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Country Portrait Malaysia

Prof. Dr. Nina Weimann-Sandig, Prof. Datin Dr. Norizan Abdul Razak

Publication date 2021-09-21


  1. 1 General data for Malaysia
  2. 2 Abstract
  3. 3 Overview
  4. 4 Social Context
  5. 5 Social Work in Malaysia
  6. 6 Educational System and Gender Aspects
  7. 7 Labor Market and Gender Inequality
  8. 8 Single-Mothers as special vulnerable group threatened by gender inequality
  9. 9 The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on vulnerable groups – the case of single mothers
  10. 10 Malaysian Initiatives to Support Single Mothers During Covid19
  11. 11 “It is not only gender inequality – it is diversity” – learning form international companies based in Malaysia
  12. 12 Literature

1 General data for Malaysia

Number of inhabitants 31.95 Mio. (2019)
Gross Domestic Product 364.7 billion USD (2019) [1]
Gross Domestic Product per capita 11,414.21 USD (2019) [2]
Poverty rate US$4.00 per person perday; 2.7 % of the population (2019) [3]
Unemployment rate 4.55 % (2020) [4]
Social Expenditure 5 % of GDP (2016) [5]
Share of Social Expenditure on care 1.4 % of GDP (2016) [6]
Share of Social Expenditure on old age, senior citizens 0.9 % of GDP (2016) [7]
Share of Social Expenditure on social assistance 1 % of GDP (2020) [8]
Share of Social Expenditure on youth welfare 3.5 % of GDP (2016) [9]
Expenditure of Unemployment 3,8 % of GDP (2016) [10]

2 Abstract

This country portrait provides an insight into the social and economic development in Malaysia. It puts emphasize on gender-related labor market developments as well as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on special vulnerable groups and highlights the development of Social Work in Malaysia.

3 Overview

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious society in South Eastern Asia. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, the British Empire established colonies and protectorates in the area of current Malaysia. From 1942 to 1945 the colonies were occupied by Japan, after World War II the British came back to run their colonies. The Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) who had originally fought against the Japanese invaders gained more and more power and fought for and independent Malaysia. During the following twelve years, the fights against colonialism were more and more successful and lead to an independent federation of Malaysia in 1957. One of the main achievements was the introduction of passive and active voting rights for females in the Constitution of 1957. Nevertheless, there was a persistent influence of Great Britain and Malaysia became a member of the Commonwealth. While Malaysia can be characterized as a peaceful, multi-ethnic country now, from the late 1960s till the beginning of the 1980s there had been several ethnical riots. During the two decades under Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad (1981-2003), Malaysia was able to develop a growing and diverse economy which increased the general quality of life. Since gaining independence in 1957, Malaysia has successfully diversified its economy and counts as one of the most vibrant economies in Asia. Geographically Malaysia can be defined as a federation of 13 states and 3 federal territories with a total land area of 329,847 square kilometers. The 13 states are operating in the framework of a federal representative democratic constitutional monarchy. The constitutional monarch is the head of the state and called Yang di-Pertuan Agong (“He Who is Made Lord”). He has the right to choose the prime minster if no party has won a majority vote (Article 40, Constitution of Malaysia) but is obligated by the Constitution of Malaysia and Acts of Parliament. The country consists of two regions, Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo. The capital of Malaysia is Kuala Lumpur, lying in the western part of peninsula Malaysia, while Putrajaya is the seat of the federal government. Over 80 % of the total population of 32, 4 Mio. people live in Peninsular Malaysia (United Nations 2020). During the last decades more and more people moved to the urban regions in order to search for stable employment. Therefore, in 2020 78.4 % of the population were urban. Life in the rural areas of Malaysia is quite different from those in the urban regions. Villages characterize the landscape, live is slower and people live close to each other. While some rural areas concentrate on farming, others benefit from factories or companies who are attracted by lower land prices. While the rural-urban migration had been dominant within the last two decades, a new development can be recognized: A stable number of middle-income families leave the urban areas in order to avoid high living costs as well as long travelling times in order to achieve a higher quality of life (Weimann-Sandig 2020). During the last sixty years, the life expectancy has positively increased from 52 years in the 1950s to 76.7 years in 2020. The average life expectancy of females is 78.8 years, the average life expectancy of males 74.7 years (World Bank 2021). This is due to the rising nutrition and health situation which has also decreased the infant mortality rate from 150 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 1950 to 5.2 infant deaths in 2020 (Unicef 2021). The different ethnic communities coexist in harmony, although the Muslim majority benefits from advantages in entering civil services and access to higher education. In despite, the Chinese community can be described as economically more powerful than other ethnic groups.

4 Social Context

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious society, having mastered tremendous efforts in reducing poverty and achieving social and ecomomic progress during the last years – compared to other Asian countries. The empirical results of international research show that the Malaysian society must be described as a society in transition. Neither could Malaysia be characterized as an industrialized or even postmodern society nor does it fit into the characteristics of developing countries (Weimann-Sandig 2020). On the one hand, Malaysia shows patterns of industrialized countries like a more and more urban labor market, a huge development of the third sector and also an increasing number of people gaining higher education and participating in the labor market (International Monetary Fund 2018: 3). On the other hand, the economic growth is slowing down and reforms are recommended to ensure a sustainable and inclusive growth (World Bank 2018). The Malaysian society is rich of discrepancies: on the one hand one can find many people developing modern lifestyles, often influenced by social media and the comparison to western countries. Malaysia is bridging the gap between traditional religious aspects, modern economic developments and modern lifestyles emerging from a uniqueness of inventiveness and mercantilism. On the other hand, especially the rural parts and smaller island are still deeply connected to former traditions, norms and values (Weimann-Sandig 2020). To sum it up: Malaysia has developed from a predominantly agricultural economy to a modern society, based on a world-leading manufacturing as well as a stable service sector. Malaysia is one of the fastest growing economies in the world with a trade to GDP ratio averaging over 130 % since 2010. About 40 % of the jobs in Malaysia are linked to export activities (World Bank 2021). However, not all people in Malaysia do benefit from the current economic development and the rapid social changes. Instead, there are still vulnerable groups within the Malaysian society who are not able to participate in the economic growth. As an example, local disparities still influence the educational possibilities of people and children coming from the rural parts of the country are facing more difficulties in getting access to higher education possibilitites (Thangiah et al. 2020). Also, elder and especially lower-educated citizens all over the country face difficulties in getting stable employment possibilities. According to the World Bank’s Human Capital Index, Malaysia ranks 55th out of 157 countries. To fulfil the country’s aspiration of achieving the high-income and developed country status, Malaysia will need to advance further in equal educational possibilities as well as the development of the health system and social welfare system.

Considering those social developments the rising inequalities within the various ethnic communities is a major challenge (Jayasooria 2016). For exaample there is a growing number of urban poors, living in public housing projects (so-called PPR flats). The People’s Housing Projects are quite attractive in urban areas where the number of low-income families hasn’t been decreasing for many years now. In fact, there are more applicants than available flats (Malay Mail March 2021). This highlights a fundamental change in the spatial dimension of poverty: poverty is rapidly becoming an urban phenomenon, especially in the transition and industrialized countries (Buckley/​Klarickal 2005). Giving low-income people, especially families, a safe place means to prevent them from travelling around and living in bad conditions without electricity and water. Like in many other countries, the concept of Housing areas in Malaysia is not undisputed. In general, there has been a variety of international research on the effects of regulations on housing projects (Glaser/​Gyourko 2003). Bertaud and Brueckner (2005) showed that many interventions do exacerbate rather than improve situation of poor people living in housing areas. One reason is that especially children do not come in touch with other possible ways of living. The peer groups they meet are concentrated to the PPR living area. By growing up with poverty, violence or without having different perspectives those children have no chance to escape the vicious circle of poverty (Weimann-Sandig 2020: 13 f.). Accordingly, housing projects without additional programs of social work are not able to improve the situation of vulnerable groups. In order to develop appropriate strategies in dealing with those vulnerable groups social work in Malaysia is of great importance.

5 Social Work in Malaysia

Social Work is a practice-based profession as well as an academic discipline. In Malaysia, social work was introduced in the 1930s by focusing on the problems of migrant labourers coming from India and China, but this was mainly done by volunteers of Christian associations send by the British colonial rulers. After World War II the extreme poverty within the Malaysian population, lead to the establishment of the Department of Social Welfare. Nevertheless, most social workers coming to Malaysia had been educated in western countries and sent by international organizations, especially NGO’s. However, within the last decades, social work has been professionalized in the country as more and more national universities and colleges are now providing Bachelor’s and Master’s programs in social work. Following the general concepts and theories of modern social work, empowerment has become a major goal in Malaysia what means that the different clients should be enabled to enhance their problem-solving capacity and to strengthen their resilience (Adams 2003). By participating in modern empowerment strategies, participation and a strengths perspective are getting more and more popular amongst social workers – not only in Malaysia but nearly all Asian countries (Kam 2020). Social work covers a lot of different areas such as street working, policy advice, social services and program development (Hatta et al. 2014) and social workers uphold a code of ethics and conduct based on the values of human rights and social justice (MASW 2012) [11]. As in many other countries, professional social work is complemented by volunteers, participating in many social fields and helping to fulfill the rich tasks of professional social work in Malaysia. Therefore, social workers in Malaysia can be categorized in two groups: Hatta et al. (2014:139 ) define them as “professional social workers”, organized within the Malaysian Association of Social Workers (MASW) and characterized by formal education and qualification and “functional alternative social workers” who are mainly intrinsically driven by religious aspects and altruism and are not skilled or well-trained. Although a large number of functional alternative social workers is needed to implement nation-wide programs, it would need better training possibilities in order to guarantee high-quality, professionalized social work in all parts of Malaysia. With regard to international debates on professionalization of social services (Weimann-Sandig/​Prescher 2020), low-threshold possibilities are recommended as well as academization. Working as an associate social worker means a low-threshold possibility when entering the professional field as it only requires on year of professional training. Professional social workers need at least a bachelor degree or diploma and can improve their qualifications by becoming a specialist social worker or clinical worker (Hatta et al. 2014:141). As the social problems in the country might become more complex within the next years, this would definitely help to stabilize social work programs.

6 Educational System and Gender Aspects

Malaysia's literacy rate is determined by the number of individuals over the age of 15 who may possess the ability to read and write well. Considering the literacy rates by gender, males and females have different literacy rates. The literacy rate in the community is 94 %. In the meantime, it is 96.2 % for males but only 93.2 % for females (Thimm, 2010). The educational system of Malaysia starts with primary education, Early Childhood Education, consisting of general access to kindergartens for all small children, hasn’t been established yet. There are only few governmental kindergartens, most of them are private, offering Early Childhood Education for children aged three to six. This is interesting, as childbearing is still seen as major barrier for mothers to step back into labor marekt (Ab Halim et al. 2016). At the age of seven, children are accessing primary education. The multi-ethnic and multi-lingual profile of the Malaysian population is reflected by the educational system, beginning with primary and secondary schools, providing lessons in Malay as well as Chinese and Tamil language. Tertiary education is commonly provided in English or Malay. Compulsory primary school is for students aged 7 to 12 and is divided into 2 three year phases. At the end a Primary School Achievement Test is taken. Secondary school comprises children aged 13 to 17 and is devided in lower secondary education and upper secondary education. Here students can decide if they want to focus on a vocational or technical education path. Secondary schools comprise fully residential schools, technical secondary schools, national religious secondary schools, regular secondary schools, premier schools, schools within Putrajaya and Cyberjaya, centennial schools and special model schools. Here students are prepared for studying at university. Students who have completed their upper secondary education and appeared for the SPM examination can then proceed to higher education. Those students who want to attend university have to spend an additional year with post secondary education. The so- called Ministry of Education Matriculation Programme is a preparatory one for qualifying for degree courses in science as well as technology and professional arts in public as well as private universities. Students who obtain the CGPA of 2.00 or grade C or above are sponsored by the Malaysian government and may be admitted to public institutions of higher learning. Public institutions of higher education are one possibility to achive higher education in Malaysia. Another choice is to go in for polytechnic colleges. Around 5 of the 20 public universities have research university status: Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. Excellence clusters and quality assurance measures are taken by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (WENR 2014). On the other hand there have been established a lof of “overseas branches” of foreign universities offering the same courses as main universities. Twinning programmes between local and foreign universites are also becoming more and more popular. In addition, there is a growing number of private universities in Malaysia. In fact, Malaysia is ranked as one ofs the top educational destinations for tertiary as well as higher education. All higher educational institutions are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE). When focusing on gender equality within the educational system of Malaysia it is to metion that since the 1970s, Malaysia has eliminated gender gaps in enrollment at all educational levles. Moreover, the gender situation as changed a lot within the last years. In fact, more females are enrolled in school than boys – within all education levels (Schmillen et al. 2019). Whereas in 2010 more male students were enrolled in higher education, since 2017 almost 60 % of graduates were females. According to a 2015 study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, males are three times more likely than females to drop out after secondary school. Many dropouts came from poor households since males are encouraged to work in physical labour occupations at a younger age in order to earn money. Conversely, females tend to complete their higher education programmes. In addition, females make a higher percentage at postgraduate and PhD level (Schmillen et al 2019: 29ff). Table 1 contains more information about gender inequality on university level in Malaysia (Tienxhi, 2017).

Table 1. GPI in Malaysian Universities (Tienxhi, 2017).
Fewer women enrolled Gender Parity Fewer men enrolled
Extreme disparity (<0.5) Intermediate disparity (0.5-0.89) Parity (0.97- 1.03) Close to Parity (1.03-1.1) Intermediate disparity (1.11-1.5) Extreme disparity
(>1.5-1.99) (>2.0)
Universiti Pertahanan Nasional Malaysia (UPNM) Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), Universiti Teknikal Malaysia (UTEM) Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia (UTHM), Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP) Universiti Malaysia Pahang (UMP) Universiti Islam Antarabangsa Malaysia (UIAM) Universiti Malaya (UM), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM), Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS). Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UniMAS), Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris
(UPSI), Universiti Teknologi Mara (UITM), Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin (UniSZA), Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT), (Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM), Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK)

Jelas et al. (2014) investigated the patterns in student involvement and productivity, as well as whether academic achievement and fatigue may be variables leading to dropouts and poor accomplishment. The findings mirrored a pattern in which females outscored males in national exams at all levels and categories of schools. These tendencies are supported by the findings of a study of student work engagement and stress on a sample of students aged 12, 14, and 16, which seem to indicate that males are less involved as compared to girls and suffer greater fatigue. The results are evaluated in the sense of creating assistance for kids, especially males, in order for them to become more involved in academic performance and to experience less burnout. Tienxhi (2017) investigated the increasing gender difference between male and female at Malaysian public universities from 2009 to 2013, using the Gender Parity Index (GPI) to quantify gender inequalities. According to the research, 13 out of 20 Malaysian public universities are classified to be incomparably against the gender parity' by UNESCO, with a GPI of more than 1.5. Considering this enormous educational achivments it is clearly to mention that higher educated femals are a central part of the Malaysian economy. The Globald Education Monitoring of the UNESCO reported a missing effort of the Malaysian government to ensure and inclusive educational system for children of work migrants and refugees (UNESCO 2019). Children of Filipionos or Indonesians for example are defined as foreigners and therefore not able to attend public schools. Also, a lack of intercultural programs as well as missing skills of teachers and educators at all educational levels have been critized in the UNESCO report. In Addition, the labor market involvement of females is still much lower than those of males and some problems still have to be mastered. Girls' education does not translate into true equality and autonomy after they graduate from high school. The Global Gender Gap index score for Malaysia in 2020 was 0.68, with a score of 1 being absolute parity and a score of 0 being absolute imparity. Malaysia has the one of the biggest gender gaps in South-east Asia. Nonetheless, gender equality in Malaysia is still higher than in other Asian countries such as China and Japan. It highlighted five key elements of equal rights: economic participation and opportunity, educational achievement, health and survival, and political empowerment. Malaysia was placed 106th in the world, with a score of 0.87, where 1.00 represents gender equality, and the opposite 0.00 represents the greatest disparity. Despite the fact that Malaysia received a 0.985 for educational achievement, females still are not able to have equivalent economic or political possibilities. This is an issue in which the government needs to concentrate on by establishing initiatives to address the mentioned problems and guaranteeing that education results in real benefits after females leave the educational institution and join the labour market (Goy et al. 2018). When looking at different work fields there exist gender differences even in the publik sector. The uniformed forces for example, which comprise the army, police, and emergency services, do only have a female percentage of 10 % within the the military forces. Furthermore, the proportion of female police in high-ranking officer roles increased from 59 % in 2012 up to 74 % in 2016 as the nation becomes openly accepting women taking up these roles. Malaysia's government has prioritised the STEM curriculum in order to improve gender equality (Lim, 2019). It recognises women's roles and has enacted laws, such as the Malaysia Woman Policy in 2009 as well as the National Policy on Science, Technology, and Innovation from 2013 to 2020. Women scholars have been rising from 35.8 % in 2004 to 49.9 % in 2012. Though these are not the sole problems threatening gender equality, a rather intensified focused strategy would be more effective in the long term period. With this system of education and solid strategic development, Malaysia could be on its path to become a more stable and well-rounded nation. Several organisations, including UNICEF Malaysia and the All Women's Action Society Malaysia, have dedicated themselves to maintaining girls' education in Malaysia. These groups may be beneficial to the government and help to accelerate the success that has currently been achieved.

7 Labor Market and Gender Inequality

The development from a predominantly agricultural structured country to a modern industrialized country means huge changes for the Malaysian labor market. Presently, the services sector contributes with 55,7 % most to gross domestic product (GDP). This is followed in importance by the manufacturing sector (35,7 %). The agriculture sector accounts for about 8 % cent of GDP and is followed in importance by mining and quarrying (6 %) (World Bank 2018). The relative importance of the different sectors in contributing to the total GDP has implications on the characteristics of the labor market. Like many other Asian countries, the labour market access in Malaysia can be divided in formal and informal working possibilities. Based on recent research (Schmillen et al. 2019; Weimann-Sandig 2020), formal work is mainly characterized by having one job which is not simply seen as a job but offers career development and job security. These jobs include fixed and monthly paid wages. Formal employees are eligible for social and health protection. In Malaysia, those formal jobs are mostly provided to people with a diploma or university degree. Higher education therefore means a central key for getting into formal employment as vocational trainings or university degrees pave the way to formal work. Informal work in contrast covers employment as well as self-employment, predominantly done in so-called microbusinesses. Informal work can be described as work on demand, without working contracts and guaranteed wages. Informal workers are often suffering from despotism. Especially for less educated people informal work means a first step into labor market and offers possibilities to earn own money. Nevertheless, as especially within the urban areas the competition between unskilled workers is high, more and more people seem to be stucked into informal and instable working conditions. The Covid-10 pandemic causes new inqualities between formal and informal workers as informal workers are often not able to work from home but doing shift-work in factories or within the different service sectors and are often not covered properly by their employers (ILO 2021:32). Malaysia’s female labor force participation rate has risen in recent years but is still low compared to other Southeastern Asian countries. The labor force participation rate increased from 46.8 % in 2010 to 55.2 % in 2018. Nevertheless, the gap between Malaysia’s labor force participation rates for men and women is high compared to other Asian countries (male labor force participation rate: 77,4 %) (Lim 2018). In addition, there does exist an unequal age distribution referring to female labor market participation. While young females show a high labor market participation, marriage and family formation mark labor market dropouts of females in Malaysia. Accordingly, females face difficulties in reconcile work and family care as an institutional childcare system is missing (Weimann-Sandig 2020: 22). Also, elder females (aged 40 and above) are still not in the focus of labour market policies or training on the jobs (Schmillen et al.2019:12).

Analyzing the possibilities women are facing towards labor market access does not simply mean to understand the labor market structures of a country. Instead, the existing labor market structures are only one corner stone that has to be kept in mind. Gender Equality is moreover characterized by the existing social norms and structures, cultural attitudes and religious patterns of a country. Malaysia is rich of all of them. Furthermore, labour market access is directly linked to other social systems (Luhmann 1987). From the perspective of social inequality research one can say that the system labor market depends on the educational system as well as the economic system. Referring to gender inequality it has to be kept in mind that labor market as a system is also related to the family system, as especially in Asian countries unpaid family care work is mostly done by females (Weimann-Sandig 2020). Culture and religion are two indicators that influence gender-related role-models, especially the role of females within a society (Schweizer Nationalfonds 2012). A recent research project revealed that there do exist different role expectations within the different ethnic groups (Weimann-Sandig 2020). The role models of Chinese women living in Malaysia can be described as more modern than those of comparatively conservative Malay and Indian women. Chinese women show a somewhat higher willingness to build their own businesses, tend to be more supported by their families when deciding to follow on their careers and generally don’t put as much emphasis on the care duties as women from other ethnicities in Malaysia. Referring to other studies concentrating on educational access, young females in Malaysia have a greater educational attainment and show more actual learning than males, but do have less opportunities to use this potential at the labour market. Since the 1970s, Malaysia has eliminated and subsequently reversed gender gaps in enrollment at all education levels, nevertheless the girls’ enrollment rate in secondary education is lower than in other comparable countries. Despite, the high numbers of young males who drop out of secondary school is particularly noticeable (Schmillen et al. 2019: 14). To sum it up, the wide gender gap in access to formal, well-paid jobs which offer social protection and career prospects is still a challenge to be mastered in Malaysia. Closing the gaps between high female school enrollments and labour market access is necessary in order to provide enough skilled workers and to develop the Malaysian economy.

8 Single-Mothers as special vulnerable group threatened by gender inequality

The modernization of the country has not only created a re-thinking of female role models but also on different reasons for partnerships and marriages. The concept of romantic love (Giddens 1992; Beck/Beck-Gernsheim 1995) is a central criterion of modernizing societies. On the one hand, the changing perceptions towards partnerships to new aspects of partner selection, but on the other to higher divorce rate (Department of Statistics Malaysia 2019). Divorces are no longer done only by men but also by women, although the social recognition remains different. Nevertheless, recent research proofs that females in Malaysia have developed a more and more emancipated point of view during the last years: the younger generation of women in general puts emphasis on changed reasons for marriages: emotions as love and equality lead to a new self-consciousness of women. Sharing their husbands with two or three other wives, like previous generations of Islamic women, is no longer tolerable for many in the younger generation of Malay women between 20 and 35 (Weimann-Sandig 2020). As a result, there is an increasing number of Single-Mothers in Malaysia (Talib 2020). Despite these growing numbers, a lot of Single-Mothers are still suffering from social exclusion and extended problems of getting access to stable employment possibilities, even if they are higher educated. Employers still hesitate in giving jobs to Single-Mothers as they claim the missing flexibility of Single-Mothers with regard to overtime work, shift work, travelling and training on the jobs. Due to their single responsibility for their children and the missing support structures employers still hesitate to employ Single-Mothers as they are characterized as less reliable than other females. The central argument of being the only breadwinner within the family seems to be more likely respected in larger and international companies who do provide working policies that are suitable for Single-Mothers such as part time work, flexible working hours or home office solutions (Weimann-Sandig 2020: 14).

9 The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on vulnerable groups – the case of single mothers

The COVID-19 pandemic has a high economic impact on Malaysia, particularly on vulnerable households. Having revised its national poverty line in July 2020, 5.6 % of Malaysian households are currently living in absolute poverty (World Bank 2021). The new Malaysian government that has come into power in March 2020, is facing extreme challenges but has passed several support packages, especially for small and medium sized enterprises as well as the so-called microbusinesses. Still those enterprises count about two-thirds of the workforce and 40 % of the economy (ILO 2021). Especially females like to run microbusinesses as they can be done from home and allow them to reconcile family care and earning money more easily. Accordingly, these microbusinesses are mostly characterized by cooking, baking or handcrafting with direct sales strategies. The International Labour Organization has gathered information about those groups who are especially affected by the Corona crisis in Malaysia (ILO 2021). They identify four vulnerable communities such as people aged 65 and above, suffering from insufficient healthcare (about 2.1 Mio people) as well as the so-called B40 households (2.8 Mio people). The B40 households are characterized by low-skilled workers, often without formal working contracts, doing shift-work or sidejobs. The low and instable income situation makes them vulnerable for male nutrition, low health and chronic diseases and raises the possibilities of heavy Covid-19 progressions. At the moment an estimated amount of more than 3 Mio work migrants – with or without visa – lives in Malaysia, especially threatened by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and often working without safety instructions.

COVID-19 deeply affected the livelihoods of vulnerable groups, especially single mothers. Te so-called Movement Control Order (MCO) or the periods of lockdown depply affected the socioeconomic siutation of low-income people. A study by Subki et al. (2020) revealed the general situation for females during the COVID-19 crisis. They found that 25per cent of women in Selangor Malaysia experienced a partial loss of income due to having their employment contracts terminated, being forced to shut down their business or being placed on unpaid leave. Moreover, 43per cent of women reported having lost household income due to MCO. Additionally, 42 per cent of single mothers had lost (part of) their household income due to having their contract terminated, closing their businesses or being placed on unpaid leave. The situation exacerbates the pre-existing vulnerability of single mothers, as one-quarter of these women had a monthly household income below the poverty line index (< RM 989, about 237 US-Dollar). About half of the single mothers (45 %) reported having nobody else to care for their dependents while they were at work. When asked to evaluate their financial situation, the majority of single mothers (75 %) felt that their savings would only last for a maximum of 4 weeks (Subki et al. 2020). According to a survey done by the Selangor's Women Empowerment Institute, a majority of single mothers in Selangor are earning less than RM3,000 per month (about 720 US-Dollar). Some 40 % of them were also either forced to take unpaid leave, or close down their respective businesses during the second week of the so-called Movement Control Order (MCO). Jusoh and Latada (2020) also investigated the challenges faced by single mothers in Malaysia during the MCO lockdown. The study identifies two major challenges of single mothers: an everyday struggle to keep food on the table and the loss of the social support during the Covid-19 Movement Control Order. As a conclusion more assistance and aid should be provided to single mothers in the country to ensure mothers’ physical and emotional well-being In fact it needs a shift in the awareness towards single mothers in Malaysia as they can be described as the the country’s ‘front liners’ and unrecognized heroes.The following section analyzes the governmental strategies towards improving the lives of single mothers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

10 Malaysian Initiatives to Support Single Mothers During Covid19

There have been four major strategies implemented by the Malaysian government in order to improve the situation of single mothers since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Malyasian government has been directly and indirectly implementing measures to boost public health spending, while at the same time it concentrated on protecting and uplifting the people’s welfare, saving and creating jobs and protecting businesses.First of all, the government has provided various initiatives to support psychological and mental health issues in order to manage the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development set up the so-called Talian Kasih services which include aspects of physical abuse, counselling, homelessness, protection, welfare and also a children’s hotline. Secondly there have been implemented special support programs for female enterpreneurs in order to adverse the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example an amount of 34 Million US Dollars was given to stabilize female businesses and another amount of 19 Mio. US-Dollars was offered for capacity-building programs. This budget proofs that the government recognizes the contribution of women entrepreneurs as one of the major drivers of the Malaysian economy. In addition the third initiative aims to incentivise women who aspire becoing female entrepreneurs. The DanaNITA financing schemes will help intensify women’s participation in entrepreneurial activities. It can also help empower existing women entrepreneurs and increase their household income. There is also the Ar-Rahnu Micro-Credit Programme, a channel to raise capital for women’s businesses. The fourth dimension of help being offered to single mothers is located on the labour market policy level. It is called Penjana Kerjaya 2.0. The general objective is to promote the creation of quality jobs and to reduce unemployment among locals. It is meant to encourage job opportunities for people with disabilities, long-term unemployed and workers who have been terminated – single mothers are a huge part of each of these groups. As a fifth step a new financial aid scheme for Malaysians has been developed that will replace the previous Bantuan Sara Hidup (BSH). The new aid programme is called Pirhatian 2021. This initiative was taken because the government wanted to to ensure the well -being and survival of the vulnerable and workers who depend on daily wages. Households earning below RM2,500 (about 600 US-Dollarr), receive an additional ACA rate of RM500 (about 120 US-Dollar) per month while households earning between RM2,501 to RM5,000 (up to 1200 US-Dollar) will receive RM300 (70 US-Dollar) and single people will receive RM100 (25 US-Dollar). The last step concentrates on digitalization as a key to enter the modern world and to improve the living conditions of vulnerable groups such as single mothers. Therefore the initaitve MyDigital Malaysia was implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. Technology is what facilitates governments in providing aid and assistance to those in need, as well as for planning massive public healthcare initiatives and welfare programmes. Hence, technology and the digital economy must be a pillar of any economic policy planning. Therefore, a total of RM70 billion is expected to be invested into digital infrastructure over the next five years. The key digital infrastructures are local and international connectivity, as well as cloud services and data centres. By 2025, every Malaysian household, school and enterprise should be connected digitally via the Jendela (Jalinan Digital Negara) project, where a total of RM21 billion will be invested by the government and private sector. The initiative should ensure that all Malaysian will be able to have digital access, especially when focusing on buisness and educationa.

11 “It is not only gender inequality – it is diversity” – learning form international companies based in Malaysia

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2019 the World Bank adressed an research project on gender and labor market which also inclueded a focus group consisting of HR Managers of international companies based in Malaysia (parts of the research projects have been published in Schmillen et al. 2019 and Weimann-Sandig 2020). The results of these focus groups could also be key to overcome gender inequality and establish a greater sence of diversity within the Malaysian work landscape. As those international companies have already established gender-sensitive working policies these could be charakterized as best practice examples in order to encourage a broader discussion about gender and labor market among employers in Malaysia. In order to find examples from different branches, representatives from the Gas and Oil Industry had been invited as well as other companies from the industry sector and also from consultancy firms. The key interest was to gather information about gender –balanced working strategies and ways to promote female equality but also to get a deeper insight into the perceptions of HR specialists about the educational quality female graduates do present when applying for jobs. Also there was a broad discussion about female leadership and ways to establish career paths for women as well as men. An interesting discussion occurred when mentioning the possibilty of establishing gender qutoas in order to encourage female leadership in Malayisa. Gender quotas have been widely discussed within the last years. Countries like Germany established a women’s quota for bigger companies because the number of female leadership positions hasn’t been improved for several decades. Since 2016 German law requires a minimum quota for women on companies supervisory boards. At least 30 % of boardroom positions have to be filled by women. In fact, the working policies in public listed companies and those with workers councils and trade unions do change. Instead of ignoring the law leading positions stay vacant for several months in order to find women who are willing to apply for. Supporters associate more gender equal assessments with this. Opponents consider it as negligent to have longer vacancies of top management positions (Handelsblatt 14.9.2018). In Europe countries like Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden do have government-mandated quotas. As one of the first American states, California introduced the law on women’s quota in public companies in 2018 (Financial Times 31.8.2018). All in common is a variety of pro’s and cons of laws enforcing women’s quotas as well as of different sanctions for those companies undermining these laws. Within the Malaysian context the general meaning of our own research was to avoid a government-mandated quota by instead establishing active and diverse working policies. At least 20 % of the board members of global players should be women, for higher management positions a female percentage of 40 % is seen as mandatory within the next five to eight years. The HR Managers are deeply relying on internal competiotions between employers as not taking part in gender equity leads to unattractivity of companies. These discussions correspond with scientific assumptions on women’s quotas. Gleditsch/Ward (2006: 921) stress that especially poorer countries and those who are in transition do compete for international recognition what leads to an increased willingness of global players to place modern working policies without governmental obligations. The need for an increased percentage of women in leadership and top management positions is discussed with regard to the higher education females in Malaysia do perceive within the last years. In fact, 64 % of university enrollments were female in 2018 (Unesco Institute for Statistics 2019). Therefore, global players have to provide new and female-friendly working policies in order to get the best graduates. This corresponds with central assumptions of modernization theory (e.g. Iversen/​Rosenbluth 2010): industrializing countries need the female workforce to develop competitive labor markets and therefore have to take into account the rising female participation in higher education and to implement not only gender sensitive labor market access strategies but moreover to develop career possibilities for women. The results of the research project proof that Malaysian females – due to cultural norms and family values – often have different requests than males do. Physical work is not favored by women as well as jobs with high travelling frequencies or project work which includes a lot of overtime work because this is not suitable to family obligations or their understanding to reconcile work and family. International Companies who do accept these different requests and cultural norms, sharpen gender gaps, companies who do provide strategies in dealing with these strains do encourage more women to step into these fields. Physical work for example can often be done with the help of computerization and robots, travelling can be reduced by implementing virtual conference systems and project work can be more attractive when the possibility for home office is given.

Nevertheless the empirical findings reveal that it is still easier for men to get access to female-dominated work fields than the other way around. The social competencies differ, and females are more willing to accept male team members than men do. Women have to compete in a different way, they have to proof their “male characteristics” and facing sexual harassment a lot more than men do. This means that HR strategies have to ensure a social environment that makes it easier for women to step in male-dominated fields. Zero tolerance strategies towards sexual harassment are essential as well as encouraging women by awarding them prices and publicity for their success. The more it becomes normal to have successful females in all branches and work fields the more it will influence rising numbers of women to apply for these jobs. Gender-sensitive working policies mean to respect the diversity of employees.By following the professional debates on gender another aspect should be highlighted: diverse working policies should be gender sensitive but never exclusive. Working policies considering family periods should concentrate not only on maternal leave but highlight the relevance of shared responibilities for mothers and fathers in order to reconcile work and family issues. The International Labour Organization (ILO) (2018) stresses the meaning of parental leave as one of the major issues to ensure real gender equality at the labor market. Most Global Players – not only in Malaysia but all over the world- are facing the need to rightsize their workforce in order to be competitive at the world market and also because of an increasing automatization and digitalization. Diverse working strategies will be a central key to successfully meet the demands of modern labor market, social and economic issues.

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[1] World Bank Development Indicators

[2] World Bank Development Indicators



[5] OECD

[6] OECD

[7] OECD

[8] Malaysia Economic Motor 2020

[9] OECD Economic Surveys

[10] OECD Economic Surveys

[11] MASW=Malaysian Association of Social Workers

Written by
Nina Weimann-Sandig Prof. Dr. Nina Weimann-Sandig
Prof. Dr. Nina Weimann-Sandig was born in Nürnberg, Germany and studied Sociology and Political Sciences at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. Her master thesis was honoured by the socio-scientifc research centre Erlangen-Nuremberg. For her PhD-Thesis she got a scholarship of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. As a post-doc she worked at the German Youth Institute in Munich. In 2016 she was appointed as a professor for sociology and empirical social research by the University of Social Work, Education and Nursing, Dresden. Since 2016 she has also been working as a consultant for the World Bank. Her research fields are social inequality, especially with regard to gender and gender-based role models as well as labour market.

*Corresponding author

Norizan Abdul Razak Prof. Datin Dr. Norizan Abdul Razak
Prof. Datin Dr. Norizan Abdul Razak, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, was born in Port Klang, Selangor and obtained her Certificate in Computer in Education Lancaster University (1991), her PHD Doctorate in Computer in Education from UKM and her Postgraduate Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation from Trinity College, Dublin (2014). She is married and has four children. She started her career in 1988 and as a lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities (FSSK). In 2017 until 2020, she was appointed Director of the UKM Women’s Leadership Center, in line with her involvement as the Founder and President of the Malaysian Women e-Entrepreneurs Association (EWA) which was established from 2011 up till current. Professor of Digital Literacy and E-learning.

Cite this publication
Weimann-Sandig, Nina and Norizan Abdul Razak, 2021. Country Portrait Malaysia In: socialnet International [online]. 2021-09-21. Retrieved 2024-06-14 from

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