What We Think 1#: A textbook problem of what’s wrong with our education

Imagined Malaysia currently has its own column space on a newly established local news portal. The purpose of this column is to provide a platform to our members and supporters to speak their mind on issues that are pertaining to society, politics and history. We also welcome our patrons to speak their mind through this platform, and spread information on the cause for improving historical education in Malaysia! 

We know all too well the perils of studying – or rather memorising – for Sejarah exam in our secondary school days but that was the case for almost every subject. An instance in my schooling days that struck me most was when a Form 1 student, my history teacher called a predominantly Chinese class ‘pendatang’.

She went into an exposition on how this country did not belong to us and how we should be grateful for being in this country, pointed to the textbook and said “You can read through this, there is no mention of how you contributed to the struggle of the nation.”


Intersectionality in Malaya’s Feminist Movements

Missed our public lecture? Fret not! Read on to get a detailed (like really, really, REALLY detailed) recap of the event:

Intersectionality is an analytic framework which considers that the various forms of what it sees as social stratification, such as class, race, sexual orientation, age, disability and gender, do not exist separately from each other but are complexly interwoven. In the case of Malaya’s once thriving political movements, how do we speak about feminism from various angles of experience and memory? 

This public lecture was an in-depth account of the multiple struggles of the Malaysian women’s movement, from securing gender equality in a patriarchal society to achieving unity among members of a multi-ethnic society that are further divided along class and religious lines. 

As co-author of “Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Malaysia: An unsung (R)evolution” Maznah Mohamad presented in this lecture, most historical versions of national struggles have created icons out of male figures. 

They detail the importance of the role of the women’s movement, led by numerous unsung personalities in promoting social change in Malaysia in the context of an ethnically fragmented post-colonial, authoritarian society.

Prof Maznah began by addressing the question of relevant exactly is a concept like “intersectionality” in understanding the feminist movements in pre-independent Malaysia. “All this multiple identities cause complex problems and we suddenly realize that “Hey, look, I am of many parts and sometimes they don’t always come together””, she said.

Intersectionality and the feminist movement – is it that easy?

More often than not, such conceptions of feminism are attributed to the West? Referring to a comic strip by artist, Rosalarian, Prof Maznah shed light on how the emphasis on equalist approaches to feminism do not completely articulate the disenfranchisement of various groups of women.

“Universalism was a fashionable concept. It came with liberalism. It came with the fact that everyone likes justice, equality and liberty. That was an assumption. That was early feminism, uniting on the basis of gender”, Prof Maznah added.

 The concept of a feminist movement was said to have sparked with the Suffragettes in Great Britain and Ireland, campaign for women to have the right to vote. Nonetheless, women actually happen to be not the only ones who were denied the right to vote, such as different classes. This could be identified as feminism’s “1st Wave”. 

The “2nd Wave” began in the 1960s. The discourse of feminism strive to refocus and explain inequality through gender relations. “They talked about the need to recognize women power… Men had more power than women in what is structurally a patriarchal order”.

In feminism’s “3rd Wave”, things were getting even more complex. Prof Maznah illustrated this by pointing to the feminist and religious discourse surrounding the hijab. To some, the use of a headscarf is their right and pride, and does not necessarily contradict with their belief in women’s rights. “Do you call it a feminist movement?”, she asked. This is because there are similarities between Islamic and feminist interventions in the debate on the hijab. On one hand, it can be considered a socially restrictive device that men use against women. On the other hand, Muslim feminists may confine the veil in the form of a symbol, not beholden to men,  but to God. To her, this could be considered as a manifestation of “transcendental feminism”.

Intersectionality and the ‘absent presence’ of women in the early colonial period

In the midst of deconstructing the colonial and administrative nature of Malaya, Prof Maznah illustrated the “color bar” that acts as a marker in the social divisions in British colonialism. As much as race is a master signifier in the organization of colonial society, class was also equally important. This can be observed in the status of colonized coloured women, who were at the bottom of this hierarchy.

1928 poster of N°4711 Glockengasse (Eau de Cologne). Illustrated by Lutz Ehrenberger. Source: HPrints 

Evidently, among the women of Malaya, “the quintessential English ma’am” was at the top. Prof Maznah mentioned that this could be seen in the marketing of products in local newspapers, which evidently targeted white women, in spite living among a colored majority. As an example, she read out a passage titled “Beauty and charm reveal themselves” from a perfume advertisement in a 1928 copy of the newspaper, Straits Echo:

 Many women look with envy at the marvel of their sex who spends her early morning out of doors riding, swimming or walking; changes for an energetic game of tennis, changes again for her morning’s shopping which she does efficiently and well; appears at lunchtime in the role of the perfect housewife; turns to her book after lunch, yet appears fresh and elegantly groomed at tea time. And the evening will find her the centre of attraction in the ballroom or beautifully groomed in her box at the theatre. And if one conquers the secret of her never failing energy and all conquering charm, answer is amazingly simple. It is “4711” Eau de Cologne with the gold and blue label – always ask for it.

In spite of how women of the colonial elite may be represented as passive agents that have their lives dictated by patriarchal demands of sexual objectification, Prof Maznah emphasized that although these women were not necessarily at the battle front of history’s unfolding, certain significant events would not have occurred without their presence.

Inspired by philosopher Jacques Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence, Prof Maznah argues that the role of elite women in colonial Malaya are not completely represented in historical narratives due to the play of absence and presence. She demonstrated this by telling the stories of three women.

Martina Rozells, wife to Penang’s founder, Francis Light, is a woman shrouded with mystery. It was claimed Rozells was a daughter of the Sultan of Kedah. She was of Siamese descent but went by the name Rozells to accentuate her European heritage. 

An unverified portrait of Martina Rozells. Source: Unknown.

Quoting an article in The New Sunday Times, Prof Maznah stated that Rozells, “according to the research and script, [was] used as an intermediary by the sultan while he was negotiating with Light, but went on to develop a relationship with him”.

It is here that Prof Maznah explains how women of the elite class played a major role in the power politics of colonies in the region. Daughters were often married off to build strategic alliances, but were painted as an exchange of gifts. It is perhaps a significant yet unnoticed event that Rozells would be the reason for Light’s political career, Prof Maznah mentioned.

Rosaline Hoalim  was a young medical student who met her Peranakan husband in Cambridge, England. Hoalim and her siblings would eventually become one of British Malaya’s most influential families. Hoalim’s British Guyanese heritage brings an equivocal sense of cosmopolitanism to what would be a determining factor in her children.

Most notably, her daughter PG Lim would rise into prominence in the making of modern Malaysia. Not only was PG one of the first women to practice law in the country, she would be best known as the first female ambassador.

British-born PG Lim,  the eldest daughter of Hoalim was the first female Malaysian diplomat. Source: Merdeka Award

“She kept her faith in herself, ignoring class consciousness, the shine and glamour of wealth, going about her business on a bicycle rather than using a car. It is significant when the end came, she owned nothing more than a pair of slippers, a few sarongs and a shirt, yet she was always ready with a helping hand for a friend…this sums up the history of a family whose mother came from the West and whose dreams inculcated the principles of social reform, a mother who was, in her own way, an evangelical idealist.” 

–  Lim Kean Siew, The Eye Over the Golden Sands (1997) 

As described by her son, Lim Kean Siew, who would be best known as one of Penang’s best lawyers and the founder of the Labour Party of Malaya, Hoalim never failed to instill the values of social reform in her children. Inevitably, this had resulted in a family that would be remembered through the course of Malaya’s historical changes.

Rugayah (Roquaiya) Hanim, of Turkish descent, was also very pertinent in leaving a legacy of honour. Hanim’s marriages to elite men such as the brother to Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor, Syed Abdullah Syed Mohsin al-Attas and later Datuk Ja’afar Haji Mohamed had resulted in the flourishing of one of Malaysia’s most remarkable families consisting of world-renowned scholars and other illustrious offsprings.

A portrait of Rugayah Hanim. Source: Pinterest.

Some of these figures include Ungku Aziz, Zeti Aziz, Syed Hussein Alatas, Syed Naquib al-Attas and Dato’ Onn Jaafar. All of which are household names in the nation-building project of Malaysia. 

Prof Maznah highlighted that with Hanim not being originally from Malaya, the intercultural mixing of her marriages had “brought a sense of political cosmopolitanism that shaped an idea of a multicultural Malaya”. “You cannot categorize any of them because their background is so plural”, she said.

By exposing us to the lives of women like Martina Rozells, Rosaline Hoalim and Ruqayah Hanim, Prof Maznah demonstrated how the concept of ‘absent presence’ sheds light on the role of women in historical events in ways that would have been rendered invisible in official narratives of a nation’s history. 

 East-West conjuncture and conundrum in the “modern girl’

Approaching the 1930s,  the world witnessed the rise of print capitalism. It inspired a sense of interconnectedness and consciousness of a world beyond our own boundaries. It is due to this, the idea of the “modern girl” was borne out of the reinvention of the native woman’s identity. 

To Prof Maznah, this part of the world began to follow the progress of the West and clothing is one of its markers. For instance, the modernization of the kebaya as seen on popular Malay women icons. 

She further reinforces this point in a more prominent example – the cheongsam. A Chinese traditional costume that is well represented in pop culture for its figure-hugging shape and sensuality, is actually a product of Western fashion trends. “The idea of being modern permeated ethos and values”, she said, and quoted the following:

“Fashion played a major role in debates surrounding the Modern Girl. Fashion was the most outward expression of cultural identity, and readers negotiated between the adornment of modern, European styles of dress and traditional costume, ensuring that one did not trade in the dignity of one’s own cultural heritage to ‘falsely’ imitate others.”  

– Su Lin Lewis (2009), “Cosmopolitanism and the Modern Girl: A Cross-Cultural Discourse in the 1930s Penang”, Modern Asian Studies.

Variations of the kebaya as worn by one of Malaysia’s most loved singers, Saloma. Source: Kinta Chronicles.

The women’s wing of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) known as “Kaum Ibu” during a meeting. Source: Arkib Negara.

However, Malaya was envisioning a different kind of “modern girl” at this point of time. Along with the spark of national self-determination and discussions on female emancipation, the Malay community would still identify traditionalism and Islam as extremely important signifiers of their identity.

Religion was not an inhibitor for the political mobilization of Malay women. This was evident in the example of Zainon Munshi Sulaiman or better known as Ibu Zain. Before pursuing a political career in the Malay nationalist party, UMNO, Zain was a chief-editor of the magazine, Bulan Melayu in the 1930s.

Not only was the magazine “the first Malay women’s magazine in British Malaya”, it was a platform for the Johore Malay Women’s Union to voice themselves. Abiding to her slogan, “Moden Dididik, Agama Dibela” (Modernity Nurtured, Religion Defended), Ibu Zain was committed to an inclusive representation and contestation of ideas through the magazine. Prof Maznah then added a surprising detail about this:

“Ibu Zain’s ideas of modernity for Malay women eventually clashed with that of Khatijah Sidek who was more vociferous in claiming for women’s rights. You might think that Khatijah Sidek was influenced by the liberal west while Ibu Zain was not.”

She went on to explain that Ibu Zain was English educated whereas Khatijah Sidek, her successor, was educated in a religious school in Sumatra before coming to Malaya. The Islamic education that Sidek received had more radical tendencies as opposed to the more conservative, Western background that Ibu Zain had. “Both were one of the earliest women leaders in the country, contesting against each other – truly a manifestation of the period of the modern girl”, Prof Maznah concluded.

Nationalism, nation-state and the narrative of rights

According to Prof Maznah, intersectionality was a very significant theme for the women’s movements involved in Malaya’s phase of national liberation. She cited numerous examples of how women were elevated to a focal position in attaining absolute freedom from colonial oppression.

“The concept of the nation-state was relatively new. People were not thinking about Independence. Take the Malayan Communist Party for example. Did the women who joined the Party want to be a part of Malaya? In history, they were more drawn to international communism and the struggle in China”, she said.

Another example is the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA). Since the Indian “government in exile” had its operations based in Singapore during the Japanese occupation, many Indians in Malaya, both men and women alike, were recruited to join the fight for India’s liberation. Prof Maznah described this as one more expression of “an affiliation to primordial attachment to elsewhere”.

Subhas Chandra Bose, with Captain (Dr) Lakshmi Sahgal, inspecting the guard of honour presented by the Rani of Jhansi Regiment during the opening of the Rani of Jhansi camp at Waterloo Street, Singapore, on 22 October 1943. Source: National Library of Singapore. 

To emphasize this point, Prof Maznah shared the story of Rasammah Bhupalan as detailed in her book, Footprints on the Sands of Time. Bhupalan and her sister were part of an Indian diaspora that was convinced to join Bose in the liberation struggle. Both women were recruited into the Jhansi Regiment. They travelled by train from Malaya through the death railways of Burma to reach India. However, the train journey was cut short by British troops intervention which ended with Bhupalan being deported back to Malaya.

Some of the women leaders during a street demonstration before the commencement of the Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM) Congress in 1949. Source: Arkib Negara.

Beside differing national allegiances, there were also women who believed in different conceptions of the Malay nation such as Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS). The women’s faction of the Malay left nationalist Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Muda (PKMM) had the original goal of unifying the Nusantara region and realize “Melayu Raya” as a living vision. She noted:

“They were fighting for war on Malayan soil. But vision of the nation was elsewhere.”

While modern day West Malaysia was a great focus on this lecture, Prof Maznah pointed out that Singapore was still a part of Malaya before indepedence. She illustrated how developments in Singapore were also important for the promotion of women’s rights in the country.

A testament to this is the formation of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) in 1952. To Prof Maznah, this was the marker of the “earliest feminist movement in Malaya”. The organisation was founded by Shirin Fozdar, a woman of Pakistani-Baha’i origin. She was very much involved in activism in India, before moving to Singapore and playing a key role in organizing women politically.

The front page of the 1961 Women’s Charter Bill.

What made the multiracial committee of SCWO so significant in the fight for women’s rights was because it was the first organisation to represent issues concerning women on a national scale – particularly, polygamy. In 1959, the SCWO lobbied for the billing of women’s rights in marriage. They attempted to get the endorsement of religion-based organizations but were rejected by the Muslim Advisory Board. 

At the end, the People’s Action Party (PAP) supported it in hopes of winning women’s votes in the 1959 elections. Upon a landslide victory, the Women’s Charter Bill was passed in 1961.

Intersectionality and the making of “Malaysia Baharu”

“Although the focus today is on the women’s movements in Malaya, I felt that we should end the lecture with a discussion on women during the recent elections in Malaysia”, Prof Maznah said.

She commented on the political will of women politicians to represent women’s issues on the national front:

 “Goods and Services Tax (GST) and 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) appeared to be more important issues during campaigning. When asked about their plans for Malaysian women, they would reply, “If I get elected, only then I will promote women’s issues”.

While expressing disappointment about the failure to fulfill the 30 percent quota of female representation in the Pakatan Harapan led Cabinet, she used this opportunity to talk about how dominant historical narratives play such an important role in building a nation. It is without the course of history, the progress of the country would not have evolved the way it did. In spite of this, it is still pertinent to ask what are the opportunities for women today if we were to move forward from our past.

During the Q&A session, some members of the audience asked how can a theoretical concept like intersectionality be used purposefully and beyond the vicinity of academic discourses. Prof Maznah felt there was no need for that, arguing that the very concept of intersectionality was borne out of an understanding of the lived experiences of women from different walks of life. 

This is what makes intersectionality such a relevant concept to Malaysia and more in the so-called “New Malaysia”.  In reference to the poor protection of migrant workers, children and abused women, Prof Maznah wrapped up by saying, “Politicians do not have the consciousness. We need to bring out these issues. It is not just about using the term “intersectionality”. It has a lot to do with practice too”.

Photographs © Dennis Ong