Monday, February 19, 2018

Reimagining Malaysia Part 11: Women in Politics and Economy

In the previous part of this series, I’ve discussed that despite no apparent formal barrier, direct discrimination and a complex pattern of hidden barriers prevent women in Malaysia from achieving their full potential in the economic and political sphere. In this article, I will drill down further on the topic of gender equality for Malaysian women in politics and economy.

Politics should not be an “uncle-only” game 

When I first joined the DAP, I attended many party dinners and meetings. One of the first impressions I had of the party was that the majority of people involved in it were “uncles”. There were very few women and young people.

Now that I have been in politics for a while, I have discovered that this “uncles only” phenomenon isn’t confined to the DAP – it exists in all our political parties. In fact, low female representation in politics happens around the world, although in Malaysia, only a dismal 10 percent of parliamentarians are women compared to the world average of 22.8 percent in June 2016 [1].

The table below is the breakdown of female representation according to parliament and state assemblies (2013-2018 term). Except for the Selangor state assembly, with 27 percent female lawmakers, women’s representation in other legislatures is low.

Female Legislators
Total Seats
Percent of Female
Source: DAP Wanita

We need more women in politics for two reasons.

Firstly, we need a better representation of women in politics so that women-specific concerns such as domestic violence, rape, childcare, maternity-related issues, gender discrimination in the workplace and so on can be raised in the highest decision-making bodies. Secondly, it has been proven that better decisions and policies can be made when there is increased diversity in the decision-making bodies. 

I’ve discussed in detail in my book on how to increase women political participation through special intervention measure. All in all, any special intervention measure to increase women representation must recognize that our ultimate aim is not women representation per se but a diverse decision-making body that will have women leaders that are as capable as men but with differing views and perspectives. Our ultimate aim is to make better decisions for the country. 

There is no such thing as a free lunch in this world. Women who want to be political leaders must work as hard, if not harder, than men. Because in the end, it shouldn't be about us but about the country and how it will benefit with a greater representation of women in politics.

We must always remember that.

Women in Economy 

A country’s competitiveness is heavily reliant on how it manages its human talent and the productivity of its workforce. Women account for half the available talent pool of a country hence how a government empowers women to achieve their full potential will directly impact the development of the country.

The World Bank estimates that the number of Malaysian “absent” women – women who could be part of the labour market but aren’t – ranges between 500,000 and 2.3 million. In fact, Malaysia’s female labour force participation rate of 54 percent is one of the lowest in Southeast Asia [2].

Encouraging higher female participation in the workforce will lead to a more competitive labour market, and therefore a more competitive economy. This is especially true as Malaysian women are well-educated. The United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) calculates that increasing the female participation rate in the workforce to 70 percent would boost the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2.9 percent [3].

A study of US Fortune 500 companies by Catalyst has also shown that having three or more women as members of the board of directors correlates strongly with above-average returns on shareholder equity, sales and invested capital [4].

Increasing the number of women in the workforce isn’t just important for the economic growth of the country, it is also a way to reduce income inequality as a whole. When women stop working, households go from dual-income to single-income, which in turn reduces the total household income.

Various reports have shown that this is more likely to happen in low-income families as women drop out of the workforce to take care of their children as it is more economically viable for them to stay at home than to work as childcare fees tend to be higher than their wages.

If more women in low-income families go to work, those at the bottom of the pyramid will have higher household incomes, which will help to reduce the income gap between the rich and the poor. This also indirectly reduces domestic violence as women become financially independent.

By advocating increased women participation in the workforce, I am not suggesting that working-age women cannot choose to be housewives. However, freedom to work must be made available to women in Malaysia. Would more women go out to work if they had the following support?

i. Good quality childcare at the workplace or near the home which is affordable; and
ii. More companies offering flexible working hours, non-discrimination against pregnant employees, effective women returning to workforce programmes, a supportive corporate environment for pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers etc.

The answer is probably yes. That is the freedom to work that every Malaysian woman deserves.

Having said that, we also cannot ignore the fact that increasing the number of women in the workforce will also translate to more work on their plate. According to the World Bank’s World Development Report, women need to work one to three hours more than men a week on household chores and two to 10 times more than men on caring for their children, the elderly or sick members of the family [5].  (You can read some of the information about women and childcare from my old article or my book.) 

Because of deeply-entrenched gender roles in the family, women will have to do more unpaid work than men at home. This means that they will have less time than working fathers for leisure activities. These traditional roles in the family cannot be changed in a short period of time.

Therefore, efforts to increase the number of women in the workforce should also be accompanied by acknowledgement and reward for unpaid house work and their caring duties. There must be policies in place to help working mothers to cope with the physical, mental and psychological demands of their jobs and families. 

Lastly, there should be a mindset shift among men so that there will be more equal sharing of housework in the future. 

*This article is extracted from a chapter of my upcoming book, "Reimagining Malaysia."

[1] UN Women. Facts and figures: leadership and political participation. Updated Jul 2017 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[2] Boo Su-Lyn. Malaysia’s Missing Women Workers. Malay Mail Online. 1 Jul 2014 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[3] United Nation Development Program. Study to support the development of national policies and programs to increase and retain participation of women in the Malaysian labor workforce. 2011 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[4] Catalyst. Companies with more women board of directors experience higher financial performance according to latest Catalyst Bottom Line report. Oct 2007 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[5] UN Women. Facts and figures: economic empowerment. Updated Apr 2015 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from