a generous hour and a half to complete my interview, there was still so much I wanted to ask. Alas, being the busy, eldest daughters they are, we had to end it here. My Editor, Ben Liew, remarked when they left that “people are sometimes afraid to appear too human, and at other times, people don’t want to be confronted with someone who’s too human.” I can see why. Being human means that we’re exposing ourselves and being vulnerable. That’s a lot to handle when you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders, or just the expectations of the man who raised you to be the best you can be. 


This interview was originally published in CLIVE issue #58 (June 2013).


On some days, JUICE covers the lighter side of politics – from the zany antics of Dato’ Jamal Yunos to Theresa May’s nemesis Lord Buckethead. Follow us on Facebook to be in the know.