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The Star - Girls, not brides (11 October 2012)
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Girls, not brides

11 October 2012

Child marriages are also happening in Malaysia, where it’s seen as a way to curb promiscuity and to ease the family’s financial burden.
PUSHPA went out for motorcycle rides with her boyfriend, and didn’t think all that much of taking gifts from him. But her parents were unhappy she was running around with a boy, and forced them to marry because they didn’t want her to be labelled as promiscuous. She was only 14 then, and had to stop schooling.

“We were friends. We’d never had sex … but he would take me out on his motorcycle after school and buy me presents. My parents heard about our friendship and they were very angry as they thought I had behaved ‘badly’. They forced us to get married. I didn’t want to get married. I wanted to live at home with my brother and sisters,” says Pushpa who is now 18 and pregnant with her second child.

By the time she was 16, she had suffered a miscarriage and given birth to her daughter.

The marriage was never a happy one, says Pushpa. Her 28-year-old husband was angry and resentful at being forced to marry her and hardly talked to her. There was no physical abuse but he “wasn’t very nice” to her anymore.

“He goes out all the time, gets drunk and then come home and demand that I have sex with him. He gets angry each time I talk about going back to school,” she recounts.

“I miss my friends. Now, I stay at home and cook and clean look after my daughter. I live with my husband’s parents and his sisters but I have no friends. They (his sisters) go to school and go out with friends but I … don’t do anything,” says Pushpa, who now lives in Jinjang, Kuala Lumpur after her village in Petaling Jaya was torn down for the development of condominiums.

Because she was under the legal age of marriage at the time, Pushpa’s marriage wasn’t registered: the couple merely had a religious ceremony to mark their union.

<b>Henna on her palms:</b> A 13-year-old gets ready for her wedding.
Henna on her palms: A 13-year-old gets ready for her wedding.

Let girls be girls

Worldwide, the calls for banning child marriages have never rang louder. For the first time ever, the United Nations this year declared Oct 11 a day to mark the International Day of The Girl Child, affirming their stance against any form of violation against the rights of girls.

For its inaugural celebration, the focus is on child marriages with the theme: My life, My right, End child marriage.

Worldwide statistics show that though child marriages affect both genders, the victims are primarily girls who suffer the grave consequences of an early marriage: most drop out of school, suffer high incidence of abuse and, if they get pregnant early face many life-threatening health issues too. Studies have shown that girls under 15 are five times as likely to die in childbirth.

UN statistics show that globally, as many as 10 millions girls are forcibly married before they turn 18 – amounting to 25,000 girls every single day.
Child marriages are shockingly prevalent in Malaysia where the legal age of marriage for Non-Muslims is 18. However, marriages are allowed for those between 16 and 18 with written consent from the chief minister. For Muslims, the legal age of marriage for males is 18 and females, 16. With the permission of the Syariah Court, however, Muslims can marry at any age.

Some couples, like Pushpa and her husband, are married according to customary rites, and do not register their marriages.

(See graphic on the situation in Malaysia)

There are two kinds of child marriages in Malaysia; marriage between an underaged boy and girl, and marriage between a girl and an older man.
For a long time, child marriage was thought to be a non-issue in Malaysia. However, recent cases highlighted in the media have raised concern. In October 2010, 14-year-old Siti Maryam Mahmod wedded 23-year-old teacher Abdul Manan Othman and the couple later participated in a mass wedding reception organised by the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department (Jawi).

Earlier the same year, there was public outcry over the marriage of two girls aged 10 and 11 to men in their 40s in Kelantan. The 11-year-old was found days later abandoned and in a state of shock.

Most recently, there was a YouTube video posting of Syafiq, a16-year-old boy and his 14-year-old bride Yana. The video looked professionally shot and the wedding was festive. In the comments section, the response was positive, with many applauding Syafiq for acting “responsibly” by getting married.

According to Saira Shameem, the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA, Malaysia) programme advisor, the issue of child marriages is significant in Malaysia and should be addressed immediately.

According to UNFPA, 1.4% of all married women in Malaysia in 2011 were aged between 15 and 19, which amounts to 82,000 girls.

“In an economically stable country like Malaysia where women are educated and employed in high level jobs and where girls make up 60% of the students in tertiary education institutions, this should not be happening. But it does and our study reveals that many of these marriages happen under duress. Many of the subjects interviewed revealed that it wasn’t their choice to get married so young and that given a choice, they would get married when they were 20 or 21,” Saira says.

To ease family burdens

There are many reasons why child marriages happen - for economic survival (young girls are seen as a burden and the family marry her off to both ease their burden and secure her future), to “protect” daughters from unwanted sexual attention and to ensure she does not have pre-marital sex, cultural norms derived from traditional practices and religious beliefs.

In Malaysia, the reasons often cited for marrying off young daughters is to ensure they do not get involved in illicit relationships, and to ease the family’s economic burden.

But whatever the reason, child marriages are deemed to be a violation of girls’ human rights.

In a message against child marriage on the Girls Not Brides website (a global partnership of over 180 organisations to stop child marriage), South African activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Desmond Tutu said, “Child marriage robs girls of their childhood, their basic rights to education, security and health. What I have realised is that these girls are invisible and voiceless, making them some of the most vulnerable, disempowered people on our planet. Let girls be girls, not brides.”

Tutu touches on one of the crucial impacts of the practice of child marriage: it robs children of their adolescence. Childhood is, after all, not for cooking, cleaning or having babies. It is for gaining an education and having friends.

Khatijah (not her real name)was forced to marry a widower when she was 15. “I came home from school one day, and my mother and my aunts told me that they had found a husband for me. He was much older than me but they said he was a good man and would take care of me. I didn’t understand what was happening and why I had to marry this man. Although I said I didn’t want to get married, they said I had to,” recounts the 16-year-old teenager from Pahang who wed less than a year ago.

Khatijah’s husband is a 36-year-old widower; a well-respected figure in his village who was looking for a new, young bride. “I don’t want to be pregnant. I don’t want to be married. I want to work and move to KL. Bencilah (I hate it),” says Khatijah who now looks after her two step children, aged seven and nine.

Child marriages often inevitably lead to early preganacies, the risks of which have been widely documented. Pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for 15- to 19-year-old girls worldwide. Mothers in this age group face a 20 to 200% greater chance of dying in pregnancy than women aged 20 to 24 while those under age 15 are five times as likely to die as women in their twenties.

“We are not allowed to drive until we are 17, to vote until we are 21. So how can girls get married, have sex and bear children at 16? or 15? What do they know about the responsibilities or implications of being married, let alone sex and getting pregnant. And then there are the health risks … why would we expose out children to such risks if the effects are so devastating?” says Suriani Kempe, Sisters in Islam’s Programme Manager for Advocacy, Legal Services and Public Education.
The Star - Rise in child marriages worrying (11 October 2012)
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Rise in child marriages worrying

11 October 2012

PETALING JAYA: The incidence of child marriages is on the rise, judging by statistics compiled from various sources.

In Kedah alone, statistics from the state Islamic Religious Department show a 35% increase in marriage applications involving underaged individuals between 2008 and 2010.

The department received 75 marriage applications from underaged individuals in 2008, 99 in 2009 and 101 in 2010. Of the total, 90% involved girls under 16.

One of the reasons cited by parents for consenting to their underaged daughters to marry was that the girls were “too wild” and beyond their control.

They felt that getting them married would be the best solution. Another was for economic relief.

The majority of these cases reportedly were from Sik and Baling.

The statistics are worrying as they show child marriage to be a significant problem in Malaysia, said United Nations Population Fund Malaysia (UNFPA) programme manager Saira Shameem.

Today is the inaugural United Nations International Day of the Girl Child, with a focus on ending child marriages.
UN statistics show that globally, as many as 10 millions girls are forcibly married before they turn 18, amounting to 25,000 girls every day.

“In an economically-stable country like Malaysia, where women are educated and employed in high level jobs and where girls make up 60% of the students in tertiary education institutions, this should not be happening.

“We need to address sexual and reproductive health education for our young. Studies have shown that age-appropriate sex education actually delays sexual debut. Sexual and reproductive health education will also help girls make more informed choices,” said Saira.

Rights activities are calling for urgent action to stop child marriages in Malaysia, pointing out the harmful impact of early marriage on girls, and to a lesser extent boys.

In the human rights perspective, marriage marks the end of a child's adolescence and the curtailing of his or her freedom. Most girls who marry early also drop out of school and face health risks of early pregnancy and child birth.

Worldwide, pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for 15 to 19 year-old girls.

Under Malaysian law, the legal age for marriage for non-Muslims is 18. However, marriages are allowed for those between 16 and 18 with written consent from the chief minister.

For Muslims, the legal age of marriage for males is 18 and females, 16. With the permission of the syariah court, however, Muslims can marry at any age.

Sisters in Islam executive director Ratna Osman feels that the country's laws have to change, calling for the legal age for marriage for both Muslims and non-Muslims to be 18.

“In this day and age, child marriages are just unacceptable. Is this what we want for Malaysia? We want the legal age for both male and female to be 18, and the absolute minimum for Muslim girls to be 16 but with strict conditions.

“Among the conditions is that the minor has sufficient maturity to understand the nature and responsibilities of the marriage and that the judge consults respective experts to verify the child's readiness before issuing an approval,” said Ratna.
JAG urges Prime Minister to take his role as the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development seriously (2 October 2012)
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JAG urges Prime Minister to take his role as the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development seriously

The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) is appalled and extremely disappointed by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s callous dismissal of the need for women’s rights groups in Malaysia on the premise that equality was given “from the start”.

The Prime Minister is remiss to use women’s suffrage as a sole indicator for equality. Despite women having fought equally for independence and gaining the vote, Malaysia’s first female Minister, Tun Tan Sri Fatimah Hashim, was only appointed in 1969, a full 12 years after independence. Today, as in 1969, Malaysia only has one female minister in Cabinet, far short of the 30% indication required by CEDAW.

While the right to vote is an important indicator of the state’s recognition of women’s rights, equality is also measured in other substantive ways.

If Malaysian women were on equal footing as their male counterparts, one telling sign would be a high ranking on the Global Gender Gap Index, which captures the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities in four key areas of basic rights – economic, political, education and health. As it stands, Malaysia’s ranking has dropped from its overall ranking of 72 in 2006 to 97 among 134 countries in 2011. Our country joins the bottom quarter, made up largely of developing countries in the Middle East and Africa.

Laws and policies in this country currently too do not reflect women’s equal access to justice. If women were truly beneficiaries of equality since 1957, how is it that women’s rights groups had to fight for the Domestic Violence Act in 1994, and gender as a category for non-discrimination was only included in the Federal Constitution in 2001. To this day, a Malaysian mother has no legal right to confer citizenship to her child in the event that the child is born overseas. A Sexual Harassment Bill has yet to be tabled, and Muslim women continue to be sidelined in the continuous regressive amendments made to the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territories) Act 1984 and the corresponding Islamic Family Law Enactment of the States in Malaysia.

Such a statement by the Prime Minister, who is also the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, belies and belittles the reality women face on a daily basis – the violence, harassment and discrimination – which Government policies have not adequately addressed. The recently released CEDAW alternative report comprehensively documents all forms of discrimination that women in Malaysia continue to face today. For those of us who have to deal with the problems women face on the ground, the Prime Minister’s claim does not inspire any confidence in his leadership of the country and the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.

We urge the Prime Minister to take his role as the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development seriously and propose substantive measures with corresponding budgetary considerations in accordance with CEDAW principles to ensure that Malaysia is on the march towards equality.

Press statement released by the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG), which comprises:

Sisters in Islam (SIS)
Women's Aid Organisation (WAO)
Perak Women for Women Society (PWW)
Sabah Women’s Action Resource Group (SAWO)
All Women's Action Society (AWAM)
Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER)
Women’s Centre for Change (WCC)

2 October 2012
Confused over right to choose - The Star - Musings (27 September 2012)
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Confused over right to choose

By Marina Mahathir

Thursday September 27, 2012

We have a far from perfect democracy but then there are no perfect ones anywhere.

IN all the past 55 years, we have been proud of being a democracy, minimalist though it may be.

We elect our Parliament like clockwork every five years or so and everyone is aware that that is the first hurdle they have to get over in order to get into power.
Of course, we have a far from perfect democracy but then there are no perfect ones anywhere.

We can do with a more inclusive and representative government and certainly can do with a more vibrant and free media and more space for alternative viewpoints to be heard.

Still, we like to describe our federation with its constitutional monarchy as a democracy – our democracy. So it rather surprises me that of late, there are voices that seem to say that democracy is a bad thing to have.

For some reason, there are people who think that an elected form of government where people have the power to choose who they want to elect is not a good thing.

Perhaps this is because they are unsure that this type of government will put them into power at all. Some are even going so far as to say that democracy is incompatible with our state religion, Islam.

That’s rather odd because I’ve just been at a conference where an Islamic scholar stated that Islam is the most democratic of religions, because everyone has equal access to God. Yet, he added, most Muslims live in undemocratic states.

This sudden turn in attitude towards demo­cracy has had predictable results. Anyone who talks about democracy is suddenly viewed with suspicion, as if they are advocating that the Devil himself should take over the country.

People’s right to voice critical opinions is suddenly seen as traitorous. The possibility of alternative administrations is deemed taboo, a word that has connotations beyond the mundanity of voting, rather like talking about sex is considered taboo.

If the citizens of a country are not allowed to elect whom they want, then they don’t live in a democracy.

So to say that it is taboo to elect anyone other than the present government is to bring the conversation to a realm that is beyond rational argument.

Somehow nowadays, it is a sin to get our people to think democratically, as if democracy is a religion that teaches immorality.

I remember in my childhood being taught about democracy at school. My teachers would talk about how concepts like apartheid or “the colour bar” were undemocratic.

We held mock elections where we would have candidates and campaigns, including “political” rallies, so that we would understand the whole process of how our leaders are elected.

Of great importance were the issues our “candidates” put up; those who had the best solutions to our issues at school were the ones who would get elected.
Today, I hear that schools are not encouraged to have any such thing in case our children get “funny” ideas.

Instead, we are differentiating children by the way they look and dress, rather than treating all of them as equal.

We expose them to possible discrimination, even violence, even though our Federal Constitution says that every citizen has an equal right to education.
Every day, we have new restrictions on our already limited democracy. We can get arrested for comments we never made just because someone made them on our website or Facebook page.

Some of us, in an already limited job market, find ourselves charged with allegedly working against our own religion even though we are not responsible for anything other than doing our jobs.

Even though both our official religion and Constitution give us rights, these rights are now contested. And contested in such a way that those who shout loudest win, even if their numbers are small.

Yet these same folks would be the first to demand their right to speak should anyone object to what they say.

We need to ask ourselves, how did we come to this state where democracy is confused with “total freedom” and “Westernisation”?

Are Westerners the only ones allowed democracy? In that case, why are thousands of people in those autocratic Middle Eastern countries demanding to have a say in how their countries are run?

Are we somehow undeserving of democracy, of the simple right to have a say?
The US democratic process - The Star - Musings (13 September 2012)
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The US democratic process

 By Marina Mahathir

Thursday September 13, 2012

As former US President Bill Clinton said, “democracy is not a bloodsport”. Nor are we, the voters, merely convenient pawns in a power struggle.

AS November nears, we see each side trumpet the benefits of electing them.

Each touts that they are parties of the people, ready to help make their lives better.

Each then also denigrates the other side, saying that they are living in a fantasy world, have not made anyone’s life better and have values that are unpatriotic.

Am I talking about us? No actually, I’m talking about the American Presidential elections that will be held on Nov 4.

President Obama will be up for re-election for his second and final term.

As always, the American election process fascinates me.

The Republican and Democratic national conventions have just been held and watching them, I am struck by several characteristics.

First, neither party feels a need to dress their delegates in uniforms.

The party faithful is already faithful in their hearts.

There is no need to dress them up to emphasise their unity.

Instead, they were allowed to show their allegiance with creative dress and accessories.

Secondly, I was struck, especially in the Democratic convention, by how diverse the delegates were.

There were equal numbers of men and women but among them, there were young and old, able and disabled and of every colour and religion.

I saw women in tudung and men in dreadlocks.

The chairperson of the convention was a woman.

It gives the impression of a Democratic party that is inclusive and representative of the whole of America.

In contrast, the Republican convention seemed literally white bread.

Not only are the Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates two white men, but with the exception of Condoleezza Rice, everyone else looked the same.

Perhaps nothing underscored the Republicans as a party of old white men more than the actor Clint Eastwood who gave a bizarre speech which probably did more harm than good to their campaign.

It certainly changed what I thought of Eastwood.

Thirdly, I really like the idea of giving non-politicians the platform to speak.

I’m not entirely sure we should extend that privilege to wives but having those who have actually benefited from policies speak makes everything more real.

Of course nobody will put up testimonies by unhappy people.

Still, it was refreshing to listen to people who aren’t trying to get themselves elected.

Fourthly, the fact that everyone can view all the proceedings of the two conventions themselves is awesome.

Aware that they are not just speaking to the party faithful but to the electorate at large, speakers strive to talk about issues that affect those outside the conference centres as well.

This cuts down on posturing and upgrades the quality of speeches overall.

Fifthly, there were the political speeches themselves.

I have never heard any politician articulate policies, and not just rhetoric, so clearly in a language that any delegate can understand and emulate, like Bill Clinton.

In the simplest terms, he explained Obama’s policies on the economy, healthcare and education.

What’s more, while still criticising the Republicans, he also reiterated instances where Democrats had collaborated with Republicans to solve problems for the greater good.

As Clinton said, “When times are tough and people are frustrated, angry, hurting and uncertain, the politics of constant conflict may be good.

But what is good politics does not necessarily work in the real world. What works in the real world is cooperation.”

If I were American, I would be a Democrat because by and large, its policies resonate better with me, especially when it comes to women and minorities.

I do, however, have many problems with Obama’s foreign policies, with his failure to close Guantanamo Bay and with his pandering to the Israelis.

But I could not possibly vote for the xenophobic and women-hating Republicans.

Their constant claims that Presi­dent Obama is a Muslim implies the faith is somehow un-American.

I cannot imagine a peaceful world with another Republican in the White House, given how much Muslims had suffered during the Bush years.

Sadly, we have no say in who gets to be President.

The only consolation we can have is that every four years, there is a chance that the Americans will simply get rid of an ineffective President and bring in a new one.

And eight years is all you need to tolerate a bad US President.

Back home, we have to suffer not knowing when an election will actually happen.

Despite rules that say you can’t campaign until Parliament is dissolved and the election date is announced, we are still subjected to what are only thinly disguised election campaigns.

If these campaigns centred on what is truly important to us – the economy, security and education – then they would be worthwhile.

But when it all rests solely on how bad the other guy is, we should all feel abused.

As Bill Clinton said, “democracy is not a bloodsport”. Nor are we, the voters, merely convenient pawns in a power struggle.
Opening minds to new experiences - The Star - Sharing The Nation ( 9 September 2012)
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Opening minds to new experiences


Sunday September 9, 2012

Ahead of the unveiling of the National Education Blueprint on Tuesday, our columnist shares why an education steeped in the humanities is needed to produce open-minded and competitive citizens.

I attended the UiTM School of Mass Communications 40th anniversary last weekend. I was among the pioneer batch of students, blazing the trail for the country’s first batch of academically trained journalists, advertising, public relations and broadcasting professionals.

As hundreds of us gathered amidst hugs and shrieks of joy, what many of us most reminisced about was the incredible education we got in a nurturing environment that enabled us to learn, think, imagine and rebel. For us among the first few batches of students, much was owed to Tan Sri Arshad Ayub, the pioneering educationist who led ITM’s exponential growth, who provided us the space and the opportunity to realise our full potential.

Long before private-public sectors partnerships and twinning programmes were de rigueur, Arshad was already thinking out of the box, passionate in ensuring his young charges got the best education.

He brought top Malaysian professionals from the private and public sectors to teach us and university professors, local and abroad, to provide us additional academic rigour.

This was 1972, long before all kinds of insecurities, imagined fears and threats against our identities as Malays, as Muslims, got the better of us. We were pioneers, hungry for knowledge from anywhere, anyone, hungry to be the best.

And it was education leaders like Arshad and our first Head of School, Marina Samad, who stopped at nothing to give us the best in order to bring out the best in us.

In those early days of educating Malays to enter the professions, there seemed to be a clear vision and philosophy that only an education steeped in the arts and humanities would produce the open-minded Malays needed to be productive and competitive citizens, able to embrace change and bring about change to their community and society. What more to produce communications specialists.

It was a time when lecturers were totally dedicated to opening up our minds to new ideas and new experiences.

There was my English and Literature lecturer, Pritam Singh Sekhon, who brought his portable record player to class to get us to listen to classical music. He introduced us to Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Chopin.

He brought us by bus to see every single play at the Experimental Theatre in Universiti Malaya. We hung out with the directors and student actors and actresses before and after the play, whetting our appetite to do our own productions – which we did.

There was Maznah Noordin, a young English teacher and stage actress, who taught us speech and drama. I remember how she asked us, one by one, to stand in front of the class, imagine we were in a lift which did not stop at the top floor, but went up and up. We had to act out what we would say and do and how we would feel. She taught us to loosen our body and let go.

There was Bruce Ross Larson who taught us Literature in Translation, introducing us to European classics such as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Kafka’s The Castle. Thus began my love for any­thing depressing in art, literature and film!

Paddy Schubert (now Bowie), the pioneering public relations specialist, taught us Principles of Public Relations and the importance of eloquence.

And when some of us wanted to spend a month at the Outward Bound School in Lumut, she indulged us by getting her company to sponsor us.

Samad Ismail, the legendary New Straits Times editor, took us under his wings and sent his top writers and editors to teach us to write, in English and Bahasa Malaysia, year after year. We spent all our vacations as interns in the newspapers, advertising and public relations agencies in Kuala Lumpur and in the studios of RTM.

In our second year, we wanted to produce a weekly campus paper – professionally, we demanded. I don’t know how or where Arshad and Marina found the money to purchase a small printing press for us! And not only that, they found an American lecturer, Larry Study, who was a layout and production expert to teach us to run the machine and produce a real newspaper.

We started the weekly Berita ITM, sleeping at 4am to put the paper to press and up again by 8am every Monday to get ready to sell the paper for 10 sen a copy to the students at breakfast and on their way to lectures.

And of course, those were the days of student demonstrations when we marched into Kuala Lumpur against poverty and injustice, when we occupied Arshad’s office, when we had the space and courage to demand that classes should not begin before 9am, that courses taught by bad lecturers should be made optional rather than compulsory or else we would boycott the class. And we got our way because we made a good case for our demands.

Maybe it was the pioneering spirit of ITM then, the vision and vigour of an educationist such as Arshad, a taskmaster who loved his students, who believed in producing not just technically competent professionals but open-minded Malays willing to embrace and lead change, that gave me and my friends that confidence and courage to be different and to embrace diversity and differences.

Today, too many CEOs and retired senior civil servants lament about the closing of the Malay mind. The graduates they are getting lack confidence, the ability to communicate and to think critically, they complain.

The ability to talk, think, imagine, get along with people who are different from you, debate and see another point of view come from a liberal education. Reading novels, interpreting poetry, debating censorship, producing a play, and listening to music enable the imagination to soar as you place yourself in the place of the other or recognise yourself, your feelings and your thinking in the exposure to a different other. That my friends and I got this opportunity to excel through the local public education system is testimony to what good leadership in schools and universities can do.
The Most Inspiring Women in Malaysia (5 September 2012)
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The Most Inspiring Women in Malaysia

Women are, undoubtedly, the pillar of success behind every man and the strength behind every flourishing family. Asians have never forgotten the grand days of their matriarchal society that has shaped kingdoms and governments as we know them today. They have been with us as mothers, sisters, friends, aunts, teachers, nurses and from stall owners selling packets of ‘nasi lemak’ to heads of large organizations implementing policies that can change the direction of an entire nation.
In saluting these outstanding women of Malaysia, Top of 10 Malaysia is honored to present the Top 10 Most Inspiring Women of Malaysia. This is in recognition of their achievements that have come as a result of their tenacity, competence and courage.

Zeti Akhtar Aziz (Tan Sri Dr)
Topping the list is Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz, governor of Malaysian Central Bank (BNM). She recently made headlines when a renowned Bloomberg columnist, William Pesek named her as a candidate for the post of IMF president following the resignation of the former president recently.

The 63-year-old Tan Sri Dr Zeti Aziz is the first woman to be appointed as central bank governor in Malaysia and Asia, and the first woman to be within the top ten rankings for central bank governors of the world. She recently extended her contract with Bank Negara Malaysia for another five years, making her the second longest serving governor of BNM.

Her determination to take the Malaysian economy out of the doldrums during the Asian financial crisis was clearly evident when she took over the reins at BNM in 1998. Despite the numerous criticisms and pressures from many quarters, including the IMF, she went ahead to peg the Malaysia ringgit against the US dollar and banned offshore trading of the Malaysian currency. These unconventional and drastic measures finally paid off in 2005 when foreign exchange rules were relaxed and the Malaysian ringgit began to rise against the US dollar.

One of her major contributions is putting Malaysia at the forefront of the Islamic money market, and with many policies carefully planned and executed, Malaysia now has a substantial number of Islamic investors, both domestic and foreign.

Nicol Ann David (Datuk)
At the number two spot is a person who is no stranger to all of us, Nicol Ann David. Currently ranked world number one by WISPA, she is the first Asian sportswoman to have achieved this ranking, the first Malaysian and Asian ever to be crowned as the world number one in sports. Having obtained this crowning glory at the young age of 23, she has been holding this ranking for a consecutive 54 months now and with 57 matches won.

She began to shine during the very early years of her life by being the first squash player to have won the World Junior title twice in 1999 and in 2001. Since then, she has won many major tournaments and in the year 2000, she decided to join WISPA to become a professional squash player. Within a month during the tour, Nicol again outperformed the others to clinch the Savcor Finnish Open title.

Nicol David’s other notable achievements include winning the Asian Squash Championship eight times, a hard-to-beat record. Nicol was also named the WISPA Player of the Year for six consecutive times from 2005 until 2010. She was honored with the Order of Merit (Darjah Bakti) by His Majesty Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin in 2008 and was the first recipient of the award that was established in 1975. This award is limited to only ten recipients who have made significant contributions in the arts, sciences and the humanities. In the same year, she also received the Darjah Setia Pangkuan Negeri award which carries the title “Datuk”, making her the youngest person ever to be conferred Datukship in Penang.

Siti Nurhaliza binti Tarudin (Dato’)
Number three on our list is a figure from the entertainment world who has made significant contributions to the society especially the plight of rural women in Malaysia. Dato’ Siti Nurhaliza binti Tarudin, or commonly known only as Siti Nurhaliza, is a Malaysian singer, songwriter, record producer, television presenter and businesswoman. To date, she has garnered more than 200 local as well as international awards.

Her exceptional career path began when she won the Bintang HMI 1995. She was only 16 then and she was offered recording contracts from four different international recording companies. Her first single, ‘Jerat Percintaan’ from her debut album won the 11th Anugerah Juara Lagu and two other awards for Best Performance and Best Ballad.

Siti is the only artist in Malaysia who has won 34 Anugerah Industri Muzik awards, 22 Anugerah Bintang Popular awards, 20 Anugerah Planet Muzik awards, 18 Anugerah Juara Lagu awards, four MTV Asia Awards and the holder of two records in the Malaysia Book of Records. With multi platinum awards and backed with 14 studio albums, she is dubbed as one of the most popular artists in the Malay Archipelago and Nusantara region and she has been voted nine times in a row for the Regional Most Popular Artist in the Anugerah Planet Muzik since 2001.

In 2005, she was listed second by MTV Asia in Asia’s Best Musical Artiste and Channel V’s Biggest Asian Artiste. In 2008, she was named as one of Asia’s Idols by Asia News Network.

Currently, she has been listed as one of Malaysia’s richest and most influential artists who has won the most awards.

Zainah Anwar
The 4th position is taken by Zainah Anwar, a prominent Malaysian non-governmental organization leader, activist and Muslim feminist. She was the head of Sisters in Islam - an organization that fights for Islamic women rights within the religion - for over two decades before stepping down.

Moved by problems and difficulties faced by Muslim women in courts, Zainah and a few other fellow journalists and lawyers founded Sisters in Islam in 1987. Then in 1990, the movement that was formally registered and became known as SIS, focused on challenging laws and policies made to discriminate Islam women in the name of Islam. Eventually, SIS expanded to encompass larger issues of democracy, human rights and constitutionalism.

Zainah was involved with Sisters in Islam for two decades as its leader. She was responsible for building the NGO from a small organization to a global voice and gave numerous talks on empowering Islam women throughout the world.

SIS has been at the forefront of non-government movements influencing amendments to Islamic Family Law. It has espoused equality and justice for women, discussed dress and modesty, the right to guardianship, women as judges, fundamental liberties in Islam, and apostasy and freedom of religion.

Michelle Yeoh Choo-Kheng (Dato’)

At number five is another well known artiste who has made numerous international appearances, Dato’ Michelle Yeoh Choo-Kheng. A Hong Kong-based Malaysian actress and dancer, Michelle is well known for performing her own stunts in the action films that brought her to fame in the early nineties.

Born in Ipoh, Malaysia, she is now based in Hong Kong and was chosen by People magazine as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World in 1997. She is best known in Hollywood for her role in the 1997 James Bond film ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ and also the multiple Academy Award winning Chinese action film ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ for which she was nominated the BAFTA for Best Actress. In 2008, film critic website Rotten Tomatoes ranked her as the greatest action heroine of all time.

Michelle started her film career acting in action and martial arts films although she had no formal martial arts training. She learned English and Malay before Cantonese, making it hard for her to understand Chinese characters especially when it comes to reading scripts but she managed to overcome this by learning phonetically over the years.

Michelle was awarded the Darjah Datuk Paduka Mahkota Perak (DPMP), which carries the title Dato’ by the Sultan of Perak, Sultan Azlan Shah in 2001 in conjunction with the Sultan’s 73rd birthday, in recognition of the fame she brought to the state. French President, Jacques Chirac awarded Michelle with Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 2007.

Marina Mahathir (Datin Paduka)
At number six is Marina Mahathir, daughter of former Malaysian Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir Mohamad. Although her father is a prominent figure, it has never stopped her from expressing her thoughts and ideas through various non-governmental organizations such as the Malaysian AIDS Foundation.

Marina has headed the Malaysian AIDS Council for twelve years and was Vice-President of AIDS Society of Asia and the Pacific. Apart from that, she also sat on several UN expert panels representing Asia Pacific AIDS NGOs on the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board, and spoken at the United Nations General Assembly. Currently she is a member of the Steering Committee of the Asia Pacific Leadership Forum on HIV and Development (APLF), the Global Advisory Group of AIDS2031 and the Global Task Force Review Group of the UNAIDS Action Framework for Addressing Women, Girls, Gender Equality and HIV.

Despite coming from a pro-government family, she is a well known activist writer, writing her fortnightly column, ‘Musings’ in a local daily. She writes on current issues, women, health, local politics, human rights and education.

In 1997, Marina published a compilation of her column articles in a book, titled Liberal Doses. Marina also writes her own blog, ‘Rantings’, in which she discusses socio-political issues such as the current political scenario, gender equality, and race and religious tolerance.

Marina also had her own TV show, 3R-Respect, Relax and Respond, tackling issues of violence against women, and equality and social welfare. A graduate from University of Sussex, UK, her primary focus has always been directed to bringing an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Teresa Kok Suh Sim
Taking the number seven spot is Member of Parliament for Seputeh, Teresa Kok Suh Sim. Previously she was the political secretary to Opposition leader and Democratic Action Party’s National Advisor, Lim Kit Siang, Teresa won the parliamentary seat of Seputeh in Kuala Lumpur with a majority of 5,200 in the 1999 general election. She was again re-elected in 2004 with a majority of 12,895, the largest winning margin among the 13 elected DAP MPs.

In 2008 general elections, Teresa retained her Seputeh parliamentary seat with a majority of 36,492, the largest majority in any constituency in the whole of Malaysia. She was named senior executive councilor in the new Selangor executive council and put in charge of investment, trade and industry.

Teresa is currently the DAP National Organizing Secretary, the National Secretary of DAP Wanita, and a member of the DAP Disciplinary Committee. In Parliament, she is a member of the Select Committee on Review of Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code.

Teresa is the Secretary of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC). She has been an active lobbyist for Burmese democracy and human rights since 1996 when she was the Coordinator of Political Leaders Network Promoting Democracy in Burma for Southeast Asian region.

Mazlan Othman (Datuk Dr)

Ranked the 8th most inspiring woman by Top 10 of Malaysia readers is a lady who has achieved a number of firsts – Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman is Malaysia’s first astrophysicist and the first woman to be awarded a PhD in physics from New Zealand’s University of Otago since the university was founded in 1869.

Datuk Dr Mazlan has had an exceptional career in astrophysics. In 1990, she was selected by Tun Mahathir Mohamad to set up the country’s National Planetarium in Kuala Lumpur. Three years later she was appointed Director General of the new Space Science Studies Division in the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry, where she launched a microsatellite development programme. Datuk Dr Mazlan became the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in 1999 but heeded the request of Tun Mahathir to return in 2002 to found the Malaysian National Space Agency. In 2007 Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon reappointed her as the Director General of UNOOSA, where she has commented that she is keen to promote international cooperation which is a key to the future of space. The Institute of Physics awarded her its President’s Medal for her work in “developing astronomy education in Malaysia and her leading national and international role in space science”.

Jamelah Jamaluddin

Ninth on the Top 10’s list is Jamelah Jamaluddin, CEO of the Kuwait Finance House (Malaysia) Berhad, the largest Islamic bank in Malaysia with a capitalization of USD640 million. She holds the distinction for being the first woman to head a KFH bank as CEO, representing a special milestone and significant breakthrough within the KFH Group and the Islamic banking industry.

An experienced Islamic banker, Jamelah was tasked with resolving the bank’s serious mortgage issues following a series of bad loans decisions by the past administration. Holding a Masters in Business Administration in Finance from Central Michigan University, her other notable achievements includes the introduction of Az-Zahra unit dubbed as the only Islamic retail banking branch dedicated to women and the introduction of Islamic debit and credit cards for RHB Islamic Bank.

Mother Mangalam Iyaswamy Iyer (Datin Paduka)
Mother Mangalam, as she is affectionately known, is the co-founder and president of Pure Life Society and has devoted her life to serving the less fortunate. She was awarded the Merdeka Award 2010 in the education and community category for her outstanding contributions in promoting the welfare of the underprivileged and fostering national unity.

Mother Mangalam set up Pure Life Society in 1952 together with Swami Satyananda, her spiritual mentor, after having experienced the lessons imparted by war and strife. She learned many lessons from the Second World War which made her who she is today – how to be resourceful, to survive on bare necessities and to learn the feeling of satisfaction. She has had many struggles in her life but her faith never wavered and she did not stray from her path of service to the less fortunate.

She is indeed a mother to the orphans and underprivileged children the Society takes in, and she has never forgotten her roots. Although expressing regret that Malaysians have become slightly less united over the years, she believes in the goodness of her fellow countrymen and feels that everyone is her friend regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, or affiliation.
Her selfless, giving spirit is indeed an inspiration to us all.
The fuzzy side of human perception - The Star - Musings (30 August 2012)
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The fuzzy side of human perception


Thursday August 30, 2012

We often like to believe what we want to believe, often because the real facts challenge us too much. It is far easier to wallow in our prejudices than to seek out the truth in anything.

LANCE Armstrong is no ordinary cyclist. He has won seven Tour de France trophies after having recovered from testicular cancer.

By all accounts that would make him superhuman. Unless you believe he doped himself with high-performance drugs.

Recently, he gave up the fight against the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to prove his innocence, which meant that although he had already retired from cycling, he was banned from any competitive cycling and stripped of all his titles.

Mileston e: Armstrong capturing his shadow while taking a picture of the lunar module on the surface of the moon in this July 1969 file picture. — Reuters
 Mileston e: Armstrong capturing his shadow while taking a picture of the lunar module on the surface of the moon in this July 1969 file picture. — Reuters

To many, his giving up meant that he was guilty. But as one US columnist pointed out, he had passed 500 dope tests already.

It was only the testimony of 10 people who said they saw him taking the drugs that kept the USADA on his back.

The whole case illustrates how fallible any human endeavour can be.

On the one hand, cycling is a sport riddled with doping scandals. So it is normal to suspect any super-achiever of cheating.

On the other hand, it is also a sport where drug tests are routine.

So either the tests are no good or Armstrong did not cheat. We can’t have it both ways.

And sports is a field where the means of testing are extremely rigorous.

The poor Chinese swimmer who won a gold medal at the Olympics and then immediately faced accusations of doping also passed her test. But what really shut people up was when people like Michael Phelps stood up for her.

Either they’re all in on it, or she simply was superb.

Human perception can therefore be fuzzy.

We often like to believe what we want to believe, often because the real facts challenge us too much.

It is far easier to wallow in our prejudices than to seek out the truth in anything.

Now imagine a field that is as impossible to subject to empirical testing like politics.

There is probably no field more vulnerable to the vagaries of human foibles and prejudices than politics, except perhaps religion.
And in some cases, the two fields are conflated allowing for even more vulnerabilities.

There are many people who refuse to believe that religion can be subject to human interpretation. They believe that whatever they believe is true.

That is often because they have been told that by someone else whom they believe has some authority.

Therefore, if that person tells them something that is in fact incorrect, they will not verify it. Nor will they believe it could ever be wrong. In this way, myths work their way into beliefs and then are difficult to challenge.

For example, for years many Muslims believed that the recently deceased astronaut Neil Armstrong heard the azan when he was on the moon and that made him convert into Islam.

There has never been proof of either phenomenon and the man himself repeatedly denied it.

But as soon as he died, the myth is repeated all over again.

Similarly, once an E-mail went around with photographs of the graves of the supposed giants that once roamed the earth.

This E-mail circulated among lots of otherwise well-educated people but all it took was a little research into the origins of the photos to show that it was a clever photoshop exercise. But how easily we can be fooled when we so want to believe in something.

Perhaps we are so easily fooled because we are often too lazy to check on anything.

This is why it is so easy for some people to pull the wool over our eyes, or the kepiah to keep things localised.

Someone just needs to have a facility with words, preferably in a foreign language, throwing in some difficult to challenge “facts” and they’ve got us.

Furthermore, we all like to think of ourselves as objective persons, able to assess everything in a clear rational way.

I can’t count how many times men say things about women’s issues, without the slightest inkling how insensitive and crass they sound.

One had the gall to attend a women’s conference and then talk about how much he loved women.

I guess he assumed we would all smile and be grateful.

Similarly, when talking about politics, everyone thinks they are being absolutely objective and rational.

But with few exceptions, I have to wonder.

Few people spend time with people with different views from them so they rarely get any insights into alternate perspectives.

Sometimes people can even be persuaded to believe in things they used to oppose if someone they believed in persuaded them to.

Which goes to show that just as in cycling, stringent tests dealing with facts mean very little when it comes to politics.

Worse still when one stirs religion into the brew.
JAG Statement: Consider the needs and perspectives of our young (30 August 2012)
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JAG Statement: Consider the needs and perspectives of our young

The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) is concerned that “consensual sex” between a young adult and a child can result in a binding over sentence for the perpetrator.

While the courts should indeed have discretionary powers in sentencing for statutory rape cases, appeals to the “bright future” of those who commit statutory rape simply do not suffice. Mitigating factors on the side of the perpetrator must be balanced with the impact of the sexual exploitation of young victims which may not have been acknowledged or taken into account during the sentencing.

That the act was ‘consensual’ often merely points to the fact that no physical violence took place. It is imperative that we ask ourselves whether a child aged 12 or 13 is able to effectively ‘consent’ to a sexual relationship. We also need to be aware of the consequences to a child’s emotional and physical well-being when she enters into a sexual relationship, consensual or otherwise. Furthermore the manipulation and manner of exploitation of the young girl must also be considered.

JAG believes it is important that the dispensation of justice in every case of statutory rape reflects various considerations including the impact on the victim. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Malaysia is a state party, requires that in all cases where children are concerned, our courts give primary consideration to their best interests.

The social reality today is that teenagers can be in sexual relationships where one or both are below the age of 16 years.  And there are adults or older teenagers who prey on naïve and vulnerable underage girls. Although the sex may be allegedly ‘consensual’, the element of exploitation is very real.

These two cases once again highlight the urgent need for us as a society to better relate and understand the needs and perspectives of young people as well as the complexities of teenage sexuality. There is a gap between most adults and teenagers on the subject of sexuality. Any policy response must be based on the facts and evidence from existing research on reproductive health and rights in Malaysia.

Released by the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG), which comprises:

Sisters In Islam (SIS)
All Women's Action Society (AWAM)
Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
Perak Women for Women Society (PWW)
Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER)
Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor (PSWS)

30 August 2012
Being best in the world does not cost the earth - The Star - Musings (23 August 2012)
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Being best in the world does not cost the earth


Thursday August 23, 2012

Greater success in competition lies in competing with your betters, and for your country.

AFTER two weeks of Olympic excitement, the one thing I’ve observed is that, when competing with rivals who are much better than you, sometimes you can surprise yourself.

Who would have thought that a slip of a girl from Malaysia called Pandelela Rinong could win our country’s first-ever diving bronze? From 10th place, she kept her cool and slowly made her way up until she was third in the standings. Competing with the best in the world, she bested all our expectations.

The same holds true for many of the other athletes. Lee Chong Wei may not have won the gold but anyone who watched the thrilling match against Lin Dan knows that our player outdid himself that day.

He played for his life, under intense pressure, watched by millions of people and lost by a whisker. There was everything to be proud of, nothing to be ashamed of at all. Even in swimming, which everyone thought would be dominated by the US, there were surprises. No French swimmer’s name trips off our tongue very easily unlike Phelps’ and Lochte’s, but they shocked everyone by winning gold against the US and Australia’s formidable teams.

Which just goes to show that when you set a higher bar for yourself, you are likely to surpass all expectations.

That can only be done if you’re constantly competing against people who are better than you, not worse.

Athletes, like everyone else, need always to be looking up the rankings ladder, not down. There is no glory in competing with those worse than you.

Of course, when it comes to sports, training and everything else that goes with high performance must be there. You can’t simply pray yourself to win.

That would be like praying that you will pass exams without doing any studying. There is no substitute for absolute fitness, proper nutrition and the right technical training. If a man with no legs like Oscar Pistorius can qualify for the 400-metres finals, there’s no telling what a man with both his legs can do if he had the same dedication and ambition.

Nor does it require much money. The tiny country of Jamaica with only 2.7 million people has more Olympic medals per capita than any other country in the world, all of them from running races. The fastest man on earth Usain Bolt is Jamaican.

When asked why this should be so, the head coach of the Jamaican team simply pointed out that running is not an expensive sport requiring no equipment besides shoes.

But equally important is that in Jamaica, there are running competitions almost every weekend all over the country. Kids get lots of opportunities to run races and if they’re fast, they’re soon spotted for specialised training.

Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake may be the top names now but there’s a queue waiting back home to take over in the next few years.

Which brings us to the question: who comes after Chong Wei? Who’s the next Pandelela, especially after what we read about the facilities available to her?

Even if Nicol David succeeds in her campaign to get squash back into the Olympics by 2020, would she still be able to retain her No.1 ranking eight years from now? Who’s next?

I can’t believe that people are talking about Chong Wei for the next Olympics. Shouldn’t we be nurturing the next champions now?
We won’t ever be able to achieve Olympic success if our sporting talent is so thin on the ground.

As long as our focus is only on a few athletes, without a supporting programme to bring in lots of new ones, we will not achieve it.

Our top athletes will eventually burn out and we should not wait until they do before searching for new ones. There has to be a well-organised pipeline of athletes in as many sports as possible.

To do that, we need to give as many of our kids greater exposure to all types of sports. Not just to watch but to participate. It doesn’t matter if they don’t win at first, after all competition temperament is something that can be gained only by experience.

But they will improve and who knows, at crunch time, they may just, like Pandelela, come through.

But when sports are sidelined by exams, stereotyped by ethnicity, or used for political gain, what hope do we have?

Instead of sending so many officials to international meets, why not bring along young people, even if they don’t compete, just so they understand the thrill of competing for their country?

Given the many tears at London’s medal ceremonies by even seasoned athletes, winning for your country, rather than for yourself, may be the best gold medal lesson of all.
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