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Tuesday March 8, 2011

100 memorable Malaysian women - Part 1

To celebrate a century of feminist activism, we wanted to spotlight 100 women. But do we choose them based on the usual criteria, that they were i) the greatest, ii) most inspiring, iii) most influential, or iv) most successful? We decided “no”. Instead, the women in our gallery are simply those we believe have made an unforgettable impact for a variety of reasons and we remember them with gratitude, with admiration, with pride, with joy, with affection or even with fear or sorrow.

We know we won’t please everyone with our selection and we acknowledge there are others who should perhaps have made the list. But we wanted 100 memorable Malaysian women for 100 years and, for better or worse, these are the chosen ones in no particular order. – June H.L. Wong

DATUK RASAMMAH NAOMI NAVAREDNAM AKA MRS F.R. BHUPALAN

AGE: 84

Educator, unionist and activist, Rasammah has spent a lifetime fighting for a better society. After graduating from University of Malaya in Singapore in 1955, she became a teacher at the Methodist Girls School in Penang. This led her to notice that women teachers were discriminated against in terms of salary.

She was founder president of the Women Teachers Union of the Federation of Malaya in 1960.

Rasammah was the first honorary secretary general of the Malayan Teachers National Congress, which is affiliated to the World Confederation of Organisations of the Teaching Profession (WCOTP). She was the founder principal of the Methodist College and in 1983, she received the Tokoh Guru award in 1986.

She is also a founder member of the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO), and was its first secretary general.

Currently, she is chairperson of the National Council of Women’s Organisations’ Law and Human Rights Commission, finance chairperson of YWCA-KL and sits on the Methodist Education Foundation board.

DATUK RAMANI GURUSAMY

AGE: 71

The deputy president of the National Council of Women’s Organisation (NCWO) has been a stalwart figher for women’s rights and development in the country for the last 35 years.

She has focused on professional social and community work to promote women’s empowerment in relation to the family, community and national development.

In the 1960s, she fought for equal pay for work of equal value, for giving women Permanency and Pensionable status which entitled them to equal pay, medical, housing and other benefits.

She served NCWO secretary-general for 21 years and was at the forefront of its many programmes, including the formulation of the National Policy on Women and Action Plan.

She remains actively involved in several organisations, such as the Asean Confederation of Women’s Organisations; Suhakam’s Committee on Human Rights Education for Schools and the Home Ministry’s Anti-Trafficking in Persons Council.

MARIA CHIN ABDULLAH

AGE: 50s

Maria, a lawyer by profession, is a prominent voice for women’s rights in Malaysia.

Her vast experience in NGO work includes serving as the National Women’s Coalition president and All Women Action Society (Awam) president.

She further served as executive director of the Women’s Development Collective. In recent years, she lent her voice to highlighting gender issues relating to Islam as senior programme manager for Sisters in Islam.

She is executive director of Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower), a non-governmental organisation working with marginalised groups in the community.

DATIN PADUKA MOTHER MANGALAM IYASWAMY IYER

AGE: 85

The co-founder and president of Pure Life Society, Mother Mangalam, as she is popularly known, was awarded the Merdeka Award 2010 for the education and community category.

She was selected for her outstanding contributions in promoting the welfare of the underprivileged and fostering national unity.

It was World War II that had a great impact on the way Mother Mangalam approached life.

She saw poverty all around her and people barely having enough food to eat, leading her to reflect on life and death. It was then that she resolved not to marry and have children, as she felt there were so many others who needed her help.

Together with her spiritual mentor, Swami Satyananda, they set up Pure Life Society in 1952. PLS has become a symbol of hope and a home for orphans and underprivileged children.

DATUK SITI NURHALIZA

AGE: 32

Siti Nurhaliza Tarudin is a singer, pop idol, songwriter and businesswoman. She has more than 200 awards to her name, among them 34 Anugerah Industri Muzik awards, 22 Anugerah Bintang Popular awards, 20 Anugerah Planet Muzik awards, 18 Anugerah Juara Lagu awards, four MTV Asia Awards and the holder of two records in the Malaysia Book of Records. She won MTV Asia’s Best Musical Artiste and Channel V’s Biggest Asian Artiste in 2005.

She started when she was 16 and has never looked back. Her great talent and sweet looks immediately won her lifelong fans. Her popularity has reached the entire region, and she is mobbed by fans wherever she goes.

Throughout all this, Siti is a savvy entertainer, reciprocating her fans’ adulation with her time and talent and playing up the media attention that she gets.

Her whirlwind relationship with Datuk Khalid Muhammad Jiwa and marriage to him in 2006 caused controversy, as she was said to have come between him and his then wife. But even that did not mar her stellar reputation.

She continued her music career, and even launched a beauty line called SimplySiti in 2010. Last month, she launched her talk show, Siti, and had Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as her first guest.

YASMIN AHMAD

AGE: 51 (DIED JULY 25, 2009)

Her sudden death shocked the nation; the outpouring of grief was universal. Yasmin Ahmad was the executive creative director of Leo Burnett Malaysia and filmmaker extraordinaire and her body of work epitomised what the 1Malaysia concept was all about.

She touched hearts with the Petronas commercials about the average Malaysian. Her message was always laced with humour, simplicity and accepting of each other’s differences.

Her string of critically acclaimed and award-winning films – Sepet, Gubra, Mukhsin, Rabun, Muallaf and Talentime – were thought-provoking and beautifully shot. Her death, caused by a stroke and brain haemorrhage, instantly lifted Yasmin to legendary status and deservedly so.

DATUK NICOL ANN DAVID

AGE: 28

She is the most successful woman squash player in the world. At 16, when most of her peers were immersed in either their studies or social activities, she won the 1999 British Junior Open, where she was champion for both the Under-17 and Under-19 categories, the SEA Games (senior and team categories champion), and the German Junior Open (Under-19 champion).

In the same year, she became the youngest winner of the Women’s World Junior Championships in Antwerp, where she beat compatriot Leong Siu Lynn in just 30 minutes.

Today, after numerous wins at national and international levels, Nicol David is ranked world number 1 in women’s squash, the first Asian woman to achieve this. In 2008, she became the youngest person ever to be conferred a Datukship in Malaysia, the Darjah Setia Pangkuan Negeri from her home state of Penang.

She is currently one of the most recognised and admired sportswomen in the country.

IRENE FERNANDEZ

AGE: 64

As director and co-founder of non-governmental organisation, Tenaganita, Fernandez has worked tirelessly to promote the rights of migrant workers and other marginalised people in Malaysia.

She was arrested in 1996 on charges of maliciously publishing false news, following a report she published on the deplorable living conditions of migrant workers in local detention centres.

After a seven-year trial, one of the longest in the country, she was found guilty in 2003, and released on bail pending her appeal.

Despite restricted civil rights, she continued to take an active part in human rights issues. In 2008, she was acquitted of her earlier conviction.

In 2005, Fernandez was awarded the Stockholm-based Right Livelihood Award, referred to as the alternative Nobel Prize which honours those “working on practical and exemplary solutions to the most urgent challenges facing the world today.”

FISH LEONG

AGE: 33

Leong Jing Ru, born in Bahau, Seremban, is the most successful Malaysian singer in the Chinese speaking world. Her album, The Power of Love sold in excess of 1.5 million copies in Asia.

She started her career in Mandarin Pop and in 1997, joined Rock Records in Taiwan. She was nicknamed Fish because the last character of her name sounds like “fish” in Cantonese.

As her career blossomed, she became the “Queen of Love Songs”, with love and friendship as the recurring themes in her songs. She is now an international star, having found success in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

She often collaborates with prominent Chinese songwriters and producers. She has received numerous industry accolades in the region. She is married to Taiwanese businessman Tony Chao.

IVY JOSIAH

AGE: 56

She is synonymous with NGO group, Women’s Aid Organisation or WAO. WAO was established in 1982 by the late Tun Tan Siew Sin and it was one of the first organisations in Malaysia dedicated to helping battered women and children.

Josiah – born in Kuala Lumpur and raised in Brickfields – was one of its pioneer volunteers.

WAO helps women and children who are victims and survivors of violence and it also conducts public education campaigns to create awareness of violence against women and women’s rights.

For over two decades Josiah has been a leading advocate of women’s rights, an opponent of violence against women and children.

SYBIL KATHIGASU

AGE: 49 (DIED JUNE 12, 1948) She was the resistance fighter who saved countless lives during the Japanese Occupation. Sybil Daly was born in Sumatra to Irish and Indian parents, and grew up in Malaya. She trained as a nurse and midwife and after marrying Dr Adson Clement Kathigasu, they operated a clinic in Ipoh.

When Malaya was taken by the Japanese in 1942, they went into hiding. Sybil and her husband started providing medical aid and information to the underground resistance at the Kathigasu shophouse dispensary in Papan, Perak.

The couple was captured by the Japanese and tortured. Sybil suffered ripped fingernails, hot iron-scalded legs, beatings with bamboo sticks and the infamously cruel “water treatment”.

She was left with a damaged spine, broken bones and a fractured jaw. She died in 1948 from acute septicaemia due to an old wound on the jaw, resulting from a kick of a Japanese boot.

Her life has been immortalised in the series, Suatu Ketika: Sybil... Apa Dosaku? based on her memoir, No Dram Of Mercy. Sybil was the first Malayan woman to be awarded the George Medal, a recognition of civilian bravery in the face of enemy action, by England’s King George VI.

Related Stories:
100 memorable Malaysia Women - Part 2
100 memorable Malaysian Women - Part 3
100 memorable Malaysian Women - Part 4
100 memorable Malaysian Women - Part 5
100 memorable Malaysian Women - Part 6
100 memorable Malaysian Women - Part 7
100 memorable Malaysian women - Part 8
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Leather’s deadly toll
From girl soldier to woman warrior
Our own homegrown apartheid
In search of what Islam really says
Healthy democracy, healthy government
Journeying for change
Wash up, lads

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