Women and development in Malaysia
Professor Emeritus Charles Hirschman, University of Washington, Seattle

According to two recent international studies containing information on the gender gap—the relative status of women to men—Malaysia ranked 104th of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum (2020), and 58th of 162 countries in the UNDP Gender Inequality Index (United Nations Development Programme, 2019). These rankings are based on statistical indicators, such as economic participation, education, health, and representation in positions of public authority.

The conventional wisdom, which I have heard many times, is that the lagging status of women in Malaysia is a legacy of patriarchy (beliefs and practices that reinforce male dominance) and the contemporary attitudes of many Malaysian men and women. This interpretation is even reported in academic studies:
Malay women still closely adhere to their traditional cultural values where they are expected to be strong as a mother, while remaining effeminate and subservient as a wife (Kalthom Abdullah, Noraini M. Noor, and Saodah Wok 2008, p. 451).

A corollary of this interpretation is that gender equality is a modern Western idea that is not consonant with traditional Malay culture.

This interpretation, however, is directly opposite to that of research on the status of women in pre-colonial Southeast Asia. In his classic study of Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680, Anthony Reid (1988a) concludes that relative status, independence, and economic importance of women in the 16th and 17th centuries in Southeast Asia was probably higher than anywhere else in the world, including Europe (see also Reid, 1988b; Reid, 2014). Reid does not claim that women were superior to men in Southeast Asia, but that women were ubiquitous in commerce and public life throughout the region. Women and men generally had different roles in traditional Southeast Asia, but the women’s sphere included a broad range of productive economic activities, including rice planting and harvesting, gardening, weaving, pottery marketing, and marketing. Women were also active participants in household decision making and religious expression.

As a scholar of Malaysia who has had six, long-term residences in the country over the last five decades, I can cite many anecdotes in support of both interpretations. In discussions of Malay culture, many friends—female and male—often mention the importance of female deference to male authority. Yet I have also observed many Malay women in kampongs, government offices, and universities who are very independent, entrepreneurial, and comfortable in positions of authority.

Women in Economic Development
Most studies of economic development in Malaysia and government reports rarely, however, mention women as workers or decision makers. The word “women” does not appear in the index in many of the classic works on economic development in Malaysia (such as World Bank, 1955; Silcock and Fisk, 1963; Lim Chong-Yah, 1967; Snodgrass, 1980). In publications that explicitly focus on women in development, the conclusion is that the long-standing disadvantages of women are slowly receding with development and enlightened government policy (Ministry of Women and Family Development, Malaysia 2003). Yet in late 19th and early 20th century colonial Malaya, Malay women were the mainstay of the flourishing weaving industry in Kelantan and Terengganu; Chinese women using the Hakka dialect were highly productive as dulang washers in the tin-mining industry along the peninsula's west-coast states, and Indian women played a major role on estates in the rubber industry throughout the country. Women in these industries helped to raise living standards and propel Malaya to a preeminent role in Southeast Asia at the sunset of colonialism.
Female dulang washers at a tin mine
Source: National Archives Malaysia
Female rubber tapper
Source: National Archives Malaysia
Several years ago, I wrote an article (Hirschman, 2016) for the 50th anniversary issue of the Malaysian Journal of Economic Studies to see if there was any evidence that the relatively high status of women in pre-colonial Southeast Asia had persisted to 20th century Malaya/Malaysia (Hirschman, 2016). I focused on ethnographic and demographic studies that examined family structure and economic activity. In results that were somewhat surprising, I found considerable evidence of relative parity of women and men in kinship ties, residential patterns after marriage, household decision making, and sex preferences for children. Malay women contributed to family economic welfare as active workers in rice cultivation and generally maintained strong ties of affection and mutual support from their natal kin. In their classic ethnographic study of a Malay fishing village, Raymond and Rosemary Firth report:

One of the notable features of Kelantan peasant life is the freedom of women, especially in economic matters. Not only do they exercise an important influence on the control of family finances, commonly acting as bankers for their husbands, but they also engage in independent enterprises, which increase the family supply of cash. Petty trading in fish and vegetables, the preparation and sale of various forms of snacks and cooked fish, mat-making, spinning and net making, harvesting rice, tile making, the preparation of coconut oil, the selling of small groceries in shops are some of the occupations followed by women (Raymond Firth, 1966, p. 80).

[I]n most cases, it is the desire not for subsistence, but a higher standard of living, which impels them (women) to work, and … the desire for some independence of action and income (Rosemary Firth, 1966, p. 31).

More recently, Cecilia Ng (1999) found that women’s labour inputs often exceed those of men in a rice-growing village in the 1980s. Men did much of the heavy labour, including ploughing, but women were ubiquitous in transplanting and harvesting of rice. The economic value of women in traditional agriculture was consistent with their relative status in household decision making, including the ability to influence decisions to divorce if a marriage was unsatisfactory (Firth, 1966; Firth, 1966; Tsubouchi, 1975; Swift, 1958; Jones, 1981). In my article, I also reviewed the very important role that women played in political mobilization during the anti-colonial movement in the late 1940s. When Kaum Ibu (later Wanita UMNO (United Malays National Organisation)), demanded that more women be represented in positions of authority, their leadership was sacked and were told to focus on cooking, sewing, and religious classes for women and to always defer to male party leadership (Manderson, 1980; Dancz, 1987).

In her classic book, Women’s Role in Economic Development, Ester Boserup (1970) reports that Western influences over the course of the 20th century were a major obstacle to women’s progress in Asia and Africa. Colonial administrators and European technical advisors discouraged the participation of women in the agricultural sector of developing countries by directing resources and technical assistance exclusively to men. The cultural ideal of female deference in Western religions, including Islam and Christianity, may also have contributed to the marginalization of women’s status in Southeast Asia over the 19th and 20th centuries (Reid, 2014; Wazir Jahan Khan, 1992).
Final Words

A recent authoritative study, Striving for Inclusive Development: From Pangkor to a Modern Malaysian State, finds that female participation in secondary and tertiary education now exceeds that of males and that women have higher economic returns to education than men (Sultan Nazrin Shah, 2019, pp. 151 and 187). These signs of change suggest that increasing the economic roles of women is critical for the future development of Malaysia. To do so would not be accepting a Western idea that women should become more like men but understanding that Malaysian and Southeast Asian historical traditions show that women’s participation in the marketplace and home are complementary, not competitive, roles.

Further reading:

Boserup, E. 1970. Women’s Role in Economic Development. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Dancz, V. 1987. Women and Party Politics in Peninsular Malaysia. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

Firth, Raymond. 1966. Malay Fisherman: Their Peasant Economy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Firth, Rosemary. 1966. Housekeeping among Malay Peasants. London: The Athlone Press.

Hirschman, C. 2016. ‘Gender, the Status of Women, and Family Structure in Malaysia’. Malaysian Journal of Economic Studies 53: 33─50.

Jones, G. 1981. ‘Malay Marriage and Divorce in Peninsular Malaysia: Three Decades of Change’. Population and Development Review, 7: 255─278.

Kalthom Abdullah, N. M. Noor, and S. Wok. 2008. ‘The Perceptions of Women’s Roles and Progress: A Study of Malay Women’. Social Indicators Research 89: 439─455.

Lim, C. Y. 1967. Economic Development of Modern Malaya. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

Manderson, L. 1980. Women, Politics, and Change: The Kaum Ibu UMNO, Malaysia, 1945─1972. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University

Ministry of Women and Family Development, Malaysia. 2003. The Progress of Malaysian Women Since Independence, 1957─2000. Kuala Lumpur: UNDP

Ng, C. 1999. Positioning Women in Malaysia: Class and Gender in an Industrializing State. London: Macmillan.

Reid, A. 1988a. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450─1680. Vol. 1: The Lands Below the Winds. New Haven: Yale University Press.

________ 1988b. ‘Female Roles in Pre-Colonial Southeast Asia’. Modern Asian Studies, 22: 629─645.

________ 2014. ‘Urban Respectability and the Maleness of (Southeast) Asian Modernity’. The Asian Review of World Histories, 2 (2): 147–167

Silcock, T. H. and E. K. Fisk. 1963. The Political Economy of Independent Malaya: A Case Study in Development. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Snodgrass, D. 1980. Inequality and Economic Development in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

Sultan Nazrin Shah. 2019. Striving for Inclusive Development: From Pangkor to a Modern Malaysian State. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

Swift, M. G. 1958. ‘A Note on the Durability of Malay Marriages’. Man, 58: 155─159.

Tsubouchi, Y. 1975. ‘Marriage and Divorce among Malay Peasants in Kelantan’. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 6: 135─150.

United Nations Development Programme. 2019. Human Development Report 2019. New York. Retrieved on August 18, 2020 from:

Wazir, Jahan Khan. 1992. Women and Culture: Between Malay Adat and Islam. Boulder: Westview Press.

World Bank (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development). 1955. The Economic Development of Malaya. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

World Economic Forum. 2020. The Global Gender Gap Report 2020. Geneva: World Economic Forum. Retrieved on June 8, 2020 from:


c/o Asia-Europe Institute
University of Malaya,
50603 Kuala Lumpur

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