Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 36, September 2014

Gendered Tensions, Resistances and Confusions
in Malaysia's Pursuit of Economic Competitiveness:

The Case of Women's Labour Force Participation

Juanita Elias[*]

  1. A number of studies of Malaysia's economic transition since 1969 have shown how labour markets were an important site for economic reforms centred around the construction of a 'flexible' and 'efficient,' depoliticised and feminised workforce, to service the growth of labour-intensive export manufacturing.[1] These studies provide insight into the central role that gender played in the strategies of foreign investment promotion and export-led growth—strategies that acted to more fully integrate Malaysia into the global market economy, while at the same time enabling the Malaysian government to pursue a politics of ethnic redistribution via its New Economic Policy (NEP). In the second decade of the twenty-first century, Malaysia is one of the most successful developing economies in the world, and yet in the face of continued dependence on low wage manufacturing industries and, increasingly, high levels of imported migrant labour, government policy has sought to redirect its pursuit of economic competitiveness away from labour-intensive manufacturing towards the knowledge-oriented economy.[2] A feature of the government's approach to promoting competitiveness is a highly instrumentalist focus on women's labour with middle-class educated women in particular increasingly identified as a pool of under-utilised and potentially highly skilled labour.[3] This article considers the tensions, resistances and confusions within the state and Malaysian society more generally, that stem from this policy emphasis.
  2. Focussing on the issue of women's labour force participation in Malaysia, this article seeks to examine how government policy has sought to mobilise women workers in order to meet the competitiveness challenges of the twenty-first century—challenges that are usually understood in terms of the need for the Malaysian economy to escape the 'middle income trap' by moving into more knowledge- and capital-intensive forms of production. The adoption of a language of competitiveness in government policy making and planning is understood as emanating from wider neoliberal global policy discourses that have served to position 'competitiveness' as states' primary economic objective. Many scholars have, for example, pointed to the ubiquity of competitiveness discourses and practices of competitiveness indexing and benchmarking that increasingly frame the ways in which states respond to economic challenges.[4] Interestingly, an emphasis on increasing women's participation in the market economy has been linked in discussions of economic competitiveness and development—most notably in the form of the World Economic Forum's annual Global Gender Gap reports.[5]
  3. It has been suggested that attempts by states to enhance national economic competitiveness exhibit a particular class politics, given that they rest upon a widening and deepening of the market economy into all spheres of everyday life drawing previously 'unproductive' groups of people into the market economy.[6] From a gender perspective then, processes of marketisation may well entail an unravelling of traditional gendered social roles as women's productive (and reproductive) labour is increasingly mobilised to serve the capitalist economy. Isabella Bakker and Stephen Gill[7] stress the centrality of the state under conditions of disciplinary neoliberalism in maintaining these transformations—highlighting the role that states play in terms of a 'reprivatisation of social reproduction' (whereby the responsibility for welfare provision is increasingly placed on the household) and in supporting an 'intensification of exploitation' through which the realm of social reproduction (the part of the economy associated with the provisioning of care and human reproduction) is increasingly viewed as a key site of capital accumulation.[8]
  4. It is important, however, not to overemphasise this transnational disciplinary neoliberalism in understanding the state's role in regulating and supporting the productive-reproductive relationship. Rather, the development of gendered processes of economic transition takes place at the intersection between local and transnational sets of social forces and arrangements. Such an emphasis is essential to any understanding of the role of the Malaysian state in economic development and neoliberal oriented reform—a role that has been significantly influenced by a localised politics of ethnicity. As many of the writings on Southeast Asian political economy have emphasised, economic liberalisation brings about conflict within the state—as vested statist interests resist pressures for neoliberal oriented reform.[9] After all, Neil Brenner, Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore have suggested that liberalisation should not be viewed as a uniform process but as one that plays out in relation to specific statist and everyday social formations (what they term 'variegated neoliberalizations').[10] The desire to increase women's labour force participation is thus presented in this article as a form of market building that comes into conflict with vested statist and patriarchal interests. The atricle examines how the stated desire to increase women's labour force participation generates tensions and resistances as well as confusions within the local Malaysian state and society which revolve around issues such as conceptions of women's 'appropriate' socio-economic roles and the marketisation of domestic work via the importation of low cost migrant workers.
  5. In arguing my case, I initially overview the attempts by the Malaysian government to promote a competitive knowledge-based economy. I then move on to highlight how women's labour is conceptualised as playing a role in this policy shift and the way in which women's relatively low labour-force participation has come to be understood as a policy problem for Malaysia. However, despite the rhetorical commitment to enhancing women's labour market participation, it is evident that there has been little systematic effort to address the varied causes of women's low labour-force participation. This policy intransigence reflects gendered structural and institutional factors that have mitigated the formation of clear-cut policies aimed at increasing the female labour force's participation rate. Furthermore, as is shown in the final section of the article, the desire to increase women's labour-force participation competes with government discourses concerning how the household can be mobilised to serve the state's national economic goals. Thus, on the one hand, women's labour is viewed by certain actors within the state as an underutilised resource in the struggle to build a knowledge economy. But, on the other hand, more traditionalist and moralistic gender discourses that associate women with home-based caring activities continue to inform discussions of marriage and the family in government planning and policy making.

    Building the knowledge economy
  6. The emphasis on knowledge and competitiveness in Malaysian political discourse is a reassertion of an economic development strategy that has long been part of the government's reform agenda. A key turning point is often seen to be then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's speech, 'Malaysia: The Way Forward'—referred to as Wawasan (Vision) 2020—because of its stated aim of achieving developed country status by that year.[11] The speech reiterated an emphasis on liberal reform that the government had been pursuing since the mid-1980s, highlighting the role of the private sector in delivering growth and the need to build a more competitive economy. The deployment of Information communication technologies (ICTs) was central to the attainment of Vision 2020, an ambition concretised with the establishment of the Multimedia Super Corridor project in 1996. But the need to build a knowledge economy began to take a much more central place in economic policymaking in the wake of the economic slowdown that followed the regional economic crisis of 1997. The Third Outline Perspective Plan (OPP3) of 2001–10, under which the Eighth and Ninth Malaysia Plans were produced, further emphasised the urgent need to develop a knowledge-based economy in order to remain competitive in a globalised world economy.[12] This emphasis has been reconfirmed more recently with the launching of the Tenth Malaysia Plan (2011–15) and other political economic policy instruments such as the New Economic Model (NEM) (an agenda setting document or 'Economic Transformation Programme' (ETP) focussed on the broad economic trajectory of the nation, focussing particularly on how to achieve Vision 2020) and the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) (an attempt to better coordinate the work of government departments in specific National Key Results Areas (NKRAs)) that have been developed under the Prime Ministership of Najib Tun Razak.
  7. Central to government initiatives to bolster economic competitiveness is the increased salience of ideas concerning the need to construct flexible, productive, skilled and competitive workers. The Ninth Malaysia Plan (2006–10), for example, in its chapter on 'enhancing human capital' states that 'efforts will be intensified to develop knowledge workers who are competitive, flexible, dynamic and performance minded.'[13] The Tenth Malaysia Plan (2011–15) makes similar claims in its chapter on 'developing and retaining a first-world talent base': 'human capital lies at the core of innovation and a productive high income economy,'[14] emphasising the need for educational reform and standard raising, improving access to technical and vocational education, increasing labour market flexibility, attracting and retaining talent (be it Malaysian or from overseas) while, at the same time, lowering the country's dependence on low-cost foreign workers.

    Women, competitiveness, and the productive economy
  8. In line with the focus on knowledge and competitiveness, it is clear that there has been an increased policy emphasis in Malaysia on the role that women play in maintaining a state's competitive advantage. Two key issues are emphasised in government economic planning and policy documents. The first, and the focus of this article, concerns the need to expand women's roles in the formal labour market—especially in knowledge-related sectors of the economy. The second is an increased emphasis on women's roles as micro-entrepreneurs, and the capacity of microenterprise to deliver pro-poor, inclusive economic growth.[15] Such strategies certainly chime with Bakker and Gill's concerns over the intensification of exploitation into the social reproductive economy. Viewing women as a potentially untapped resource in the pursuit of competitive-oriented economic growth in this manner is very much part of a transnational policy consensus linking women's increased labour market participation with economic growth. Take, as an example, a 2007 report on higher education and the knowledge economy in Malaysia co-written by the World Bank and Malaysia's Economic Planning Unit. The report cites a World Economic Forum (WEF) report in highlighting the significant role that women play (as workers) in building competitiveness:

      In comparing the global gender gap rankings with the Global Competitiveness Index, the WEF notes a strong correlation between the improved opportunities for women and the higher competitiveness scores for countries.[16]

  9. A liberal feminist consensus around 'equality of opportunity' is reproduced in the Tenth Malaysia Plan, which claims that 'it is essential that women are given the right opportunities, environment and mind-set so that they can participate and contribute in the various fields of national development'[17]—effectively reproducing a claim made in the Ninth Plan that 'women will be equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to enable them to be more competitive and versatile to meet the needs of a knowledge economy'.[18]
  10. Despite the dominance of female employment in the economically important export manufacturing sectors of the economy, the overall female labour force participation rate in Malaysia has remained low. This is clearly of concern to policy makers, with the Tenth Plan drawing attention to the fact that although the country's female labour force participation rate rose from 44.7 percent in 1995 to 45.7 percent in 2008 to 46.4 percent in 2009 (a figure that can be contrasted with a male labour force participation rate of around 80 percent), Malaysia has considerably lower female labour force participation rates in comparison to regional neighbours such as Thailand (70.0 percent), Singapore (60.2 percent) and Indonesia (51.8 percent).[19]
  11. The desire to increase women's labour force participation has frequently been presented as a way of lessening the economy's dependence on migrant labour. As early as 1996, Mahathir in a speech to launch the Seventh Malaysia Plan (1996–2000) stressed the importance of raising the female labour force participation rate in precisely these terms: 'We just cannot afford to let half our female workforce remain idle if we want to reduce our dependence on foreign workers and increase family incomes.'[20] Such a perspective clearly overlooks two key factors: first, that many of the jobs performed by migrant workers are largely unattractive to Malaysian citizens. Significantly, female migrant labour is overwhelmingly concentrated in domestic service employment—an exceptionally low-paid, low-status form of work that has come to be constructed as a form of work performed exclusively by foreign workers (for more detail see below). Second, it rests upon a conceptualisation of work as formal productive employment— and fails to consider the roles that women perform within the household and also that many women are employed in irregular and undocumented forms of work in order to supplement household incomes. For example, many women engaged in irregular forms of work (such as garment subcontracting or direct selling) fail to report the work that they do as 'work' in part to avoid taxes and contact with regulatory authorities, but also because they themselves view these activities as an extension of their household responsibilities.[21]
  12. Concerns about the low levels of female labour-force participation also focus on the fact that many highly skilled and educated women leave the workforce once they start to have children,[22] an issue reflected in comments by the Minister for Women, Family and Community Development that 'as a nation we cannot afford for our brightest and best women to be out of the workplace.'[23] In recent years, there has been a rapid and sustained increase in the numbers of women in higher education—to the extent that women now constitute 55 percent of enrolments in higher education, a figure on a par with the OECD mean as well as regional competitors such as Thailand and Singapore.[24] While the employment of women graduates has in general kept pace with that of male graduates, concerns have been raised about the rapid decline in female labour force participation when these women marry and have children, and the subsequent failure of many women to re-enter the formal labour market later on in life.[25]
  13. A number of strategies has been discussed in government policy documents concerning how to increase women's labour force participation. These policies are interesting because of their explicit recognition of how the socially reproductive economy constrains women's engagement in the formal labour market. The Eighth Malaysia Plan (2001–05), for example, incorporated a commitment to include female part-time and homebased 'knowledge workers' (usually 'teleworkers') under the terms of the 1955 Employment Act; a move that was seen as important 'to enable women to integrate career with household duties.'[26] The Ninth Plan sought to promote flexible working hours, more flexible employment opportunities such as telework and homework, and calls for the provision of workplace crèches.[27] The Tenth Plan also highlights the role that childcare provision can play in addressing this trend and subsequent government pronouncements, yet again, called for women to have access to more flexible forms of work.[28]
  14. Understanding the relatively low female labour-force participation rate in Malaysia is complicated by the fact that there has been little attempt to understand this phenomenon through research. In part, the explanation lies in expectations regarding women's traditional household roles.[29] But there are also important material disincentives—the fact that women tend to be crowded into lower paying occupations (such as shop work or clerical work) and the persistence of a gender wage gap. Figures for 2008, for example, show that the gender wage gap is most notable in (male dominated) senior managerial positions where women are paid 37 percent less than men (compared to just 4 percent less in service and shop work positions) pointing to the persistence of workplace 'glass ceilings.'[30] Furthermore, concerns have been raised about the types of work available to women in the knowledge economy—notably, the rise of call-centre employment as a new 'hi-tech' form of low-wage feminised employment thus challenging the assumption that knowledge-based work leads to higher status and higher paid forms of employment.[31]
  15. The decision taken by many women to exit the labour force in order to have children must also be set against the fact that despite the government rhetoric concerning the need to boost the female labour force participation rate, there is little state support for women's socially reproductive work. The Tenth Plan states that one of the achievements of the Ninth Plan period was that 436 registered childcare centres were established at workplaces.[32] However, a closer look at the data on childcare provision in Malaysia reveals that very few children under the age of four are cared for in childcare centres (at least officially). In an interview with an official at the Ministry of Education, I was shown data that suggested that in February 2010 just 9,642 children were cared for in registered childcare centres. However, the official suggested that these figures included some children in the four to six age group whose parents used childcare centres in addition to their children's enrolment in preschool (for children aged four to six). Notably, the official pointed out that enrolment in preschool in Malaysia, which is both widely available and increasingly free, was near universal—suggesting that it is both the lack of availability and cost of childcare for the zero to four age group that are major factors in the low enrolment levels.[33] The lack of available childcare options for the under-four age group was revealed in the recent case of the death of a child in an unregistered Putrajaya childcare facility based in a government building. The subsequent investigation revealed that sixty-six children were being cared for by just two adults (official ratios for the under-threes are one carer to five children).[34]
  16. The lack of childcare provision in Malaysia is underscored by Heng Keng Chiam, who presents figures from a National Population and Family Board Survey of 2008, in which it was found that over half of all parents of children under seven years of age relied on childcare provided by family members (usually the child's mother).[35] It is widely recognised that the policy of encouraging workplaces to establish their own childcare facilities has been largely unsuccessful[36] and the Tenth Plan underscores this failure by calling for the establishment of more community-based childcare facilities rather than an expansion of the current emphasis on workplace based childcare provision. Although many middle-class urban women rely upon foreign domestic workers as providers of childcare, poorer women are more likely to rely on informal sources of childcare such as neighbours and friends. Furthermore, no government policies have sought to address the issue of men's lack of involvement in childrearing with one commentator suggesting that 'even public discourse on these issues is lacking.'[37]
  17. In addition to inadequacies in childcare provision, statutory maternity leave provisions in Malaysia (sixty days) lag behind neighbouring states such as Thailand and Indonesia (ninety days) and Singapore (116 days).[38] Furthermore, Gavin W. Jones notes that the underdevelopment of childcare facilities is due to the widespread belief that 'the family should deal with the needs of its own members'[39] which results in women not only taking on overwhelming responsibility for the care of children but also for the care of elderly family members. Invariably then, data from Malaysia's Labour Force Survey consistently points to 'housework' as the major reason that women give for not seeking work.[40] Indeed, a 2005 time-use survey undertaken by the Ministry of Women and Family Development cited by Shanti Thambiah suggested that women on average performed seventy-five percent of all housework (childcare, house cleaning and cooking).[41]
  18. In accounting for the low female labour-force participation rates in Malaysia, we also need to consider how gender discriminatory employment practices are frequently sanctioned by the state. One of the most significant examples of this is the continued ban on workers organising in the female dominated electronics sector. The prominent case of the Malaysian Airlines (MAS) flight attendant, Beatrice Fernandez, whose employment was terminated when she became pregnant, resulted in an unsuccessful legal challenge to the terms of the MAS collective agreement (which required resignation on pregnancy) as being in breach of provisions within the national constitution that prevented discrimination on gender grounds.[42] Such cases point to the difficulties in challenging gender-discriminatory practices in an economy where the interests of labour are consistently subordinated to those of capital.[43]
  19. And yet, challenging discrimination in ways that break the glass ceiling for women has featured prominently in government policies aimed at increasing the numbers of women in decision-making positions in the public service to 30 percent (a target set out in the Tenth Malaysia Plan). It should be noted, however, that women are already well represented within the public service, with recent reports suggesting that women currently make up 32.3 percent of decision-making posts—a reflection of the fact that it is often easier for women working in the public sector to combine work and family responsibilities (for example, in terms of the generally better maternity leave provisions available to public sector working women). What is interesting, however, is the way in which the 30 percent target has become a focal point for discussions about the need to increase women's role in decision-making positions across the private as well as the public sectors. The Minister for Women, Community and Family Development has on various occasions sought to pressure the private sector to increase its representation of women within key decision-making positions.[44] More recently, plans have been unveiled to boost the representation of women in leadership positions in the private sector, by encouraging firms to adopt a 30 percent female quota on their corporate boards. The extent to which such strategies will instigate a shift in gendered corporate cultures remains to be seen—at the time of writing there were no clear plans to introduce legislation that would enforce the quota.[45] An important contextual factor here is that one of the key problems facing any government initiative to address women's low labour-force participation and discriminatory workplace cultures, is the relative lack of importance that is accorded to 'women's issues' within the state decision-making apparatus. We can point, for example, to how women's issues have been effectively 'siloed' into the Ministry for Women, Community and Family Development, with few other government departments viewing gender issues as something that falls within their remit.

    The household at the service of national economic competitiveness
  20. The above analysis has pointed to the way in which state policies aimed at increasing female labour-force participation have stumbled because of the failure to thoroughly recognise how women's productive roles are frequently constrained by their positioning within social relations of reproduction. The state, while advocating the need to increase women's productive roles, has failed to put into place policies that would support the entry of women into the formal labour market. In this section of the article I develop this analysis further—suggesting that these policy failures in many ways stem from a central contradiction in state policy making whereby, in spite of the increased emphasis on women's productive contribution to the knowledge economy, women are principally framed by in their role as 'homemakers.' This is an issue that came through in very interesting ways in interviews that I conducted within both the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) of the Prime Minister's Department and the Ministry of Education. For example, officials at the EPU challenged the assumption that increasing women's economic participation rates was an economic necessity for the country.[46] At the Ministry of Education, which is in the process of taking more responsibility for early years childcare provision, an official challenged the way in which greater levels of early childcare provision was being viewed as a means to increase women's labour force participation, suggesting that mothers of young children really ought to stay at home for at least the first two years of their children's lives.[47] Though anecdotal, such incidents are significant because they highlight the ways in which, despite the rhetorical emphasis on women's roles in promoting economic competitiveness, these ideas are challenged and resisted, even within the state. Such challenges are perhaps inevitable given the way that women's roles in economic competitiveness are constructed around two competing discourses—one that stresses her productive capacities (as worker or microentrepreneur) and another that constructs women's socially reproductive responsibilities in terms of women's traditional roles within Malaysian (and more specifically, Malay) society.
  21. This second, traditionalist, discourse is, nonetheless, utilised to serve agendas of economic modernisation and competitiveness. Thus the family and the household are presented as a key site for the (re)production of economically productive Malaysians. As Najib argued at the launch of the Tenth Plan:

      As the saying goes, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. The status of women in society is a good indicator of a progressive and dynamic country. Women are the cornerstone of happy families and the essence of a successful nation. [48]

  22. However, the invocation of traditional gender roles in the service of the competitive knowledge economy is brought into tension with the more 'modernist' arguments that surround the emphasis on increasing women's labour force roles. Thus, women's increased labour force participation is presented as an economic necessity, but concerns have been raised that women will neglect their role in the social reproduction of labour—fears that are compounded by the increased reliance on foreign domestic workers.
  23. As was charted in the earlier section of this article, attempts to free up women's labour through government policies aimed at supporting women's labour market roles have been largely unsuccessful. Nonetheless the marketisation of the household economy has occurred via the rise in migrant domestic employment. 'Maids,' who are exempt from coverage under the 1955 Employment Act and thus not formally recognised as 'workers,' are overwhelmingly foreign nationals from other states in the region such as Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. The availability of low-cost domestic workers in Malaysia is recognised by policy makers as playing a role in attracting and retaining highly skilled workers. Thus the Tenth Plan states that provisions will be made to further liberalise the market for foreign domestic workers by allowing 'skilled foreign talent' to bring their domestic workers with them.[49] This measure is also accompanied by a relaxation of the restrictions on their spouses (usually wives) from holding employment in Malaysia—indicating the extent to which the development of the knowledge economy is accompanied by the assumption that society's socially reproductive work can be performed by low-cost foreign female labour. Of course, the employment of foreign domestic workers is, in part, related to perceptions of class and status (the association of having a domestic worker with having attained a middle-classness).[50] But it also, more fundamentally, reflects the lack of social and welfare services noted above. Foreign domestic workers remain a deeply stigmatised group subjected to a range of repressive practices by employers which are effectively sanctioned by the state.[51] Thus, they effectively constitute a key group of vulnerable and unprotected workers invisibly providing the 'flexible' low-wage socially reproductive work so central to the Malaysian state's pursuit of economic competitiveness and the growth of a prosperous middle-class society.[52]
  24. Interestingly, rather than tackle issues such as inadequate childcare provision or the poor status of migrant domestic workers, state policies designed to address the tensions between women's productive and socially reproductive roles overwhelmingly focus on bolstering family/moral values. Thus, in the Ninth Plan, reference is made to a National Family Policy: 'Recognising the increased participation of women in the labour force, steps will be undertaken to create awareness and provide knowledge to parents on the importance to balance work and family responsibilities.'[53] The Tenth Plan also highlights the need for 'programmes that instil character building and family values' that will focus on 'strengthening marriage and promoting equitable sharing of resources, responsibilities and tasks.'[54] These include schemes such as the National Population and Family Development Board-run pre-marriage guidance programme Smart Start (which is tailored to suit the particular religious needs of different ethnic groups) and the Parenting@work programme designed to support young parents. It should be noted that, despite the gender neutral language of 'parenting' and the emphasis on shared responsibilities in marriage, these programmes need to be set alongside the widespread assumption that it is women who take responsibility for the household. Such programmes are a response to declining levels of fertility and increased levels of delayed and non-marriage in what was once a near universal marriage society. While these trends are fairly uniform across all ethnic groups, it is notable these changes have been most recent amongst the country's Malay population.[55]
  25. A moral dimension is brought into this emphasis on the household through a concern with 'family values.' Building and strengthening the family is presented as aiding the development of 'a moral and ethical society' and enhancing 'national unity.'[56] The National Population and Family Development Board's work on 'strengthening the family' has tended to point to the central role performed by women in supporting values that preserve Islamic ideals. As Maila Stivens has shown, such programmes must also be understood in terms of the on-going Islamisation of state and society in Malaysia.[57] The context for this is the socio-political debate over the role that Islamic values can or cannot play in enhancing economic competitiveness.[58]

  26. In recent years, Malaysia's attempts to transition to a knowledge economy in order to maintain economic competitiveness have incorporated a highly instrumentalist understanding of women's empowerment as a source of economic efficiency and growth. The desire to expand women's labour market participation can be viewed as a form of market building. And yet, the problem is that such an initiative ultimately rests upon a conceptualisation of women as an 'unproductive' and marketisable resource—failing to properly address the significant roles that many women play within the socially reproductive economy. Invariably then, this formal commitment by state planners to increasing the female labour force participation rate has generated tensions over how best to incorporate the reproductive economy more thoroughly into economic policy making. These tensions are shown to stem from state discourses that simultaneously emphasise both the productivity and the domesticity of women. Thus the rise of the knowledge economy is seen to require an increase in female labour force participation, but this is constrained by the persistence of workplace glass ceilings and the emergence of new forms of cheap feminised employment that benefit from the 'secondary' labour market status of women.
  27. These tensions between the productive and socially reproductive economies are also manifested in terms of how the state has responded to these challenges. For example, despite commitments to ending workplace discrimination and breaking the workplace glass ceiling, the effective siloing of women's issues within one ministry means that these issues have entailed inadequate institutional responses. The persistence of traditionalist understandings of women's family roles and responsibilities even within the state underscores the extent to which economic restructuring remains embedded within localised gender ideologies, which are cross-cut with notions of ethnicity and religion. Thus an increased emphasis on women's roles as productive knowledge workers potentially conflicts with government policies that emphasise wives' and mothers' responsibilities in supporting productive, morally upstanding and, increasingly, Islamic citizens.


    [*] This research was funded by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, 'The gender politics of economic competitiveness in Southeast Asia,' #FT0991711.

    [1] Vicki Crinis, 'The stratification of the garment and texile industries and labour movements in Malaysia,' in Women and Work in Globalizing Asia, ed. Dong-Sook S. Gills and Nicola Piper, London: Routledge, 2002, pp. 133–58; Juanita Elias, Fashioning Inequality: The Multinational Firm and Gendered Employment in a Globalizing World, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004; Merete Lie and Ragnhild Lund, Renegotiating Local Values: Working Women and Foreign Industry in Malaysia, London: Curzon, 1994; Aihwa Ong, Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline, Albany: SUNY Press, 1987.

    [2] Jeffrey Henderson and Richard Phillips, 'Unintended consequences: social policy, state institutions and the "stalling" of the Malaysian industrialisation project,' Economy and Society, vol. 36, no. 1 (2007): 77–101.

    [3] Malaysia, Ninth Malaysia Plan 2006–2010, Kuala Lumpur: Government Printers, 2005, p. 281; World Bank and Economic Planning Unit, Malaysia and the Knowledge Economy, Washington: World Bank Group, 2007, p. 91.

    [4] Tore Fougner, 'Neoliberal governance of states: the role of competitiveness indexing and country benchmarking,' Millennium: Journal of International Studies, vol. 37, no. 2 (2008): 303–63; Isabelle Bruno, 'The "indefinite discipline" of competitiveness benchmarking as a neoliberal technology of government,' Minerva, vol. 47, no. 3 (2009): 261–80.

    [5] Juanita Elias 'Davos woman to the rescue of global capitalism: postfeminist politics and competitiveness promotion at the World Economic Forum,' International Political Sociology, vol. 7, no. 2 (2013): pp. 152–69.

    [6] Joseph Nevins and Nancy Lee Peluso, 'Introduction: commoditization in Southeast Asia,' in Taking Southeast Asia to Market: Commodities, Nature and People in the Neoliberal Age, ed. Joseph Nevins and Nancy Lee Peluso, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2008, pp. 1–26.

    [7] Isabella Bakker and Stephen Gill, 'Ontology, method and hypothesis,' in Power, Production and Social Reproduction, ed. Isabella Bakker and Stephen Gill, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003, pp. 17–41.

    [8] The concerns raised by Bakker and Gill are part of a recent wave of feminist materialist political-economy writings that have emphasised the centrality of the socially reproductive economy to ongoing processes of neoliberal reform. See also Isabella Bakker, 'Social reproduction and the constitution of a gendered political economy,' New Political Economy, vol. 12, no. 4 (2007): 541–56. Although these writings are very much focused on the contemporary gendered political economy of neoliberalism, they do share some of the core concerns over the relationship between the capitalist state and the household economy raised by earlier Marxist-feminist scholars from the 1970s and early 1980s such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, Bristol: Falling Water Press, 1975 and Heidi I. Hartman, 'The family as the locus of gender, class and political struggle,' Signs, vol. 6, no. 3 (1981): 366–94. Most notably, work by Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004 draws upon these earlier writings in order to discuss, in the final chapter of Federici's book, how the rationalisation of social reproduction in the manner described by Bakker and Gill is indicative of a new round of primitive accumulation under conditions of neoliberal globalisation.

    [9] See for example Kevin Hewison and Richard Robison (eds), East Asia and the Trials of Neoliberalism, London: Routledge, 2006.

    [10] Neil Brenner, Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore, 'Variegated neoliberalization: geographies, modalities, pathways,' Global Networks, vol. 10, no. 2 (2010): 182–222.

    [11] Mahathir Mohamad, 'The Way Forward,' speech to the Malaysian Business Council, 1993, Prime Minister's Office of Malaysia, online:, accessed 7 January 2013.

    [12] Malaysia, Eighth Malaysia Plan 2001–2005, Kuala Lumpur: Government Printer, 2001, p. 119.

    [13] Malaysia, Ninth Malaysia Plan, p. 259.

    [14] Malaysia, Tenth Malaysia Plan, Putrajaya: Economic Planning Unit, 2010, p. 192.

    [15] An issue explored in more depth in Juanita Elias, 'The gender politics of economic competitiveness in Malaysia's transition to a knowledge-economy,' The Pacific Review, vol. 24, no. 5 (2011): 529–52.

    [16] World Bank and Economic Planning Unit, Malaysia and the Knowledge Economy: Building a World Class Higher Education System, Report No. 40397-MY, 2007.

    [17] Malaysia, Tenth Malaysia Plan 2011–1015, Putrajaya: Economic Planning Unit, 2010, p. 180.

    [18] Malaysia, Ninth Malaysia Plan, p. 281.

    [19] Malaysia, Tenth Malaysia Plan, pp. 178–79.

    [20] Ministry of Information, 'Speech of YAB Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamed at the Launching of the Seventh Malaysia Plan,' Malaysia (1996), cited in Lee Lee Loh-Ludher, 'From factories to telecentres: journey of women in the Malaysian labour force,' in Readings on Women and Development in Malaysia: a Sequel: Tracing Four Decades of Change, ed. Jamilah Ariffin, Selangor: MPH Publishing, 2009, pp. 223–44, p. 236.

    [21] Loh-Ludher, 'From factories to telecentes.'

    [22] Lydia Gomez and A. Alang Bendahara, 'Many women shunning jobs due to low wages,' New Straits Times, 12 July 2010, online:, accessed 9 November 2013.

    [23] 'Women turning the tide at work,' New Straits Times, 24 August 2010, online:, accessed 7 September 2010. This URL is no longer available.

    [24] World Bank and Economic Planning Unit, Malaysia and the Knowledge Economy, p. 23.

    [25] World Bank and Economic Planning Unit, Malaysia and the Knowledge Economy, p. 32.

    [26] Malaysia, Eighth Malaysia Plan, p. 567.

    [27] Malaysia, Ninth Malaysia Plan, p. 99.

    [28] 'Look into flexi-hours option for women urges PM,' New Straits Times, 25 August 2010, online:, accessed 7 January 2014.

    [29] Especially when one takes into account how ideals of domesticity permeate perceptions of middle class Malaysian womanhood. See Maila Stivens, 'Sex and gender in the making of the new Malay middle class,' in Gender and Power in Affluent Asia, ed. Krishna Sen and Maila Stivens, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 87–126.

    [30] Gomez and Bendahara, 'Many women shunning jobs due to low wages.'

    [31] Cecilia Ng and Swasti Mitter, 'Valuing women's voices: call centre workers in Malaysia and India,' in Gender and the Digital Economy: Perspectives from the Developing World, ed. Cecilia Ng and Swasti Mitter, New Dehli: Sage, 2005, pp. 132–85.

    [32] Malaysia, Tenth Malaysia Plan, p. 49.

    [33] See also Lee Lee Loh-Ludher, 'From factories to telecentres: journeys of women in the Malaysian labour force,' in Readings on Women and Development in Malaysia a Sequel: Tracing Four Decades of Change, ed. Jamilah Ariffin, Selangor: MPH Publishing, 2009, pp. 223–44.

    [34] 'Illegal daycare centre shut down,' New Straits Times, 28 August 2010, online:, accessed 7 January 2014

    [35] Heng Keng Chiam, 'Childcare in Malaysia: then and now,' International Journal of Childcare and Education Policy, vol. 2, no. 2 (2008): 31–41, p. 36.

    [36] Loh-Ludher, 'From factories to telecentres.'

    [37] Shanti Thambiah 'The productive and non-(re)productive women: sites of economic growth in Malaysia,' Asian Women, vol. 26, no. 2 (2010): 49–76.

    [38] 'Campaign for 90 days maternity leave,' the Sundaily, 9 March 2010, online:, accessed 6th January 2014.

    [39] Gavin W. Jones 'Women, marriage and family in Southeast Asia,' in Gender Trends in Southeast Asia: Women Now, Women in the Future, ed. Teresa Devasahayam, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2009, pp. 31–41, p. 26.

    [40] Thambiah, 'The productive and non-(re)productive women,' p. 59.

    [41] Thambiah, 'The productive and non-(re)productive women,' p. 59.

    [42] Joint Action Group Against Violence Against Women (JAG-VAW), 'Federal Court to decide whether to hear employment discrimination case,' 9 March 2005, online:, accessed 7 January 2014.

    [43] And the subordination of labour is itself a deeply gendered process. See Juanita Elias, 'Gendering liberalisation and labour reform in Malaysia: fostering "competitiveness" in the productive and reproductive economies,' Third World Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3 (2009): 469–83.

    [44] Sean Augustin and Ili Liyana Mokhtar, 'Corporate sector must not hold women back,' New Straits Times, 25 July 2010, p. 2.

    [45] Clara Chooi, 'Compulsory 30pc women stake in top-level posts by 2016,' the Malaysian Insider, 27 June 2011, online:, accessed 6 July 2011; The Star Says, 'Getting to the boardroom,' the Star Online, 29 June 2011, online:, accessed 7 January 2014.

    [46] Interview with Principal Assistant Director, Human Capital Development Section, Economic Planning Unit and Deputy Director, Human Capital Development Section, Economic Planning Unit, Putrajaya, 20 July 2010.

    [47] Interview with Ministry of Education official, Putrajaya, 23 July 2010.

    [48] Tun Razak Najib, 'Tenth Malaysia Plan 2011–1015,' Speech by the Prime Minister in the Dewan Rakyat, 10 June, 2010, on;line:, accessed 30 September 2014.

    [49] Malaysia, Tenth Malaysia Plan, p. 236.

    [50] Christine B.N. Chin, In Service and Servitude: Foreign Female Domestic Workers and the Making of the Malaysian 'Modernity' Project, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

    [51] Chin, In Service and Servitude.

    [52] Juanita Elias, 'Making migrant domestic work visible: the rights based approach to migration and the "challenges of social reproduction",' Review of International Political Economy, vol. 17, no. 5 (2010): pp. 840–59.

    [53] Malaysia, Ninth Malaysia Plan, p. 314.

    [54] Malaysia, Tenth Malaysia Plan, p. 187.

    [55] Jones, 'Women, marriage and family in Southeast Asia.'

    [56] Malaysia, Ninth Malaysia Plan, p. 259.

    [57] Maila Stivens, '"Family values" and Islamic revival: gender, rights and state moral projects in Malaysia,' Women's Studies International Forum, vol. 29, no. 4 (2006): 354–67. See also, Juanita Elias, 'Civil society and the gender politics of economic competitiveness in Malaysia,' in New Approaches to Building Markets in Asia, Working Paper Series, no. 42, Singapore: Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, 2012, pp. 8–11.

    [58] This is seen, for example, in Former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's emphasis on the more neoliberal compatible Islam Hadhari (civilisational Islam). Terence Chong, 'The emerging politics of Islam Hadhari,' in Malaysia: Recent Trends and Challenges, ed. K. Kesavapany and Swee-Hock Saw, Singapore: ISEAS, 2006, pp. 26–46.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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