Michelle Yeoh ’s Oscar win has resonated particularly profoundly with a key segment of Malaysian society: women who have battled, endured and ultimately surmounted the disparities of gender and age to excel in their fields, like the best actress winner. Jasmine Begum, a director for legal and government affairs for Asean and new markets at Microsoft, has overcome hurdles that may not have been in place if she was just “one of the guys” in the male-dominated arena of tech, she said. And Yeoh’s breakthrough Oscar win at 60 years old – “Ladies, don’t let anyone tell you you’re past your prime,” she said on the night – carries a clear, irrefutable message on the power of middle age. “Age is not a barrier. The fact of the matter is that a woman’s win is usually so much harder fought, and we don’t take these things for granted,” Begum said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, yellow, green … a win for a woman is a win for womankind.” On Monday, Yeoh emerged as the first Asian to win best actress at the annual Academy Awards gala in Los Angeles, triggering a global wave of Asian pride as everyone from doyens of Hong Kong cinema – where she launched her career in the 1980s – to Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim singing her praises over the historic achievement. The significance of the win was not lost on her. She described the accolade as a “beacon of hope and possibilities” for people of colour, while also proving a point that age is not an indicator of a woman’s ability to achieve success. Like in many other Southeast Asian countries, gender parity is still very much a work in progress in Malaysia . The estimated wage gap is relatively narrow, with women earning 96.21 ringgit (US$21.36) for every 100 ringgit earned by men, according to 2022 statistics on women empowerment in selected domains released by the national statistics department. But there is a huge gulf in representation at the top level, with women accounting for just 24 per cent of legislators, senior officials and managers. That proportion plummeted to 14.9 per cent when it came to parliamentary representation. Asia can celebrate progress in women’s rights, but much is left to do Opportunities also tend to take a nosedive outside urban settings, as women in many cases are expected to manage the home and children, leaving them with little time or energy for personal development. Begum, 54, said she felt that Yeoh’s win was a mirror for countless successful women who labour with a laser focus to achieve their goals while holding on to hope, faith and perseverance. “Women choose to be extraordinary because women have no choice. We cannot be skimming on the surface,” she said. “Every barrier is an opportunity. If I don’t push forward, it’s mine to give up. If I don’t try, I’m giving up to another man who has a certain square for how to look at it.” Steely determination Yeoh’s long journey to Hollywood stardom began with a back injury in her teens, which ended her dream of becoming a ballet dancer. In 1983, she was crowned Miss World Malaysia, which was a launch pad into Hong Kong’s vibrant, hyper competitive cinema scene. It was there that Yeoh started making a name for herself, breaking through the boy’s club of action films by learning martial arts and doing her own death-defying stunts. A decade later, Hollywood came knocking and she starred alongside Pierce Brosnan in the 1997 Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies . Her star rose higher in 2000 when she was cast in the martial arts blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon . But it took another decade or so before she landed more significant roles, including in the critically acclaimed Crazy Rich Asians and eventually her award-winning performance in Everything Everywhere All At Once . Yeoh’s gumption in taking on the boys at their own game is something that resonates with Law Minister Azalina Othman Said. Azalina has been a political trailblazer, having once served as Malaysia’s deputy speaker and holding several ministerial portfolios in the past, and believes that she and Yeoh share the values of “sheer hard work, perseverance and tenacity” to get where they are now. “Yes, there may be times when being the only woman in a room raises eyebrows, but it is a seat at the table that was earned, not given,” Azalina told This Week in Asia. “What one brings to the table is most important, and I know what women like Yeoh and I bring to the table carries weight.” Malaysian woman minister says OK for men to use ‘firm touch’ on ‘stubborn wives’ Glass ceiling Azalina, 59, acknowledged that Malaysia has a tendency to only celebrate its own when they achieve global success – such as in Yeoh’s case – even as many other women have risen to become respected leaders in their respective industries. The lack of recognition at home, coupled with constrictive rules imposed by the authorities, is something that veteran actress Susan Lankester says has left the local talent bereft of chances to further their craft. Lankester said Malaysians were “just hitching a ride” on Yeoh’s success, without giving much thought to the fact that she had to leave the country in search of opportunities to grow her career. “But the thing is that she fought and worked really hard to get where she did and we are all fighting as well,” Lankester said. “Our battles need to be seen and I don’t know whether they are being seen. Or maybe we’re not the right people that are being recognised. I don’t know.” Lankester said she has decided to rub it in the face of those who think older ladies are past their prime and prove that they “still have a lot to give to the industry”. “This year, I’m going to pitch for a grant – fingers crossed. I really want to produce something, it’s on my bucket list. I want to be an executive producer, and produce my first feature film for Malaysia,” said Lankester, who, like Yeoh, recently turned 60.