Making up an estimated half of Malaysia’s electoral roll, women remain to this day crucial determiners of who comes to power and stays in power. So why do women’s issues and legislations that impact women persistently face an uphill battle?
In an increasingly “vocal” Malaysia, there is constant and consistent coverage of the many inherent issue that women in our country face. 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 also empowers women in the long run.
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 It is essentially going beyond the outdated assumptions of “what a woman really wants” and instead giving women much needed room and the prerogative to decide what is the need of the hour.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 policymakers must admit and acknowledge.
Women in decision-making positions
The “Statistics on Women Empowerment in Selected Domains, Malaysia” (2019) stated that the Malaysia gender gap index (MGGI) showed an average score of 0.711, or 71.1% in 2018. While the overall statistics reflect current aspirations, the figures for economic participation and opportunity and political 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.
Why are women equipped with tertiary education not given opportunities in top management? Is this a bureaucratic hurdle, a social stereotype or simply ignorance of 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 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 mobilisation or the “turn-to-when-all-else-fails” religion and race rhetoric. 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.
Women candidates in elections these days are also a rarity which is immensely worrying. In the recently concluded Sabah state election, only 43 out of the 447 candidates, or 9%, running in the polls were female. This is a wake-up call that policymakers 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“gamble” in the name of equality and fairness. It is no surprise then that only 14.4% of elected parliamentarians are women and that only 17.9% 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 Malaysia.
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 sidelined, 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-strategise 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 Bill has been underwhelming in our country and it is necessary to look beyond these leaden initiatives and adopt a more proactive approach. While the country eagerly anticipates the Gender Equality Act, 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.
Free, fair and EQUAL
Equal political opportunities must start with 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, 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, and how many perspectives and ideas are lost when a significant part of the population is not engaged with interest or even direction.
In Malaysia’s 14th General Election in 2018, women voters made up 50.5% 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 slightly 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.
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 from all walks of life. There must be intent and the political will to engage women in a more targeted and focussed manner.
In the end, the bottom line is that half of Malaysia’s electoral roll still faces discrimination and inequality in the country’s political process, despite being a democracy. Malaysia needs to embrace a more progressive stance towards to gender equality. A gender-responsive political agenda is pivotal to ensure that half of the population’s voice does not go unheard.
YANITHA MEENA LOUIS
Researcher, Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research (Insap)
Note: The Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research is a not-for-profit think-tank focusing on political-economic research.
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