We need rights, not welfare – Chong Eng

DAP Deputy Secretary-General, Wanita Chief and Bukit Mertajam MP Chong Eng is one of the most recognisable faces in Parliament, as an ardent advocate for gender equality and human rights for Malaysia’s marginalised groups. She explains how catchphrases without concrete action have crippled the nation’s most valuable asset: its people.

In light of possible snap elections, what is DAP’s preparation for the general elections? What are Pakatan and DAP doing to convince voters to choose them?

In politics, we should not only be doing things for the people when elections are drawing near. That would make DAP no better than BN and so it is not how we operate. We have been working to help the people for the last 44 years and that must continue regardless of when the elections are called. Over the years, the people are getting a clearer perception of DAP as a party with many leaders who have firm principles.

This is part of our “brand name” but of course, now we are also trying to convince the people by developing good policies in the states where we are administrating such as Penang and Selangor. Showing that we truly put the CAT (Competency, Accountability and Transparency) principles into action is very important. The previous BN government was corrupt; we are clean. They have cronies, we are now transparent and give everyone an equal chance.

In terms of preparation, the party leaders have called for divisions and branches to prepare their machinery in case elections are indeed called early next year. While there are also leaders who think elections are not likely to be held until 2012, we still have to start getting our act together now. Efforts such as voter registration require time and manpower so we cannot delay these things. As for my constituency, we are getting a team together now to begin preparations.

How will the next elections differ from March 2008?

Previously, we were fighting purely as the opposition and we had very limited resources which led to a shoestring budget for our campaigns. So it was quite difficult to reach the people, yet we still managed to succeed beyond anyone’s expectations, including our own. But this time, I think we can aim for greater heights because we have greater resources to utilise.

Machinery is crucial for any elections and so is media; we are fortunate to have better press exposure now. Even in 2008, we were aided tremendously by the newfound freedom of online media and SMS; in Bukit Mertajam we will be utilising bulk SMS as a means to dispense information for the elections. The key is to show the people what we have achieved in our term of governance so far; the public may not be aware unless the information is given to them.

As an MP for Penang, how would you assess the state government over the last two years?

For a rather new government which came into power somewhat “unexpectedly”, I think the state is doing fairly well. The people do see that we are trying to put in our utmost effort to make things work more smoothly. One thing is very clearly different from BN; our leaders have been clean and transparent thus far.

Of course, there have been hiccups here and there; some issues were not handled as well as they could have been, but these things must happen in a new government as part of the growing process. As long as it is a genuine mistake and we learn from it, we should acknowledge it and move forward.

There are some grouses among those who have high expectations of us; we admit that we have not done enough for them as yet but we also face problems as our efforts are not receiving enough publicity. For instance, we have given land for Tamil schools which simply never happened under the BN government, but many people are not being informed about these things.

You have said before that despite the increase in the number of women in politics and business, the percentage of those in decision-making positions is still too low. Why is it that one does not automatically lead to the other?

The most obvious problem is that over the last decade, female students account for 65 percent of the university intakes, but over the last five decades, the amount of women who work has hardly increased. This comes from the many cultural and social barriers which still exist, preventing women from being active outside the home.

So even if a woman is well-educated, she will probably marry a highly educated and wealthy man who brings in a good income, and so she can afford to stay at home. This can be seen among the ministers whose wives are, in fact, well educated. So having an education does not always lead to an increase of women who work and it is a worldwide trend; not just in Malaysia. Certain mechanisms to empower women – such as day care facilities – must be put into place if we want to address this issue.

Moreover, we must stop seeing issues as “women’s issues” because we cannot solve things if we perceive it in this manner. Sex crimes such as rape or sexual harassment, for example, are never brought up in Parliament by the male MPs. They feel shy and believe that these are not “men’s issues”, so they expect women to solve these issues. But few women are at the decision-making level in this country, so how can this work? Thus, all the lobbying and appeal work done by women NGOs takes years to bear fruit because it gets stuck at the top level since nobody there agrees with their views.

This is why I keep pushing for the temporary 30 percent quota for women at all levels. We cannot empower women unless we begin to bring them into the system to represent themselves. But this must not be done in the way BN brings in women upon the passing of their husbands in order to get sympathy votes (referring to the recent Batu Sapi by-election in which Linda Tsen stood for BN in place of her late husband, Edmund Chong).

It is very unfair to her as she has not been prepared for the political world; perhaps she is able to succeed, but it is unfair to expect this of her, especially since her husband just passed away. BN is using her as a convenient way to score votes as a “gender-friendly” party who recognises the capability of women. In fact, Deputy Minister for Women, Family and Community Development, Senator Heng Seai Kie just told Parliament that she is proud that this woman is so capable!

I challenged her, if BN really thinks women are important then they should have set up a gender equality commission previously which would help to prepare female candidates for elections in line with achieving a minimum 30 percent female participation. That would show their seriousness; otherwise they are just being manipulative and opportunistic. [Note: On 11 November, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Nazri Aziz stated that the Gender Equality Commission is to be set up.]

With so many basic needs for women and family left unmet by the ruling government, what are the roles being played by female ministers and senators?

I think they are just playing it safe by focusing on welfare issues such as giving out money to single mothers and so on. This ignores the bigger issue of rights – which may be threatening to the male leaders because if women make up 30 percent of the government, then there is less to go around for the men. So these women leaders are not questioning the status quo and power structure which is tailored to men.

It is not easy to lobby for women’s rights so the female ministers would rather not touch on it at all as it is “sensitive” and may jeopardise their own careers. Since these issues of rights do not affect re-election for the politicians, they are able to just ignore it. The public has yet to focus on human rights as a key concern – whether it is men or women – so they will not vote for a candidate based on whether they are gender-sensitive or even on whether the party has done something for women or not. But this is changing as more women are becoming aware of their rights as the women begin to identify with people like Teresa Kok and myself.

It is unfortunate that even as Pakatan increased its number of women representatives, BN’s numbers fell significantly. Why is this and how can it be addressed?

Whenever there is a change, it is only natural for the numbers to drop but the problem here is that because gender equality in representation is not a priority in Malaysia, there has never been a conscious push for women to make up a certain percentage of the administration. That’s why for the last five decades, there has never been more than 11 percent of women in Parliament.

This is also something for the party to address because our numbers of male Indian MPs has been steadily growing but we are still yet to have even one female Indian leader in the party. The leadership has to address this especially because Indian women face greater social barriers to enter politics than their Chinese counterparts.

We need to create greater awareness within our society and this is why the Gender Equality and Good Governance society was created in Penang.

What is being done to bring in female candidates for the upcoming elections? What are the obstacles faced?

It is very difficult because as soon as we approach women to join politics – not necessarily to contest as candidates but just as regular members – we are faced with their doubts about whether they are qualified or “smart enough”. This is the difference between men and women – the men are always confident of their abilities, even if they are unqualified!

So there is a need to bridge this perceived inability of women to be as capable as men and it begins in the family unit itself where girls must be taught that they, too, can be leaders. It is crucial for our future generation to recognise that we are all equals. At present, we conduct many trainings and exercises for women that give them greater exposure to experiences which teach self-confidence.

As a female MP, what is the day-to-day environment of Parliament like? Are things better now?

Oh, it is much better now as the MPs have become more educated. After years of various sexist remarks, I think the “bocor” statement (by two BN MPs against Batu Gajah MP Fong Poh Kuan in 2007) and the backlash that it caused was the final straw which made BN realise it had to change. The outcry which that incident received from women NGOs as well as the public has made Parliament a much more sensitive place now.

In fact, Parliament is going to amend the Standing Order regarding unacceptable Parliamentary conduct to include words that are sexist in nature. So it is good to know that the effort of women MPs who protest often in Parliament together with the years of work by women NGOs has borne fruit. This is why women must continue to speak up for what is right.

What are your thoughts on Budget 2011 in terms of women, children and other under-represented segments of society such as the disabled?

The government throws around phrases like “paradigm shift” and “high-income nation” but since half the women in the country are not employed, how is it possible to become high-income without even having an income at all? The same thing applies to the disabled who are shunned from employment opportunities.

Thus, we see the income disparity between the able and disabled, rich and poor, men and women growing larger and larger. This will not be stopped unless we take active measures to enable women to work even if they are homemakers such as by providing day care and senior citizen facilities so that the women are able to leave the home and obtain an income.

With the disabled, we have to invest in them; currently we are giving more money (RM111 million) to the Permata project (early childhood education centres under the Prime Minister’s wife) than to the disabled! In fact, it is the disabled that need more allocations; for example, those in wheelchairs cannot enter public areas such as schools and parks unless these are equipped with ramps. Without the proper infrastructure for the disabled, we are not an enabling society.

Unless we provide the marginalised groups with equal opportunities, they will continue to be dependent on welfare which does not empower them with any rights such as the right to a job. The ministry must not be content to just provide welfare aid; the more important issue is rights.

What needs to be done to improve our education system which appears to be in freefall? Will the scrapping of exams help or hinder?

The exams are not the main issue faced by our education system. We do need to have exams as a form of assessment for students but the nature of the exams certainly needs to be improved. We have to be clear about the areas in which we want our children to improve; if language is a priority, then the exams must be less objective-based to promote writing ability. Objective questions also allow for students to guess at the answers so we should limit the number of such questions in our exams.

The education system should never be exam-focused; students must be taught to learn on their own instead of the spoon-feeding which they are used to. Teachers should serve as guides to assist the children in solving the problems on their own and the problems should be things that are connected to the students’ everyday lives. For example, my son is in primary school and for science class, there are experiments such as growing a plant which they are meant to do. However, not all schools are doing the experiments, which defeats the purpose.

If our science labs are not well equipped and teachers are not provided with an assistant to help them in handling 50 students during the experiment, how can we expect quality students to graduate from our schools? This is why it is frustrating to hear BN talk about becoming a high income nation when our schools are in such poor conditions. Even though the education ministry receives the most amount of funding, our system is falling further and further behind other countries.

The worst is that the gap between our schools is growing every day. There are some schools with no water or electricity and then there are others with air-conditioning and computer labs. We must ensure that all are provided with the basics before we talk about smart schools.

You attend many international and local conferences on various thorny issues such as human trafficking and poverty. Where does Malaysia rank on a global scale in terms of these issues?

For human trafficking, we have recently boosted our ranking to Tier 2, after we fell down to Tier 3 in the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) ranking. This is because Tier 3 means that there are serious consequences such as the withholding of foreign assistance which led the government to amend certain laws and arrest some officers and pimps involved in trafficking. So it proves that international apparatus is crucial.

Another example is the Global Gender Gap Index, in which Malaysia scored 0.58 for economic and political empowerment (wherein 0 indicates no gender inequality and 1 indicates maximum gender inequality). What we need is two-fold: international bodies such as the United Nations must go beyond mere conventions which governments are free to sign without actually adhering to. Only when there are consequences such as with the human trafficking situation, will a government take such conventions seriously.

Secondly, within the country itself, leaders need to be more aware as to what issues are developing globally and pay attention to how it could affect the country’s citizens. They have to comply with the international conventions for the good of the people, who in turn must work harder to raise awareness which ensures that the politicians cannot neglect their obligations to human rights. Political will would not come about unless there is a strong demand from civil society.

Sometimes people need to hear the numbers in order to be pushed into action. Rwanda actually scores much higher than us in terms of percentage of women in Parliament; they have 51 percent female Parliamentarians. While this came into place due to the warfare the country faced, it is still being supported even now by new measures which ensure that women have a vocal representation.

Are the Wanita state committees and national council in place yet?

In Penang, we have formed seven women’s parliamentary divisions and we intend to follow suit in every state in which we have elected representatives. It will help us to organise the women with a greater sense of structure throughout the party.