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Changing the Trope of Female Political Leadership in Asia

02 Mar 2021
By Grace Underhill
President Tsai Ing-wen delivered an address on the afternoon of June 13 regarding the decision by the Republic of Panama to end diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan). Source: Presidential Office Building, Taiwan

Of the thirteen women who have headed their government or state in Asia, only one has no traceable connection to a notable political dynasty. While female leadership is progressive on their surface, Asian countries must make significant strides to reap the manifold benefits of female-led societies.

Asia hosts the first modern country that had a female head of government. The world celebrated in 1960 when Sirimavo Bandaranaike was elected prime minister of Sri Lanka. When Benazir Bhutto become the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim-majority country, she received international acclaim as a forceful spokesperson for Pakistan, despite the political turmoil of her two terms.

Yet female heads of state or government in Asia are rare. In total, there have been 13 women in political leadership of their country across Asia. Astoundingly, only one – Tsai Ing-Wen, the current president of the Republic of China (Taiwan) – has little to no connection to an enduring political dynasty. Asia’s political pedigrees can be traced across the region, ranging from the Sukarno dynasty in Indonesia, to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India, and the Aquino dynasty in the Philippines. These historical lineages, deemed by some as modern incarnations of medieval houses, have in numerous cases propelled female leaders to the highest levels of political power.

Often, the dynasty is built upon a martyr. The Philippines’ first female president Corazon Aquino was the widow of assassinated senator Benigno Aquino Jr, and Park Geun-Hye of South Korea is the daughter of assassinated military dictator Park Chung Hee. In other cases, female leaders are in fact the daughters of “founding fathers” of their respective countries. Megawati Sukarnoutri of Indonesia, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, and Sheikh Hasina Wajed of Bangladesh are all examples of such women. There is no dispute that these women have dedicated their time and energies to political office, however it is highly likely that their legitimacy while in office relied  heavily upon the legacy, prowess, and political support base of their male relatives.

Extensive political research has determined that women in leadership positions yields gains not just for women and girls, but for society more broadly. Female leaders are more likely to succeed in negotiations by seeking common ground, they are more likely to advocate policies that support education and health, and their inclusion in political leadership has direct impacts on the stability of their country and region. However, when looking at the pathways and the legacies of those women in power in Asia, the evidence suggests that these benefits are not realised to the same degree when women rise to power aided by their political pedigrees. Rather than achieving office primarily through personal charisma or based on their achievements, these women have secured leadership positions with the help and support of their notable male relatives’ supporters. The cost is a relationship of necessity between female leaders and their supporters to maintain specific policy platforms. Consequently, these leaders fail to enact any far-reaching changes.

One such example is Yingluck Shinawatra, the first woman to hold the office of prime minister in Thailand. Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, became prime minister herself in 2011 on a wave of popular support. She held two political degrees, was managing director of two successful corporations, and ran a successful election campaign. She implemented policies such a compensation fund for victims of political unrest and had begun to repair ties with the Thai military and the monarchy. However, her time in office also featured extensive criticism, stemming from events such as a poor governmental response to severe flooding, a controversial rice subsidy policy which was accused of extensive corruption, and finally, a political amnesty bill for her brother that led to political crisis and Yingluck’s removal from office. Certainly, her familial connection wasn’t the singular factor boosting critique of Yingluck’s leadership, however her time was most definitely tainted by accusations that she was merely a proxy for her brother, Thaksin, as well as the expectation of Thaksin’s supporters that she would follow his policy positions. Eventually, she was found guilty of criminal negligence in 2018 in relation to the rice subsidy scheme.

Thus, the question emerges: what is preventing women from achieving political power on their own merit in Asian countries? Looking at the unique socio-cultural environment of Asian societies may provide some answers, in which traditional norms and expectations are blended with emerging modern values. Deeply embedded traditional cultural practices in the vast array of Asian societies still prevail, preventing long-term upheaval of ingrained practices and attitudes towards female political leadership. While in theory most states are committed to eliminating obstacles barring female achievement, greater involvement in politics is impeded by traditional views of gender roles, gender stereotypes embedded in school programs, and religious teachings that encourage these beliefs. In Indonesia, for example, the revival of a more “radical” or “intolerant” Islamic doctrine in recent years has flagged concern for the freedoms of women in areas such as anti-domestic violence legislation and access to education.

However, the election and leadership of Tsai Ing-Wen appears to be bucking the trend. It is true that Tsai is the daughter of a wealthy Taiwanese businessman. However, she bears no clear link to any existing political dynasties in her region and has thus built her career upon personal and political merit. After becoming involved in government services in the 1990s, she was elected president in 2016, making her both the first woman and first unmarried person to hold the position. She has vowed to make Taiwan an indispensable member of the world, stimulating the economy with initiatives in biotech, defence, and green energy, and she is leading a COVID-19 response that has been viewed as a model by other nations. Tsai Ing-Wen was named in TIME’s Top 100 Influential People of 2020, and she has defied commentators who in recent years have argued that Taiwan is too weak and isolated to stand up against China’s bullish regional ambitions.

In other areas of Asian society female representation has also seen improvement. Rising education levels and skills among women across countries make a compelling case for enabling their rise into leadership positions.  Furthermore, bold steps in entrepreneurship have seen women spearhead prominent start-ups in Asia, seen in the work of Upasana Taku, the co-founder of mobile wallet and online platform Mobikwik, and Tan Hooi Ling, the co-founder of Southeast Asia’s largest ride-hailing platform, Grab. However, Asia still lags behind the rest of the world. Only 12.8 percent of individuals in leadership positions in business are women, compared to other regions such as Northern Europe, where they make up 35.6 percent.

Ultimately, Asia must move past its continuing trend of supporting women only if they possess a particular political ancestry. Doing so would not only indicate that socio-cultural perspectives toward the role of women in society are improving, but it would allow women’s voices and abilities to be used in positions which have some of the greatest chances of improving and developing societies. The leadership of Tsai Ing-Wen is a promising step in the history of females in power in Asia. Hopefully, strides will continue to be made across the continent in the future, and political dynasties will become a phrase of the past for women in leadership.

Grace Underhill is a Tuckwell Scholar at the Australian National University. She studies a double degree of Arts/Law and has a keen interest in Asia-Pacific affairs. Grace is currently an intern at the AIIA National Office. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.