Is Malaysia ready for 30 percent female representation?
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Is Malaysia ready for 30 percent female representation?

WITH the shock election win of Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) in Malaysia came a promise of a Malaysia Baru, a new Malaysia. One rid of corruption, one of racial unity, and one in which everyone had equal opportunity to succeed.

One of the crowning promises of the new government was ensuring “at least 30 percent of policy makers are women.”

Since their May 9 victory, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed and his fledgling administration have been piecing together the cabinet that will serve Malaysia for the next five years. Throughout the process, the noise from activists, feminists, and rights workers imploring the coalition to live up to its promise was deafening.

Social media abounded with calls that “it is time” for Malaysia to fairly represent women. A protest to remind the new government of their promise was even arranged outside parliament.

But the efforts look like they may not bear fruit. While the announcement of the full cabinet line-up is expected at the end of this week, of the 14 ministers already sworn in, only three are women, one of which is Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail who is doubling up as both deputy prime minister and minister of women and family development.

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While many passionate advocates see the 30 percent as a potential home-run for gender equality and are refusing to take Pakatan’s indifference lying down, does the wider population mirror that conviction about the 30 percent and is Malaysia ready to embrace it?

“Yes,” is the simple answer, rights activists Marina Mahathir told Asian Correspondent. “We need to make the first steps.”

Marina, who is daughter to the new PM, points out that Malaysia has had female ministers in the past and women in positions of power should not be unusual to Malaysians. The problem is that they haven’t been in any substantial leadership roles, and that’s what they’re trying to change.

“We have women running corporations and the central bank, why can’t they run State?,” she said. “It will take political will, but it can be done… We need to put our foot in the door and keep trying to open it. People will get used to women [in these roles] and then it’s no big deal.”

The first female to be appointed to the cabinet was Fatimah Hashim in 1969; twelve years after Malaysia gained independence from the British. Since then, only 13 other women have made it to cabinet positions.

But while the passion and drive to see more women in decision-making roles is palpable among rights activists, it may not be something that extends to everyday Malaysians who have more pressing daily issues to tackle.

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With the rising cost of living experienced in Malaysia over recent years, the ability to care for her family, rather than female representation is what most concerns 42-year-old single mother Mas Aliana.

“I’ve been struggling over the years,” she told Asian Correspondent. “The 30 percent female representation in government would not make much impact.”

Aliana stresses that it was the change of government, ridding the country of the long-standing and corruption-ridden Barisan Nasional, that was the most important aspect of GE14 for her. While the female representation would be nice, it’s not necessarily a deciding factor.

This sentiment has been echoed by several women we spoke to. The policies themselves were more important than the people implementing them, and a resounding sentiment that a female cabinet minister wouldn’t necessarily achieve anything more than a male one.

It appears female politicians themselves feel much the same. In fact, surprisingly, some of the most vocal opposition to the 30 percent quota are those women already in positions of power.

Marina notes that the PM can only choose from the names put forward by the political parties that form the Pakatan coalition and so far very few of the current female MPs have spoken up in support of this issue.

Maria Chin, an independent from an activist background, is the only one to be vocal of her support.

“It’s the mindset that ‘I don’t want to be judged because I’m a woman. I want to be judged on merit’. A lot of them are thinking along those lines,” Marina said, referencing former minister Rafidah Aziz who has in the past labelled quotas as degrading.

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“That’s partly because they’ve been a minority for so long that they want to hang on to this message. But what we keep trying to tell them is that it’s not about you, it’s about making sure there’s a pipeline of women, and you attract more women into politics.”

And when there is female representation in government, it does make a tangible difference to people’s – especially women’s – lives.


Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan Cabinet. Source: Facebook – Pakatan Harapan

Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), Sivananthi Thanenthiran, points out that when you have more women in positions of power, countries see more investment in “people-friendly” policies with a more socially-oriented direction.

While there is no guarantee that the women placed in these positions will behave any differently from their male counterparts, the hope is that gender aspects would get covered better, Siva said.

But there is a disconnect and a “lack of awareness” of how the laws and policies in this country affect women, and that is likely what drives this seeming indifference to ensuring female representation, according to Marina.

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This can especially be the case with Muslim women who have not seen the progress in rights and legal protections that their non-Muslim counterparts have enjoyed in recent years – an issue that was highlighted at this year’s CEDAW assessment.

Within Malaysia’s plural legal system – both Civil and Syariah systems – the rights of non-Muslim women have advanced while two rounds of reform to the Islamic family law has led to increased discrimination against Muslim women.

“If you talk to any Muslim woman and you ask them if they know anyone who’s had trouble in the courts – trouble getting divorced, trouble getting maintenance for their children – they will all know someone, but they don’t make that leap to this being an issue that can be corrected through good laws and policies, for which you need the women’s voice there,” Marina said.

According to the rights expert, the belief that these rulings are religious laws that cannot be argued with is a major obstacle faced in female advocacy.

With creeping Islamisation in the technically-secular country (as stated in the Constitution) and a growing conservatism among Malaysia’s Muslim majority, could this be a barrier to achieving the 30 percent representation?

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Norsaleha Mohammad Salleh, leader of conservative Islamic NGO ISMA, doesn’t think so.

“Islam is a beautiful and simple religion. It’s a way of life that is complete and suitable to be practised at any place and time. Islam does not prevent women from participating in politics, becoming members of the cabinet and so on,” she told Asian Correspondent.

You need only look to Malaysia’s Muslim neighbours to see this is true.

According to the UN Women survey of Women in Politics 2017, Indonesia – the country with the largest Muslim population in the world – ranks 99th in the world for women in ministerial positions with 25.7 percent representation. Malaysia ranked 146th with only 8.3 percent.

The 30 percent quota is “a tribute to women’s capabilities,” said Norsaleha, who is also the director at the Institute of Hadith Studies.

“Islam respects and honors women. Women have a noble and respected position in Islam. We Muslim women have never been suppressed or discriminated against.”


Participants of the Women’s March Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, March 10, 2018. Source: Twitter – @twoharam

But this isn’t everyone’s experience.

An article in the Diplomat highlights Malaysia’s slow and steady shift over the past two decades toward an increasingly conservative Islam, the result of successive administrations’ close ties to the Saudi royal family.

An extension of this influence is the propensity of Muslims in Malaysia to conflate conservative Arab culture and practices with Islam, although, historically, Southeast Asia has always been more inclined towards a more moderate version of Islam.

There has been increased collaboration between State and non-State actors to push for Syariah-compliant policies that have had an adverse effect on women.

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It’s a creeping “Arabisation” that, according to Marina, pushes the idea that women cannot be leaders because they are not rational. She calls it an “erosion of culture” in Malaysia, where Malay women are historically accustomed to being leaders.

Even Norsaleha herself admits that, while Islam is not against women in power, there are certain risks associated that have to be considered by those women running for office.

“Whoever you are in your community and your status in politics, you are still a mother and wife with the responsibilities that must be fulfilled to her husband, children and family,” Norsaleha said, pointing out that older women are better suited to positions of power as they do not have the responsibility of raising children.

It does, however, appear to be a philosophy that many Malaysians are tiring of.

The far-right Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) – whose leader Abdul Hadi Awang once said he was opposed to a woman chief minister – only managed to secure 18 out of the 222 parliamentary seats despite a massive push during their campaign.

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While they did oust then-ruling Barisan Nasional in the state of Teregganu, and maintain their stronghold of Kelantan, the rest of the country, especially urban areas, overwhelmingly rejected their politics.

Siva believes, with this election, there has been a shift in how people think.

There is an encouraging influx of young women coming forward and wanting to participate in politics, Siva said, showing the shift of mentality of both the people and the party leaders. What happens next depends on “whether those party politicians themselves enable women to move up the ladder.”

There may never be a perfect time when everyone is ready for fair female representation in Malaysia, but, as Marina points out, a lot of work on the part of activists and strong female advocates has gone into getting to this point, “now is the time to pounce.”