In a week when the planet is consumed with news on a global pandemic where cases now run into seven figures, Malaysia manages to grab the headlines with its own quirky approach to helping people through the crisis.
As the nation moved into its third week of a lockdown, the Women and Family Development Ministry released a public service announcement for wives.
First off the bat, the ministry said women should always be well groomed, and look neat and tidy as if they are going out.
Second, women were advised to educate their husbands about doing household chores by adopting a “Doraemon-like” tone and giggle coyly as opposed to “nagging”.
Then there’s more — women were instructed not to use sarcasm when their husbands refuse to help with housework, saying that they sometimes need to be “informed” about this kind of work.
The announcement went on to tell women that, in any case, they should only be asking for help when they were unable to complete all their daily chores, which would presumably include cooking for a family, cleaning, washing clothes and so on.
Malaysia’s urban middle class erupted in a cacophony of fury and mockery at the announcement. For the following week, social media was awash with messages of scorn coupled with local wits firing out Doraemon-themed memes at every given opportunity.
The incident was all the more difficult to swallow for liberals after some corners of the national press published articles that police reports of domestic violence had spiked during the lockdown, which was vigorously denied by the ministry.
Yet, while Malaysia’s educated women rail on minister Rina Harun for promoting misogynism at the highest level, they really do not have much of a leg to stand on, because attitudes in even the most liberal circles resemble those of western society in the early 1960s.
Well-meaning but often overbearing parents, when deciding on their daughters’ education, will select careers befitting women, as they see it. Some professions — excluding skilled blue-collar roles — are just not women’s work, apparently.
Meanwhile, family discussions with soon-to-be-betrothed relatives revolve around increasing the size of the family at the earliest possible convenience, and further increases again.
During family gatherings or open houses in festival season, you would be hard-pressed finding men in the kitchen or doing housework.
Alas, given the importance of providing food at this time, female members of the family will take it turns to toil at the stove from the wee hours of the morning till late at night.
It is also not uncommon for Malaysian women to refer to women, or even “lady” drivers in the derogatory sense.
The country has few female role models, the most famous of which would be international film star Michelle Yeoh and former world no 1 squash player Nicole David.
No one else really comes close to them in a positive sense.
At the other end of the scale, Rosmah Mansor, wife of former prime minister Najib Razak, drew international criticism and parallels with Imelda Marcos for her unabashed opulence, funded by her husband looting the country’s sovereign wealth fund, prosecutors allege.
Yet, in politics, where women could make a difference, they are sidelined, full stop.
The only brief highlight was former environment minister Yeo Bee Yin, who reportedly could run rings round most of her contemporaries in an intellectual conversation and as such they thought better of tangling with her.
However, her ministerial career was brought to an abrupt end with the change in government six weeks ago.
Many Malaysians respect former deputy prime minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, but she epitomises the type of person urban liberals want to break away from — the downtrodden housewife.
Wan Azizah is the long-standing and no less long-suffering spouse of charismatic opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
She deputises for her husband in the PKR party they founded but her role, even when she was in government, is little more than ceremonial. She has little say on any subject, with Anwar calling the shots.
He developed notoriety over the years for alleged affairs and casting wandering glances elsewhere, when he wasn’t in political exile in Sungai Buloh Prison.
Wan Azizah’s failure to assert herself was no more apparent after the 2018 general election campaign when she championed women’s rights and pledged to, among others, end child marriage.
Then, upon taking office, she U-turned abruptly, afraid of taking on the religious right.
After which, any public statements she made were more maternal in nature, advising people to be good citizens and obey the law.
So, despite the former Pakatan Harapan government claiming to be for the advancement of women in society, it really did very little at all.
Now, Malaysia has a new government: Perikatan Nasional, which is a mixture of Malay conservative parties Bersatu and Umno, and the religious right wing represented by Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS).
The goal of the latter is unequivocal and uncompromising: Turn Malaysia into a shariah compliant religious state along the lines of Saudi Arabia.
So, when Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff, a PAS MP known for supporting child marriage, becomes deputy minister for women, you can pretty much rule out emancipation.
At a time when national flag carrier Malaysia Airlines was giving its staff the unfortunate news they would have to start taking unpaid leave, Siti Zailah — with not even a hint of sympathy for thousands of female staff facing an uncertain future — took that as the opportune moment to demand the airline redesign its hallmark cabin crew uniforms, which she had deemed too sexy and provocative.
Meanwhile, liberals may sit in trendy Kuala Lumpur coffee shops and scoff at this latest blunder from up on high, but the simple fact is they are not the intended recipients.
This message was meant for Malaysia’s rural, hard-up communities where wives in PAS’s eyes have a dual function: housemaid and baby factory.
Vulgar it may sound but this is exactly what PAS has in mind for them and it is a no less accurate description of the lot these unfortunate souls have drawn.
In this respect, the message from the ministry is abundantly clear — be a dutiful wife, keep house, bear your husband’s children and be thankful for that.
Even though the ministry later apologised for this sorry affair, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin refused to admonish his minister, even telling the national press to “give her a chance.”
In doing so, he gave his tacit approval to the announcement.
It also signaled the Malaysian government’s return to zero accountability for even the most inept or outrageous of actions.
This in turn prompts another ultimate truth: There will be more to come, be sure of that.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS.news.