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Celebrating 10 Malaysian Indian Leaders, Innovators and Changemakers  

Deepavali, also known as Diwali, is a joyous and significant festival celebrated by millions of people of Indian origin around the world. In Malaysia, Deepavali holds a special place in the hearts of the Indian community. As the festival of lights, it presents an ideal opportunity to acknowledge and appreciate the extraordinary contributions made by Malaysian Indians towards the advancement and growth of the nation.

These 10 individuals serve as outstanding representatives of the Malaysian Indian community’s remarkable accomplishments. They stand as leaders, innovators, and changemakers, not only earning pride within their own community but also enriching Malaysia’s diverse cultural tapestry.

#1: Suriakala Suriabagavan – The First Non-Bumiputera Female Major-General

On February 29, 2020, Brigadier-General Suriakala Suriabagavan made history by becoming the first non-Bumiputera woman to be promoted to Major-General. This promotion was in conjunction with the 87th Army Day in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah held on the following Sunday.

Army chief Gen Tan Sri Ahmad Hasbullah Mohd Nawawi commended Suriakala, a grandmother of two, for her astute leadership and top-notch officer quality.

She is one that needs minimal (or no) supervision and can deliver when it matters most. Suriakala is a very dedicated officer and we are proud and honoured to have someone like her serving not only the Army, but the entire Armed Forces and nation. – Gen Tan Sri Ahmad Hasbullah Mohd Nawawi, Army chief[1]

Suriakala, who is a mother of two sons was very touched by the gesture from the Army and the Armed Forces to reward her for her untiring efforts to maintain the credibility of the organisations.

Never did I imagine that someday I would break ranks to be promoted to such an esteemed level. My family and I are ever grateful to the Army for where I am today and will do my utmost to continue giving my best. I hope my achievement will spur other Malaysian women to pursue a rewarding career in the Armed Forces. – Major-General Suriakala Suriabagavan[1]

Hailing from Klang, Selangor, Suriakala is from the third intake of women cadet officers from the short-service commission who enlisted with the Armed Forces in December 1981. After completing a year’s training at the Officer Cadet School in Port Dickson, she was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1982. She began as an assistant records officer with the Records and Pensions Directorate on December 18 of that year.

From there on, Suriakala continued her 38-year career with the directorate, rising through the ranks to become a major in August 1993 and lieutenant colonel in December 2000.

In October 2008, she was promoted to colonel and made the Army’s human resources (policy and development) director. On June 3rd, 2015, she was made a brigadier-general to become the personnel services division (manpower branch) director at the Armed Forces Headquarters[1].

#2: Sivasangari Subramaniam – Survivor and Squash Champion 

Subramaniam in action at the 2022 J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions. Source: PSA

As the 2018 British Junior Open Champion and Malaysia’s No.1 squash player, Sivasangari Subramaniam’s career seemed bright.

However, it was nearly cut short in June 2022, when her car was struck by another vehicle whilst travelling with a friend near Kuala Lumpur.

We were just unlucky. I got hit more than my friend and had some serious injuries. Sivasangari Subramaniam[2]

The severe injuries to her face and, more dangerously, in her neck, initially caused worries that the Malaysian would never play again.

However, after two surgeries in two weeks, the prognosis was more positive and Subramaniam was presented with a choice: undergo one more operation on her neck, which would likely prove successful but could cause lasting mobility issues or manage the pain and try to let the injury heal naturally.

Subramaniam opted for the second option.

The result was months of wearing cumbersome collars, which kept her neck rigidly in place as her body began to repair itself. While this helped Subramaniam’s neck to heal, it also meant that even the simplest of tasks were impossible without help.

Despite her ordeal, Subramaniam’s focus on her return never wavered.

Even in the hospital in the second week, I just couldn’t stay in bed. It was so tough because it’s just not what I do, just hanging out [in] bed. In the fourth week, I went to the Sports Institute and asked them if I could just start some rehab or do some exercises. – Sivasangari Subramaniam[2]

After two months of recovery, Subramaniam finally fully recovered and went on to win the gold medal in the 19th Asian Games women’s singles squash. But that will merely be another step in her career as she turns her attention to the US Open in Philadelphia[3].

#3: Shanjhey Kumar Perumal – Acclaimed Film Director

Source: Eastern Kicks

Most of us tend to associate Tamil or Hindi-speaking films with Bollywood. Shanjhey Kumar Perumal’s Jagat challenged this notion.

The crime drama was released in December 2015 and was the director’s feature debut and one of the most important Malay pictures in recent years. Jagat takes place in the early 1990s and follows the plight of 12-year-old Appoy as he is lured to a life of crime by his uncle. 

It is a classic coming-of-age story that underlines the plight of Malaysian Indians in the days following Malaysia’s independence as they find themselves forsaken by the plantations they worked on and without the support of a Bumiputera-favouring government[4].

With the plantations, there was at least a system whereby people lived in a community, the young people must respect the elder people, there were temples, a playground, people were together. When you remove that system, they lose their identity. They didn’t know how to work, so a lot of people ended up in gangs. Shanjhey Kumar Perumal, film director[4]

Shanjhey brought up the many drug problems that blighted these Indian communities and the careers that were available to them.

Some [were] into drugs, and a small number of people had some success in life. But a very small number came out as doctors, lawyers, etc. A lot of people became lorry drivers because it’s manual work and you do not need to study much. – Shanjhey Kumar Perumal[4]

He noted the bitterness these communities felt and how he wanted to explore this dark period of Malaysian history.

A lot of people end up feeling lost in life because of all these factors. So, that transformation period in the late 80s and early 90s is when a lot of people were searching for their identity. I wanted to mark this important period of change in Jagat. – Shanjhey Kumar Perumal[4]

Jagat subsequently won Best Malaysian Film at the 28th Malaysia Film Festival (FFM) and was screened as a European premiere at the 10th Five Flavours Film Festival[4].

Shanjhey himself would also win the Best Director award at the 28th Malaysia Film Festival and become recognised as one of Augustman’s 2016 Men of the Year.

Throughout my career, I had to turn down various opportunities to arrive at one that resonated with me. I’ve been conscious, picky, and careful over my next project after Jagat, no regrets. – Shanjhey Kumar Perumal[5]

More recently, Shanjhey had taken to directing the TV show adaptation of the Singaporean crime thriller novel, Moonrise, Sunset in 2022. The four-episode crime thriller set in 1990s Singapore tells the story of a young Chinese-Indian man who wakes up next to his murdered fiancee and has to prove his innocence by uncovering the secrets left behind by his mysterious lover[6].

I’m very happy to be part of the project. I have always wanted to make neo-realist crime films with the backdrop of Southeast Asian countries’ multicultural and multi-ethnic tapestry. – Shanjhey Kumar Perumal[6]

#4: Dr Dharminy Thurairatnam – The Doctor Who Saved An Australian Patient From Forming A New Covid-19 Cluster In Adelaide

Source: The Star

At the height of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, a Klang-local working as a junior doctor in Adelaide, Australia saved a patient from forming a new Covid cluster in South Australia.

Dr Dharminy Thurairatnam was attending to a patient in her 80s after she turned up at Lyell McEwin Hospital in Adelaide’s northern suburbs on November 20, 2020, when she picked up a slight cough from the patient. Worried, Dharminy conducted a test on the patient and discovered that the woman had COVID-19. Worse still, she had managed to spread it to 25 of her family members and their close contacts[7].

It was thanks to her keen efforts that Adelaide managed to avert a major Covid cluster. Although she was hailed as a hero by the Australian media and was even commended by South Australia’s Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier, Dharminy insisted that she was merely doing her job.

I am only one doctor in the emergency department who tries to do my very best with every patient that I treat. As for the hero part, I think every front-line worker is a hero during the pandemic. – Dr Dharminy Thurairatnam[7]

#5: Saras Manickam – The First Malaysian To Win The 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Source: Options

Saras Manickam was born in a small Perak town called Teluk Intan. Growing up, her ambitions were modest though reading was a constant from girlhood to adulthood.

I am the fifth child in a big family and was very much a bookish person. We had no money for them but somehow, there were always books in the house. I don’t know where they came from. – Saras Manickam[8]

Given her humble beginnings, you can imagine Saras’s surprise when she became the first Malaysian to have won the regional Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Saras’ winning entry, My Mother Pattu, is a tale years in the making about a mother violently jealous of her daughter. The premise has remained the same over the years but Saras rewrote it over and over again, editing dozens of drafts until she felt it could be edited no further.

I had submitted it to competitions before but it was never good enough. And it really wasn’t. The story was all over the place but it was a story that needed to be told, so I stuck to it.  –  Saras Manickam[8]

The short story was about a woman who was lovely to the people around her but abusive to her own family. It was an exploration of the role of mothers and how motherhood is too often placed on a pedestal. Though she initially condemned the mother in earlier versions of her story, in the final version of the story, Saras ultimately refused to judge or condone her – she was merely telling the story of a human.

The years change you — you have suffered, have been humbled, have gone through good and bad and that changes your worldview. It’s still the same story but there’s more empathy now. Isn’t that interesting? – Saras Manickam, writer[8]

The titular character is not based on any one real person or situation but is a composite of many women.

I think there were many Pattus in my life, though my own mother was nothing like her. It is purely fiction, and I knew it was ready when I could do no more to it. – Saras Manickam, writer[8]

When Saras submitted her story, she did not expect it to be mentioned, let alone win singlehandedly.

I was shocked when I was shortlisted, and completely overwhelmed when I won the Asian prize. It was too much to take in. – Saras Manickam[8]

#6: Priyanka Vairavasundaram – A Diana Award Recipient Who Is Helping Low-Income Students

Priyanka (in white top) with local activist Anwar Fazal (left), who nominated her for the Diana Award. Looking on are Kowsalya (second from right) and R Vairavasundaram (right). Source: FMT

For many people, teaching is more than just a job. It is a dedication, with many devoting their lives to educating our future generations.

This is much the case with 26-year-old Priyanka Vairavasundaram, who in 2020 was honoured with the UK’s Diana Award for her tireless work in motivating and coaching academically weak students from poor families.

For over six years, the Penangite has been delivering motivational speeches along with her father, R Vairavasundaram, 62, bringing hope, confidence and encouragement to students who felt intimidated by their studies or lacked belief in their academic potential.

Priyanka said her interest in helping others took root when she was 14 after attending a motivational camp.

I was an average student back then. But the camp really gave me a new outlook on life and how to be more positive. However, I realised that these motivational talks only reached the richer section of society and were often expensive. So, we decided to carry out free motivational talks for poor deserving students, through donations. – Priyanka Vairavasundaram, educator and motivational speaker[9]

To aid in this task, Priyanka and her father founded the NGO, SPARK. Using SPARK, Priyanka began conducting free two-day “student success programmes” for those with low passing grades who were sitting for examinations. The results, according to Priyanka, weren’t just promising, they were astounding.

Since 2015, she has coached close to 4,000 students from schools in Penang and Kedah, transforming them from mediocre to “straight As” students.

Priyanka said her father was instrumental in the success of her NGO, as he is a trainer and motivational speaker himself.

I picked up my skills from my dad as I often joined him for his talks. After engaging with the students out there, I realised that I was destined to bring change to their lives. – Priyanka Vairavasundaram, educator and motivational speaker[9]

Amazingly, Priyanka juggled her social work with the demands of pursuing a chemical engineering degree at Monash University in Petaling Jaya.

#7: Prevena Ramakrishnan – First Ever Malaysian Student to Attend International Model UN Conference

Source: World of Buzz

Also honoured with a Diana Award in the same year was Prevena Ramakrishnan, the first-ever Malaysian student to attend the International Model UN conference.

Hailing from Kulim, Kedah, Prevena made her country proud when she attended the 2017 International Model United Nations conference on July 28th of that year.

Organised by the Unesco Centre for Peace, the conference was held at Hood College in Maryland, United States. It was part of the two-week summer programme that Prevena took part in. All these amazing individuals were there to promote global issues on education through simulation.

Education Minister Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid also took her achievement to social media to congratulate her.

It is understood that this is the first time a Malaysian student has attended the International Model United Nations conference. Prevena gave a presentation to 96 delegates from around the world. 

She has also won the ‘Best Speaker’ and ‘Best Position Paper’ awards. We are proud of your success! – Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid, former Education Minister[10]

Her outstanding achievement has garnered nationwide attention as netizens flooded the comment section with heartwarming and encouraging words.

“Congratulations Prevena, may you be an example to the other students!” a netizen said.

“Hats off to this precious Malaysian, Prevena Ramakrishnan!” another netizen commented[10].

Prevena would make her country proud once again in 2020 when was honoured with the Diana Award for her work in fighting for gender equality in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in Malaysia[11].

Having had a keen interest in science, Prevena believes that all children, especially young women and girls, should be able to access all human rights, regardless of their socio-economic background. With this goal in mind, she volunteered with the Talent Developing Society, advocating for young women and girls in STEM by mentoring students and creating various innovation programmes to support gender equality in STEM education.

When not participating in scientific research programmes and volunteering, she is also an environmental campaigner who likes to develop products from used plastic and frequently teaches her fellow students different ways to protect the planet[11].

#8: Abhimanyu Veerakumarasivam – Crowned World’s Best Science Communicator

Source: Astro Awani

Communicating science to the public is no easy feat, as you must be charismatic and knowledgeable to pull it off effectively.

This is why Abhimanyu Veerakumarasivam being crowned World’s Best Science Communicator for FameLab International 2016 is such a huge honour.

The award-winning geneticist, educator and science communicator sailed past over 2000 scientists from 27 countries on June 9, 2016, by presenting “Cancer Genetics” at the EDF Arena at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival. Abhi’s winning talk focused on cancer cells, explaining why cancer incidence increased with age. He pointed out how genetics is going to change the way cancer is going to be diagnosed and treated in the age of precision medicine.

Science communication is essential to ensure that the advancements in science translate to actual improvement of lives. There is a need to communicate effectively, especially to the non-scientific audience. – Abhimanyu Veerakumarasivam, geneticist, educator and science communicator, Universiti Putra Malaysia[12]

Datuk Dr Mohd Yusoff Sulaiman, President and Chief Executive Officer of MIGHT, congratulated Dr Abhi for his achievement.

Abhi’s victory is indeed special and timely as the nation urgently needs to rally everyone to embrace and leverage on science and societal wellbeing through simple, fun yet effective communication.  – Datuk Dr Mohd Yusoff Sulaiman, President and Chief Executive Officer of MIGHT[12]

He also announced MIGHT’s continuing work with Dr Abhi in the future.

We will continue to work with Dr Abhi and the others (National FameLab alumni) as our appointed science ambassadors under the Science to Action (S2A) programme. – Datuk Dr Mohd Yusoff Sulaiman, President and Chief Executive Officer of MIGHT[12]

You can watch Dr Ahbi’s award-winning talk here.

#9: Emily Koshy – The First Indian Policewoman In Malaysia

Growing up in pre-independence Malaya, Emily Koshy had hoped to study medicine because she did quite well in her studies. That was until she caught sight of an advertisement in 1955 looking for probationary female inspectors. And so began her journey to becoming Malaysia’s first Indian policewoman.

Koshy, whose maiden name is Mathew, also has the distinction of being the sole Indian among the multiracial pioneer batch.

In fact, I wanted to go for further studies, university and all. But my father was retiring that year, I didn’t want to trouble him… he’s a teacher, so never mind. – Emily Koshy, retired Deputy Superintendent of Police[13]

Despite the danger of joining the police force during the Malayan Emergency, Koshy, who is a second-generation immigrant from Johor, said her India-born parents “were not worried” when she was selected but were only thinking of service for the nation.

They were very, very proud that someone in the family had gone to serve the country, especially in the police uniformed branch and then when your court cases come out, your name comes out in the papers. – Emily Koshy, retired Deputy Superintendent of Police[13]

Koshy officially joined the police force on October 8th, 1955, along with three Malay and three Chinese women, whom she said were treated equally and received the same level of training as their male counterparts.

She even had the honour of leading the platoon of female police officers in the first-ever Merdeka parade on August 31, 1957.

When the country experienced unrest once again on May 13th, 1969, Koshy found herself stationed in Melaka to help quell any chaos that was happening. Koshy recalls being on duty and in charge of coordination from within the police station, as authorities imposed a strict curfew on Malacca but gradually relaxed curfew hours as the situation in Kuala Lumpur improved over the following days.

While Malacca did not experience trouble, police were on standby there and in other states throughout the country to avert anything that may spark off chaos, Koshy said.

Malacca didn’t have much (trouble), mostly KL, but we were ready lah, because sometimes it spreads fast. – Emily Koshy, retired Deputy Superintendent of Police[13]

The unrest in Kuala Lumpur quickly died down, she said, adding that she served in Malacca for several years where she was promoted to the rank of Assistant Superintendent of Police and was then shifted back to the police training centre in KL.

After retiring with the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police, Koshy would join the Film Censorship Board for seven years.

#10: Dato’ Dr Ambiga Sreenevasan – An Iron Lady And A Name To Be Reckoned With!

Dato’ Dr Ambiga Sreenevasan is a woman who has stood tall, fighting not just for the pride of this country but also for basic human rights and equality.

A lawyer, human-rights advocate and former President of the Malaysian Bar Council, Dato’ Ambiga is fueled by relentless efforts and a thirst for justice and has been openly voicing out her opinions on an equal and fair election, being the waking call for us to deem for our rights[14].

Dato’ Ambiga has been awarded several accolades including being a laureate of the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur honour for France and one of the eight winners of the 2009 US Foreign Women of Courage Prize[14].

After graduating with a law degree from the UK’s University of Exeter and being called to the bar at Gray’s Inn, London, Dato’s Ambiga worked at a couple of London firms before returning home, where was admitted to the Malaysian bar[15].

She would later gain prominence while helming the Malaysian Bar Council, when she organised the “March for Justice”, where thousands of lawyers walked from the Palace of Justice in Putrajaya to the Prime Minister’s office, calling for judicial reforms and inquiries which led to the set-up of the Judicial Appointments Commission.

In 2011, Dato’ Ambiga once again organised a peaceful street protest as the chairperson of Bersih 2.0, which drew tens of thousands of Malaysians to the streets in the country and other parts of the world, demanding free and fair elections[15].

Although she received countless death threats (even calls to revoke her citizenship) over her demands for democratic reforms, Dato’ Ambiga was never discouraged and continues to fight for what is right. She is currently a member of the Executive Committee of the Women’s Aid Organisation and remains an outspoken critic on issues of human rights and injustice[15].

Explore our sources:

  1. A. David. (2020). Suriakala, Malaysia’s first non-Malay female Major-General. New Straits Times. Link.
  2. PSA World Tour. (2023). “I Couldn’t Just Stay In Bed!” Subramaniam Ready To Return To The Tour 7 Months After Crash. Link.
  3. R. Brijnath. (2023). From hospital bed to gold medal: The comeback of a squash hero. The Straits Times. Link.
  4. J. Smith. (2016). Shanjhey Kumar Perumal interview: “Jagat is my revenge to the system”. Eastern Kicks. Link.
  5. A. Low. (2022). Shanjhey Kumar Perumal On His Comeback To Filmmaking. Augustman. Link.
  6. D. Chua. (2020). #Showbiz: ‘Jagat’ director Shanjhey takes on Singapore crime drama. New Straits Times. Link.
  7. The Star. (2020). M’sian-born doctor hailed for stopping Adelaide outbreak. Link.
  8. P. Fernandez. (2019). How small-town girl Saras Manickam became first Malaysian to win 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Options. Link.
  9. P. Nambiar. (2020). Priyanka receives UK’s Diana Award for her work with poor students. FMT. Link.
  10. L. Kwan. (2017). First Ever Malaysian Student to Attend International Model UN Conference Wins Several Awards. World of Buzz. Link.
  11. M. Vin Ang. (2020). 3 Youths Honoured With UK’s ‘Diana Award’ For Creating Social Change In Malaysia. Says. Link.
  12. MIGHT. (2016). Dr Abhimanyu Veerakumarasivam is Crowned the World’s Best Science Communicator. Link.
  13. I. Lim. (2016). Meet Emily Koshy, the country’s first Indian policewoman. Malay Mail. Link.
  14. M.V. Segaran. (2021). Ambiga Sreenevasan, An Iron Lady And A Name To Be Reckoned With! Varnam Malaysia. Link.
  15. Tatler Asia. Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan. Link.

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