In the spirit of International Women’s Day, Penang Monthly is featuring 16 exceptional women who have had a profound impact on the community around them. Some are already well-known, while others have quietly carried out their work in the background. All of them are an inspiration to the next generation.
Interviews by Ivy Kwek, Teo Sue Ann, Jeffrey Hardy Quah and Rosalind Chua
Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam
The “woman in grey” is well known for her pursuit of gender equality. Under her leadership, 3Gs (Good Governance for Gender Equality) was set up in 2010 to advocate women empowerment policies, including gender responsive budgeting (GRB) and the provision of childcare facilities in Penang.
When did your political awareness begin?
Back when I was just a kid, I already felt the unfairness of village life where both boys and girls had to do farm work, but the girls also had to do house chores while the boys could rest and play.
What made you join politics?
I started out in 1990 to help Peter Dawson and two other Democratic Action Party (DAP) leaders in Penang. I had great admiration for how these leaders served the public. In 1995, I took the plunge and contested as I wanted to “walk the talk” – since I talked so much about women’s participation! I became the DAP’s first woman parliamentarian. I was 38 years old.
What was your most satisfying achievement?
The fact that there is more gender awareness in Parliament today. This is helped by more women politicians being elected into Parliament; we managed to lobby for the insertion of the 36(4) standing order which prohibits sensitive words being uttered in the House. As a legislative body, Malaysia’s Parliament has also progressed with the amendment of many laws that used to be biased against women, including the Distribution Act 1958 (amended 1997), Guardianship of Infants Act 1961 (amended 1999) and Income Tax Act 1967 which used to prohibit women from opening accounts (amended 1991).
Of course, gender equality cannot be fulfilled just by the enactment of laws. There can be a Domestic Violence Act but if women are not aware of it, they do not know how to protect themselves. The government has a vital role to play in educating the public.
What are the current challenges facing women today?
The main issue today is the gender gap. Many say that there are plenty of prominent women leaders in the country, but fail to realise that these are isolated cases. Some also say that nowadays women have ample access to education; however, they are not bothered by the fact that despite increasing numbers of female graduates, the employment rate for women has remained at 46% over the past 20 years.
What is your advice to young people, both women and men?
Women today are women in transition. Ultimately, my dream is to see a system that promotes fair competition. We are not discouraging traditional values, nor are we trying to take over from men, but we want women to enjoy the right to choose the way they want to live.