Sexual harassment in the Malaysian parliament

Ong Kian Ming

AS a Member of Parliament, it is not unusual for me to bring visitors to parliament to explain to them how legislation is debated and passed in this august house. Among the hundreds of visitors I’ve brought to parliament, one particular experience stood out.

She was a young foreign academic who was doing research on Malaysia. After I introduced her to some of my colleagues in the MPs’ lounge, a Deputy Minister happened to come along. Upon seeing my visitor, he immediately introduced himself to her and started peppering her with questions. He ignored all the other MPs who were around him. I could see that my visitor was getting more and more uncomfortable with the attention this Deputy Minister was giving her. At the end of the conversation, which I had to cut short in order to help her ‘escape’, he handed her his card and even wrote down his personal handphone number on his card and invited her to call him whenever she was free. Needless to say, my visitor did not follow up on this request.

I tell this story now in the aftermath of the fallout of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment cases that have led to other similar cases involving Kevin Spacey, the star of House of Cards, and the former British Defence Minister, Michael Fallon, being reported in the press.

In Malaysia, however, there have been no similar reports involving any prominent local personality, whether in the media, entertainment, sports or politics. Does this mean that sexual harassment is less pervasive in Malaysia compared to other more developed countries like the US and the UK? I think not.

The major difference between the US and Malaysia is that the press is much freer and more dogged in the former. Journalists from the New York Times had worked tirelessly and for many years on the Harvey Weinstein cases before finally breaking the story this October.

Although rumours of Mr. Weinstein’s sexually aggressive behaviour had already been circulating in the Hollywood and media circles for many years, he managed to use his power, fame and wealth to pay off actresses and threaten the media to prevent his dirty laundry from being aired in public. Only a newspaper as powerful and reputable as the New York Times could have taken him down.

It is hard to imagine a journalist in a mainstream newspaper in Malaysia being given the same leeway to pursue stories of sexual harassment involving powerful people, including politicians. All it would take is one strategically placed phone call from ‘above’ to the editor of the paper in question.

But even before we get to the stage of news breaking stories, I think we have a more fundamental problem in our country. Many people (almost all male) are not even aware that their behaviour constitutes sexual harassment.

The sexual innuendos and advances are seen as part of everyday speech involving someone holding power (usually a male) to a subordinate (usually a female). It is something ‘biasa’ or normal in the workplace and in the corridors of power.

I usually warn my female interns to watch themselves while in parliament so that they do not attract unwanted attention, especially from the politicians. Sad to say, the probability of sexual harassment is heightened in parliament due to its male-dominant nature, including among cabinet members. If politicians are allowed to get away with making utterances about female MPs ‘leaking’ and what not, imagine what little restraint they would have in front of cameras and reporters.

Is there anything we can do to change this kind of attitude, starting with the Malaysian parliament? As a matter of fact, yes. Firstly, MPs should be punished for making sexist remarks and for sexual harassment against other MPs when they are speaking in the Dewan Rakyat or Dewan Negara. There should not be any partisan bias when it comes to protecting those MPs who are well known for making sexist remarks. Such cases must be automatically referred to the Parliamentary Committee of Privileges and MPs should be suspended for at least one session if found guilty. If an MP repeats the same offense, then the length of suspension should be increased.

Secondly, MPs should be made to undergo Sexual Harassment trainings. If MPs have attended compulsory anti-corruption training sessions in the past, there is no reason why they should not go through similar courses for sexual harassment awareness. After receiving such education, MPs may no longer plead ignorance on account of ‘normalise’ sexually inappropriate remarks. MPs need to be enlightened that their sexually predatory remarks are not only humiliating but imply potential threats to the safety of the person (usually, a woman) concerned.

Thirdly, MPs must not be afraid of calling out their colleagues who make such remarks, whether in private or in public. I must admit that this is an area of weakness on my part. I failed to call out the Deputy Minister while he was clearly harassing my visitor. I must admit that it is also not easy for me to call out fellow colleagues from my own party when they make sexually inappropriate remarks.

Fourthly and lastly, we must continuously examine our own behaviour and speech. While I’d like to think of myself as someone who is progressive and conscious of what constitutes sexual harassment, I’m sure I’ve made remarks that can be construed as sexual harassment.

I’m not sure how I would subject myself to scrutiny on this, but a good place to start would be by getting feedback from some of my trusted female colleagues. As a famous musician once said, change starts with the ‘man in the mirror’. – November   12, 2017.

* Dr Ong Kian Ming is the Member of Parliament for Serdang, Selangor and is also the General Manager of Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Duke University, an MPhil in Economics from the University of Cambridge and a BSc in Economics from the London School of Economics.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

Sign up or sign in here to comment.


  • Unfortunately sexual harassment is not exclusively confined in Malaysia Parliament but is also happens in the corporate world. Senior executives took advantage of their office to trap and abuse their victims. At axa affin life insurance berhad - the chief agency officers - launches vulgar words, filthy statements and unsolicited sexual advance on staffs/agency members. Read more at

    Posted 6 years ago by Chris Ng · Reply

  • Give us some hints on who was the culprit short of landing you with a major law suits. You need to expose this or you are just a passive accomplice.

    Posted 6 years ago by Butter Scotch · Reply