Women empowerment in Malaysia has improved over the years and this is evident through the increase in women’s participation in the labour force, moving up at least 8.5 percentage points since 2010.
In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, Malaysia ranked 103 out of 146 countries, while Singapore stood at 49, Thailand 79 and Indonesia 92. We have improved from placing at 112 in 2021 to 103 in 2022. But it shows that we have to roll up our sleeves and tackle the ongoing gender disparity in Malaysia.
Despite the strides made on the healthcare and education fronts, Malaysian women still lagged behind on the political participation front.
• In 2022, the WEF highlighted that only 15% of the country’s parliamentarians were women while just 16.1% of ministerial positions were held by women.
• During Sabah’s general election in 2020, only 43 out of the 447 candidates (9%) were women.
Has the Malaysian political landscape missed out on appealing to women voters? It is ironic that issues related to women have often faced resistance in state assemblies and parliament sessions when they were raised by female politicians.
It is an uphill battle bringing women’s issues to the fore in the parliament – but the battle must continue. It is about time that women in Malaysia are encouraged, empowered and enlisted to represent their own on issues that are gender sensitive and significant.
Why Do We Need More Women In Politics?
Current women empowerment policies are very focused on increasing women’s participation in the labour force in order to boost output and the nation’s economic performance. However, it is important to realise that women’s empowerment in society encompasses many other aspects and it is unlikely that one solution will fit all women.
For one, policy action towards empowering women has primarily been waged on economic terms. There has been a nationwide reckoning in recent years on women’s contributions to productivity and economic growth. – Lee Min Hui, analyst, Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia
The state assemblies and parliamentary seats are ruled by men and only in 2018, seismic changes were seen. The previous ruling governments, however, have often overlooked policies related to women’s rights and protection.
We rarely see male politicians raising issues such as domestic violence, underage marriage, and sexual harassment in parliament or state assembly sittings. These matters were raised by women politicians with the help of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and then it became the focus. – Young Syefura Othman, Ketari assemblyman
For example, the anti-sexual harassment bill has been on the back burner for the past 20 years. The bill saw light in 2018 and was recently passed in 2022.
I think, as you may already know, the Bill is more than 20 years old, pending and waiting to be tabled in Parliament. Attorneys general has come and gone, and ministers of women, family and community development have also come and gone, but the Bill remained stagnant until Pakatan Harapan (PH) placed it at the top of the agenda. – Kasthuri Patto, incumbent Batu Kawan MP
Girls in Malaysia, especially those in rural areas, are subjected to child marriages, taking them away from education opportunities at a young age. In 2021, 411 young girls dropped out of school to marry.
The move to abolish child marriages in Malaysia failed as Members of Parliament (MPs) voted against amending the Sexual Offences Against Children in 2019. Also, the sensitivity of the matter had only served as a joke in the Pahang State assembly where the majority of men were seated in 2018.
Syed Ibrahim was recorded in the Hansard laughing as he said when an 11-year-old girl gets the necessary approval to get married, she prevents herself from having sex outside wedlock and the need to use a “condominium”, which is a wordplay of the word ‘condom’.– Excerpts from Pahang State Assembly Hansard
More human rights issues are faced by women such as the ongoing equal citizenship rights being contested in Malaysia. But to ensure more pertinent issues are tabled and gain their importance, women’s concerns must be represented by those who know best and have lived experiences of being a woman – fellow women.
Politicians and parliamentary roles extend more than just providing aid to their federal constituency. Their bigger role includes pushing policies that are gender-sensitive and inclusive.
Female politicians are necessary to diversify legislative and policy agendas involving women, children or other vulnerable groups. As the nation highlights more inclusive development, the first step is to build an inclusive representation on the state and federal levels.
If women’s participation improves in politics and at policy-making levels, it can help the country progress towards the better protection of women and their families. – Nurul Izzah Anwar, incumbent Permatang Pauh MP
Malaysian Women’s Participation Compared To Other Countries
There are only 33 female MPs in Malaysia, representing around 14% of the entire Dewan Rakyat . In comparison to Rwanda’s women’s representation in parliament at 61%, Sweden and Costa Rica recorded 46%. The low political participation among Malaysian women has affected the nation’s ranking in both Southeast Asian and global gender equality indexes.
We had our first female Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Dr Wan Azizah, in 2018. In the following ruling governments after Langkah Sheraton, none of the cabinet ministers is handling critical portfolios such as finance, education or justice.
Out of the appointed 33 ministers, only four are women. These are Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri (Tourism, Arts & Culture), Zuraida Kamaruddin (Housing and Local Government), Datuk Dr Noraini Ahmad (Higher Education), Datuk Seri Rina Harun (Women, Family and Community Development), and Datuk Halimah Mohamed Sadique (National Unity).
In contrast, developed countries such as Canada have an equal appointment of male and female ministers. Countries such as New Zealand, Finland and Germany have shown that it is possible for women to manoeuvre a government and do a great job at it at the height of the pandemic.
The quick measures taken by female-led countries such as Mette Frederiksen for stepping to the plate in imposing lockdown early on and Iceland’s Katrín Jakobsdóttir who provided free early testing for all .
Germany and New Zealand have been projected as countries run by women who were able to put in place policies and measures to address the pandemic, and ensuing economic crisis, in a much more balanced and fair manner in terms of making sure they take care of the nation as a whole, not just certain sectors and groups but the nation as a whole. – Dr Shanthi Thambiah, from Universiti Malaya’s Gender Studies programme
However, the opposite took place in Malaysia during the pandemic, women’s voices have been subdued. During the ruling of Perikatan Nasional, the National Security Council saw the lack of female voices.
Even in the National Security Council, we hardly have any female representation except for Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood (the Prime Minister’s special advisor on public health). We need female visibility in the messages that are being sent by the government. – Dr Shanthi Thambiah, from Universiti Malaya’s Gender Studies programme
What’s Stopping More Women From Entering Politics?
The “all-boys club” has deterred many women from breaking the glass ceiling in the corporate sector as well as in the political arena.
The thing about politics is it has always been a gentlemen’s club and in Malaysia, the participation of women in politics is only at 10%. And when a woman comes into politics, they always have to strive twice or three times harder in comparison to their male peers to be considered as an equal. – Amira Aisya, Secretary-General & Co-Founder, Malaysian United Democratic Alliance
Malaysians are no strangers to abuses that some female politicians are faced. For example, incumbent Batu Kawan MP Kasthuri Patto has been made a target by male parliamentarians for her outspokenness. In July 2021, Baling MP, Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim made remarks about her skin tone.
We know that for decades, the political system has been very patriarchal in the country. It has been, to a great extent, very misogynistic as well–outside and inside the House, not just in language but also treatment. – Kasthuri Patto, incumbent Batu Kawan MP
With negative examples portrayed to the larger society, women are drawn away from politics as it tends to showcase it as a man’s game and women’s challenges are often given less importance. The underrepresentation of women in politics is also subjected to the barriers most women in the workforce are attuned to.
You have to look at the social angle as well. The gender pay gap, equal opportunities, maternity and paternity leave all must be taken into consideration when you speak about pulling more women into politics. – Kasthuri Patto, incumbent Batu Kawan MP
Some have also opined that political parties have been gatekeeping fielding more female candidates on the ground.
We need to field more women candidates, especially those from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. With political parties playing a significant gatekeeping role, action must begin here. – Lee Min Hui, analyst, Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia
But also women have been held back by the perspective that male candidates are more desirable in elections.
All Women’s Action Society (AWAM)’s survey in 2021 shows that 78% of female respondents agreed that male candidates are more likely to be voted in compared to female candidates.
The larger society has also been perceived to be less supportive of female candidates as 69.5% of respondents shared that women received less support and encouragement from the community.
These points highlight the strong social and cultural barriers that need to be realigned so that we value a politician’s ability by virtue of merit and performance. – Lilian Kok, All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) programme manager
Despite only a handful of female politicians in Malaysia, there have been movers and shakers advocating for gender equality and highlighting women’s plights in society.
Female Politician Setting Precedence
As a young woman in politics, I would not be where I am today if I didn’t have other senior female politicians who have opened doors for people like me. Such as YB Hannah Yeoh and YB Nurul Izzah, they are trailblazers who have proven that women can make it in the world of politics. – YB Amira Aisya, Secretary-General & Co-Founder, Malaysian United Democratic Alliance
It is also a matter of setting the right precedent to encourage more women who are interested in politics to sign up for candidacy. In recent years, the political leaders that shone have only pushed more female youth to be part of politics.
#1: YB Hannah Yeoh
The incumbent Segambut MP is a former Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development. She is known as a formidable fighter for the rights of marginalised women and children. When she entered the political field in 2008, it was a matter of proving her value in a man’s world. Her second term as the Selangor State Legislative Assembly sees her appointment as the Speaker of the house, making her the youngest and the first woman.
My aim is to be just a role model. I want to show that you can go into politics, remain clean and excel in the work that you do. I believe that in every election you have nothing to lose. If you don’t win again, that’s fine. I know that I can always go back to law. – Hannah Yeoh, incumbent Segambut MP 
#2: YB Nurul Izzah Anwar
Known as “Puteri Reformasi (Reformation Princess), the incumbent Permatang Pauh MP is one of Malaysia’s promising women politicians. Nurul Izzah is a progressive politician that pushes for gender equality and empowered women leaders in Malaysia.
Infrastructure, laws and regulations, and progressive policies around maternity and paternity leave – are all key to ensuring women are able to thrive in an environment that is safe and caters to their needs. When these needs are met, only then will more women be willing to take the leap into public life. – Nurul Izzah Anwar, incumbent Permatang Pauh 
#3: YB Kasthuri Patto
One of the few female politicians of Indian descent, Kasthuri Patto is not your average politician. Raised in a political family, Kasthuri was exposed to social inequalities and injustices early on .
Yet, when I followed my father on the campaign trail, I could not understand why some families lived the way they did — in wooden huts with the earth as the floor of their houses, and not cement. Particularly in Sungai Siput. – Kasthuri Patto, incumbent Batu Kawan MP
But in the political arena, she has been tormented by insults and remarks from domineering male politicians. Rather than biting her tongue, Kasthuri took the comments as fuel to incite more discussion on the underrepresentation of female leaders in politics.
#4: YB Yeo Bee Yin
Yeo Bee Yin understood what it is to be growing up in hardships, the incumbent Bakri MP and former Minister of Science,Technology and Innovation lived on a palm oil plantation as a girl. Yeo Bee Yin’s involvement in politics is driven by her hope to ensure many more have the opportunity of a good education and success.
I want to see the people of the same background as me or the people in the deepest jungle in Malaysia, or even the urban poor, to have an equal education, an equal opportunity to have a good education – YB Yeo Bee Yin, incumbent Bakri MP 
But before the likes of YB Hannah Yeoh, YB Nurul Izzah and YB Kasthuri Patto, we draw the attention to some notable female politicians who trudged on despite an unequal playing field.
#1: Datuk Christina Liew
Datuk Christina Liew is one of the rare gems from East Malaysia. The incumbent Tawau MP is the former Deputy Chief Minister of Sabah. She is the first Chinese woman to helm the role and has been vocal in matters of gender equality and rural development.
The former lawyer pushes for equal gender representation in multiple spheres, especially in legislation such as the appeal by the Federal Government to withdraw its appeal against the High Court’s decision in allowing equal citizenship rights for Malaysian women.
We don’t have to look far because Malaysian women are no exception. They share common ground with their counterparts in other parts of the world in their struggle for gender equality (equality of men and women), women’s empowerment, female representation in Parliament, economic participation, education and healthcare for women, non-violence against women and safety of women and girls. – Datuk Christina Liew, incumbent Tawau MP
#2: Datuk Azalina Othman Said
The former lawyer and television personality entered politics in 1998 with her unconventional political style. The incumbent Pengerang MP became Malaysia’s first woman Youth and Sports Minister in 2004. Despite raised eyebrows, she manoeuvred the challenges and pushed for more budget allocation for sports.
Azalina also marked another first in Malaysia’s history with her appointment as the Deputy Dewan Rakyat Speaker. Her role as the deputy speaker sees her forthright nature in pushing for women’s rights and criticising other politicians’ insensitive remarks.
What kind of messaging and precedent are we setting? Using religion especially to create fear, shame, and obligation to protect the reputation of a sexual predator is against every rule of protective laws for children in this country,” she said in a statement today. – Datuk Azalina Othman Said, incumbent Pengerang MP
Upcoming Trailblazers To Watch For
In 2022, political parties pledged to field 30% of female candidates on GE15. Vying for parliamentary seats are 127 women and 60 female candidates for state seats in Perlis, Perak, Pahang and the Bugaya state by-election in Sabah . Despite it being the highest female candidacy seen, it did not even break 20%. Overall, the 187 female candidates in GE15 only make up 13.5% of the 1,386 contesting candidates .
Some of the candidates have caught the media spotlight including:
#1: Young Syefura Othman
The incumbent Ketari assemblyman is slated to earn the Bentong parliamentary seat in GE15. Syefura has challenged the political scene by joining a dominantly-Chinese political party. She has received criticism for her involvement in the political party, but Syefura believes in changing the longstanding racial-driven politics in Malaysia.
In the next five years, if given the mandate, I want to bring change for the ease of the people here, especially the youngsters, women and kids. – Young Syefura, Ketari assemblyman
#2: Dr Noraishah Mydin Abdul Aziz
Dr Noraishah Mydin is contesting for the Putrajaya parliamentary seat. The 47-year-old former lecturer has been a long-term sufferer of spinal Bifida (a type of neural tube defect) since birth. One of her key focuses is to bring the plight of persons with disabilities (PwD) to the forefront in addition to better infrastructure maintenance in Putrajaya.
Today is the day that disabled people in Malaysia get a fair chance, and I will not back down. I am here for all the people, for all the children like me. – Dr Noraishah Mydin Abdul Aziz, a candidate in Putrajaya 
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