A Malay politics overhaul through gender equality

AUGUST 13 — It’s the season for old men and their latest party tricks.

Whether it’s the Slim state seat by-election or the impending Sabah state elections, aged men who never go away — like a village haunting — continue to announce their next plan to uplift Muslims nationwide.

This column posits the number of Malay-Bumiputera parties is not the problem, but how the parties new and old position advancements inside their parties and therefore the national political stage, is.

To be precise, women leadership.

This column’s Merdeka series seeks to either celebrate Malaysians or present alternate ways to reimagine a better Malaysia.

The better Malaysia here is for the parties to up women leaders. Nothing spectacular in the suggestion but it has been stupendously ignored so far by party leaders.

In the 1990s, the UKM student council elections repeatedly had women procuring the highest votes but ended up as secretary to a dude who won fewer votes. It’s because he’s a dude. 

All top leadership roles are for men, an unwritten rule. Of course, all the top seats were Muslims — men or women — but still, even if race blinds votes, the Muslim women did corner more votes than the Muslim men. 

The rationalising of electoral returns with cultural context to please a patriarchy confounded this columnist.

It was, and probably is, the same at campuses across the country today.

That scenario replicated the prevailing situation inside major parties then, where high female membership and participation didn’t muscle women to leadership.

The column proposes full advancement for women in Malay political parties. That’s not in the way of quotas but in reconstructing the parties to enable women to have equal access to full achievement within the party.

The “how” is for the parties to work out. The common fixed gender divide because women must operate through the Wanita wing before moving into the larger main probably requires the most change, but again it should be seen through outcomes. 

Which would be for instance, the say women have inside the party, candidates and reduction of segregation.

This is not an effort to appease women.

It's not the battle of the sexes, or about how women can do it better. Or list unique female attributes.

Some women and men improve societies. Some women and men drag societies down. Most women and men meander in-between. That’s society in a nutshell.

It's the exclusion which is deplorable. More than 70years of political parties but still arrested development when it comes to women in them.

The proposal, nonetheless, has vast practical benefits.

For one, it increases the talent pool.

Trade unionists spoke in the past of how female-unfriendly work conditions — absent day-care for instance — forces the economy to possibly lose half its talent. Inclusion means better talent to power the economy.

That’s exactly applicable to the Malay parties. By the continued practice to filter out most female members from leadership, they are doing their parties a huge disservice. 

Not that a woman must lead the party any more than a man must lead it, but by cutting the female volume in leadership it jeopardises the party.

Second, more women will create different ideas inside Malay parties. The parties sound old and tired, because of the regurgitation of the past. 

As half the population is women, perhaps female-generated views interacting with other views in fair measure might produce more relevant ideas to those voters.

And this is not about how to teach women floral-arrangements or receive small business loans.

To have enough women when the supreme council discusses taxation, redistributive programmes, designing education policies or Asean engagement. Whether it’s Bersatu, Umno, Pejuang or PKR.

The parties might resonate better with voters because of that. Because their ideas begin to imbue how women look at mainstream issues.

And the third benefit is drawing more women to politics, or at least to political discourses. It makes a better country.

Modern governments and parties

While conservatives warn about religious limitations for Muslim women, and this gets to tacky points this column earnestly avoids, politics is a job.

And in reality, women have moved up in most sectors except politics.

Modern politicians are expected to deliver cleaner streets, assist hospitals to cure and schools to prepare the young for an uncertain future, and buy weapons to ensure national defence.

No one expects politicians, prime ministers included, to lead the people to religious salvation.

Further, this is not to increase female membership in parties, they are already there. Umno for decades has been female dominated membership wise but male dominated in leadership. Parity is not wrong to ask. It is in fact, long overdue.

The women before

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail was the first female president of a major political party, and then first deputy prime minister. Her place in history remains.

But she rose to champion her husband’s ordeal.

And she and her daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, would agree that many capable women due to their gender are not making it up the ranks.

Which is why talented women can rise in challenging arenas like banking or social advocacy, but not as much in Malay politics with its glass ceiling.

This is not to mean Nurul Izzah has less talent, but her name and predicament allowed her to display her capabilities. Most women won’t be able to advance fairly inside the Malay parties as they stand today. It’s about access and opportunities.


Malay politics is tiresome because it repeats itself without apology.

The notion no one cares enough about full female participation in leadership has not been challenged.

The last 15 years have taught us all that Malaysia surprises if new questions are asked.

Bersih 2007 was seen as a joke then. Not as much today.

Johor was said to be fortress Umno. It’s not. Apparently, with the right candidates, people in Johor can be persuaded.

Borneo was parodied as a fixed deposit. Warisan was formed belatedly and wrested Sabah at the first asking. BN Sarawak left to become firmly GPS. However, Sabah chooses next month or Sarawak next year, Borneo leaders will press Putrajaya incessantly.

The value of how voters will react to a party recharged with palpable female leadership can only be known at an election.

Why not ask it?

Because, at this juncture, Malay parties are just old tricks.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles