Zazilia Rawi and Zarra Rawi grew up in sunny Selangor — Malaysia’s richest state — with someone always at their doorstep asking for help.
Their father was a state assemblyman; their home a meeting point for anyone with grievances. “I grew up in a politically-charged environment. When my father was the state assemblyman from 2004 to 2008, my parents had to constantly attend to the needs of the people. Birthday celebrations and even public holidays would be dedicated to the constituents instead,” Zazilia tells Study International.
These early examples of putting others first, and seeing how committed her father was to help, paved her path in politics. “I believe that throughout the years, I was sort of ‘trained’ to accommodate the needs of those who are less fortunate,” says Zazilia.
Zarra, her elder sister, got a later start in politics. After following their father to more meetings and high-profile events, she found herself “entangled” in it. “Many family members hold very important positions in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) political party as well as the Malaysian government.”
Same goal, different routes
Growing up, Zazilia had other dreams. She felt “a deep sense of justice” and toyed with the idea of serving in the army or the police force. “When I think about it, I have this imminent need to protect the weak. This was why I agreed to study law in the UK when my parents pushed me in that direction,” Zazilia says.
“I was told before that having a law degree is advantageous due to its versatility and I would say it is true. I am not limited to any career path as long as it is relevant to the employer or industry.” In 2014, she graduated from Northumbria University Newcastle with a Law LLB (Hons) degree.
She would later collect experiences in the unions, media and Malaysian parliament. “I was tasked to do research and assist Members of Parliament (MPs). At the same time, I was elected as a Malaysian Youth Parliamentarian to represent the state of Selangor for two years,” she says.
Zarra was not as receptive to local politics. While studying architecture and built environment at the University of Newcastle in Australia, her parents shocked her with the news that she was appointed to lead a division of the ruling party then. She was livid.
“I was not into politics at all back then. I was too busy in my own little world and I was totally against it. Why would I want to be surrounded by people I believed to be so different from me? I feared that they would not accept me into their circle,” Zarra recalls. “I couldn’t be more wrong. Members of the party actually welcomed me with open arms and we got along quite well. It was an eye-opening experience for me.”
Zarra would later realise that serving others is a cause she wants to be part of. After learning that she shouldn’t be “bothered with what people think of me”, the 35-year-old then went on to become part of the Youth Parliament (international relations and diplomacy committee) and took on roles like youth ambassador for Defense Service Asia as well as for Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace.
She even joined the Perdana Fellows programme — an initiative spearheaded by the Ministry of Youth and Sports to present Malaysian youths with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be personally engaged at the highest levels of the federal government.
Two sisters look to the future
UMNO was the ruling party of Malaysia since its independence. Blamed for a failing economy and racist policies, and disgraced by leaders charged with corruption, it was at last dislodged by an opposition coalition in 2018 despite using “every dirty trick in the book.” Malaysia’s increasingly sophisticated electorate voted for a more meritocratic form of government. It was a heartening victory for democracy.
For UMNO, this was the biggest loss in its history. Zarra and Zazilia became disillusioned by the future of politics.
“I wouldn’t say I completely exited the political scene. I took a step back after the 14th general elections to sort out my priorities especially when it comes to my professional development,” says Zazilia. “I wouldn’t say I fell out of love with politics either — because I still keep tabs on what is happening and I do still keep in touch with friends who are still in that circle.”
To Zarra, who also stepped down from being politically active, nothing else mattered except UMNO. Her biases towards the party are what’s keeping her from leaving. “I am still loyal to the party. Not to the people (in UMNO), not to the position, just the party. I am still an UMNO member,” she told a news outlet called Sinar Daily.
Zazilia’s future plans include doing a master’s degree in a subject related to law such as criminology or sustainability and continue contributing to society via “Gabungan Pelajar Pelajar Melayu Semenanjung” (GPMS), a non-governmental organisation that advocates and protects the interests of vulnerable Malay students in education.
Zarra also believes that life is full of surprises and all we can do is just go with the flow. If there’s one thing studying abroad has taught them, it is to always be prepared for the unexpected: “No matter where I go, I will keep on using the knowledge and skills that I gained from my previous job (doing consulting work for certain ministers in the Malaysian government scene) and at the same time, finally proceed with my postgraduate plans of exploring strategic studies.