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Women and Politics

During this period women continued their interest in national politics and an increasing number joined the Pergerakan Kaum Ibu (Women’s Movement) of UMNO The Kaum Ibu started out as isolated branches of different women’s nationalist groups which began to appear around 1945.125 The Malay Women’s Teachers Union was the first group of

123 "Clever Girls Keep It a Secret," Malay Mail, Thursday, October 15, 1959. During this period young couples could also have pre-marriage lessons on how to be good wives and husbands. But these courses were for Chinese girls sponsored by the Young Women’s Chinese Association in Kuala Lumpur. "Pre-Marriage Lectures for Young Couples Urged," Malay Mail, Thursday, July 29, 1965.

124 Newspapers also featured stories about young undergraduates at university. One story highlighted how young Malaysian undergrads were using motor cycles and scooters to get around. The two girls interviewed agreed that the roads of Kuala Lumpur are dangerous but they do not wear helmets because they make them look awful, their favourite gear to go with their bikes are pantsuits, minis and goggles. "Women Undergrads Take to Scooters and Motor-Cycles," Malay Mail, Monday, July 13, 1970.

125 Puteh Mariah led the Kaum Ibu from 1946 to 1950 and Hajjah Zainon from 1951 to 1953 (retired due to ill health). According to Manderson, Zainon was perceived as being a ‘motherly’ leader and did not openly question the role of women in the party. She was a powerful advocator of education for women.

Manderson, Women, Politics, and Change: The Kaum Ibu UMNO, Malaysia, 1945-1972, 109-15.

women to organise in the colonial period.126 Other women’s groups were created spontaneously by different sectors of the community, but most of these groups became part of the Kaum Ibu during the 1946-1949 period. In 1949, the Kaum Ibu had 12,000 members. Ten years later, the numbers had almost doubled; by 1969 Kaum Ibu’s membership exceeded 140,000 women, the majority of whom were village residents. In the state of Perak alone there were sixty branches of women’s institutes with a total membership of 1700, mostly in the rural areas.127 Fatimah Hashim, the national leader of the Kaum Ibu, from 1956 to 1972, concentrated on increasing the number of branches, divisions and members.128 In 1961, Sa’adiah Sardin, wife of the Transport Minister, urged Kaum Ibu ‘to work doubly hard to get greater participation and consequently a greater say in the United General Assembly.129

The Kaum Ibu leadership saw themselves as playing the role of educating their sisters in the village to adopt a more nationalist approach by supporting the newly formed Alliance.130 This was particularly relevant to the times, as the ruling-class government was not a grassroots government and needed to mobilise their largely rural-based constituents to become more nationalistic and supportive of UMNO. The Kaum Ibu leadership tried to encourage women to view themselves as part of the new nation. This was exemplified when members of the Kaum Ibu pressed the government ‘to instruct all women members of official delegations abroad to wear national costume – long kebayas or baju kurong with sarongs.131

The Kaum Ibu provided women with a forum in which they could debate issues such as modern Muslim women’s equality. Women leaders spoke out against sexist remarks.132

126 Ibid., 51.

127 "The Queen Praises Work of Volunteer Women," The Straits Times, Friday, May 19, 1961.

128 Hashim increased the membership by 100,000 in less than a decade. Manderson, Women, Politics, and Change: The Kaum Ibu UMNO, Malaysia, 1945-1972, 114.

129 "Curb Polygamy Call."

130 "Kaum Ibu Support," Straits Times, March 9, 1958.

131 "Curb Polygamy Call."

132 "Inferior? Now Perak Joins Chorus of Protests: The Angry Women (cont.)."

In 1958, after the chief publicity officer of Singapore UMNO suggested that, under Islam, women are inferior to men, women leaders in Selangor and Penang denounced the suggestion as ‘ridiculous’.133 Kamsiah Ibrahim, President of Inner Wheel of Rotary, stressed that ‘[w]e do realise that women need the strength and guidance of men in many matters but that does not make us inferior to men’. This, Fatemah Hashim (President of the Kaum Ibu) said, is ‘apparently recognised in the Constitution of Malaya. Our constitution provides complete equality between the sexes. A woman can aspire to the highest post in the land.’134 She added that ‘as far as Muslim women were concerned, our religion has imposed certain restrictions on the liberty of women with regard to marriage and divorce. But this does not alter the fact that women are inherently equal to men.’

Hashim added that ‘we may be the weaker sex but we are not weak in providing power for the national good. Our grandchildren will not forget such proof of our loyalty.’135 She commented further by saying that ‘the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world’.136 Hashim wanted Kaum Ibu to be a part of mainstream politics, but male politicians were not willing to share the leadership of UMNO with women.137 The expulsion of Khadijah Sidek from the Johor Division was a strong warning to women that the real political force lay with male politicians.138 Despite the fact that the Kaum Ibu lobbied the government for equal pay and that there were 160,00 women employed in government services by 1962, equal pay for women workers was not considered an issue.139 There were also very few changes to Muslim family law, as most political leaders did not see any reason for equality for women and did not recognise the inequality of religious law.140 Even though

133 Ibid.

134 Ibid.

135 Ibid.

136 Ibid.

137 Manderson, Women, Politics, and Change: The Kaum Ibu UMNO, Malaysia, 1945-1972, 114.

138 Khadijah Sidek (Kaum Ibu President 1956-1958) was expelled from the party because she was a radical and wanted to get full participation of women in the party. As a result she was perceived as causing divisions. Ibid., 77-115.

139 Ibid., 181; "Equal Pay for Women," Straits Times, March 7, 1962.

140 Manderson, Women, Politics, and Change: The Kaum Ibu UMNO, Malaysia, 1945-1972, 191; "Women Play Your Role," Straits Times, April 26, 1964.

female leaders argued for changes against prevailing attitudes, male politicians ignored their requests. In official discourses women’s issues were not political: economic development of the nation was the government’s primary concern and women were largely left to mother the nation.

Under Hashim’s leadership, Kaum Ibu changed its name to UMNO Wanita in 1971.141 By this time, the Kaum Ibu was well organised and covered both the grassroots level as well as the urban educated and it became a political avenue for women, but women’s groups did not have the same power as the mainstream political party. Like the male writers in Hooker’s study, male politicians perceived women’s role as closely associated with the family. In the public arena, nationbuilding and teaching was seen as a purposeful role for women in a supportive way, which is not surprising as most male writers and politicians of the time had a similar background in terms of modern liberal ideology.

Even though male leaders called for more educated women to lead Kaum Ibu, these women were expected to conform to the wishes of the male leaders. As scholars have pointed out, ‘The political lines are primarily drawn by men, with the women’s section largely parroting what is uttered by the top leaders of UMNO who are mostly men’.142

The entry of some women into the senior party in government in Malaya through Kaum Ibu did not represent their entry into mainstream politics, or a change in attitudes towards women, held by both men and women in Malay society. As Manderson has indicated, despite the participation of women in political life, ‘the role of women did not change in essence but rather drew its inspiration and its mode of operation from tradition.’143 The entry of women into politics was part of the nationalist rhetoric to mobilise the nation to support elections. As Virginia Dancz has pointed out, women’s political auxiliaries did not function as independent bodies but remained closely tied to the parties to which they

141 Zhou Mei, Rafidah Aziz Sans Malice (Singapore: Yayue Enterprise, 1997), 62.

142 Wazir attributed this to ‘the maintanence of tradition’ in female leadership roles where female leaders are ‘balanced on marginal structures of the political system, with women’s social and political organisations being appendages to the political system rather than strong viable forces of their own’. Wazir as cited in Jomo K S and Leng, "Not the Better Half: Malaysian Women and Development Planning," 28-9.

143 Manderson, Women, Politics, and Change: The Kaum Ibu UMNO, Malaysia, 1945-1972, 1.

were a part of.144 Likewise Wazir comments that if women were successful in reaching an important position they remained unable to shed their conventional role in the family if their husbands did not want them to participate and preferred them to be Malay housewives.145

Aishah Ghani: Modern Malay Mother, Career Woman and Politician

The following section provides a case study of a women who married the two roles and became an important role model for Malay women. Aishah Ghani was a modern-minded, educated, respected Muslim mother of three and was an excellent example of the type of women the government sought in politics.146 Aishah was born in Ulu Langat in the 1920s, the youngest child in the family. After finishing primary school, Aishah worked as a teacher’s aid in the village school for a short period. Her parents would not permit her to attend the high school in the next district because of the distance and because of the risk of Christian conversion in the colonial schools. 147 The family preferred to see Aishah marry. She refused to accept this fate so her parents finally decided to send her to a Muslim Girls’ school in West Sumatra were she could board. There were 600 girls attending the Islamic College in Padang including a small number from Malaya. Aishah’s school fees, which were quite substantial, were paid for with the money collected from selling (latex) rubber and vegetables for the market. During the war, Aishah lived with an Indonesian family. She did not see her parents for two years before returning home in 1942 in her mid-teens. Aishah began her early career in journalism as editor of the college magazine. After graduating as a religious teacher in Indonesia, she taught in a

144 Dancz, "Women's Auxilliaries and Party Politics in Western Malaysia", 571.

145 Wazir as cited in Jomo K S and Leng, "Not the Better Half: Malaysian Women and Development Planning," 28-9.

146 At the time of my interview with Aishah she was working for a women’s co-operative in Kuala Lumpur. "Interview with Aishah Ghani," (1998).

147 Class has always dictated whether women have access to education and employment in the higher sectors of the economy but because the British started the education process for Malay males of aristocratic birth, Malay children from the villages including girls also had access to school education in the later colonial period. In the early colonial period, Malay parents were not interested in having their children exposed to Christianity.

religious school on returning to Malaya. She later worked for Radio Malaya (the first Malay radio broadcasting station) in Kuala Lumpur, where she met her husband-to-be, a member of the nationalist movement and a radio assistant at Radio Malaya. They married and had three children. Aishah continued her studies in England, and on her return, she joined the editorial staff at the newspaper Berita Harian and later sought election into politics. The couple’s fourth child was born soon after.148

Aishah joined Kaum Ibu in 1949 and continued her political life for twenty-five years.149 In 1972, she was elected head of UMNO Wanita, and maintained this position for eighteen years. Following Hashim, Aishah also became the Minister of Welfare Services because, as several male cabinet Ministers believed, ‘it was the most suitable Ministry for women’.150 In an interview, Aishah said women in politics had to play politics and could not go against the grain of UMNO as a united body because unity among politicians was essential in light of the ethnic as well as other divisions in both politics and Malay society. According to Aishah, Khadijah Sidek was expelled from UMNO Wanita because she wanted women to be full participants of the party and she wanted to become an independent minister in the party so she could have ‘real’ political power. Aishah said that, unlike Sidek, she sacrificed women to a certain extent to accomplish UMNO’s focus on racial harmony and nation building. However, she maintains that women gained a great deal post-Independence; they were given the option of secondary and tertiary education and many became teachers and nurses.151

Aishah’s role in politics, like teaching and nursing, was an accepted one for women because she combined family life with work and was supported by her spouse. In an earlier interview with the Malay Mail in 1959, under the title ‘A Young Mother with Modern Ideas’, Aishah stated that her political career was made possible by her husband

148"Interview with Aishah Ghani."

149 Aishah Ghani was the first leader (1945-1946) of Angkatan Wanita Sedar, AWAS which means raising women’s awareness. AWAS was the women’s section of the Nationalist Party (the party was banned in 1949). Manderson, Women, Politics, and Change: The Kaum Ibu UMNO, Malaysia, 1945-1972, 55.

150 As cited in Ibid., 154.

151 "Interview with Aishah Ghani."

because he did not stand in her way when she wanted to go abroad to study. Instead, he gave her encouragement, and looked after the house and children. The editor stressed that

‘by dogged perseverance and a “never say die will” Che Aishah, a housewife, broke all conventions by leaving her husband and children to travel overseas and qualify as a journalist’. The editor also made comments concerning other people’s thoughts on the matter, especially the neighbourhood people, ‘a remarkable woman is the description given to her by her neighbours. Old fashioned village elders who sniggered when she left her husband and children to go abroad, now admit a little sheepishly that she was right’.

In her newspaper interview which coincided with her election campaign in 1959, Aishah stressed that ‘women will understand her ambition to win for them and the benefits that education and ambition have granted her’. The interviewer described Aishah as ‘neat and attractive’ and the article was accompanied by photographs of Aishah giving a campaign speech. She represented the ideal leader for the women’s party, as indicated in her campaign speech when she vowed to champion the cause of women, and in her election promises, which included a promise to ‘fight for better education for children, the creation of a morally sound generation, better treatment and greater respect for women and stricter divorce and marriage laws’.152


This chapter has traced the social changes that have taken place in Malaysia in the transition period between the 1940s to the 1970s when discourses of women moved from the mother to ‘modern’ mother. After Western development models were introduced by the government, and middle-class and educated rural women were employed by the government to administer the new development programs, poor rural women were seen to be in need of guidance in both family planning and in modern mothering and house-keeping skills. Official discourses favour the Malay modern mother and wife, there is no reference to non-Malay working class women; instead the Malay teacher and nurse are

152 S Bendahara, "Aisah Wants to Champion the Cause of Women: Children Won't Be Forgotten," Malay Mail, Monday, August 17, 1959.

endorsed. In addition, women in the urban areas were bombarded with Western media representations of modernity and the modern Western feminine woman. These representations of women promoted images of the European 1950s version of the feminine, single, working woman and the ‘housewife’.

As a result, Malay women also had to act against the prevailing discourses of the ‘weaker sex’ but it was a key turning point in which colonial discourse of women’s sexuality disappears. Notions of women as the weaker sex was acknowledged by the women themselves but rhetoric concerning women’s inequality was strongly contested by Malay women. In official discourse, male and female roles in Malay society were seen to complement each other rather than cause tensions in male and female relations. The tensions between work, family and household responsibilities were not as fraught as could have been expected. Women’s contribution to the development of the new nation as both mother and worker were viewed as important. Aishah Ghani, for example, embodied the ideal mother and working wife.

However, during the 1950s high levels of conflict and war undermined the nation’s progress. Poverty and land alienation caused divisions between urban and rural areas and between Malay and non-Malay. In 1969, the problems associated with the increasing divide between rich and poor, especially in the context of Malay and non-Malay, caused the government considerable grief and exposed the difficulties inherent in the political processes of uniting Malaysia as a nation. In the 1969 elections more than half the Malays and the majority of non-Malays voted against the government.153 In the aftermath of the 1969 elections race riots occurred that represented discontent amongst the Malay community against non-Malays, the government and the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman. Following these race riots, the Malaysian government suspended democratic rule and introduced a state of emergency to put a stop to the violence. The Prime Minister

153 Jomo K S, Growth and Structural Change in the Malaysian Economy, 144.

resigned and Tan Abdul Razak the Deputy Prime Minister, became the next Prime Minister of Malaysia, serving until his death in 1976.154

The government then went back to the planning stage to implement new policies that would have major social and structural changes for both Malay and non-Malay families in the future. Under the New Economic Policy (NEP), the newly industrialised countries such as Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong were held up as prime examples of Western development model success and rural daughters were given a new role to play in the economic development of Malaysia. The next chapter highlights official government discourses concerning the role of Malay women in the government’s NEP.

154 Jomo K S, A Question of Class: Capital, the State, and Uneven Development in Malaya (New York:

Monthly Review Press, 1988), 255.

Chapter 6: Their Moment in the Sun: Women’s Work at the Forefront of the Malaysian Economy 1970s – 1990s

When Malaysia’s new government introduced its New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971, industrialisation policies were changed from import substitution to export-oriented manufacturing.1 Under the NEP, large numbers of young women entered the export-manufacturing workforce and helped to subsidise the family wage. This chapter examines the representation of women in the context of the changing nature of work in Malaysia in the wake of the NEP as Malaysians moved from a largely rural-based agricultural economy to an expanding urban-based manufacturing one. The chapter is divided into three parts: the first section provides an outline of the subsequent demographic, cultural and racial tensions created by that change and its specific outcomes for female workers.2 The second section highlights how cultural changes in relation to young women’s independence as wage earners, together with the social transformation brought about by industrialisation, caused significant concerns regarding the physical and moral welfare of young women workers. During this time women worker’s sexuality became a major focus of both social and political discourses. This modern Malaysian discourse, then, in some ways echoed the discourses of the colonial period when Western women were perceived as virtuous and the ‘other’ women were un-virtuous. The third section illustrates how, in modern Malaysia, images of working-class Malay women becoming Western were frowned upon, as Islamic nationalist men and women sought to ensure that daughters remain within the Islamic filial relationships. Just as the colonial ‘good woman’ was defined by her familial attributes, the (Malay) female worker in

‘industrialising’ Malaysia was defined as a ‘good Muslim daughter’.

1 Government of Malaysia, "Second Malaysia Plan, 1971-75," (Kuala Lumpur: Government Printers, 1971); Government of Malaysia, "Third Malaysia Plan, 1976-80," (Kuala Lumpur: Government Printers, 1976).

2 This new government direction was in line with Western development models favoured by most developing countries in Southeast Asia. The industrialisation process modelled on the West, started with the movement from agriculture to light manufacturing followed by the introduction of heavy industry and improved technology. Countries in Southeast Asia supported by the World Bank embraced the language of Rostow’s stages of growth in the 1960s.

This chapter traces the discourses in the newspapers of the period, especially the Malay Mail and it also utilises both formal and informal interviews conducted with working-class Malaysian women workers in Johor and Penang; the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC); textile and garment trade union leaders from Selangor, Penang and Johor; and NGO spokespeople from Tenaganita and Sahabat Wanita in order to balance

‘official’ forms of representation of women.3