Ibu Zain’s blazing trail


Tan Sri Zainun Sulaiman, a pioneer for Malay women in education and politics, spoke up bravely for the independence cause. 

Ibu Zain as a young adult. She became a probationary teacher at 19, and at 24 was made the superintendent of schools in Johor.

AS a young girl, she had the opportunity to study medicine in the United States. But her mother wept buckets at the idea and she instead became a teacher — and ended up as one of the pioneers of Malaya’s fledgling independence movement. 

Campaigning shoulder to shoulder with the men, Tan Sri Zainun Sulaiman, affectionately known as Ibu Zain, would have been 104 had she lived today. 

Born in Malacca on Jan 22, 1903, Ibu Zain was a pioneer for Malay women in education and politics. 

She was a founder member of Umno in 1946 and by the early 1950s, became its Kaum Ibu chief, a post she held for four years. She became an MP, but only for a term perhaps because of her forthright tongue. 

But her story really began half a lifetime earlier. At 16, after obtaining her junior Cambridge, she taught at her father’s private kindergarten in Pasuh Jayawaras, a new settlement along the Negri Sembilan-Pahang border. 

She became a government probationary teacher at 19, and later was confirmed as principal of the Sekolah Perempuan Bandar Maharani. When she was 24, she was promoted to superintendent of girls’ schools in Johor, whereupon she threw her efforts to achieve two goals: to open new schools for girls andto persuade parents to allow their daughtersto become teachers. 

On top of all this, she found time to wed Amin Sulaiman, who rose to become the State assistant treasurer of Johor. They had three children. 

Her eldest daughter, columnist and novelist Adibah Amin, remembers “a very elegant lady in very crisp, white baju kurung and batek sarong, high heels, walking very fast through the house” to go to office. 

Ibu Zain headed the Johor chapter of the Malay Women Teachers Association from 1930 to 1949. 

She founded the Bulan Melayu, a Jawipublication for women teachers as a counterpart to Majallah Guru for men. As its manager and editor, she highlightedthe position of women, their educationand rights. 

Thus Umno’s early years saw a broad membership base of teachers, some of whom were her former students. 

She helped Umno president Dato Onn Jaafar a lot in the Pergerakan Melayu Semenanjung, the precursor to Umno. 

“I think she had natural leadership qualities,” said Fadzilah, her seconddaughter. 

Later, when the Kaum Ibu women gave their gold bangles to the independence cause, “my mother too felt she should make such a gesture, although she never had much jewellery. She did wear a gold chain with a watch her late brother had given her in 1918, which she treasured very much. She gave the chain. I have the watch until today,” said Fadzilah. 

Personal sacrifice 

Ibu Zain’s first trip abroad after the haj was a watershed. 

“In 1947, the Indian Congress invited my mother to visit India where she met Nehru, Gandhi, Mrs Pandit and Sarojini Naidu. 

“While in Burma, she met (Gen) Aung San, who was assassinated about a week later. My mother was very upset. 

“There were always political people coming to the house. In 1949, weekly meetings were held at Dato Onn’s house. 

“We lived in the school compound and the school guard would keep an eye on us when our mother was away. My sister was 13 then, I was 11 and my brother nine. 

“When she was head of Kaum Ibu, she went around quite a bit. But she always found a relative or neighbour to look after us,” said Fadzilah. 

Noted Adibah: “At the time, we didn't feel it. Later on, you realise how much time she had to give up travelling all over. She trusted that we would not go wild and that nothing terrible was going to happen to us. 

”She instilled in us the importance of self-confidence. We must try our very best, then leave the rest to God. She taught us never to be envious of anyone.” 

The ever patriotic Ibu Zain greeting thenation’s second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak

By her example, she showed “that family unity, as in the larger family, is very important. We might quarrel but love must bring us together again,” said Adibah. 

“Fairness is very important. During the Japanese Occupation, we divided things mathematically to make sure everyone had his fair share. 

“She taught us never to show off. We must realise that everything comes from God, so there is nothing to boast about,” Adibah added. 

In her children’s eyes, Ibu Zain stands larger than life. 

Her son Sulaiman Shakib’s earliest memories of her date back to the Japanese Occupation. 

“My mother, with a cloth wound around her head, would be digging a bomb shelter for the family on the hill slope near our home,” he recalled. He was four, just old enough to run. 

“When I was older, I often followed her tomeetings and heard her speak for the independence cause. Her speeches were uniqueand until today no one can emulate herstyle. 

“She spoke without a text. And she wouldintersperse her speeches with songs torouse her audience’s spirits. Allah gave her a melodious voice, so it was like a lullaby. 

“She would speak for over an hour beforecrowds of 200 to 300, addressing them asTuan Tuan dan Puan Puan tanah air(Gentlemen and Ladies of this homeland). 

“She was brave. She didn’t care aboutbeing arrested by the British. We were inthe midst of ghairah merdeka (independence fervour),” said Shakib. 


Battle scar 

He also described the day his mother’s train, filled with English wives, was ambushed by communist guerillas near Labis,Johor. “A stray bullet entered her thigh,leaving a huge scar. My mother called it her‘map kemerdekaan’ (independence map).” 

Because their father had died of diabeteswhen they were children, Ibu Zain struggledon as a single mother long before the termcame into fashion. 

“Women teachers had to retire at 45, andwe lived on her pension. We had less than$200 a month for a family of four but wehad enough to eat. There was no greatdeprivation.” 

Through this time, despite fighting for aMalay-led independence, her mother opened her heart to friends of all races. 

“My mother never had a racist bone inher,” said Adibah. “Neither did my father.Chinese, Indians, all came to our house. Sheloved them all. 

This multiracialism lives on in her children,who are puzzled by today's segregation. 

Being children of a pioneering politician,the three were avid followers of currentevents. “In addition to the radio, our mothersubscribed to the Jawi newspapers fromKedai Wahab,” said Shakib. 

The children agree that their mother’sproudest day was Merdeka itself. 

“I was at home, in my mother’s room, bythe radio just waiting for that preciousmoment when the Union Jack was loweredat midnight, followed by the raising of theflag of the Tanah Melayu,” said Shakib. 

Adibah was in University Malaya in Singapore then. “Everyone was excited, although trying to act sophisticated about it,” she recalls. 

“I was longing to be in Kuala Lumpur too.I was 21, so it was also my independenceyear. But it was not to be. Our radio was notworking very well so I listened to MrsAlfred's radio next door. 

Fadzilah remembers being at a foodstallwith at least one friend when Merdeka wasannounced. 

“My mother always kept abreast of the news,” recalls Fadzilah. 

“She phoned Dr Mahathir and HusseinOnn whenever she was upset over something.And they would listen to her politely.She called them ‘her boys’.” 

Her children today continue to be keenfollowers of local and world affairs. Butwhere their mother spoke her mind, “we areall a little more tactful,” laughed Adibah. 

Were she alive today, Adibah feels thattheir mother “would be happy with thecountry's progress, the religious revival, the standard of education and the confidenceeverybody has, especially the women.” 

Being a teacher, their mother had at firstfound it funny to see the coinage of newMalay terms. 

Although Ibu Zain herself spoke Englishwell and read English novels, she insisted onspeaking Malay to her children even whilespeaking English with her husband. “Shebelieved that you must be good in your ownlanguage first,” explained Adibah. 

“But she never believed in sacrificing onelanguage for the other. 

“She supported the use of Malay as thenational language. And if English should besecond to the national language, it should bean excellent second.” 

All her children grew up at least bilingual.As a postscript, both Adibah and Fadzilahtoo were admitted into medical faculties. 

“Adibah quit after a few weeks and I quitafter three years,” said Fadzilah. 

Coming from a family of teachers, bothtook naturally to the profession. Fadzilahbecame a lecturer in English literature atUniversiti Malaya and Adibah taught Malayand English for 13 years before switching tofeature writing. 

Even Shakib, upon retiring as a sub-accountant with a bank, turned to his firstlove – teaching young children. 

Ibu Zain’s interest in journalism carriedon to another generation. Of her five grandchildren, granddaughter Nadiah, 30, is now a journalist with the Romford Recorder inEast London and grandson Amin, 41, writesscripts for television. 

The apple does not fall far from the tree.