The middle way forward to strengthen female representation in politics


RECENTLY, the issue regarding the gross underrepresentation of women in parliament and the state legislative assemblies came to light when Zuraida Kamaruddin planned to propose to the Election Commission (EC) to allocate 30% of parliamentary seats to women.

Similarly, she called for 30% female representation for state legislative assemblies, local governments and any leadership or decision-making positions.

From this call, we need to deliberate this proposal in detail. Currently, the EC has no power to change the seat allocations for Parliament, let alone to impose reserved seats for women.

Hence, Zuraida’s proposal to EC is a redundant exercise. Moreover, her proposal is an attempt to address the serious issue of low female representation in Malaysian politics.

The gross underrepresentation of women in politics in Malaysia is nothing new as Zuraida said that after GE14, we only had 33 female representatives or 14.86% of the total number of members of parliament (MPs) in the country.

Hence, we need to analyse what factors are deterring this, the reasons to increase female representatives and the methods to strengthen it.

We propose the middle way forward to increase representation – seat-based public funding of political parties who produce winnable female candidates.

Deterrents

According to the Department of Statistics, Malaysia, women constitute 48.3% of the Malaysian population of 32.5 million (2019). Using the Malaysia Gender Gap Index (MGGI), the gender gap identifier between men and women in four sub-indices, women’s achievements outshined men in educational attainment with a score at 1.053 (where a score of 1.0 indicates equality between men and women).

However, we recorded the lowest MGGI score (score of 0.108) when it comes to the women’s political empowerment rate and this shows women lag behind men in political positions. Hence, we need to examine the reasons that underpin this political gap.

There are various factors which deter the increase in female representation in politics. We must acknowledge that the toxic culture the Malaysian parliament has created a deterrence for representation.

Female politicians have been subjected to harassment, name-calling, and the use of bad and toxic language by male parliamentarians towards their women counterparts.

One can refer to the disgraceful incident when Baling MP uttered racist remarks towards Kasthuri Patto of Batu Kawan. Such remarks constitute unaddressed sexism and gender inequality issues in the Parliament.

Moreover, female representatives not only bear the responsibility of serving the constituents, but also shouldering the weight of domestic responsibility (i.e., childcare) at the same time.

Through our conversation with the Chin Li Ee, female state assemblymen of Johor are not given facilities nor allowance for childcare. The lack of such facilities can deter women from considering political involvement.

After the change of federal government, the parliament finally took steps to institute childcare centres for female parliamentarians.

Furthermore, we should accept that our First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system serves as a deterrent for female representation.

Under the FPTP system in Malaysia, constituencies are divided among the various component political parties. The component parties can only field a limited number of candidates and this will exclude most female candidates.

Most male incumbent candidates are also reluctant to give up their seats to a woman. With the combination of a patriarchal society and the present FPTP system, political parties tend to field candidates who are winnable or widely accepted and these candidates are primarily men.

Moreover, even if a political party were to adopt a voluntary quota of 30% women candidates, FPTP cannot guarantee 30% women representation. This is because women candidates are not assured of electoral victory, especially if the seats were to experience close fights. 

Why an increase is needed

While elections are fundamentally a contest of ideas, personalities, and parties, we must not miss the sight of the advantages of an increased female representation in elected legislatures.

An increased representation in the political scene is the necessary antidote to the toxic race and religious discourse in the country.

Greater representation will result more diverse views being aired in the halls of parliament and state assemblies. This can lay the foundation for a fairer and more harmonious society for all Malaysians.

Furthermore, female politicians can serve as role models for having greater representation in all other domains and industries, which creates balanced growth for the nation.

Finally, as a party to UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Beijing Platform for Action, Malaysia should attain 30% female representation in parliament by 2030.

While it is important to acknowledge the target of 30% that has been laid, we argue the discourse of stronger female representation should transcend the mere attainment of minimum 30% target.

Hence, the solution that we advocate for will enable us to meet the 30% goal and more importantly, is focused on long-term implementation.

The middle way

Tindak Malaysia is of the view that public funding of political parties who field winnable women candidates is the middle way forward for the female political cause. We refer to this path as recommended in BERSIH 2.0’s report on public funding for parties.

BERSIH in its study, has proposed RM10 million public funding (out of the wider public funding for parties) to be annually allocated to increase female representation. 

This is known as seat-based direct public funding, which means that public funding will be given on a proportionate basis to any political party based on the number of female MPs that each political party has.

In simple terms, the more female based representatives that a party has, the more public funding the party receives on annual basis.

This incentive-based approach is viable because not only does it encourage political parties in Malaysia to nominate more female candidates, but will be an incentive to political parties to nominate more women in winnable seats during elections.

Hence, this translates to parties treating women candidates seriously. Moreover, small parties will receive the benefit by nominating winnable women candidates.

Among three approaches, the public funding approach is the most viable and the one with a long-term view to addressing the issue. This proposal can be implemented immediately, without the difficulty of constitutional amendments. Hence, it is a faster approach compared to waiting for constitutional changes to host quotas or electoral system change.

Furthermore, this approach can be used to complement and strengthen other measures to increase women representation. Either with the retention of existing FPTP or the adoption of new electoral system (preferred option), the public funding approach can incentivise more parties to adopt own measures to increase women representation.

Public funding can foster greater training capacity for parties to groom future women leaders. This in turn will reduce or nullify any arguments about the quality of women candidates.

Finally, the public funding approach ensures women candidates are elected based on their merits and respect the essence of elections – the contest between parties, personalities, and ideas.

This approach straddles a middle way between voluntary quota (depending on the party’s subjective will) and legislated quotas (requiring enforcement). This approach also can facilitate female representation to go beyond the minimum 30% target.

The swift implementation of the seat-based public funding of political parties either at national or state level will signal the necessary shift in our political scene both in composition and discourse. Ultimately, this approach will herald the political transformation that Malaysia sorely needs. – April 8, 2021.

*Danesh Prakash Chacko,  Fork Yow Leong and Wan Yue Gong are Tindak Malaysia activists.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.



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