Highlights from Aliran Monthly

Women and Politics in Malaysia

An Interview with Cecilia Ng and Zaitun Kasim

Women have been underrepresented in Malaysian politics. Currently less than 10 per cent of all MPs in Parliament are women, yet women constitute almost half of registered voters. In light of the anticipated general election which would inevitably have to address many issues requiring reforms, AM takes the opportunity to tap into the views of two prominent women activists, Zaitun Kassim (Toni) and Dr. Cecilia Ng on the question of women’s involvement in politics. Can women make a difference or will the status quo remain unchanged?

AM: Could you describe the nature of women’s participation in electoral politics in Malaysia?

Cecilia: There are various levels of participation in electoral politics in Malaysia and women seem to be at the lowest level of participation. That is, they will go all out to mobilise voters, especially during the general elections and of course they will cast their votes. Historically the ruling party has made use of their women, who form about half their total membership, to woo voters, and successfully so. However, how are they rewarded? Do women have much say in terms of decision-making at all levels of government? It is indeed pathetic that women form only 8 per cent of the total number of Parliamentarians in the country.

AM: Why do you think that women are not sufficiently represented in politics?

Toni: There are too few women politicians to begin with. And women’s organisations as well as members of the public have found that the few women in office have not sufficiently represented nor made themselves sufficiently accessible in order to address issues that are important to women. Unless they fully understand and speak to women who are affected by the "system", how will they know what the issues are? Even when there have been opportunities to represent women’s issues and really push them forward, the response has not been encouraging.

AM: How would women politicians make a difference? Is it a question of "quantity"?

Toni: Clearly, quantity alone is not the answer. You can have women politicians who are not gender-sensitised as well! However, by and large, I feel women are more empathetic and compassionate towards the problems faced by other women. I think women usually find other women more approachable to speak about their problems. Women bring different skills and qualities to organisations, bodies and processes. But critical mass is very important as well. I don’t mean just having lots of women in the "wings", as it were, but a critical mass in the upper echelons of the party. It is difficult for a handful of women to make their voices and positions heard without feeling that they will be drowned out or perhaps even ridiculed.

Cecilia: Certainly having more women politicians does not mean that women will automatically speak for women if they are elected. Look at Margaret Thatcher. We must get women who are gender sensitive and who are not afraid to speak out - who will not toe the party line all the time if they feel that an injustice is being done.

AM: As a feminist, how do you define ‘politics’?

Cecilia: Politics is about participation in decision making - it is about sharing power - bargaining, negotiating - at all levels and in all issues affecting society. Politics occurs in the family, in the office, at the level of government, even in ‘bed’, at the level of sexuality - how we relate to each other. Hence it is not true that politics is the domain of politicians - that is a very narrow view of those who want to keep others out of power. All of us are political in one way or another, and today more than ever, we have to actively participate in how our lives are being run, in how we are being governed - to decide what and how we want the country to be.

AM: In that respect then, how important is electoral politics for women to achieve equity?

Toni: Very important, and I believe more and more women are realising exactly why their participation is crucial. Actually, this is not just about the women in this country - I think Malaysians as a whole have, especially in the last year or so, begun to see the critical role that all of us play in determining how this country should be governed. Women need to know how they can affect the governance of this country, and ultimately their issues and interests. We need to assert that if our votes count, then our issues must count as well!

AM: What are the most pressing issues facing women today which need reforms?

Toni: Even issues of violence against women, which women’s groups have again and again highlighted through the years and various campaigns, remain an area that has seen relatively small gains. The Domestic Violence Act, for example, took 10 years before it became law. The laws related to rape are completely inadequate, and there is no law on sexual harassment nor does there seem to be plans for one. The lack of commitment to addressing these alone is glaring. The Syariah Court system is another area where despite the numerous complaints that have been received, there has been almost no difference. Women do not want piecemeal and pre-election "solutions". Women want substantive change to laws and their implementation.

Numerous discriminatory laws continue to exist, such as the Immigration Act, the Guardianship Act, or the Income Tax deduction schedules which are based on the assumption that men are the main earners and responsible household heads while women’s incomes are supplementary and their roles secondary. These are Acts and policies that are adversely affecting the daily lives of women, and have been voiced repeatedly. But, nothing changes or at best, small steps are taken slowly! The Women’s Agenda for Change, which was launched on 23rd May 1999, gives you an idea of what are some of the concerns of women.

AM: You were part of the group which put together the Women’s Agenda for Change. Why should politicians support this document?

Cecilia: We hope that they will support the Women’s Agenda and will listen to the voices of civil society. They should realise that the electorate, including women, is not ignorant. Today women are more conscious of their rights and if they want the votes of women, then they should support the Agenda, which has the endorsement of more than 100 organisations in the country. Of course they should not be opportunistic and just endorse the Agenda verbally or select issues which are regarded as ‘safe’ or supposedly ‘non-political’. We want them to be committed and to take our demands seriously - not just in terms of women’s issues but also in terms of our demands for greater democracy, human rights, for transparency and accountability.

AM: Is gender going to be an important factor in voting patterns in the coming general elections?

Toni: Opinion polls conducted by unbiased, independent bodies - that’s what this country needs! It’s hard to know exactly how women, or anyone else for that matter, will vote when there are no opinion polls. Many countries have such polls that can give valuable feedback on what issues are important to the voters. Nonetheless, the feedback we are getting is that women are much more conscious about speaking up about women’s issues. In fact, women have become much more politically aware in recent months.

AM: Has there been a call for women from the movement to stand as candidates at the forthcoming general elections? Why is this happening?

Toni: Yes, there has been a call for women to be involved at this level. Not only for women within political parties to stand, but there has also been a call from women’s groups for an independent women’s candidate. Someone who will wakil (represent) the rakyat on issues of greater transparency, equality, freedom of speech and expression towards a more democratic system of governance, and especially ensure that issues that are important and relevant to women are actively promoted on the national agenda.

Cecilia: Yes, women’s groups are quite disappointed with the track record of our women political leaders. Most of them have not taken women’s concerns seriously, and except for the usual expedient political speeches, they have not genuinely committed themselves to advance women’s position in the country. It is almost always the women’s NGOs who have articulated the struggles of women - be they about rape, sexual harassment, labour exploitation, unionisation, domestic violence etc. Given this situation, yes, there have been discussions among women activists about putting up a women’s candidate in the coming elections.

AM: How can women participate more actively in party politics in this country?

Cecilia: Well, they have to come bravely forward and be more active in the parties they choose to be involved in. This is not an easy task at all. For instance, Khatijah Sidek who was heading Kaum Ibu in the 1950s paid a price for her forthrightness - she was summarily expelled! We hope times have changed though.

Toni: Asking how can women participate assumes that it is easy enough for women to participate. Maybe we don’t ask often enough "Why do they not participate?". What is it about the structures of political parties that make it so difficult and at times, frightening, to participate in the management and running of the party? Do party processes fully accommodate the needs of women and the multiple roles they are expected to play, which male political members may not be expected to? Political parties should reach out, foster and encourage a more supportive environment if they are truly committed to not only representing the "people", but also the women in their parties.

AM: Do you think that this country can ever be led by a woman?

Cecilia: Why not? But not just any woman. She must be honest, compassionate and have the political integrity to lead. Then she must get the right and competent team to support her. Just because one does not fit the stereotype of a male political animal, this does not mean that one cannot be a Prime Minister.

Toni: A quick scan of the Indian sub-continent countries alone can answer that question. Even now, if we were to ask an Indonesian if it could happen there, they would say "Yes, there is a big possibility", something they would not have thought as possible some years back. The women in this country have the capacity, the strength and the commitment, the passion for and belief in good governance. The space must be created for anyone who believes in justice and equality.

Zaitun Kasim, or popularly known as Toni, is currently the Vice-President of AWAM (All Women’s Action Society) and a member of Sisters in Islam. She is also a member of a fledging group called Forum for Equitable and Environment-Friendly Transport (FEET). Toni received her education in Australia in Economics and Computer Studies. She worked for six years in Community Aid Abroad in Australia. She hails from Ipoh.

Dr. Cecilia Ng is a feminist researcher in this country and is currently an Associate Professor at Universiti Putra Malaysia. She has been actively involved in the women’s movement since the early eighties. She is a founder member of WDC (Women’s Development Collective) and AWAM.

Dr. Maznah Mohamad of Aliran conducted this interview on AM’s behalf.