A WOMAN’S INITIATION into politics is as crucial as it is demanding. In celebration of International Women’s Day, Penang Monthly sits down over Zoom with four of Malaysia’s highly regarded women politicians, Yeo Bee Yin, Nurul Izzah, Kasthuri Patto and Hannah Yeoh.
Each recalls her difficult political journey on a patriarchal playing field, learning to dismantle gender typecasts and handle with grace the barbs and criticisms lobbed their way and, not least of all, dealing with imposter syndrome1.
Yeo Bee Yin
Yeo Bee Yin.
Yeo Bee Yin grew up with the knowledge that one day, she would devote herself to her country – she just did not know yet in what way, shape or form. Fast-forward to 2018, and the self-described small town kampung girl was helming the portfolio for Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change.
Politics and public life were initially not on the cards for Yeo. Her mother had hoped her five daughters and only son would all secure good-paying jobs, marry and have families of their own. But Yeo wanted to chart her own path. She had a penchant for STEM and pursued a Master’s in Advanced Chemical Engineering in the UK.
On her return to Malaysia in 2012, Yeo volunteered as a data analyst with DAP and was a special assistant to Tony Pua. In fact, it was Pua who convinced Yeo to contest for the Damansara Utama constituency – effectively launching her political career.
“It took me a while to understand the inner workings of politics,” she admits. Yeo was conscious of her lack of proficiency in the English, Malay and Chinese languages. But there was no time to be privately tutored, to get right pronunciations, nuances and tones. “An advantage that comes with being a politician in Malaysia is that one is able to slip in and out of many languages when making a speech, but public speaking was not a talent I naturally possessed.”
The days leading up to the election were nerve-wracking. Yeo recalls being seized with stage fright, leading to weight loss. “It took a significant amount of inner development to transition to a public figure.” Amusingly, Yeo is now teased that once she has a microphone in hand, she does not stop talking!
Yeo’s ministerial appointment was “a huge leap” in her political career. For 20 months, she was on a “turbo charge” holding meetings with private sector stakeholders, youths, academics, local communities; and seeking support across the ministries in formulating key policies for the benefit of generations to come. Then in February 2020, things abruptly changed. The government fell.
Yeo struggled to adapt at first, describing the change to be frustrating. “Now, I’m only able to raise national policies for discussion in Parliament.” She debated with the idea of quitting politics, but months of deep reflection and regular jogging helped deepen her appreciation that “politics is a marathon, it has its ups and downs. The situation is fragmented now but as with everything worth fighting for, it is a process. Politics is crucial for making changes.”
Her work now extends beyond just meeting constituency needs. Yeo keeps abreast of enterprises and industry innovations, and raises relevant issues in Parliament. Going further, Yeo is writing a book, documenting measures and policies introduced under her former Ministry “to influence a mindset change.”
Women leaders in Malaysia are few and far between. Until the opportunity presented itself, Yeo reveals that she too never thought it possible to be a frontliner in politics. Moreover, well-educated women with good grades still struggle to get paying jobs and often, many disappear from the workforce after getting married.
But the role of a minister also carried its share of dilemmas. When Yeo wed her businessman husband in 2019, she had to contend with accusations of conflicting interests and corruption. “It is not easy for a politician and a businessman to get married, but the accusations made against me are simply baseless.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has afforded Yeo more time to relish the newfound joys of motherhood. “The experience is life-changing; it is tough and it is emotional. There are days when I feel like a feeding machine,” she jokes. Appreciating that a baby’s needs can come up to RM100 a week, Yeo has also been vocal in her support of policy improvements for mothers.
The daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, Nurul Izzah grew up in an intellectual cocoon of books, philosophy and political discussions. Her childhood was a peaceful one that was shattered in 1998, following charges of corruption and sodomy against her father.
Attending Anwar’s court trials and visiting him in prison were watershed events in rousing Nurul’s political activism. She joined Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and stood at the forefront of civil society organisations fighting for her father’s release. A proud member of the Reformasi generation, Nurul says the experiences were pivotal in shaping her growth as a politician.
Her formal foray into politics began in 2008, when she was pitted against Shahrizat Abdul Jalil of UMNO. While on the campaign trail, she juggled a gruelling schedule and fitted breaks in-between to breastfeed her five-month-old daughter. Nurul won and became the representative for Lembah Pantai, KL, for which she served two terms.
The win was also a rude awakening. Nurul’s family connection, her active involvement in the Reformasi movement and the enmities directed at PKR all worked to undermine her credibility as a politician. Nurul is understandably guarded about her privacy, preferring to speak instead only on issues she feels strongly about.
Prison reforms is one such passion project. Nurul believes that a reassessment is in order by the Senate and Dewan Rakyat of the current punishments for low crimes, to improve prison conditions and increase community and rehabilitation services. “I am not asking for a complete overhaul,” she says, acknowledging that such changes would need to happen in a manner that is measured and over time. “But we must make progress.”
Her other focuses include taxation, corruption, gender disparity (“Equally qualified women are paid less than men for the same job, at 79 cents to a Ringgit.”), legislation on social workers, healthcare, education, and the alleviation of poverty. She was also focused on tabling bills to revoke Emergency Declarations, the abolishment of the Internal Security Act and on sexual harassment.
Nurul is also conscious of how the Covid-19 crisis has impacted the people, especially the 70% of frontline workers who are women. “Covid-19 did not hit paupers and princes alike.”
On the Perikatan Nasional government takeover in February 2020, Nurul says she has reconciled herself to the change. “There are limits and lessons to be learnt,” she explains, adding that it also informed her decision to “distrust others but to carry out the trust that others have given me. Politics, in itself, is a dignified body and accountability must be demanded if and when politicians ‘have crossed and gone over the threshold’.”
Nurul resigned as PKR’s vice-president in 2019, and is now solely focused on constituency work for Permatang Pauh. “I do not take for granted the people’s mandate; it is a true honour to serve. I see it as amanah – my public and community service.”
Nurul is also a working mother of two and is determined that her children carve their own paths in life. “They know the family loves them and that they will never be short-changed.”
Lastly, she offers this bit of advice to women wanting to make a difference through politics: “It is not a waiting game to have as many women politicians as possible. Seek to be empowered instead; the more emboldened a woman is, the easier it becomes to challenge and push back against misogyny. We can frontline our issues and provide a more conducive environment for women to be further empowered. It must be made known that whatever work it is that women are doing, either in building communities, societies or the country, they are all very important work. Women must support other women.”
Like Nurul, Kasthuri Patto comes from a political family, with much home talk on issues concerning the people. Her household was always thrumming with activity; political party supporters, unionists and activists alike would drop in for discussions with her father, P. Patto.
The late P. Patto was a fiery speaker, well-respected for championing the needs of the marginalised and voiceless, the underprivileged and the oppressed, and in upholding justice and equality. Kasthuri’s mother served as vice-president for DAP’s Women’s Wing and was in-charge of organising political campaigns.
Patto’s arrest and subsequent 18-month-long imprisonment under Operation Lalang was a deciding factor for Kasthuri’s entry into politics; and in Malaysia’s political arena where gender parity still requires much work, Kasthuri cuts an interesting figure. Amazingly, she is the country’s only Indian woman politician.
Patto had set a high bar for his daughter when he passed away in 1995; Kasthuri was just 15 then. “Many of my father’s supporters wanted me to be just like him, which perhaps was the reason why I was also readily accepted as a newly-minted politician.” She became the elected representative for Batu Kawan in 2013. By her second term, however, Kasthuri was no longer a politician under her father’s shadow.
She had established herself, and is a firm advocate of a spectrum of issues, ranging from sexual harassment and child marriages to human rights violation and discrimination against race, gender and religion. “These are unpopular topics, but they are happening in our own backyard.”
The last issue especially, is something Kasthuri herself is all too familiar with. During her first Parliament sitting in 2013, Kasthuri was heckled when she debated on women’s issues, particularly on domestic violence, sex education and child marriages; and in 2020 she was again targeted in Parliament, this time with racial slurs.
Kasthuri’s experience is not an isolated incident. Many other women politicians have also been subjected to sexist remarks and sexual innuendos in Parliament. “We are a country that is 60 years old – a retraction and an apology should no longer suffice for the matter to be closed. We need to have better etiquette in the House,” she says.
Kasthuri is currently focused on amending the Standing Order Bill through which offending parties face a Rights and Privileges Committee. Along with the State Exco for Social Development and Non-Islamic Religious Affairs, Chong Eng, and the Penang Women’s Development Corporation, Kasthuri is determined to train through Sidang Wanita a cohort of younger women, from whichever political affiliation, to be interested in politics (read Getting Women into Politics Takes Effort from Above and Below).
Marriage and politics unfolded as parallel journeys for Hannah Yeoh. As Christians, both she and her IT-engineer husband saw these as directions from God. Yeoh is a lawyer by profession and in 2006, joined DAP’s Damansara Branch where she volunteered to help out with organising events.
“It does not matter in the least if the woman politician in question happens to be single, married or divorced. Her marital status shouldn’t be a topic for public discussion."
Soon after tying the knot in January 2008, Yeoh was asked to contest for the Subang Jaya state constituency, and won, and there she served from 2008 to 2018. At 34, Yeoh became the youngest person and the first woman to be House Speaker for Selangor. She succeeded Teng Chang Khim, an esteemed politician of high standards, and was conscious of not doing anything less in an environment of senior male Parliamentarians.
Intimidated but motivated, Yeoh made sure to memorise the names of State Assemblymen, their titles and constituencies so that when she referred to any of them or requested that they took the floor, time would not be wasted. Yeoh was also determined that non-partisan lines be followed. “It is important to separate political parties from the Assembly; the Speaker must be neutral and fair, and not fear the state executive councillors.” Aware of how women politicians are perceived, Yeoh made certain that she did not let emotions get the better of her, and in respecting free speech, she was assiduous in not switching off the microphone of State Assemblymen who were debating or arguing.
She worked to improve Assembly procedures, making it permanent for Parliamentary sittings to be broadcasted live and to document additional actions on enacted reforms, e.g. follow-up reports must be submitted to Parliament once recommendations are accepted. “It was a scintillating experience,” Yeoh says.
As Deputy Minister for Women, Family and Community Development from 2018 to 2020, Yeoh fought for many child-centred policies. Following the fall of the Pakatan Harapan government, Yeoh recalibrated and focused her attention on continuing her advocacy in Parliament. “We do not have to win everything, but it is important that we work as a team to advance the nation’s welfare because despite what has transpired, the people’s issues remain the same across all political divides. Improvements must be sought through policies and legislation, especially on social issues.
“Rather than viewing politics as a power struggle, it would be more fruitful for both male and female politicians to see it as a communal table for discussions, and for common ground and by extension, gender inclusivity to be achieved.
“It does not matter in the least if the woman politician in question happens to be single, married or divorced. Her marital status shouldn’t be a topic for public discussion. But, if one chooses to be married and be in politics, having the support of a life partner is invaluable. The life of a politician, especially a woman, requires much to be sacrificed. My advice is to accept only what one can handle.”
1 Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that reflects the feeling of inadequacy and incompetency despite evidence pointing to the contrary.
Braema Mathi is a visiting senior research fellow at Penang Institute. She is from Singapore and she loves the hills, the rivers and trekking – all of which are plentiful in Penang.