Malaysian Minister of Women and Family Development Shahrizat Abdul Jalil says her country is modern, multiracial, and eager to get past stereotypes.
Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, Malaysia's Minister of Women and Family Development, accompanied by a delegation of ministry staff and the vice consul of the Malaysian Consulate in Los Angeles, did some high powered networking at UCLA September 19. In the morning she met briefly with International Institute Vice Provost Geoffrey Garrett, then spent an hour with faculty and staff at the Center for the Study of Women. She then gave a luncheon address at the Faculty Center. The previous day the Malaysian delegation had met with Los Angeles city officials downtown.
In her meeting with Geoffrey Garrett, Shahrizat Abdul Jalil said that even though her ministry is relatively new, that the women’s movement in Malaysia is very old. She said she hoped to network with women leaders in California and to gain experience from UCLA's expertise on Women’s Studies. Geoffrey Garrett commented that the International Institute's Center for Southeast Asian Studies has been named by the federal government as a national center of excellence. He said that 9/11 increased awareness in the United States of the need to be more cosmopolitan. It has resulted in increased federal funding to the UCLA international research centers. "America needs more people who understand international issues."
At the Center for the Study of Women
Next the minister was taken to the offices of the Center for the Study of Women, where she met with Professor Sondra Hale (Anthropology) and the center's assistant director, Regina Lark. They briefed her with an overview of the Center for the Study of Women and Women’s Studies program. UCLA is one of eight universities in the United States to offer a Ph.D. in Women’s Studies. Sondra Hale spoke about her work to promote the Global South Initiative – which links a number of institutions in the world that have Women’s Studies programs.
Malaysia: A Muslim Country where Women Are in the Forefront
The delegation then attended a lunch meeting at the campus Faculty Center. Guests included Professor Sondra Hale; Monica Salinas, president of UCLA Women and Philanthropy; and well-known Islamic scholar Afaf Marsot and her husband, Dr. Alain Marsot, professor emeritus at California State University, Long Beach; as well as several other UCLA staff and visiting scholars and the Malaysian delegation. The minister gave a brief address to those in attendance.
Shahrizat Abdul Jalil's message was upbeat, stressing Malaysia's tradition of religious toleration, its high level of female emancipation and achievement, its high-tech industries, and its thorough dislike of terrorism of any kind. She was eager to establish longer-term contacts and to work to dispel the image in the United States that all Muslim societies harbor high levels of militant extremism.
Her visit, she said, "is firstly to help our government bridge the gap between our two countries, Malaysia and America, in our own small way. We are concerned that after September 11 that if little groups like us do not take matters into our own hands we are worried that the chasm might widen. . . . To us even if we can convince one American friend that Malaysia is a safe Muslim country, I think this visit will have been successful."
Malaysia has a per capita GDP of almost $10,000, a third higher than Thailand, more than twice that of the Philippines, and three times that of Indonesia. "Briefly," Shahrizat Abdul Jalil said, "I don't think too many of you have been to Malaysia, but you will be surprised to know that we are a modern, English-speaking, multilingual, multicultural, multireligious, developing tiger economy in Southeast Asia. We are a nation of some 24 million people." The country is about 58% Malays, 29% Chinese, and 7% Indians. "And we have what we call Eurasians. There are a lot of intermarriages in Malaysia, we say we are multiracial."
Malaysia, she said, is "obviously a rich country. We have our poor, but by and large Malaysians eat 10 times a day. [Laughter.] We have no unemployment. And our poor, they have homes, they drive cars. We have good roads, we have good schools. In our recent budget, the biggest chunk was given to the Ministry of Education. We very strongly believe in education."
Malaysia is officially a Muslim country. The minister was concerned that this would cloud relations with America. "But we are against discrimination against other religions," she said earnestly. "We live peacefully alongside one another, and we are very proud of it. You find Muslims, Christians of all denominations -- Catholics, Protestants -- we have a lot of Hindus, Buddhists. We also have a lot of people who don't believe in anything but themselves or anyone but themselves, living harmoniously together. I think that is something the world can learn from."
The Ministry of Women and Family Development
Shahrizat Abdul Jalil went on to describe the work of her ministry, which is only two and a half years old.
"Actually, we are looking after the men in Malaysia. We believe that when the women of a country in Asia are happy, then it speaks well of the men. And I must say this, by and large the men of Malaysia are really wonderful."
An important element in the widespread economic and social freedom women enjoy in Malaysia, she said, was the present government's commitment to the peaceful resolution of political and social problems. "Even though the seat of power is in the hands of the men, we have a government that has been around for 46 years and we have done very well. We achieved independence 46 years ago, with no wars. It was done through negotiation, there was a peaceful hand-over of the nation."
Over that 46 years there has been a thorough-going transformation of the Malaysian economy. "We were then very much an agrarian society. Today we have developed into one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world."
The Ministry of Women and Family Development works to promote equal rights for women. But it sees a need to also protect family stability. "At the ministry we are talking about gender equality. We are talking about how to sustain and maintain a stable family relationship, because we believe that everything begins with the family. Our concern is that, like anywhere else in the world, the family institution is breaking down. It has broken down from an extended family to a nuclear family, and single families, and we are fast becoming an individualistic society. But by and large the family's position in Malaysia is still very strong. The government wants to maintain that, because we truly believe that this is where our strength lies, in the family institution."
Malaysia has been strikingly successful in bringing women into the higher education system. "We are worried," Shahrizat Abdul Jalil said, "that now more than half of the student population in the universities are girls. So now the battle cry is, Where are the boys? Something like 66% of the students in all of our universities are girls."
The Ministry of Women and Family Development has a comparatively small budget, but works with other ministries to monitor the treatment of women. "For instance, if you are looking at women and health, I work very closely with the Minister of Health to make sure that the planning, the amount of money spent, the programs that they do, will reach the womenfolk."
In higher education, Shahrizat Abdul Jalil said, it is not enough to have high female enrollments. "Are they just doing humanities? Why are there not enough women students in the sciences? It is not good enough to have 60 some percent in the universities if they are not inclined towards the modern technical subjects. We don't have enough women engineers, women doctors. These are the things this ministry will input into the other relevant ministries."
The minister reported that there are a growing number of women entrepreneurs in Malaysia. "We don't have too many women millionaires in Malaysia yet -- yet. They are all in the making. They are in smaller businesses now. Because the government is spending a lot of money giving grants, so we are making sure, we check with the Ministry of Development, asking, are you giving enough money to our women entrepreneurs? And in what trade are you giving? This is how our ministry works. So even though we don't have a big revenue, I think we are managing quite well.
"We are looking at all the laws, the rules and regulations, and procedures of government to assure that there is gender equality and that there is no discrimination."
Going Beyond Victimhood
The Ministry of Women and Family Development's first campaign was on the issue of violence against women. "But we stood it the other way: it was 'Women Against Violence.' Because we thought, we care enough about the men and the babies, children who are victims of violence, and we don't want women to always feel that they are victims. Not in this century.
"We want women to be positive about themselves. They must stop thinking of themselves only as victims. We are leaders. We are mothers. Like, 'How did your son get to be so narrow minded?' We are the ones who are bringing up our sons and where did he learn to discriminate against his sisters? So we are taking that approach.
"It is no longer tenable to go around talking about women as victims only. Personally I am really bored with that. In Malaysia there is nothing the Malaysian woman cannot do. She makes decisions about her life on her own."
Shahrizat Abdul Jalil holds a law degree from the Univeristy of Malaya, and served as an assistant Tresury solicitor at the Ministry of Finance. She founded her own corporate law firm in 1993. She has been a member of the board of directors of several companies, and was the first woman CEO of a major Malaysian business, a conglomerate of two companies, Island and Peninsular Berhad and Austral Enterprises Berhad. She spoke briefly about her own life. "I was lucky that in my lifetime and in my life experiences I did not have to go through any form of discrimination. Because I was lucky to have a father who believed in his daughters, and I married a man who was educated in America so he is very liberated and secure for himself. He wants me to do well in my life. He feels that part of my success is his success too. So I am lucky in that sense, but not all women are that lucky in Malaysia so I hope to bring my experiences to the ministry. And I hope that something good will come out of it."
Looking at What We Have in Common
The minister closed by asking, "Why don't we all look at what we have in common instead of looking at how we differ, our color or religion or who we pray to? We might be Muslims, Christians, Jews, we have god, one or many, we are really the same, each of us, each individual. We should not allow only governments to decide for us or we are in trouble. Please come over and see the other side of Islam. Not all of us are terrorists. We are a peace-loving nation. We do not condone any form of terrorism, whether you are a Muslims or Jew or Irish. If you are a terrorist and you are a Muslim, you deserve what you get.
"We feel sad that every Muslim is painted by the same brush. We really do not want that. I hope that we will have dispelled a little of this notion of the Muslim being a terrorist. But you know, I have been here for two days and the people I have met, I was so pleasantly surprised to find that Americans on the ground don't necessarily think like the Americans on top. There is hope. I feel that as a government we should not give up hope. Even though we might disagree on a lot of things, we still have hope that some day some people, not all, will be able to see beyond their noses, go out into the world and see what it is like out there. It is very important for America to do it. Because you are the big brother, we have no choice. It is very important for Americans, whether you are at UCLA or you are in Washington, you must step out and see that there is a world out there."
The visit of the Malaysian delegation was hosted by the International Institute's International Visitors Bureau.
Published: Tuesday, September 23, 2003