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Women and the NEM

PETALING JAYA, 13 May 2010: The New Economic Model (NEM) needs a clearer focus on women if it is to meet its goals of making Malaysia a high-income, inclusive and sustainable economy, a Universiti Malaya gender studies lecturer said.

While the NEM mentions empowering women and investing in childcare, Assoc Prof Dr Shanthi Thambiah said there had to be more concrete measures for poorer women. These women, she said, comprised the bulk of low-wage workers earning less than RM1,500 a month.

“The bottom 40% of low-income households are largely women, single mothers or female heads of households whose husbands are in prison or on drugs. A lot of poor women would want to work but they can’t because they can’t afford childcare,” Shanthi said.

The NEM notes that 80% of households earn less than RM3,000 a month. Of this, the bottom 40% earn less than RM1,500 a month.

Shanthi was speaking at a 12 May 2010 public forum organised by Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower) and the LLG Cultural Development Centre on the NEM and its challenges.

She said if Malaysia were to be a high-income nation, it was logical to empower women by increasing their participation in the workforce. This could be done by investing more in childcare services, especially for the poor, and in better policies like longer maternity leave.

Empowered to work

“We should look at what other high-income nations have done for their women. These countries have households with dual income because the women are empowered to work. They have better maternity and childcare, and as a result have stronger participation in the labour force.

“Whereas here, the rate of women in the workforce has been relatively constant for almost 30 years,” she said. Their participation was 45.7% in 2008, 47.2% in 2000, 47.8% in 1990, and 44.1% in 1980.

“If the government is serious about 6.5% growth, it must look at women as a growth factor,” Shanti said.

The NEM targets an annual growth rate of 6.5% for the next 10 years to reach high-income status. Malaysia’s growth has been at 3.2% yearly since 2006.

Citing research by both the World Bank and in the United Nations’ Human Development Reports, Shanthi said a 20% increase in female labour participation can grow a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 3% to 4%.


Shanthi observed that Indonesia, where economic growth is higher than Malaysia’s, has more women in its workforce compared to  Malaysia.

Additionally, in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Index 2009, Malaysia dropped five places to 101, surpassed by Indonesia at 93. Malaysian women scored well in educational attainment, but low in economic and political participation.

“[Indonesian] women are actively creating wealth while we are suppressing ours, despite educating them in large numbers. We are not getting much returns from investing in their education because we don’t see the links between their power to contribute economically and having strong policies on childcare and maternity,” Shanti noted.

The panel at the forum


She said a lack of quality childcare was the main obstacle preventing more women from joining the workforce.

It was also time to integrate childcare with early education to develop children’s intelligence at an early age, she stressed. She added that the focus should be on investing in childcare for poor families and not the rich.

“European countries are beginning to look at childcare models which integrate early childhood education, because studies have shown that intelligence in children is developed before the age of seven.”

The benefits of quality and easily available childcare and early education would be two-fold. It would firstly encourage more women to work, and secondly, it builds future human capital, Shanthi said.

“There would be little use for affirmative action later on by giving a poor student a university placement if he [or she] finds it difficult to succeed because of being disadvantaged early in life.

“The poverty trap begins in the early years. If the government wants to address inequalities and build future talent, it should look at kids as young as three.”

Shanthi noted that past government policies in expanding childcare services have not really taken off. She hoped more details on policies for women would be revealed in the next stage of the NEM’s unveiling. So far, only the plan’s framework has been made public.

Other speakers at the forum were Lee Chee Sung, executive director of the National Economic Advisory Council (NEAC), which crafted the NEM, and Universiti Malaya’s Prof Dr Edmund Terence Gomez. Also present was former Penang Gerakan state exco member Dr Toh Kin Woon, who now heads the Socio-Economic and Environment Research Institute and the LLG Cultural Development Centre.

Shanthi, Gomez and Toh felt that the NEM’s 10-year timeframe to achieve high-income status was too short a period for structural reform. But they also said the plan was probably the first time the government had so openly allowed public admission of the many problems facing the economy. These included corruption, rent-seeking and political repercussions in removing ethnic-based quotas.

Speakers and comments from the floor also noted the lack of labour union perspectives in the NEAC. Concern was also expressed about whether the NEM’s objectives could be realised without change in current political ideology or a total regime change.

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