Every year, when we celebrate Merdeka Day and Malaysia Day, we reflect on the nation’s Founding Fathers. But what about its Founding Mothers? Many women also had a part to play in independence and nation building, yet their stories are often forgotten, their faces unknown.
To mark Malaysia Day this year, we decided to feature a selection of these women. While some are celebrated, others are unfamiliar. But these are all women who were influential in their time. They were trailblazers in education, politics and civil society in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s.
Of course, there are many more women we would have liked to include: this list is limited to just three decades and a few spheres. If you know of a woman who should get more recognition for her role in history, tell us more in the comments section.
Founded the Pure Life Society to protect orphans in 1948
Datin Paduka Mother A Mangalam A/P S Iyaswamy Iyer (Mother Mangalam) has been called the Malaysian version of Mother Teresa. Mother Mangalam has been a ‘mother’ to thousands of Malaysian orphaned children, through her foundation the Pure Life Society.
She was born in Singapore on May 17, 1926. It was World War II that had a great impact on the way Mother Mangalam (then Sister) approached life. She saw poverty and hunger all around her and resolved to dedicate her future life to children.
At the age of 22, she began to teach the children of poor families, along with her spiritual mentor, Swami Satyananda. Together, they set up the Pure Life Society in 1949, which has since nurtured thousands of orphans. Mother Mangalam has more than 30 awards and honors for her work including Merdeka Award in 2010. She also published a book of poetry in 2001, Dew Drops on the Lily Pad and another book, Mother, launched earlier this year.
First woman to be elected in public office in 1952
Tan Sri Devaki Krishnan is a member of the Malaysian Indian Congress and was the first woman to be elected in public office in Malaysia after winning a seat on the Municipal Council in Kuala Lumpur in 1952.
The eldest child in a Tamil family of Sri Lankan descent, Devaki Krishnan was educated at St. Mary’s School, Kuala Lumpur, and soon after graduating, she became a school teacher. In the 1949, Devaki became an active member of the Selangor Indian Association and the Women’s International Club.
In 1951, Devaki was nominated by her commnunity and asked by Datuk Onn Jaafar to stand for election at the Kuala Lumpur Municipal elections under the Independence of Malaya Party. She was the first woman to win an election in Malaysia.
Devaki later joined the Malaysian Indian Congress and rose through the ranks, first as Wanita MIC Secretary and then as Deputy President. At the same time, she continued to teach, chair the St. John’s Ambulance Association and campaign for women’s rights with the National Council of Women’s Organisation, which later named her Tokoh Wanita.
Sister Enda Ryan
Founder of the Assunta schools in 1955.
Datin Paduka Sister Enda Ryan was born Eileen Philomena Ryan in 1928 in Ireland. In 1947, she joined the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary and became a nun. She graduated with a B.A. and Higher Diploma in Education in 1954.
She came to Malaya the same year, after being invited by Sir Michael Hogan (the then-Chief Justice of Malaya) to set up schools to cater for girls whose education had been disrupted by the move to New Villages during the Emergency period.
Sister Enda Ryan founded the Assunta Primary (1955) and Assunta Secondary (1958) schools in Petaling Jaya and became the first headmistresses of the schools. Both are all-girl Catholic schools. She became a citizen of Malaysia in 1966 and has since been recognised for her services to education with numerous awards, including the Excellent Service Award from the Ministry of Education (1985).
First female Minister in the Malayan government in 1958
Tun Fatimah Hashim was the first woman in the country to ever hold a national ministerial post. Born in 1924, she saw the transformation of the nation and worked for the struggle for Merdeka, as well as for betterment of education and welfare of women and children.
In 1947, she became involved in politics as a member of UMNO and held roles within the party in Johor and Perak. In 1958, she was elected as a member of parliament in the Jitra / Padang Terap constituency in Kedah. She was also named Minister of Welfare. Tun Fatimah served as an MP for 15 years.
In 1958, she was the first woman to ever be awarded the Bintang Panglima Mangku Negara, which bears the title Tan Sri. Tun Fatimah co-founded the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO) and in 1962 she initiated the Malaysia Women’s Day Celebrations that are still celebrated to this day. In her golden years, she was appointed Pro Chancellor of University Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) in 1995. Tun Fatimah passed away in 2010 and was buried in Makam Pahlawan (The Warrior’s Tomb) in Masjid Negara.
Pioneering female lawyer and politician in the 1950’s
Mrs BH Oon (born Lim Beng Hong) was the first Malayan female lawyer to be called to the English Bar. She studied at St. George’s Girl’s School in Penang. After qualifying as a barrister in 1926, she returned to Penang, where she worked as a lawyer under her own practice for 50 years.
She also applied to the Bar of the Straits Settlement and Federated Malay States, which at the time only admitted men. The rules were amended in order to allow her to be admitted as the Bar’s first female Asian lawyer. Along with the doctor Soo Lim Kan, BH Oon was one of two women to serve in the Federal Legislative Council in 1948. She held that role until 1955, steering the conversation on nation-building in the lead-up to Merdeka.
BH Oon was a co-founder of the Malayan Chinese Association and a local councillor in Butterworth from 1954 – 1957. She also initiated a Women’s Charter that was included in the Pan-Malayan Labour Party’s manifesto. In 1951, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her public services. In 1971, she became the President of the International Federation of Women Lawyers. She passed away in 1979.
Independence fighter and feminist of the 1950’s
Many Malaysians have never heard of Shamsiah Fakeh, a feminist revolutionary who led the infamous left wing feminist group, Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS). However, in her youth she was known as a powerful orator and independence fighter who was courted by different political parties. She later became a prominent member of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM).
As a young lady from Kuala Pilah, Shamsiah was influenced by left wing reformist ideologies. She concentrated her efforts towards fighting for independence and joined the Malay Nationalist Party (Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya – PKMM). On 20 June 1948, the British introduced the Emergency Ordinance throughout Malaya which banned PKMM and other left wing parties as part of a crackdown on communism. Shamsiah moved to the jungle and took up armed resistance with the Malayan People’s Liberation Army, which lasted eight years.
Shamsiah and her (fifth) husband left for exile to China in 1956, and they were later imprisoned for two years in Indonesia during anti-communist crackdowns in the mid 60’s. They were freed in 1967 and remained in China until 1994 when they were finally allowed to return to Malaysia. In her autobiography Memoir Shamsiah Fakeh: Dari AWAS Ke Rejimen Ke-10, Shamsiah writes: “I was merely a woman fighting the British for my country’s independence and the emancipation of women.” She died in 2008.
Achieved pay equality for female teachers in 1964
Born into a family enamoured with history and literature, Datuk Rasammah Bhupalan’s life quickly became intertwined with our nation. Later, as a teacher and union leader, she mobilized legions to fight for women’s and worker’s rights.
As a soldier at the age of 16, she took up arms to overthrow the British Raj as part of the Rhani of Jhansi regiment, an all-female military force committed to fighting British in Southeast Asia. After graduating from University of Malaya, Singapore, she assumed a teaching position at Methodist Girls School, and it was in that school that she co-founded The Federation of Malaya Women Teachers Union (WTU) in March 1960.
The WTU was formed to pursue equal pay for women teachers of all races and ethnicities, who were not paid the same amount as men at that time. In 1964, they succeeded in achieving equal pay. As a co-founder of the NWCO, Rasammah also campaigned for minimum wage, better pension terms and an end to domestic violence and rape. Her efforts led to the enactment of Law Reform Act (Marriage and Divorces) Act 1976 that protects women against polygamous marriage and reformed custodial proceedings.
Female pioneer of Sarawakian politics in the 1950’s and 1960’s
Dato’ Sri Tra Zehnder was a politician and Iban patriot who fought for recognition of Dayak community. Born in 1926 as Philomena Tra, she grew up in Kuching and later lived through the Japanese occupation. After the war, she married a Eurasian colonial officer and used her standing in society to fight for the rights of the Dayak people. She founded the Sarkakup Indu Dayak Sarawak (SIDS) in 1957.
During the 1960’s, she became further engaged in politics. She served as the first female member of the State Legislative Assembly from 1960 – 1963. She was also the first woman Temenggong. In 1962, Tra Zehnder represented the Sarawak Dayak National Union (SDNU) at the Cobbold Commission meeting.
Among her fights was an untiring campaign to have Gawai recognised as an official day of celebration. Thanks to Tra Zehnder, 1 June is now known as Dayak Day. She received various awards for her work, including the Datuk Patinggi Laila Taib Award and the Pegawai Negara Bintang Sarawak. She died in 2011, making her final public appearance at the launch of her biography just 10 days before her death.
An advocate for women’s rights from the 1960’s
Datuk Ramani Gurusamy is currently the vice president of NWCO in Malaysia and was a key figure in the women’s rights movement in the 1960’s.
Ramani started her career as a teacher, where she was posted at various mission schools. There the seeds of being a future social activist were sown when she realized how badly women were treated in the workplace. She first first joined NCWO in the late 1960’s. Among some of the causes she worked unfailingly for were equal pay and pension rights for women, advocating awareness of breast cancer with men as partners in helping women and also custody rights when it comes to divorce or separation cases.
She was one of the key figures instrumental in pushing for change in regards to how rape cases were handled in the 1980s, especially in amending legislation unfavorable towards women. That relentless determination resulted in the setting up of a unit of women police officers in 1986, specially tasked in investigating rape cases.
Malaysia’s first female ambassador in 1971
Tan Sri Lim Phaik Gan, better known as PG Lim was a leading lawyer and diplomat who defended the vulnerable and was highly respected by a succession of Malaysian Prime Ministers.
PG Lim was born in Britain. She studied law at Cambridge University, following in the footsteps of her lawyer father, Lim Cheng Ean. After returning to Malaya, Lim forged a reputation as a formidable lawyer. She took up several legal battles on behalf of workers’ unions, including the Railwaymen’s Union of Malaya and the National Union of Plantation Workers. She also co-founded the Labour Party of Malaya, which was active between 1952 – 1969.
After the riots of May 13 1969, Lim was appointed to the National Consultative Council, which would go on to formulate the New Economic Policy. Two years later, she became an ambassador to the United Nations, the first ever Malaysian woman to hold this role. After ten years as an envoy, PG Lim returned to Malaysia in the 1980s and was then invited to be Director of the Regional Arbitration Centre from 1982 – 2000.
She was also a long-standing patron of the arts. In 2009, Lim was awarded a Merdeka Award. Her memoir, Kaleidoscope, was published in 2012. She died in 2013.
A journalist and leading politician in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Tan Sri Datin Paduka Seri Dr. Aishah Ghani was one of the most influential women in UMNO. Born in 1923, she was educated in Selangor and West Sumatra, Indonesia. She started with a career in journalism, reporting for Pelita Harian, PKMM’s newspaper. At the time, she was a member of the PKMM and leader of the women’s group AWAS.
In 1955, Aishah Ghani followed her ambitions to travel overseas by herself. She later published an account of her travels in a book, Ibu Melayu Mengelilingi Dunia: Dari Rumah Ke London, written under her husband’s name. After PKMM and AWAS were banned, Aishah Ghani joined UMNO and was appointed UMNO Secretary for Kampung Baru.
She continued to work as a journalist for Berita Harian and later as an Editor at New Straits Times, but her political career soon took over. She joined the UMNO Supreme Council and was also the first female senator to be appointed in Malaysia, in 1963. In 1972, she was appointed as Chief of Wanita UMNO, and remained in that role for 12 years. During this time, she called for reform for Muslim Marriage and Divorce Laws. Aishah Ghani also contributed to various NGOs, such as Kraftangan Malaysia. She died in 2013.
First female member of Sabah’s State Legislative Assembly in 1976
Toh Puan Rahimah Stephens (born Cecilia Juane Lutter) became actively involved in politics after the death of her husband, Tun Fuad Stephens (Donald Stephens), Sabah’s first Chief Minister.
Tun Fuad Stephens was the President of the United National Kadazan Organization (UNKO) and played a key role in negotiations for the federation of Malaysia in 1963. He later went on to found the Berjaya Party. In 1976, less than two months after the Berjaya Party won the state election and Tun Fuad Stephens was re-elected, he and his eldest son – along with several Cabinet Ministers – were killed in a plane crash.
After the untimely death of her husband and son, Rahimah Stephens stepped up to an active role in Sabah’s politics. She became the representative for the Kiulu constitutency, and the first woman member of the State Legislative Assembly in 1976. She was soon offered a cabinet role as Sabah’s Minister of Community Services, setting the stage for future female politicians in Sabah.
Illustrations by Lyn Ong. Words by Audi bin Ali, Abdul Qayyum Jumadi, Stephanie Boey, Ling Low, Navshed Navin, Lyn Ong, Kathryn Rao, Vivian War.
Find out more about the women of Malaysia’s history at Sejarah Wanita and the National Archive.
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