Caught by the acute contradictions that the world can never be the same again after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and that nothing has actually changed, Malaysians like the rest of the world start the new year on a sombre note.
The past year had also been exciting times for Malaysian women, and
this is probably why in its year-end round-up yesterday, the New Straits
Times devoted a special feature article entitled “We’ve come a long
way…” on the “stirring year for women on local soil” with the
“Beginning with the setting up of the Women and Family Development Ministry early in the year to the good news that widows who have remarried are still entitled to draw pensions, women have continued to make surer, sizable steps towards betterment and empowerment.”
The feature article highlighted the notable achievements, events and even milestones of Malaysian women month-by-month for the year, starting on the very first day of last year with the following notation:
“JAN 1 - Datuk Ainum Mohamed Saaid, deputy chief executive of the Securities Commission, takes over as the new Attorney-General. She is the first woman to hold the post.”
But the feature article was not complete or comprehensive, particularly in its coverage of the events of the last month of the year. The feature which started with Ainum, should have ended with Ainum, with the following notation:
“December 31 - First woman Attorney-General resigns after one year without completing her two-year appointment allegedly on health grounds but under controversial circumstances”
Ainum’s premature resignation, being the first Attorney-General to leave her office under inexplicable circumstances before completion of her full term of office, is as important as her appointment to become the first woman Attorney-General.
Unless there is a clear, full and satisfactory explanation as to why Ainum had to resign at the mid-point of her two-year appointment, fundamental questions remain not only about the state of public confidence in the fair and impartial administration of justice, but whether there is a powerful “glass ceiling” affecting the appointment or full and effective functioning of women in the highest posts in the country.
I find it surprising that a feature article highlighting the momentous events affecting Malaysian women in the past year should have left out what was undoubtedly the single most important event of the year and even of the decade - the unanimous vote by Parliament on August 1 (by 172 votes to nil) to amend Article 8 of the Malaysian Constitution to entrench the principle of the equality of the sexes and to outlaw gender discrimination.
May be this is a reflection that although Article 8 of the Constitution has been amended, Malaysia has still a long way to go to achieve the general mindset in the government and among the people fully accepting gender equality as a principle in their everyday practice and banning discrimination based on sex.
This is probably why a recent component Barisan Nasional youth organisation called on the government to allow non-Muslim men to practise polygamy. If the word and spirit of the new amendment in Article 8(2) of the Constitution is fully followed, then this Barisan Nasional youth organisation should be calling not only polygamy for non-Muslim men, but polygamy (i.e. marrying more than one wife or husband at the same time) for women as well - or polyandry, where a woman has more than one husband.
The mere amendment of Article 8(2) of the Constitution would not advance women’s rights, which are part of the broader mosaic of human rights, unless there is a conscious campaign and effort led by the government to implement its principle in all spheres of national life.
As an example, isn’t it time that women should be appointed to the highest judicial posts, not just High Court judge or the first-ever appointment to the Court of Appeal and Federal Court, but as Chief Judge of the High Court, President of the Court of Appeal or even Chief Justice of the Federal Court?
Recently, the country lost a good judge, Tan Sri Dato' Wan Adnan bin Ismail, the President of the Court of Appeal, who succumbed to kidney and heart ailments on December 24, leaving a vacancy for the second highest judicial post in the land.
It would most ideal if Federal Court judge, Dato' Siti Norma bt. Yaakob, who was the first (and so far the only) woman to be appointed to the Court of Appeal and Federal Court, could be appointed the President of the Court of Appeal to mark a most remarkable breakthrough for women achievements in Malaysia as well as usher a comprehensive implementation of the spirit of the new Article 8(2) constitutional amendment of gender equality in all public fields of national endeavour. She was the first woman to be appointed High Court judge in 1983 and her 19 years’ seniority in the judicial service should in fact strengthen her case to be appointed to the second highest judicial post in the country.
Siti Norma’s appointment as President of Court of Appeal, which would place her within striking distance of being appointed to the highest judicial office in the land, the Chief Justice of the Federal Court, should be accompanied by a massive exercise to appoint more women into the judiciary to provide a greater gender balance.
At present, the number of women judges are few and far between, representing less than five per cent of all judicial posts - when the gender mix in the legal profession should be fairly even between men and women lawyers. For a start, the government should adopt a policy of targetting 30 per cent of all judicial appointments to be filled by women within two years.
The New Straits Times feature-article carried five photographs of women who made a mark last year, namely Ainum, Datuk Sharihzat Abdul Jalil the new Minister for Women and Family development, Azalina Othman Said the UMNO Puteri chief, Tengku Azura the first Malasian model to be chosen as Asia’s face for Christian Dior and Marina Mahathir, the Malaysian AIDS Council President.
It is unfortunate that the photographs were not multi-racial to reflect Malaysia’s population make-up, as there were many non-Malay women candidates who deserve to be similarly highlighted too, such as the DAP MP for Batu Gajah, Fong Po Kuan, who has become a symbol of new and young Malaysian woman leaders who are fighting for the larger causes of democracy and human rights affecting all Malaysians and not just specifically women issues.
Fong Po Kuan was suspended for six months as MP without allowance, not because she had committed any crime or parliamentary offence, but because of the tyranny of a feudal parliamentary system which stifles the freedom of speech of elected representatives of the people - underlining the importance of fighting the larger cause of democracy and human rights for all Malaysians.
Another symbol of the new role of Malaysian women in the vanguard of the fight for democracy and human rights is Anita Md Nasir, the Sun photographer from Penang who was one of the journalists suspended after the fallout of the Sun front-page report of an alleged plot to assassinate the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister.
Anita’s case is most unique, as she is a photographer and the offending front-page Sun story did not carry any photograph. Be that as it may, her case has become symbolic of the lack of press freedom in Malaysia, and I fully support the campaign of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) demanding the lifting of the suspension imposed on Anita and other journalists by the new Sun management headed by controversial lawyer and newly-appointed deputy Sun chairperson VK Lingam.
Finally, let me say a word about the role and challenge of the Penang DAP Wanita. Penang DAP should play a leading and front-line role in the national campaign to mobilise national support to defend the 44-year fundamental constitutional principle and nation-building cornerstone of Malaysia as a democratic, secular and multi-religious Malaysia and to stop the efforts, whether from UMNO or PAS, to establish an Islamic state in Malaysia.
Penang DAP should be the engine head of such a national campaign to defend the 1957 Merdeka Constitution social contract of Malaysia as a democratic, secular and multi-religious Malaysia with Islam as the official religion, and Penang DAP Wanita’s challenge and role is to be the engine-head’s engine-head of such a nation-wide campaign!