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Powerhouse Women: Malaysia’s 8 Most Influential Leaders, From Courtrooms to Boardrooms

From pioneering politicians to groundbreaking activists, and visionary entrepreneurs to champions of liberty, Malaysian women have been the driving force behind progress and change. 

Their unwavering leadership has shattered stereotypes and paved the way for future generations. Whether in courtrooms or atop skyscrapers, these women prove that excellence knows no gender and true leadership lies in creating lasting positive impact.

Join us as we pay tribute to eight remarkable Malaysian women who have shaped Malaysia’s future and continue to inspire us all.

#1: Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz: Asia’s First Female Central Bank Governor

At 27, Zeti Akhtar Aziz enrolled into the prestigious PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, while her dissertation was widely regarded, she found the confines of academics too restrictive for her ambitions. “I knew that I wanted to be a policy-maker,” Tan Sri Zeti revealed in an interview with Wharton Magazine in 2013[1].

After her return to Kuala Lumpur in 1979, she made a lasting impression on the Bank Negara governor, Tun Ismail bin Mohamed Ali, during an art exhibition, which led to her securing a job as an analyst at the South-East Asian Central Bank Research and Training Centre (Seacan). In 1985, she joined Bank Negara’s economics department as a deputy manager, marking the beginning of a distinguished career in central banking and economics[1]


In the tumultuous wake of the Asian financial crisis, Tan Sri Zeti emerged as a beacon of stability, navigating the challenging times with her steady steer. As the trailblazing first woman in Asia to helm a central bank, her 16-year stewardship from 2000 to 2016[1].  

Building on her instrumental role in managing the resolution of the economic crisis followed by Malaysia’s strong recovery, she oversaw the enactment of legislation for financial sector reform and progressive liberalisation in Malaysia. 

While the opportunities are immense for women in the public sector, yet few rise to leadership positions. While there is still a glass ceiling, as we advance forward into the future, the foundations are already in place for women to advance forward into leadership positions. The challenge is to recognise continuous reinvention that is needed – to acquire new knowledge, new skills, new experience so as to be able to have the new capabilities to deal with the new challenges.– Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz[2]

As part of her reform agenda, Tan Sri Zeti played a pivotal role in establishing the International Centre for Education in Islamic Finance (INCEIF), the first global university dedicated to Islamic finance, under the auspices of Bank Negara Malaysia. 

Beyond her contributions in Malaysia, she actively participated in international forums and initiatives on financial and economic management. Notably, she chaired the Bank for International Settlements Central Bank Governance Group and was a member of the United Nations task force on reforms of the international financial system[3].

In her efforts, she also safeguarded the sanctity of the central bank through her passing of the Central Bank of Malaysia Act 2009 after former prime minister Dato Seri Najib Razak was elected. The act stated that only the Yang Dipertuan Agong is allowed to remove the governor of BNM[4]

In recognition of her exceptional contributions, Tan Sri Zeti has been honoured with numerous accolades, including the prestigious Royal Award for Islamic Finance and the Islamic Banking and Finance Award from the Islamic Development Bank[3]

Her enduring legacy continues to shape the landscape of finance and education, exemplified by her pivotal role in establishing the Asia School of Business in collaboration with the esteemed MIT Sloan School of Management. This institution is a beacon of innovation and excellence, dedicated to advancing understanding and fostering regional development[3].

#2: Datuk Yvonne Chia, Malaysia’s First Female Bank CEO

Datuk Yvonne Chia isn’t just a name in Malaysian banking, she’s a force to be reckoned with. As the first female CEO of a commercial bank in Malaysia, her journey from the corridors of the University of Malaya to the pinnacle of Asian banking is nothing short of legendary. With a degree in economics, Datuk Yvonne’s banking journey started in Hong Kong before she returned to the heart of Malaysia’s financial hub[5]

She helmed RHB Bank in 1996, with Datuk Yvonne’s strategic brilliance and visionary leadership lending a hand to RHB bank’s flourishing, with exponential growth in profitability and market capitalisation. A year later, during the Asian financial crisis, she served as the CEO of Sime Bank, simultaneously navigating both banks during the tough times. After almost four decades in banking, Datuk Yvonne retired as a Managing Director and CEO of Hong Leong Bank in 2013[6].  

Source: Tatler Asia

Datuk Yvonne’s influence extends into inspiring the next generation through her platform, Rock Passion to Perform. She is also the driving force behind initiatives like Cradle Fund and Teach for Malaysia. She has championed innovation and empowerment, fuelling the flames of progress in Malaysia’s start-up ecosystem and nurturing young minds for a brighter tomorrow. Datuk Yvonne also received an honorary professorship from the School of Economics at the University of Nottingham Malaysia[5].

Gender inequality exists everywhere in the world. It is just that gaps vary due to different cultures. We need to understand that people comprise both men and women who are complementary to each other and not substitutes. Gender inequality arises due to stereotyping of roles, responsibilities and duties and even by profession. In order to make a difference and minimise the gap, women will need a lot of support and cooperation from men.`– Datuk Yvonne Chia[7]

Her accolades do her credit, from being named among Forbes Asia’s 50 Business Women in the Mix’ to earning coveted spots as a finalist for the CNBC Asia Business Award twice[5].

#3: Nenney Shuhaidah Shamsuddin, First Female Syariah High Court Judge

Nenney Shuhaidah Shamsuddin reshaped perceptions in a traditionally male-dominated field in June 2010. She made history as the first female Syariah High Court judge in the nation, a monumental achievement in a domain long dominated by men. Nenney is one of only two women to achieve this status in Selangor, where female judges have typically been appointed only in the Lower Courts[8]

Nenny’s journey began with a desire to uplift the marginalised and voiceless in society. 

My ambition was always to be a lawyer. I wanted to be able to help poorer people in society who couldn’t afford to pay legal fees. – Nenney Shuhaidah Shamsuddin[8]

Five years of tireless service at the Selangor Legal Aid Department honed her advocacy skills, earning her accolades and admiration from peers and the global community alike. In 2018, her inclusion in the BBC 100 Women list elevated her to international prominence. Beyond the courtroom, part of Nenney’s mission is to turn the negative perception of Shariah law and Shariah courts in Malaysia to not treat women fairly, especially with the majority of the judges being male [9].

When I’m on the bench, I’m not a woman, I’m not a man. I’m a judge. I need to deal with the case fair and firm, to follow the law, no bias. – Nenney Shuhaidah Shamsuddin[9]

#4: Lucy Lingam, First Indian Penghulu In Sarawak

Meet Lucy Lingam, an extraordinary woman who made history as the first Indian woman Penghulu (Chief) in Sarawak in 2019. Born and raised in Kuching, Lucy’s life has been enriched with multicultural experiences in a state synonymous with harmony and diversity. Her presence in Sarawak’s community life, particularly in politics, has been inspiring for the local Indian community[10]

Lucy joined the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) in the 1980s and has since undertaken various roles, including serving as the ‘Kapitan Cina’ for the Batu Lintang area for 11 years starting in 2010. In 1990, she ventured into political campaigning during the Sarawak state election. Leveraging her position on the executive committee of the Indian Association, she connected with Indian voters to rally support for the party’s candidate, Chan Seng Kai, in the Batu Lintang state constituency. She was successful in mobilising voters and advocating for the party’s interests. Later, she rose to prominence and eventually became the second mayor of the Kuching City South Council (MBKS)[10].

She is also the first Indian to become a member of the Sarawak Women’s Council, led by the Minister of Women, Childhood, and Community Wellbeing Development[10].

Today, I understand the importance of politics. Through politics, we can voice our societal concerns for meaningful changes. When we get involved in politics, voters will come to you with issues and problems, and you will be able to reach out more effectively to the people. – Lucy Lingam[10]

Lucy also dedicated her time as the president of the Sarawak Indian Women Association and the Sarawak Silambam Association and has made valuable contributions to local community development.

Lucy has done a lot through her social work and the many associations that she has started. This is a good example of the state honouring a woman for her capability, leadership as well as her achievements even though she is from a minority group. –  Dato Sri Fatimah Abdullah, Sarawak Minister of Welfare, Community Well Being, Women, Family and Childhood Development[11]

#5: Tan Sri Dr Asiah Abu Samad, First Woman Appointed as Education Director-General

As a young graduate entering the field of education in post-independence Malaysia, Asiah witnessed the evolving landscape of Malaysian schooling. The release of the Razak Report in 1956, which advocated for the teaching of the national language in schools, posed a significant challenge for educators, particularly for Asiah, who found herself tasked with teaching Malay at the Westlands School in Penang[12].

Reflecting on her educational background, Asiah acknowledges the disparities she faced. “I had only studied Malay until Primary Four,” she shared. “The boys had done it until Form Three, so in a way, they were better than me.” Despite these challenges, she navigated her role with determination[12].

From her early days as a lecturer at Institut Bahasa Lembah Pantai, Kuala Lumpur, in 1966, to her tenure as a revered principal at Tunku Kurshiah College, Asiah’s career culminated in her historic appointment as the first female Director-General in the Ministry of Education. She spearheaded groundbreaking reforms and initiatives aimed at elevating the standards and accessibility of education for all Malaysians.

Over thirty years ago when I first joined the Education Ministry, there was no female secretary-general or director-general. There were just one or two women Members of Parliament. – Tan Sri Dr Asiah Abu Samad [13]

Among the innovations Asiah spearheaded were curriculum development and language teaching methods at the Language Institute in Kuala Lumpur, strengthening management practices, and enhancing the academic success of Tunku Kurshiah College. She also authored and published several books, including the National Language Coursebook for Form 1 to Form 5 with co-authors Abdul Razak Nordin and Zainol Ariffin in 1962, and the Malay Language Book for Upper Secondary with Abdul Razak Nordin in the same year[14].

When I was made director-general, my female friends and some of my male supporters were happy. After that, there were a lot of women secretary-generals appointed – I believe the number has increased – in ministries and also the Prime Minister’s Department and they are doing a very good job. – Tan Sri Dr Asiah Abu Samad[13] 

Under the guidance of former Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Musa Hitam, who recognised the urgency of assessing literacy levels among students, Tan Sri Asiah also spearheaded large-scale studies to address educational deficiencies. The findings identified the importance of children mastering the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic, shaping the ministry’s priorities for years to come[12].

In 2023, “Tan Sri Asiah Abu Samah – A Woman of Substance,” a biography that is co-authored by five of her former students when she was the principal at Tunku Kurshiah College: Sharifah Maimunah Syed Zain, Asma Abdullah, Rodziah Ahmad Tajuddin, Rozita Rosli and Naziah Nawawie was launched, chronicling her leadership, vision and contributions to the nation. 

#6: Datuk Nallini Pathmanathan, First Indian Female Federal Court Judge 


Over the years, Malaysian Indian women have faced numerous hurdles in their quest to shatter the glass ceiling in their careers, often encountering gender and ethnic biases. One of the few that have risen above is Judge Datuk Justice Nallini Pathmanathan who was the first female of Indian ethnicity to become a judge of the Federal Court in Malaysia.

In point of fact, I believe I was invited because there was a need for diversity in the judiciary. In that context, I was the first female of Indian ethnicity to become a judge of the superior courts in Malaysia in 2007. There had always been male judges of Indian ethnicity, but no female judges of Indian ethnicity until 2007. –  Datuk Nallini Pathmanathan, the first female of Indian ethnicity to become a judge of the Federal Court[15]

Long recognised as a stalwart in the Malaysian legal landscape, she was elevated to a High Court Judge in 2009, the Court of Appeal Judge in 2014 and appointed as Federal Court Judge in 2018. Datuk Nallini also played a pivotal role as part of the distinguished five-member team from the Federal Court, led by Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat to uphold the court ruling which found former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak guilty on seven charges related to abuse of power, money laundering, and misappropriation of funds from the 1MDB project.


In 2023, she was appointed to the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) for a two-year term [16].

#7: Tan Sri Dr Robaayah Zambahari, Pioneering Female Cardiologist 

For Tan Sri Dr Robaayah Zambahari, a healthy heartbeat is music to her ears, with more than four decades of exemplary service as a doctor, including a distinguished tenure as the former Chief Executive Officer of Institut Jantung Negara (IJN), Dr Robaayah continues to champion the cause of cardiac care with unparalleled passion and commitment.

Stepping in as the Head of the Cardiology Department at Hospital Kuala Lumpur (HKL) and later at IJN, she served as IJN’s Medical Director in 2005, followed by appointments as Managing Director and CEO in 2009. Despite the rarity of a woman leading a prominent organisation like IJN in Malaysia, Tan Sri Dr Robaayah remains unfazed by gender norms[17]

Being a woman has never been part of the equation for me. Yes, I am proud to have been entrusted to lead IJN, but I like to think that good management and leadership is not gender specific. It is like in the interventional and operating suites – the question is not whether the doctors or surgeons are men or women, but whether or not they can do the job.– Tan Sri Dr Robaayah Zambahari, former CEO of  Institut Jantung Negara (IJN [17]

In her golden years, one of the first female cardiologists in the nation shows no signs of slowing down. Dr Robaayah’s journey into the world of cardiology was not predetermined by lineage or privilege but by her sheer determination and desire to make a difference. Raised in Batu Gajah, Perak, by hard-working parents with no medical background, she seized the opportunity to pursue her dreams when they presented themselves[18]

Source: The Star

Her tenure at IJN has been marked by numerous milestones such as introducing breakthrough cutting-edge technologies,  Dr Robaayah’s contributions have elevated the standard of cardiac care in Malaysia and beyond. Beyond her professional accomplishments, Dr Robaayah is a devoted advocate for raising awareness about cardiovascular health, particularly among Malaysians. 

#8: Toh Puan Rahimah Stephens, First Woman to Hold a Cabinet Position in Sabah

A distinguished figure in Sabah’s political and social landscape, the late Toh Puan Rahimah Stephens is remembered for her pioneering contributions and steadfast commitment to public service. Her political journey began in 1981 when she became the inaugural Chief of the Women’s wing in the United National Kadazan Organisation (UNKO), later renamed UPKO, which was founded by her husband, the late Tun Fuad Stephens. She furthered her political career by joining BERJAYA, where she served as Chief of the Women’s Wing[19].

Toh Puan Rahimah’s unwavering dedication to serving the people of Sabah led her to contest and successfully secure the Kiulu constituency seat in the Sabah state legislative assembly through a by-election following her husband’s passing[20].

Toh Puan was very approachable and always had time to listen to people who conveyed their predicament and the needs for rural development. Toh Puan’s Kiulu constituency was fully developed infrastructurally and economically.Tan Sri Harris Salleh, former Sabah Chief Minister[20] 

On July 17, 1976, Toh Puan Rahimah made history as the first woman appointed as Welfare Minister of Sabah, marking a significant milestone for women’s representation in the state government. During her tenure, she focused on enhancing the welfare and livelihood of rural communities in Sabah[20].

Beyond politics, she played an active role in various social and charitable organisations, including the Sabah Anti-Tuberculosis Association (SABATA), the Red Crescent Society, The Inner Wheel Club, the National Stroke Association of Malaysia (NASAM), and the Senior Citizens Association.

Source: The Star

Throughout her life, Toh Puan Rahimah received numerous accolades and awards recognising her exceptional contributions to society. She was bestowed with the titles of Datuk and Datuk Panglima, received the Tun Fatimah Gold Award from the National Council of Women’s Organisation (NCWO), and was honoured with the Tokoh Wanita Award in 2003[19].

Toh Puan Rahimah Stephens passed away in 2022 at the age of 92, leaving behind a legacy of service and leadership.

Explore our sources:

  1. Central Banking Staff (2016). Lifetime achievement award: Zeti Akhtar Aziz. Central Banking. Link
  2. Aziz,Z.A. (2011). Zeti Akhtar Aziz: Advancing women’s leadership in public life. As spoken at  the Women in Leadership Forum “Power sharing in the public sector”. Link 
  3. Ji, Q.F. (2023). International Women’s Day 2023: 10 Malaysian women at the top of their industries. Tatler Asia. Link 
  5. Tatler. (n.d.) Datuk Yvonne Chia. Link 
  6. Asia Commonwealth Business Summit. (n.d.) Yvonne Chia. Link 
  7. Business Today. (2018). Standard Chartered Malaysia’s women empowerment program breaks new ground. Link 
  8. Jayatilaka, T. (2019). Malaysia’s First Female Syariah High Court Judge On Tough Decisions & Gender Equality. Tatler. Link 
  9. Gooch, L. (2017). The female face of Islamic law in Malaysia. Al Jazeera. Link 
  10. Thomas-Mamora, C. (2021). Binding work and family through labour of love. The Borneo Post. Link 
  11. Kong, J. (2019). Lucy Lingam honoured as first Indian woman Penghulu.  The Borneo Post. Link 
  12. Prestige Malaysia. (n.d.) Tan Sri Dr. Asiah Abu Samah. Link 
  13. Teoh, M. (2023). First ever woman DG of education shares thoughts and hopes for Malaysian women. The Star. Link 
  14. Jasbindar, F.A. (2019). Kelahiran Parit, Wanita Pertama Jadi Ketua Pengarah Kementerian Pendidikan. Orang Perak. Link 
  15. Courts and Tribunals Judiciary. (2021). International Women’s Day 2021: interview with Judge Nallini Pathmanathan of the Federal Court of Malaysia. Link 
  16. Ramachandran, V. (2023). Indian women lawyers as justice trailblazers ― Vasanthi Ramachandran. Malay Mail. Link 
  17. Voice of Asean. (2021). Tan Sri Dr Robaayah Zambahari – CEO, National Heart Institute (IJN). Link 
  18. Murugappan, R. (2015). Madam Cardiologist. The Star. Link 
  19. Media Baru Wanita Maya. (2016).#TokohWanita : Y.Bhg. Toh Puan Rahimah Stephens. Link 
  20. Daily Express. (2022). Sabah has lost a woman pioneer and leader, says Harris. Link 

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