lean inDecember 21 – Suddenly everyone is attacking Sheryl Sandberg after Michelle Obama said the Facebook chief operating officer’s “lean in” philosophy of feminism sometimes didn’t work, and women couldn’t “have it all”. 

A Vox journalist said Facebook’s numerous scandals – privacy problems, anti-Rohingya fake news by Myanmar military, hiring a PR firm that promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and the role of Russia-linked trolls in the 2016 US presidential election – were harming Sandberg’s image as a feminist and social reformer. 

A Guardian columnist wrote that “capitalism’s favourite feminist” has fallen from grace and urged women to lean out of corporate feminism. 

Back home, Malaysians don’t really care about Russian propaganda or anti-Semitism (our own prime minister dislikes Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros).

When it comes to women’s rights, Malaysians also can sometimes be ignorant about issues like gender-based violence, the wage gap, or the lack of women leaders. Worse, conservative Malay-Muslim groups demonise feminism as a Western idea that doesn’t suit Malaysia, as if gender equality is antithetical to religion.

Fighting the patriarchy in Malaysia or anywhere else in the world does require institutional and policy change, which Sandberg’s “Lean In” acknowledges. The book recognises systemic bias in the workplace and other barriers against women. Sandberg also advocated paid leave, affordable child care, and flexible work schedules. 

All she was saying was that women shouldn’t sell themselves short, but to “lean in” and to claim their seat at the table. Sandberg’s experience also made it clear that a woman’s success very much depends on her partner’s support.

I loved “Lean In”. The book helped clarify my self-doubts and encouraged me to be more assertive. If men could demand for all sorts of things despite not necessarily having the ability to perform the job, why shouldn’t far more capable women push themselves forward?

But Malaysia is a funny country.

Malaysians love to depend on (and blame) the government for everything. Make an offensive remark (whether you’re liberal or conservative, pro-government or pro-opposition), and people immediately demand for police investigations and jail time. (See beer hater Edi Rejang and theodicy questioner Caryn Yean). 

The same attitude prevails in other areas, as some demand for quotas (be it gender or race) and free stuff from the government, even if it means violating intellectual property rights. What arguably improves quality of life and makes the country a better place is not excessive government intervention, but a free business environment that stimulates the economy and provides jobs.

When the government interferes with the market, such as in the case of Tabung Haji that gave out ridiculous dividends of between 5 and 8.25 per cent at a time when banks offered deposit rates of 3 per cent or less, the ultra-rich take advantage and grow their wealth exponentially, while the poor remain poor. 

Half of Tabung Haji’s deposits came only from just 1.3 per cent of depositors. The biggest account was over RM190 million, which means the account holder made an easy RM15.7 million annually in the government-guaranteed fund that was originally meant to help Malaysians save money to perform the haj.   

Sandberg writes in “Lean In” that she and Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, a women’s rights activist from Liberia, both agreed that more women leaders were needed to improve conditions for women. 

Rather than glorify poverty and promote a “poor-me” narrative that demands constant aid, we should raise ruthlessly ambitious girls and women who will not stop until they achieve their goals. The axiom of feminism – the personal is political – can be turned on its head, so that a woman’s personal experiences reach such great significance and she becomes so powerful that she herself can help smash the patriarchy.

Being the COO of Facebook should be something we aspire to, or to own a successful business so that we have the power to make as much money as we can (unless you’re a banker at Goldman Sachs). It is difficult to help the disenfranchised if we ourselves are living hand to mouth.

This is not to say, of course, that we shouldn’t try to solve institutional gender discrimination or systemic female oppression. Institutions always need fixing.

Amid the #metoo moment that hit Malaysian media, an anonymous journalist related how a man from top management in her company would invite young women to his personal office for after-hours drinks; those who declined generally missed out on important assignments or interviews. These are obvious systemic barriers that block women from climbing the ladder.

However, otherwise, women should not be afraid to put men in their place, like a sexist coworker who cracks sex jokes. My boss related an incident about how she yelled at a male colleague across the office when he asked a female coworker when she last had sex. He shut up instantly and later texted my boss, whining about how mean she was to him.

Not everyone can stand up for themselves; it takes a certain amount of courage, which I myself need to summon up at times. But we train ourselves to do it so that aggressiveness becomes second nature. More importantly, we stand up for our sisters when they need help.

We women should seek money and power not to enrich ourselves, but because these things enable us to promote social justice and more importantly, to improve people’s lives directly due to our wide sphere of influence.  

Trying to deny the power of power is just plain foolish.