Lecture by Malaysian Minister of Housing and Local Government Zuraida Kamaruddin on women's political participation

Remarks as delivered at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation
September 6, 2019

Good afternoon to all of you. I would like to thank Sasakawa Peace Foundation for inviting me today to give a talk on women’s participation in politics using the Malaysian example. Regarding my background, I was a corporate person. I was working for a number of multinational companies based in America, Japan, and Australia. My background is as a corporate person and a career woman, but then I came to politics. This was actually not by design, but by default. I was asked to come and conduct research for a new party under the Reformasi Party or Reform Party, which was led by Anwar Ibrahim, the National Justice Party. That was 20 years ago in 1999. They asked me to conduct a study on the viability of the new party's participation in the coming election. Before I could even embark on the study, the parliament was dissolved on the eve of the election, so I could not continue my research about the standing or opportunities to contest in the election.

At that time, the party had just been formulated. They were not structured yet and they did not really have proper organization yet, but they went into the election and did very well. The party was popular at that time because of the injustice being done to the former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim. After the election, they started to form and structure the party in a proper manner, and they started the women’s wing and so on and so forth. Being a woman, of course they asked me to help with the women’s wing. So, there I went. I thought I could contribute a little bit there and see whether I could play my part in helping this new party start its women's wing.
I started as a woman treasurer. At that time coming from a corporate background, I had a little bit of financial capability, which I managed to share with the party members there. Being a new party, we didn’t have money, so of course with the little money that I had there was quite a bit that I could do for the party. After that, I came to realize when I was in the corporate sector, I was gender blind. To me, you do well whatever you are. It doesn’t matter whether you are female or male. If you do well, by merit you should be promoted and so on and so forth.
When I went to the ground as a politician, I was also active in charity organizations. I went to assist in the tsunami disasters in Indonesia. When I would go to the rural areas in Malaysia as a party activist, I saw the lives of the women out there, especially in the rural areas. Then, I realized that when I was in Aceh, Indonesia, the lives of women there were no different from the lives of women in my country. It’s just that Malaysia was not hit by tsunami. The women in Aceh had to develop and rebuild their lives, to start all over again. But in Malaysia, I saw this happening even without the tsunami.
So what’s happening to this country? This country is a Muslim country led by a Muslim leader. The Prime Minister is a Muslim leader and the king is a Muslim. What is most sad is that the women are not enjoying the wealth of the country or the resources of the country. They deserve more than that because they play an important part in nation building. Without the women playing their part in nation building by giving birth to the future generation, no country will survive. This is something that I advocated in my earlier political life because I want to make the women understand and appreciate themselves. They are very important for nation building. Their participation, their contribution in nation building by delivering is a big contribution to the country. If not for them, there will be no future generations, and the country would not exist.
In Malaysia, all of the women and the housewives especially always hold themselves in low regard. Being housewives, they take care of the kitchen and they take care of the family. So, they think they are nothing much, and their voice is not being heard. I want to make them understand that people have to appreciate them. Whether you are a career woman or not a career woman, you have to be appreciative of the fact that you are the source of the future generation. So, in this way, I will strengthen their self-integrity and their pride in being a woman because they really contribute to the country.

Women leaders must also understand that not many women out there who are vocal, who dare to speak out, who dare to even fight with a man for that matter. There are many of them who are not like that, so they need to be empowered. They need to be given a chance. They need to be given the opportunity. And we must be the ones who tap their potential to give them the platform to show off their capability and to show what they can do for the country. We have to make inroads for them.
I realized it’s not enough for me to be in the women’s wing. I have to strategize myself to be in the decision-making position, where my voice can be heard and can be considered.

So, what is best? I happened to be in that political party, so I tried to develop the women's wing. It’s not easy being the opposition party. No film stars will join your party. No great businesswomen will join your party. No great civil servants will join your party because you are coming from the opposition, and it’s not easy to get the corporate women to join a political party. At one point of time, I myself was feeling that, “Hey, I don’t need this crap.”  It’s not easy to be in politics, where you have to handle a lot of complaints and there are a lot of challenges with politicking, with male chauvinism, and so on and so forth. It’s not easy. At one point sometime in 2004, I was thinking that "I don’t need this crap. Maybe I should leave this struggle." Somehow, the women around me were motivating me and said, “No, we need you here. Please do not leave.” Then, I felt that probably there is something that is motivating me to hang on and I could see that the women there are in need of a leader to champion them.

Then, I tried to strategize myself. It’s not enough to be in the women’s wing because the women’s wing is just a wing, a missionary of the party, which the party uses for campaigning, to go out for election, to get to the grassroots, and to get the voters out. This was the women’s job. I think all of you would have noticed it, but when it came to selecting candidates, the women were being sidelined. It’s the men that are going to be the candidates and the men are going to become the honorable ones, not the women. So, then I realized it’s not enough for me to be in the women’s wing. I have to strategize myself to be in the decision-making position, where my voice can be heard and can be considered, can be taken as something that is important, and I can bring forward women’s needs and women’s participation in the party.

Next, I moved into the mainstream politics of the party, and I needed to become a division head. So, I think some of you maybe are familiar with the divisions. Within the national structure of the party, we have the division structure and the state structure. I knew that I had to take up this position to become a division head, so what do I do? I was very new in politics. I didn’t know many people. In fact, I came to the party alone. I didn’t have a background or expertise. I didn’t come with a background in NGOs. I came to the party alone. I was thinking about which division I should go to, and I went to the division where nobody wanted to contest, a division where the men are not too strong. I went there and I became the division head there, one of the earliest division heads in the country.

It’s important to be the division head because that's where the decisions are made and where the representation at the national level and the state level is going to be considered. So, I become a division head. In my division, the position was not designated as my party's seat. Because we are part of a coalition, certain seats are given to certain parties, party A-B-C-D, but this division head position was not available to become a candidate for my party.

I saw an opportunity when the party wanted to create a new division in the country in the state of Wilayah Persekutuan (Federal territories) in Kuala Lumpur. I offered myself to be the pro tem committee of that new division. I saw potential, since this was a new division that was supposedly to be my party seat, so that’s why I positioned myself there. Of course it’s not an easy job to start a division, to get people to come together, to form even one annual general meeting. It was not easy for me to get even 30 people to come for that meeting, but I recruited family friends and members to make up the numbers, to get through the annual general meeting.
I become the division head for this new division, which was preparing for elections coming in 2008. I was in the party since 1999, but I didn’t contest in any of the elections because I thought I was not interested in being a candidate. The reason I came into the party was to help with the women’s wing, to help them with their management and structuring. Given my background as a corporate person, I had that edge over the rest of them and I wanted to help them with that.
When I was made the party women’s chief in 2007, I realized that if I didn’t contest in the coming election – because in politics the women chiefs contest in election – people would feel very weird. I prepared myself, started doing my work as far back as about one year before the election. I did community jobs, engagement with the community, and so on and so forth. Where was the contested seat? The seat that I just won as division chief, it was a seat that was said to be unwinnable because there are almost 23,000 postal votes. People said that definitely I was not going to win because postal votes in Malaysia then were used as a bank of votes to make the ruling party win. Since these postal votes were used as their vote banks for the ruling party to win elections, maybe it’s not good for me to contest there.
I was staying in a nearby area called Ampang, and I contested in Ampang simply because that seat, the majority difference between the ruling party then was a 23,000 majority. There was nobody who wanted to contest for that seat because there was too big of a gap and everybody, especially the guys, were going for the hot seats, for the simple seats to win. They were looking at the majority, and the lesser the majority, the better the chances of winning. I said, "It’s okay. I can take up this seat." The ruling party then had a majority of 23,000. So, “it’s okay,” I said. “Let me contest in this place, where you know I’m quite familiar with the people and the people sort of know me.” So, I contested there. Alhamdulillah, I won in the 2008 election by a majority of 3500, which means we turned around about 23,000 plus people. About 26,500 people voted for me in my constituency, and at that time there was a tsunami where the opposition won a few states, and one of the states, Selangor, which is where my area Ampang is located, was a state where we won.

As I moved along, I realized that along the way as a women chief of the party, I have to empower more women. My party was the first party that had 22 women division heads. No party in Malaysia was able to achieve that, even the 60-year-old ruling party has not reached that number except, since they only had one or two women as division heads. I want women to take mainstream positions. Only then can we make a difference and make change. Otherwise, the women’s voices will be sidelined.

So, how do I manage my party, my women party leaders and my women party members? From the beginning when I was starting with them in 1999-2000, they attended meetings because the party was at initial stage of formulation and structuring. I told my women party members, when you go for meetings, make sure you don’t make coffee and tea. You are equal to the men. You should sit in the meeting, participate in the meeting, and give your ideas. Don’t worry about coffee and tea. If they are thirsty, they can find their own coffee and tea. But later on, you see that now the men are making the coffee and tea, so that means you should go by position and your role, not by your sex or your gender. Because you are a woman, you have to make coffee and tea?  I said you make coffee and tea for your husband at home, but not for any men otherwise. This is something that’s become a sort of a culture in my party now. I’m a position of higher position. I’m in a leading position. I don’t make coffee and tea for the party members.

Secondly, we introduced the 30% participation, which Malaysia had signed in the Beijing Declaration, but it was not being practiced. My party was the first party to write in the constitution the requirement to have at least 30% women participation at all levels. Constitutionally, we were successful to put that in 2008, but in practice, it never happened because there was no affirmative action to make sure that the women's voices are being heard. Nevertheless, we managed to promote this 30% mantra.
I told my women party members, when you go for meetings, make sure you don’t make coffee and tea. You are equal to the men. You should sit in the meeting, participate in the meeting, and give your ideas.

Wherever my women go, they say, “30% women, you know, 30% women here,” so whenever they want to make any appointment, 30% women here. This became their mantra and the men got scared of it. So much so that it became a character where they wanted to appoint positions or whatever, they always remember, “Remember 30%, we have to get women out there.”

Then there has been an increase, but we still don’t make the numbers because it’s not easy, so when we want to get more women candidates, for candidates to become candidates for election, for the general election, we don’t have enough of them. While we have the constitution to say that 30% should be women, we don’t have enough qualified women to supply as candidates. Of course, we have to do some training. We have to do some kind of capacity building to identify them and get them to come out to the front and start giving them some basic training and some leadership training. We managed to increase the women’s participation and women candidacy in my party at least.
Then, we also need to think of the future. If you don’t develop the young women now, there will be no future guarantee that there will be a second layer of leadership. So, we developed a women youth wing. We call them Srikandi, which means young women warrior. We recruit 18 to 35-year-old women to be in this sub-wing of the women’s wing, and we train and develop them. Normally we hear people say that these young people in Malaysia and also in other countries think, “Oh, politics is dirty. We don’t want to get involved with it.” This is what they always say. What we advocate to the young people is not to look at politics as something that is for your position, power, and authority. You have to look at politics as your service, as your intention to take care of the welfare of the people. Taking care of the welfare of the people means you go down to the ground and you serve the people. You have to improve their lives and see that you can make a difference in the lives of the women especially.

Like I mentioned just now, the country has a lot of resources, but the women are not enjoying them. The women are not getting their half. The population is at least 50% women, but they don’t get half of the allocation of the resources of the country. Most of the allocated funds are not being spent fairly for women’s development. Therefore, I hope the young women’s wing can strategize and think of their future, what their needs will be in the future. If they were to participate in politics and they wanted to be the future leaders, what will be their needs then? Their needs and my needs are different already because I come from their mother’s generation or their grandmother’s generation, so our journeys will be different.
Malaysia has been independent for 61 years. We have good access to education, healthcare, and economic empowerment. We have a strong labor force. But in our performance for political participation, we are number 132 over 193. Why? Women are educated, healthy, and mobile, but we are not getting the numbers for them to participate in politics. So, there is something that’s not right. We have to start the young ones now so that they can think of the future and what their needs will be in five or ten years.
We realized that the then government was not really committed to fight for women’s participation, for women inclusivity, because they were too comfortable already. They already have their position. They enjoy everything, so why should they want to fight? Even though they have women up there, they do not think about empowering other women. They do not think about getting more women to share their vision, to make women participate more in the country's nation-building, economic development, or other aspects.
When we won in the last election in May 2018, for the first time Malaysia changed its government, and my party had the biggest number of members in parliament. Again by default, we broke the 10% mark of women parliamentarians in our lower house. We really fought for women participation and the 30% participation quota, so we managed to break 10% in the parliament.

We achieved about 13% women parliamentarians in the lower house, and we had five full ministers appointed. In the past there were only two women ministers. We have four deputy ministers and now we have appointed a lot of women agency heads. The anticorruption agency head is a woman, the governor of the Central Bank of Malaysia is a woman, and the chief justice as well as many other justices are women. The women are the justice holders, the women. They are from the banks. They are from the army. The chief auditor general is also a woman. These are all the women that are being appointed in my country now, and they have definitely increased the numbers. Why? Because time and again, we keep reminding people that there are women out there that are capable and you just have to take the time to find them.
In my capacity as the Minister of Housing and Local Government, I’m in a mainstream position where I can empower women. I can make policies to to ensure that women are being included in appointments and I can impose the 30% policy. To start with, my ministry deals with local government, where we have councilors throughout the country. There are 155 local governments in the whole country. I have directed that 30% women councilors must be appointed in each municipal or local government to bring women into the mainstream positions. This is the first thing that I can do within my power.
In terms of employment in my ministry, I also made sure that they look for women whenever there is vacancy. I told my secretary general that if there is any vacancy, you must find a woman candidate for me. They would come back and tell me, “No, there’s no women available for this post,” but I would say, “No. You go ahead and find one.” The second time he would come to me and say, “Still I can’t find a woman.” “Please, try again. I can wait,” I said. “There’s no hurry.” Finally, they would find a woman to present to me, which means that they can do it. It’s just that they need a little bit of time. I told them even though you need to find a woman just like finding a needle in a haystack, please do it.
What I’m trying to say is that there are women who are capable. There are women who can do the job. It’s just that they are not given equal opportunities. They are not being exposed to opportunities. The doors to them are not being opened. There must be some kind of affirmative action that can be done. When women get into office, they are just good, if not better than the men. Harvard University and UN research says that if there are more women in an organization or in a company, the productivity of the company increases by about 25%.
I’m not talking against men and I’m not asking them to make the government 100% women. I’m just thinking about 30% only. It’s important for us to advocate for women. I want to speak to those people and women who are in a position where they can use their power. It’s important for women to understand that they have to come forward and be a part of nation building, because the way women think and men think is different.
Take for example in my ministry, I do housing. By and large, architects who do all those housing designs are men, with few women. What happens when a man designs a kitchen? They design a six-foot high kitchen cabinet, even though the women are hardly six feet. Then the women would have to find stools and ladders to get to the cabinet. If you had a woman designing, they understand that women spend most of the time in the kitchen. They would say, “No, the kitchen should be five feet two inches, so it’s more reachable." These are the things that we need the women to come in for, to provide the input to make all development more holistic and more effective.
That’s why more women should go out there. If you are a graduate in architecture or in whatever discipline, you should come in because the women’s perspective and way of thinking is different from men. Men think about designs, the intricacies of designs. They want to go for contests and awards. They do all these intricate designs that have no value and are not practical. You can’t even use that for space or for practical reasons.
When the men do the designs, they think, “Oh, this zigzag design is very nice,” but it’s the women who have to do the cleaning. Women would not make a zigzag design because it’s difficult to clean up. They would rather have a flat design that is easy to clean up.  These are the practical aspects. I am giving these simple examples so that you understand why more women should go out there to participate in the country's policymaking. Only then can you make a difference.

My ministry takes care of the firemen. I asked “why aren’t there many women participating in this job as a firewoman?” They told me that the women always fail at the physical aspect of the qualification, the rope climbing part of it. “Then cut the rope climbing for the women,” I instructed. If she is not going to be a fireman that has to climb the building, if she is just to become an office staff and do all the administrative jobs, why does she need to be tested for rope climbing? I told them to take away the climbing of the rope and let them qualify for the job. If there were no women to point out this problem, they would not understand. No man would come and ask the officer why there are fewer women who work as firemen, and if they learn the reason is because they have to climb the rope, they would say “Okay, then too bad.” They would not make the change.

Malaysia is also a Muslim country where women are more mobile. For instance, the labor force among women is quite high. We have about 45% women labor participation, but of course at the lower level. Public building and infrastructure through the acts and the policies of local government are under my ministry. Even today we still see the musalla or the mosque for women is half the size of the men’s. However, now more women are more mobile, so they need the same space as the men. No man would know about this problem because they don’t go to the women’s praying area.
Since women goes to the women’s praying area, only she can bring the change in the policies of design and buildings. What’s more, the women normally come with children, so they need even more space and toilets. The men’s toilet is just the same size as the women’s toilet. Who needs more space for the toilet, the women or the men? The women. Why do the women need more space for the toilet? They bring their babies to the toilet. Nobody would point this out unless there are women in the mainstream position.
For those working in the road tolls in Malaysia, the women can participate in this sort of job, but of course the night shift is given to the men and the day shift given to the women. These are the things that I want the country to develop in a more holistic manner, so therefore input from women is very important in all aspects of the country’s development, the country’s progression, and for a more holistic development of the nation. We also have to develop local leaders at the local level. What do we do? We make programs. Among the communities, there are women who are very active. They are the ones who are very diligent and very hardworking, so anything you ask them to do, they are very focused.
Talking about my ministry again, I take care of waste management also. Waste management in Malaysia is not like in Japan where it’s very advanced and people are more disciplined and don’t throw rubbish all over the place. In Malaysia, we still have that. About 60% of Malaysians still do not know how to throw rubbish in the rubbish bin. I need to create programs at the grassroots level, and it’s the women that come out to lead these programs. When you work at the grassroots level, the women are always there to support you and to do all the jobs and to do it successfully, but when it comes to the higher level, they are always being sidelined. 
We must also understand the nature of the women. Women do not like to sell themselves. They don’t come around bragging and saying “I can do this.” It’s very unnatural for women to do that. Maybe there are some, but it’s very unnatural as opposed to the men. I used to joke that when a man takes care of the baby the night before when the small baby was not well, they come to work, they say, “Hey you know last night, I looked after my baby. The whole night I couldn’t sleep.” He was telling the whole world for that one night that he did his job. But no woman would do that. This is why we need women leaders. We need people in those positions to bring out these qualities in women and to give them opportunities. Otherwise, all of this potential, all of this expertise and capabilities will be kept deep inside, not being exposed and not being utilized. It is a waste for the country.

In Japan, I also understand that there is a high level of accessibility to education and there are so many women attending universities in Japan, but participation for politics only 10%. What happened to these women? Where are they? We need to make them understand why women have to take up leadership positions. It’s not about competition with men. It’s not about wanting to be proud to hold the top position. It’s about giving the best to the country and tapping the full potential of women so that we will have more holistic development of the country. That’s the most important.

Often people ask me as a Muslim woman in Malaysia, “Do you have any problem being a Muslim?” No, we don’t have any problem. In the eyes of Allah, we are all the same. Men and women are the same in the eyes of Allah. There are only three things that are different between men and women. Women conceive, women deliver babies, and women breastfeed. These are the three things that men cannot do and only women can do. Other than that, men can do everything that women can do and women can do everything that men can do.
It’s not about competition with men. It’s not about wanting to be proud to hold the top position. It’s about giving the best to the country and tapping the full potential of women so that we will have more holistic development of the country.

Actually, women are at an advantage because there are three things that the men can never do. This is something that we should appreciate in ourselves, even our mothers. They are coming from the old school of thoughts. We must make them proud of themselves and their contribution to the country's development, the country's future generation, and the training of their children to become good people and good leaders in the future. Whether you’re in education, health, or other ministries as well, I think there is always a role for women to complement and strengthen policymaking, the organizational structure, networking, and cooperation. It's always good to be better than what we think that we are now.
With that, I would like to thank you for listening to my experience as a politician, and I hope you can use this in your own capacity. Of course these are just ideas here from my part, but you can modify it in accordance to your position, in accordance to your profession. Don’t limit your creativity. Don’t limit your skills. Don’t be scared. Have courage. When you want to think differently, you must have the courage to say that yes, this is something different and I want to make it happen and I can do it, Inshallah. Thank you very much.

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