Photo: Ruslena Ramli is head of Islamic finance at Malaysia's RAM Rating Services Berhad. Photo supplied by RAM Ratings.

Islamic Finance

Women in Islamic finance: Malaysia continues to show the way forward

This article is written by RAM Ratings. It is part of Salaam Gateway’s International Women's Day 2020 series that is co-designed and curated by Nyra Mahmood, MD of UK-based Simply Sharia Human Capital (SSHC LTD), the publishers of the 2016 report "Women in Islamic Finance & Islamic Economy”.


Malaysia is blessed with many strong female leaders. Cutting across many industries, they sit on boards of directors, are chief executive officers and/or hold senior executive positions in the finance industry, the government sector, government-linked entities, and listed corporates.

Industry champions in their respective fields of expertise include Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz, the current chairperson of Malaysia’s largest unit trust fund, Permodalan Nasional Berhad, and former central bank governor, Datuk Nor Shamsiah Mohd Yunus, the current governor of Bank Negara Malaysia, Datuk Mohaiyani Shamsudin, the chairperson of Malayan Banking Berhad, the country’s biggest bank, and Datuk Shireen Ann Zaharah Muhiudeen, the chairperson of Bursa Malaysia.

According to Grant Thornton International Business Report: Women in Business 2020, women account for 33% of the senior management positions in Malaysia-domiciled companies. The report highlights the remarkable progress achieved through the past year, noting a 10-percentage point increase - the highest level since 2007 and surpassing the global average of 29%.

Similar positive improvements in the ASEAN region was recorded, from previous year’s 28% to 35% end-2019 and emerging economies continue to see the highest proportion of women in senior roles, including Africa (38%), Latin America (33%) and Emerging Asia Pacific Countries (32%).

What started out in 2004 through the introduction of the At Least 30% of Women in Decision-Making Positions in the Public Sector policy by the Malaysian government has had a ripple effect on the private sector. In May 2015, the 30% Club was launched to encourage listed companies to aim for at least a 30% mix of women on their boards. According to the MSCI’s Women on Boards 2019 Progress Report, Malaysia has made great strides in  having more women representation on Board of Directors, attaining 25.3% as at end-2019. This represents an improvement over the previous year and is also ahead of the MSCI ACWI Index and the MSCI World Index. Despite this, there is still room for further progress, with the 30% targeted quota due by end-2020.

Percentage of director positions held by women, 2016-2019 (constituents of MSCI ACWI Index)

  2016 2017 2018 2019
Malaysia 15.3% 20.2% 21.9% 21.6%
Singapore 11.2% 12.9% 13.7% 18.4%
Thailand 12.2% 11.8% 12.7% 13.8%
Indonesia 2.8% 3.3% 3.3% 10.1%
MSCI ACWI Index 15.8% 17.3% 17.9% 20.0%
MSCI World Index 19.1% 20.4% 21.6% 25.0%

Source: Women on Boards 2019 Progress Report, MSCI ESG Research, December 2019


When the 30% Club was first introduced, industry observers voiced their concerns that the 30% quota would be difficult to implement without any incentives. The key had been to ensure the appointment of women directors based on merit and not merely to make up the numbers. Research shows that there are many advantages from gender diversity on boards of directors as well as senior and top management positions as it leads to better performance, compliance, governance and risk management.

The global movement by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals may have prompted corporates to realise the value proposition of having professional women leaders. Proactive measures such as Women@Work - announced under Malaysia’s Budget 2020 – represent the commendable efforts of the Government of Malaysia vis-à-vis facilitating the return to work of professional women. The wage incentives and income tax exemptions offered by the Women@Work scheme act as catalysts in encouraging more women to return to employment.

Specific to Malaysia’s finance industry and supporting service sectors, a fairly large number of women bankers/practitioners have become the voice of the market besides sharing their thought leadership. The changing times and heightened exposure to proper education have been key to changing this landscape that is dominated by men, especially in the arena of Islamic finance.

The credibility of our top women corporate leaders is supported by the solid reputations that they have established throughout their careers. One such individual is AmInvestment Bank Berhad’s CEO, Raja Teh Maimunah Raja Abdul Aziz, who is also AmBank’s group managing director of wholesale banking. Raja Teh Maimunah has more than 23 years’ experience in banking and finance, with a focus on Islamic and investment banking. A distinguished and frequent speaker at local and international finance-related conferences, her eloquent speech and acerbic wit often enrapture audiences. Her passion for raising Islamic finance to a higher level of growth and to be accepted as part of the mainstream global finance system set her apart from her male peers.  

Another seasoned banker is Angelia Chin-Sharpe, CEO and country head for Malaysia at PNB Paribas Asset Management. She had been among the first batch to graduate from the Chartered Islamic Finance Professional exams at INCEIF and is a registered Chartered Professional in Islamic Finance with the Chartered Institute of Islamic Finance Professionals. Her 24 years of experience spans the banking sector, the capital markets and asset management.

At RAM Rating Services Berhad (RAM), women in leadership positions is the norm, with two past female CEOs, a past long-serving Chairperson and two-thirds of its portfolio head roles taken up by women, including Islamic finance.

Ruslena Ramli heads the agency’s Islamic finance department and plays a pivotal role in establishing and strengthening RAM’s franchise in Islamic finance, combining the company’s fortes and insights in credit rating and sukuk transactions. With over 20 years’ experience encompassing investment, commercial and retail banking, Ruslena is IFN’s country correspondent in Malaysia and among the few female leaders in showcasing the nation’s success in building a sustainable ecosystem for the sukuk market. She has also published several papers on the building blocks required to develop a vibrant sukuk market, particularly in emerging markets that seek to establish their footprints in Islamic finance.

While there is a growing presence of females in Islamic finance academia, women practitioners in the Islamic finance capital markets should be continuously encouraged to bridge the theory and practical aspects of financing through this sphere.  

“In the many conferences and events that I’ve participated in as a speaker or moderator, the likelihood that I’m the only female on the podium is nine out of ten. There has always been female participation, although more often than not only at the periphery,” said Ruslena.  

Malaysia has been quite successful in nurturing good talent within the Islamic finance arena. Market observers are keen to hear more female voices in future applications that can help bring Islamic finance to its next phase of development, such as block chain and artificial intelligence.

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