Malaysiakini Letter

Gender inequality and women in Malaysia

Goh Wei Liang
Published:  |  Modified:

It might sound awkward that a man is talking about gender equality but just to clear this, in Emma Watson’s words, “Men, gender equality is your issue, too”. I will take that invitation and begin to talk about gender inequality and women in Malaysia.

Let’s look at the Gender Gap Report which first started in 2006 and look at how we fared in 2014.

I am not sure how to explain the rankings nor do I have the time to go through the complex methodologies used but in relative terms against other countries, perhaps what I can conclude is

  • We are progressing but at a slow pace;
  • Male domination and chauvinism still exists.
Let’s try to have a fair assessment on where we stand with local statistics.

In our workforce, Malaysia has come a long way since 1982. There were less than 1.8 million women employed in 1982 with a labour force participation rate of 44.5 percent and unemployment rate of 4.6 percent.

But in the most recent 2013 statistics, we saw the number of women employed almost tripled to about 5 million with a labour force participation rate of 52.4 percent and unemployment rate of 3.4 percent.

This means that more than half of women of working age are employed and this is a first in the Najib Abdul Razak administration and the only time we have breached 50 percent since 1982.

I believe it will most likely remain at this band of 50-60 percent.

Another recent encouraging news we read was from Hays Asia Salary Guide 2015. The employment of women in senior management roles in Malaysia has actually increased from 29 percent in 2014 to 34 percent in 2015.

But if anyone wants to be negative about this, we can. Put this in another way, after so long, we still see men dominating the senior management roles.

In political leadership, the numbers are disappointing. I realized that there are only two women ministers in our cabinet - Nancy Shukri (Minister in PM's Department) and Rohani Abd Karim (Women, Family and Community Development Minister). In Penang's state exco, there's only Chong Eng. In Selangor's state exco, they have two - Daroyah Alwi and Elizabeth Wong. In Kelantan's state exco, they have one women exco member - Mumtaz Md Nawi.

We can perhaps understand why if we look at the pattern in the GE 13 election results. In the recent 13th general election, we saw a total of 168 female candidates named out of the 727 Parliament and state seats. Seventy-one women candidates were from Barisan Nasional, 77 from Pakatan Rakyat while the rest were independents or non-BN and non-Pakatan. That is just 23 percent.

The results? Eighty female elected representatives only. That’s a winning rate of 48 percent and participation rate of 11 percent in our houses of representatives. That’s not good. How did this happen?

Here’s my message to the voters. If gender was a key criterion when you voted in the 13th GE, perhaps you should do us a favour and stay at home in the next election.

Marked improvement in key posts

In the federal government, we have seen a marked improvement where women today hold almost all of the key posts - from international trade and economic planning to welfare, education and healthcare. We have a total of 11 top ranked women in government today. Perhaps, I should name them here:

I have personally worked with a few of them in the list above plus a few other directors-general of other federal government agencies. They are more than capable to lead!

But the government can’t do this alone. It is as good as banking on only one sports legend - Nicol David - to carry the Jalur Gemilang in the sports arena when there are dozens if not a hundred different types of sport.

Based on a 2013 survey by Talent Corp, only 8 percent of board members of all listed companies were women and this is a long way off the government's target of 30 percent by 2016. Why is it a government target, I’m not sure, but although we must not forego meritocracy for the sake of meeting the numbers, any form of gender inequality on equal merits must not be tolerated especially by the private sector.

Perhaps what is lacking in Malaysia is an inspirational icon who can lead, educate and champion the cause for equality.

The fight against gender inequality must go on, especially in Malaysia. We cannot afford to slide further in the Gender Gap Report or slack in other initiatives.

Not just because Kofi Annan said that, “Gender equality is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance”.

To me, it is about respect.

Happy International Women’s Day. #makeithappen

GOH WEI LIANG is a senior analyst at a government agency. He blogs at

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