Support gender equality, support the TWOAS initiative in Penang

The initiative is a welcome stop-gap measure to help mainstream women’s political representation

The Penang state government announced the TWOAS initiative – Top-up Women Only Additional Seats- in December 2020.

The TWOAS initiative is designed to ensure a minimum of 30% women’s representation in the Penang State Assembly. It is a special measure which is only applicable when the number of elected women in the state assembly falls below 30%. It is permissible under the Eighth Schedule of the Federal Constitution, which allows state assemblies to have nominated seats.

This initiative is necessary as a way of addressing the underrepresentation of women in state assemblies (and in Parliament). It is a serious shortcoming of our democracy.

The call to increase women’s political representation was made as far back as 1985 in the Plan of Action for the Advancement of Women, under the Women’s Affairs Department and the Ministry of National Unity and Social Development.

Thirty-five years on, women only make up a dismal 11.3% of state assembly representatives across the country. In Penang, the figure is slightly higher at 15% but still far below the minimum 30%, which has been deemed as the minimum critical mass for women’s representation to have an impact.

While awaiting a major overhaul of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system to something more inclusive, eg proportional representation, the TWOAS initiative is a welcome stop-gap measure to help mainstream women’s political representation. The benefits include:

  • TWOAS does not disrupt the current system nor require a separate election
  • The set-up involves an upfront sharing of a TWOAS list of women nominees with a fixed sequence of preference from all parties which take part in the elections. This will ensure transparency in the appointment process
  • TWOAS seats will be allocated to all parties (including opposition parties) which have submitted their TWOAS candidate list, in accordance with the percentage of votes received by parties in the state election
  • TWOAS will provide political parties every incentive to produce a list of women candidates that otherwise they probably would not
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Furthermore, as the TWOAS seats are to be state-wide non-constituency seats, TWOAS representatives would serve all of Penang, focusing on policy formulation and oversight as well as working in portfolio-based select committees to allow ongoing legislative input in state policies. The TWOAS initiative can help address a variety of obstacles women face (eg lack of social and family support, barriers within the political party, cultural backlash, lack of resources and plain prejudice) and increase the chances of women’s political participation.

One of the eligibility criteria for TWOAS nominees is that they have to attend gender advocacy workshops. This is to help ensure that TWOAS nominees would have sufficient knowledge and ability to articulate gender issues effectively in their respective portfolios.

Aliran would however suggest that the content of these workshops be extended to include a social justice perspective. Such workshops should be offered to all potential TWOAS nominees irrespective of the parties they represent. Indeed, all state assembly members should be required to attend these workshops if we want to usher in gender equality and justice!

It is important to remember that increasing women’s representation in the state assemblies is more than just about the numbers. It is also about the long overdue recognition of women in politics, the acceptance of women as equal partners in decision-making and respect for their differences in opinions and leadership capabilities. An increased visibility of women in politics would also have an impact on how people view possibilities in politics, especially for women.

Aliran would like to congratulate the Penang state government for being creative in their commitment towards gender equality, as evidenced by the TWOAS initiative. It has been carefully considered not just in terms of increasing women’s representation but in benefiting all participating political parties as well.

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We urge all the state assembly representatives to provide bipartisan support for this initiative and to do what is necessary to make TWOAS a success in Penang.

Aliran executive committee
21 February 2021
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