Below is an extract of the speech by UNDP Resident Representative for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, Dr Richard Leete during the dialogue on "Improved Maternity Benefits for Malaysian Women: Supporting Their Multiple Roles in Society" which was jointly organised by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
"UNDP has been a partner with the Malaysian Government, Social Security Organisation (SOCSO) and the ILO through successive phases of the project: “Social Protection Policy and Strategies”. The project’s purpose is to strengthen social protection policies. It studied the feasibility of a social health insurance scheme as an option for strengthening sickness protection for private sector employees and enhancing maternity leave benefits.
UNDP welcomes the study’s recommendation to strengthen maternity entitlements through a social health insurance scheme. Equality of treatment for employees in the public and private sectors will be consistent with the fundamental human right of equality and non-discrimination.
In September of this year, when Honourable Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi reports to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, it will be with pride that he can say Malaysia has achieved seven of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed by world leaders at the 2000 Millennium Summit. At the same time, as the nation moves towards Vision 2020, improved equity and social protection will be required.
Malaysia has made considerable progress towards achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment. All girls are enrolled in primary school, and their secondary and tertiary enrolment rates are even higher than those of boys.
Indicators of the health status of women are exemplary. For example, maternal mortality, currently at around 20 per 100,000 live births, is comparable to many highly developed countries, and about one tenth of the level of some neighbouring countries.
But despite their high education and health status, the labour force participation rate of Malaysian women has remained remarkably stable at around 47% throughout much of the last three and a half decades. This is in sharp contrast to the neighbouring countries of Thailand, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam where the corresponding figures are 71%, 63% and 60% respectively.
The tendency for a sizeable proportion of women to stop work after they have their first birth, and not return once their child-bearing is complete, has been a feature of Malaysia’s labour market, and this pattern holds for each of the ethnic communities. The Malaysian pattern is in contrast of many other countries where women either do not leave the labour force during child-bearing, or re-enter soon after their child-bearing has been completed.
Yet, if Malaysian women participated in the labour force at the same rate as in Singapore or Thailand, there would be respectively 1 million and 1.6 million more women available for work. This would undoubtedly significantly lessen Malaysia’s reliance on foreign workers.
By international and regional standards, current maternity leave entitlements at 60 days, are low. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Malaysia is one of a group of only 20 out of 152 countries providing maternity leave of 60 days or less. The study proposal to increase the entitlement, in phases, to 12 weeks, and to also include a short period of paternity leave is therefore welcome. It will help support women’s competing roles in the family and their workplace.
Of course, increased female labour force participation will require more than mere reforms to maternity benefits. Other measures could include access to high quality child care and nursery schools, along with flexible time and place working arrangements – teleworking and home offices.
In conclusion, I would like to thank ILO, SOCSO and the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development for helping bring this morning’s topic into policy dialogue. I hope that the outcome will provide the necessary momentum for improving Malaysia’s maternity benefits."