Home » Editor's Pick for the Week » Bridget Welsh: The (Neglected) Power of (Malaysian) Women.

Bridget Welsh: The (Neglected) Power of (Malaysian) Women.

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GE13 SPECIAL: Apart from civil servants, another decisive group in GE13 are women. They comprise 51.7 percent of the electorate and regularly turn out in high numbers, especially in semi and rural areas.

In close races, how women vote can make the difference. Numerically, women are largely in the urban areas, but disproportionately they are more influential politically in the more rural areas, as men are often outstation for employment.

Let’s take a look at how women can shape and have shaped the election so far, recognising that they will make an important impact this election and the trends are moving against the BN.

Traditionally, women disproportionately support the incumbent government more than men in the range of 5-8%.

The BN gender advantage varies by ethnicity; it is more pronounced among Malays, Indians and East Malaysians, although almost non-existent among Chinese. The gap also varies by class, as it is most pronounced among women in the lower classes.

The reasons for this gender gap are multiple, but four factors stand out. First, traditionally the Umno campaign has had the strongest women’s branch, Wanita Umno, and this group has played a major role in winning support. It has been the female face for the BN.

It is important to note that Umno historically was the first to include women actively in politics.

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Second, women have less access to alternative forms of information outside of the mainstream media, as they often have less time to surf the Internet due to family responsibilities and do not attend ceramah at night in as high a number as men due also to the same family responsibilities.

Third, women, particularly those in the lower classes, are more responsive to the incentives of money. On the front line of managing the household economy, women find the extra funds useful for families and at the same time feel more obliged to repay the support.

Finally, women are also seen to be more responsive to the fear tactics adopted by BN, and worry about the impact on their families. From information to fear, women generally appear more risk-adverse and this favours the incumbent government.

Yet, over the past few elections, this gender gap has been narrowing. The trend has been toward more women supporting the opposition. In fact in the urban areas among the Chinese, women are more likely to support Pakatan than BN.

Polling has also found a sharp increase of ordinary women engaged in politics in Malaysia from 2003 onwards, as seen by the composition of the rallies, protests such as Bersih and anti-Lynas and a female expansion of civil society at the local level.

From the broad trends, the gender gap this election will likely narrow further. Trends suggest more women in Malaysia are awakening politically, and clamouring in favour of change.

More attuned to local issues

One of the reasons for this movement in the voting pattern of women has to do with the salience of different issues in the GE13 campaign, as well as the outreach efforts by both camps.

Among women themselves, different groups, such as single versus married, have different sets of concerns. Yet, there are a few broad commonalities across women.

While men and women alike tend to prioritise concerns over cost of living, women disproportionately highlight greater concerns with issues tied to the family, such as education, weigh social problems such as drug addiction more heavily, and especially in the urban areas are deeply concerned with rising crime.

The tragic murder of Irene Ong Ai Sam in Bukit Gasing has brought to the fore the legitimate concerns regarding safety, and had a special impact for women who identify strongly with the mother-daughter bond.

One in four Malaysians are reported in surveys that either themselves or a family member have been a victim of crime, and disproportionately many of these crimes, such as robbery, affect women.

Studies show that women are more attuned to local issues than national ones. It is thus not surprising that many of the Himpunan Hijau environment group protestors were female.

The test in this election will be whether women think nationally and make the connection between their children’s future and the national results.

The BN’s strategy has been to keep the campaign with women local, using largely financial incentives and, in the past few days of the campaign, racial insecurity and fear.

Pakatan’s strategy toward women has been less clear, as outreach toward women has been uneven, but largely incorporated into the ‘change’ umbrella.

The two sides point to different sections in their manifestos, with the BN broadly promising gains in micro-finance and empowerment, while simultaneously touting its school vouchers and single mother packages.

In this latter group, the BN has been especially effective as the financial incentives have made an impact for this vulnerable community, especially among Indians and in East Malaysia.

Pakatan has developed a Women’s Initiative, which is geared largely toward married women, but offers the innovative idea of a retirement and emergency fund for housewives, training opportunities for all women and greater voice in government.

It is clear that both sides recognise the voting power of women, and have extended programmes, despite the limited public attention and knowledge of these initiatives.

Deteriorating BN record

Ordinary voters are not fully swayed by the promises, however. They are often actually influenced more by what happens in the campaign itself or the record in government.

BN is resting on its money-and-fear formula, while Pakatan is appealing to principles of cleaner government and fairness. The record of Najib Razak’s administration on women is coming into question, as he has served as women’s minister.

The women’s minister who was in cabinet, Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, was dropped for the National Feedlot Centre corruption scandal.

That the caretaker premier felt he was best suited to be women’s minister or could not find a suitable replacement in his coalition has already cast a cloud on the sincerity of attention to women’s issues.

It was blighted further by the faux pas in October 2012 when Najib claimed that Malaysia did not need women’s organisation as women were already empowered.

While significant gains have been made historically, Malaysia’s ranking is low globally at 120. There are persistent obstacles women face, from the difficulties of single mothers and higher levels of female poverty to political inclusion.

One area that is especially acute is protection on issues of family law. The share of Malaysian women in parliament, 9.9%, is lower than the global average of 18%.

The number of women’s ministers (1) and deputy ministers (6) in the BN has dropped as a share of the overall cabinet since Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took office, as fewer women, especially elected women, have been given decision-making power.

The perception of the most powerful women in the Najib government is his wife, Rosmah Mansor, who has not stood for election.

There is no clear success that Najib can point to in his four years in office for women. In fact, there are worrying trends.

Consider the issue of political representation further. The decline of women at the top of the BN corresponds to less influence in all of the main coalition parties, except Gerakan.

In Umno, MCA and MIC women leaders have been either marginalised or, in the case of Umno, scandalised.

MCA dropped its most prominent woman, Ng Yen Yen, while the MIC did not field any women for parliament. Tian Lian Hoe of Gerakan has emerged as one of the strongest and more reputable BN women leaders, but she is still not a minister.

Umno’s dropping of the deputy Wanita Umno leader is now well-known, but the persistent low of fielding women as candidates is not.

As the table below shows, the share of women fielded for parliament and state for Umno has remained stagnant since the 1999 election. Umno was in the vanguard for women’s political representation in Malaysia. It is now on par with PAS for fielding women.

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Wanita Umno as an organisation has been facing serious decline, and its ability to even influence its own members to field women has waned. Many in Wanita Umno feel slighted.

The BN has not significantly increased its representation of women, especially at the national level. MCA has dropped the number of women fielded from seven to four, while no women from MIC will be contesting for parliament.

The opposition in contrast has increased its fielding of women, especially PAS. PKR top the number of women fielded for the opposition, but PAS has the biggest increase over the past elections.

This is a long way from their position in 1999, and speaks to a quiet revolution of women’s empowerment in the party.

Nevertheless, the Islamic party is still among the lowest in fielding women. The majority of seats fielding women are at the state level, and there is a shift in the numbers of women from the national level to the state level for women in parties like the DAP.

For the first time in history, the BN collectively with East Malaysia is now tied with the opposition in fielding 77 women each. Clearly, the BN has lost the advantage in fielding women.

New trends in fielding women

Given the gains over time the baton of political empowerment of women is moving from the BN to the opposition.

What is striking about the women’s candidates is the increasing diversity in backgrounds and impressive credentials of those fielded.

In PAS, we find singers such as Wan Aishah Wan Ariffin in Jempol, along with doctors and lawyers such as Mumtaz Md Nawi in Kelantan.

In the DAP, there are pharmacists such as Alice Lau in Lanang. In PKR, the professional backgrounds has risen compared to the past.

Some of the women have served in politics, such as Kasthuriraani Patto in Batu Kawan, one of the few Indian women fielded nationally.

The woman candidates like orator Siti Aisha Shaik Ismail in Tambun and master’s degree holder Aiman Athirah Al-Jundi in Jelebu are young and dynamic, bringing new ideas and energy to the campaign.

The BN’s women candidates have not raised the same excitement, with concern with the fielding of Jessie Ooi fielded in Kuala Kubu Baru for the MCA, for example, whose infamy was a incoherent political tirade.

Yet, there are many bright women contesting, such as Mary Yap in Tawau, a teacher who has strong local roots, and Halimah Mohd Sadique of Johor.

What is important to note is that the women candidates in the BN have not received the same attention. In fact, what has drawn attention has been negative, such as the alleged actions of Hamidah Osman of Perak Umno who was blacklisted by Bersih.

This election does see, however, more women fielded than ever before, reflecting a national trend of growing female empowerment, but these numbers are far below global averages and targets within the parties themselves.

One factor that may have contributed to this is the dirtiness of this campaign, discouraging women from contesting.

Attacks on women can backfire

The women in this campaign, however, face fierce fights. An estimated 80% of women fielded in this campaign are in difficult races at the parliamentary level.

Some of these such as Pengerang, Jelebu and Tambun are real uphill battles. The same trend is replicated at the state level. In some cases, such as Ampang women are campaigning against each other, diminishing the chances of women to get into office.

The incumbent women, especially those that pose threats to the legitimacy of BN and have been strong performers, have been targeted.

No where is this clearer in the campaign, however, than in the contest of Raja Nong Chik Zainal Abidin against Nurul Izzah Anwar.

Here the unelected federal minister has been using public money to win himself a seat, as he has taken personal credit for projects under this ministry, while simultaneously pouring in his personal funds gained in the lucrative construction sector.

For years now, Nurul Izzah has been targeted to be ‘brought down’. Parallel examples can be found in Teo Nie Ching now in Kulai and Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud of PAS who has to work hard to win Kota Raja, although these candidates have more promising chances.

What has become part of the political targeting has been the use of personal attacks against women. This happens on both sides, with Rosmah Mansor receiving arguably the most attacks.

She is portrayed as corrupt and controlling her husband, with these criticisms perhaps the sharpest within Umno itself.

This reflects a gender dimension of the campaign, the perceived role of what a political wife should be with resistance for women taking a prominent role, especially when they are not the one elected into office.

Attacks on political candidates have extended to Nurul Izzah, Kamilia Ibrahim and Teo Nie Ching (left) from smut videos, calls of ‘traitor’ allegedly by no less than Rafidah Aziz herself now stationed in Kuala Kangsar to the recent disgraceful leaflets ridiculing Teo’s new motherhood role and breast feeding.

To make use of motherhood is not acceptable. The fact is that attacks on women backfire when they are perceived to be unfair, as shown in the past.

One only needs to look at the impact of attacks on Teresa Kok from 1999 onwards to see how foolhardy attacks on women can be politically.

Women stand as another group in this campaign that will set the direction for the country. They will shape who will lead their children, who will make the decisions that will shape their lives and who will be the leadership models for society.

From crime and security to the dignity of women, these issues will influence women in the polls. How national they are in voting will be decisive.

Despite the BN gender advantage, the underlying trends in political participation, campaign issues, fielding of women and attacks on women point to potential gains for Pakatan and for more women entering parliament. This will be a woman’s election, whatever the outcome.

Source: MalaysiaKini

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