Early this month, Malaysia Employers Federation (MEF) Executive Director Shamsuddin Bardan voiced his opposition against the proposal of the Ministry of Human Resources to include anti-sexual harassment provisions in the Employment Act of 1955. Aside from the presence of a Code of Practice for private businesses, Bardan said that anti-sexual harassment provisions might only discourage foreign direct investments.

“Bearing in mind that the Government is committed to looking at a revamp of all labour laws to enable Malaysia to respond more effectively to globalisation, market liberalisation and increased competition; promote Malaysia as an attractive destination for investment; and develop Malaysians as knowledge workers with a first-class mentality and strong moral and ethical values, the Ministry of Human Resources should avoid ad hoc piecemeal amendments to current legislation especially on issues that have wide ranging and far reaching consequences not only legally but also on foreign direct investments,” he asserted.

MEF is Malaysia's largest coalition of private businesses, counting among its members Malaysia's top brands and multinationals such as AC Nielsen, Air Asia, Colgate-Palmolive, Coca-Cola, Johnson and Johnson, and Malayan Bank.

Women's groups have criticised Bardam, refuting his claim that there are enough legal measures for sexual harassment. As All Women's Action Society (AWAM) president Sofia Lim Siu Ching explained, “there are no special provisions in the Penal Code for sexual harassment offences, neither are there any other laws criminalising sexual harassment.”

Back in 1999, the Ministry of Human Resources released the Code of Practice for private business, including anti-sexual harassment provisions. However, the adoption of the Code is not mandatory, much less its implementation. The Penal Code is likewise inadequate as it merely classifies sexual harassment as “assault,” “outraging of modesty,” “rape,” “outraging of decency,” or “criminal intimidation.”

The Joint Action Group Against Violence Against Women (JAG), a coalition of the country's major women's organisations such as AWAM, the Women's Center for Change (WCC), Women's Development Collective (WDC) and Sisters in Islam, has been campaigning for a special law on sexual harassment, with the following features: creation of in-house mechanisms and designation of person for sexual harassment and other similar cases ; redefinition of work relationships – taking into account the subcontractual and voluntary natures of employment; and establishment of a tribunal.

In a 2001 joint study of AWAM and WDC, 35 per cent of the respondents admitted having been sexually harassed. Sexual harassment cases are also underreported, since the current legal remedies are inadequate and ineffective in exacting accountability from perpetrators. Most employers have a poor handling of sexual harassment cases. The Ministry of Human Resources also lack the power to compel employers to respond to such grievances. Complaints also bear the burden of proof.

The deregulation of labour industries has been a masterpiece by neoliberalism, which puts a premium on market players and behaviour over sovereignty, democracy and even human rights. While the struggle on the labour front continues, Malaysian women have been taken aback and outraged with the pronouncement that the state must likewise abdicate itself in protecting women against sexual abuse in the name of trade.

All Women's Action Society. (2008). “Move with the times and support sexual harassment laws.” E-mail communications.

Joint Action Group Against Violence Against Women. (2002). “Sexual Harassment and the Need for Legislation: Briefing Notes.” URL: http://www.wccpenang.org/wcc/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=120&Itemid=136

Malaysian Employers Federation. (2008). “MEF objects [to] ministry’s proposal to legislate sexual harassment.” URL: http://www.mef.org.my/Att_PressRelease/PR080908.pdf

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