THE TWO-DAY WORKSHOP Sidang Wanita is the outcome of the 2016 Gender Electoral Forum. Held last October, the workshop was organised by the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC), to encourage women’s active involvement in politics.
Roadshows were conducted across Penang’s five districts to engage 2,500 women from the local governments and councils, political parties, and from the Jawatankuasa Pembangunan Wanita dan Keluarga, Majlis Pengurusan Komuniti Kampung and civil society organisations.
Of these women, 400 were shortlisted, 120 interviewed and finally, 40 participants – mostly in their 20s and 30s – were selected. Described as the first of its kind in Malaysia, the Sidang Wanita allowed participants to learn the ropes and tools of becoming a frontline politician, or to provide support to one. They dug deep into the parliamentary hansards, national reports, state plans, official databanks and policy analyses; perused academic papers and opinion essays; and hosted interviews with laypersons.
Using the information gathered, these women formulated persuasive arguments as acting “parliamentarians” and “state executive councillors”, rising to either support or refute points made by other speakers, and to convince the “Assembly” on improvements needed for the people of Penang.
A recording of the three-hour Parliamentary session is available on PWDC’s website where House Speaker Datuk Law Choo Kiang and an attentive timekeeper are shown working hard to keep up with the enthusiastic “parliamentarians”.
The programme’s chairperson Kasthuri Patto was moved to tears as she watched the women in action. “We were with them on their journey and had watched their self-confidence grow,” she says. Kasthuri hopes that it is possible to sustain the energy level over the long term. An early morning brainwave inspired her discussion with PWDC’s chief executive officer, Ong Bee Leng to create a WhatsApp group chat for these women, to continue sharing ideas and thoughts, seek counsel, offer suggestions and map implementation challenges to further deepen their political involvement, e.g. to make childcare facilities more easily available. The effort has proven successful thus far, and some women have expressed interest in becoming frontliners or as key support staff to politicians.
“The ball is in these women’s court. They understand that the decisions they make today encourage their political advancement,” says Kasthuri, adding that Negeri Sembilan and Johor are keen to introduce such workshops as well.
State executive councillor for Social Development and Non-Islamic Religious Affairs, Chong Eng, has been a driving force in advocating for women’s participation in politics for over 25 years now; and is elated with the success of Sidang Wanita. “Gender inequality is the root cause for the lack of women’s representation in politics. But we need to also realise that only through politics can we influence change; and this change happens when a diversity of perspectives is brought to the table to be discussed openly.”
A Universal Lament
Globally, only a quarter of parliamentarians – 11,548 out of a total of 45,931 (IPU, 2020) – are women. A third of them are in the US and in Europe, almost a quarter are in sub-Saharan Africa and a fifth are in Asia, while slightly over a sixth are in the Middle East and the Pacific. However, it is but a slight improvement of six percentage points, from 19.1% to 25.1% over 2010-2020; a dismal record considering that over the last decade, more women have gained in education and are careerists.
Tun Fatimah Hashim. Photo: www.ukm.my
The United Nations posits that the low numbers are due to the continued marginalisation of women in politics. In 2020 only 20 countries out of 193 were led by women; and only Rwanda (61.3%), Cuba (53.2%) and the United Arab Emirates (50%) have an equal majority, if not more women in Parliament.
In Malaysia this figure stands at 14.5%. Under the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) government of 55 Cabinet members, five were women ministers (9%), including the country’s first woman Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail; and of the 222 parliamentarians, 32 were female (16%). The breakdown was as follows – 21 women from PH, five from Barisan Nasional (BN), four from Gabungan Parti Sarawak, one from Parti Islam Se-Malaysia and one independent woman MP. To compare, under the current Perikatan Nasional (PN) regime, there are only six women (8.5%) ministers in an increased Cabinet of 70.
Historically, the Malayan Peninsula has had women rulers. There was Che Siti Wan Kembang who ruled Kelantan in the 17th century; and even up to a century ago, Muslim reformers from the Kaum Muda movement decided that Malay Muslim girls ought to receive the best of modern education alongside boys.
This liberal attitude was carried through to Malaysia’s independence, in empowering women with education and encouraging roles for them in the public sphere. In fact, Tun Fatimah Hashim became Malaysia’s first woman minister to helm the General Welfare portfolio, from 1969-1973.1
A Temporary but Effective Measure
Sidang Wanita is scheduled to be an annual event. A proposal of the Bill is ready and will be tabled in Quarter Four of 2021, to have 30% representation of women in politics and in other government sectors. This has the unanimous support of Penang’s Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow and other state executive councillors.
For its part, PWDC hosted a series of Town Hall meetings from September 23, 2019 to March 2020 to collate public views and suggestions on this legislative change. “For a long time now, my goal has been to push this Bill forward, and with time and negotiations we will soon achieve this milestone,” says Chong Eng, adding that she will “throw a party on the Bill’s adoption and then I’ve got to get back to work, there is still a lot to get done…”
Tun Fatimah Hashim became Malaysia’s first woman minister to helm the General Welfare portfolio, from 1969-1973.
Countries that have instituted the 30% quota system have shown higher numbers of women’s representation in Parliament. But be that as it may, the quota system functions as a temporary reprieve, aimed at reversing the male monopoly in politics. Places like Scandinavia and New Zealand do not need such a system; these are where gender equality is prioritised and emphasised in the schooling system, enabling easier access for women into politics or to assume leadership roles.
Without the amendment to the Penang State’s Constitution, political scientist Prof Dr. Wong Chin Huat confers that the current electoral system of First-Past-The- Post would continue to encourage male politicians, the dominant group in all political parties and in Parliament, to retain their seats and be fielded again. Incidentally, nominated seats are already in place in Terengganu (2003) and Pahang (December 2020), without interventions from the Federal Government.
Led by Chong Eng and her committee, the Top-Up Women- Only Additional Seats (TWOAS) project ensures that at least 12 women will secure seats in the 40-seater Penang State Assembly. At present, there are only six women there, and there is only one woman state executive councillor – Chong Eng herself. In the next election, political parties will have a slate for 18 women nominees.
However, if fewer than 12 are elected, then through TWOAs, more women will be nominated, based on the proportional representation in political parties. In the event that no woman is elected, then 18 women will be appointed to achieve the 30% representation, increasing the Assembly to 58 members.
Under TWOAS, the minority parties of PN and BN will gain additional seats. TWOAS also serves as a temporary measure, and Wong stipulates that it might take 10 years and two General Elections to see results. Its advantages include limiting party-hopping among candidates as abandonment means the seat remains with the party, and not with the individual; increasing the value of the vote; limiting unfaithfulness to the party and cause; providing new ways of rethinking electoral systems such as in Taiwan, Mexico and New Zealand; increasing parliamentarians’ focus on policy-oriented legislative discussions rather than on constituency matters; and most importantly, for TWOAS to become the training ground for women’s involvement in politics.
Legislative amendments strengthen the legislative structure; and through Sidang Wanita, Chong Eng, Kasthuri and PWDC are progressively making inroads for women in politics to become a norm.