Mary Yap – Educationist Supermum

Mary Yap (fourth from right) with Universiti Malaysia Sabah students.

Most senior citizens in their retirement years would be spending time with their families and grandkids, or indulging in their hobbies (at last!), pottering around the home and garden. A few might still be working for financial reasons, maybe running a business to busy themselves.

Not Datuk MaryYap Kain Ching though. In her mid-60s, she’s on the final leg towards completing her PhD at a public university.

And since her first job as a graduate teacher-lecturer in the mid 1970s to her current post as  Deputy Higher Education Minister, she has very much  been in  the thick of things.

“I could have been done with my PhD sooner, but this amanah (trust) from the Prime Minister was given to me in 2013, so I had to slow down on my dissertation. Nevertheless, I count my blessings daily. Syukur.”

Syukur is a word Datuk Mary often uses. A devout Christian, she says: “It is important to be thankful for what one has – we must honour Him, and remember to perform our duties with integrity and with the highest of moral values.”

Prior to retirement in 2007, Datuk Mary was super-principal of the ‘excellent school’ (sekolah kluster kecemerlangan) Tawau Vocational College, formerly known as Sekolah Menengah Teknik Tawau. 

She had turned the initially struggling school around and in 2006 recorded a 100 per cent student pass rate for consecutive years. It was the first school in the country recognised by the Ministry of Education in the Excellent School Clusters programme.

This (and many more of her achievements) gave the Tawau community reasons to rejoice.

Datuk Mary was an English Language lecturer, principal of rural and mission schools, and head of the Tawau District Schools Inspectorate. Her willingness to share and impart her vast experience and knowledge in the education arena is well known. 

She has written a book ‘From Vision to Reality’ on her experiences with SM Teknik Tawau which has gone into second print.

She's also one of the first women teachers in the country to become Pengetua Cemerlang (super principal) and is a recipient of the Tokoh Guru Kebangsaan and Tokoh Maulidur Rasul Kebangsaan.

“I was strict and would do all I could to help my students. Once, I paid the examination fees for a poor but outstanding student. He is now a bank manager and visits me during Chinese New Year. 

It’s these small things that matter”.

A proud mother of three boys, all of whom “got married on the same day, at the same ceremony” (to different women, of course) in 2006, she now has four grandchildren.

Discipline and good manners are just as important to Datuk Mary as is striving for academic excellence.

 “I used to have a report card of my children’s behaviour, noting down whenever they were good or naughty. I’d share it with them every week as a reminder of their behaviour, after which I’d give them their weekly pocket money,” she recalls.

“My family is my beacon of strength and we are close. Most children after graduating from university usually spend some time away before returning home. Mine appeared to be more than 
happy to return home immediately”.

Now however, Datuk Mary is clearly committed to improving the nation’s higher education system, even if it means being away from her family, in particular her husband who is based in 
Tawau, her parliamentary constituency.

“My husband still sends food to my working son and his family in Kota Kinabalu every weekend,” she tells me with a smile.

I ask how it feels being away from her family, especially the grandchildren.

“I am truly blessed. Just before being appointed as a Deputy Minister, I had the opportunity to give fullest attention to my grandchildren the first few years of their lives. They were all born around the same time, probably because my all my sons got married at the same time!”   

She returns to her hometown as often as possible. However, the time in Tawau is spent not just with family but also with her constituents.

I asked Datuk Mary, “How has politics impacted your life?”

“I believe it was God’s calling. I didn’t have any intention to join politics; I was not member of any party, and I was a government retiree.

“But now that I’m a Member of Parliament and a Deputy Minister, I find my maternal instincts are very strong. I feel a deep sense of empathy for my constituents, especially the elderly. Old folks touch my heart. They remind me of my late parents who passed on at 98 years of age.

“Politics has given me the opportunity to continue serving the people, to make a difference in their lives. Previously I had my students, now I have the people of Tawau. At the Ministry, I have higher education students from all over the world to care for.

“And I am motivated to ensure that my grandchildren have the best of opportunities when they enter the education system one day”.

She cites her four motivating factors:

• Religion – Glorify and honour God;

• Support from spouse and family;

• Having a good team; and

• Always Syukur – appreciate what one has.

Syabas, Datuk Mary – all the best with your PhD. 

Happy international women’s day, and May you have many happy returns, Happy birthday! (Yap celebrated her birthday on Thursday)

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Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at


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