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The Most Inspiring Women in Malaysia
Women are, undoubtedly, the pillar of success behind every man and the strength behind every flourishing family. Asians have never forgotten the grand days of their matriarchal society that has shaped kingdoms and governments as we know them today. They have been with us as mothers, sisters, friends, aunts, teachers, nurses and from stall owners selling packets of ‘nasi lemak’ to heads of large organizations implementing policies that can change the direction of an entire nation.
In saluting these outstanding women of Malaysia, Top of 10 Malaysia is honored to present the Top 10 Most Inspiring Women of Malaysia. This is in recognition of their achievements that have come as a result of their tenacity, competence and courage.
Zeti Akhtar Aziz (Tan Sri Dr)
Topping the list is Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz, governor of Malaysian Central Bank (BNM). She recently made headlines when a renowned Bloomberg columnist, William Pesek named her as a candidate for the post of IMF president following the resignation of the former president recently.
The 63-year-old Tan Sri Dr Zeti Aziz is the first woman to be appointed as central bank governor in Malaysia and Asia, and the first woman to be within the top ten rankings for central bank governors of the world. She recently extended her contract with Bank Negara Malaysia for another five years, making her the second longest serving governor of BNM.
Her determination to take the Malaysian economy out of the doldrums during the Asian financial crisis was clearly evident when she took over the reins at BNM in 1998. Despite the numerous criticisms and pressures from many quarters, including the IMF, she went ahead to peg the Malaysia ringgit against the US dollar and banned offshore trading of the Malaysian currency. These unconventional and drastic measures finally paid off in 2005 when foreign exchange rules were relaxed and the Malaysian ringgit began to rise against the US dollar.
One of her major contributions is putting Malaysia at the forefront of the Islamic money market, and with many policies carefully planned and executed, Malaysia now has a substantial number of Islamic investors, both domestic and foreign.
Nicol Ann David (Datuk)
At the number two spot is a person who is no stranger to all of us, Nicol Ann David. Currently ranked world number one by WISPA, she is the first Asian sportswoman to have achieved this ranking, the first Malaysian and Asian ever to be crowned as the world number one in sports. Having obtained this crowning glory at the young age of 23, she has been holding this ranking for a consecutive 54 months now and with 57 matches won.
She began to shine during the very early years of her life by being the first squash player to have won the World Junior title twice in 1999 and in 2001. Since then, she has won many major tournaments and in the year 2000, she decided to join WISPA to become a professional squash player. Within a month during the tour, Nicol again outperformed the others to clinch the Savcor Finnish Open title.
Nicol David’s other notable achievements include winning the Asian Squash Championship eight times, a hard-to-beat record. Nicol was also named the WISPA Player of the Year for six consecutive times from 2005 until 2010. She was honored with the Order of Merit (Darjah Bakti) by His Majesty Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin in 2008 and was the first recipient of the award that was established in 1975. This award is limited to only ten recipients who have made significant contributions in the arts, sciences and the humanities. In the same year, she also received the Darjah Setia Pangkuan Negeri award which carries the title “Datuk”, making her the youngest person ever to be conferred Datukship in Penang.
Siti Nurhaliza binti Tarudin (Dato’)
Number three on our list is a figure from the entertainment world who has made significant contributions to the society especially the plight of rural women in Malaysia. Dato’ Siti Nurhaliza binti Tarudin, or commonly known only as Siti Nurhaliza, is a Malaysian singer, songwriter, record producer, television presenter and businesswoman. To date, she has garnered more than 200 local as well as international awards.
Her exceptional career path began when she won the Bintang HMI 1995. She was only 16 then and she was offered recording contracts from four different international recording companies. Her first single, ‘Jerat Percintaan’ from her debut album won the 11th Anugerah Juara Lagu and two other awards for Best Performance and Best Ballad.
Siti is the only artist in Malaysia who has won 34 Anugerah Industri Muzik awards, 22 Anugerah Bintang Popular awards, 20 Anugerah Planet Muzik awards, 18 Anugerah Juara Lagu awards, four MTV Asia Awards and the holder of two records in the Malaysia Book of Records. With multi platinum awards and backed with 14 studio albums, she is dubbed as one of the most popular artists in the Malay Archipelago and Nusantara region and she has been voted nine times in a row for the Regional Most Popular Artist in the Anugerah Planet Muzik since 2001.
In 2005, she was listed second by MTV Asia in Asia’s Best Musical Artiste and Channel V’s Biggest Asian Artiste. In 2008, she was named as one of Asia’s Idols by Asia News Network.
Currently, she has been listed as one of Malaysia’s richest and most influential artists who has won the most awards.
The 4th position is taken by Zainah Anwar, a prominent Malaysian non-governmental organization leader, activist and Muslim feminist. She was the head of Sisters in Islam - an organization that fights for Islamic women rights within the religion - for over two decades before stepping down.
Moved by problems and difficulties faced by Muslim women in courts, Zainah and a few other fellow journalists and lawyers founded Sisters in Islam in 1987. Then in 1990, the movement that was formally registered and became known as SIS, focused on challenging laws and policies made to discriminate Islam women in the name of Islam. Eventually, SIS expanded to encompass larger issues of democracy, human rights and constitutionalism.
Zainah was involved with Sisters in Islam for two decades as its leader. She was responsible for building the NGO from a small organization to a global voice and gave numerous talks on empowering Islam women throughout the world.
SIS has been at the forefront of non-government movements influencing amendments to Islamic Family Law. It has espoused equality and justice for women, discussed dress and modesty, the right to guardianship, women as judges, fundamental liberties in Islam, and apostasy and freedom of religion.
Michelle Yeoh Choo-Kheng (Dato’)
At number five is another well known artiste who has made numerous international appearances, Dato’ Michelle Yeoh Choo-Kheng. A Hong Kong-based Malaysian actress and dancer, Michelle is well known for performing her own stunts in the action films that brought her to fame in the early nineties.
Born in Ipoh, Malaysia, she is now based in Hong Kong and was chosen by People magazine as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World in 1997. She is best known in Hollywood for her role in the 1997 James Bond film ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ and also the multiple Academy Award winning Chinese action film ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ for which she was nominated the BAFTA for Best Actress. In 2008, film critic website Rotten Tomatoes ranked her as the greatest action heroine of all time.
Michelle started her film career acting in action and martial arts films although she had no formal martial arts training. She learned English and Malay before Cantonese, making it hard for her to understand Chinese characters especially when it comes to reading scripts but she managed to overcome this by learning phonetically over the years.
Michelle was awarded the Darjah Datuk Paduka Mahkota Perak (DPMP), which carries the title Dato’ by the Sultan of Perak, Sultan Azlan Shah in 2001 in conjunction with the Sultan’s 73rd birthday, in recognition of the fame she brought to the state. French President, Jacques Chirac awarded Michelle with Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 2007.
Marina Mahathir (Datin Paduka)
At number six is Marina Mahathir, daughter of former Malaysian Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir Mohamad. Although her father is a prominent figure, it has never stopped her from expressing her thoughts and ideas through various non-governmental organizations such as the Malaysian AIDS Foundation.
Marina has headed the Malaysian AIDS Council for twelve years and was Vice-President of AIDS Society of Asia and the Pacific. Apart from that, she also sat on several UN expert panels representing Asia Pacific AIDS NGOs on the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board, and spoken at the United Nations General Assembly. Currently she is a member of the Steering Committee of the Asia Pacific Leadership Forum on HIV and Development (APLF), the Global Advisory Group of AIDS2031 and the Global Task Force Review Group of the UNAIDS Action Framework for Addressing Women, Girls, Gender Equality and HIV.
Despite coming from a pro-government family, she is a well known activist writer, writing her fortnightly column, ‘Musings’ in a local daily. She writes on current issues, women, health, local politics, human rights and education.
In 1997, Marina published a compilation of her column articles in a book, titled Liberal Doses. Marina also writes her own blog, ‘Rantings’, in which she discusses socio-political issues such as the current political scenario, gender equality, and race and religious tolerance.
Marina also had her own TV show, 3R-Respect, Relax and Respond, tackling issues of violence against women, and equality and social welfare. A graduate from University of Sussex, UK, her primary focus has always been directed to bringing an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Teresa Kok Suh Sim
Taking the number seven spot is Member of Parliament for Seputeh, Teresa Kok Suh Sim. Previously she was the political secretary to Opposition leader and Democratic Action Party’s National Advisor, Lim Kit Siang, Teresa won the parliamentary seat of Seputeh in Kuala Lumpur with a majority of 5,200 in the 1999 general election. She was again re-elected in 2004 with a majority of 12,895, the largest winning margin among the 13 elected DAP MPs.
In 2008 general elections, Teresa retained her Seputeh parliamentary seat with a majority of 36,492, the largest majority in any constituency in the whole of Malaysia. She was named senior executive councilor in the new Selangor executive council and put in charge of investment, trade and industry.
Teresa is currently the DAP National Organizing Secretary, the National Secretary of DAP Wanita, and a member of the DAP Disciplinary Committee. In Parliament, she is a member of the Select Committee on Review of Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code.
Teresa is the Secretary of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC). She has been an active lobbyist for Burmese democracy and human rights since 1996 when she was the Coordinator of Political Leaders Network Promoting Democracy in Burma for Southeast Asian region.
Mazlan Othman (Datuk Dr)
Ranked the 8th most inspiring woman by Top 10 of Malaysia readers is a lady who has achieved a number of firsts – Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman is Malaysia’s first astrophysicist and the first woman to be awarded a PhD in physics from New Zealand’s University of Otago since the university was founded in 1869.
Datuk Dr Mazlan has had an exceptional career in astrophysics. In 1990, she was selected by Tun Mahathir Mohamad to set up the country’s National Planetarium in Kuala Lumpur. Three years later she was appointed Director General of the new Space Science Studies Division in the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry, where she launched a microsatellite development programme. Datuk Dr Mazlan became the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in 1999 but heeded the request of Tun Mahathir to return in 2002 to found the Malaysian National Space Agency. In 2007 Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon reappointed her as the Director General of UNOOSA, where she has commented that she is keen to promote international cooperation which is a key to the future of space. The Institute of Physics awarded her its President’s Medal for her work in “developing astronomy education in Malaysia and her leading national and international role in space science”.
Ninth on the Top 10’s list is Jamelah Jamaluddin, CEO of the Kuwait Finance House (Malaysia) Berhad, the largest Islamic bank in Malaysia with a capitalization of USD640 million. She holds the distinction for being the first woman to head a KFH bank as CEO, representing a special milestone and significant breakthrough within the KFH Group and the Islamic banking industry.
An experienced Islamic banker, Jamelah was tasked with resolving the bank’s serious mortgage issues following a series of bad loans decisions by the past administration. Holding a Masters in Business Administration in Finance from Central Michigan University, her other notable achievements includes the introduction of Az-Zahra unit dubbed as the only Islamic retail banking branch dedicated to women and the introduction of Islamic debit and credit cards for RHB Islamic Bank.
Mother Mangalam Iyaswamy Iyer (Datin Paduka)
Mother Mangalam, as she is affectionately known, is the co-founder and president of Pure Life Society and has devoted her life to serving the less fortunate. She was awarded the Merdeka Award 2010 in the education and community category for her outstanding contributions in promoting the welfare of the underprivileged and fostering national unity.
Mother Mangalam set up Pure Life Society in 1952 together with Swami Satyananda, her spiritual mentor, after having experienced the lessons imparted by war and strife. She learned many lessons from the Second World War which made her who she is today – how to be resourceful, to survive on bare necessities and to learn the feeling of satisfaction. She has had many struggles in her life but her faith never wavered and she did not stray from her path of service to the less fortunate.
She is indeed a mother to the orphans and underprivileged children the Society takes in, and she has never forgotten her roots. Although expressing regret that Malaysians have become slightly less united over the years, she believes in the goodness of her fellow countrymen and feels that everyone is her friend regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, or affiliation.
Her selfless, giving spirit is indeed an inspiration to us all.