In 1924, Karl Haushofer coined the infamous term “Pacific Age”, and quoted, “A giant space is expanding before our eyes with forces pouring into it which, awaits the dawn of the Pacific Age.” Almost a century later, the entire world admires the Indo-Pacific nations for their miraculous economic development, rising strategic importance, rapid democratization, and cultural innovation. Asia, precisely, balances and develops along with the conjunction of traditions and modernity, and stands out for its economic development and profound socio-economic changes. Although not always recognized, women too have a very important role to play in the entire process of political transformation that the region is going through. In the global struggle to get more women politicians in the parliaments, one of the more hopeful fronts is Asia.
It’s a widely undeniable fact, that more and more women in the decision-making process will eventually make them work for the benefit and upliftment of women at large, and signal that they are as capable of leadership as men. Their example can motivate young girls who look up to these women, inspire them to envision themselves as equal to men, and enter the political life in the future. Howsoever, fancy it might sound, the reality remains quite depressing. To achieve real political equality among the two genders, Asian countries need to do more, than just merely seeing their presence as tokenism. For a politically and culturally diverse regions like East & South East Asia, we will be delving deeper into three countries- Singapore, the Republic of Taiwan, and Thailand.
55 years since Independence, the lion state of Singapore, with its paternalistic tendencies and deeply ingrained Confucian Principles of promoting gender hierarchy, has been using subtle sexist metaphors for addressing it’s female audience and envisaging the state, as a benevolent father. This form of benevolent patriarchy has been quite visible from the language of the politicians. The former Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong went on to say that, “ Can you find a woman, who has the same quality of man, who is as good as man, whose husband and boyfriend would allow them to carry on a hazardous and time-consuming profession?”
Severe under-representation of women in politics and the decision-making process is depressing. This is even more surprising, bearing in mind that the daughters are as educated as sons, if not more.
However, the recent statement by the Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam has portrayed the evolving perception of the Women’s political rights in Singapore. A record number of women lawmakers entered Singapore’s Parliament after the General Elections in July 2020, a reminder that the incoming female politicians will add more diversity of approach and perspectives and balance in the policy-making process.
Out of 93 seats for elected Members of Parliament, almost 29% or 27 seats belong to women. Most of the newly elected female Politicians reported to bring up the matters related to care-giving, mental health, cost of preschool, gender discrimination, domestic violence, flexible work arrangements, and improving the social security schemes in the City-State.
Given the lack of women in Singaporean Politics, the improved female representation in itself is a significant step in the long battle against gender inequality and will inspire young girls to join the politics and break the glass ceiling.
Republic of China (Taiwan)
The recent re-election of the first female President of the Republic of China, Tsai Ing Wen, has brought worldwide attention back to Taiwan. Tsai, campaigning on the key issues like the need to protect Taiwanese Democracy, the freedom from Chinese threats, and advocating for the legal protection of gender equality at home and in the workplace, won with a record 57% votes share.
However, the campaign was also filled with the use of harsh misogynistic and sexist comments against her for being an unmarried and childless lady. She is also one of the few politicians in Asia to be democratically elected on her own, rather than because of her relationship with a man. Women now make take up 42% of the legislative body, making it most equitable in the region. Factors that can be held responsible for this structural change, are codified gender quotas under the 1946 Nationalist Constitution after the KMT led forces relocated to Taipei.
In 2000, the constitution was again amended to raise the reserved seats in the Legislative Yuan to almost 25%. Thus the greater participation of women in politics is guaranteed and safeguarded, legally.
Now boasting a twice elected female President and a female Vice President as early as 2000, Taiwan seems to have arrived as a democracy, where women have as many fair opportunities as men in any political office.
Thai politics, like all other countries, continues to be a firm bastion for male politicians. The recent democratically held elections in 2019, the first after the 2014 Thai coup d’etat that installed coup leader General Prayut Chan-o-cha as the Prime Minister, saw 81 women out of 500 MP’s in all, making 16.2% of the membership of the lower house. This small proportion of women MP’s puts Thailand near the bottom, 182 out of 193 countries- of the “Women in Parliament” list for 2019, compiled by UN Women.
In Thailand, women score well in nearly all measures of leadership, especially in the corporate sphere, far surpassing the Asian average and enjoy a good position globally. They are the driving forces behind the business and enjoy a good position globally, making up-to 40% of CEO’s and 34% of CFO’s, and ranks highest in women enrollment in higher education. While Women in Thailand are doing exceptionally well in the corporate sector, politics remains a stark contrast. In the 2019 elections, approximately 11,181 candidates ran for 350 constituencies out of which only 2,466 were women.
There are several reasons for such under representations in Thai politics. One of the most prominent of them being the Structural dimension of the Political Parties in Thailand. Women nominated by the parties are well-groomed and tend to have better chances of winning. However, in the current scenarios, unless the female candidate is exceptional, she is overlooked in favor of men.
The next reasons may belong to the Cultural and Social Dimension. Thai Cultural believes and in the past has always assigned submissive roles to the women in politics and family, being subservient to men in the leadership role and also in general.
Hence a Woman’s role was placed in the inner domains, supporting their men in the public sphere, which severely limited their means of expression. Add to this the traditional division of labor and this further limited their access to information in politics.
Across South East Asia, women remain under-represented in almost all the political institutions, particularly in local governments. The situation currently is not too unpleasant, but not plausible as well. There has been a steady improvement in the representation of women since the wave of decolonization and democratization hit South East Asia in the Cold war period. What particularly surprising is, the rapid increase in socio-economic awareness is not supplemented with the rise in political awareness among women.
Thus, there’s an urgent need for strong state-led policies for gender equality, supplemented by structural changes in the societal norms, including change in the traditional gender division of labor. The atmosphere needs to be made more conducive for the females to take a lead and be a greater part of the decision-making process.
The author graduated in Economics and Political science and is currently pursuing her Master's in East Asian Studies from University of Delhi. She is quite keen in understanding diverse foreign policies and societies and their impact on Global Geopolitics.