Where are the women in Malaysia's Cabinet?

Malaysia's Cabinet is seriously imbalance in terms of women's representation. - filepix

Last December, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim announced a Cabinet reshuffle that saw the executive body expand to 60 (from 55), with 31 ministers (from 28) and 29 deputy ministers (from 27).

In this exercise, held a year after his premiership, Anwar brought back ministers from previous administrations to head key portfolios (Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad to lead the Health Ministry and Gobind Singh Deo to lead the Digital Ministry).

There were also a few senators sworn in – former chief executive officer of the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) Datuk Seri Amir Hamzah Azizan became the second Finance Minister, and Zulkifli Hasan was appointed Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (PMO).

Glaringly, there was no new woman picked to lead any ministry in this reshuffle, a move that reduced the percentage of women in the Cabinet from 17.8% to 16.1%. This is far from the global average of 22.8%, and the national (and global) target of 30% of women in leadership positions.

In fact, one woman Minister was moved from a key portfolio (Health) to one under the PMO. Arguably, analysts attribute this to, among other things, Dr Zaliha Mustafa’s unpopular decision to remove liquid and gel nicotine from the list of scheduled poisons (under the Poisons Act 1952) last March 31, against the advice of experts.

But why is the reduced ratio of women important?

Simply put, the significant presence of women in government is essential to ensure better responsiveness to citizens’ needs. After all, women make up half the country’s population and their needs are often unrepresented and overlooked, enhancing the existing gender disparity.

Independent researcher Maha Balakrishnan looks at this imbalance; scrutinising the participation of women in Malaysia’s Cabinet over a 15-year time frame. Her latest study, The only way is up: proportions and portfolios for women in Cabinet in Malaysia, 2008–2023 published in The Round Table this year, looks at the breakdown of female representation in the Cabinet and the portfolios given to them which, she says, is a significant matrix to examine.

Maha also tracks budget allocations to the various Cabinet portfolios given to women.

Different portfolios, she argues, have different values.

Portfolio saliency, as defined in her paper, is dependent on a variety of factors, including level of prestige in terms of political impact, political payoffs (the career prospects of the person holding that portfolio), budgetary allocations, level of visibility as well as recognition by voters.

“We tend to always look at numbers – how many women are in parliament or Cabinet and even the percentage of them there. But what’s more telling is the portfolios that are given to women.

“The Cabinet is just like any other decision making body where portfolios are distributed to a group of people. And different portfolios hold different values, whether in terms of the weight of the decisions of each portfolio, the consequences of those decisions and the portfolio’s impact on the person’s career prospect,” says Maha a trained barrister who practised civil, commercial and public administrative law for 12 years before pursuing her Masters in Democracy and Comparative Politics in Britain.

“These have never been tracked in Malaysia.”

Despite progress in recent years, female politicians are yet to be appointed to core ministerial portfolios such as finance, economic policy, defence, home affairs and foreign affairs, says Maha. - MAHA BALAKRISHNANDespite progress in recent years, female politicians are yet to be appointed to core ministerial portfolios such as finance, economic policy, defence, home affairs and foreign affairs, says Maha. - MAHA BALAKRISHNANHer timeframe covers not only different administrations but also the evolution of political thinking in relation to gender involvement in Malaysian politics.

“Many people consider the 2008 General Election as pivotal in terms of the democratisation of Malaysia’s political system and also the number of women who entered parliament. The second pivotal point was the 2018 GE and the transition of power we saw in 2020.

“I saw this as a prime research period; Malaysia had different administrations that represented different political parties and different political ideologies. So I tracked how women would feature in political decision making in these different administrations, which I thought was something interesting to look at,” she explains.

Malaysia’s track record

Studies show that when women are in a Cabinet, they are often relegated to less prestigious portfolios that are characterised as ‘soft’ or ‘feminine’.

Following the 14th General Election in 2018, the number of women ministers almost doubled. This increase was maintained even during government change between 2020 and 2022, as well as the 15th General Election in 2022.

However, women still aren’t killing it in the equality stakes in the Cabinet.

As at Jan 1, 2023, the most commonly held portfolios by women ministers include those on women and gender equality, family and children affairs, social inclusion and development, social protection and social security and indigenous and minority affairs, Maha states in her paper.

“There are two dimensions to understanding portfolios: one is from a prestige perspective and the other is from a gender perspective.

“From a gender perspective, portfolios are categorised as being soft/feminine, hard/masculine or neutral.

“These words are fully loaded but the categorisations look into not so much the purpose or breadth of the portfolio, but the political effects they have.

“For example, while portfolios like services for the elderly or children are core and central to any country, we must also look at what the benefits are to the person holding the portfolio. That’s where these definitions lie,” she says.

“Look at Malaysia and the political careers of ministers. The person who ascended to the top always had a very particular portfolio from which they gained experience in order to enjoy that political rise to power: Defence, Education and Home Ministries are the key portfolios here,” she says, adding that this happens in other countries too.

Generally, high prestige portfolios (defined as hard or masculine) include defence, military and national/public security, finance and economy, foreign affairs and home affairs.

Medium prestige or neutral ministries (many are still masculine) cover portfolios like energy, environment, health, housing, natural resources, public works, science and technology, agriculture and communications.

Low prestige or soft/feminine portfolios look at women’s affairs, ageing/the elderly, children and social welfare, culture and heritage, minority affair, law reform, youth and sports and tourism.

Different parties may value ministerial portfolios differently depending on the political climate.

For example, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Health Ministry was the portfolio which had greatest visibility and prominence.

 Tan Sri Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz held a strong, masculine portfolio. But where is the takeaway? Women politicians lack a pathway that can lead them to bigger portfolios. - RONNIE CHIN/The StarTan Sri Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz held a strong, masculine portfolio. But where is the takeaway? Women politicians lack a pathway that can lead them to bigger portfolios. - RONNIE CHIN/The Star

Budget matters

The allocation of resources generally determines the policies that will be implemented. This, in turn, will help the ministers in achieving their political goals.

“How much money a particular portfolio gets will impact the reputation, profile and the political importance of the minister,” says Maha who is currently a research fellow at the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network Asia Headquarters, Sunway University, and the principal facilitator of the National Democratic Institute Malaysia’s Akademi Parlimen initiative.

Of course, this is not necessarily true across the board, she clarifies. “There are some ministries that don’t get a lot of money but are very high profile, such as the Foreign Ministry and that is because the minister has all a huge platform to showcase his or her political prowess.

“But in normal circumstances, it is the portfolios that come with good budgets that can help build the profile of the minister in charge.”

In her analysis of the budget data, it was clear that female ministers’ share of the budget consistently did not match their share of cabinet portfolios.

They were being under-resourced; the budgetary resources they received were not equal to their share of the seats in cabinet.

“We looked at how the budget was distributed to the different portfolios, compared the budget given to portfolios held by women and saw that the average share to a female minister was at 0.69% and even 0.35% at some point.

“This means that for every RM1 to a male minister, only RM0.69 or RM0.35 was given to a female minister.

“However, everything changes after 2019 where we see more parity and in some cases, even the opposite. We have to be very careful in interpreting these findings: This leap was due to placing women in some pivotal portfolios like rural development which at that stage, was getting the bulk of the spending expenditure.

“Other female ministers were still under budget,” she says.

What about Rafidah?

During the premiership of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz held a key portfolio, the International Trade and Industry Ministry, traditionally defined as masculine. Wasn’t this a boost for women?

“Rafidah had a very strong representation and it was very beneficial for her personal career but she did not leave behind a legacy,” says Maha.

“We have to make sure that there is a turnover and a ‘passing of the baton’ from one woman to another. That is another thing that is missing.

“Rafidah had a fantastic portfolio and she should have set the standard for portfolios to be given to women. But there was no takeaway. She was the only one. Instead, what we see are the same women or group of women coming back, no matter who is in the administration. Where is the turnover?” she asks.

Merit, Maha maintains, is the most important criteria to be taken into consideration.

“We shouldn’t put women in the Cabinet simply because they are women. However this comes back to the will of the government and party leadership in nurturing young women leaders.

“It is a chicken and egg situation – you can’t build their merit without getting their feet wet and that means putting them in deputy minister portfolios and junior minister positions first. These are the pathways that men very clearly have,” she says.

And this is where things needs to change.

Advocacy has to come from with political parties as well as civil society. Advocacy has to come from with political parties as well as civil society.

Expand the advocacy

While it is imperative for political parties to advocate for and nurture new women leaders, there also needs to be advocacy from civil society.

“This is the fault of advocacy, perhaps, which in Malaysia was only focused on the number of women in parliament.

“There hasn’t been as much passion in advocating more women in the Cabinet,” observes Maha.

And here is why it is important to advocate for more women in Cabinet: One of the findings of the study, she says, is that once the number of women reaches or passes a specific threshold, women are automatically put in portfolios of higher privilege.

“There clearly is a tipping point for us to get women in better portfolios and that is the ‘five women marker’ or 17% or higher of cabinet membership. This is the point at which you would have to inevitably have women in better portfolios. Once you reach this, you have no choice but to put women there since there are so few portfolios of low prestige,” says Maha.

Civil society advocacy and creating awareness among the public is key in demanding that the patriarchal structure makes space for women in top leadership roles.

“It is a false argument to say that we have to have more women in parliament before we can elect more women in Cabinet simply because, in our system, someone can get to the Cabinet by being appointed as senator.

“While this can be a dangerous argument as we need to apply the democratic principles of accountability (where the government is voted in), for practical purposes, our PM could put more women into the Cabinet by giving them senatorship,”

“And why not? They are already doing this – with the current second finance minister who had with no political experience. We cannot say we have no capable and amazing women in business and finance ... we have so many who could have been brought in, in a similar manner to co-lead,” she says.

At the end of the day, the country needs to read the writings on the wall.

The annual Gender Gap Index by the World Economic Forum as well as the Malaysia Gender Gap Index (score 0.102 or 10.2%) ranks women’s political participation as being incredibly low: Malaysia ranked 93 from 146 countries in the world while faring better in other sub-indices like education and health.

“We have not cracked it (gender gap) here and we can’t, unless we solve the situation of women’s political participation. As women become more visible, particularly in prestigious, traditionally masculine posts, public confidence in women leadership will follow,” Maha concludes.

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leadership , gender , stereotypes , norms , advocacy


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