Malaysia's Star Everywoman

Malaysia's Star Everywoman

How a Feisty Fictional Character Got Out the Vote

By her own description, Mrs. Bedah looks like your average middle-aged Malaysian "auntie," favoring a headscarf, sunglasses, and a loose-fitting floral print baju kurung. She's not pop star material. So what's she doing on YouTube singing remakes of songs by American pop icons Justin Timberlake and the Pussycat Dolls? And why do Malaysian politicians and voters care what she thinks?
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Women's Candidacy Initiative
Mak Bedah sings Bedahlicious with Justin Timeforchange
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Women's Candidacy Initiative
Mak Bedah's take on the Pussycat Dolls'Dontcha
Women's Candidacy Initiative
Everywoman "Mak Bedah" creates a stir among the Malaysian public. View Larger >
Mrs. Bedah--Mak Bedah in Malaysian--made her debut in early 2008 in time for the Malaysian General Election. She is the creation of the Women's Candidacy Initiative (WCI), a group committed to increasing the participation of women in politics and government in Malaysia. 

Bold and a little bit brassy, Mak Bedah is the fictional character at the center of a creative voter education campaign that used pop culture references and tools plus a healthy dose of humor to inspire Malaysians --especially younger ones--to participate in civil society and stand up for issues that matter to women.

Initially, WCI planned on backing a standard candidate for parliament, independent Zaitun "Toni" Kasim. Sadly, Kasim fell ill, and passed away from cancer. Unable to find another suitable candidate on short notice, but unwilling to throw in the towel, WCI decided to shift its energy towards challenging the remaining candidates to take a stand on the kinds of issues Kasim would have championed.

They needed a new campaign and a new public face--someone voters could relate to and be inspired by. Enter Mak Bedah. Conceived of as a Malaysian everywoman, Mak Bedah was brave, opinionated, and loud. Better yet, with the help of her signature purple headscarf, any of the women in WCI could play her.

I.M.O.W. spoke with WCI representative J.C.H. Lee to learn more about this feisty fictional character.

In a nutshell, who is Mak Bedah?

Mak Bedah was supposed to represent the average Malaysian woman, one who believed in equality, justice and meaningful democracy. She rejected the uneven expectations placed on men and women, but she was clever enough to turn these expectations around.

So, during the 2008 elections, Mak Bedah went shopping, something women are thought to do well. Equipped with a grocery store shopping cart, she went "shopping for a real candidate," who would work to improve the situation for women and to increase representation of women in parliament and in decision-making positions. Bearing a shopping list of positions that her ideal candidate would take, not one, but several members dressed as Mak Bedahs showed up at the public appearances of candidates from all the major political parties to ask them their stance on issues relating to women's rights.

In “Bedahlicious,” Mak Bedah's music video version of the Fergie hit “Fergilicious,” she sings alongside a Justin Timberlake stand-in named "Justin Timeforchange." How did WCI decide on this lighthearted approach to spreading its serious message?"

To raise awareness of the issues negatively affecting women in Malaysia, we needed to get the attention of the media and to reach the young. We decided that we would need an innovative campaign, something different from the staid campaigns of regular candidates. We also wanted to make the electoral atmosphere a fun and engaging one in which the young also had a stake, to widen the meaning of democracy. So, with the help of a WCI member who is also a filmmaker and a couple very sporting souls, WCI produced (in great haste!) a few music videos which we hoped would both entertain and impart a message.

How did people respond to Mak Bedah?

On the one hand, the political candidates that we engaged with in public largely took us seriously and, for the most part, gave thoughtful responses. Most, I'm happy to report, took our points on board; a few supported us outright.

The general public responded well and was supportive too. While many sheepishly took flyers that were being handed out, and others avoided any contact, many took the opportunity to act on their curiosity and find out what the commotion we were causing was about. People can sometimes be wary of coming into contact with politicians - especially those from opposition parties. I think the fact that there were a few similarly clad and cheerful looking Mak Bedahs made us look harmless.

How would Malaysia be different if Mak Bedah had her way?

Mak Bedah's and WCI's visions are the same: A Malaysia in which men and women are able to participate in life as equals with equal responsibilities and opportunities; A Malaysia in which the law recognizes the difficulties faced by women, as well as members of other marginalized communities, and protects the interests and rights they often have difficulty defending themselves; A democracy accessible to all communities, not just women, which enables everyone's voices to be heard and their needs met. While WCI focuses on advancing women's political place in Malaysia, we understand that true equality goes beyond the male-female divide and must encompass a mosaic of different communities and identities, and we all need to look out for each other. A Malaysia in which this happens, we hope, will be the Malaysia of the future and is, at any rate, the one we are working towards.

Cate Conmy contributed to reporting.

The Women's Candidacy Initiative promotes civil society and women's rights in Malaysia.

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