In 1965 a Javanese teenager found herself commuting back and forth the lonely trunk road between her home in Seremban and Kuala Lumpur. She was only 17 and without a driver’s licence. Typically, she would be accompanied by her mother, two younger brothers and a tiffin carrier of home cooked food for her sick father at the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital.
Life was exhausting growing up taking care of younger siblings, live-in relatives and a mother who was behaving erratically possibly due to menopause—though that would have been a huge mystery back then. Yet, she would sit for her High School Certificate exams and pass with impressive grades.
Today, a teenager like her who is smart and starred in a state youth hockey team would probably enrol in a good university. However, that was not the case for her. Her family needed care and her commitment was to them. Unlike some of her brothers who got the opportunity to study all the way in England, the young girl was grounded at home.
But what would she do for a living without the prestige of a college diploma? She would do wonders.
She was bold, intelligent and was blessed with a flare for writing both in English and Malay. With encouragement from the late A. Samad Ismail she became a cadet reporter. It was a rough job for a young woman fresh out of school. The press room was patriarchal, rowdy and no curse word was out of earshot. She became one of the first few women reporters in Malaysia and certainly one of the first few women reporters to cover crime news. But the tough nature of the job only prepared her for greater things in life.
At the age of 21, she was chosen by the Australian Rotary Club to participate in a cultural exchange programme. For several months she travelled and lived with Australian families around the Riverina region playing the role of a young Malaysian ambassador. Mayors and government officials would admire the way the young reporter carried herself and the positive image of Malaysia she represented. The Australian press would sing praises of her and the goodwill she extended on behalf of her country.
Her experience and talent would one day secure her a position at the esteemed Financial Times of London. How proud a Malaysian she was every time the newspaper published her by-line. Here was a hardworking young Malaysian who was truly “glokal” long before Najib Tun Razak invented the word.
But her service to her country was mostly accomplished at home. In 1973, she became the 245th employee of the newly established Malaysian Airlines System (MAS). The airline was a symbol of independence and pride in post-Merdeka Malaysia. Like her contemporaries, she put in a lot of love and hard work for the airline to take off.
MAS had just been created following the closure of the Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA). Former MSA staff had to be reassigned, assets around the world had to be dissolved and a new Malaysian identity had to be created for MAS. She was one of those dedicated staff who helped nurse and nurture our national carrier in its teething days. And like those of her time she would now cringe in despair whenever news of loss and abuse in the airline surfaced.
This young woman was well on her way to making a life for herself. But that did not mean her childhood “career” was over. She still had to dedicate time and energy everyday to clean the house and manually giling (ground) meal ingredients for her mother who endlessly received visitors. This she did despite having a full time job.
But it was this tough life that gave her the strength and courage to start her own business at the age of 28. Her small company, assisted by close friends and family, would organise Malaysia’s first international motor show which also featured classic cars from the Sultan of Selangor’s garage. Despite all the funds made available to young entrepreneurs today, not many below the age of 30 can claim the same glory as this woman who did not even have the privilege of tertiary education.
Her hard work and perseverance paid off and she eventually blossomed into a respected corporate figure in the telecommunications industry. She had done wonders for her family and country, and helped paved the way for professional women who came after her. Most importantly, she did it sincerely and selflessly.
Her proudest moment however, was the day she stood on a sidewalk as she watched the eldest of her three daughters march the streets of Wellington, New Zealand dressed in a graduation gown and a mortarboard on her head.
To this woman, my mother, and other Malaysian women like her, I wish you happy anniversary. Your daughters are proud of you and are eternally grateful for your sacrifices.
Thank you for making Malaysia a better place for us.
This article was rejected by a newspaper editor who said the story was not about Independence (Merdeka).