1. DATUK AMBIGA SREENEVASAN
Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan has been at the forefront of the push for free and fair elections, leading tens of thousands, demanding for the same. Since stepping down from her position as co-chairperson of Bersih 2.0, Ambiga has continued to push for electoral reform. The lawyer and former Bar Council President, one of only two women to assume the position, has always pushed for good governance, democracy and human rights. As President of the Bar Council, Ambiga led 2,000 members of the Malaysian Bar to the Prime Minister’s Office, as part of a “March for Justice,” calling for judicial reform. In 2009, Ambiga was one of eight women to receive the Secretary of State’s Award for International Women of Courage from the United States’ State Department. She received the award from former US First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
2. DATO’ FARIDAH MERICAN
While we may have a pretty vibrant theatre scene now, with productions staged every weekend, this wasn’t always the case. In the 60s and 70s few names dominated Malaysian theatre, among them Dato’ Faridah Merican, whose early acting credits Lela Mayang, Tok Perak and Uda dan Dara, emerged as defining work of the period. She later emerged as a doyenne of Malaysian theatre, fostering local talent when she co-founded The Actors Studio, in 1989 with her husband Joe Hasham. That eventually became The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) after floods destroyed the space located at Dataran Merdeka. Her accolades include receiving the BOH Cameronian Lifetime Achievement Award and the Outstanding Achievement Award under the Arts, Culture and Entertainment category from the Inaugural Women of Excellence Awards. Faridah is referred to as the ‘First Lady of Malaysian Theatre.’
3. LEE LEE LAN
Aspiring dancers these days have their pick of dance academies to develop their talent but in the 70s there was only one school. In 1967, Lee Lee Lan founded the Federal Academy of Ballet, an institution that would eventually emerge as one of the biggest dance schools in Malaysia, to date, educating thousands of students. Lee’s contributions have been acknowledged with numerous awards including the Saitama Choreography Prize and the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing International Award (ISTD). Lee holds the distinction of being the first Asian Examiner for Ballet, Modern and Tap appointed by ISTD. She was also honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2008 BOH Cameronian Arts Awards.
4. DATIN PADUKA MARINA MAHATHIR
Like her father, former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Marina has earned a reputation for saying it like it is, in recent years emerging as the voice of rationality, amidst the backdrop of a growing absurdity that is starting to engulf Malaysia. The writer and social activist has long been an advocate for issues that affect the nation, most notably in the area of HIV awareness. Marina set the up the Malaysian AIDS Council, and served as president for 12 years. A founding member of Sisters in Islam, Marina has also highlighted issues to do with gender inequality. Marina also co-produced the young women’s programme 3R – Respect, Relax, Respond and the critically acclaimed Gol & Gincu. For her efforts, she was honoured by the French government with the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2016. In 2014, she founded Zafigo.com to help women travel better, easier, safer and to discover more about Asia and the Middle East. A recipient of the United Nations in Malaysia Person of the Year in 2010, she was awarded the Prestige Achievement Award for 2016 supported by Bulgari during Prestige KL Ball 2016.
5. TAN SRI RAFIDAH AZIZ
In the 90s, Malaysia emerged as de-facto leader of the ASEAN region, standing up to the developed world, ensuring that trade negotiations weren’t one sided. Leading much of this was former International Trade and Industry Minister Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz. The “iron lady,” as she is fondly referred to was infamous for ‘battling’ with the likes of former US Trade Secretary Charlene Barshefsky and Secretary of State Madeline Albright. During her 21-year tenure as Minister, Rafidah led Malaysia’s industrialisation policy. She is credited for having opened the country to foreign investments, reducing trade barriers while being involved in tough trade negotiations and free trade agreements. Rafidah was also instrumental in the development of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and in establishing MATRADE (Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation), a trade agency aimed at raising the profile of Malaysian exporters in foreign markets.
6. DATUK RAMANI GURUSAMY
Pushing for change alongside Rasammah was Datuk Ramani Gurusamy who has spent the past four decades advocating for women’s rights. She fought for equal pay for work of equal value, focusing on giving women Permanency and Pensionable status ensuring the right to equal pay, medical and housing. She was also involved in the formulation of the National Policy on Women and Action Plan. She was involved in the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO) for more than 20 years, during which, the organisation pushed for change in the way rape cases were managed, leading to the setting up a special unit of police officers to investigate rape victims, reform on laws on domestic violence, custody and guardianship of children, inheritance and property rights. The organisation’s lobbying also resulted in maternity leave being extended from 42 days to 60 days and eventually 90 days in 2010. Ramani is currently the Deputy President of NCWO.
7. DATUK RASAMMAH BHUPALAN
The formidable Datuk Rasammah Bhupalan can be credited for spearheading the women’s movement in Malaysia and making many advances for women. She founded the first Women Teachers Union in 1960, fighting for equal pay for women teachers. She co-founded the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO). She also developed the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) Vocational Training Opportunity Centre (VTOC), which has successfully trained more than 1000 women since its inception in 1998. Rasammah has had a long history in activism, joining the Rani of Jhansi movement when she was just 16. A graduate from the University of Malaya in Singapore, Rasammah began her career teaching at the Methodist Girls School in Penang. She later held the post of principal at Methodist Girls School Kuala Lumpur. In 1986, Rasammah’s efforts in education were recognised when she received the Tokoh Guru award.
Amidst the backdrop of growing conservatism, there is a frequent yearning for a bygone era when women wore form-fitting Baju Kebayas with lace tops, topped off with bouffants. Till now, talk of a modern Malay woman conjures up the image of one woman, that of the late Saloma. Her singing style drew parallels with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day. Her stage name too was inspired from the film Salome which starred Rita Hayworth. Her influence, however, goes beyond just entertainment. She is also hailed as a trendsetter and fashion icon. The wife of the late Tan Sri P. Ramlee was named Biduanita Pertama Negara in 1978.
With the exponential growth of private universities in Malaysia, it became essential for the government to regulate these institutions. Helming this task was Prof. Emerita Tan Sri Dr. Sharifah Hapsah who held the office of chairperson and CEO of the State Accreditation Agency (LAN). She is also credited for drafting the Malaysia Qualification Agency bill which eventually replaced the National Accreditation Board. The MQA was formed to ensure that universities and private colleges adopt the quality and standards outlined under the Malaysian Qualifications Framework (MQF). Soon after, Dr. Sharifah was appointed as Vice Chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). She is actively involved in women’s issues , publicly speaking on issues to do with sexual harassment, polygamy, Islamic family law and rape. She is at present the president of the National Council for Women’s Organisations (NCWO).
10. DATO’ SHEILA MAJID
Right up to the 1980s, the music industry was quite divided. The urban population were listening to ‘English’ songs while local singers largely appealed to a Malay-speaking audience. But in the mid-80s, the young pixie-like Sheila Majid burst onto the scene, singing songs with a jazz and R&B vibe that appealed to Gen X-ers. Her nationwide Warna tour, probably the first slick one to be held in Malaysia, attracted huge audiences. She was the first Malaysian to perform at the Dewan Filharmonik Malaysia (MPO), selling out in just two days. Her fame, however, wasn’t confined to just Malaysia. Sheila also successfully broke into the regional market including Indonesia, Singapore and the traditionally “difficult to break into” Japan. But the singer’s place in history isn’t limited to just the music industry. Her concert at University Malaya, drew massive protests from students, resulting in a ban on pop concerts at university campuses.
11. YASMIN AHMAD
The poetic filmmaker struck a chord with Malaysians, addressing the latent stereotypes that exist in our society. The film Sepet, reportedly biographical, highlighted the difficulties that arise in inter-racial relationships. This continued with the subsequent films, Gubra, Mukhsin, Rabun, Muallaf and Talentime. But her ability to speak to Malaysians was not confined to just film. As creative director at Leo Burnett Malaysia, Yasmin gained recognition with her series of Petronas advertisements that aimed to foster the idea of national unity and pride. Her passing in 2009, resulted in a huge outpouring among the Malaysian public and the creative fraternity.
12. TAN SRI ZETI AKHTAR AZIZ
It was in 1998 that the former Bank Negara Governor Tan Sri Akhtar Aziz, who assumed the position of Acting Governor, garnered international acclaim, when the Ringgit Malaysia was pegged to the US dollar at RM3.80. Zeti took a stance that went against international policy as it defied recommendations by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), pushing for the implementation of capital control to arrest the volatile fluctuations that plagued the Malaysian currency. In 2000, Zeti became the first woman to assume the position of Central Bank Governor. During her time at Bank Negara, the institution strengthened Malaysia’s financial sector, reducing the real economy’s dependence on the banks for financing. There were also moves to develop the bond and money markets and also set up a credit reference information system. Zeti served as Governor till 2016, stepping down amidst speculation that she had clashed with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak over issues to do with 1MDB.
13. ZAINAH ANWAR
As the executive director of Sisters in Islam (SIS), the organisation she co-founded, Zainah Anwar “lobbied for justice for women and pioneered a framework from an Islam perspective.” These were the words that accompanied Zainah’s feature as part of the 2018 Annual Harvard Law International women’s Day Portrait Exhibit. During her two decade tenure as the head of SIS, Zainah emerged as the face of the organisation, speaking out on issues to do with equality and justice for women, modesty, the right to guardianship, fundamental liberties in Islam, apostasy and freedom of religion. She is currently the director of Musawah, the SIS-initiated global movement for justice and equality in the Muslim family.