Penang’s local councils saw an increase in women councillors this year, signalling interesting times ahead.
The “lowest” form of government, the third tier of governance, the ones who examine drains and tend to trees – such is the perception of the role of local councillors. They stay in the background, unlike their more visible state assemblypersons and federal MP counterparts who headline the news.
Unless something like a storm or a flood wreaks havoc.
For Syerleena Abdul Rashid, a third-term councillor at the Penang Island City Council (MBPP), local councillors have to manage an intense work schedule, being directly responsive to complaints and requests for assistance from the community on a round the-clock basis. “I”ve had people contact me at 2am. When there’s an emergency, we don’t say, ‘Call me back at 8am’ – especially when we have natural disasters. A few months ago when we had a massive landslide at Teluk Bahang, we were on call at 5am. We were out making sure the Public Works Department ( JKR) and all other agencies were responding to the crisis. It’s tough, but it’s wonderful – it’s my way of giving back to society.”
And it is significant that January this year marked a boost for women's representation in both the MBPP and the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP). The MBPP has exceeded the target embedded in the Ninth Malaysia Plan (2006-2010) of having at least 30% women in decision-making roles.
Beyond Numbers: The Role of PWDC
Higher numbers of women in local councils are as vital as they are at the state and federal government levels. The Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC) is a state government-funded body that advocates for enhanced women’s representation and participation in decision-making processes (given the existing gender gaps), as well as gender friendly policies and practices. PWDC’s achievements have included the progressive institutionalisation of such policies and practices in governmental decision-making structures, such as a minimum 30% target for women’s participation at the Village Development and Security Committee ( JKKK) level as well as the implementation of gender responsive and participatory budgeting at the local and eventually the state government level.
The MBPP swearing-in ceremony for local councillors.
In order to increase the pool of suitable women, PWDC organises a training programme for prospective women local councillors known as the Women’s Leadership in Local Governance programme. Working closely with political parties, NGOs and other organisations, PWDC invites them to send highpotential participants to the training workshops that focus on developing gender perspectives, honing key leadership skills and understanding local governance. Actual study visits to the local councils are also conducted so that participants have the opportunity to interact closely with existing local councillors as well as staff of the local councils. This helps participants gain practical insights into the role of local councillors as well.
Syerleena Abdul Rashid.
Karen Lai is manager of PWDC’s Women’s Empowerment and Leadership Programme, under which this training falls. To date, PWDC has trained a total of 107 participants, six of whom have been appointed as councillors for MBPP and MPSP. “There has definitely been an improvement [in terms of numbers of women in local councils] in the last five years. Last year, three of our participants were appointed, and they remain there this year,” says Lai. “Our training gives them a sense of support, basic exposure to gender issues and exposure to local governance. They also feel they have a network to come back to.”
One of the councillors trained under this programme is Syerleena. To her, the higher representation of women in local councils is cause for celebration. “When I was appointed in 2015, we only had three women councillors in MBPP. In 2016 the numbers increased to five. This year, we have eight. I think this increase is great.”
Gender equality as a priority for local government marks progress. The opening up of political decision-making spaces that were once closed to women is commendable, and quota systems are effective vehicles for the participation of women in political discourse.
As a director on the PWDC board, Bukit Mertajam MP Steven Sim notes that the frequency of a quota discourse is a positive sign. “There is an improvement definitely, but more importantly there is awareness. Male politicians and their obsession with percentages of female representation in leadership are trying to portray themselves as ‘doing something’ about this issue.”
Lai emphasises that meaningful representation of women in decision making is not merely a matter of numbers or statistics (or what is also known as the descriptive representation of women). Equally, if not more importantly, is the question of substantive representation.
Substantive representation of gender issues goes beyond the simple prescription of having more women in power. It entails the ability – be they women or men leaders – to articulate policy concerns and to make a difference. “You could have a woman leader, but she may not be particularly interested in speaking out about gender issues. So, she wouldn’t make much impact in [some] issues like childcare or violence against women.”
Domestic Concerns, Relevant Policies
For Sim, who is also a former councillor of the MPSP, having an increased representation of women in Penang’s local councils is historically and politically significant. The first elections in the country were held in Penang in 1951 in the municipality of George Town. Nancy Yeap was then elected as councillor during a period when gender equality was not a priority. The increased participation of women in the council is not only historical for Penang, but also politically necessary as men and women have different interests, and women are therefore needed in representative institutions to advocate the interests of women. “In a room full of male leaders, men talk about economics and about winning the elections, in a certain way. But women on the other hand will be more concerned about policies affecting the family. They talk about ‘soft power’, for example, ‘If we win the elections, can we talk about a more win-win, bipartisan, diplomatic relationship?’ Women bring a fresh and wider perspective to the decision making process,” says Sim.
As parties become actively involved in the advancement of women in the political process, women leaders, in turn, pilot gender-sensitive policies that make local governments relevant to women voters. Former MBPP councillor Lim Kah Cheng explains that women in local governance are able to tailor policies that address the concerns of mothers and housewives, some of which include childcare, and the condition of markets. “I pushed the need to have more friendly policies towards childcare centres. We need to legalise them and give them concessions, since converting a residence into a commercial outlet is expensive. Somehow this is left out in housing policies and processes of planning, hence you see childcare centres mushrooming illegally, but they are often not suitable as these are in residential areas. You need to look at traffic flow, and you have to convert the status of the premises from residential to commercial.”
Mainstreaming a gender perspective that accounts for the implications of policies for women and for men would involve assessing the different effects of public services on the different genders. In addition to accessible markets and childcare facilities, this also entails incorporating a gender-sensitive position on violence against women when considering the building of infrastructural environments. “These decisions may look simple but actually have impact on people’s lives. For instance, if lighting is inadequate it may contribute to safety problems. We know that women, compared to men, are more prone to sexual violence in poorly lit areas. This should be taken into account in the council’s decisions. It is important for all members of council to be gender-sensitive,” says Lai.
Site visit in Gelugor.
Khoo Salma, newly appointed in the MBPP representing a coalition of civil society groups known as Penang Forum, reaffirms the voicing out of women’s concerns as part of the role of a female councillor. Possessing a direct influence on urban services, the built environment, open spaces and public amenities, women representatives of the councils are empowered to improve the quality of life for mothers and working women. “Working mothers have to organise their lives around their families and children, so a local government that is responsive to their needs is immediately responsive to a larger section of society. If we do not have safe streets and good public transport, that limits the mobility of women and families, and if the mobility of women is limited, then their job options will also be limited. For example, if we do not have enough parks which are near residential areas, then where can the children play?”
It is evident that women in local councils bring numerous benefits to society. The increased representation of women in the local councils of Penang is being highly praised. Organisations driving the agenda for social change, such as PWDC, help to advance more gender-balanced representation in decision-making through the incorporation of gender perspectives into policies, programmes and practices, and to establish a network of like-minded local councillors, be they women or men.
Gender-sensitive policies that address inequalities faced by women and girls in relation to gendered violence, and the multiple burdens of juggling domestic responsibilities (including care work) and careers outside the home, can and should enhance the relevance of the local governments in the eyes of women and men voters who care about making Penang a better place for all. Gender equality is an important platform for “doing” politics which can work across party lines and potentially cut across other ideological divides.
Cheah Wui Jia teaches English at Han Chiang College. She enjoys looking at how individual interpretations of texts are mediated by language, relationships of power and societal structures.