The MCA leadership, comprising mostly men. Ng Yen Yen is third from left
IF Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen is not successful in her bid for the MCA’s vice-presidency in October 2008, she reckons what it means is that the 59-year-old party is not yet ready for a woman leader.
By contesting one of the four vice-president’s posts in a first-ever attempt by a woman, is the medical doctor opening a new page for more gender representative party politics in Malaysia? Or is she, as some sceptics charge, just trying to revive her political career?
Yen Yen is not just the first woman to contest a top party post in the MCA; she is also the first woman within the major component parties of the Barisan Nasional (BN) who is taking such a bold step.
In nearly all the political parties in Malaysia, the top position attained by women leaders is chief of the women’s wing. The known exception is the DAP’s Chong Eng, who was appointed one of three deputy secretary-generals in August 2008.
In the case of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the party president is a woman. However, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, by all accounts, rose to that position by virtue of the popular support surrounding her husband, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, when he was incarcerated.
Speaking to The Nut Graph on the sidelines of the Selangor MCA convention on 21 Sept 2008, Yen Yen says having a woman candidate for the vice-president’s race is a breakthrough for the party.
“Women want to move into the mainstream of politics. They are not just addressing gender issues, but universal issues.
“Women also have views on matters such as education, culture, and even the ISA (Internal Security Act). Women’s views must be taken into consideration,” says Yen Yen, who has been Wanita MCA chief since 1999.
Yen YenWinning is the aim
Challenging tradition within a male-dominated party notwithstanding, Yen Yen is clear about what she wants to achieve.
Asked why she was only aiming for the vice-presidency and not the presidency, she argues that one has to be realistic. “Why contest just for the sake of contesting?” she says, adding that the point is to win.
“This contest is significant and historical in promoting gender representation in political parties. If you are in a contest that is not winnable, you will give a negative impression to the women and will deter other women from contesting.”
Yen Yen says feedback from the grassroots was for her to go for vice-president. If she succeeds as vice-president, then she can aim for the deputy presidency in the next two to three terms.
“As a leader, we must be a strategist, thinker and risk-taker,” she says.
Yen Yen will not openly admit that the MCA is not ready for more women leaders at the top. But her actions and words speak volumes about the glass ceiling that she faces.
And the fact is, the top nine party leaders comprising the president, deputy president, four vice-presidents, secretary-general, treasurer, and national organising secretary are men, even though women make up 37% of party membership.
What happens within a party like the MCA is also reflected in the political sphere outside political parties. In fact, the lack of opportunities for women to actively participate in politics was what gave rise to the Women’s Candidacy Initiative (WCI).
In the 1999 general election, in order to address the lack of gender representation in Malaysian politics, the WCI fielded the first candidate to run on a gender platform.
(© Kelly Young / Dreamstime.com)The WCI’s candidate for the elections, the late Zaitun Kasim, pointed out that no political party in Malaysia, from either the BN or the opposition, has fielded 50% women candidates in the elections. Nor have they fielded even the minimum 30% the government is committed to in line with the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which Malaysia ratified in 1995.
The truth is Malaysian women remain politically marginalised, despite being educated and contributing significantly to the economy. For example, the percentage of women representatives in the Dewan Rakyat was 10.4% in 1999, but after the 2008 general election, that figure merely jumped to 10.8%.
The WCI argues that no Malaysian political party has an active policy about fielding women candidates in elections, especially in winnable seats.
Structural reforms needed
Dr Cecilia Ng, visiting professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Women’s Development Research Centre, says Yen Yen’s candidacy can be considered “a little breakthrough” within a male-dominated arena.
“Ng Yen Yen is a dynamic leader, and it seems that she wants to break through the glass ceiling,” Cecilia says, noting that Yen Yen’s task is that much harder because she is also dealing with a sticky floor.
However, merely having a woman vice-president does not necessarily promote gender equality within the MCA.
Cecilia stresses it is more important for Yen Yen to push for structural reforms such as having a quota for women leaders.
“Yen Yen has to train more women and men leaders who are gender sensitive. What we want is substantive representation, and not in numbers only,” she says.
New Era College gender politics researcher Por Heong Hong echoes Cecilia’s observations, saying what matters is whether the MCA encourages women to participate, to voice out and take part in decision-making from the grassroots to the top levels in its daily operations.
“Top posts can be a symbolic gesture, just like the PKR president. It does not necessarily reflect that the party is upholding gender equality,” says Por.
Whatever Yen Yen’s reasons for stepping up to the plate, she is also taking a political risk. “If I lose, I lose all,” she says. “It does not matter. Champions take risks, and leaders are agents for change.”
Yen Yen was appointed women, family and community development minister after the March 2008 election. If she loses her bid for vice-presidency, she is likely to lose her ministerial post because traditionally, only party presidents, deputy presidents, secretary-generals and vice-presidents are appointed ministers. Yen Yen is currently party vice-president by virtue of being Wanita MCA chief, a post she is not defending.
MCA vice-president Ong Tee Keat (centre) declines to comment
on Yen Yen’s chanceGender as strategy
Por says Yen Yen’s candidacy is a reflection of factionalism within MCA politics.
Yen Yen is widely seen as a leader close to Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek’s Team B faction, which is at odds with Team A’s current leadership under incumbent president Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting. Soi Lek is contesting the deputy presidency against Ka Ting’s brother, Datuk Ong Ka Chuan.
“Gender is a strategy for Yen Yen, not an objective. She is not a gender sensitive politician,” Por says, citing the statement Yen Yen made in late 2007 about women needing to wear sexy lingerie and perfume to bed so that their husbands would not stray.
Por asserts that Yen Yen’s candidacy is an attempt to transform her political career because she has been Wanita MCA chief for nine years and has reached a cul de sac.
Por argues that Yen Yen should be promoting her candidacy by offering her ideas and vision about wider issues, instead of just using gender as a strategy. For example, Por says, Yen Yen could be presenting ideas about how to reform the MCA, and whether the party should pull out from the BN.
MCA members not prejudiced over gender,
says former vice-president Yap Pian Hon Yen Yen’s chances
Neither Ka Ting nor vice-president Datuk Ong Tee Keat would field questions about Yen Yen’s chances and whether the party was ready for women to take on top leadership positions.
Former MCA vice-president Datuk Chua Jui Meng, who is contesting the MCA presidency in October, admits that Yen Yen’s candidacy is a breakthrough. However, he stresses that gender is not an issue in the party elections.
“Everyone has a fair chance regardless of their gender. Gender is a minor issue, and I believe that the delegates are mature enough to decide based on a candidate’s track record,” he tells The Nut Graph.
Other male leaders agree.
Datuk Yap Pian Hon, another former MCA vice-president and a prominent Klang Valley grassroots leader, says members are not prejudiced over a person’s gender.
He argues that delegates recognise that this is a critical time for the party, and they will decide on who best they think can reform the party.
Loh Seng Kok: A woman in the party
line-up would bring a good balance
Former MCA Kelana Jaya Member of Parliament Loh Seng Kok tells The Nut Graph that he believes Yen Yen has support even though there are five others contesting the four vice-president posts, all of whom are men.
He says having a woman in the line-up of the party’s male leadership would bring a good balance.
Jui Meng says he cannot predict Yen Yen’s chances because her candidacy is unprecedented. Asked why no women had contested top party leadership before, he chuckled: “It is simply because there were no [women] candidates.”
But now there is.
As can be expected with any candidate who challenges the status quo, Yen Yen has a difficult task ahead of her. Whether she wins the vice-presidency is left to be seen. But either way, her attempt will clearly be a knock on the glass ceiling.