Marina Mahathir Discusses Parents, Writing and Learning Lessons

This post was written by Manveen Maan

Being the daughter of a prime minister has not stopped Marina Mahathir carving out her own path, and Manveen Maan caught up with her on the release of her latest book to talk about parents, writing and learning lessons.

Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir is a woman who needs no introduction. As the daughter of former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the former President of the Malaysian AIDS Council, a renowned novelist, and outspoken human rights activist, she has built a name for herself as a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind.

Despite her reputation for championing various causes, Marina reveals that her foray into the field happened rather unconsciously. “I never thought much about going into social justice,” she admits. “When I was growing up, the options were quite limited. There were no graphic designers or software engineers then! It was all rather unplanned. I only really plunged into it when I worked with the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC).”

Early influences

Attributing her interest in NGOs to her family’s involvement in community work, Marina reveals her parents played an important role by setting a good example throughout her formative years. “My mother volunteered at a family planning clinic every week so that left an imprint,” she says. “We also never shied away from topics like apartheid and the conflict in the Middle East, so I was aware of the injustices of the world at a very young age.”

Unlike many families of that era, the Mahathir household placed much emphasis on obtaining an education and heading out into the workplace. “I grew up with two working parents, so seeing a woman go to work was the most natural thing to me because my mother did it every day.” Not surprisingly, Marina’s mother (Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali), only the second Malay woman to become a doctor in the country at the time, played a hugely influential role in Marina’s stance on gender issues today.

“For the longest time, I did not realise that other people could be brought up differently. Obviously there were times when I wished my mother cooked more because I don’t have any of those skills, but in hindsight, I definitely gained more than I missed out on,” she recalls. “My brothers and I were treated equally and we were all expected to go to school and university and then out into the workforce.”

The Road To Writing

Adhering to that blueprint, Marina graduated from university and delved into the world of magazine writing and PR before being offered a column in The Star newspaper in 1989. “I always wanted to write,” she says. “English was my favourite subject in school and because I had a flair for it. I wanted to be a journalist. Writing was something I always fell back on.”

Despite having churned out a bi-weekly column for The Star for more than 23 years now, Marina’s decision to turn her articles into a book came quite by chance. “I already did a book 15 years ago (In Liberal Doses) and people kept asking when the next one would come out. It just so happened I was invited to the Singapore Writer’s Festival this year and they asked if I had a book to launch. So I asked my publisher if we could do one and it worked out,” she enthuses.

The collection, aptly entitled Telling ItStraight, encompasses articles publishedbetween 2003 and 2012 and provides a look at her take on the issues, ideas, and institutions of the day. Organised thematically, the topics covered in the book range from education, human rights, Islamic law, and corruption, to plain old common sense. “These are themes that I keep returning to in my writing. Whether it is gender rights, public health, or religion, I always try to find a way to keep things current and relevant,” she says.


Citing the positive feedback she receives from readers as a motivating factor to her continued presence in the mainstream media, Marina admits that, despite her foray into the online sphere, her loyalty remains with traditional forms of media. “Of course people like to read stuff online but content is what counts. I have not given up on mainstream media mainly because there is still room for alternative and more progressive views. If [more liberal] columnists were to abandon the mainstream media, then it would be completely taken over by very conservative type viewpoints,” she says. “There are still people who read the newspaper and they should be provided with different perspectives.”

Making A Difference

Despite her privileged background, bearing the surname of one of Malaysia’s most revered politicians of our time has not come without its share of ups and downs. “I would say it has both hindered and helped me in life. On one hand you have reflected mudslinging, which is quite annoying. However, I also have a far greater chance of someone lending me their ear, which definitely helps,” she admits.

This was no doubt an advantage during her tenure as MAC President.Having amassed an impressive list of accomplishments, it is her achievements during this time of which she is most proud. “The work we did brought about unimaginable changes in policy here, such as giving free treatment to Malaysians with HIV. We also got the government to agree to [implement] harm-reduction programmes such as needle-exchange and methadone treatments, and we were able to educate people on all levels about the disease,” she says.

An avid believer in the freedom of speech, Marina admits that her straightforward approach has not always been the most effective tool for change. “The greatest lesson I have learnt is to simply listen. During my time at the MAC, I had to really understand the needs and concerns of sex workers and drug users in order to effectively carry out my duties,” she says. “Working with HIV involved dealing with touchy issues such as drugs, sex, and homosexuality. I learnt to be less confrontational about issues, to be sensitive to your audience, and to find an appropriate way of conveying the message without compromising the facts.”

For all the change she wishes to see in the country, Marina is still inherently proud to be Malaysian. “We are people with common sense who aren’t easily taken in by political shenanigans. Most of all, I like the young people here – they are eager, enthusiastic, and almost always come together to create something positive. I am most hopeful when it comes to youth and the future of the country,” she says. And what about her own children? “I think they’re turning out OK,” she quips.


Telling it Straight is available at all Borders bookstores and costs RM39.90.


Source: Senses of Malaysia Jan-Feb 2013

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