Who would choose, on a day dedicated to honouring women in his country, to completely discount all previous work done by its women?
That’s exactly what Najib Razak, the incumbent Malaysian prime minister, said during his speech during the National Women’s Day celebration on October 2. In addition to being the prime minister, Razak also holds the portfolio of Women, Family and Community Development – one of the few male ministers in the world (alongside Samoa) to head a ministry dedicated to women.
Razak has a record of saying contradictory things: after launching a “new economic model” in 2010 to shift the basis of affirmative action to class instead of race, he then launched a program to help increase the economic participation of the indigenous Malays.
Malay leaders in the region are only starting to speak about the need to formally acknowledge women’s political and economic participation. While Brunei’s minister of Youth, Culture and Sports recently spoke about the need for Bruneian women in addressing environmental sustainability, Razak spoke about how Malaysian women are needed to work in both the private and public spheres.
Below is a loose translation of his speech in English from Malay, as edited in this video (with emphasis added):
“If we look back in our country’s history, women in Malaysia are different from women in many countries… no need to fight for women’s rights directly, as a united movement… because from early on we had already decreed the equality of women in our country (by giving them voting rights).
We chose the theme ‘Women as Catalyst for the New Economy’. Women shape families, healthy families. Not only from the aspect of physical health, but mental health, moral health, healthy values, healthy manners…Women play an important role…At home they nurture with love, but in this love there is firmness.
In empowering women there are three important aspects. First is education. Education must be provided to the highest level possible. Second is skills and capabilities, we must stress this. Third is that women competing must have capabilities to compete. Definitely not women who think they cannot succeed. We want women who dare to be competitive.
Private sector gets a RM10000 grant, double tax deduction, and allowance for building and so on. We reduce their tax burden so they can build crèches so that women if they want to work they can bring their child to their workplace. Hope to get another RM1000 soon. Each company and government office must have their own crèches. The Chief Secretary can encourage this, send a directive to all Ministry Offices to set up crèches.
Based on the theme ‘Women as Catalyst for the New Economy’ and with the hope that all of us in and outside this room today because of our work to honour women, there must be sharing and partnership between the government, women’s groups, NGOs, and the private sector. Everyone should join forces, because this is an important part of the national agenda.”
As Razak’s speech was edited and then posted on Youtube by a government agency, I find it a good representation of what Malaysian women are supposed to be according to official political rhetoric. A quick summary:
- Malaysian women are equal to men because they have the right to vote.
- Malaysian women shape the economy by nurturing future citizens and economic actors to be healthy, moral, polite, responsible, etc.
- Malaysian women are empowered women if they are educated, skilled, and confident.
- Malaysian women should work if there are childcare options available.
First of all, I think it’s a great starting point that the economic contributions and potential of women are recognised to be important for Malaysia’s economic development. I think, in the context of Southeast Asia at least, it would just be really naive to ignore this because of the historical record of women working alongside men in this region. Women staying at home is likely a luxury for most families today.
It’s also a good to recognise that Malaysian women enjoyed voting rights ahead of other countries. Like many Muslim communities, Malays tend to look to the Middle East as the standard, so yes, Malaysia is way ahead of Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and especially Saudi Arabia (but of course!) when it comes to giving women suffrage. But even other Malaysian women can tell you that gender equality encompasses more than just the right to vote.
This representation of Malaysian women only becomes problematic because of the multiple roles that women are expected to play. Besides calling to women to work outside the home, he still calls on the notion of women as primary caregivers, in a society with strict gender roles – men only work in the public sphere. However, while women are encouraged to be both workers and mothers, men are not similarly encouraged to take on their share of housework and childcare. The solution proposed by Razak is more childcare centres in public and private businesses. This scheme was started under the economic plan of the previous government; families with lower incomes cannot afford to place their children in a high-quality childcare, depending instead on informal childcare networks like relatives and grandparents.
Razak makes the argument that the only successful and empowered working women are those who “dare to be competitive.” A recent event on women’s leadership in Indonesia highlighted the individual woman in the same way. By focusing on individual factors of success, Razak is indirectly blaming ‘unsuccessful’ women for not having enough self-esteem or confidence. Less focus is put on addressing larger structural factors, such as the lack of affordable childcare or insufficient male household participation.
Encouraging educated women to participate in the labour force requires a re-shuffling of larger society; otherwise, women will be still be stuck with the “second shift.” Malaysian men could be encouraged to participate in household work and childcare and to be allowed paternity leave. The socio-religious basis of excuses allowing women to work only if their “primary” caregiving roles have been fulfilled should also be addressed.
Women’s organisations in Malaysia were in uproar (here, here and here) over Razak’s comment that a women’s movement was no longer needed. Since the Malaysian women’s movement has a strong track record of lobbying for and achieving formal rights for women (details here), Razak’s comment only served to make Western women the “Other.” By telling Malaysian women that they are “different” from those in “developed countries,” Razak implied that they should not “ape their Western counterparts.” In other words, Malaysian women should not organise for gender equality because these are “Western” concepts.
Female political and economic participation is already fraught with multiple and intersecting issues – confused politicians are an additional burden. It is ironic that Razak dismissed the efforts and achievements of women’s groups in obtaining legislative equality for women in marriage, child custody and employment, while at the same time he lauds the liberal feminist goals of equal voting rights and promotes equal economic participation.
Razak wants Malaysian women to be workers, just like Malaysian men, to contribute to the country as a “Catalyst for the New Economy.” But Malaysian women still have to be mothers, according to Malaysia’s traditional/Islamic/Asian values, while Malaysian men don’t necessarily have to be fathers. Without addressing Malaysian men as a “Catalyst for the New Family,” there seems to be no way out of the “second shift” for Malaysian women.