Interview with Marina Mahathir,
Yuli Ismartono [time 22:56]
15th June, 2006
Welcome to another edition of THE LEADERS. I'm Yuli Ismartono from AsiaViews, and we are in Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia for a chat with our guest today - Ms. Marina Mahathir.
The Mahathir name is quite famous of course, not only in Malaysia but throughout Asia. Marina -- daughter of former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad -- is well-known in her own right. She is a writer and journalist who has long been active in programs related to the education, prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. She served as president of the Malaysian AIDS Council, an umbrella organization for 37 NGOs involved in HIV/AIDS-related programs.
Lately, she has turned her attention to the status of women in the Muslim world and other social issues in Malaysia, about which she writes regularly in a newspaper column. Her critical views on political, economic and cultural policies have incurred the wrath of Malaysia's more conservative elements, but Marina Mahathir surges on with her campaigns.
Ms. Mahathir, thank you for being with us today.
Yuli Ismartono: How did you come to be involved in HIV/AIDS advocacy programs?
Marina Mahathir: Actually, I didn't decide one day I would do AIDS work. It all came together by itself, in a way. I got invited to join the Malaysia AIDS Foundation about 12 years ago, and I found that it was very difficult to raise funds for AIDS, because at that time people didn't understand. They said, why do you want to waste money for these types of people? So I had to educate people and in doing that I had to educate myself. And I found that it was a fascinating subject because it covered everything, every single aspect of life, from the very medical to political, legal, human rights, religion. I guess it's that multi-sectoral aspect of AIDS that kept me fascinated for so long. Then I found out it's been 12 years.
YI: What are the problems that you encounter when you try to convey a message about HIV/AIDS?
Marina Mahathir: Trying to convince people that it's real because in Malaysia, at least, it's still so small, so invisible, so people think it doesn't really affect us. And if it does, it only affects certain types of people, nobody that we should really be bothered about. I've been trying to tell them that in every country in the world, it starts small but it grows. Whether it grows quickly or slowly, that's up to you and what you do, but it grows. And neglect is the best way to make it speed up. So, I think denial is the biggest factor I've come across. And related to that is, of course, a lot of stigma and prejudice towards people living with HIV/AIDS.
YI: Over the years, have you gained any support? Has the government supported you?
Marina Mahathir: They have. They've been supporting us a lot with their financial aid for our NGOs working on the ground, and they have taken some bold steps. This year we started a harm-reduction program, which is a needle exchange program, which is very, very bold for a country like Malaysia. But in other ways, I think there is a lot more that can be done, particularly with regards to protecting human rights, people living with HIV/AIDS. Talking more about what to do for women, because women are getting infected and to do that you have to talk about women's rights. And all this other, much more delicate and sensitive issues that people want to avoid. Without all that, I don't think we would make much headway.
YI: What are you doing to convince the more conservative elements in Malaysian society -- like the Muslim clergy -- that this is a really important problem?
Marina Mahathir: Well, there's no other way except through education. We've tried different approaches, including the approach of trying to speak to them in their own language, which failed miserably because I can't speak that language, and therefore they can easily tear me apart. So what we've done is just presenting the facts to them: what is happening with AIDS in Malaysia. Then we ask them, how do we deal with this? And many of them have responded very well, particularly those at the grassroots level because in some ways it's about the nation facing this problem. They haven't known what to do about it. So they were very welcoming about the workshops that we've done to educate them about sex, HIV and those sorts of things. It has led to a lot of discussions and dialogue, and we've worked with them to actually do a manual on HIV/AIDS from an Islamic perspective. That has worked very well. But, of course, there are still some -- particularly at the upper echelons of the religious and conservative establishments -- who say things that kind of set us back. And that is hard, because then we have to do a lot more work to counter these things because people listen to religious leaders. So when they say things like, "these kind of people should be put on an island," a lot of people think it's a good idea. Why? Because he says so, not because there's any logic to it. So then we have to work to counter that, and it takes a lot of time and energy and I wonder sometimes, why we still have to do this. But that's the way it is.