Sarala (right) with her bicycle
INDEPENDENT candidate L Sarala’s election campaign in Bukit Selambau has been a hoot. After being assigned the symbol of a bicycle by the Election Commission (EC), the 33-year-old marketing manager got herself a bike and started riding it to canvass for votes house-to-house.
It would be easy to dismiss her candidacy as a stunt. But the one thing Sarala has been adamantly pointing out is among a record-breaking 15 candidates here, she is the lone woman.
“In Kedah, I cannot remember when an independent woman candidate has contested in any elections,” she tells The Nut Graph. “So I must now set a positive example to all aspiring independent women candidates here.”
In fact, she is the only woman candidate in all three simultaneous by-elections — Bukit Selambau, Bukit Gantang and Batang Ai — that will be held on 7 April. The thing that makes her candidacy hard to dismiss, therefore, is that she seems to genuinely want to run on a women’s rights platform.
“I vow to help single mothers facing problems during the current economic downturn,” she says. She also promises to help women workers who have been retrenched from the factories here.
Of course, there have been several quarters who are claiming that the 13 independent candidates in Bukit Selambau are merely disgruntled Barisan Nasional (BN) or Pakatan Rakyat (PR) members throwing political tantrums. In fact, in their various ceramahs, PR leaders say that a truly serious election candidate who wants to change the country for the better would run under a political party.
Not true, says Meera Samanther, coordinator of the Women’s Candidacy Initiative (WCI).
Note tshirts printed with Sarala’s image
“When we talk about ‘independent’ candidates, how are we defining ‘independent’?” Meera asks in a phone interview with The Nut Graph. According to Meera, some “independent” candidates are indeed individuals who are disgruntled party members trying to rebel or sabotage their former political masters.
“But there are also candidates who want to contest independently because they champion a certain issue that is ignored by the major political parties,” she says.
Take WCI’s fielding of the late Zaitun (Toni) Mohamed Kasim as an independent candidate in the 1999 general election. Toni was, arguably, the first candidate in the history of Malaysia to contest in an election on a gender equality platform. She took on former MCA deputy president, Tan Sri Chan Kong Choy, in the Selayang parliamentary seat, and managed to capture 46% of the popular vote.
Sarala seems to be both — although she seems genuine about upholding women’s rights, she is also a disgruntled ex-People’s Progressive Party state Wanita chief.
“Win or lose, I want to empower a pool of women of all races in Kedah to contest in future elections,” Sarala says. “And even if I lose this time, I will contest again as an independent woman candidate in the next general election.”
Coincidentally, this is one of WCI’s future goals as well, says Meera — to train and empower women who are interested in contesting elections on issues related to women’s human rights. According to both Sarala and Meera, this is because the current electoral system is stacked against women’s participation.
“I didn’t only need to pay a total of RM8,000 to the Election Commission for my election and materials deposit, I needed to set aside around RM50,000 to run my operations center, print my posters, and so on,” says Sarala.
It is no secret that election deposits in Malaysia are among the highest in the Commonwealth. Sarala says she is lucky. Her employer, MG Raja, who is also her campaign manager, and her family are helping her financially.
All kinds of support
The major political parties are also aware that they need to improve women’s participation in politics. According to Cecilia Ng, a visiting professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Women’s Development Research Center, the PR governments in Penang and Selangor have been trying to improve women’s participation at municipal government level.
In a phone interview, Ng says these are preliminary findings in an ongoing research on women and the new politics of Selangor and Penang. She says that among the political parties, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) has achieved its target of having 30% women’s representation in leadership positions. The DAP and BN are also trying to increase women’s participation in leadership as well.
Ng, however, concedes that there are still very strong cultural barriers to women running for leadership positions. She cites the smear campaign against PKR’s Selangor state exco Elizabeth Wong through the exposure of intimate pictures.
“Everyone has skeletons in their closet, but in politics it appears as though women are always vulnerable to personal attacks,” she says.
One this is clear — the BN and PR have been touting the three by-elections as determining the future of the country. But it is telling that even when the stakes are this high, it is an independent woman candidate on a bicycle reminding us that women are also stakeholders in a democracy.
Disclosure: Shanon Shah was a WCI coordinator during the March 2008 general election.