Sunday, May 22

Serving in bigger classroom of life

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What began as a hesitant move into politics has transitioned into a humbling journey for state minister

Fatimah (right) sharing some light moments with a group of Sarawak’s veteran midwives.

HER political activity has expanded her love of teaching and learning beyond the realm of traditional politics. It is an uplifting journey, one in which her passion blossoms on a dynamic platform from which she can help people from all walks of life. She has successfully transitioned from the familiar classroom to the larger classroom of life.

In embarking on her political journey 21 years ago, Dato Sri Fatimah Abdullah braved the challenge with boldness having taken into consideration many other factors. She did not know much about politics then and throughout her teaching career, she had hardly ever crossed path with politicians.

She had no intention of entering politics, even when she was nominated to run in the 2001 state election by the present Yang di-Pertua Negeri Sarawak Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, who was the chief minister at the time. At the time, she was working on her PhD in Education at Universiti Malaya (UM) in Kuala Lumpur.

Handpicked to stand

At 44 then, the mother of two grown-up children was seen as the most suitable woman candidate for the Dalat state constituency by the then-chief minister, who was known for his efforts in getting qualified women to enter politics as an advocate of women’s progress.

Fatimah had passed her mothering stage, and was from a rural background with a university education.

“Today, as I reflect on the former chief minister’s criteria, I see his values which stressed on the importance of the roles of mothers. In my ministry, we advocate a stable family institution.

“It’s the foundation of the well-being of a family and the community at large,” said Fatimah, who is now the Women, Childhood and Community Well-being Development Minister of Sarawak.

The minister walks around with a bag of compassion like a caring mother, sister or daughter, empathetic towards the rural people in particular. Photo shows an elderly Iban woman saying to Fatimah: ‘You’re my daughter!’, during a visit to a longhouse at Nanga Baoh in Dalat.

With a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Bristol, England and pursuing her PhD on full government scholarship, Fatimah – then a school principal on a study leave – was confident that she had found her niche. Teaching was her passion, her forte and a childhood dream.

And so when the then-chief minister’s representative approached her to be a candidate for the 2001 state election, she was at loss for answers.

“I felt I belonged to the education field. If I constantly worked hard, I could complete my PhD in three years. So politics was out then,” she recalled.

“During my time, I knew a number of women in my village in the Dalat constituency whom I saw fitted the bill. So I gave the representative a list of recommended names as potential candidates since I was not up for it.

“Six months later, he came back to me saying that the chief minister was still hoping for me to stand.”

While she was honoured to be picked, it was difficult for her to give up her dream profession and education in exchange for what she considered to be an unfamiliar terrain. She talked to her husband, her two children, and finally her father-in-law about whether she should truly take the offer, which would require her to give up both her job and her studies.

They all said yes – without hesitation.

Passion to serve people

Her passion in serving people stood out even as an educator during the 20 years of her teaching profession. It was what they saw in her, as they described ‘you’re good with people’.

And with her experience and perspective as a woman from a rural background, they were confident that she would do well to help the rural people, especially the womenfolk and contribute to the state at large.

Their reasons inspired and motivated her to take up the challenge.

Fatimah reiterated what her husband, Datu Dr Adi Badiozaman Tuah, had said to her: “Take it as a privilege to be able to serve the community.”

Looking back at those defining moments, she remarked: “Had he said ‘no’, I wouldn’t have the confidence to stand because that would mean I wasn’t deemed competent for the candidacy.

“I trusted his judgement.”

Consequently, she gave up her teaching career and studies to make her debut in politics.

Fatimah was ready to face new challenges after winning by a landslide in the 2001 state election. She would give her best as the people’s representative.

True to her commitment, the Dalat assemblywoman has since proven her credibility as a people’s leader.

Her years of experience as a teacher stands her well as she goes about fulfilling her political duties to people. It comes through quite obviously in many ways when she deals with the rural womenfolk, especially when she has to engage in empowering them to better their lives.

She is widely perceived as someone who thinks and acts in ways that do not reflect the conventional persona of a politician. Stepping out and occasionally breaking the rigid political boundary in order to reach out to people and listen out their hope and inspiration are traits that come naturally with Fatimah.

“Now I know how important it is for a politician to be able to get along with people. People-centricity is an important trait that all politicians should have,” she pointed out.

Now the state minister also understands why she has always loved to be a teacher, even as a young girl. She had also thought of becoming an air stewardess or a nurse for that matter. “These three vocations are about serving people after all,” she added.

Empowering the people

Fatimah (fourth right) with some of the members of the Sarawak Women and Family Council. On her left is her deputy minister I, Datuk Rosey Yunus.

Being in politics helps her discover further her true passion and propensity, enabling her to develop them immensely.

“Contrary to what I once perceived, getting involved in politics open many doors of opportunities to further my passion in empowering the people through education.
“Politics for service is good. You can help a lot of people, especially through the ministry I’m in now.

“For this, I’m grateful to our Premier (Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg) and his predecessors. I see this ministry as the best place where one can serve people,” said Fatimah.

It was not love at first sight for her and politics – she made her debut with trepidation.

All of that, however, is now history and as she devotes herself diligently to her profession, she has become ‘Dalat’s sweetheart and a well-loved woman minister’.

Her tenure as assemblywoman has been distinguished by rapid growth in her district, and her name has become synonymous with it.

Fatimah’s genuine humility is a distinguishing feature that endears her to the public, particularly the poor and those in need, as she goes out to them and learns about their difficulties and expectations first-hand.

As the state Minister of Women, Childhood and Community Well-being Development, she has close ties with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and numerous women’s organisations since they are all committed to improving the community’s well-being.

She has a lot in common with them.

Good rapport with NGOs

Having served the ministry for 15 years, she seems to enjoy lasting friendship with the women from various institutions as well as the Sarawak Women and Family Council, where she is also the chairperson. Suffice to say that her good rapport with them has been one of the attributes that contributes to the efficiency of her ministry in reaching out to the people and getting things done.

In her capacity as minister, Fatimah pays close attention to the pressing issues of stateless children, teenage pregnancies and aging society as she persistently works on them. These are some of the issues close to her heart.

There is visible progress on the case for stateless children. The Sarawak Cabinet has decided to provide whatever form of assistance within its power to these children such as giving them access to education and health facilities, while waiting for their citizenship application to be considered by the Home Affairs Ministry.

Fatimah has also urged for the Sarawak government to be granted control over the issuance of citizenship to stateless persons born in Sarawak, especially children.
“As an autonomous region, we should be given a special power to solve the stateless issue by ourselves.”

Her ministry is also actively advocating for women leadership.

“We are still advocating for better representation of women in decision-making level across all sectors. There are a lot of factors involved in this area and I must admit that we still have a lot to do here.

“There is also a need for us to help women to achieve financial independence, be it in the urban or the rural areas. For that matter, education level of attainment needs to be increased.

“Even if we want to be able to achieve better representation at the decision-making level, we have to make sure that we have better education attainment.

“We also need to be better equipped with knowledge on digitalisation technology. In this respect, digital literacy gap needs to be addressed.”

The minister’s programme also includes the empowerment of individuals with disabilities (OKUs). Fatimah, as minister in charge of welfare, community wellbeing, women, family and early development, takes an active interest in issues raised by NGOs and individuals, often with deep empathy, and does everything she can to help.

Communicative and empathetic

Fatimah and the writer taking a break during their interview.

She walks around with a bag of compassion, like a caring mother, sister, or daughter, empathetic towards rural people in particular. Fatimah is a communicative and empathetic leader who demonstrates empathy, resilience, and decisiveness in her leadership.

Her ‘adorable little girl’, however, does peek out now and then, especially when she is having a good time with her friends. Fatimah has never looked back in the 21 years since she initially stepped into politics. She believes in carrying out whatever responsibility that she has been entrusted with to the best of her ability as a God-fearing Muslim, especially when it is for the people.

Her shining track record as a people’s representative and a leader has earned her respect and trust. This is manifested through her landslide victory in every state election – the latest in December 2021 was with a vast majority win.

What began as a hesitant move into politics has transitioned into a humbling journey for Fatimah, with the prospect of serving and widening the scope of humanising societal advancement beckoning.

She has grown close to the local people, gaining strength and inspiration from them to meet their needs and aspirations on a larger scale.

Fatimah sees it as a path of collaboration with the community and the NGOs in the pursuit of shared values and the advancement of human life.