Perdana Leadership Foundation had the chance to converse with Malaysia’s longest-serving Minister of International Trade and Industry, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, as part of our Oral History programme. Once dubbed “Rapid Fire Rafidah” for her quick verbal responses, Tan Sri was incredibly patient with us as we got her to recall the past.

The conversation was conducted in Tan Sri’s home, a warm sanctuary filled with artefacts from her travels abroad, and in that interview, Tan Sri shared with us her thoughts on life, work — past and current, and her views on Malaysia. Along the way, we also found out about the values and attitude that drive her.

The interviewers for this dialogue were Professor Dr. Mohd Shahwahid bin Haji Othman, Professor of Economics at Universiti Putra Malaysia, and Associate Professor Dr. Normaz Wana binti Ismail, Associate Professor of Economics at Universiti Putra Malaysia.

The following are excerpts from the conversation. Podcasts or the audio excerpts of the dialogue are on our website. The full dialogue will be published in book form.


You earned a degree in Economics from Universiti Malaya (UM) then became the first Malay woman in UM to obtain a Master’s degree in that subject.


Well, there were very few Malays who studied Economics at the time! Malays didn’t really like to study Economics, especially amongst the women. I became the cover girl of Wanita and many other magazines when I got my Masters in Economics but instead of feeling celebrated, I felt sad and depressed. Do you know why?

It’s because students from other ethnic groups had already achieved PhDs, yet we (Malays) only had our first female Master’s degree graduate in Economics. We were far behind. My benchmark weren’t the Malays but other ethnic groups. I thought it was depressing that Malays had only one female Master’s graduate at that time.

This is why I feel that we must never lower our standards. Nowadays, I tell people not to be content with small achievements. I learnt at quite a young age that we must always set higher standards and benchmarks. Our achievements must be benchmarked against the best so that we can aim higher and be the best everywhere. It is only when we aim high that we can find out where our shortcomings are, and where we can improve ourselves. Then we can be truly excited at our achievements.

This is what drives me in my work: so that Malaysia can be on par with, if not better than, the best nations on the international level.


Were you the only Malay lecturer in Economics then?


I was the only Malay lecturer for some time, and that was before I was thirty years old. By the age of thirty, I was appointed as a member of both the University Senate and Dewan Negara. Then, I was appointed as a member of the University’s Selection Committee where I interviewed professors who were my father’s age for jobs! They might have thought at first that I was a secretary, before discovering I was one of the panellists who would interview them! I was in that position for about three years before I joined the government. It was a big responsibility but I never allowed things to get to my head. I was only doing my job. People might have seen me as someone who was too young, but I did not see myself the same way.


From the academic sector, you moved into politics. You rose very quickly through the ranks. Your first position was as Wanita UMNO EXCO in 1972, and four years later, you were the country’s youngest Senator. What attracted you to politics?


I started my political participation at a very young age. I was with the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO) before I joined Wanita UMNO. In the NCWO, I was working with Tun Fatimah who was the NCWO President and Wanita UMNO Chief.

Without my knowledge, Tun Fatimah appointed me to the Economics Bureau of Wanita UMNO. I was surprised but I thanked Tun Fatimah and accepted the offer. Later, Tun Razak appointed me to be a member of UMNO’s Economics Bureau. In 1974, Tun Razak appointed me as Senator and a year later, I was nominated to contest for a post in the Supreme Council and won a seat. I was an UMNO Supreme Council member from 1975 until my retirement from politics in 2013.


During your tenure as the Minister of International Trade, Malaysia became the 20th largest trading nation in the world and the world’s largest exporter of semiconductors. What was the role of MITI in helping to facilitate Malaysia’s trade?


Market opening was one thing, removing trade barriers was another. But the most important factor is the competitiveness of our products and services. There is no point getting into somebody’s market with a lousy, high-priced and low-quality product. No one will buy our products. Even if the market is not duty free, if we are cost competitive, that tax element should not really matter. You have to be competitive in the context of the market that you are operating in. Today, as you know, margins are becoming smaller. Therefore, efficiency of production, quality, and integrity of services and products are demanded by an increasing number of consumers. Consumers do not mind paying a higher price for products that are of good quality.

Everything eventually will have to be translated into sales. If you cannot translate a trade agreement to sales, it would be a waste of time. Thus, for MITI, it was also important for us to help the private sector become more competitive. We helped them with market intelligence and valuable market research information.

I believe we need to return to the function and servicing the private sector now and help them boost their competitiveness in the regional and global markets.


There were a lot of rumours saying Malaysia sometimes lost in (trade) negotiations because of our officials.


I had experiences where officials from other ministries failed us, because they were not proficient in English or didn’t attend the negotiations, perhaps because they didn’t understand what was going on. There was nobody manning the fort. When politicians are too busy “politicking”, their own staff will be disorganized, and work will be neglected. Corruption may take place when no one is paying attention. This is a problem in today’s world. It is human failures that cause systems to fail.

I once had the opportunity to work with (the late) David Marshall. I represented Malaysia as head of delegation at the UN’s Decade of Development Conference in Copenhagen, while David Marshall headed the Singaporean delegation. This was after Lee Kuan Yew retired (as Prime Minister). David Marshall was a brilliant lawyer. I knew that I could depend on him on the legal aspects of the UN documents, and as Malaysia did not bring a lawyer, I worked with him. I spent about a week in Copenhagen and learnt quite a bit from him. It was something I never imagined — sitting down together with David Marshall to discuss important issues.

He was very professional, and never once brought in politics. That is also where I learnt to depoliticise things. Not everything should be political: education, religion, and healthcare, for example, should remain free of politics. When people start being political, there would inevitably be a hidden agenda. Unfortunately, in Malaysia, everything is politicised, and it is getting worse.


You served for a very long time in the Cabinet. Can you comment on the Prime Ministers who you worked with?


I served three Prime Ministers: Tun Hussein, Tun Mahathir and Tun Abdullah. My work with Tun Abdul Razak was mainly at UMNO-level. They all contributed in their own way to the country. Personalities have got nothing to do with their performance. They all were able to perform well because they had good teams in the Cabinet and government backing them, along with government officers who were dedicated, and understood what public service is all about.


What do you believe is Malaysia’s greatest strength?


It lies in our young population who have not yet experienced the bitterness of May 13, who have not yet experienced terrorism, bad recessions and so on. They have entered the world during an era when everything is good. These young people must right now be informed about their own responsibility, to make sure that wherever they are placed, whatever position they hold, whether they are in the public or private sector, they must subscribe first of all to high standards of integrity, accountability, and sense of responsibility. Secondly, they must put national interests before self-interest. There is no point being self-important in a country with problems. If our country has gone to the dogs, there is no pride in that.

If we can nurture the younger generation to go into politics with the right core values, they can improve whatever is wrong with this country especially as they are enabled by technology. Unless we nurture our young well, the country will slide.

So let’s return to the culture where we always give our best, and place public interest above self-interest. The young must understand that it’s now their turn (to lead). While the elders are making a mess of the country, they should learn of the causes and possible remedies. They should also not repeat the same mess that their predecessors made. Let the young people be the saving grace for this country.