Meet Gunn Chit Wha, a pioneering female role model with many firsts in 1950s Malaya

In 1959, Gunn became the first female State Councillor of Selangor. Photo: Handout

It's difficult to be a woman in government - then and now - in Malaysia.

In addition to all the responsibilities and duties associated with a public service role, a woman also has to deal with prejudices and preconceptions surrounding gender.

This was an issue faced by young Toh Puan Gunn Chit Wha back in 1954. At the time, she was 26, and one of only four female barristers in British Malaya. She was running to be elected as a Municipal Councillor for the Petaling Ward of Kuala Lumpur.

In her recently released memoirs Waves Of Independence, she recalls an interview with a journalist covering her nomination.

In his report, he made a note to call her “pretty” and describe what she was wearing, while making no mention of what another male potential nominee was wearing.

“I bring this up here as I know that many of the younger generation and those who are feminists would find this amusing, perhaps even shocking!

“I know that my granddaughters would. Sensibilities change over time, I know, but I have never let societal prejudices about women put me down. I did not then, and I will not now, either,” writes Gunn in her book.

In Malaysian history, Gunn is a pioneering role model with many firsts: apart from being one of the first female lawyers of Malaya, she was one of the first female Municipal Councillors of Kuala Lumpur and the first female State Councillor of Selangor (in 1959).

A pioneer path

In a time where women were rarely highly-educated or given opportunities to succeed on a professional level, Gunn was set on breaking barriers.

Waves Of Independence, published by Singapore’s Epigram Books, details Gunn’s life story as told through writer Eva Wong Nava.

The book starts with Gunn’s childhood years. She was the daughter of Tan Sri Gunn Lay Teik (a former High Commissioner for Malaya to Australia/New Zealand) and Puan Sri Chua Teck Neo.

It also touches on Gunn’s experience during the Japanese WWII occupation, her education in England, and her involvement in government life in British Malaya.

Woven throughout the narrative are Gunn’s candid musings on life and society, as well as accounts of the country’s historical development.

It also contains some of her deep thoughts on present-day troubled Malaysia and its future.

The book also comes with a foreword by the Sultan of Selangor Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, a longtime friend of Gunn and her family.

"It is important not to forget the role of the many people like (Gunn Chit Wha) who ... played their part in helping our nation through the challenges of independence and beyond," writes Sultan of Selangor Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah.

Now 92, Gunn lives a quiet life in Kuala Lumpur with her family, having suffered a stroke last year.

Gunn was married to the late Datuk Lau Foo Sun, and has three children and grandchildren.

Her youngest son Andrew Lau says the book was created after his mother expressed interest in writing her memoirs.

“My mother always enjoyed telling stories about her family and relatives. With hindsight, my parents lived life to the fullest. They enjoyed socialising, interacting with people from all over the world, learning and travelling, ” shares Lau.

“As I grew to realise that my mother’s life was not the norm but an exception. Then I began to realise the values instilled in my life as a result of growing up in such an environment, ” he adds.

“Often we spoke of her penning her memoirs, being a lover of history."

Writer Wong Nava developed the book’s chapters through several one-on-one conversations with Gunn and her family.

To capture the time period Gunn lived in, Wong Nava also researched materials at the National Archives of Singapore and documented conversations with selected individuals close to Gunn.

“Madam Gunn was an absolute delight to speak to. She was very forthcoming with information, of which not all went into the book, since this is a memoir and not an autobiography. It was a very humbling experience for me, listening and learning from a wise and open-minded woman like Madam Gunn, and seeing history through her eyes, ” reveals Wong Nava.

One of Gunn’s stories that touched Wong Nava the most was the death of her mother on May 12,1969. The entire family had to then keep safe and plan her funeral under the storm cloud of the May 13 racial riots in Malaysia.

“Her experiences during the Japanese Occupation were also moving, especially the way her family escaped to Singapore and how they returned from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.

“I was also touched by how proud a Malayan Madam Gunn was and how much she cares for Malaysia as an independent nation, ” says Wong Nava.

“Hers was not a life of subjection during the colonial period, but one of pride for one’s identity, filled with a spirit of hope for independent Malaysia, ” she concludes.

More info here.

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