ONCE as the wife of a Deputy Prime Minister, today Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail has paved the way for women in Malaysia by making an inroad into political office as the nation’s first female Deputy Prime Minister. The soft-spoken, petite and diplomatic “second in command” made history when she “turned the tables” in politics, all the while not fully realising how she has stood as an inspiration to women.
An epitome of grace, femininity, and female power, she has risen above herself, overcoming the trials and tribulations of the past - ordeals and court proceedings since her husband’s arrest in 1998, which left her to raise five daughters and a son, solo. Unyielding, she went on to push the boundaries for women and became president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the first female Opposition Leader in Parliament. In all, she has emerged to depict a woman of courage and strength.
Here, Wan Azizah, who is also the Women, Family and Community Development Minister, shares her views with theSun’s HER! on her Ministry’s efforts in narrowing the gender gap in Malaysia and on women “balancing for better”.
* How did your Ministry celebrate International Women’s Day this year considering the global theme #BalanceforBetter; and any recent initiative set up to further empower women?
Since the Pakatan Harapan administration took over, the Ministry for Women, Family and Community Development’s Deputy Minister and I have been reviewing all policies for our target groups to ensure full optimisation of impact and outcomes.
Women’s programmes are ongoing for the most part, but what we realised is that there is a severe lack of data to analyse and improve on impactful policies. The fragmentation of social programmes have created a multiplicity of programmes with separate databases of which we are working to consolidate the databases to ensure optimisation of these programmes. This process takes time but we must make tough decisions that will benefit the rakyat in the long-term. This is our pledge to implement institutional reforms.
March 8th is a significant day for us to stand with our sisters all around the world to talk about advancing the rights of women. It is a global pledge towards a more gender-balanced world. In Malaysia, we went with the theme #SeimbangUntukSejahtera, which was in line with the International Women’s Day theme, but the reality is that we need to talk about this daily.
Every day, women balance their careers and families - as scientists, teachers, doctors, nurses, public servants, explorers, career women, as well as mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. 54% of women make up a part of our labour force. Although we celebrated #SeimbangUntukSejahtera on March 8, we must apply it in our homes, workplaces and policies every day.
This is what we are working on at the Ministry, ensuring that women’s policies, gender-sensitivity, gender-based budgeting, etc., seriously become part of all government policies, across all levels. It’s also a reason why our Ministry has reduced the number of ceremonial celebrations, instead focusing more on policy-making, optimisation of programmes and outcomes, and better coordinated policies for women. Look out for our online campaigns under #SeimbangUntukSejahtera on social media.
We also have the i-SURI initiative, aimed to provide women who choose to be with their family as homemakers, some additional amount of “security”. Many Malaysian women do not return to work after starting a family for various reasons; some choose to be homemakers from the beginning of their marriages. Ensuring these women have some savings to support themselves is the primary aim of the i-SURI initiative.
At the same time, we are addressing the barriers that still hinder women from returning to the workforce, as in maternity leave legislation, flexible working schemes for young parents, and increasing affordable and quality childcare.
* How do Malaysians fare when it comes to gender balance?
Balance means equal distribution or correct proportions. So we should look at the state of diversity in our workplaces, especially the decision-making roles.
It cannot be denied that we still lack women representation at Cabinet level in Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara. There are 32 women (14.41%) out of 222 members in the House of Representatives and 13 women (19.4%) out of 67 in the Senate. Meanwhile, there are 57 women (11.3%) out of 505 members in the State Legislative Assemblies. While it is important for women to play a bigger role in politics, we also want to avoid tokenism and also focus on merit and talent. Roles for women (if not all) in politics should be based on calibre and excellence and not just meeting quotas.
In the private sector, Malaysia has made steady strides in gender balance at the leadership level. In fact, the recent World Bank report on “Women on Boards in Malaysia” revealed that typical Malaysian firms have more women board members (13.8%) than those in the Asia Pacific (12.5%).
However, Malaysia ranks 8th out of 18 countries in the Asia Pacific on the overall global gender gap index. While we fare well in educational attainments and health survival indices, we are still lacking in areas like participation of women in the labour force and political empowerment.
* How does the Ministry promote and cultivate a gender-balanced society; what action is taken to inculcate non gender-biased thinking among Malaysians?
Malaysia is a complex nation and gender-balance discussions are still quite nuanced. At the fundamental level, we need to enact legislation eliminating violence and discrimination against women. We will introduce legislation on sexual harassment and anti-discrimination to Parliament soon, to ensure that women have access to safe working environments and that they are accorded equal opportunities in the workplace.
The government plays an important role in keeping environments safe and fair, but people need to be aware that everyone plays a role in normalising conversations around gender balance. This is how we are able to eliminate gender-biased thinking and each of us need to play our role in this effort.
* What does it feel like being the first woman to hold the DPM position in Malaysia?
It feels a bit surreal but this position gives me a chance to do work that is close to my heart – things related to children, family, society, our system of value and the environment. It provides me with an avenue to contribute towards my country.
* What about challenges as a woman holding this designation of authority?
One faces challenges in any role one takes but so far, Alhamdullilah, I feel it is not too bad. I have a great team helping me and a good civil service. Together we will forge ahead for the betterment of our country.
* Any inspirational female person you look up to and how does she inspire you?
I have always looked up to Prophet Muhammad S.A.W’s wife Saidatina Khadijah R.A. Although I have other role models who personify the qualities and values I hold dear, yet Khadijah stands out because she was a woman of character. She was a noble woman and an entrepreneur who was relatively rich; one who dedicated her life and wealth to a cause she really believed in. She was a woman of strength and of great patience - a great woman.
* Can Datuk Seri share some fundamental principles and values observed in raising your children - ones that relate to gender discrimination?
My children were raised with the same values, no differentiation between my son and daughters. All of them were given equal opportunities with an emphasis on studying hard; to have a life filled with knowledge; to maintain strong family ties; and to always have respect for one another. They were also always taught to be humble and down-to-earth.
* Is there a legacy you would like to leave behind as the country’s first female DPM or how would you like to be remembered in your current role?
I was given the opportunity to be the first Opposition Woman Leader and I was there the first time the country changed its government; I would like to be remembered as someone who tried her very best and as someone who cared.
Hence, HER! echoes the voice of our DPM and reiterates the importance of developing a gender-balanced world as we progress, by practising gender-balance daily - in government, employment, and all areas of our lives.
[This article acts as a reminder to all, especially women, to uplift and empower each other - the women in our lives and those we cross paths with, every day.]
The nation’s DPM and Minister of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry with some of the female employees from her ministry, depicting this year’s International Women’s Day global theme #BalanceforBetter.
Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail strikes the #BalanceforBetter pose.