Malaysia: Factoring in the Women's Vote


Deborah Johnson

When asked publicly, concerning the role the women's vote had played in the November 1999 General Elections, Democratic Action Party (DAP) leader, Lim Kit Siang, seemed somewhat dismissive indicating that election analysis in Malaysia was such that it was not possible to distinguish or ascertain women's voting patterns. Recent developments however indicate a new awareness on the part of the major political parties that they may have to work just that little bit harder to capture that vote.

Following the 1999 elections, the Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir, somewhat surprisingly reduced the number of women ministers in Cabinet from three to two, even though there was now an unprecedented 20 women in Parliament (16 from the ruling Barisan Nasional Coalition and four from the Opposition). Importantly, women Barisan Nasional candidates had held their own, whilst many of their male colleagues foundered. (Though it must be said that women's representation is nowhere near even the 30% quota level that women's groups have been aiming for.)

In the light of Umno's flagging political fortunes the logic of Dr Mahathir's recent (17 January 2001) cabinet reshuffle announcement becomes clear. It included the setting up of a new Women's Affairs Ministry and the appointment of Wanita Umno Deputy President, Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, as the new minister (effective from 30 Jan.). She had been head of the PM's Department Women's Affairs Division for the past year since retaining her seat in the 1999 election.

In addition, Umno has been working on the setting up of a women's youth wing (Puteri Umno, for women under 30 years). It was thought that statements prejudicial to women reputed to have been made by the Islamic Opposition (PAS) party leader Nik Abdul Nik Aziz (and highlighted vigorously in the state-owned mainstream media) might have made Umno an attractive option for women. PAS did not field any women candidates in the 1999 election. Indeed, it has not had a woman candidate in 30 years. However, in January 2001 PAS also pragmatically announced that it was considering fielding women candidates in the next 2004 general election in an endeavour to win government.

Whilst women seem to be making some gains, there is scepticism as to whether these latest developments will bring any significant advantage to women. True, a Women's Affairs Ministry does mean that women get a direct voice at cabinet level. However, this is as a junior ministry. The women's portfolio is no longer a division of the important and not-to-be ignored PM's department. There is concern that women's issues may be side-lined in this new ministry rather than mainstreamed in all departments and facets of government. There is concern also that the increased glare and scrutiny will place an enormous burden of expectation on the minister and her ministry with any failures serving to undermine or trivialise women's issues as a whole.

Further, though Puteri Umno's elected leader will automatically sit in the Umno council (presently International Trade and Industry Minister, Rafidah Aziz, is the only woman in the supreme council by virtue of her Wanita chief's post), sceptics wonder whether the need for such a division isn't a symptom of a broader malaise within the party and the Wanita Umno wing itself.

WATCHPOINT: If the response of the PM's daughter, Marina Mahathir, is anything to go by, then women are taking a cautious wait-and-see approach, but they are not happy to wait for very long for positive changes to materialise.


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