Dressed in impeccably tailored blue uniforms and eye-catching neon-coloured reflective vests, the Malaysian police force, also known as the Polis DiRaja Malaysia (PDRM), carries the crucial responsibility of upholding the law and apprehending wrongdoers. It’s a force that has, at times, been stereotypically associated with male officers.
For those who grew up in the late 1990s, the Malay television series “Gerak Khas” or “Special Unit” is undoubtedly familiar. This show revolved around the lives and adventures of a special police unit. Notably, in the early episodes of the series, there was only one female character, Inspector Aleza, who later rose to the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) in the subsequent seasons.
In more recent seasons and adaptations, there has been a noticeable increase in the inclusion of female police characters, reflecting the changing times. As of 2019, female police officers constituted 18% of the PDRM, with the majority, 82%, being male. Their unwavering dedication to fighting crime deserves commendation. However, it is regrettable that female officers have sometimes found themselves in the spotlight for less than positive reasons.
In 2023, Inspector Sheila became a widely recognised police officer due to a viral outburst. Yet, long before this incident, Oli Lee had gained fame, primarily for her physical attractiveness, often overshadowing the significant roles these officers play in law enforcement and their courageous efforts to break down gender barriers in the traditionally masculine field of policing.
Female Trailblazers In The Police Force
The Malaysian police force, established in 1807, has a rich history spanning over 216 years. However, the active participation of women within this esteemed institution only began halfway through its existence.
It wasn’t until June 23, 1948, that Malaysian women stepped into policing. This significant shift occurred in the aftermath of the Emergency, which involved the Communist Party (CPM) and prompted the doors to open for women to join the police force. In 1955, this milestone was followed by the first intake of seven women who held the rank of Women Police Inspector.
Among these trailblazers was Emily Koshy, who decided to join the police force after spotting an advertisement in the New Straits Times. Throughout her tenure as a police officer, Emily Koshy played a pivotal role in resolving cases of domestic abuse against women and children, leaving a profound and enduring impact in this critical realm of law enforcement.
We didn’t go for border jaga [monitor] and all that, they got their Home Guards and special security; we were more on crime policing and police investigation for women mostly on outraging modesty, rape, beating… we specialised in women and children. – Emily Koshy, pioneering female police
In the year 1956, a group of 56 women were recruited into the Malayan police force, and among them was the late Sariah Ali, who became part of the pioneering team known as the Women Police Constables (WPC). Sariah’s journey into the police force was more accidental than intentional. Alongside five of her friends, she applied for the position of “mata-mata,” the term used for policemen in those days.
Later, when I informed my mother I had passed the interview, she was stunned. This was because I had no official letter and was merely following my friend. In the end, I was the one who got the ‘mata-mata’ job. – late Sariah Ali, pioneering group of Malayan policewomen
Sariah left her hometown in Muar to embark on her training at the police training centre located on High Street, which is now known as Jalan Tun H S Lee. Under the guidance of Miss BDB Wentworth, an Englishwoman, Sariah and her fellow 55 recruits became an integral part of the Women Police Constables (WPC) team. These dedicated WPCs collaborated closely with male officers and Special Constables to ensure the security of entry and exit points in various villages.
During the times of Emergency, the government initiated operations to prevent vital food supplies from falling into the hands of communist terrorists. This task involved inspecting villages, and since a large number of rubber tappers in Malaysia were women, the WPCs were well-suited for the job of checking those who received food supplies.
Since those early days, the role of women in the nation’s police force has continued to evolve and expand, marking an important chapter in the history of women’s contributions to law enforcement in Malaysia.
The Torchbearer: Lighting the Way in Policing
One of the most notable contributions of women in the police force is their involvement in specialised units. Individuals like Blossom Wong have played key roles in establishing and managing units dedicated to addressing gender-based violence and women’s safety concerns. Their expertise and commitment have led to groundbreaking initiatives that empower women to seek justice and protection.
Blossom Wong, also known as Wong Kooi Fong, was inspired to join the police force when she saw a smartly dressed policewoman patrolling Jalan Sultan Ismail.
In the front seat was a lady officer and she had a cap on. She looked so smart. She looked at me and smiled and from that moment, I was sold. I would be a policewoman. – Blossom Wong, a former Special Branch officer 
In 1957, Wong officially became a part of the police force, and just six months later, she was assigned to join the Special Branch (SB) as an Inspector in Penang. However, Wong’s role within the police force was often shrouded in secrecy, requiring her to assume disguises. Her primary mission was to infiltrate the communist movement and blend in inconspicuously with the communists.
In 1966, Wong transitioned to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), where she became a part of the specialised unit known as Delta 7 (D7). Her expertise in undercover work was highly valued, and she worked diligently to combat the pervasive illegal activities plaguing Kuala Lumpur during that era.
Dressed in her trusty cheongsams, she collaborated with a group known as the “Black Cats” in a series of undercover operations aimed at infiltrating and exposing prostitution rings that exploited local girls, including minors. Wong and her team conducted raids on numerous infamous brothels in areas such as Jalan Ampang, Jalan Walter Grenier, Jalan Alor, and various other locations.
Wong’s exceptional career path led her to a groundbreaking role as the leader of PDRM’s first Rape Investigation Unit. Under her guidance, Wong and her team received specialized training in utilising DNA technology, a pioneering effort achieved through collaboration with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, positioning them as early adopters of DNA evidence in their pursuit of justice.
Following this achievement, Wong was appointed to lead the Sexual Violence, Child Abuse, and Domestic Violence Division based in Bukit Aman. In this capacity, she played a pivotal role in addressing and combating sexual violence, child abuse, and domestic violence. Her contributions were instrumental in advancing the cause of justice and safety for women and children.
There Is Always Room For Compassion
The field of policing has historically been associated with masculinity due to its demanding nature, including long hours, exposure to life-threatening situations, and physical strength requirements. These factors have often deterred women from considering a career in law enforcement.
The Chinese community doesn’t encourage their children, especially their daughters to join the police or the army for safety reasons. – Datuk Dr Lee Bee Phang, the first woman of Chinese descent to hold the rank of Commissioner of Police (CP) in the Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM)
While the rough and tough nature of policing may have dissuaded women from joining the force, the field of law enforcement frequently involves challenging and emotionally charged situations where qualities traditionally associated with compassion, often attributed to women, can prove to be invaluable assets.
A. Chandramalar, a police officer known as the “Woman Of Steel,” achieved a historic milestone when she became the first woman to lead Penang’s anti-vice section in 1972. Despite her role in leading missions to dismantle prostitution, combat gambling, and suppress drug-related activities, she was equally renowned for her unwavering compassion.
During a pursuit involving a drug pusher, Chandra opted not to use a firearm immediately; instead, she used her helmet to deliver a decisive blow when they apprehended the suspect at an intersection.
One should not sacrifice one’s life unnecessarily. – A. Chandramalar, the first non-Malay woman ranked Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP)
On another occasion, Chandra rescued a 12-year-old sex worker from a hotel where the establishment charged clients RM100 each while only giving her RM5 in return. Chandra’s intervention led to the girl’s rescue and her subsequent rehabilitation.
When I visited her again in a welfare home, she thanked me for saving her and showed me how well she had learned to sew. – A. Chandramalar, the first non-Malay woman ranked Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP)
Chandramalar accomplished yet another milestone as the first non-Malay woman to attain the rank of Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP). Today, despite her advanced age, her extensive knowledge and expertise within the Malaysian legal system continue to be a valuable resource.
Cracks In The Ceiling
Historically, police departments were largely male-dominated institutions, offering limited opportunities for women to attain higher-ranking positions. However, the tide began to turn thanks to pioneering women like the late Dato’ Zakiah Laidin, who made history in 1992 as the first policewoman appointed as Deputy Commissioner. Her appointment demonstrated that women could indeed rise to top leadership positions in traditionally male-dominated fields.
Despite notable progress, the appointment of women to leadership roles within the police force, particularly at the state level, remains relatively uncommon. In 2008, Datuk Robiah Abdul Ghani achieved national recognition as she became the Chief Police Officer of Pahang. Then, in 2019, Datuk Surina Saad shattered yet another glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to lead the police force in Perlis.
It is my parents and my wish for me to return to this state and serve here. I have been a police officer for over 30 years, so I want to give the best service to the state. – Datuk Surina Saad, Perlis police chief
While the number of women reaching deputy or leadership positions within the police force has remained relatively modest, Datuk Dr. Lee Bee Phang, the first Chinese woman to serve as Commissioner of Police (CP), emphasises the importance of women’s representation in high-ranking positions within law enforcement, transcending racial boundaries.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s Chinese, Malay or Indian, I think what’s important is they’ve given us recognition to hold high and important ranks in PDRM. – Datuk Dr Lee Bee Phang, the first woman of Chinese descent to hold the rank of Commissioner of Police (CP) in the Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM)
According to Datuk Dr Lee Bee Phang, women in the police force bring a unique and valuable perspective to law enforcement. Their presence adds a distinct dimension to policing.
Although men might have physical advantages, we women also have our own advantages for example in making policies and in knowledge. Policy-making is not an easy task. We have to make sure the input is from various sources, we can’t just refer based on one paper. We need an input that is compatible with real-life situations. – Datuk Dr Lee Bee Phang, the first woman of Chinese descent to hold the rank of Commissioner of Police (CP) in the Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM)
The Future of Policing
The annual review of the female police officer quota and the mandated 30% quota for government agencies, including PDRM, reflects the nation’s commitment to bolstering female representation in the force. However, as of 2019, it’s evident that the established benchmark has not been met, and women in higher-ranking positions can be counted on one hand.
In reality, the majority of women within the police force tend to occupy backbench roles, often stationed in office-based positions. A significant turning point occurred in 2014 when the first all-women traffic police team, the Traffic Women Estimable Enforcement Team (Tweet), was deployed.
Most female officers get stuck with administrative work and don’t get the chance to be out in the field. If this team is successful, we can request more women to try out for enforcement work. – Former Petaling Jaya Traffic Police chief Deputy Supt, now Batu Gajah District Police Chief, Assistant Commissioner Mohamad Roy Suhaimi Sarif
Despite the limited progress since the inception of the first female police force, inspirational figures such as Emily Koshy, Blossom Wong, and Dato’ Zakiah Laidin demonstrate that women can serve as potent catalysts for change within the police landscape.
In recent times, crimes have evolved to become more innovative and notorious, with threats even infiltrating homes where women and children traditionally reside. There’s a pressing need for more women to become part of the law enforcement team, as their stereotypically associated qualities of compassion and empathetic listening are invaluable assets in addressing issues like gender-based crimes, including prostitution, child assaults, and violence against women.
However, it’s worth noting that recent police recruitment efforts have primarily focused on attracting non-Bumiputeras. One of their initiatives to increase female recruitment involves reducing the height requirement from 1.57cm to 1.55cm.
After 216 years since PDRM’s establishment, it’s increasingly clear that the time is ripe for a redefinition of the policing landscape. Given the opportunity, women can excel in crucial policing roles, leaving an indelible mark on the safety and security of our communities.
Explore our sources:
- INTERPOL, UN Women & UNODC. (2020). Women In Law Enforcement In The Asean Region. Link
- I.Lim. (2016). Meet Emily Koshy, the country’s first Indian policewoman. Malay Mail. Link
- Bernama. (2017). The tale of a pioneer female cop. New Straits Times. Link
- J. Ramachandran. (2021). From Escorting The Kennedys To Nabbing Felons In A Cheongsam, This Ex-Spy Has Done It All. Link
- A.Zikri. (2021). Passionate determination: Malaysia’s first Chinese woman police commissioner hopes promotion paves way for others. Malay Mail. Link
- J. Ramachandran. (2021). Meet M’sia’s ‘Woman Of Steel’: The 1st Female Cop To Head The Anti-Vice Branch In Penang. SAYS. Link
- PDRM. (2011). Belangsungkawa : Dato’ Zakiah Binti Laidin (1938 – 2011). Link
- K.Kaur. (2019). Perlis Superwoman Makes History As Statesâ€™ FIRST Female Police Chief. The Rakyat Post. Link
- Straits Times. (2014). Malaysia deploys first female traffic police team at roadblocks. Link
- K. Perimbanayagam. (2021). Police to hold special recruitment drive to attract non-Bumiputeras. New Straits Times. Link