Rough year for Asia’s women leaders

All over the world, women in politics are finding themselves in troubled territory. Ravi Velloor writes for The Straits Times.


The surreal drama playing out in Seoul’s presidential palace feels like the political equivalent of a Sam Peckinpah movie with mortally wounded characters tumbling in slow motion.

In the centre stands the hapless President Park Geun Hye, a childless, single woman estranged from her siblings and a leader seemingly incapable of holding an unscripted press conference. Her woes stem from the unprecedented access to the Blue House enjoyed by Choi Soon Sil, a shadowy woman to whom Ms Park seemed to have been slavishly attached, allowing Choi to influence government policy and demand funds for her private foundations, sometimes from the very chaebols (conglomerates) Ms Park had vowed to check. Mortally wounded politically, Ms Park remains in office as she awaits judicial confirmation of her impeachment by lawmakers who voted against her by an overwhelming margin.

The South Korean leader’s troubles are the extreme manifestation of what has been foul weather lately for a number of Asian women in public life.

Malaysia’s well-regarded central bank chief of 16 years, Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz, was waved into retirement earlier this year amid the swirling 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal.

Philippine Vice-President Leni Robredo was recently informed – by senior officials, crushingly – that she has been stripped of ministerial responsibilities and is no longer welcome to attend Cabinet meetings conducted by the President.

In India, the powerful Human Resources Minister Smriti Irani was demoted to the textiles portfolio while Mrs Sonia Gandhi, in opposition, is in poor health.

Elsewhere, women public figures seem unable to crack a joke about sex in small places without getting into controversy, whereas the same comment from a male counterpart may have increased his electability.

It could be something in the stars, or maybe we are breathing the wrong air, blown in from distant lands.

Take America, where some studies suggest that women have become the principal breadwinners in households. With an African American incumbent in the White House, the world had looked to the nation to break the final glass ceiling by electing a woman, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, to the most powerful position on the planet. Indeed, given her impressive performance in office, the gender balance in the United States favouring women and the outsized stigmas carried by her opponent, Mrs Clinton should have been a shoo-in for the job.

It was not to be. Stunningly, the majority of white American women seemed to have preferred Mr Donald Trump, choosing to overlook his serial groping and outrageously crude remarks about them.

Meanwhile, even as Mrs Theresa May climbed to the top of Britain’s greasy pole, Brazil saw the toppling of Ms Dilma Rousseff, its first woman president, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel, considered the world’s most powerful woman, approaches the new year and a fresh election with her appeal and authority diminished.

What of China? After all, Mao Zedong famously said women hold up half the sky. But a half-century after the Chairman uttered those famous words, the highest woman in public office is Vice-Premier Liu Yandong. Besides her, there is just one woman in the Chinese Communist Party’s 25-strong Politburo. Taiwan is doing better on this score.

Are women leaders held to a different standard than men? Certainly, the odds are not stacked in their favour. Besides, personalities like Mrs Liu and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen frequently come up against a situation called the Double Bind Paradox- needing to project gravitas in order to advance in the workplace, yet having also to retain their “feminine mystique” to be liked.

Indeed, when a Chinese official responsible for cross-strait ties took on President Tsai for her refusal to explicitly endorse the “one China” principle, it was done by suggesting her womanhood was in question. “Analysed from the human angle, as a single female politician, she lacks the emotional encumbrance of love, the constraints of family or the worries of children,” wrote Major-General Wang Weixing, an analyst with China’s People’s Liberation Army and board member of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait. “Her style and strategy in pursuing politics constantly skew towards the emotional, personal and extreme.”

To an extent, the suave and able Vice-Premier Liu – who, like President Xi Jinping, is a chemical engineer – has mastered this paradox. When she visited Hong Kong in 2004, the newspaper Wen Wei Po counted that she changed her outfit four times in a day.

Conversely, South Korea’s Ms Park has been less successful in negotiating that fine line. This could partly be on account of the nature of Korean society. South Korea slipped one spot to 116th out of 144 nations – lower than Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – in the 2016 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, indicative of how tough it is for a female to succeed, much less dominate, there. This is why thousands of Korean women who voted for her, but latterly thronged city squares to demand she leave office, feel completely let down by their President.

Yet, nepotism and influence- peddling have never been too far from politicians, especially in South Korea. So, Ms Park must surely be judged against her peers and not by a unique yardstick.

Seen that way, the greatest tragedy surrounding an Asian woman leader is playing out perhaps not in Seoul but in Yangon and Naypyitaw. To the world’s dismay, the iconic Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, that Nobel Peace Prize-winning moral force, seems frozen on the Rohingya issue.

The Rohingya, who are Muslims and based in the Rakhine state, are described as the world’s most- persecuted minority. Recent actions by the Myanmar military, including looting and burning of Rohingya property – the army denies this – have sent thousands fleeing to next-door Bangladesh. Last week, Mr Vijay Nambiar, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Myanmar, issued a resounding indictment of the Myanmar government. He said Ms Suu Kyi should visit Rakhine and “listen to her ‘inner voice’ and speak directly to the people of Myanmar” to rise above their ethnic and religious differences.

Ms Suu Kyi has not responded to his call or announced a trip to Rakhine, even as she is arranging to brief Asean foreign ministers on the situation. Perhaps she fears the military, always leery of her influence, is laying a trap for her by forcing her to take a position that sits poorly with the sentiments of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, particularly its hardline monks. But that excuse, heard when she was heading for elections, surely cannot be used forever.

It was bad enough that her National League for Democracy did not include a single Muslim candidate in the polls. She has been de facto leader of her nation for eight months now and it is time for her to act for all of her people.

Ms Suu Kyi must know that any dimming of her stature would be a lethal blow to the cause of women leaders not just across Asia, but also everywhere else. Besides, as the recent US polls gave fair warning, people see through political opportunism and punish you for it – witness how little it helped candidate Clinton to waffle over and reverse course on the Trans- Pacific Partnership that she had so assiduously promoted in office.

Original article published at The Straits Times on 16th Dec 2016.

Featured Image: Manny Francisco

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