by Cecilia Ng and tan beng hui
A micro-seismic shift in the Malaysian political landscape took place last month.
After many years of hearing various political parties espouse their commitment to having greater numbers of women in decision-making posts, the DAP became the first major political party to secure 30% female representation in its central executive committee (CEC) following elections at the party’s 17th national congress.
Kudos to the DAP for its courage to translate words into action by implementing a gender quota for its 30-member CEC.
Previously, women comprised no more than 20% of this body. A resolution at the party’s previous national congress to adopt a gender quota for the CEC was a critical turning point, paving the way for nine women to now sit on the party’s highest decision-making body.
- Sign up for Aliran's free daily email updates or weekly newsletters or both
- Make a one-off donation to Persatuan Aliran Kesedaran Negara, CIMB a/c 8004240948
- Make a pledge or schedule an auto donation to Aliran every month or every quarter
- Become an Aliran member
Gender quotas in public decision-making are not new. They were first enshrined at the 1995 Fourth UN World Conference on Women in the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, when nearly all countries pledged to promote gender-balanced decision-making.
While gender quotas are usually used to increase women’s representation in legislature – today about 132 countries have such quotas – they have since been extended to other arenas of public office and decision-making, as well as the private sector.
The primary objective is to reverse women’s historical discrimination by fast-tracking their position in an uneven playing field. Without gender quotas, efforts to increase women’s underrepresentation and ensure equality in political citizenship will take many more years to accomplish due to numerous socio-cultural prejudices and structural barriers.
Such an affirmative action measure, however, must be temporary, subject to regular review and a timeframe, and should be removed once its purpose has been achieved.
While more accepted today, gender quotas are still contentious. Critics claim that these are patronising to women and do not necessarily empower them. Instead, they emphasise the importance of merit. Typically, some who are women themselves, believe that if they have succeeded in politics on their own accord, other women can too.
Underlying this viewpoint is an assumption that women are homogenous when, in reality, they have multiple identities and varying levels of privilege that can result in different forms of discrimination and, hence, experiences.
Feminist political scientists distinguish between ‘descriptive’ and ‘substantive’ representation because, at the end of the day, it is not only about numbers but also perspectives and capabilities. Simply adding women alone into the equation will not work, especially if they have been brought in due to their ties to male leaders and patrons.
It is imperative to think in terms of the quality of that representation, ie the extent to which these women are able to substantively promote women’s concerns, provide gender perspectives, and engage in policymaking towards achieving gender equality and social justice.
It is too early to know if the nine women in the DAP CEC will be able to meet the standards of substantive representation.
How will they make things better for women, assuming they believe this to be a priority?
Will they recognise the many obstacles women members face, within and outside the party, including sexual harassment?
Will they push for accelerating women’s representation in federal and state legislatures, given the country’s poor showing on that score?
What will the nine do to promote overall gender and social justice? Or for those who have done so, will they continue likewise, and more?
That the one woman – Chong Eng, head of Wanita DAP – who has been championing greater gender equality within the party for many years, and was key in getting the CEC gender quota introduced, did not make the cut, makes these questions even more significant.
It is also telling of the challenges that remain in the party, one of which is the importance of continuing gender awareness raising and training and education programmes that are backed by political will.
Dr Cecilia Ng has worked on gender issues in civil society and academia while tan beng hui is an independent researcher and gender consultant
 Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) passed a resolution for a gender quota in the central committee and branch level at their 2018 congress. However, it is interesting to note that half the central committee members were already women in 2017.
 Of the 93 candidates for the DAP CEC elections in March 2022, 18 were women.
 A minimum 30% is commonly accepted as necessary for aa critical mass of voices to emerge and push for change. Different permutations are also possible such as Penang’s gender-inclusiveness policy, which seeks a 40:40:20 representation at the management level, ie 40% women, 40% men, and 20% women or men.
 Young Syefura Othman, the DAP state assembly person for Ketari, and newly minted CEC member, stated that sexual harassment was the biggest challenge for women. According to her, she “experienced sexual harassment from Day 1, when [she] took part in the Bersih rally” and that this “never stops”, happening “on social media or in person”. Further, her harassers include politicians, some old enough to be her father (Hariz Mohd (2022), “Young Syefura: Sexual harassment biggest challenge for females”, Malaysiakini, 1 April).
 After six and a half decades of Independence, women comprise only 14.4% of the total number of MPs (ie one in seven MPs), and 12% of total state assembly persons (ie less than one in eight assembly persons).