A legend in her time

She was the bane of pimps and other criminals, who viewed her with equal measures of fear and respect. To celebrate International Women’s Day tomorrow, we salute one woman who was ahead of the pack from decades ago.

TO her neighbours, A. Chandramalar (“Please call me Chandra”) seems a doting wife and devoted mother and grandmother who occasionally potters about the garden of her Klang home.

She also looks 10 years younger than her 70 years, something she attributes to exercise, eating sensibly and avoiding stress.

Certainly, few would guess that in the 1970s this diminutive former Assistant Commissioner of Police was the scourge of pimps, drug pushers and gambling syndicates in Penang, where she earned the moniker “Woman of Steel” and was famed for breaking down the doors of brothels with one swift kick. (“The trick is to aim for the hinge,” says Chandra.)

In a case that has become the stuff of legends, Chandra chased a suspected drug pusher for five miles through George Town before apprehending him in an alley. In another, her quarry suddenly turned around and struck her in the face with a crash helmet, but fortunately, other officers came to her aid and eventually apprehended the man.

Born in Sri Lanka, Chandra grew up in Kluang, the fourth child in a Tamil family of five daughters. Her father was a railway clerk and her mother, a housewife. Upon passing her Senior Cambridge examination, she did what most good young women of her generation did – become a primary school teacher.

However, being an excellent sportswoman, she yearned for a more rigorous career, so she joined the police force as a probationary inspector in 1960. Believing that “what men can do in the force, women can do better,” she excelled in shooting, self-defence, judo and direct combat with an armed person.

When Chandra graduated one year later, she was posted as an investigating officer to the police headquarters in Penang. This was followed by a two-year stint at the magistrate’s court as a prosecuting officer, before landing the top post in the Anti-Vice Branch back at the PenangHQ. Being the first woman to head such a division threw her right in the thick of the drugs, gambling and prostitution that was choking up the island.

Her squad of police officers (eight men, five women) on Honda motorcycles would storm as many as 15 brothels or gambling dens a day, averaging about 200 raids a month.

Sometimes her job called for her to go undercover – dressing as a prostitute on more than one occasion to nab a pimp. At gambling venues, she would blend in with the gamblers to get a ringside seat and then quip, “Saya pun boleh main-kah?” (“May I also join in?”) – a signal for her detectives to close in. Sometimes, the gamblers would climb out the windows screaming, “Kelinga cha bor lai leow!” (The Indian woman has come!”)

“You know, men hate to be walloped by women, especially Indian women,” chuckles Chandra, “But criminals – especially the Chinese – are very respectful when they know you are not corrupt.”

Drugs and prostitution tend to go together, so Chandra and her Anti-Vice Squad would often tag behind the police drug unit on their drug busts to exploit a legal loophole: under the Girls’ Protection Act, the police could not raid any premises without a warrant; however, this was allowed under the Dangerous Drugs Act.

Furthermore, their raids often resulted in the confiscation of huge quantities of money, and Chandra would warn her own officers not to help themselves to the loot.

Once, her team raided a gambling operation at United Hotel on Burmah Road. When they burst through the door, the gamblers tried to flush the belangkas and chips down the toilet, and someone flung all the money – nearly RM40,000 as it turned out – out of the window. As the notes floated slowly down to the street below, her detectives scrambled to retrieve them. Later, Chandra says, she personally conducted a body search of her detectives and recovered bundles of notes from their socks and underwear, and even from under a potted plant outside the toilet.

Chandra also remembers a sad case involving a young American woman who had came out to South-East Asia to do research for her doctorate. “We detained her in a raid,” says Chandra, “And seeing the needle marks on her arm, I could see her drug habit was the reason she was prostituting herself.

“I wanted to help her so I spoke to Immigration authorities. Even though she had overstayed, they agreed to chop her passport and offered to let her leave Malaysia without any problems. But she did not take up the offer. Two months later, she overdosed in a hotel and her heartbroken parents came to collect her body.”

But she remembers the successes, too.

Like the 12-year-old prostitute she rescued from a hotel that collected RM100 from each of her customers and paid her only RM5.

“When I saw her again in a welfare home, she thanked me for setting her free and showed me how well she had learnt to sew.”

Chandra’s zealousness and efficiency endeared her to the public but did not go down well with her superiors, who often took her to task for acting too independently and overstepping her boundaries. Consequently, she was repeatedly passed over for promotion in the first 17 years of her career.

The turning point – and also the lowest point – in her career came when a corruption charge was brought against her in 1976. However, this turned out to a blessing in disguise because an investigation by Bukit Aman Police Headquarters not only exonerated her, but also brought her good work to the attention of Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri (now Tun) Hanif Omar.

As a result, she was promoted to the rank of Assistant Superintendent and transferred to a teaching position at the Police College at Kuala Kubu Bahru, Selangor.

More promotions would follow, culminating with her retirement in 1994 as Assistant Director of Research and Planning in the Criminal Investigation Department of Bukit Aman with the rank of Assistant Commissioner of Police – the first non-Malay woman ever to attain this honour.

In later years, when Chandra visited Penang after her retirement, men she had prosecuted and put behind bars would greet her warmly. Sometimes, she and her family would dine in a restaurant only to find that someone anonymous had paid for their meal.

Asked if she has any regrets, Chandra says she sometimes felt guilty that job took her away from her family so much. She remembers only too well the occasions she would be called back to work in the middle of the night only to hear her youngest say, “Not again, ma.”

Her husband, a school teacher, also understood and endured the demands of her job, but he, too, would sometimes remark, “Why don’t you just take your bed and go.”

Nevertheless, Chandra confesses, “I loved every minute of my job and would do it all over again. I have suffered, but I got a lot of satisfaction knowing I was performing a service for the public by rescuing under-aged girls and drug addicts.”

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