ASEAN members have been grappling with major crises one after another – from the Asian economic disaster of 1997 to the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that rocked the world and, most recently, SARS.
The financial climate has never looked so bleak. Home security is also threatened with terrorist activities around the world.
Thus, it is heartening to see global leaders tackling terrorism and all crises head-on instead of cowering under pressure. More promising, however, is the emergence of support for female leadership in Asean countries as well as a greater visibility of female leaders.
When times are uncertain, society usually regresses to conservative measures for economic change. To see women leaders rise in a time such as now not only marks progress of women’s roles in governance, it is symbolic of a changing discourse of gender disparity in the political realm.
Patriarchal authority has been deeply entrenched in Asian culture even with the influx of democratic ideals. Women’s roles have been marginalised to roles of subjugation.
The role of women in politics in Asean countries now, however, is becoming extensive.
It is noteworthy to mention some of the women who have led changes in their countries, such as President Gloria Arroyo, President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Aung San Suu Kyi, Madam Truong My Hoa, Datuk Shahrizat Abdul Jalil and Dr Siti Hasmah Mohamed Ali.
Their political impacts on their respective countries have changed the course of history.
Arroyo, Megawati and Suu Kyi are currently at the forefront in their fight for freedom and national security.
As Myanmar grapples with authoritarianism and nepotism, Suu Kyi’s struggle for the removal of the military dictatorship in Myanmar is history in the making. In the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, she has become the country’s leader of a non-violent movement for political change.
Due to increasing pressure from the international community, Myanmar’s State Law and Order Restoration Council released Suu Kyi in July 1995 from house detention as a conciliatory gesture.
Currently, Suu Kyi is held at an undisclosed location following a clash between her supporters and pro-government groups at the end of May 2003.
Winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Suu Kyi is setting the stage for new democratic governance in Myanmar.
New Myanmar Prime Minister Khin Nyunt has announced his “roadmap to democracy,” promising constitutional reforms. Although critics are sceptical about the democratic allowances his plan will permit, there have been recent reports in Yangon that the Prime Minister is planning to meet Suu Kyi to explore how the political dialogue can be resumed.
The Indonesian President is preparing for next year’s presidential polls. She not only faces pressure to effectively deal with terrorism in the country, she also has to rein in opponents in her Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI-P).
Megawati has been severely criticised for her leadership style and her economic reforms to reinstate Indonesia as a democratic nation.
As Megawati’s presidency draws to an end in a time of economic instability, it is not usual to see voters voice doubts of her ability to lead such a huge country out of turmoil.
Nonetheless, her major campaign against terrorism should win her some votes. Working with fellow Asean leaders, she is taking harsh measures in dealing with terrorist activity in the region.
She has vowed to put privatisation and liberalisation reforms of former President Fidel Ramos back on track, and pave the way for economic stability.
In an interview by Time Asia Magazine in August 2003, Arroyo comments that she is leading a country that is perplexed with problems both internationally and domestically. She is also realising that the track to recovery is no “silver bullet” and “(it’s) not a sprint, (but) a marathon.”
However, Arroyo believes results are showing. She asserts that the peso is stable, the country’s interest rates are at their lowest in a generation and inflation is down as well.
Asean women leadership.
Although Suu Kyi, Megawati and Arroyo are fighting different wars in the leadership of their countries –Suu Kyi is bracing against a military dictatorship in Myanmar while promoting democracy; Megawati and Arroyo are waging war against terrorism while struggling for domestic peace and economic growth in their respective countries – they are creating a greater discourse on the possibilities for women in the Asean region.
For one, their visibility in the political realm is a great tool. The visibility of women in the public sphere can open up more opportunities for women in governance.
According to a report by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem), the number of women in high-level legislative positions around the world has jumped significantly in the past two years.
Singapore has seen progress in women’s participation in politics where at the last elections, there were 10 elected and five nominated MPs out of a total of 94. It is a great start for gender equality in politics but improvement is still needed.
In the same Unifem report, it maintains that women need to reach 30% in a political body to be effective and have a voice.
Thus, with more female leadership in Asean countries, the political will for reform of gender inequity in social and political spheres will be greater.
Megawati comments in an interview that although the constitution is established to provide an equal status to all citizens, “cultural background and traditions (that) seem to give women less opportunity” is the problem and that is why she has appointed a Minister of Female Empowerment to change that gender discourse.
But more importantly, female leadership should be further advocated in Asean countries as women account for nearly half the population, more so in some countries. We do not lack women in our populations and female representation in governance should be reflective of that percentage.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi suggests that the status of women in Asian cultures can only improve with education and the dissemination of knowledge.
With leaders such as Suu Kyi, Megawati and Arroyo fighting for reforms, we can only expect an increase of women participating in governance. And as a result, a different dimension to the deliberations can be achieved.
Indeed, we have to work towards less gender disparity in Asean leadership to build a bigger platform for women’s issues to be voiced.
Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commented in a speech at the “night of celebrations” of the Women Integration Network Council that “the hallmarks of a modern, progressive society is the status of its women – how equally they are treated, how well they are respected, how educated they are, how much opportunity they have to be economically active, and how much they have to say in family, community and national affairs.”
As Megawati asserts, “it is my objective to employ what is stated in the constitution (and) let women know that they have equal opportunity.” Then Asean can be a benchmark for all of Asia.