Women power - Driving the nation forward: Zuraida Kamaruddin, Minister of Housing and Local Government

One of the most adored and respected women in Malaysia — Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali was conferred the title Ibu Negara (Mother of the Nation) this month by the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI) for her lifelong contribution to the nation, in conjunction with this year’s National Women’s Day which fell on Aug 25.

Apart from her decades of support for Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as his wife, Siti Hasmah has also worked tirelessly to campaign for women’s health, family planning, drug abuse control and adult literacy.

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She is one that firmly upholds the values of tolerance, acceptance and inclusiveness, and is the perfect role model for women who want to do their best for their families and at their jobs while contributing to the betterment of our beloved country Malaysia.

Not only do women as wives and mothers provide unparalleled influence and support for their husbands and children, their contribution is also vital to a country’s development and advancement.

Hence, as the nation celebrates its 62nd National Day on Aug 31, we also take the opportunity to recognise the contribution of women in nation-building. features seven women who are making an impact in their respective fields including the country’s first woman to become Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin, microbiologist and Universiti Sains Malaysia vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Asma Ismail, Hong Leong Investment Bank’s group managing director and CEO Lee Jim Leng, co-founder of Fashion Valet and The dUCk Group Datin Vivy Sofinas Yusof, Refuge for the Refugees founder and 2017 Queen’s Young Leaders Award recipient Heidy Quah, the only female fighter jet pilot in the Royal Malaysian Air Force to date Mejar Patricia Yapp and Kedah Fire and Rescue Services Department director Sayani Saidon — the first woman to be given the responsibility.

Let’s acknowledge the outstanding contributions of women this National Day!

Zuraida Kamaruddin
Minister of Housing and Local Government

Malaysia’s Minister of Housing and Local Government Zuraida Kamaruddin has no qualms about speaking her mind, especially when it is about fair representation of women in the workforce.

Last Aug 30, the Iron Lady of the current government launched the Zuraida Kamaruddin Women Empowerment Hub under the Selangor Women’s Empowerment Institute to raise women’s competitiveness and capacity in the state.

In line with the ruling Pakatan Harapan’s election promise to have at least 30% of policymakers at all levels be women, Zuraida had previously called for the increase in women’s participation at all decision-making levels including local councils throughout the nation.

As the first lady to become housing minister in the country, the tale of female empowerment in Malaysia would not be complete without knowing why the Ampang MP and chief of Pakatan Harapan Women’s wing relentlessly fights for an equal level playing field for Malaysian women in the workforce.

In an interview with in conjunction with National Women’s Day and Malaysia’s National Day, Zuraida shares her views on what can be done to encourage more women to take up leading roles in the workforce, her experience with her male counterparts in the Cabinet and her wish for Malaysia this National Day. Why are you so passionate about women’s contri-
bution and empowerment in Malaysia?

Zuraida: In nation building, women’s participation is very important, at all levels. We need to get more women empowered, to bring themselves forward to contribute to nation building.

At this point of time, we are not really forthcoming. Probably we are shy or it is just our nature, as women in Malaysia. So, there must be some sort of mechanism to give them the opportunity to contribute their potential in whatever areas of expertise. Women think differently from men. To me, having a fair share of women’s contribution to nation-building in terms of ideas, positions and initiatives is important to complement the progress of the nation.

We need to have enough women’s input, complemented by men’s so that the country’s progress will be more complete and stable. That is why I feel that women have to be given the chance and we need to create opportunities for them.

In the housing industry, their input is important in the design and construction of homes for instance, because who spends more time in the house? It is the women. Women, despite the fact that people say they are emotional, are very practical. Thus, their living spaces have to be set up in a way that are easy for them to do their daily household chores, to take care of the children and so forth. If you leave it to the men, most of them will probably have no idea how women want their homes to be like.

Women are more mobile now. They move and participate in the workforce from the low to high levels. Women in the lower levels of the workforce need champions who are in policy-making positions to assist them in accommodating their needs in multiple roles as a mother, as an employee, and as a wife. I really like to propagate for more women to be out there taking part in nation-building, which is an important element in the nation’s progress.

What more should we do to encourage more women to step up and take leading roles in the workforce?

We have to advocate and find a way and have policies to allow more women to come into mainstream positions. For example, in a political party, women are in the wings and not in the main party positions. Women should be in mainstream positions, only then will they have the opportunity to take part in decision-making.

Their input is important. For a country to progress, there must be a certain degree of affirmative action taken. For instance, our election system which is the First-Past-the-Post system — we don’t have the affirmative policy to say that [there must be] 30% quota of women at the candidacy level.

If we achieve the 30% quota, it is not by design but by default. You work hard, and if the timing is right, the opportunity is given and you are able to get the position. In many progressive countries, in which there is high participation by women, they do it by design, with affirmative action. For example, the proportional representation [election] system allocates that for every three men, there must be one woman. So, that is how you get the 30% [representation by women].

Some may ask, why should we limit it to 30%? There must be some effort to meet that target first. After that it is open. But to meet that 30% is already so difficult. Of course, we believe in merit, we are not talking about pushing women who are not qualified. We are talking about women who are qualified but have been side-lined or discriminated along the way. We want to ensure that they are treated fairly, they are considered for promotion and given equal opportunity. Likewise, it is the same for men as well.

In Malaysia, do you think we are getting there when it comes to women’s participation
in the workforce?

Yes, we are getting there, we are progressing well. But what we are lacking is affirmative action. We must make sure women are given opportunities. We just need the opportunity, that’s all. We want to compete, we want to make it based on our performance and merit, not just as a token.

There are mostly men in the Cabinet. As a female minister, are you treated differently by them?

Not in my position and not with my personality. But I know many women receive unequal treatment, maybe because they don’t have a strong personality like I do. That is why we want to empower and accommodate them. They have the capability and the strength, but they don’t have the courage. Thus, we want to encourage more women to be more courageous, to stand at par. As far as I am concerned, there are only three things that differentiate men and women — pregnancy, delivery and [the ability] to breastfeed. [On top of that] what they can do, we can too.

People say one can only choose to excel either at work or at home.
What do you think?

What is important is that you have your principles and discipline. With discipline, you can excel in both areas.

As a parent, you discipline your children and you guide them on their paths. But at the end of the day, they may not be the number one student in school or be a champion in what they do. But I don’t have those kinds of expectations. I give my best to them and they do their best, and I accept them as they are. Therefore, there is no need to have such high expectations as long as they behave the way they should and they discipline themselves. I am ok with that.

You are the boss at work, but are you also the boss at home?

You need understanding and trust at home. Different areas require different bosses. I may be number one here, but when there is a different work scope, you may need a different boss. You cannot be a boss all the way. You need to know how to position yourself at the right time and occasion, to play your role accordingly.

What keeps you motivated at work?

What keeps me going are the many things that need to be done to improve certain situations. The more you do, the more you see, the more you need to do.

The more you see, the more ideas you have, and the more you want these ideas to be implemented. The satisfaction is in seeing the results of your initiative and hard work. When you see people benefit from them and they are happy — that is what it is all about.

Being a politician is about gaining the trust of the people, because once you gain the trust of the people, it makes it easier for you. They see that you are genuine and you are hardworking — you mean what you say and you deliver. But at the end of the day, the end result may not be what you want — it is not always perfect. But because of that earned trust and hard work, at least the people can understand if there are any hiccups.

You are so hands-on and always on the ground, such as being involved in initiatives under the National Community Policy. How do you make time for everything?

I am very focused. I compartmentalise my brain in one way or another. When I work on something, I focus on it. When I am finished, I move on. So when I tackle things, I tackle it immediately because I know I am going to forget if I don’t. Once I tackle it, then whatever needs to be done next can be carried out.

With your hectic schedule, how do you achieve work-life balance?

I live a quality life. It is my hobby to work, to go down to the ground and to be involved. My personal time is my working time.

What is your wish for Malaysia this National Day?

I think that being a new government, there is lots to do. And I really hope that we can achieve much during my tenure as a minister. I want to make a difference to the lives of the people — that would make my tenure in office something worthwhile that I have done for

But I also hope Malaysians will improve themselves, and be better citizens in basic areas such as civic-mindedness. It is high time Malaysians play their part, and not depend on the government to do everything for them.

As with any progressive nation, it is time for Malaysia to see equal contribution from the rakyat to make this country a success. There’s no way we can do it without the people. The people have to participate, be more aware and be more responsible and disciplined. This is lacking in Malaysian society, so I hope we can become a more mature nation, where everyone feels responsible for the nation.

This story first appeared in the pullout on Aug 30, 2019. You can access back issues here.

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