Teresa Kok – A ‘Partner in Democracy’
YB Teresa Kok has played a central role in Malaysian Politics for almost two decades. She represented the Democratic Action Party as a member of Parliament for four terms since 1999, served as the Senior Executive Councillor in Selangor from 2008 to 2013, and is the incumbent national vice-chairperson of the DAP. Her vast experience in politics as well as the myriad contributions she has made throughout her time with the DAP deserve to be highlighted. She has kindly taken the time to share with EMPOWER the challenges she has struggled to overcome throughout her political career as well as her views on women’s representation in the cabinet.
Starting out as one of the first few female MPs from the DAP, YB Teresa Kok has received much criticism and attack on her personal life as well as on various political stances she has taken throughout her career. She believes that being a single woman in politics places a sizeable target on her back, and her life has been subject to much public scrutiny. Even at the beginning of her career in politics, YB Teresa Kok alongside some other early female MPs have faced occupational hazards, as they have been victims of sexist remarks or remarks with sexual connotations. These verbal attacks continued throughout her political career, mocking and disparaging comments that have ranged from disdain over her support of certain issues to disapproval of her relationship status. She has experienced, “being laughed and bullied until today because I am single”, particularly by her male colleagues. YB Teresa Kok believes that the widespread censure she faces in Malaysia’s male-dominated politics stems largely from the fact that she is a woman. She recalls Dr. Sua Chong Keh’s offensive sexist attack on her in 1999, who also alluded to her level of education as “only a Masters”, as well as the controversy surrounding the “nude squatting incident” in 2005. While it is easy to be intimidated by harmful and hurtful comments, YB Teresa Kok has not allowed the constant ridicule to bother her. She insists that “being single is not an issue.” She is pleased to see that many more younger women are getting involved in politics as interns or personal assistants to MPs. Her own parents were not as comfortable with her entering into politics at her young age, and were very worried for her safety as laws like the Internal Security Act (ISA) were at the time known to be used against political opponents.
As an ardent supporter of women’s rights, YB Teresa Kok believes in the necessity of ensuring safety and instilling confidence among young Malaysian girls. She sheds further light on the social stigma of being single, and the prevalence of this ingrained mindset, especially in religious and rural communities. She recalls being told that many girls in rural areas “…feel ashamed of being single. Many of them fall into the wrong arms and the wrong marriages.” She feels that what makes matters worse is that some parents will marry their young daughters off even when they are just starting high school. In order to combat the serious issue of domestic violence in abusive marriages, YB Teresa Kok advocates for instilling greater self-confidence in young girls, to understand and appreciate that they are not and should not be defined by their relationship status. She encourages reaching out to communities of young women and telling them that “the society has changed. This is a different era now. It is not necessary to get married. There is nothing wrong with being single.” Clearly, YB Teresa Kok paved the way for more single women to participate in politics in Malaysia. It has not come without personal costs to her, but her tenacity and resilience now inspires young girls. YB Teresa Kok believes that there is a need to strengthen their mindsets to tackle the social pressures and expectations that work against the aspirations of single women.
Apart from championing young girls to gain new perspectives, YB Teresa Kok has also worked extensively with influential women from various political parties in the women’s parliamentarian caucus. Under the leadership of YB Dato’ Sri Azalina binti Dato Othman Said from ruling coalition BN-UMNO, the women’s parliamentarian caucus has made excellent strides. YB Teresa Kok is proud of the recent tabling and passing of The Sexual Offences against Children Bill 2017 in the Parliament, and believes that “credit needs to be given to Azalina.” YB Teresa Kok stresses the importance and necessity of the women’s caucus being led by a strong woman from the ruling party who is “passionate on women’s issues” and “has pledged that she will fight for women.” She underscores the political clout of Azalina’s voice on issues, and attributes the passing of the bill to her colleague, “without Azalina stepping in, this would not have happened.” With the success of The Sexual Offences against Children Bill 2017 under the wing of Azalina, YB Teresa Kok is looking forward to the women’s caucus continuing to work together to tackle more bills with a gender perspective and achieve greater success.
As the promising future of the women’s caucus lies ahead, YB Teresa Kok would like to see greater women’s participation and representation in the government. While definite improvements have been made to the gender gap in political representation in Parliament, YB Teresa Kok believes that the future of women’s political participation and in decision-making remains bleak, unless there is a change in the electoral system. “Whether we like it or not, the Parliament is really dominated by males”, she says, alluding to the fact that female representatives make up less than 11% of parliamentarians. She adds, “our election system is as such that first you must pass the polls, and win the seats. So if you don’t win the seats then you can’t be MP.” She underscores that the Malaysian electoral system differs from other systems around the world, such as the European system where political parties win first, then only they nominate the person to be MP or Cabinet Minister. Other countries can set quotas for women representatives once a political party wins, “they can demand 25% or 30% of women in the parliament, in the congress. But for us, we can’t.” YB Teresa Kok believes that female representation in the parliament trails behind other nations, as she juxtaposes this low 11% figure to those of other countries, such as 25% women parliamentarians in Mongolia. According to YB Teresa Kok, the varying percentages of female representation in parliament around the world is indicative of people’s perception of the capabilities of men and women, as “all this reflects the level of gender awareness of these countries.”
With the barriers of the Malaysian electoral system set firmly in place, YB Teresa Kok opines that the percentage of women’s political participation and representation in the government is unlikely to reach the 30% temporary special measure quota for women’s representation in decision-making levels. When asked about possibly increasing the number of female candidates as an option to propel more women into leadership positions, YB Teresa Kok stated that she does not believe that more female candidates will automatically translate to more female MPs. While she projects women’s political participation to have an upward trajectory overtime, expecting a drastic change to result from just the increase in the number of female candidates is unrealistic, she feels. “It doesn’t help. It will not increase the number of women cabinet ministers, and there will probably not be a sharp increase in the number of women MPs after the next general election.” She adamantly believes that in order to engender a substantial change, the electoral system must be reformed to reserve a certain quota for women, such as a proportionate system that requires every party to fill a percentage of women candidates. YB Teresa Kok views this quota as an imperative temporary special measure to be taken. She does not doubt the capability of women in the government, and believes that women “definitely can play a good leadership role if the chance is given to them.” When assessing the future of female representation, YB Teresa Kok underscores the necessity of being realistic about the change, which is often overshadowed by other more pressing issues that the government ranks high on its list of priorities. She denotes the prospect of increasing women’s political participation and representation as more of a long term goal, as “an increase of 2-3% of women MPs after the next election”, for her, would already be an achievement.
YB Teresa Kok’s influence and advocacy for women span across a wide range of issues. YB Teresa Kok turned her criticism and challenges into an opportunity to inspire women, as she forged her own identity as a single woman and encouraged young women to transform the way they perceive themselves in society. Similarly, her involvement with the women’s parliamentarian caucus indicates how women representatives can work very well together despite their party affiliations. As YB Teresa Kok continues to overcome the obstacles ahead and engage with various members of society to promote awareness, EMPOWER wishes YB a bright future in her career and endeavors.
Citations: Kok, Teresa. “Interview with YB Teresa Kok on Women’s Political Participation.” Personal interview. 17 June 2017.