Political Participation and Public Life
by Qyira Yusri
The inclusion of women in politics is not a new initiative, nor is it a radical one. It is an idea that has been debated since even before Merdeka. In 1953, Khadijah Sidek was one of the first vocal feminists who demanded more women representatives, along with the right to vote. With the move towards more representation, Aishah Ghani was successful in becoming the first-ever female senator in 1962. Along with other female leaders, Shamsiah Fakeh cooperated in attempts to overthrow British colonialism while she was the head of Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS).
History has lessons for us to learn. We often forget the efforts of those who came before us but these women do not deserve to be overlooked, and we should lead by their example.
Women are not a monolith — we are made up of people from diverse political, economic, and social backgrounds. We recognise that there is more than one way to run for office. We recognise that getting women into mainstream politics takes structural change — it is not just about the women not doing enough to run, but about the opaque funding mechanisms, ‘boy-club’ nature of getting mentors and resources, and unequal cultural expectations placed on women to prioritise their families. We recognise that all these things are confounding barriers effectively pushing women out of office.
(B) Background Information
(1) Attacks on Women Who Participate in the Public Sphere
Attacks on women leaders and activists within civil society, such as women human rights defenders, are ongoing, both online and offline. Women members of civil society have been victims of vicious attacks, including personal threats, media blasts, and social media trolling. The arbitrary arrests of women activists have become commonplace in Malaysia in the past decade.
In the past, there have been cases of physical and online violence clearly targeted towards women who speak up or actively participate in public life, namely as activists, advocates, and politicians. For example:
(a) The physical attack on transgender woman activist Nisha Ayub;
(b) The sexist remarks made towards Teresa Kok;
(c) Female grassroots activist Sarasvathy Muthu, Vice-President of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (Parti Sosialis Malaysia), during her detention in 2011 was forced to take a polygraph test and compelled to sign a 62-page document against her will — a compilation of statements taken from 20 days of interrogation;
(d) A witness whose video went viral during a protest that happened post-‘Sheraton Move’ was doxxed, cyberbullied, fat-shamed, and demeaned until she had to leave the various online platforms she was on. Beyond the accusations and the harassment she had faced from the public, she was also called for questioning by the police for her involvement in activism; and
(e) During the peak of the LAWAN protests organised by the Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat, female participants of the protests were photographed, doxxed, and exposed on social media for participating. One of the supporters of the protest, a young climate activist, was sent a bloody mannequin arm to her home with threats of acid being thrown on her face and on her parents’ as well. She made a police report but there are no updates on her case, at the time of writing.
(2) Low Representation of Women in Politics
Women’s participation in politics is hampered by the existence of laws and social restrictions that limit the number of female candidates fielded, making it significantly more difficult for women to become involved in the public sphere.
The 111 Initiative is a campaign for women by women, powered by Undi 18. The campaign advocates 50% of female representation in the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives). By achieving this, women will finally be able to voice their opinions on policies that affect them. It is time to give women a voice, especially in the 21st century. We (Undi 18) recently held, and participated in, panels discussing the future of women in politics, and how we can do more to improve the lack of representation.
A total of 168 female candidates contested for Parliamentary and State Legislative Assembly seats in the General Election in 2013. This number is often used to claim that there was an increase of 40% compared to the 120 female candidates who ran for the General Election in 2008. What remains conveniently disregarded, however, is that the total number of candidates who ran also increased, and that, therefore, the percentage of women who ran for seats remained almost the same, at 8%.
The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development produces an annual statistics booklet. Below are the statistics relating to women’s political representation in Malaysia, which have remained quite stagnant over the past decade.
(a) In 2021, there were only five female Cabinet Ministers (i.e. 16%) out of a total of 31, and four female Deputy Ministers (i.e. 10%) out of a total of 38.
(b) In 2021, eight (i.e. 15%) out of a total of 54 appointed Senators in Dewan Negara were women.
(c) Following the 2018 General Election, women held 32 seats (i.e. 13.4%) out of 222 in the Dewan Rakyat — a number that is still exceedingly low.
(d) In the 13 State Legislative Assemblies, women hold only 67 (i.e. 13%) out of a total of 505 seats.
(e) Of the 151 Local Council Presidents in Malaysia, only nine (i.e. 5%) are women.
Attitudes that place the blame on women for low levels of political participation, and the disregard of the systemic discrimination that women face, only serve to undermine the issue.
(1) Barriers Due to Cultural Standards and Expectations
There are many barriers that women face, which stop them from being politically active, including those stemming from cultural standards and expectations. Women lack the support mechanisms in order to fully commit to participating in politics.
Negative societal attitude towards female leadership
Due to years of social conditioning that leadership is gender-orientated, women are led to believe that there is no place for them in politics. Women are less likely to pursue political office as they are not encouraged to do so, causing them to underestimate their own abilities.
According to a study conducted at American University in Washington, D.C., USA, only 57% of women would consider themselves as qualified or very qualified to run for office, compared to 73% of men. The negative societal attitude towards female leadership is internalised into the mindsets of individual women.
Greater responsibility for domestic duties and care work
Additionally, political involvement requires both timely and emotional investments. Not all women can afford these luxuries. They may have to put their pre-existing responsibilities first, such as their family.
According to the International Labour Organization, women in Asia and the Pacific spend 4.1 times more time on unpaid care work than men. This involves household duties such as tending to others, cooking, and cleaning. This work is greatly ignored but it contributes at least USD10.8 trillion a year to the global economy. The pre-existing commitments that women are responsible for make it more difficult for them to pursue political activities.
(2) Lack of Quotas for Women’s Participation
The parties of the previous ruling coalition do not have quotas to increase the level of women’s participation in Parliament. Only two political parties have inserted into their constitutions a commitment to having a minimum of 30% of decision-making positions be filled by women. This commitment was made in June 2009 by the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and in 2014 by the Democratic Action Party (DAP).
In 2017, the Selangor State Government pledged its commitment to constantly move towards a 30% quota of women as policymakers at all levels. As of 2017, 41% of the Senior Officers in the State Government were women.
In 2019, the Pakatan Harapan Government introduced a pledge in its manifesto — to implement a 30% female quota in the Cabinet — but failed to fulfil it.
Quotas do not solve cultural barriers. In Samoa, the Parliament implemented a gender quota to ensure that there would be a minimum of five female Members of Parliament (MPs) elected in 2013 but this has been unsuccessful, as only three women were elected by 2014. Critics argued that women may be elected into power but they will still be treated as second-class citizens in Parliament by their male counterparts.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Gender Gap Index Ranking, Malaysia is ranked as 104 out of 153 countries in the political involvement of women, and scored 0.677 out of 1. These initiatives are a rash reaction to the lack of political participation, but the issue is more complicated than it seems.
(3) High Cost of Election Deposits
In Malaysia, candidates must pay an election deposit of RM15,000 to contest for a seat in the federal-level Dewan Rakyat, and RM8,000 for a seat in a State Legislative Assembly. Federal-level candidates must pay a deposit of RM10,000 plus an additional RM5,000 for the cost of clearing up campaign materials. Similarly, candidates for the state-level assemblies must pay RM5,000 plus an additional RM3,000.
The amount of the deposit is sometimes cited as a key factor behind the low level of women’s political participation. The Election Commission, however, still deemed it necessary to collect deposits from candidates to ensure that only those who were serious would run in the 2018 General Election.
(4) Hostile Political Environment for Women
The rhetoric that is put out and perpetuated by political leadership continually reinforces women’s role as the primary caretaker in the family home. Sexist comments and ideologies that are frequently espoused by MPs, as well as the lack of reprimand these incite from peers, indicate a tacit acceptance of such behaviour.
In April 2017, a Facebook post was circulated picturing Azalina Othman Said, the then-Minister of Law in the Prime Minister’s Department, overlaid with the caption “Tiada seorang pun sanggup nak rogol saya” [“Nobody is willing to rape me”]. A report was lodged with the police and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission on Azalina’s behalf, but the outcome of these investigations is unknown.
(5) Low Political Representation of Orang Asli Women
Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli (Department of Orang Asli Development) only appoints male Tok Batin (village heads) in Orang Asli villages, although historically there had always been female Tok Batin when appointments were not made by the Government. As a result, many development decisions that affect the entire community’s resources and land rights are made without the substantive participation of Orang Asli women.
Orang Asli women have never been put forward as candidates or elected to office. Only indigenous women from East Malaysia have been elected into office.
(1) Empowering Women
Empowering women will revolutionise Malaysian politics and society. With encouragement and idealism, women are able to seize opportunities and obtain high positions. More often than not, public policy does not take into account that women are affected by political decisions. The political presence of women has pressured policymakers to take into account the influence of their choices — both economically and politically.
Women and men have different circumstances and needs. There is unequal access to resources to advance, hindering the advancement of women. In Malaysia, women have a greater sense of responsibility towards their families, due to cultural standards. As a result, women are held back from economic opportunities.
(2) Adequate Support Mechanisms
More female representation in politics ensures a policymaking process that includes a gender equality perspective at all stages and levels of policies. Therefore, economic policies would be tailored to the needs of women. This would include the availability and affordability of care services and improving support for working mothers through paid maternity leave. Closing the gap between men’s and women’s economic opportunities could increase income per capita by 26.2%. This would be an average annual income increase of RM9,400 (USD2,247) for each person; benefitting both genders and enhancing equality.
(3) Cultural Change
As discussed above, women face many barriers, including those arising from cultural standards and expectations, that hinder their political participation. In this regard, concrete initiatives are needed in order to change mindsets and attitudes. This is a more important step than merely implementing or enforcing quotas, due to the obstacles discussed earlier.
It is true that quotas can have a positive impact on gender representation. In 2004, the Malaysian Government introduced a gender quota, requiring women to hold a percentage of the top positions in the public sector. As a result, there was an improvement in representation, with the number of women in public sector jobs reaching more than 32%.
However, quotas do not translate well in politics. The conservative attitude towards women in leadership roles and the systematic sexism in political institutions create obstacles that prevent women’s advancement.
Furthermore, while implementing quotas may encourage political participation from women, it is a short-term solution. It does not take into account other factors that prevent women from joining political activities.
(5) Training Programmes
Programmes should be organised to provide women with the confidence and support to become leaders, whether in their own communities, in the government or their workplace. One example is training programmes that show women that they can fulfil their pre-existing responsibilities while also being politically active.
When there is better representation of women, not only do we normalise women in leadership roles, but it ensures a better policymaking process that considers all members of society — both women and men. Currently, there are few but significant female politicians. Hannah Yeoh, the MP for the constituency of Segambut, became the first woman speaker for the Selangor State Assembly. Yeo Bee Yin was appointed as the Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change in 2018.
The increase of female politicians over the years is proof that women do have the ability to persevere through the obstacles and achieve their ambitions when given the confidence to do so.
 Global Gender Gap Report 2020. World Economic Forum. 2019. www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2020.pdf.
 Schmillen, Achim, and Mei Ling Tan. “Breaking Barriers: Toward Better Economic Opportunities for Women in Malaysia”. 28 October 2019. blogs.worldbank.org/eastasiapacific/breaking-barriers-toward-better-economic-opportunities-women-malaysia.
 Gooch, Liz. “Halls of Power Narrow for Malaysian Women”. The New York Times. 28 August 2011. www.nytimes.com/2011/08/29/world/asia/29iht-malay29.html.