HERE’S a statistic to think about: the nine by-elections since the March 2008 general election have seen a total of 36 candidates contesting. Only two, or less than 5.6%, of these candidates have been women.
The two were L Sarala, who contested in the record-breaking Bukit Selambau by-election in April 2009, and Aminah Abdullah, who contested in Penanti in May. Both contested as independents, and both were written off by pundits and journalists as never having an actual shot at victory. And yes, both lost their deposits in the end.
L Sarala (right) meeting voters in Bukit Selambau
The thing is, analysts and experts have said plenty about the shift in Malaysian society and politics since March 2008. There was even a lot of initial talk that Malaysian voters had had enough of racial politics, implying a shift towards inclusiveness and embracing diversity.
But is this really the case? Is the Malaysian political scene truly ready for this change? Maybe we should look at the participation of women in these nine by-elections to help us find the answers.
Academic and women’s rights activist Dr Cecilia Ng tells The Nut Graph that the dismal number of women candidates can be attributed to the histories and structures of Malaysian political parties. Was gender sensitivity a part of each party’s agenda from day one?
Aminah Abdullah, the only other
woman candidate out of nine by-
elections Of course, this question can be tackled from a position of principles and ethics, but in any election, we must also take into account the dynamics of realpolitik. And the realpolitik of by-elections is quite different from that of a nationwide general election. For example, six of the nine post-March 2008 by-elections were called because of the incumbents’ deaths. Therefore, unlike a general election, by-elections are often wholly unexpected and take political parties by surprise.
“The local division of each political party then must be able to push its strongest candidate at the very last minute,” Ng explains. And the strongest candidate would invariably be a male figure. This male figure is usually promoted by the male-centred youth wings of the political parties, which are traditionally the most influential at the grassroots level.
The cold, hard truth
Much has been said about the barriers — cultural, structural and financial — that women face in politics. But, as Ng explains, this is the cold hard truth about realpolitik: no party is going to field a candidate who is not well-known or respected by voters in a constituency. This is especially true in by-elections for state seats, where local issues prevail.
“Parachuting candidates from outside is not the answer, and if a party’s women’s wing does not push its own candidates, the party will not consider fielding a woman,” Ng explains in phone interview.
Ng (Courtesy of Cecilia Ng)But this is not an irreversible situation. Common sense says that a party which is serious about gender sensitivity and equality, and of securing the votes of half of Malaysia’s population, will actually prepare the ground for women’s participation. “It is doable. It’s not just top-down direction in a party, it’s also bottom-up advocacy,” says Ng. “The women have to push, and the men have to be sensitive.”
Shooting fish in a barrel
However, confining the discussion to women’s participation in elections also misses the forest for the trees. The issue is not that there are not enough women in politics, it is rather that politics in Malaysia places such a limited premium on diversity.
True, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) definitely scores points when it criticises the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s race-based politics. But showing up the BN’s communal rhetoric is like shooting fish in a barrel. One just has to appear marginally less racist and less corrupt to gain the moral high ground.
A survey of the PR’s campaign rhetoric over the past nine by-elections also shows that the coalition’s “inclusiveness” is severely limited. It talks about embracing diversity and respecting the rights of non-Malay Malaysians, yes. But does it talk about diversity beyond multiracial politics? Does it talk about respecting religious, sexual and ideological diversity, for example?
Perhaps the answer can be found when juxtaposing the coalition’s nice-sounding campaign rhetoric with what happens outside of the by-election period. Concerts need to be banned, Muslims who drink alcohol need to be nabbed and whipped, Muslims with a different point of view need to be silenced, and so on. And apart from Parti Keadilan Rakyat‘s much-touted constitutional amendment that will allow greater representation for women, what else is the coalition doing to address gender sensitivity?
There are so many other issues of representation to think about — indigenous rights, the rights of the poor, the rights of those with HIV/AIDS, those with disabilities, and so on. And don’t even talk about embracing citizens who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual (LGBT). Their votes are important, and in countries like Nepal they get elected to parliament; but in Malaysia, LGBTs are demonised, criminalised and discriminated against even though they can be a potentially important voting constituency.
Dealing with baggage
(Baggage pic by Gundolf / sxc.hu)
The issue is not that Parliament and the state assemblies absolutely must have elected representatives from each community. This defeats the purpose of letting voters decide with their conscience and letting the chips fall where they may in any given election.
As Angela Kuga Thas, a coordinator with the Women’s Candidacy Initiative, tells The Nut Graph: “The standard formula does not need to be only about representation from each community. For example, saying that Indian Malaysians can only be represented by an Indian Malaysian representative. We must move beyond this mentality.”
By extension, two hypothetical candidates could both be Malay-Muslim Malaysian. But if one is an inclusive, non-sexist, non-homophobic, non-racist democrat and the other has problems with women’s rights, gays and non-Muslims, then voters will actually have a real choice on their hands.
But that scenario looks very unlikely for now. Still, it’s nice to dream. As Kuga Thas says, “Everybody has his or her own baggage. The trick is picking the candidate with the least amount of baggage — we must have leaders who can self-reflect instead of always pointing fingers at others.”
Only when this happens — and continues to happen — can Malaysians confidently say that Malaysian democracy truly embraces the diversity of our peoples.
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