Could Dr Wan Azizah have avoided not being photographed with Netanyahu’s wife at UNGA 2023?

Editor’s Note: Family’ group photograph during a reception hosted by First Lady of the US Jill Biden (seventh from right) for the spouses of world leaders who attended the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2023. Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail is third from left and Sara Netanyahu is fourth from right (Main pic credit: Dr Wan Azizah’s Facebook)

IT’S ALWAYS confusing what role a spouse of a world leader plays at the international stage. As this is the first time Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail was attending as the wife of the 10th Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim (PMX), it’s even more perplexing.

All because a group photograph captured during a reception hosted by First Lady of the US Jill Biden for the spouses of world leaders who attended the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) that included Sara Netanyahu – wife of the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

The photograph was widely posted on official websites of the world leaders and by the local media of the respective countries, including Israel.

It didn’t cause much of a stir until after Oct 7 when – following the attack on Israel – (Benjamin) Netanyahu declared war on Hamas.

It’s not so much the photograph but the insinuation that possibly Dr Wan Azizah may be “friendly” with the wife of Netanyahu implied by influencers on social media that is stirring controversy.

Cyber storm

The Rakyat Post reported that cybertroopers were battling each other with comments following the posts made by former PKR politician Badrul Hisham Shaarin or Chegubard. He posted a clip on TikTok of a screen record of Netanyahu’s Instagram feed.

Although the social media posts did not directly accuse Dr Wan Azizah of meeting with Netanyahu or his wife Sara, it is the implication of impropriety that has whipped up a storm of fierce responses from cybertroopers of both camps.

The Penang PKR Wanita chief Nurhidayah Che Rose expressed disappointment and sadness over the use of Israel’s inhumane treatment of the Palestinians in attempts to spread hatred towards the Madani government.

In a strongly worded statement, Nurhidayah said, “We believe that this is one of the ways to spread hatred and cheap political elements to Malaysians who are also affected by Israel’s atrocious actions against our Palestinian brothers and sisters.”

Furthermore, the PKR Bandar Tun Razak Wanita chief Jamilah Syed Mohamed lodged three police reports against four social media account holders for their alleged act of editing the photograph into a video that could negatively affect Dr Wan Azizah’s reputation.

A close-up of Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (third from left) with some spouses of world leaders

Role of spouse

Actually, Dr Wan Azizah is also the MP for Bandar Tun Razak since the 15th General Election (GE15). Previous to this, she was the Permatang Pauh MP. She was also PKR president – now adviser – and made deputy PM following Pakatan Harapan (PH) victory in GE14.

As pointed out by PKR’s Jamilah, when Dr Wan Azizah received a courtesy call from Hamas political bureau chairman Ismail Haniyeh when she was DPM (to twice premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad). A video of Haniyeh’s visit was posted in Dr Wan Azizah’s Facebook on Jan 28, 2020.

This is when it gets even more confusing. Is Dr Wan Azizah’s role at UNGA that of the wife of PMX or as an MP or as a former DPM?

Unlike Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, wife of former PM6 Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who was famously quoted as having said “I’m not a politician. I’m just a housewife!”, Dr Wan Azizah is both wife and politician.

An attempt to label her official car with a specialised license plate that read, “Isteri YAB Perdana Menteri” (wife of the PM) drew a lot of flak with a disclaimer from the Sabah state government that it was standard practice.

So, what happens when Dr Wan Azizah attends events such as UNGA? In which capacity is she acting on behalf – as her husband’s emissary or as a representative of the country in a political capacity?

Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (left) with First Lady of the US Jill Biden

This is an unending sticky question that has got several renowned women writers weighing in on the role of political spouses.

Sticky situation

In 2019, The Guardian columnist Zoe Williams urged wives of world leaders to refuse to travel with their spouses as they were made to seem as tools or as if women didn’t really have important business of their own.

Williams wrote even more bluntly, “… their real purpose on the trip is to prove that the husband is a red-blooded fellow. Obviously. Because he has a wife.”

In 2013, Meena Bose wrote in the New York Times that politicians should be clear about spouses’ roles when she asked, “in what situations is it appropriate for a spouse to be involved in an elected official’s policy deliberations?”

Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail accompanies Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar to a dialogue session-cum-dinner with the Malaysian diaspora and students in New York on Sept 24

According to Bose, “In general, elected officials need to be attentive if advisers or the public expresses concern that a spouse is overly involved.

“They must make clear that only they – the ones elected by, and accountable to, the people – have decision-making authority.”

In Malaysia, we have never had a situation where the wife of the PM is also a politician. How does Dr Wan Azizah not be involved in official matters? Does her position as wife of the PM give her undue advantage as an MP?

In the world of international political diplomacy, what could Dr Wan Azizah have done to avoid the controversy?

As Malaysia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, should Dr Wan Azizah have declined to attend if Netanyahu would be present? – Oct 31, 2023

Niza Shimi was a former journo with a leading mainstream English media.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

Pics credit: Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail’s Facebook

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