Sexism very much alive in Malaysian Parliament

(The Straits Times) – If there is one thing that Malaysia’s Parliament cannot be accused of, it is of being boring. But of late, its MPs have become a bit too colourful for many.

Take this exchange from the last sitting in November. Barisan Nasional (BN) MP Tajuddin Abdul Rahman was trying to get another MP – Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa of opposition Pas – to give way for him to speak.

“Tak masuk lagi? (Not in yet?)” Tajuddin asked.

Dr Mujahid refused to give way.

Deputy Speaker Ronald Kiandee told Tajuddin that the MP did not wish to give way.

Tajuddin did not give up. He tried again: “Dia tak masuk lagi? Dah lama tak masuk-masuk. Main tepi saja. (Still not in after so long? Just playing by the side.)”

Dr Mujahid told Tajuddin to be patient.

Tajuddin then asked: “Bila nak keluar lagi air dia? (When are you going to get wet?)”

The double entendres were obvious, and sparked an uproar among the other lawmakers.

Although they complained about the language, sexual innuendos and sexist remarks have often been part and parcel of Malaysian parliamentary debate.

Unlike the exchange between the two men, however, the targets have usually been women MPs, in particular, those who are young and unmarried.

Now, the women’s wing of BN’s Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) has decided that enough is enough.

On Jan 15, it submitted a memorandum of protest to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Nazri Aziz, who is in charge of parliamentary affairs.

The document demanded a written Code of Ethics and an amendment to the Parliament Standing Order to ban rude remarks and behaviour.

It also wants offenders punished by suspending them for two to six months without pay or allowances, and slapping heavier penalties on repeat offenders.

The group also called for compulsory gender sensitivity courses for all elected representatives in Parliament and state assemblies.

The memorandum was supported by 53 Chinese organisations.

Wanita MCA chief Chew Mei Fun, a former MP, believes these measures are crucial because no MP or state assemblyman has ever been punished for being sexist.

This may be construed as condoning such lowly behaviour, she said.

Datuk Seri Nazri’s response was encouraging. While he did not promise to agree to Wanita MCA’s requests, he did say that BN lawmakers risked not being selected as candidates for the next general election should they continue behaving inappropriately.

“This is a strong reminder for them. If they persist, their future as MPs is at stake,” he said. “Better to sacrifice them than to lose (elections).”

In reality, however, parliamentary behaviour or ability has rarely, if ever, factored in the BN’s selection of candidates.

Party positions and loyalty tend to play a bigger role. This explains why repeat offenders are returned to the House term after term.

That is why episodes of masuk sedikit – which means “to give way”, but carries a crude sexual innuendo – continue despite the uproar.

In fact, in an infamous episode in 2007, two BN lawmakers were pressured into apologising after a public furore erupted when they made crude remarks about a female opposition MP’s menstrual cycle.

Thus, it is not certain that the MCA Women’s wing memorandum will be taken seriously. Indeed, many are sceptical.

Nazri said he would ask Deputy Prime Minister and BN deputy chief Najib Razak to remind BN MPs about the matter.

Opposition MP Chong Eng of the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party notes that sexist MPs have been getting off scot-free for too long.

She said that even after the menstrual cycle remarks, a similar memorandum was submitted but no action was taken.

“We, especially women MPs, have been protesting against these kinds of comments for many years,” she told The Straits Times.

“They just want to shut you up and silence you, especially if you are arguing with them.”

In many cases, some offer a simple apology after public outrage and claim they have been misquoted or that they do not mean it.

Political analyst James Chin, a professor at the Monash University of Malaysia, said any attempt to fight parliamentary sexism would prove futile.

“Sexism and racism are alive and well in Malaysia. The population here is not that well educated on gender,” he said. ‘Our Eastern culture is still very predominant here, and it is not like Western culture, which promotes gender equality.”

The main political parties are male-dominated, he notes, with women representatives comprising only seven per cent of the total.

Describing the government’s response as simply “lip service”, he said: “I do not see any major changes to the influence of gender issues on Malaysian politics. Not for another 10 to 20 years.”

Indeed, he may have a point.

Nazri defended the two MPs over the menstrual cycle remarks. Just after the incident, he was quoted by The Star daily as saying: “This is part of parliamentary debates. Both MPs uttered the words during the heat of their debate, and you cannot control people’s emotions.”

Only time will tell. The next parliamentary session begins on Feb 16.