• No results found

The ‘State’ of Women and Work in Modern Malaysia

State Control: Prostitution and the Medical Department 1890- 1940

Chapter 5: The ‘State’ of Women and Work in Modern Malaysia

This chapter traces the discourses that developed around women and family and women and work in the post-colonial period between 1957 to the 1970s. It argues that women’s reproductive role continued to be emphasised in official discourses in both the wider international community as well as in local development plans for the new nation state.

After Independence in 1957, women’s role of wife and mother came under intense scrutiny as an essential part of post-Independence development. As already noted in Chapter 4, the ‘mother and baby’ discourse had been part of the colonial government’s modernising project since the 1930s.1 British colonial policies to enhance the wellbeing of the urban mother and baby had not been extended to rural women who had been left to their own mothering and housekeeping practices. Under the coalition government’s rural development programs in the Second Five Year Plan (1961-65), rural women were taught modern mothering and ‘household’ skills (home economics). This was a new phenomenon for Malay village women and opened employment opportunities for women in the wider society.

Sources used here to track the ‘family question’ in post-colonial Malaya are literary and theoretical works, as well as interviews with Aishah Ghani, who is the retired head of UMNO Wanita, and newspaper reports. The Malay Mail and the Straits Times are important in charting ‘official’ discourses in the post-colonial period. These English-language newspapers began publishing in the colonial period and continued after Independence. The Straits Times was originally published in Singapore, but after Independence and Singapore’s secession from Malaya, the New Straits Times, was published from Kuala Lumpur. The Straits Times continued as an English-language newspaper, published in Singapore. While there are numerous Malay-language

1 The history of motherhood, according to Lenore Manderson, was originally shaped in terms of colonial modernity by the imaginings of notions of empire, motherhood and medicines. Lenore Manderson,

"Shaping Reproduction: Maternity in Early Twentieth-Century Malaya," in Maternities and Modernities, ed. Kapana Ram and Margaret Jolly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 28.

newspapers, I have used the English-language newspapers because they contain ‘official’

reporting during the colonial period and have continued to focus on ‘official’ reporting over the last forty years.2 While The Malay Mail is a tabloid, the New Straits Times, especially after the Official Secrets Act (OSA) was amended in the 1980s, has largely been controlled by the government in Malaysia.3 Hence the New Straits Times is a reliable source for statements about government policy. The government’s ‘near monopoly’ on media ownership guides public debate to a large extent and concentrates on ensuring that press releases and other articles are supportive of, or contain, official rather than unofficial discourse.4

An overview of these newspapers is an effective way to make a general appraisal of official discourses because they reflect the changes taking place in the society under examination. From the 1950s to 1957, for example, they were largely concerned with British, local and international news, followed by Malayan politics, entertainment and sport.5 The articles concerning Malayans were minimal. Photographs in the newspapers were mainly of Chinese, Europeans and Malayans in Western dress, with the women portrayed as volunteer workers and housewives. There were also sections for women, containing cooking, fashion and beauty tips. During the 1960s to the 1970s, there was considerable coverage of international events, with a small section relating to Malaysian politics and the various development and industrial programs taking place in Malaysia.

During this phase, women were referred to in articles on the government-sponsored Kaum Ibu (a women’s political organisation) and commentaries on voluntary community

2 After Independence, Malay nationalist rhetoric focused on the importance of Malay over English. As a result, the Malay language replaced the English language as the national language but English was retained as the official language.

3 Khoo Boo Teik, Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995), 206-7.

4 For further information on media control see Ibid; Khoo Boo Teik, "Economic Vision and Political Opposition in Malaysia, 1981-96," The Copenhagan Journal of Asian Studies 12, no. 97 (1998).

5 During this period, Malaysians were referred to as Malayans. After Independence Malaya was changed to Malaysia and hence the name Malaysians.

work and beauty pageants.6 Later, the newspapers reported government issues and national Malaysian news. In developing this appraisal, the de-colonisation process and the rise in Malaysian nationalism after Independence can be followed. In more recent times, the New Straits Times in particular is staunch in its publication of ‘official’

government rhetoric.

This chapter is divided into three sections. The first section examines the transition period, 1945-1957, and the government’s ‘modern’ development policies including land reform and family planning introduced in order to alleviate high levels of poverty in the rural areas and control the numbers of babies born in Malaysia. During this period women became both the administrators of development policies as well as the recipients of policies to improve the health and wellbeing of the family. In these decades, women’s perceived role in modern Malaysia continued to be closely allied to their reproductive role in society. Virginia Hooker’s work on Malay literature reveals that educated Malays had been writing about images of women’s role in both liberal and modern Muslim society since the 1920s.7 The second section of the chapter traces the tensions between these images. It argues that the demands of modernity did not cause tensions for women because the work they engaged in was perceived to be roles which suited women’s feminine position in society. The third section examines women and politics. During this period, the women in the Kaum Ibu, the women’s wing of UMNO, mobilised support for the government but government organisations such as Kaum Ibu followed a strict gender division of labour under which men were involved in the ‘real’ politics of the country and women were perceived as a support for those men.

6 Kaum Ibu (‘Ibu’ means mother) was the forerunner to UMNO Wanita, the women’s political arm of UMNO. As well as UMNO Wanita there is also an UMNO Youth Section affiliated with UMNO.

7 Virginia Matheson Hooker, Writing a New Society (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000).