By Liew Chin Tong

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: Malaysia is honoured to attend the Joint Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Women and Ministers Responsible for Trade. I am representing Malaysia’s Investment, Trade and Industry Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz, who is traveling with the Prime Minister and therefore can’t join us today. Both Tengku Zafrul and I thank our Peruvian colleagues for hosting APEC 2024.
My colleague Dr Satish Ranggayah of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry will speak shortly after me.
Malaysia has some contradictions when it comes to women in the labour force, which offers some possible globally relevant lessons.
65% of our university students are women, which indicates a higher enrollment rate of women compared to men. However, the balance changes upon these graduates entering the workforce.
The female labour participation rate (FLPR) in Malaysia is 56% as compared to 82.9% for men, which is lower than many of the Southeast Asian economies.
However, Malaysia has some key successes. 58% of the civil service is constituted by women. At the decision-making level of the civil service (Jusa/super scale C and above), 42% are women, which is very high among developing countries.
From 2023 onwards, Malaysia has mandated 30% of public listed board membership to be constituted by women, and compliance is high.
Thus, at the decision-making level of businesses and government, women are making tremendous ground. Yet overall female labour participation rate is low.
The reason for the contradiction is because the Malaysian economy has long depended on unskilled and cheap foreign labour for the last 25 years, resulting in wage suppression and a lack of interest among the businesses to hire women in the workforce. And there is insufficient public provision of childcare, aged care, and other soft and hard infrastructure for women to take part in the workforce.
We are determined to change that. The Malaysian economy is now having the chance to see a second economic takeoff after decades of stagnation. The first economic takeoff was in between 1988 and 1997. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has a vision of the MADANI economy which will aim to raise both the ceiling and the floor for Malaysians.
As our economy moves up the value chain, more skilled workers will be needed, and a higher wage level will attract more women into the formal workforce. A tight labour market also encourages employers to pay more attention in making it more attractive for women to join the workforce.
As an example, Malaysia’s second largest port, Port of Tanjung Pelepas, which happens to be in my constituency and the 15th largest port in the world, previously hired mostly men until 5 years ago. They now have women engineers and marine pilots. The Port has also set a 30% women target by 2026, a rapid and exponential growth.
Globally, more women in the workforce is important to ensure higher combined family income, and thus a higher domestic consumption in our respective societies. To enable more women in the workforce, we need a strong care economy. Societies need to build much stronger social conditions such as childcare and aged care, which will lead to a stronger service sector in all our societies and overall better and more resilient societies as a whole.
Higher domestic consumption in turn will help hold up higher aggregate demand in our respective economies, generating conditions for more stable societies across the globe.
It is important that APEC economies collectively set a floor to ensure there is no race-to-the-bottom in wage suppression as women will be most hurt. Getting our economies to recognize that more women in the workforce is a positive force for the world, is important.
*Deputy Minister of MITI, YB Liew Chin Tong’s Intervention Delivered at the APEC Joint Meeting of Ministers for Women and Ministers Responsible for Trade in Arequipa, Peru on 17 May 2024.*