1st Edition

Gender Politics and the Pursuit of Competitiveness in Malaysia Women on Board

By Juanita Elias Copyright 2020
    172 Pages
    by Routledge

    172 Pages
    by Routledge

    This book is concerned with how the pursuit of national economic competitiveness by states has come to be intertwined with a globalised gender agenda—one in which women and the household economy are seen as ‘untapped’ resources.

    In many East and Southeast Asian economies, competitiveness and the dangers of the middle-income trap dominate economic policy agendas: states’ commitments to gender equality goals are frequently framed around ‘business case’ logics in which women’s empowerment and women’s increased engagement in the productive economy is linked to the national economic project of building and enhancing competitiveness. This book looks to the case of Malaysia in order to assess how the increasingly dominant view that gender equality is ‘smart economics’ plays out in practice. Drawing upon extensive case study research and interview data, the book hones in on the complex gender politics that are at work within government initiatives that seek to enhance competitiveness via increasing women’s labour force participation, efforts to strengthen marriage and family life, and attempts to boost women’s entrepreneurialism and status within the corporate world.

    Providing an account of the gender politics at work within ongoing processes of state transformation in Asia, this book will appeal to researchers and students in gender studies, Southeast Asian studies, International Political Economy and public policy.

    Introduction: Bringing Women ‘On Board’ 

    1. Promoting Competitiveness in Malaysia

    2. Transforming Women’s Economic Participation: A Gender Politics of Competitiveness Promotion 

    3. ‘A First Class Mentality with a Heart for Progress’: The Family, Islam and the Moral Political Economy of Competitiveness

    4. Civil Society, Market Feminism and the Creation of ‘Board Ready’ Women 

    5. Whose Social Reproduction? Migrant Domestic Work and the New Malaysian ‘Middle-Class Reality’ 

    Conclusion: Gendering Competitiveness: Comparative Insights 


    Juanita Elias is Professor of International Political Economy at the University of Warwick, UK. She is a feminist political economist particularly interested in gendered regimes of work, care and migration in Southeast Asia. Her articles have appeared in journals including: Review of International Studies; Asia Pacific Viewpoint; The Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies; International Feminist Journal of Politics; Globalizations; and Asian Studies Review. She has co-edited the Edward Elgar Handbook on International Political Economy and Gender (2018, with Adrienne Roberts); The Everyday Political Economy of Southeast Asia (with Lena Rethel); and, The Global Political Economy of the Household in Asia (with Samanthi J. Gunawardana).

    'Gender Politics and the Pursuit of Competitiveness in Malaysia offers a pathbreaking analysis of the neoliberal 'business case' for gender equality in development. Based on long-term field work in Malaysia, Elias highlights on-the-ground tensions and struggles between policy experts, nationalist politicians, women’s movements, civil society groups and others over the relationship between gender inequality and national competitiveness. Such attention to context and contestation offers an important addition to the scholarly literature. It demonstrates that instrumental ideas about women and economic development are never straightforwardly transferred into local political economic space. It also broadens our understanding of the limitations and possibilities for women’s movements to advocate for alternative understandings of gender and economic empowerment beyond the "business case." The book is a must-read for critical feminist scholars and practitioners of gender and development.'

    Suzanne Bergeron, Helen M. Graves Collegiate Professor of Women's Studies and Social Sciences, University of Michigan-Dearborn, USA

    'In this path-breaking study, Elias draws on her extensive field research in Malaysia to reveal the limits of global policy agendas that assume an unproblematic positive relationship between gender equality and economic competitiveness. By translating gender equality into a technical economic project, the Malaysian state's approach limits gender equality to narrow, quantifiable policies of women's participation in the labour force while reinforcing a conservative understanding of women's roles and [limited] rights because of the increasing Islamization of the Malaysian state and society along traditionalist lines. Elias has provided a timely reminder that gender politics must be understood within its local/national contexts if global agendas, though well-meaning, are not to lead to contrary outcomes.'

    Helen S. Nesadurai, Professor of International Political Economy, Monash University Malaysia

    'For anybody interested in knowing how international discourses of competitiveness and the business case for gender equality play out in Malaysia. Elias masterfully introduces us to the messiness of economic planning, highlighting the play of political interests and social forces and the symbolic force of ethnicity, religion, and gender. A richly researched, competently assembled, and creatively interpreted intervention in cutting-edge feminist political economy.'

    Elisabeth Prügl, Professor of International Relations, The Graduate Institute Geneva, Switzerland

    '[Elias] has produced a critical study which demands attention not only as a contribution to critical political economy, but also by virtue of the fact that the Malaysian case is so directly aligned with the global agenda of competitiveness, and has been pursued with extensive input and support from the World Bank, the OECD and the UNDP (51-2), and hence is significant in itself. And as it is delivered in 130 pages, notes and all, without wasting a word or skipping over the nuances of the issues raised, it invites and should receive a wide readership. It addresses a central issue in critical political economy - the global significance of the politics of competitiveness arising from the massive expansion of the world market over recent decades, and shows how the process is intrinsically gendered, so making a contribution to each of the literatures it brings together'

    Paul Cammack, Emeritus Professor at the City University of Hong Kong

    ‘It is vitally important that feminist researchers acknowledge and explore the di¿ering experiences of women, and Elias does this brilliantly. She shines a light on the complicated, multi-dimensional lives that women lead, on the pressures placed on them to operate both in the private and public spheres, and on how economic policies billed as enhancing gender equality can, more often than not, complicate rather than empower.’

    Amy Tatum, PhD Researcher at Bournemouth University, UK, writing in the International Feminist Journal of Politics

    ‘The book is an excellent read and will be of interest to scholars and students interested in East Asian political economy and gender politics.’

    Juliette Schwak, Assistant Professor of International Relations and Political Science at Franklin University Switzerland, writing in the Journal of Contemporary Asia