Interview + Text Rathika Sheila + Ben Liew
Images Choen Lee @ Bunny+Bear Pictures
They say fathers are closer to their daughters. Could it be or maybe it’s just that fathers put more pressure on themselves and their child when it comes to their firstborns. I spent my afternoon speaking to Marina Mahathir and Nurul Izzah Anwar about the relationships they shared with their fathers and their strangely normal upbringing. After spending 15 minutes chatting away about what CLIVE’s notorious Editor has been up to, and snacking on curry fries, I finally asked them the first question…
When was the last time you had dinner with your dad?
Marina Just the two of us? I think it was March 2011 in London. He wanted to bring his whole [entourage] but I said, “no, I cannot afford to pay.” We meet here in KL during family occasions. I met a young hairdresser in Singapore once and he told me he hasn’t been home for two years but he calls his mother every day. He said, “You cakap sekali sebulan, dia tak tahu apa nak cakap, tapi tiap-tiap hari you cakap 10 minit, dia happy.” I keep telling myself to do something similar but I don’t.
Nurul We don’t have one-to-one lunches because we’re a big family so usually my in-laws will join us. The recent one was along election week because throughout the campaign my sister in-law who works in the States was here, so that was about three weeks back. I don’t know what he’ll say to me when it’s one-to-one…
Marina Sometimes it’s better not to have the one-to-one [laughs].
Do your conversations around the dinner table revolve around work-talk mostly?
Marina What is work-talk?
Nurul That’s a good point. What is work? After a while, work, politics, daily life, it gets morphed into the personal because it’s engraved in you.
Marina Like anybody’s conversation, it goes all over the place. First you’re talking about your kids, then a little bit about politics and work.
What was the sternest action taken by your dad to discipline you?
Nurul My dad gives the evil eye. He just has to say “Izzah..” in his lowered tone of voice and I know I’m in trouble. My mum was more of a disciplinarian.
Marina I used to get spanked when I was little because I didn’t want to go to school.
Do you personally believe in “spare the rod and spoil the child”?
Marina I don’t agree with it. When you become a parent, you will understand why the temptation to whack them will come. It’s normal to think about whacking them but it’s not normal to actually do it.
Not even raise your hand to falsely threaten?
Marina Raise voice, yes, but not the hand. I remember when my older one was a little baby, I don’t know what she did but I smacked her lightly and my dad said, “Don’t touch my granddaughter!” And he’s the one that use to pinch me when I was little. I can’t do it, as tempting as it gets, I can’t.
Nurul I think it’s also what we went through as children. My parents didn’t do that, although my mum would threaten us with a ruler when she teaches my siblings and I, but I think right now we’re learning a lot from self-help books, “How to talk to children so they listen and how to listen so they talk to you”. This morning in fact, my son didn’t want to bathe so I had to draw and explain how the shower rod works and I was already late for work but after 10 minutes, he finally responded. I guess there are different techniques with different generations. I do believe now it has a lot to do with psychology – listening to them and trying to be their friend. Mind you, he’s four.
Marina I think this generational thing, it’s normal to change. I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to bring up my kids quite the same way as I was brought up. I think my husband and I are a bit more democratic with our children, which, of course, means the democracy bites back. But, on the other hand, my parents benefit from the way we bring up our children. Our children are more demonstrative, they’re not shy to say “I love you” and they [grandparents] benefit from it.
At this point in the interview, Nurul begins to share about the time her father sent her off to a local university for her first semester and kissed her on the cheek and forehead in public. “That’s not how I wanted to start my first semester in Uni!” she says, sounding like every other teenager. “He’s like that, he’ll hug and kiss us good night. It was different for us in that sense. Imagine going to Assunta Secondary School, the last thing you need is the Deputy Prime Minister to come and kiss you.” Marina also reminisces the times her father would visit her while she was studying in Tunku Kurshiah College and how stunned her classmates were when she held her father’s hand when they walked together. “It was normal for us to be that affectionate but I don’t think a lot of them shared the same relationship.”