Monday, February 19, 2018

Reimagining Malaysia 10: Leaders Who Wear Skirts

“The world will never realise 100 percent of its goals if 50 percent of its people cannot realise their full potential.” 
-Ban Ki Moon, former Secretary General of the United Nations- 

I’ll focus the next 3 articles on issues related to women. When we talk about women and gender equality, the first question we need to ask is why do we need gender equality?

I never thought I would champion gender equality issues until I stumbled across a number of charts in the Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2012. The charts indicated that countries with better gender equality are usually richer and more competitive, and are better countries to live in. The trend is consistent with increasing evidence that empowering women leads to a more efficient use of a country's human capital. Therefore, reducing the gender gap enhances economic growth and development. In short, when we empower women, the whole country benefits.

Aren’t we already equal?

When we talk about gender equality, women’s rights and women empowerment, many people, both men and women, often ask, “Aren’t we already equal now?” After all, boys and girls can go to schools and men and women can contest and vote in elections in Malaysia.

Let’s now have a look on how statistics say our gender equality in Malaysia.

According to WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016 [1],  Malaysia ranks 106th out of 144 countries in gender equality. The ranking was based on a combination of four categories, namely economy, education, health and politics.

If we analyse the gender gap indexes further, our scores for gender equality are close to one, which means equality, in education and health categories. However, in the economic and political spheres, the gender gap is too big to ignore. Malaysia equality scores at 0.6558 out of 1 for economy and 0.051 out of 1 for politics.

The historical data indicate that there has been no significant improvement in the economic and political gender gaps despite the fact that our women are increasingly better educated and probably better than men now. According to World Bank data [2], Malaysia’s secondary and tertiary education enrollment rates among women were 81 percent and 32 percent respectively in 2015 and 75 percent and 21 percent respectively for men.

This shows 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 the next article of this series, I will talk about gender equality for Malaysian women in politics and economy.

Before we dwell into these two categories, we must recognize that most of our girls need role models to imagine their future.

Leaders Who Wear Skirts

I grew up in a small town where most women put more focus on kitchen and children. As a child, I saw women playing complimentary instead of leading roles in the society.

Even when I was pursuing a degree at University Technology Petronas and thought that politics was important as an avenue to make changes in our country, I never entertained the thought that I, as a woman, could be an agent for change. The closest thought I had about it was that I may marry a politician and help my husband to bring about change in the country.

You are probably laughing at the young Yeo Bee Yin with her conservative mindset, but I found that the aspirations of a person – boy or girl – had a lot to do with environment. I remember how our family was so proud of my aunt, Yeo Swee Lan, who had become the first woman in our small town to enroll at university in the 1980s. I knew then that I could follow in her footsteps if I worked as hard as she had.

My aunt together with all the proud nieces and nephews celebrating her graduation. I am on the right-most at the front row. 

I remember the Walt Disney cartoons that I used to watch as a child. They always seemed to tell the tale of fair maidens waiting for a white knight or Prince Charming to come along so that they could live happily ever after. I am glad that Disney has changed its tune – from Elsa in Frozen to Moana, we are seeing smart, bold and hardworking female characters that fulfill their purpose in life. Their role isn’t just to be pretty and marry someone! 

This is a cultural shift that I believe will bear fruit in the future. Compared to my generation, which saw mostly the shadows of reality of what we could achieve, this generation of young girls is growing up with wider horizons in life. 

Madeleine Albright told the audience at a Ted Talk that her granddaughter had once asked her why it was a big deal that she had been the first female Secretary of State. Her granddaughter apparently said: “Most Secretaries of State are women!” She had grown up watching many women Secretaries of State after all – Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. At home, in our generation, Hannah Yeoh Tseow Suan has become the first woman Speaker of the Selangor State Assembly. Our girls now grow up knowing they could be the next Hannah Yeoh. 

Hannah Yeoh - the first woman Speaker and the youngest Speaker in Malaysia's history.

Talking about role models, I would like to share a not-so-glorious personal story here. When I was contesting for the DAPSY (Democratic Action Party Socialist Youth) chief post in November 2015, I needed to meet many delegates to share my manifesto and talk about how I wanted to lead the organisation. I intentionally chose to wear pants instead of a dress (or skirt) on many of these occasions.

As I began to reflect on this experience after the election, I realised that I had associated wearing pants with strength and leadership and equated wearing a dress/skirt with being inferior. This unconscious perception was probably brought about by seeing more men (who obviously only have pants as a fashion option) in leadership positions than women as a child. Even when I knew that a woman could be a leader, my unconscious mind told me that women who wanted to be leaders should behave like men.

It was this light bulb moment that made me resolute. It taught me not to be ashamed of being a leader who wears dresses, skirts and heels. Of course, I choose to wear pants on occasion – for project site visits or when the occasion calls for it, or simply when I feel like it. (Don’t you feel sorry for men who can’t simply don a skirt for a change?)

All in all, the idea that dressing like a man demonstrates strength should not exist. I hope the next generation of boys and girls in Malaysia will grow up seeing leaders in both skirts and pants. Girls should know that they do not need to lose their identity as women in order to be leaders. Most importantly, our boys and girls must be taught that what matters most as leaders are the content of their characters, the principles they stand for and the actions they take, not their gender.

The question for us now is how to create an environment for more women leaders to rise. I shall discuss them in the next article.

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

[1] World Economic Forum. The Global Gender Gap Report 2016. 2016 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[2] The World Bank. World Bank Open Data. [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from