Agents of Change: Chong Eng

Penang Institute’s dialogue session with policymakers and influencers saw a stimulating discussion with state exco member Chong Eng, who is chairman of the state’s Youth and Sports, Women, Family and Community Development Committee as well. Chong Eng was also the first woman from DAP to be elected into the Penang State Assembly in 1995.

A woman’s place is anywhere she wants to be, and it is Chong Eng’s vision to change mindsets and achieve equal representation for women.

Chong Eng says…

Men and women in Malaysia are still largely unaware about gender equality, equal opportunities and equal rights. Today’s women work as hard as men, but are still often perceived as the weaker sex due to gender bias.

Women have a choice, and we need to raise awareness on this point not just among women, but men as well. One third of Penang Women’s Development Corporation’s (PWDC) awareness programmes should be targeted at men – gender equality is beneficial to men, too: division of jobs should not be driven by gender but by ability and interests.

While the PWDC provides funds for women’s development, we need more social welfare policies and programmes.

Case in point:

Four years ago, the Singaporean government set up early childhood facilities, working with the private sector to operate childcare centres and kindergartens for children between two months and six years old. Childcare subsidies are provided for both working and non-working mothers.

In Malaysia, while we have government childcare centres and kindergartens such as Kemas, Perpaduan, Permata and community nurseries, I think it is better to consolidate different kindergartens under one common agency, like Singapore’s Early Childhood Development Agency, and have a budget every year to train the educators; through this comprehensive plan, we can have better quality early childhood education.

Many of our childcare centres are privately run, rendering childcare unaffordable to some households. Government subsidies are needed for childcare, which should be seen as a form of social responsibility – just like schools and hospitals. More childcare centres are needed in our towns and cities as more women enter the workforce and urban communities are more alienated. As women are becoming more financially independent and share the responsibility of upkeeping family expenditures, men are relieved of the burden of being the sole provider.

On top of that, studies have shown that women are paid less – even in managerial positions. This is caused by traditional stereotypes: men have to support their families, so they should be higher paid.

Changing Mindsets

To have an equal relationship, one has to give and take. Our daughters are more financially independent now, and do not have to rely on their partners. They can achieve more, when less restricted by gender.

However, there are those who subscribe to the old model of gender division of work, which means the men should do the work while the women stay at home. That is fine, but at the same time we have to build a support system to help the women who choose to work, and make it easier for the men who choose to stay at home – and for both to balance parenthood and family.

No matter how highly educated a woman is, she is still expected to take care of the children. It is time to break this mould: raising kids is the joint responsibility of both parents." – Chong Eng

Most of the time, girls are brought up to think that their greatest success is to marry a good husband, be a good mother and raise a good family. Men, on the other hand, are brought up to be good breadwinners. There are now more female graduates than male, but female workforce participation is slow to increase. No matter how highly educated a woman is, she is still expected to take care of the children. It is time to break this mould: raising kids is the joint responsibility of both parents.

One of PWDC’s objectives is to increase female representation. We have already achieved this at the village security and development committee (JKKK) level, where we implemented the policy (of having more female representatives). By 2021, at least 30% of JKKK members must be women; already we have several JKKKs doing this.

For 60 years, we never had more than 12% female representation in parliament, and in cabinet we have less than three female ministers. This is why decision making is imbalanced: the majority of decision makers are men – who might not necessarily put equal weight to policies and plans that affect women and children, such as ensuring public spaces are well lit so as not to compromise on safety, or childcare, for that matter. There comes a time when women have to make a choice: to build their careers or become homemakers. The higher the position, the less women there are. In this aspect, affordable childcare becomes important to spur change.

At the lower levels, it is easier to achieve female representation as there is less competition. When it comes to the councillor level, competition is greater. Both the Penang Island City Council and Seberang Perai Municipal Council only have 48 councillors; therefore, competition is tight, especially for women. In addition, some women do not wish to come forward and lead because they were never told to be leaders; instead, they are more familiar with being carers or followers, or the women behind the men.

At work, women often have to work twice or three times harder to prove their ability before they are promoted. On the contrary, men are given opportunity when they show potential. Gender really matters in climbing the career ladder, especially in traditionally male-dominated fields. It is not a coincidence that almost all toplevel decision-making positions are held by males. Women’s abilities are simply undervalued.

Everyone can be an agent of change if we alter our mindsets about gender roles. Women, step up and assert yourselves: you can be the game changer.

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