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12 Powerhouse Women Who Helped Build Malaysia

It’s not surprising that the first few names that come to mind when thinking of individuals who contributed to Malaysia’s development are overwhelmingly men.

However, Malaysian women have played pivotal historical roles and have had the Midas touch marking many segments of society.

We have compiled 12 Malaysian women, both historical legends and modern-day heroes, worthy of an epic movie or biographical piece and it is high time more of them were recognised.

#1: Kongsi Women, Builders Of Malaysia’s Landmarks

The ‘Kongsi Women’ were a group of tight-knit women who worked and lived on construction sites. They were instrumental in developing the built landscape of our nation’s capital, covering more than 60% of construction sites during the post-Merdeka era[1].

They were known as kongsi due to the fact that they lived in kongsis or shared living quarters. The female labourers were also known as lai sui mui (mud girls in Cantonese) because of the buckets of wet concrete they carried on their shoulders. 

The women worked upwards of 10 hours every day and were granted only two days of leave a year. These strong women shared comparable tasks as their men counterparts, carrying and pouring cement, laying bricks and polishing floors. 

Some of Malaysia’s long-standing buildings such as the Subang airport and Parliament were the sweat and labour of kongsi women.

One mustn’t forget the enormous contribution that female labour played. On the Parliament building, I think we had a thousand people working on the site and I suppose six hundred of those would have been women. Most of them often were just girls, hard-working and cheerful girls. The buildings couldn’t have gone on without them. – Ivor Shipley, Architect (Parliament House)[1]

Over time, women labourers’ roles were replaced by machinery and slowly, the presence of women on construction sites began to fade.

#2: Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, First Female Chief Justice of Malaysia 

The Right Honourable Tun Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat gained prominence during the high-profile case of former premier Najib Razak. Her Ladyship was appointed as the Chief Justice of Malaysia in 2019, a monumental appointment not just for the judiciary scene in Malaysia but also in Asia, where it has often been a male-dominated role[2].

The scene is slowly changing in Malaysia’s courthouses. In 2021, 8 out of 14 judges in Malaysia’s Federal Court were women, and 10 of the 30 judges are female. In the High Courts, 30 out of 98 judges are women[3].

With so many talented and able women in the legal profession, I am confident that I am not the first and the last female Chief Justice of Malaysia.

Significantly, justice is represented by a lady carrying a sword and scales, nearly always blindfolded to symbolise the fair and equal administration of law, without bias or prejudice, fear or favour. It is thus most befitting to have female judges administering and dispensing justice.
 – Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, Chief Justice of Malaysia[3]

Her Ladyship has also been involved in other landmark cases, including the conviction of two former Malaysian commandos in the infamous Mongolian model Altantuya Shaariibuu murder at the Court of Appeal. 

#3: Datuk Rasammah Bhupalan, Fought For Teachers’ Rights

At the age of 16, Rasammah Bhupalan was part of the women’s wing of the Indian National Army against the British and served in Burma. Her fiery spirit did not stop there. Born into a family of educators, she assumed a teaching position at Methodist Girls School following her graduation from the University of Malaya, Singapore[4].

It was during this time that she co-founded The Federation of Malaya Women Teachers Union (WTU) in March 1960[4].

Source: The Star

At a time when female teachers of all races and ethnicities were not paid the same amount as men, WTU with Rasammah as the union leader fought for women’s and workers’ rights.

As a leader, there are times when one has to be a loner to maintain integrity, accountability and honesty.  But then, I have never been the type to keep quiet when there is a need to speak up.– Rasammah Bhupalan, founder of YWCA Vocational Centre[5]

In 1964, their goal was achieved and women received an equal amount of salary to men. Her efforts as a proponent of gender equality were recognised in 1986 when she was honoured with the Tokoh Guru award[4]

Source: Focus Week

Beyond that, she co-founded the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NWCO), and one of her campaigns led to the enactment of the Law Reform Act (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 protecting women from polygamous marriages.

She founded the YWCA Vocational Training Opportunity Centre for girls from low-income households in 1998. Over 1700 women have benefited from the centre so far.

#4: Yasmin Ahmad, Promoting Racial Unity Through Film

To many of us, the name Yasmin Ahmad conjures memories of Petronas advertisements. One of those is the infamous Hari Merdeka commercial, the story of Tan Hong Ming and Umi Qazrina. The advertisement entitled Tan Hong Ming In Love won her a Gold at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival in 2008.
Some may have also watched her films such as Sepet, Gubra, Mukhsin, or Rabun during their adolescent years. The filmmaker has touched many lives and her pieces have highlighted pertinent issues in our society, despite how controversial they may be.


You may call it nation building, but I just hate borders and I hate those arbitrary divisions between people. I simply want to make films about humanity. 

Ever since I was young, I was always concerned about humanity – not in a Mother-Theresa-kind of way, but I was interested in the day-to-day interactions between people.
I find that in our pursuit to achieve success, we sometimes forget some basic human qualities, like kindness and compassion. Yasmin Ahmad, film-maker [6]


Yasmin’s creations are critically acclaimed and have been screened at international film festivals such as Berlin, San Francisco and Singapore. Sepet was crowned Best Asian Film in 2005 at the 18th Tokyo International Film Festival. Muallaf received the Best Director stamp at the 54th Asia Pacific Film Festival in 2010. 

She may have passed away at the age of 51, however, her films and advertisements have remained timeless.

#5: Irene Fernandez, The Voice Of Courage For The Voiceless 

A daughter of a plantation supervisor, young Irene was told not to play with the labourers’ children. Something that had unsettled her, and perhaps was the start of her awareness of political and social issues. 

Irene Fernandez began her career as a high school teacher in her 20s. However, she abandoned a secure future to pursue her passion after being involved with the Young Christian Workers Movement (YCW), based in Brussels[7]. She became the national president of the Malaysian YCW in 1972-1975 and was a member of the international committee from 1973-1975[7]

After years of working on a variety of issues ranging from consumer rights through the Consumer Association of Penang (CAP) to the protection of women from violence with the All Women’s Action Society, Fernandez founded Tenaganita in 1991[7], an organisation that champions the rights of migrant workers while also running a halfway house for prostitutes with HIV/AIDS. 

However, in 1996, Fernandez had a brush with the legislation and was charged with “maliciously publishing false news” due to the publication of her 1995 report “Abuse, Torture and Dehumanised Conditions of Migrant Workers in Detention Centres”. The report highlights the abuses and the terrible conditions under which 300 migrant workers were placed. 

Never ever be afraid to speak the truth, especially for the ones who do not have a voice in our society. – Irene Fernandez, founder of Tenaganita [8]

Despite the long trial and being under the watchful eye of the ruling government, Fernandez did not limit her work or tone down her fight to highlight the plights of the marginalised until her passing in 2014 at 67 years old. 

Globally, her efforts have been recognised and she received the Amnesty International Award in 1998, the international PEN Award in 2000 and the Right Livelihood Award in 2005.

#6: Lim Beng Hong, A Forerunner For Female Lawyers

Lim Beng Hong, also known as BH Oon, is perhaps the setting stone in ensuring more women are part of the judiciary and legislation in Malaya.

Her application to the Bar of the Straits Settlement and the Federated Malay States, which at the time only admitted men, led to its rules being amended. She became the Bar’s first Asian female lawyer. BH Oon was also one of two women serving on the Federal Legislative Council in 1948[9]

In a decade where women’s chances of education were limited, BH studied at St. George’s Girls School in Penang. She became a barrister in 1926 and ran her own firm for 50 years[8]. She was the first Malayan female lawyer to be called to the English Bar. 


This council was one of the prerequisites for Malaysia’s eventual independence from British colonial rule. She held the position until 1955 steering the landscape of nation-building leading up to Merdeka. 

She also dabbled in politics and was a co-founder of the Malayan Chinese Association and a local councillor in Butterworth from 1954 to 1957. She was also awarded one of the highest awards in Britain; the Order of the British Empire for services to the general public.  

In 1971, she became the first Malaysian president of the International Federation of Women Lawyers, an organisation that offers legal services, especially to women and children. She continued to be involved in politics and fighting criminal cases until her passing at the age of 81 in 1979[9]

#7: Dato Sri’ Tra Zehnder, Dayak Iban Patriot

It was the incessant fight of a female Iban patriot that earned Hari Gawai and Dayak Day official recognition every 1st of June in Malaysia.

The patriot is Dato’ Sri Tra Zehnder. Born as Philomena Tra Zehnder in 1926, the recognition of the Dayak community had been at the forefront of her mission[4]. She married a Eurasian colonial officer after the war and used her social status as a leg up to fight for the rights of the Dayak[4]

Source: The Borneo Post

In 1957, she founded Sarkakup Indu Dayak Sarawak (SIDS) and became actively engaged in politics in the 1960s. Through her work with SIDS, she encouraged more Dayak women to take up leadership roles while also providing literacy classes for women.

Tra was the first female member of the State Legislative Assembly from 1960 – 1963. During the Cobbold Commission meeting in 1962, Tra represented the Sarawak Dayak National Union (SDNU). The meeting was held in order to determine whether Sabah and Sarawak support the Federation of Malaysia. 

If we don’t get ourselves involved in politics, we will not have a say in the government. – Tra Zehnder, Iban patriot[10]

Stepping back from politics, Tra became more involved in community work. At the age of 62, she became the first woman to hold the Temenggong post (the highest title of community chief) for the Iban community[9].

In honour of her many firsts and tireless work in upholding the rights of the Dayak community, she received the Datuk Patinggi Laila Taib Award and the Pegawai Negara Bintang Sarawak, ‘Tun Sri Fatimah Wanita Cemerlang’ in 1992 and the ‘Eminent Propagator of National Unity’ presented by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in 2007 for her significant contribution to building Sarawak and the nation[10]

Tra passed away in 2011.

#8: Datuk Siti Rahmah Kassim, A Bangle That Set Us Free

An independence fighter since a young age, Datuk Siti Rahmah’s act of donating her gold bangle to support Tunku Abdul Rahman’s trip was one for the books in 1957.

This was a gift from my father for my wedding, but use it to aid in your fight for the country.– Datuk Siti Rahmah Kassim,independence fighter[11] 

Her donation spurred others to pledge their valuables including rings, wristwatches and earrings. Rahmah then walked around the hall asking others to do the same. 

Those who are inside and outside this hall, please make donations to help Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-haj to go to London for the sake of the people and nation.   – Datuk Siti Rahmah Kassim, independence fighter[11] 

Rahmah has always been spirited in her fight for independence. She started her career in politics at the age of 18 when she actively protested against the Malayan Union. In 1959, she became the first woman to contest the general election. 

Outside of politics, she was the president of Negeri Sembilan Muslim Welfare Organisation Malaysia (PERKIM) and NGOs supporting single mothers such as the Negeri Sembilan Single Mothers’ Association and Malaysian Single Mothers Council.

As long as I am alive, I will keep fighting because that’s the spirit flowing in my blood since 1945 when I was starting to become familiar with politics. Datuk Siti Rahmah Kassim, independence fighter[12]

In 2016, she was awarded the Tokoh Wanita Negeri Sembilan award. Datuk Siti Rahmah passed away in 2017 at the age of 91. 

#9:  Professor Emerita Tan Sri Dr Mazlan Othman, To Infinity And Beyond

 Professor Emerita Tan Sri Dr Mazlan Othman is not a foreign name in the field of science and technology in Malaysia. She has become a household name and a role model for many women in STEM. 

However, years ago, her path may have been slightly different if it weren’t for the push of her teachers at Tunku Kurshiah. Mazlan was often at the top of her class in science and maths. Her teachers saw her potential and encouraged her to become a scientist.

I wanted to do Literature but my teachers encouraged me to do science by presenting a very simple argument which I couldn’t really argue with. The nation (this was in the 1960s) needed scientists. Datuk Seri Mazlan Othman, astrophysicist  [13]

The rest, as they say, is history. Dr Mazlan pursued her studies under the Colombo scholarship, and a PhD in astrophysics at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Returning to Malaysia, she created the astrophysics programme at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia before being appointed as professor of astrophysics in 1994.

However, she gained prominence in her role as the first director general of the National Space Agency (ANGKASA) that developed the Angkasawan Programme resulting in the first Malaysian mission to space. Prior to this, she was the director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in Vienna. 

Today, she continues to contribute to the scientific community as a senior fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and a beacon of hope for many more budding women scientists in Malaysia. 

#10: Datin Paduka Mother Mangalam, A Loving Figure For The Orphans

The Second World War changed the way Mother Mangalam (then sister) approached life. She witnessed poverty and hunger all around her. She was determined to dedicate the rest of her life to children. Since then she has been a mother to thousands of Malaysian orphans through the organisation, Pure Life Society she founded in 1949[14].

At the age of 22, she played the role of an educator for children from impoverished backgrounds with her spiritual mentor, Swami Satyananda. Together, they set up the Pure Life Society and the establishment stood the test of time. For her contributions, she has received more than 30 awards and honours including the coveted Merdeka Award in 2010.

That, however, did not waver her dedication to serving the needy beyond race and religion even at the golden age of 97. 

My achievement? I don’t know what it is really. All have contributed to the work, that’s all I can say; the environment, people and children have played a part in what has been achieved thus far. For me, the most important factor is building the right human capital to continue this work in the future, as without it, we cannot achieve anything. – Mother Mangalam, founder of Pure Life Society [15]

Mother Mangalam, has also published a book of poetry entitled Dew Drops on the Lily Pad in 2001 and Mother in 2014. 

#11: Dato’ PG LIM, Malaysia’s First Ambassador To United Nations

Dato ‘ Lim Phaik Gain studied law at Cambridge University following in the footsteps of her father, Lim Cheng Ean. Upon returning to Malaya, she built a reputation as a formidable lawyer. She took up legal battles championing workers’ unions, including the Railwaymen’s Union of Malaya and the National Union of Plantation Workers [16]

Source: Merdeka Award

She was also the co-founder of the Labour Party of Malaya, which was active between 1952-1699. Following the riots of May 13 1969, Lim was part of the National Consultative Council that would later formulate the New Economic Policy [16].

Two years later, she became the first ever Malaysian woman to become an ambassador to the United Nations. 

When I first went to the UN, I found that developing countries had more representatives there than developed countries. In the 1970s, many countries had achieved independence, and they couldn’t afford to discriminate against women. They took those who were efficient and were in a position to represent the country irrespective of gender. – Dato’ PG Lim, Malaysia’s First Ambassador To United Nations [16]

With her sharp intellect, her irrefutable work ethic, and her strong belief that one woman could make a difference in many lives, her achievements and work ethic are nothing short of inspiring. In 2009, she was awarded the Merdeka award. PG Lim passed away in 2013.

#12: Datuk Wira Dr Maznah Hamid, The Iron Lady

Growing up in a broken family, Datuk Wira Dr Maznah Hamid was raised by her grandparents with the dream of becoming an entrepreneur. However, she had to take a step back from pursuing her passion due to her grandfather’s disapproval, who said entrepreneurs are drop-outs who will eventually end up selling fish and vegetables in the market. 

She relented and worked as a translator for several embassies and multinationals before her dream resurfaced. Maznah decided to start Securiforce with merely RM5000 from her savings compared to other companies of similar nature that began with a capital of between RM500,000 and RM1 million. 

Maznah became the first ever woman in Malaysia to lead a security company and today, it is the largest security provider in Malaysia. From RM5,000 to a multimillion company with over 6,000 employees and upwards of 64 branches.  

As the ‘Iron Lady,’ she was remembered for being a brave and persistent woman. She left her mark in the political arena as part of Wanita UMNO Kedah. She passed away in 2017. 

She was a brave and bold person. She left the village to further her studies in Kuala Lumpur after completing Form Five.  She never forgot her roots despite being a successful businesswoman in the city. She came back almost every fortnight to Jerlun — and at times, every week — to check on the progress of programmes at the constituency.  – Rohani Mat Ariff, Maznah’s childhood friend and fellow UMNO member[17]

Explore our sources:

  1. C.K.Lai & C.C.Ang. (2019). Kongsi Women: The Women Who Built Malaysia. Think City. Link 
  2. B.L.Yi. (2019). Malaysia’s first female top judge is ‘big step’ for women’s justice. Reuters. Link
  3. The Australia Indonesia Partnership for Justice (AIPJ 2) Webinar (15 April 2021) Reflections on my journey to becoming the first female Chief Justice in Malaysia: challenges and champions. Link 
  4. Poskod. (n.d.). The Women Who Made Malaysia. Link
  5. G.Chen. (2016). A tigress to this day. The Star. Link 
  6. Southeast Asia Film Studies Institute. (2009). Yasmin Ahmad (1958 – 2009). Link
  7. Right Livelihood. (2005). Irene Fernandez. Link 
  8. G.A.Das. (2016). Remembering Irene Fernandez. Malaysiakini. Link 
  9. M.A. (2021). B.H. Oon, the lawyer who opened the doors for women to practice law in Malaysia. Link 
  10. C.T. Mamora. (2021). Committed to uplifting community identity, participation. The Borneo Post. Link 
  11.  M.M. Chu. (2017). Siti Rahmah unsung hero in fight for Merdeka dies. The Star. Link 
  12. E.Choo. (2018). The Tale Of The Bangle. Going Places. Link 
  13. Prestige Women. (n.d.). Dr Mazlan Othman. Link
  14.  R.Durai. (2021). Mother Mangalam; The Humanitarian Woman Who’s In Love With Children. Link
  15.  Merdeka Award. (n.d.). Datin Paduka Mother Mangalam. Link 
  16. Merdeka Award. (n.d.) Tan Sri Dato Lim Phaik Gan. Link
  17. A.S.Zulkefli. (2017). Remembering Iron Lady, Datuk Maznah Hamid. New Straits Times. Link

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