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The myth of Malaysian diversity

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-
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 /

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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9 Responses to “The myth of Malaysian diversity”

  1. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear Shanon & Malaysians,

    From the perspective of a Malay-Muslim Singaporean like me, it seems very clear that Malaysia is a “torn” society. By and large, the Muslim-Malay Malaysian populace is conservative and prefers an Islamist society. But on the other hand, the non-Muslims prefer a more Western-style, liberal democratic society. These two components are moving in opposite directions and tearing the fabric of Malaysian society apart.

    Malaysia will have to find a compromise solution that somehow can balance between these opposites. No one single faction can have it all. The Malay [Malaysians] cannot expect a 100% Islamic society and neither can the non-Malay [Malaysians] expect a Westernised society.

    Malaysia will have to find a balance – and that is by no means an easy task. Both sides must accept a pragmatic compromise.

  2. Eric says:

    Dear Dr Syed Alwi,

    How exactly do you know that: “the Muslim-Malay Malaysian populace is conservative and prefers an Islamist society” and “non-Muslims prefer a more Western-style, liberal democratic society”? Did you run a national poll? Was there a referendum on these issues? Or are you putting people in neatly defined boxes filled with stereotypes? The Malaysian society is so complex and diverse, I cannot see how anyone can make such sweeping statements on a mere hunch.

    I know lots of Muslim-Malay Malaysians who are gays and lesbians, as much as I know lots of non-Muslim Malaysians who would rather have a conservative state enforcing principles very similar to some interpretation of Islam. But I do not go about saying I know Malaysian society at large.

    Shanon’s article was all about diversity in Malaysia and how little it is understood. I believe you may have given a good illustration of this.

  3. Azizi Khan says:

    In order for diversity to happen, we must be willing to change. And things in Malaysia don’t change easy. Why? Well as it was put eloquently to me during my recent trip home and I quote, “If it doesn’t have an Islamic label, Malays won’t support it, if it doesn’t make money, Chinese won’t support it and for Indians – well who cares about Indians, they are irrelevant!”.

    There you go. Everywhere I saw in Malaysia, every race goes about their merry way doing their work. But they don’t look like people wanting change.

    One has to understand something fundamental about Malaysians – they will b*tch and moan to kingdom come about how unfair the whole system is. But when push comes to shove – they will look after their own interest or do nothing. They sit at their “mamak stall” and scream conspiracy by Umno politicians. (In fact Malaysia is also unique in the sense that everyone seems to know every dirty piece of laundry of every politician.) But they still support Umno? Why – it’s the devil you know. How else can you account for half a century of outright plundering of the nations coffers – and they publicly go about as if nothing is wrong. The French have started a revolution for less!

    I remember when I used to talk about migrating overseas, my friends would quickly say, “I’d rather be a second class citizen in my own country than in another country”. Well there you go! You asked for what you receive! If you are willing to be a second class citizen – accept it. Don’t harp on about how unfair it is. You are part of the problem!

    So that’s the thing about diversity – you have to initiate the change before something happens and then accept that there will be changes. Muslims in Malaysia have to accept that we live in a multi-cultural and multi-religious environment and not scream murder everytime someone wants to have a concert in Malaysia. As much as we respect one Muslim to another, we have to respect others and it means understanding that they can and will do something that may not be acceptable. Respect and tolerance is a TWO WAY street.

    I have to say this out loud. MALAYSIAN MEN DO NOT RESPECT WOMEN. Period. Women are treated as things and baby producers. Especially for Malay Malaysians, the syariah acts have stripped away some of their fundamental rights which they would have under common law. Under the guise of religion, Muslim men are allowed bigamy without needing to support former spouses and children. Cases in syariah courts drag on for years with no relief in sight while the male is off spending money with his new playmate. So how then we can even move from this to having good female leaders? Even our politicians are no better – remember “bocor”? If that incident had happened outside Malaysia – two things would have happened:

    a) the offending parties would have been sacked or
    b) they would have had enough dignity to resign.

    But this is Malaysia. We don’t need dignity or ethics to be politicians. We can be corrupt to the bone, rest assured the public will still vote you into office. Indian [Malaysians] have a saying, “If you correct the head, the tail will follow”. Since our fearless PM has skeletons in his closest – how do you expect his ministers to be? Heck, we might as well make it a free for all and vote in gangsters (oh wait, that has been done too…).

    We cannot have diversity if we continue to bury our collective heads in the sand. We have to look up and see that we are all Malaysians. And we need to change. We have to accept that:

    – we will not tolerate corrupt leaders.
    – we will not tolerate racism.
    – we will not tolerate religious fundamentalists of any form.
    – we will accept that as a multi-ethnic society, there must be a fair go between races.

    Like in the good old days – before politicians of dubious quality started brandishing the keris to promote racial unity!

  4. Sean says:

    Aiyah, do I remember some inflatables being waved at a sporting event by Malaysian supporters chanting “Malaysia Boleh!”? The tackle-waving braggadocio that passes for Malaysian politics might admit more women if they could “go equipped”.

    It’s a crying shame there isn’t more support for women in Malaysian politics. The gender imbalance is not representative of Malaysians – many of my neighbours happily exist in marriages where the husband hangs out the washing before he goes to a manual job, and the more highly educated, more eloquent and often family-decision-making wife takes the kids to school on the way to her office job. They’re not all like that, but to suggest every (I refuse to use race or religion to describe them) Malaysian family is like that is deluded or deliberately misleading.

  5. Anak Kampung says:

    Dr. Syed Alwi,

    I’m not sure that what you say is true, or if it is just how things are portrayed by the powers that be. What is sure is that the longer we stay in this paradigm, the more and more real/true it will become.

  6. elfin says:

    Aziz Khan and Sean: Enjoyed both your comments. And there is a lot of truth in both.

    After the 2008 general election, many Malaysians spoke of a “new dawn”. And to many Malaysians living abroad, and non-Malaysians who have visited this country (including me), it was as if the silent majority were awakening from their slumber.

    Many months later, [we are] asking [ourselves], is the silent majority still in slumber? I would like to think that they are more than awake. And that they have been awake a long time. But they simply couldn’t be bothered.

    The nature of many Malaysians I’ve had the pleasure of knowing — of all faiths and ethnicities — is gentle, easygoing and quite laid back. Festivals, religious or otherwise, are generally enjoyed at each other’s. Long and tall tales are told late into the night … But over the last few decades, “wedges” have been placed between peoples; pages in history have been rewritten; selected religious laws have been used to undermine society.

    Malaysia, could, with a simple stroke of the pen, unlock itself from this mindset … and it should begin by banning all manner of discrimination, [towards women and other marginalised groups]. The world would then turn around to have another look at Malaysia. But this time, it would be for all the good reasons.

    How about it, Malaysians?

  7. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Mine is a view of an outsider from the outside.That is how Malaysia is perceived. I think the PAS-DAP bickering exemplifies this observation.

  8. pei ling says:

    Would just like to point out that I think Azizi Khan’s comments: “If it doesn’t have an Islamic label, Malays won’t support it, if it doesn’t make money, Chinese won’t support it and for Indians — well who cares about Indians, they are irrelevant!” was racist and stereotypical. Some of his other comments are also stereotypical of Malaysians and men.

    Having said that, I’m still glad to read that he’s hoping to see changes (for the better) in Malaysia.

    Nice article, Shanon!

  9. Noel Dass says:

    Well written article, Shanon. I also agree with Azizi Khan’s comments.

    This whole notion of a diverse Malaysia is really a myth that has been perpetuated over and over and over again. This past [Aidilfitri] reminded me of what a segregated Malaysia I grew up in. While going back to my hometown to visit family for the long break, it dawned on me that I had NO Muslim Malay [Malaysian] friends from my school days. Sure, there were Malay students in my class, but we were hardly what one would call “friends”. Every ethnic group moved in its own circle, and the interaction among the groups was limited at best.

    As for women and sexual minorities, the story is even worse. As an observer at a discussion group recently, I was horrified (though not surprised) to hear the response of some of the participants regarding the issue of gender equality. They essentially believed that the biological differences between men and women mean that there can be no such thing as equality between the two.

    Malaysians by and large are generally comfortable with, or at least tolerate, moral policing of women and sexual minorities. But the deafening silence from the public over invasion of privacy and moral policing perpetuates outrageous acts such as the Kartika caning and the countless raids on social gatherings of a sexual nature between consenting adults.

    The only issue where Malaysians can seemingly unite (again I stress not all Malaysians fall into this sweeping definition) is our overwhelming xenophobia against the lower-class foreigners who come to our shores seeking employment and refuge from persecution at home.

    Whither Malaysia??

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