Our country has many problems to deal with. Rising food prices, climate change, increasing racial tensions, an unstable political situation…
Oh, and there’s still a pandemic going around, of course, how could we ever forget about that.
But today, I’m not here to talk about all those problems. Instead, I’m here to speak about an issue that may hit closer to home than many of you would like. A problem that has festered in our country for years as those who had the power to change things have delayed any potential solutions time and time again.
I’m talking, of course, about sexual harassment.
The Legal Issues Surrounding Sexual Harassment
At the moment, there is no specific law against sexual harassment in Malaysia. The closest we have are several provisions that were added to the Employment Act of 1955 in 2012, which are… inadequate, to say the least.
In a statement to Free Malaysia Today, the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) explained that the current legislation provides far too much wriggle room for sexual harassers.
“There are no specific clauses on protection or compensation for the complainant,” they said.
Aside from that, the Employment Act only covers incidents that happen during formal work in the private sector. This means that anyone who’s not in this group (domestic help, interns, volunteer workers, etc.) has no such protections.
But with a little luck, that’s all about to change.
Malaysia’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill 2021
On 15 December 2021, a bill to address the issue of sexual harassment was tabled in the Dewan Rakyat.
The Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill 2021 is the first of its kind, serving as the first comprehensive step to end sexual harassment across the country.
According to Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff, the ministry had brought together a special project team to draft this bill.
“The team consists of government agencies; academicians and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who have expertise, knowledge and experience on issues related to sexual harassment,” she said.
“The ministry also held consultation sessions with other stakeholders such as the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF), student leaders from tertiary education institutions and several ministries and government departments to assist in the process of finalising the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill.”
During a press conference, Siti Zailah explained that this bill consists of five main elements:
- A wider application of the law, regardless of the offense occurring in the workplace or anywhere else
- Improvement of the existing legal system in handling sexual harassment complaints through the establishment of special tribunals
- Standards of proof on sexual harassment conduct in the tribunal which adopts balance of probabilities evidence
- Providing redress to the victim through the provision of appropriate remedies that are not only punitive and instructive to the respondent only
- Raising awareness of sexual harassment to all parties in order to avoid normalisation and create a safer environment for society
Do We Really Need Such a Bill In the First Place?
Some groups feel that this new bill might be going too far. After all, this is the era of #MeToo, right? Surely these kinds of incidents don’t happen here anymore.
Unfortunately, they’re wrong.
In 2019, a YouGov Omnibus survey discovered that roughly 36% of women and 17% of men have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
This situation has only gotten worse since the pandemic started. In September 2020, AWAM President Premalosani Arivananthan announced that cases of gender-based violence (GBV) in Malaysia had been rising steadily ever since the MCO lockdowns began.
“Compared to 2019, Awam received 195 cases throughout the year. In fact, from 2017 to 2019, we received an average of 100 to 150 cases per year, but this year we received over 190 cases in just six months,” she said.
In 2020, a Woman’s Aid Organisation (WAO) survey reported that out of 1,008 Malaysians, around 30% had “experienced stalking that instilled fear”, 17% had “experienced stalking resulting in harm” and 12% were “stalked and threatened with harm”.
But these numbers only show the tip of the iceberg. It is believed that more than half of all sexual harassment victims don’t report what happened to them. This is often due to factors such as fear of reprisal, feelings of shame or simply the belief that nothing will change even if they do submit a report.
Considering such an environment, legal experts and human rights workers alike believe that this new Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill is necessary in order to make Malaysian workplaces safer for everyone.
But Is It Enough?
While this new legislation is certainly a good idea, it might not be enough. If our society doesn’t take these issues seriously, sexual harassers are just going to keep doing whatever they want regardless of how many laws we create.
Over the past year, we’ve experienced the ‘period spot checks’ scandal, the Fauzi Nawawi scandal and last but not least, a survey that found that over half of Malaysians believe that domestic violence is normal. And that’s just the ones we’ve written about!
The situation is so bad that it is believed that more than half of Malaysian women feel unsafe when leaving their homes.
Malaysian Men and Women Live in Separate Worlds
In September 2021, the Centre of Governance and Political Studies (Cent-GPS) and AWAM conducted the Sexual Harassment Survey involving over a thousand women from the age of 18 to 30 years old. Their results found that no less than 57% of Malaysian women have experienced sexual harassment while walking on the streets.
Aside from that, 68% of respondents revealed that they don’t feel safe driving alone at night, 44% said that they had experienced a teacher making sexually provocative ‘jokes’ and at least 71% of the women had had to change their travel routes or routines due to the fear of sexual harassment.
As a man, these results are as shocking as they are depressingly predictable. When I want to go out, I can just leave straight away. Whether it’s watching a movie, going to a restaurant or simply jalan-jalan to meet some friends, I can do it all at a moment’s notice without having to think about it.
For my mother and sisters, on the other hand, every trip has to be planned out carefully. They try to bring someone so that they won’t be at the cinema or restaurant alone, they send regular messages to make sure that we know they’re okay and they never leave the house without pepper spray or some other form of protection.
Up till now, I always thought that they were being paranoid. But looking at these figures, I can’t help wondering if they weren’t being paranoid enough. Cent-GPS summed it up best:
“Even in one country, we live in two separate worlds.”
Can Malaysians Really Change Our Rotten Culture?
In the end, it doesn’t matter how many laws we have or how many awareness campaigns we run if we ourselves are not willing to change.
Sexual harassment is a big problem, one that continues to drag our country down time and time again. It’s an issue that can no longer be ignored or brushed under the rug. If we truly want to see Malaysia develop into a modern, advanced country, then we must destroy this corrupt sexual culture once and for all.
All you have to do is make a difference: