Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Learning From The Top 4 Asian Female Philanthropists

This article was first published on the Leaderonomics website on 9 March 2018.
In 2017, the Forbes Heroes of Philanthropy list revealed that out of the 40 philanthropists listed, only six are women.
In one of its publications, the Economist states that female philanthropists in Asia are falling behind their male counterparts.
So it seems that women philanthropists are still considered as rare gems, even more so in Asia, but this is about to change gradually as the latest Forbes’ list of the world’s self-made female billionaires revealed that out of the 56 women on the list, 29 came from Asia-Pacific.
With 15 of the newcomers, 13 hailed from China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Japan.
With the expected surge of women philanthropists in Asia, there is no better time to find out what we can learn from them.
While most of them possess more than just a few shared values, the four chosen for this article have one thing in common – they made their own fortune.
This means they do not rely on existing family wealth or inheritance to be financially successful.
Brief background
A brief background of each woman is given in the following (in no particular order):

You Zhonghui She is the founder of Shenzhen Seaskyland Technologies. Her philanthropic work begin in 2004 when she made her first donation to a school in Guizhou, China.
She subsequently established scholarships to help poor students have access to better education. She became the first woman from mainland China to sign The Giving Pledge, an initiative of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, which asks its signatories to commit to donating over half of their wealth to charity.
Yoshiko Shinohara She is Japan’s first female self-made billionaire. She made her fortune by creating part-time jobs for men and women through her public-listed company called Temp Holdings.
She donated USD140mil worth of her company stock to fund scholarships for students studying to become nurses, social workers or day-care staff.
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw She is India’s first biotech entrepreneur whose pharmaceutical company, Biocon, made her one of India’s richest self-made woman.
Since 2005, she has persistently dedicated much of her wealth to combating cancer and other community healthcare initiatives.
Lilly Singh She is a Canadian actress, comedienne, author and perhaps best known for her YouTube channel “Superwoman” with more than 13 million subscribers.
She is ranked No 1 in Forbes Magazine Top Influencers List in the entertainment category and recently named as UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador. Although Lilly is not from Asia, she is Asian by origin.
Key lessons

Here are the five key lessons from these women (see accompanying story for their background).

1. Being emotional about something is not enough, you need to take action

For six years, Kiran watched her best friend suffer from the effects of breast cancer treatment.
Not only did her friend had to endure a series of undignified and uncomfortable sessions of chemotherapy and radiation, she was also burdened by the exorbitant cost incurred from these medical treatments.
As a personal caregiver to her beloved friend, Kiran was affected by her subsequent death.
She told Forbes“I saw the struggle that she went through – the crippling financial burden, the treatments, the disease itself. I know how awful it is. I just had to do something.”
That was when she pledged much of her fortune to cancer research and making healthcare more affordable for India’s rural poor, among other things.
Lilly often confessed to not always being the bubbly and cheerful persona you see of her on her YouTube channel when she was younger.
Being vulnerable to chronic depression as a child, her life could have easily taken quite a different turn.
In fact, her attempt to deal with her depression was what drove her to starting her highly successful YouTube channel, Superwoman.
Naturally, Lilly has a soft spot for mental health issues and has always been a huge advocate for positive self-image and anti-bullying.
She has invested personally in causes such as the Girl Love campaign to end girl-on-girl hate and instead encourage women and girls to support each other.
All of us either have or will subsequently face at least one form of setbacks in our lives, something that would have affected us negatively.
We have a choice to either succumb to our emotions, or do something about it and change the status quo.  
In her book How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life, Lilly attributes a lot of her success in life by keeping her emotions out of the way because emotions “can cloud your judgment and reduce productivity.”

Instead, she advises her followers to be goal-orientated and focus on results.
Before the start of a video production, she would make it clear to her team that because the stakes are high for her to produce something good within a short time-frame, she needs to expect everyone to work at their best.
In such a highly stressful environment, communication needs to be short and straightforward as there is no time for pleasantries.
She may yell at someone who is not performing, but this does not mean she has anything against that individual personally.
It is only to remind everyone to step up their game because the team counts on each other to deliver.
She advised that communicating this to your team at the start of every project is important so that no one needs to feel offended. They just need to understand that it is nothing personal but only for the good of the project.
2. Don’t just give, give responsibly and strategically 
According to UBS Wealth Management, women philanthropists are more focused on investing to achieve positive social change, in contrast to their male counterparts.
This means, instead of donating money or supporting a specific charity, women are more willing to set up a foundation of their own.
However, the Economist published that compared to 80% of female philanthropists from America, only 30% of Asian women billionaires listed on Forbes have a foundation. Out of the four women, only Yoshiko and Kiranhave their own foundation to promote the individual causes they believe in.
In the meantime, Zhonghui has tried giving her money away through other foundations, one-off donations, and supporting other social enterprises, but admitted that she is inclined to “pursue a philanthropic foundation approach in the future”.
Why are more and more women turning to setting up their own foundation as a philanthropic model?  
According to Yinuo Li, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s office in China, many donors are adopting a do-it-yourself approach towards philanthropy due to the mistrust of non-governmental organisations.
In contrast to just giving their money to a charity without further hands-on commitment, by having their own private foundation, these women are able to dictate and have control of how their money is being spent, including who they want to hire to implement projects, and this often translates to better accountability.
For these women, it is not enough to just give. It must first come with responsibility to ensure accountability and then accompanied by a solid strategy to have a lasting impact.
Kiran once said, “Philanthropy is not charity; it is about social impact.”
Through her Biocon Foundation, she demonstrates this by developing and implementing long-term community healthcare programmes in villages in India.
Through the provision of micro-health insurance scheme, primary healthcare clinics and free health camps, Kiran is making direct and tangible impact on communities in the area of affordable healthcare.
Yoshiko’s company generates billions of dollars by providing part-time employment opportunities to men and women burdened by family responsibility to take part in the work force.
The lesson we can learn here is that we should be rethinking the way we give our hard-earned money to different kinds of charities.
Are we giving purposefully or meaningfully whenever a random stranger stops by our table at a restaurant asking for donations, or are we giving just because we want to get rid of them as fast as we can so that we can resume our meal?
If billionaires appear to be ‘choosy’ on the causes they support and how their money are being spent, why are we not doing the same for the much less disposable money that we have?
Do we want to give because we really care or because it is the most convenient thing to do?
How about stopping small random donations to people or charities we have no idea of by making bigger impact through volunteering at a soup kitchen or teaching at an orphanage?
 3. Teach others to fish
All four women share a common value – they believe in the power of education.
While three of them manifest this value through conventional ways such as provision of education scholarships to the underprivileged or free health camp to the rural poor, Lilly is famed for her unique digital presence and content that aim to engage young people and empower them to speak up about different issues affecting them.
Zhonghui, who has been in the education industry for more than two decades, continues to see the benefit and need of education in developing a country – specifically in alleviating poverty.
Apart from giving scholarships, she has donated money towards building schools in rural areas in China.
She has proposed the concept of Great Philanthropy which essentially promotes the philosophy that philanthropy “is not just about donating money and goods, but also about sharing wisdom.  We say, it is better to teach people how to fish than to give them a fish.”
Being raised by a single mother and unable to complete her college education while having to hold different jobs at a very young age, Yoshiko is no stranger to the importance of education.
In 2015, she told Forbes Asia, “Education and women working were always in the back of my mind.”
What can we learn here? There are many ways to impart and share wisdom. As in Lilly’s case, for example, all you need is to make your own educational content using the widely available and free social media platforms on the internet. 
 4. Commit yourself publicly 

By becoming the first woman in China to sign the Giving Pledge in May 2017, Zhonghui committed herself publicly to give away at least half of her wealth to charity.
She said signing the pledge serves two purposes – holding herself accountable by fulfilling her social responsibility and setting an example to her peers by inspiring them to do the same.
Kiran has publicly pledged to give away 75% of her wealth to philanthropy after she dies. She also maintained that she would sign the Giving Pledge as a way to “get others to understand the importance of philanthropy to change our world.”
In addition to this, Kiran has publicly declared that her legacy is going to be in affordable healthcare and that she is willing to invest in developing that model and the policies around it.
True enough, she has been persistently honouring her public announcements through her philanthropic missions.
Perhaps none of the women mentioned here lead a more public life than Lilly. In many ways, her appearances on YouTube hold her accountable for many of the positive messages she has been sharing online.
The next time you are inspired to do something good, announce it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.
By committing yourself publicly, you hold yourself to a higher standard of accountability.

5. Mistakes are your best friend 

Yoshiko has said, “Mistakes are the sea of opportunity” while Lilly’s preferred mantra has been, “Mistakes are cool!
If one were to scrutinise Yoshiko’s past life, one may conclude that it has been a series of ‘mistakes’.
She was raised by a single mother, did not complete her college education and was divorced before she was 30.
After her divorce, she struggled through life by working in different jobs while maintaining a frugal lifestyle.
Instead of viewing her misfortunes as mistakes, Yoshiko turned them into opportunities.
As a single woman in the 1950s trying to make ends meet, Yoshiko understood the challenges faced by women in Japan, particularly in what she saw as a society largely dominated by men, and where women had to miss work opportunities due to family obligations.
That was when she started TempStaff, a company that provides women with part-time jobs so that they could fulfil their domestic obligations while still play an active part in the workforce. This is the industry that has built her fortune and allowed her to help others.
In her book, Lilly says, “If you’re making mistakes, you’re making the necessary moves to figuring it all out.
“If you think there are 10 possible ways to do something, and you just made a mistake, congratulations! You just discovered way number four doesn’t workThat’s progress!”
She said that we have been paying so much in tuition or college fee while all the time, mistakes are lingering around for free ready to school us.
Therefore, whether you are a chief executive officer of a multi-million dollar company or someone who is just starting out as an intern in a non-profit organisation, mistakes are your best friend.
In a nutshell 

One may ask if there is any unique or significant difference these female and Asian philanthropists have brought to the world of philanthropy?
The answer is probably no, except perhaps they defy some of the stereotypes society often impose on them because of their gender; e.g. being emotional and irrational.
If anything, these women manage to drive their emotions by turning them into something meaningful and purposeful.
Not only that, they are doing it with extreme focus, prudence and strategy, being hands-on throughout the process, making them accountable all the way.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The best of Phuket Island

For reasons that I can no longer recall, this piece was never submitted for publication. It was written after I took my solo trip to Phuket circa April 2015. 

Providing great customer service in Thailand seems second nature. Understandably so since it receives more than twenty-six million visitors per annum, compared to neighbouring Cambodia at only four million.

My experiences of guided tours in Phuket had been wonderful, probably the best I have ever had. Mostly men, the guides were extremely respectful, polite, attentive and charming. Mr. Yew was one of them.

Not unlike many Thais, Mr. Yew is small in size but big in heart. With his sun-bleached hair, weather-beaten skin and boyish face, it was hard to tell how old he was until he revealed having a twenty-three year old son and a baby on the way.

The Hong by Starlight Kayaking Tour run by the John Gray Kayak Company is at the top of my must-do list when you’re in Phuket. Forget about Phi Phi Island with dozens of boisterous tourists attached permanently to their monstrous selfie polls, Phang Nga offers a breathtakingly scenic view in a quiet, serene and spiritual ambience, all thanks to the hardworking team of guides such as Mr. Yew.

Departing from Ao Po jetty on a twin-engine escort boat to the protected Ao Phang Nga National Park at around 2pm, the team led by Mr. Yew, Farook and Nik aka Morgan Freeman for his uncanny resemblance to the Hollywood actor, not only in appearance but also voice, quickly got into work and everything flowed like clockwork for the next eight to nine hours.

Guests were ushered to the upper deck where a light lunch of crispy spring rolls, tasty stir-fry egg noodles and fresh fruits were served with unlimited serving of water, iced tea and strawberry cordial. While we enjoyed the meal a la buffet style, about five or more staff worked behind the scene on the lower deck to ensure that tea and dinner would be ready as scheduled. All meals were freshly prepared on the boat.

Mr. Yew wasted no time briefing us on what to do and not to do during the trip. Since this is a protected national park, there shall be no smoking, littering and touching of anything that belongs to the wild while on the kayak.

“Please do not touch the oyster shells covering the bottom of the limestone sea caves. They are razor sharp and they will cut you, right?” Mr. Yew cautioned. “When we start to get on the kayak, please remain quiet at all time. At the caves, your voice will echo and this will frighten the animals, right? Remember, we are the tourists coming to see the wild animals, not the other way round. When they are frightened, they will run away and you will not see them, right?”

You would have noticed by now how Mr. Yew has a habit of ending most sentences with a “right” followed by a question mark. Oddly enough, Farook had the same habit too.

As we got closer to the limestone caves or hongs as the Thais call them, there was utter silence as we soaked in the splendour of the view before us. Erected between a sea of emerald green water, the hongs reminded us of how we were all just visitors in a world where they have been standing tall for over millions of years.

A guide, served also as a personal kayak driver for the entire tour, was assigned to each group of guests. Each kayak can take about two to three people depending on the size of the passenger.
Since I was alone, I got Mr. Yew and a kayak entirely to myself. This would mark the beginning of a privileged relationship where I learned much from Mr. Yew, who turned out to be a nature expert.

We started off in single file, slowly and gently outlining the caves for about one to two kilometres before entering the narrow opening of a tunnel leading to a lagoon. I looked up and saw several brown hawks circling from a respectful distance above us. We managed to take refuge from the blistering heat beneath the shadows of massive stalactites formed from calcium and other mineral deposits trickling down from the top of the caves. According to Mr. Yes, it takes about five years to form one centimeter of stalactite.

“Lie flat on your back. We’re entering a cave now. Make sure you don’t lift your hands or feet because the oysters will cut you, right?” Mr. Yew warned before he skilfully manoeuvred the kayak into a dark tunnel. I was nervous when I saw how narrow the opening was and felt almost certain that we were going to hit a shell-covered rock which would puncture the kayak and left us to die.  It didn’t of course, and my fear vanished as we floated gently beneath the tunnel with the ceiling barely an inch above my face. This is definitely not an exercise for those with claustrophobia.

Mr. Yew said he was trained for two weeks on how to manoeuvre a kayak and during that time suffered many cuts on his arms and head. He has been doing this for twelve years. Before that he was a bird watcher guide but said he much prefers his current job because the paddling keeps him strong and healthy. His bird-watching days definitely provided him with a wealth of ornithological knowledge as he identified a blue rock thrush, heron and some interesting sounds he claimed made by woodpeckers and hornbills on the island during our trip.

Phang Nga Bay hosts a variety of interesting wildlife such as the long tail macaque which feeds on shell fish and is apparently a good swimmer and the mudskipper, an amphibious fish that can walk on land with their pectoral fins. With their earth-tone scales, they camouflage well in between mangrove roots making them difficult to spot for the untrained eyes.

We saw small fiddler crabs, just about two inches in size, easily identified by their distinctive asymmetrical yellow claw, one much bigger than the other only for the male, scampering nervously on the sandy bank of a lagoon.

As Mr. Yew was about to paddle away from the bank, the guide on the kayak next to ours leaned forward to get a closer look at something that had obviously caught his attention. He scanned the bank frantically and started whispering excitedly to Mr. Yew.

The two men soon embarked in a brief and almost silent exchange in Thai; the other pointing out something while Mr. Yew strained to follow his lead. I was left confused but desperately curious. Finally, both men ended their conversation, looking triumphant.

“He saw a crab that has its bigger claw on the left side, very unusual for a fiddler male crab which often has the bigger claw on the right,” Mr. Yew translated. “He has very sharp eyes,” he added. I couldn’t help but sensed a slight tinge of regret and envy in his voice. After knowing Mr. Yew a little bit more, I would not be surprise if he wished he had been the first guide who had spotted the special fiddler crap so that he could show me because by doing that, he would have succeeded in making me the most special guest in the entire tour group.

“So what do you do in Malaysia, Ka Ea?” Mr. Yew asked me all of a sudden. I explained that I work for a human rights non-governmental organisation. He nodded in approval and I took the opportunity to ask him what he thought of Thailand’s notorious lèse majesté law which threatens to imprison anyone who is critical of the King.

“You know, I have nothing to compare our King with because I have not lived in other country with a King, right? The law says we must be loyal and obey the King and so we must do as the law says, right?” He said. “But I think our King is good. He successfully brokered a deal with the nomadic hill tribes from Laos and Burma who had entered and destroyed much of Thailand’s forests to grow opium by granting them nationality and making healthcare, education and public services accessible to them.”

“So they stopped growing opium and the problem was solved?” I asked in amazement.

“Yes, but now we have a problem with amphetamine,” Mr. Yew answered ruefully.

According to Mr. Yew, many men he knows succumbed to amphetamine addiction. Such addiction has been responsible for the ruin of many family units where hard-earned income generated by family members are spent on feeding the addiction, exacerbated by corrupted enforcement officers.

“These men lose their jobs because they are unable to work under the influence of amphetamine,” he said and then added, “As long as the enforcement officers are corrupted, this problem will remain.”

Perhaps one of the highlights of the trip was the recreation of the Loy Krathong festival, celebrated only in November. Together with their guides, guests built the krathong made out of banana stem, leaves, orchids, marigolds, incense and candles.

We shared a light moment when Mr. Yew and his colleagues teased each other as they raced to make the most beautiful and intricate krathong and because each guide is encouraged to express their inner creativity, each krathong was unique from one to the other.

“Yours is going to be the most beautiful because you go to a lady boy school, right?” Mr. Yew taunted his colleague who was assembling a rather intricate design as everyone burst out laughing.

I watched in amazement as Mr. Yew skilfully fashioned two birds out of orchid buds with just a pair of scissors and the back of an incense stick. He then impaled the birds gently with incense sticks and placed them delicately on the banana stem, each facing the other with their mouths touching.

“One for you and one for your husband. For good luck,” he said. I blushed and at that point felt a sudden desire to give him a bear hug. The Thais are romantics indeed and the Loy Krathong is known to be the most romantic of all festivals in Thailand.

Once the krathongs were assembled and lined up on the buffet table, I smiled with pride seeing mine, the only one where the orchid birds were kissing, while the rest had theirs in less intimate positions.

All the guests were asked to take their seats as Nik began a briefing on the significance of the exercise.

“We do this for two reasons. One, to give thanks to the Water God for his blessings to the sea and two, to apologise for the bad things we have done. What bad things you asked?” He paused for dramatic effect before continuing, “Did anyone of you do a number one or two when you were in the water just now?”

His question obviously mortified everyone on the boat as they gasped in silence. If anyone was going to make a confession then, it wasn’t going to happen.

“Come on! I did it. When I go down from my kayak and pretend I am cooling myself in the water, pointing up at the blue sky to distract your attention, yellow stuff is flowing down,” he said unashamedly.

I burst out laughing especially at the horrified looks on most of the foreigners at Nik’s graphic illustration of his clandestine bladder movement.

“And that is why we apologise for doing dirty things to the water,” he finished calmly as if what he said earlier had no impact whatsoever on anyone.

Nik said that we would bring back the krathongs after the ritual because it is their policy not to leave anything behind. John Gray’s motto has been, Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”

When the sun had fully descended, we set off with our krathongs on the kayak to make our final journey to the cave. It was total darkness except for the candles that were lighted. I made three wishes before releasing the krathong made lovingly by Mr. Yew and I. It was a moment of utter silence and respect as I reflected on the entire journey.

Before leaving, Mr. Yew and I exchanged our final farewell. I pressed my palms together, bowed and said, “Khob koon ka” to my master that day.

I left Thailand with a profound respect for the men who have worked hard so that I can see the other side of Thailand.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Media’s Role In Portraying Women And Building Negative Stereotypes

The shorter version of this article is published on Leaderonomics on 10 November 2017.

At a training-of-trainers workshop I attended, the participants were broken into groups of five and asked to present a 25-minute human rights training session targeting law students and young lawyers. We were encouraged to think outside the box by staying away from conventional lecture-style training model to promote effective learning of what is usually considered as a heavy subject.

Selecting a human rights topic was easy but deciding on the training style was much more challenging than I had anticipated. Being competitive, my group wanted to impress the trainers who would be assessing our performance. 

After brainstorming for hours, we decided on emulating a popular American talk show as the medium of training. The talk show host would be asking a panel consisting of four distinguished state representatives from Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Australia and France respectively, on a specific issue that relates to freedom of expression. The purpose of selecting four culturally diverse countries was to illustrate the spectrum of the universality of human rights; i.e. how different countries in the world take into account local cultural influences when it comes to adopting universal human rights principles. 

The spectrum was represented by Saudi Arabia on the far left, being the most radical when it comes to defending cultural practices, to Malaysia and Australia in the middle, and finally France on the far right where cultural practices are often compromised to give way to universal human rights policies.

In the spirit of showmanship, we thought it was important for each role to be played out as convincingly as possible. As individuals, we ramped up our own performance by adopting the appropriate accents and mannerisms which we had identified of the respective nationalities.

When our turn came to present, we gave our best. I felt energised as I watched the participants laughed and applauded, clearly entertained by our performance. I was in high spirit when the participants gave glowing feedback, many of whom reported that the four state representatives’ viewpoints illustrated the spectrum effectively. 

Just as I thought we had nailed it, my ego was immediately deflated when the trainer delivered her assessment. She said it was extremely painful to watch us and was appalled by how we “poked fun” of the state representatives from Saudi Arabia and Malaysia by portraying them as “uneducated” and “unrefined” while the Australian and French, were depicted as “intelligent” and “progressive”. The trainer’s criticism of us was not on how we presented each country’s political views but on the way we played out the stereotypes we held for each character. She said as human rights defenders, we have the responsibility of not perpetuating negative stereotypes and must be critical of ourselves when developing content for public consumption.

I could sense a sudden shift in the training room’s atmosphere, from joyous euphoria to sombreness as we sat listening to the trainer’s critique. The immediate thoughts that came to my mind were, “how could I not have seen this?” and “what does that say about me as a human rights defender?” 

I understood instantly that our zealousness to deliver an entertaining performance (what the trainer termed as “gimmick”) had clouded my judgment.

Later, I talked to a colleague about this. We rationalised that a key factor of why we failed to recognise this faux pas is attributed to how we, as a society, have been exposed to these stereotypes through the media so much so we that we have become immune to them. If the trainer had not called out on us, we would have replicated the group assignment in a real training session, oblivious to the fact that we would have perpetuated these stereotypes to a group of young impressionable lawyers, who would then move on to ensure the cycle continues.

I went into detail about this story simply to illustrate how powerful visuals are when it comes to reinforcing stereotypes. So powerful that even people who are supposed to be the bulwarks of human rights values fall short in their quest for entertainment.  

The more constructive question to ask is this: if the media is so powerful, can it be used to reverse these stereotypes? Let’s examine how the media has been portraying images of women in the past decades. 

Most of us would have seen hundreds of advertisements on the newspaper, magazines, television and Internet. How often have we come across images of women posing with kitchen utensils, foodstuff, cleaning products, baby diapers, jewelleries, slimming supplements and beauty care? It seems that the media is convinced that women spend their lives cooking, cleaning, taking care of the baby, primping (and not forgetting longing for that diamond engagement ring), essentially reinforcing the gender stereotype of women being domesticated, materialistic and superficial.

Thankfully, women’s rights movements all over the world is slowly changing this by forcing the media to change the way they portray women. One of the best examples of this is Getty Image’s collaboration with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In initiative in 2014. 

Getty Image is one of the biggest providers of stock photography with 2.4 million customers from across the world. This collaboration entails a Lean In Collection, containing more than 14,000 images of “female leadership and equal partnership in contemporary work and life”.

Scrolling through the collection, you will see photos of women of different ages, colours, shapes and sexual orientation performing various activities; working in different jobs, playing sports, leading group discussions, repairing machines, etc. Of course, there are still images of women as mothers, but they are often accompanied by their male partners, depicting a shared parenting lifestyle.

According to Getty Image, the top selling image of women in their library in 2007 was a naked woman under a towel. Ten years onward, it was an image of a solo woman hiking on a mountain, triggering key words like independence, power, confidence and freedom to viewers. 

One of the collaboration’s success indicators is a leap of 47% in search result for images of “female CEO” from last year. Combined with the democratisation of the media space made possible by the internet, Getty Image said that social media users are pushing marketers to portray people in more realistic and diverse ways, thus demanding brands to make women with diverse range of ages, appearances and abilities more visible.

How are we doing in Malaysia? While I do not have any data on photos of women being portrayed in the local media, a 2015 report conducted by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) provided insights to how women are represented in the news.

In the report, several female journalists exposed the entrenched sexist culture practised by the local media when it comes to featuring stories on women. One recalled that whenever she proposed stories related to women, the immediate questions asked by her editor were, “Is the lady pretty? Is she sexy?” If her answer was no, her story pitch would be shot down no matter how interesting the subject was.

A female sub-editor said that discussions with her male editor and colleagues on health issues relating to breastfeeding would always turn sexual. What was most insulting to her was her editor’s decision to assign the story to her male colleague simply because he felt that a man would be able to create “excitement” to the story. 

The IFJ report states that the top four depictions of women in the Malaysian media was family figures at the top, followed by victims, sexual objects and lastly, leaders.

One way of reversing these negative gender stereotypes of women in the media is to have more women in the decision-making positions as the current media industry is overwhelmingly male-dominated. One journalist said, “If a woman’s issue is covered by the media, it is almost always from a patriarchal perspective, with little to no presence of a female voice or viewpoint. Instead, only superficial or scandalous stories related to women receive significant attention.” Another journalist said that this can be curbed “with women who have the authority to influence or over-rule questionable decisions based on gender bias.”

Drawing back to the earlier story I told, normalising stereotypes of any kind as result of media conditioning is dangerous because it stops us from seeing a person for who they are and instead, boxing them into specific identities often shaped by dominant power-holders such as men and the West. 

Thankfully, with the internet, printed media no longer monopolises social narratives and the younger generations are becoming more aware of rights-based values such as gender equality through more diversified information found online. Gone are the days when the onus remained on women’s group to call out on sexism in the media. For example, AirAsia had to remove a recent Facebook advertisement after being criticised by netizens for sexism. With this, hopefully our society will continue to push advertising companies to become more responsible and accountable.

Finally, while I was writing this article, I can’t help but wonder whether in our zealousness in reversing gender stereotypes, are we running into the danger of stripping away certain gender qualities such as the femininity of the female form or perhaps, asexualising women altogether? Should we create a society that would now perceive women who are homemakers or sexy as wrong? 

Betty Yeoh, a seasoned women’s rights activist said that the media does not need to go overboard portraying empowered women by making them dressed or behaved like men. She said the real danger is when the media shows women performing incredible multi-tasking as that will create unrealistic expectations on women.

In conclusion, the media must evolve with time. It needs to harness its power towards changing society’s perception of women and in doing so, must be sensitive enough to strike that balance of portraying women in more diversified roles and capacities. We are not saying that women should not be homemakers or be sexy, we are saying women can be anything they want to be.