Her World Malaysia|August 2016

In an exclusive tête-à-tête, Carmen Chow gets up close and personal with the down-to-earth Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir about what’s on her mind – and why retirement is not on it.

I first met Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir about a year ago at Her World 's 55th Anniversary Gala. She was one of the five women presented with our annual Her World Women Award for contributions to society. It was a glamorous night of celebration with chandeliers, crystal ornaments and the iridescent chatter of guests.

Today, a year later, I’m sitting in Marina’s meeting room at her office. A complete opposite of the glitzy ballroom where we first met, it’s a simple space – just a long timber table in the centre and two colourful paintings hanging on the white walls. Just outside it, magazine covers, artwork and black-and-white photographs of her with friends and the people she’s worked with line the wall, offering visitors a peek into the life of this extraordinary woman. “It’s Azliza Ayob,” a voice says behind me as I take a closer look at the intricate details on one of the paintings titled Battling Demons. I turn around and a fresh-faced Marina greets me. “Both are from Azliza Ayob, actually. I collect Malaysian women artists as much as possible because a lot of them need the support. Although, occasionally, I will get a guy’s piece if I really like it,” she quips. Her voice is soft, but there is a certain calmness in it that draws you in.

Her taste in art rings somewhat true to issues the 59-year-old is a staunch advocate of – women's empowerment and justice for Muslim women. In fact, I recently found out that Marina began her working life at Her World in the early 1980s. “I told them I could do anything, except the food pages,” she recalls with a laugh. “The world has changed tremendously, hasn’t it? We used typewriters in those days!” The world certainly has changed, and Marina has definitely helped shape things, or rather, put things into perspective as a prominent commentator on local social and political affairs. She has also served as the president of the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC) for more than a decade, and was the chairperson of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF). During her tenure, she changed the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS both locally and internationally. She was awarded UN Person of The Year by the United Nations in Malaysia, in 2010, for her volunteer work in the HIV/AIDS sector, and most recently, the prestigious Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (Knight in the Legion of Honour) from the French government for her human rights activism in Malaysia.

Yet, the more I speak to Marina, the more I realise that the meeting room’s simplicity is a reflection of its owner – simple but with a purpose, despite her prominence and achievements.

Her sophisticated and benevolent mind buzzes with thoughts, constantly churning ideas and juggling “10 million other things to do” – a resonance of the modern woman; a product of the times. And if there’s one thing we’ve learnt about the world today, it's that there is always a place for a lady with an agenda.

HW: Congratulations on being conferred the prestigious Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. How did you feel when you found out?

Marina: “That was quite unexpected. They told me the embassy was recommending me, and it had to go through the French government and so on. I thought it was a long process and didn’t want to think about it, and then it happened. The ceremony was terrific because I had most people that I wanted there with me – my family, both of my daughters, my parents, colleagues and friends. It was a really simple, sweet and lovely ceremony. Someone accused me of working for awards. The award comes with nothing but a medal and a nice glow. No title and certainly no money [laughs]. But it’s nice to get recognised. It is great motivation and it feels like your efforts are worthwhile.”

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