Daring to be Different: A conversation with Dato’ Dr. Madeline Anak Berma, SUHAKAM Commissioner and Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia
Education and Background
Dr. Madeline Anak Berma is the only daughter out of 3 children to an Iban policeman and his wife. Growing up in the 1960 – 1970s Sarawak, Dr. Madeline shares that she was one of the very few Dayak kids, even fewer girls who pursued a formal education up until Form 5, as many of her peers did not even go beyond Primary 6 or at most Form 3. Having a passion for education as a result of her grandmother’s upbringing who was the female figure who instilled its importance regardless of gender, Dr. Madeline entered Form 6 and shortly after, she entered the National University of Malaysia (UKM), where she spent her undergraduate studies and obtained her Bachelor of Economics. Having an itch to explore the world, Dr. Madeline accepted an opportunity to be a tutor in UKM which allowed her to travel to the US and obtain her Master of Arts in Public Policy and Administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and finally obtaining her Ph.D. in Development Studies from the University of Hull, UK.
Contribution to eradicating inequality in terms of gender and wealth
Dr. Madeline continued her career in academia as a lecturer in UKM and stayed on up until she retired as an Associate Professor in 2018. During her tenure, Dr. Madeline was also appointed as Director of the Tun Fatimah Hashim Women Leadership Centre and was selected to represent Malaysia to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women from 2015 to 2017 and to the Women and Economy Forum in Russia in 2012. One of her most notable memories as the Director was the opportunity to work with Professor Yunus, a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and Nobel laureate who founded Grameen Bank where they discussed and suggested ways to help the single mothers in Malaysia as well as women who were in poverty. After retirement, Dr. Madeline shows no sign of stopping and she has just been appointed as Sarawak’s commissioner to SUHAKAM, a commissioner to the Malaysian Competitive Commission, and a fellow to the Academy of Sciences Malaysia. Alongside that, Dr. Madeline has also been called to be a member of 7 different national councils, namely the National Unity and Consultative Council and the Women’s Advisory and Consultative Council. Dr Madeline has also been called to join the Sarawak Economic Action Council for COVID-19.
Social and Wealth Inequality
Poverty and inequality are not the most glamorous of topics, but it is the core focus of Dr Madeline’s work. She enjoys going out and conducting field research within the rural areas of Sabah and Sarawak, and the Orang Asli community in the Peninsular. To her, it is not about the titles or fame but what about her work has positively impacted the lives of the people. Working in this line of research means that she must always tell the truth even when it hurts because the statistics and numbers do not lie. As one of the very few highly educated Dayak women, she felt that it was her calling to be a voice for the voiceless and to give back with whatever she has. Growing up, she would often get visits from her relatives who live in the longhouses and although they were not rich from a monetary perspective, they always gave what they could be it rice from their fields or fresh produce from their farms and orchards. Experiencing this motivated Dr Madeline to be involved with the people and tackle issues that many are afraid to even talk about.
“I give not because I have a lot, I give because I know what it is like to have nothing” – Dr Madeline
Dr. Madeline is also involved in advocacy work for gender inequality which involves getting at least 30% of the leadership position in public and private companies to be held by women. From an economist’s perspective, Dr. Madeline shares that Malaysia is currently facing a single peak in labor force participation among women. Many young women who enter the workforce, leave after starting their own families and do not return due to society’s expectations of them to pick a family over a career. In addition, as the cost of living increases, not many have the luxury of hiring help to care for the young children, and naturally, the women are expected to be the ones to sacrifice their careers and stay home to care for them instead. For some women who do go back to work, they are still facing inequalities where the ‘take-home pay’ for a woman is different compared to a man solely based on their gender. To combat this, Dr. Madeline stresses the importance of having policies set in place to provide the relevant support for a woman to comfortably come back to work and allow them to be able to do their job productively. Currently, there is no commitment being made towards enforcing these policies since government policies are mostly shaped by cultural and religious stereotypes; these factors are hindering us from becoming a progressive society that aims to provide equally for both genders. Besides the general lack of women's participation in the labor force, this issue is also prevalent for women in the fields of STEM. It was noted that many have pursued and achieved excellence at the level of education and yet do not pursue their line of work due to the reasons mentioned above which turns out to be a waste of excellent human resources eventually leading to men monopolizing the field. This gives out the wrong impression that men are better at the aforementioned field. In conclusion, it is quite evident we do not have a leveled playing field for women, and this is where Dr. Madeline comes in, as a constant reminder to the authorities that it is high time we put an end to this inequality as she continues doing her part for the people by independently battling for an equal playing field for women.
Looking back at her career, Dr. Madeline thanks her grandmother, Deyon Anak Kana for being the reason behind her success. Described as a hardcore Iban lady, Deyon always pushed her grandchildren to receive an education as she regretted not sending her own kids to school. Despite being illiterate, Dr. Madeline says her grandmother would recognize the ticks and crosses on her grandchildren’s homework and would be the first to check their results after every major examination. To every young woman out there, Dr. Madeline encourages you to pursue an education to the highest possible level and to not let expectations or stereotypes to condition or intimidate you into doing otherwise. She stresses that excellence doesn’t come easy and requires hard work, so it is important to always give and do the best but at the same time be brave enough to dream big. Most importantly of all, to give back as we are all part of a system interdependent on each other.
We at MSGA encourage all our young female leaders to go out and learn as much as possible from the world around them and strive to make a difference for the betterment of society especially for the women who are still facing hardships due to their gender. At the same time, just like Dr. Madeline, we should never forget our roots, as it is a part of our identity and always strive to give back to our local community.