In her native Malaysia, Hong Leong Islamic Bank Bhd. Chief Executive Officer Raja Teh Maimunah Raja Abdul Aziz says she has never felt discriminated against on the basis of her gender. Overseas, it’s a different matter.
“I was speaking at a conference in Europe when somebody got up and said how can you be speaking about Islamic finance when you’re a woman?,” the 46-year-old who took over as head of the unit of the country’s fourth-largest bank in 2011, said in a Sept. 9 interview in Kuala Lumpur. “In Malaysia, there is a conscious effort by the government on gender diversity.”
Two of the nation’s 16 Islamic lenders now have female CEOs and three of the 11-member central bank Shariah Advisory Board are women, becoming role models for Prime Minister Najib Razak’s push to raise the female labor participation rate to 55 percent by 2015, from 52.4 percent now. The push, which mirrors similar efforts in Japan and South Korea, aims to widen the pool of available talent and help Malaysia maintain its position as the world’s preeminent center for Islamic finance. Only one Shariah bank in the Middle East has a female CEO.
“Because Malaysian banks don’t discriminate between genders when recruiting, that means they can tap a larger pool of talent,” Abas A. Jalil, chief executive at Kuala Lumpur-based consulting company Amanah Capital Group Ltd., said in an interview yesterday. “The size of Malaysia’s Islamic finance industry speaks for itself. Having women in executive positions allows the banks to have a more diverse point of view.”
Southeast Asia’s third-biggest economy has carved out a position as the major global hub in an industry that Ernst & Young LLP estimates will see assets doubling to $3.4 trillion by 2018. Malaysia accounts for 59 percent of outstanding sukuk worldwide, compared with 31 percent for the Gulf Cooperation Council countries of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
Zeti Akhtar Aziz, governor of Bank Negara Malaysia, right, speaks to members of the media at the Global Islamic Finance Forum in Kuala Lumpur.
Annual sales of ringgit-denominated Islamic bonds have more than tripled in the last 10 years as Malaysia attracted overseas issuers including Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd. and sovereign wealth fund Bahrain Mumtalakat Holdings Co. Issuance climbed 82 percent to 43.9 billion ringgit ($13.6 billion) this year from the same point in 2013, compared with a 39 percent increase to $32.6 billion worldwide.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden from driving, Malaysian women face few restrictions and are able to compete freely with men for jobs and places at institutions of higher learning. Women accounted for 68 percent of public university enrollment in the 2013/2014 academic year, according to official figures.
Fozia Amanulla, the female chief executive officer of Alliance Islamic Bank Bhd. recalls being at a meeting at a Saudi Arabian lender where they didn’t even have a women’s toilet.
“The whole building comprised of men,” said the 46-year-old in a Sept. 11 interview in Kuala Lumpur. “Even the tea person was a man. In that kind of situation you feel a little awkward.”
Being open to female talent has allowed Malaysia to access a wider pool of Shariah scholars, an area where there is a shortage of experts. Bank Negara Malaysia’s Shariah Advisory Council include university lecturers Engku Rabiah Adawiah Engku Ali and Rusni Hassan and researcher Shamsiah Mohamad, according to the central bank’s website. That contrasts with the Middle East, where female scholars are extremely rare.
“It’s a number of reasons, demographics and cultural” that have contributed to the lack of female Shariah scholars in the GCC, Sheikh Bilal Khan, co-chairman of Dome Advisory Ltd., said in a phone interview from London yesterday. “But I don’t think there is a lack of female talent in the Middle East.”
Bank Negara, led by a woman since the Asian financial crisis in 1998, has been at the forefront of efforts to build the nation’s sukuk market and open up the Islamic finance industry to overseas investors.
Female delegates attend a seminar at the Global Islamic Finance Forum in Kuala Lumpur.
“You have to demonstrate capability, knowledge and background and a track record to demonstrate your capability,” central bank Governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz said in a Sept. 3 interview in Kuala Lumpur. “So regardless of gender, that is how positions should be accorded.
Some 44 percent of Malaysian women aged 15 and above were employed in 2012, according to figures from the World Bank. That compares with 47 percent in the United Arab Emirates, 39 percent in Bahrain and 18 percent in Saudi Arabia.
Prime Minister Najib has taken a number of steps to encourage women into the workforce since he took office in 2009. Tax incentives are offered to companies that establish nurseries and allow flexible work arrangements and the government allocated 2.2 billion ringgit last October to a fund that includes a program to train women to become entrepreneurs and company directors.
“Malaysia has embraced the true spirit of the philosophies of Islamic jurisprudence,” Hong Leong Islamic’s Raja Teh said. “If you look at Islam and the philosophy and teachings, women are really regarded as equals.”