Women constitute around 51 per cent of Malaysia’s 14,968,304 registered voters.

NEVER mind the men — women, who constitute around 51 per cent of Malaysia’s 14,968,304 registered voters, have played a crucial role in the Malaysian political scene, including elections since independence in 1957, when Malaysia introduced universal suffrage.

Today, women form the backbone of Umno, the main constituent of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, through its women’s wing, Wanita Umno, with its 1.3 million membership that has contributed significantly to the electoral success of successive prime ministers over the last 60 years.

As such, whatever the result of the 14th General Election (GE14) on May 9, one thing is certain — women will continue to play a major role in deciding which parties win the day.

They also have a tendency of a higher turnout at elections, which, in GE14, is projected to be 85 per cent, almost the same as the 86 per cent in GE13.

Not surprisingly, the various political parties strongly feature women’s rights and issues in their respective manifestos. The BN coalition, for instance, offers 25 pledges on “fulfilling and enabling the success of women”.

It seems increasingly apparent that in the opposition pact, it is president Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the spouse of the incarcerated former BN stalwart, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who is emerging as the powerhouse.

Judging by the way Wan Azizah exerted her power when she announced the opposition candidates in Selangor for GE14 and state elections, allegedly to the chagrin of her deputy Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, who is Selangor men-teri besar, suggests that she is calling the shots. Her soft-spoken nature belies a tough internal political constitution.

Given that nonagenarian Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister candidate for the opposition and former BN stalwart who ruled as prime minister for 22 years before falling out and subsequently being expelled from Umno, is not as active as he used to be, it is inevitable that Wan Azizah’s leadership role and decision-making is operationally elevated in her capacity as the pact’s president and deputy prime minister candidate to Dr Mahathir.

She, in fact, in many respects, may be the de facto if not de jure leader of the opposition, at least for now, albeit she is allegedly holding the fort for her septuagenarian husband, Anwar, who is currently an ‘adviser’ to the pact, till, of course, he is released from prison sometime after GE14, when he is widely expected to eventually succeed Dr Mahathir.

The opposition is a coalition of expediency comprising Parti Pri-bumi Bersatu Malaysia, a Malay nationalist party launched by Dr Mahathir; the People’s Justice Party (PKR), led by Anwar, Dr Mahathir’s once arch-nemesis whom he jailed for corruption and sodomy; DAP, the Malaysian Chinese centre left party led by Lim Kit Siang; and Parti Amanah Negara.

In contrast, Wanita Umno chief Tan Sri Shahrizat Jalil, 64, former minister of Women, Family and Community Development, was still contemplating which constituency to stand as nomination day was looming on April 28. Her rivalry with her predecessor at Wanita Umno, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, former minister of International Trade and Industry for 21 years and whom she defeated in the 2009 Umno contest, has resurfaced during the tumultuous GE14 campaign.

Rafidah, 74, recently resigned as chairman of Malaysian glovemaker Supermax Corp, two days after its managing director, Stanley Thai, apologised to the Malay-sian government for supporting the opposition in GE13.

I have interviewed Rafidah many times during her ministerial career. She had a no-nonsense approach to both her own cadres and foreign officials, attracting the sobriquet as “Rapidfire Rafidah”. Some even stress that “she is the best prime minister Malaysia never had”, although Tun Musa Hitam may disagree.

While Rafidah represents a bygone era, the involvement of women in the electoral process and in politics is far from ideal.

The World Economic Forum’s Gender Parity Global Index, published in its recent Global Gender Gap Report, reminded that in Malaysia there is room for greater gender parity in both the Dewan Rakyat and government.

While Malaysia is ranked quite well in gender parity in health, mortality and educational attainment, its ranking in female participation in political empowerment is relatively low.

Perhaps not coincidentally, BN, in its manifesto, plans to amend the Federal Constitution to guarantee that women comprise a minimum 30 per cent of the Dewan Negara. A BN government would also expand women’s participation and opportunities in decision-making “by ensuring that at least 30 per cent of decision-makers in all sectors are women.”

Najib is promising to personally head two new initiatives — a Women’s Economic Council, which would ensure that the direction and development of women’s economic agenda are given proper attention at the highest level, and a National Syariah Judicial Council to discuss issues relating to legal and judicial Syariah matters in Malaysia pertaining to women.

He also plans to launch a Women’s Cooperative that offers savings facilities and loans “to strengthen the financial status of Malaysian women”.

In addition, BN promises to boost women’s entrepreneurship, help single women, especially ones in the lower-income group with their finances, increase provision of microfinance, increase maternity and paternity leave, provide tax incentives for companies that provide workplace childcare, establish a Special Court Council on Marriage, Custody and Maintenance and enact the Sexual Harassment Act to protect victims from sexual harassment.

The writer is an independent
London-based economist and writer

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