BY LIM SU LIN
NOVEMBER 22 — There was no question that the remarks directed by Deputy Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Minister Datuk Seri Tajuddin Abdul Rahman to Member of Parliament (MP) for Seputeh, Teresa Kok, in parliament on November 21 were meant to be crude and sexist.
The recording of his full spoken sentence is as follows: “MP Seputeh ni keh-keh-keh pasal apa? (What is the Seputeh MP giggling about?) The only woman with a ‘Kok’ is in Seputeh.” The recording further shows him raising his eyebrows and grinning as he utters this sentence. 
The Deputy Speaker, Datuk Dr Ronald Kiandee, who was the presiding speaker at that time, could have used this opportune time to reprimand the Deputy Minister for making those sexist remarks and to ask him to withdraw (or “tarik balik”) the offensive and sexist phrase in question. Instead, the Deputy Speaker gave the Deputy Minister a pass and defended him by saying that he was only referring to Teresa Kok’s surname.
The Speaker, Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia, had another opportunity to rectify this situation when Member of Parliament for Batu Kawan, Kasturi Patto, asked him to rule on her motion to refer the Deputy Minister to the Parliament Privileges Committee for disciplinary action over his sexist remarks. Instead, the Speaker defended the previous ruling of his Deputy and no action was taken against the Deputy Minister.
The absence of any punishment against the Deputy Minister for his sexist remarks point to how far we have to go in terms of creating a political culture that respects women’s dignity and points to the larger issue of violence against women in politics. This lack of action also points to the futility of amending the Standing Orders to dissuade MPs from using sexist language in parliament. Almost 10 years have passed since Barisan Nasional (BN) MP for Kinabatangan, Datuk Bung Moktar Radin, made his infamous “bocor” (or leak) remark in 2007, when debating the leaking roof in parliament, to Batu Gajah MP, Fong Po Kuan, in apparent reference to women’s biological menstrual cycle.  He was not punished then. Now, in 2016, the remarks of his colleague, Deputy Minister Tajuddin, will likely go similarly unpunished despite the existence of an explicit rule in the Standing Orders barring the use of sexist language.
The acceptance of this type of behaviour contributes to a larger political culture which dissuades women from being involved in politics. As it stands, only 10 per cent of MPs in Malaysia are women, which ranks us 151 out of 186 countries listed in the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) database.
Just last month, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) based in Geneva released the results of a worldwide study on sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians.
The sample collected responses from women parliamentarians from 39 countries. Over two-thirds of respondents said that they had endured demeaning or sexist remarks during their parliamentary terms. One sub-Saharan African female MP was reportedly told that her chest “must produce a lot of milk”. Another European parliamentarian shared that to be a woman politician and single is a springboard for disparaging comments, such as being told to “get out of politics; get married instead”.
Among the respondents of the IPU survey who were victimised, 66.7 per cent said that they had been distressed by the attacks made on them as women, to the point of reconsidering continuation of office. One parliamentarian shared the following: “It creates a lot of stress and affects your mental stability… I hesitate to run again if my personal life cannot be protected. I’m also afraid that attacks against me as a woman could destroy my image. But there is resilience.”
In the same study, merely 35.8 per cent of participating parliaments reported having regulations or codes of conduct containing provisions governing unacceptable member behaviour or acts of intimidation specific to women.
Only four had provisions to explicitly protect members against sexist remarks, sexual harassment and threats of violence from other members. Malaysia falls within this category of parliaments that have taken such proactive measures.
Why then, did the parliamentary authorities deem it acceptable to tolerate Tajuddin’s disparaging sexist remarks about a woman member? Today, around the world, women as well as men are increasingly calling out sexist behaviour and gender-based violence as unacceptable, with no place in political culture.
Sexist behaviour is deplorable and must not be allowed to prevail, especially in parliament, an institution which sets an example and provides a model for inclusive, equal, peaceful and tolerant social relations. In the larger picture, Malaysia’s progress towards gender equality and greater women participation in politics are at stake.
 A clip of the Deputy Minister’s words can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XULfekfHexc
 MMO article, 21/11/16, ‘Deputy Minister calls Seputeh MP ‘woman with a Kok’, no action taken: http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/minister-calls-seputeh-mp-woman-with-a-kok-no-action-taken
 TheSunDaily article, 19/5/07: ‘Bocor’ MPs apologise to all women if… : http://www.thesundaily.my/node/170319
 Standing Orders of the Dewan Rakyat, Thirteenth Publication April, 2013: http://www.parlimen.gov.my/images/webuser/peraturan_mesyuarat/PM_DR_BI.pdf
 http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm (as of 1/11/16)
 Report of the Inter-Parliamentary Union on Sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians: http://www.ipu.org/pdf/publications/issuesbrief-e.pdf
* Lim Su Lin is a Policy Researcher at the Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur.