Muted #MeToo's in Malaysia

Dan Lain-lain
By Ariff Roose

Text size

Header image credit:

2017 was a reckoning for sexism. Issues of sexual misconduct have been thrown into the global spotlight - growing from strength to strength with every high-profile allegation. But in Malaysia, conversations regarding sexual harassment has barely scratched the surface.

The suppressed conversation regarding sexual assault and harassment against women was revitalized upon the revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s sleazy, misogynistic antics. Over 80 women have accused him of sexual harassment and assault, triggering a global trend in which people (mostly women), came forward to accuse famous or powerful people of sexual assault through the #MeToo hashtag. 

Listen: Feminist Fridays #41: The Weinstein Effect

The movement spread globally almost at an instant. Many women publicised and demonstrated the widespread nature of misogynistic behaviour over the internet. Within a couple of days of its virality, the hashtag was tweeted more than 500,000 times and trended in at least 85 countries, using localized interpretations of #MeToo. This global impact is now being called the Weinstein effect and is described as a “national reckoning” against sexual harassment, after “taking down” over 100 high-profile people in America.

But the #MeToo movement was simply the headline act in America’s fight against sexual assault and harassment. As pointed out by Lauren Rosewarne, lecturer and manager of the Centre for Public Policy at the University of Melbourne, the fight against sexual misconduct had begun almost half a century ago with the second-wave feminist movement. The legislations that have developed persistently throughout the years has managed to create a solid foundation in which feminist movements could use to expose the widespread nature of sexual misconduct in U.S. offices. 

Listen: Feminist Fridays #36: #MeToo 

Rosewarne also believes that the reason behind the outbreak of high-profile sexual assault and harassment cases is because a known sexual predator sits in the White House as the nation’s 45th President. His appointment created enough momentum for the cause through the record-breaking attendance of the Women’s March on Washington. The aftereffects of the march carried throughout the year, where it shook American industries enough to sack thousands of employees and executives in established American companies such as Uber, Amazon and Fox News. 

Across the globe, similar things are happening. Hong Kong’s sports associations are beginning to take a stand on issues of sexual misconduct, after Vera Lui, the nation’s star hurdler, bravely revealed that she had been sexually assaulted by her trainer when she was just 13 years old. She was well supported by her peers, as more than 70 Hong Kong athletes and celebrities lauded her courageous effort - issuing a joint statement that called on the government and sporting authorities to take concrete steps to protect athletes from sexual abuse.

However, these issues of sexual misconduct have hardly seen light in Malaysia. Our culture suppresses conversations about sex and abuse in a way that feeds the patriarchal powers in the workplace. To reveal yourself as a victim of a sexual crime may lead you to be abused, threatened, or to put it simply, blamed and shamed. It’s something that Dr. Alicia Izharuddin, senior lecturer of Gender Studies at the University of Malaya, finds to be true, further adding that Malaysian women are very much aware of what the #MeToo movement represents, but they feel trapped and fearful of the consequences, should they stand up for their rights. 

Know Your Rights: Sexual Harassment at the Office

Truthfully, Malaysian women are quite right to feel that way. The act against sexual harassment is still being discussed, despite being drafted almost 17 years ago, and the current laws against sexual harassment are rather ineffective in helping victims of sexual misconduct. Then, the patriarchal nature of our society doesn’t ease the fears of a retaliation - due to our dismissive culture of victim-blaming and disbelief of women. It doesn’t allow for their worries to be acted upon, as people would always ask what the woman was wearing, what she said, and how she acted. Additionally, it doesn’t help that the issue would inevitably weave through the politics of the workplace, amassing information through hearsay, before it’s inevitably swept under the carpet, so to not upset the dynamics of the workplace.

It’s this constant refusal to tackle sexual misconduct accordingly that forces Malaysian women (and women, in general) to be passive in the fight against sexual misconduct, and it only provides further proof that perhaps nobody of power takes it seriously enough in this country. Some might even reason this by arguing that there are bigger issues that the country or company is facing.

But the question remains: what can we do about it? It certainly is a tough task to face, but as Dr. Alicia and lawyer Animah Kosai says: “We need to act.” And it just might be that the answer is as elementary as exposing the sheer scale in which sexual harassment is rife in Malaysia. Let’s not forget, the Weinstein effect didn’t come from nothing - it was a collective voice that yearned to be heard after decades of fighting an “open secret” that American industries managed to suppress until now. 

Talkback Thursday: Sexual Harassment at the Workplace


MeToo, Malaysia, Feminism, Sexual Assualt, Harassment, Sexual Harassment, Social Movements, Controversial.