OCTOBER 21 — Making up an estimated half of Malaysia’s electoral roll, women remain to this day, crucial determinersof who comes to power and stays in power. It is then curious as to why women’s issues and legislations that impact women persist as an uphill battle.
In an increasingly “vocal” Malaysia, there is constant and consistent coverage of the many inherent woes that women in our country have. These grievances have been discussed, debated and deliberated time and time again, only to yield the absolute bare minimum in the form of aid, assistance or allocation.
In a world that lauds women-led governance and strives for the protection of women, Malaysia is at risk of being left behind or termed “regressive.” It is the need of the hour to adopt a more gender-responsive political agenda that not only uplifts, but empowers women in the long run.
Redefining women empowerment in Malaysia
Being the buzzword for quite some time now, “women empowerment” in Malaysia has lacked the sophistication that other countries have actively strived for these past few decades. The narrative remains that women in our country need welfare assistance, provisions that are “family-targeted” and entrepreneurship “jump-starts.”
This is far from empowerment. In fact, these are just feeble attempts at engaging women in society and business. To empower is to give space for women to make important decisions that impact their own lives and those around them.
It is essentially, going beyond the outdated assumptions of “what a woman really wants” and nstead, giving women much needed room and the prerogative to decide what is the need of the hour. It is then clear that women empowerment is not a gender issue, but a societal and political issue that needs to be urgently addressed.
Women do not have enough, let alone, rightful, “equal” space in Malaysian politics and that is the harsh truth that politicians and policy makers must admit and acknowledge. The “Malaysian way” for this “inequality” has always been to highlight relative status quos and that, is not progress. It is simply the perpetual political deception that our society has learnt to live with.
Women in decision-making positions: When talent does NOT meet opportunity
The Statistics on Women Empowerment in Selected Domains, Malaysia, 2019 stated that the Malaysia Gender Gap Index (MGGI) showed the average score of 0.711, or 71.1 per cent in 2018. While the overall statistics reflect current aspirations, the figures for economic participation and opportunity, and olitical empowerment remain low. This is highly discrepant because women scored high on educational attainment.
This begs the question of whether educated, qualified women lack the space and relevant opportunities to thrive in decision-making roles and economic activities. This correlation is rather clear and is indicative of Malaysia’s outdated policies which are not merit-based.
Statistics in 2019 show that only a quarter (24.7 per cent) of total legislators, senior officials and managers were women. The percentage of women as professional and technical workers were also less than men (44.3 per cent).
These numbers taken at face value are rather intriguing because it does not in any way correspond with the fact that the gross enrolment rate for women in all levels of education were higher than men (tertiary level: 50.3 per cent vs 37.8 per cent).
Why are women equipped with tertiary education not given opportunities in top management? Is this a bureaucratic hurdle, a social stereotype or simply ignorance to merit? While the government cannot shape or change social roles that impact individuals and communities, it can ensure that only talent and merit is recognised in employment, irrespective of gender.
Archaic policies that focus more on appeasement rather than empowerment should be replaced with more inclusive policies that solely use an individual’s education, working experience and intrinsic qualities as a basis for top positions.
Women in Malaysian politics
Whether they are voters or candidates or even parliamentarians or ministers, the trend of women in Malaysian politics has been volatile and unremarkable, to say the least. Political campaigns in Malaysia rarely focus on “pragmatic” women empowerment as much as youth mobilization or the “turn-to-when- all-else-fails” religion and race rhetoric.
When did it become acceptable for half of Malaysia’s eligible voters to become just a “vote pool” taken for granted? How did we get here? Political party ideologies have ranged from nationalism, regionalism, social conservatism and the likes, but never has gender equality or empowerment ever been on the agenda.
This reveals a deep schism in the societal and political fabric of our country that has over time, been reinforced by several (possibly, elitist) actors that have shaped Malaysian politics. If this is not realised now, it is possible that Malaysia will be left far behind the newly progressive international community that has embraced rightful, equal representation.
Even in terms of voting preferences, it is not unusual for parties to assume that women in a family have the same political affiliations as their husbands or partners, or later in life, as their children. Hence, targeted outreach or campaigning that appeal to women voters are not the first thing political parties plan for and this is a major part of the problem.
Women candidates in elections these days are also a rarity which is immensely worrying. In the recently concluded Sabah state elections, only 43 out of the 447 candidates, or 9 per cent, running in the polls are female (FMT, 2020).
This is a wake-up call that policy makers need to acknowledge that there are “discreet” efforts to crowd out women from decision making in the highest levels of our country. These efforts are usually sourced from blatant, biased and thoughtless views that there is already a “scarcity of seats” and so it would preposterous to make a “gamble” in the name of equality and fairness.
It is no surprise then that only 14.4 per cent of elected parliamentarians were women and that only 17.9 per cent of cabinet ministers were women in 2018. How does this number justify sufficient representation for women in the highest decision-making capacity in the country?
The plain and simple answer is that it doesn’t, and this is why we don’t see enough gender-focused policies which truly alleviate the position of women in our country.
The need of the hour is for lawmakers and politicians to understand the importance of an inclusive political process in the country. There is compelling evidence that women are side-lined, be it as a voter or candidate in the electoral system of Malaysia and hence, ultimately excluded from the decision- making processes that shape the trajectory of our nation.
It is pivotal to revisit prevalent skewed policies and re-strategize to prepare for a transcendent political agenda that strives for more equal representation. Some efforts at ensuring women stand an overall fair chance such as the Gender Equality Act has been underwhelming in our country and it is necessary to look beyond these “leaden” initiatives and adopt a more pro-active approach.
The Gender Equality Act, Malaysia — procrastination nation?
According to projections by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020, it will take 99.5 years to close the global gender gap. Even more alarming is the fact that Malaysia is placed at 104 globally, behind all its peers in Asean (except Myanmar) in a gender gap ranking for 153 countries.
This really puts things into perspective, especially with regards to our employment policies and “social norms” which are not so women-friendly.
The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) drafted a bill for the Gender Equality Act (GEA) and submitted it to the Malaysian Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (KPWKM) in the early 2000s.
JAG further updated the bill and re-submitted it to KPWKM in June 2017. In February 2020, the former Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail announced that the Gender Equality Bill, which seeks to level the economic playing field in Malaysia, is still in the process of being drafted (Mat Ruzki and Babulal, 2020).
With the sudden change in government that happened a month later, it is clear that Malaysia is still far from realising its gender equality aspirations in the form of binding laws. The fact that a number of very “ideologically different” stakeholders are part of the drafting the GEA, has made it that much harder for such a law to be finalised, let alone be passed in Parliament.
This, in addition to giving due consideration to the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which Malaysia has acceded to 25 years ago.
Hence, even in terms of a legal structure, gender equality which includes the highly sought after “equal pay for work of equal value” remains a distant reality. Hence, while the country eagerly anticipates the GEA, it is unwise to simply wait around for it to be rolled out.
“Gender equality” can also be spearheaded by political parties that believe in equal representation. This can be facilitated through the fair and careful selection of candidates and campaign designs that target all groups equally.
Political parties must be motivated to drive this agenda as a united entity and not only depend on women’s wings or women’s groups within the party to mobilise this top-priority agenda.
Equity (not equality) for women in Malaysia
It has long been established that “sameness” is not the same as “fairness”, and so while we strive for gender “equality” in our country, it is also important to work on its shortcomings with regards to the merit vs. quota paradox and turn to the fairer concept of “equity.”
Policy makers need to understand that “the 30 per cent” (let alone 50 per cent) will remain a distant reality if it is seen only as a “forced necessity.”
Rather, Malaysian policies must reflect an absolute conviction that women must be supported with a platform that allows them to function at their most optimum level. This “support” would allow for a more level playing field that will, in the long run, enable a more “gender equal” society that no longer requires quotas.
Support here does not mean special favours or pity positions, rather, it is simply the “lift” one requires and is entitled to in a competitive society. Equity would also ensure that merit remains an important criterion for survival in the level playing field.
Any form of gender inequality on equal merits must not be tolerated in any sector (Liang, 2015). The Malaysian government and its people could hence benefit from more equitable policies which allows for timely “space” for women that do not ignore merit. This will also ultimately reframe and alter the misconceptions about quotas and its main purpose.
Free, fair and EQUAL elections and political opportunities
Equal political opportunities must start from the commitment of political parties, leaders and members to embrace a more progressive outlook in fielding candidates and also in campaign strategies.
An “all sizes fit one” campaign which depends on the assumption that all women need financial and entrepreneurial assistance, maternity provisions, etc. should be replaced with a campaign that appeals to women in all walks of life, primarily mothers, technocrats, students, etc. to ensure that all women have more of a reason to vote for a particular political party.
Top party leaders irrespective of gender or age must realise how much talent, perspectives and ideas are lost when a significant part of the population is not engaged with interest or even direction. Going into elections or any kind of policy-making with this irreversible deficit is short-sighted and not in tune with international or even regional standards. This must be avoided to ensure national-level political parties remain relevant in an ever-changing world.
The road ahead: Moving towards a gender-responsive political agenda
In Malaysia’s 14 th General Election, women voters made up 50.5 per cent of the total voting population. Even the numbers don’t lie — political parties that have little knowledge and focus on women-related issues or interests have already shunned a little more than half of the population with the power to vote.
Any party then, which is sensible enough to try and capture the attention of this large group of voters must first be open to understanding the psyche of their female voters. While this seems like a retrograde step, it is an absolutely crucial one if parties wish to move forward.
Political parties must understand that strategies that worked a few years ago will not be relevant in this day and age because of different social roles, aspirations and family systems. Women voters no longer have to share the same political views of their male family members and so new campaign strategies that encompass women interests and needs must be adopted by political parties that wish to stay relevant and form government.
Also, fielding candidates for elections must go beyond a quota or internal strife. These decisions must be carefully weighed based on merit and individual capabilities and ability to contribute.
Besides this, campaign strategies that appeal, and are directed to very different women voters must be led by either female candidates who can have more effective interactions with women or male candidates who truly understand and internalise the voting sentiments of women voters.
Party manifestos should go beyond the short-sighted, superficial “provisions for women” rhetoric and take a more “empowerment” stance with specific initiatives and policies targeted at different groups of women at all walks of life.
There must be intent and the political will to engage women in a more targeted and focussed manner.
It doesn’t cease to astound how half of Malaysia’s electoral roll still faces discrimination and inequality in the country’s political process, despite being a democracy, per se. Malaysia needs to embrace a more progressive stance with regards to gender equality and the concept of equity could be the necessary catapult in this direction.
A gender-responsive political agenda is pivotal to ensure that half of the population’s voice does not go unheard.
* Yanitha Meena Louis is a researcher at the Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research (Insap), an independent think tank.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer(s) or organisation(s) and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.