A few days ago, I was in Ayer Kuning in Perak.
It was raining, and I was in the constituency’s bilik gerakan (operations room) for the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM).
The PSM candidate for the Ayer Kuning state seat in Perak, who had just come back from a walkabout, was in a briefing with her campaign manager and media manager. I could not help but notice that all three were women.
I also saw that day that more than half the volunteers at the bilik gerakan – doing the nitty-gritty campaign work related to flags, posters, food and leaflets – were women.
It got me thinking about the roles women play in elections. Yes, women volunteers are not uncommon, and we do know that many women do tremendous work for their political parties behind the scenes and especially during elections.
But being a woman in a leadership role in the political arena and getting a seat to contest in the general elections is a fight against big odds.
Despite all the rhetoric about commitments to gender equality, inclusivity and diversity from the highest echelons, the selection of women candidates in parliamentary and state seats for this election has been (once again) disappointing.
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Some may argue that the 13.5% women’s representation of total candidates (ie for both parliamentary and state seats) in this general election is still an increase compared to the figures of 8.8% in the 2008 general election to 9.0% in 2013 and 10.5% in 2018.
But at this rate of increase, we will be lucky if we achieve 30% women’s representation (30% is the number often quoted as a minimum for significant contribution and influence) before the end of this century!
The percentages of female candidates contesting in state and parliamentary seats for four of the six coalitions contesting in this election are as follows:
- Pakatan Harapan – 19.0% (39/205)
- Barisan Nasional – 12.4% (22/178)
- Perikatan Nasional – 10.7% (16/149)
- Gerakan Tanah Air – 13.8% (16/116)
PH has fielded more women candidates than the other coalitions, but the number is still nowhere near the 30% target.
The question remains, how seriously do political parties take women’s political representation? Don’t forget that women make up 50.2% of the voters. Are women candidates so hard to field?
Let’s look at two parties (from about 14 parties) outside the electoral coalitions: the newly formed Parti Bangsa Malaysia (PBM) and PSM.
Granted the number of candidates from both these parties is small, but both have a high representation of women candidates in the seats they are contesting, ie above the 30% target.
For PBM, six of its nine candidates are women. At 66.7%, this gives substance to the PBM’s commitment to women’s empowerment, which is one of the party’s six core pillars.
For PSM, one of its two candidates is a woman (50%). Now, what is interesting is the high representation of women as leaders and decision-makers in the party. Eleven of the 16 members (68.8%) elected to the PSM central committee in 2022 are women.
PSM seems to be the first political party in the country to have women representing two-thirds of its highest decision-making body. Yes, it is a small party, but it is known for walking its talk.
Bawani KS, the PSM candidate for Ayer Kuning, is a central committee member, deputy secretary general of the party and chairperson of Perak PSM.
She handles a variety of cases including forced evictions, land disputes of farmers and livestock farmers in over 30 areas, as well as issues related to the non-payment of wages and contributions to the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and Sosco (social security).
As the rain kept falling, Bawani and her team discussed how best to continue raising the issues identified by Ayer Kuning voters. These include the need for:
- A new road from Kampar to Teluk Intan
- A full-time doctor in the rural clinic
- An ATM machine and post office services for Ayer Kuning town
- An end to frequent electrical outages
- Improved telecommunications coverage
- An improved bus service, by getting Perak Transit to take over the privatised bus service, which is apparently irregular and not particularly comfortable
Against this background of local demands, her team was also promoting the six pillars of the national PSM manifesto: a jobs guarantee scheme, food security, improvements to social protection, housing for the people, measures to address the climate crisis and reforms to federal government institutions. The discussion was intense. Ideas were shared. Alternatives for outreach were put on the table.
The passion and commitment were so clear to see, even though Bawani and her team know it is a fight against the odds. The Ayer Kuning state seat is a five-cornered fight. The might of money and machinery are not on PSM’s side. The Ayer Kuning state seat is a BN stronghold.
But the team will battle on, rain or no rain. They are an example of courage, determination and principle. And importantly, they represent an example of what might happen all over the country if only others were more supportive and inclusive of women and women’s leadership.
Together, they are here to battle for the Air Kuning seat to represent people’s voices at the state level. Let us take inspiration from them to do whatever we can to support the struggle for more meaningful women’s representation at all levels of decision-making – even if, at the moment, it seems to be a fight against all the odds.
It is a struggle that needs winning.
With thanks to James for his input