We live in a world full of inequality in terms of rights and opportunities. For those who care, it is only natural for them to address it and one of the tools available to correct the inequality is affirmative action. While the tool can be useful at creating an egalitarian society, it is imperative for us to note that certain injustices do arise as a response to previous inequality or injustice. This needs to be avoided.
Two wrongs make a right: this is one of the dangers of race-based affirmative action in Malaysia. It is also one of the dangers of setting aside a 30 per cent quota for women participation at all levels of decision-making in the government. An attempt to introduce such quotas as part of gender-based affirmative action is a policy of reverse discrimination, and hence an unjust policy.
The biggest issue about setting aside quotas for any particular group is about meritocracy. Specifically, it revolves around the availability of qualified talent within that group. The question is all the more relevant in critical areas like decision-making where competency in a particular subject is a requirement in designing good public policy. For us to move forward, we need the best individuals to articulate our public policy. Any intention to take into account factors that may deprive the government from the best talent should only be considered after thorough thinking.
If the quota is set in place, and if there are not enough qualified women to fill the quota, then those who are responsible for achieving the quota will fill the designated space with token candidates. This will be a recipe for disastrous decision-making and public policy. Or at the very least, these token candidate will not be able contribute to the kind of discussions required to form good public policy and decisions.
The quota also prevents the best, regardless of gender, from taking their rightful place. This is an act of injustice to those who are more than qualified to occupy a decision-making position but are denied that position because they belong to the wrong gender.
The formulation of good policies is in the interest of all residents of Malaysia, especially citizens. It is for this reason that the 30 per cent participation quota in decision-making for women is not exclusively a women matter. We live in an interdependent world. Decision-making in the government can affect each and every one of us. This is especially so if blunt policies are preferred to precise ones since precise policies and decision-making require highly knowledgeable policymakers.
This is not to say that women are not capable. Far from it, enough women have proven their credentials to make the reverse true. Rather, these competencies are likely gender neutral. It is this neutrality that allows capable women — or simply, capable persons — to prove themselves in the free market without prejudice. Any capable person can compete fairly in a merit-based system and need not rely on special provisions, as usually provided by affirmative action, to rise through the ranks.
Institution of an affirmative action that is based on a kind of equality of outcome may open capable women to unfair generalisation. Just as successful Malays are susceptible to the accusation that they are successful mostly due to affirmative action instead of effort, the introduction of a 30 per cent quota for women participation at all levels of decision-making will do the same thing to capable women.
There are better ways to address inequality and downright discrimination that exists across gender. It involves a shift of focus from equality of outcome to equality of opportunities. By equality of opportunities, in this context, it means no discrimination based on gender. In fact, a society that embraces the concept of equality of rights that is a mere extension to the idea of individual liberty must eliminate such discrimination.
Along with equality of opportunities, what is more useful in addressing low representation of women in decision-making levels is the empowerment of women. This calls for awareness of opportunities that exist as well as, perhaps more importantly, access to education. Building capability or any other effort at organic improvement is more meaningful and more sustainable than achieving some sort of equality dictated from the top.
Once equality of opportunities and empowerment of women are truly done, then there is no reason why women participation in decision-making should be at only 30 per cent, given that women make up roughly half of the Malaysian population. The organic solutions will improve the participation rate without resorting to unjust reverse discrimination. It will also ensure those participating in various decision-making levels truly belong there, regardless of gender.
First published in The Malaysian Insider on July 9 2009.