More Women in Politics Now!


Women’s representation in politics is making progressive strides under the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government. Among the 55 Cabinet members, the coalition now boasts five women ministers, including Malaysia’s first female deputy prime minister, Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, and four women deputy ministers.

But ensuring that “at least 30% of policymakers appointed at all levels are women” remains a tall order – the women quota currently sits at only 16%. “Women’s participation in local politics is still very low, and it’s a challenge not only for Malaysia, but worldwide. Globally, only 23.8% of parliamentarians are women,” says Lim Siew Khim, state Wanita DAP chief and state assemblywoman for Sungai Pinang.

Naturally, the gendered quota system sparked heated discussions on both sides of the political divide. Former minister Rafidah Aziz describes it a “travesty”, and reasons that the country would lose out if participation of women was guided merely by the 30% quota. “They should not be considered based on some condescending attitude of decision-makers. Quality matters, and we have any number of women in various disciplines and fields suitably qualified to fill any post or position.”1

Women’s participation in local politics is still very low, and it’s a challenge not only for Malaysia, but worldwide.

Countering Aziz’s statement, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir believes that despite not achieving the targeted goal, the quota was introduced with the intent of normalising the presence of women within the political sphere. “However, if we want to get serious about gender equality in the country, political parties need to nominate female candidates for Cabinet posts. With an increased number of women in the Cabinet and in Parliament, women’s voices will be heard more clearly, and their issues will be raised more. I think the push has to come from both the top and bottom because policies need to be grounded in the ‘lived’ realities of women, and it’s the grassroots women that have to speak out about what their lives are really like in order for policies and laws to address these real-life issues.”

She cites childcare as an example. “If you want women to work, you need to have an environment that supports it. You can’t hold it against me if I’m unable to work or have to take time off from work because I have to be a mother. On the one hand, you want me to be a good mother, but on the other, you’re making it difficult for me to be so. It doesn’t make sense. The myth is that if you have women in decisionmaking positions, they’re going to be emotional or difficult. Well, you don’t know this until they are there.”

Closer to home, Penang is working hard to narrow the gender gap in local politics – it set precedence in 2015 with the appointment of Datuk Patahiyah Ismail as the first woman mayor after the state regained its city status; and its second mayor Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif now serves as the executive director of UN-Habitat to promote socially and environmentally sustainable human settlements development.

Navigating the labyrinth of Malaysian politics requires conviction and grit, perseverance and tenacity – something these women politicians know all too well in their service to the Penang public.

Chong Eng addressing the crowd.

Paving the Way for Women

“It’s a common phenomenon as most state excos have just one woman politician in a sea of 10 or more male politicians,” says Chong Eng, chairman of the state’s Women and Family Development, Gender Equality and Non-Islamic Religious Affairs Committee.

“Women’s right to vote came about only very recently; politics is still very much patriarchal, accentuated by the ‘men know best’ culture. I do make it a point, whenever someone makes a sexist remark or cracks a sexist joke, to advise them in a nonoffensive manner. But it also depends on who and just how aware they are. I find that I’d receive varying responses from these men, and unfortunately, some are not receptive enough. They’d get angry instead of learning to be more sensitive.

“I believe this is the root cause why some women find it difficult to tell men in positions of power to stop making comments or acts that make them feel deeply uncomfortable, and why there is a strong need for education in gender mainstreaming and inclusiveness to be implemented within the committees. Won’t it be more democratic if the consensus reached included both men’s and women’s perspectives?”

Women's right to vote came about only very recently; politics is still very much patriarchal, accentuated by the ‘men know best’ culture. I make it a point, whenever someone makes a sexist remark or cracks a sexist joke, to advise them in a non-offensive manner.

Chong Eng recalls her proudest achievement, as a member of the Standing Orders committee, in amending the Standing Order 36 (4) in 2012 which states that “It shall be out of order for Members of the House to use offensive language or to make a sexist remark”. “They don’t do such things in front of me any longer,” she smiles, “but this also comes with the experience I amassed, and it is something women politicians just starting out need to be aware of.”

Chong Eng credits her political success to her unwavering determination to open up more avenues for women, and even if it does not break, try to crack the glass ceiling for her future successor. “I’m committed to seeing my goals through, but I also don’t see it as a conflict with being an Iron Lady and a nurturer. I was juggling motherhood when I entered politics. I do feel guilty sometimes, but I also drew strength knowing that I have the support of my husband. After his retirement, I became an MP and when I had to attend Parliament, he was the one who cared for our children. He’s quite OK with the role, but then again, when the roles are reversed, there is a need for adjustment.”

Female, Muslim, Politician

Prior to becoming the elected state assemblywoman for Seri Delima, Syerleena Abdul Rashid served as a councillor for the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) between 2015 and 2018. But it wasn’t an overnight decision to join DAP, she explains. “A lot of homework was involved. I looked at how PKR was, and how it would reflect on me as a woman with views I feel strongly about. As Malaysians, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation, you should be given equal opportunities – no one gets left behind. That’s one of the reasons why I felt drawn to a party like DAP.”

However, this also made Syerleena an easy mark for dirty politics. “The first death threat I received was a note that someone had put in our office mailbox. The second threat was a doctored poster that branded me as anti-Islam. My views are different, yes, but just because I do not wear a headscarf and I express concern over how some women are being repressed does not make me anti-Islam. But some people felt the need to highlight this. Various police reports were lodged and press conferences were held, but mind you, this was before the change in government, and it seemed like there was no action taken by the police at all.

The note was put into state assemblywoman Syerleena Abdul Rashid's office mailbox.

“Eventually, people thought it was true, which led to the circulation of yet another poster stating that it’s OK to kill someone like me – ‘Menghalalkan Pembunuhan Orang Islam yang Bersekongkol dengan Geng Katir’. You want to laugh because it’s so ridiculous, but at the same time it’s dangerous because this leads to radicalism and extremism. It’s scary to think that some people think it OK to kill someone without even checking to see if some accusation is founded or not.”

Though accepting it as part and parcel of politics, Syerleena argues that the death threats create a hindrance for women with political aspirations. “The type of comments directed at women politicians also tend to be more personal – about one’s body or biological clock. What does that even have to do with anything? It’s all dribble.”

Nurul Izzah was a target of such comments last May. While appearing on a talk show, a caller identified as “Azrul” said that she needed to take better care of her dressing. “YB’s tudung(headscarf) is sometimes worn mistakenly … this is especially when you wear tight kebaya … we can see your underwear, can see your breasts.”2

“After what transpired, I received messages of support not just from women, but men as well asking if I was OK, and if there was anything they could do to help," says Syerleena. “Maria Chin Abdullah also reached out – she received a bullet in her mail two years ago. But because of the situation I was put into, I found that the group of women I was better able to relate to were friends from Sisters in Islam since they have gone through quite similar experiences.

“We’re all Muslim women, but our views are different and may not be in line with what is perceived as mainstream principles. Like I said, it happens, but just because it happens to women, and men too, doesn’t make it OK. There is a definite need to put an end to this violent culture.”

“There is a definite need to put an end to this violent culture,” says Syerleena.

Persevering for Gender Parity

The MP for Batu Kawan Kasthuri Patto’s political education began when she followed her father, the late P. Patto Perumal, on his many campaign trails. “My father worked tirelessly to champion the needs of the people, especially the marginalised and voiceless, the underprivileged and the oppressed, and in upholding justice and equality. My political education was also enforced by seeing the level of support my mother rendered my father. She was equally politically astute, standing by him and sharing her thoughts on the political scenario – she was the first secretary for Wanita DAP in the 1970s. Through my parents, I learned the true meaning of perseverance, and the inextinguishable desire to do what is right despite the obstacles and restrictions.”

Though not easy, Kasthuri says it’s not impossible for women politicians to thrive in an almost toxic political environment. “We are constantly judged by the way we carry ourselves, from our weight to our outfit choices – suddenly everyone is a fashion expert, wanting to offer fashion advice. Being talked over is something I have experienced as well, and my mechanism to counter that is to be objective about the issue, to address the matter through evidence-based data and analysis.”

Kasthuri Patto.

She remembers being called pendek by an Umno MP during her first Parliament sitting in 2013, and heckled when she debated on women’s issues, particularly on domestic violence, sex education and child marriages. “I was also called pondan (transvestite) by another Umno MP; the offender showed no remorse in speaking to a female MP in that manner despite a previous amendment made in the Standing Orders of the Dewan Rakyat which included a provision to ‘criminalise’ Members of the House who use offensive language or make a sexist remark.

“What is crucial is to recruit as many male counterparts on board as possible – first to expose them to gender equality, to be gender sensitive and for them to further educate other male lawmakers to treat female lawmakers as equals and with respect. If women are famously tasked with managing and running an entire household, then why shouldn’t they be accorded the same right and platform to voice out their opinions, ideas and freedom to choose and disagree?”

Asked if gender equality will be relatively achievable in the future under the PH government, Kasthuri admits it might take a long while. “Malaysia is decades behind as far as women’s empowerment is concerned because of a lack of political will by the previous regime which had massaged and pandered to the misogynistic and patriarchal pressure groups that fundamentally treated women like second-class citizens. Compared to countries like Iceland where women’s movements are pinnacle to society, Malaysia has a lot of catching up to do.

“But under PH’s leadership which sees a record of 32 female MPs out of 222, where 21 are from PH, five from BN, four from Gabungan Parti Sarawak, one from PAS and one independent female MP, I have full confidence and faith that women’s agenda, along with children’s and social development, are put on the national agenda.”

Empowering Women Through Leadership Programmes

To promote women’s participation, leadership and capacity development in politics, the umbrella programme Women’s Empowerment and Leadership was developed by the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC).

“When we first started the leadership programmes, we were aiming at the grassroots level, the Village Development and Security Committee ( JKKK), to provide training for women. We also conducted training to encourage more women to enter the local councils. In 2016 six women went on to become councillors for MBPP and the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP), including Syerleena Abdul Rashid,” says Ong Bee Leng, the CEO of PWDC.

“We have also recently introduced a new programme concentrating on building the capacity of women who are already in politics and want to move up the political ladder. One of the fundamental modules is Creating Visible Women in Politics. It’s a one-day programme and was very well received. From there, we will develop more modules, programmes and workshops for women to be more at ease when entering into politics.”

Wielding power is not something women are generally comfortable with, Ong notes. “But I also think it’s to do with women’s level of confidence. The most important question to ask is this: what is it that I want to do with the power? I’m not certain if it is by nature or nurture, but women are by and large concerned about the welfare of others, and I believe that having them as decision makers to create policies to change lives for the better is a common good for society.

“But it also ties back to the political parties because the appointment of women councillors and the JKKK is up to the parties’ discretion. Penang is the first state to implement the policy of increasing the number of women’s representation in the JKKK. In 2017 it was made mandatory to have at least one woman on the committee. In 2019 there will be three women, and by 2021 this will increase to five. Despite forming the lowest structure of government, women’s representation in the JKKK is still very much vital because if you can’t make changes from the top, you can attempt change from the bottom. Hopefully, with more numbers at the grassroots level, it will give women the confidence needed to enter politics.”

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.


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