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Sisters of Liberty: 9 Women Freedom Fighters in Malaysia

Throughout history, women have played crucial roles beyond attending to their households. Their roles have been evident in movements striving for independence and societal progress. Yet their contributions have often been overshadowed. Their involvement has permeated into multiple contexts such as political, revolutionary, social justice and even those who had taken up arms standing tall in the frontline.

To commemorate Merdeka Day, we have compiled a list of nine women freedom fighters in Malaysia whose contributions are an enduring legacy. 

#1: Puan Sri Janaky Athi Nahappan, A Formidable Fighter 

Puan Sri Janaky Athi Nahappan, also known as ‘Janaky Thevar’, stood up defiantly to the colonial British. At 17, Janaky left the comfortable life she led in Kuala Lumpur and took up arms, being part of the Indian National Army (INA) fighting against the British at the Indian-Burmese border. She was one of the pioneering women to enlist in the exclusively female Rhani of Jhansi Regiment within the INA. Her rapid ascent led to her appointment as Captain and Second in Command[1].

We may be the softer and fairer sex but surely I protest against the word ‘weaker’. All sorts of epithets have been given to us by man in order to guard his own selfish interests. It is time we shattered this chain of man along with the chain of Indian slavery.  – Janaky Thevar, Singapore: A Biography [1]

Janaky risked her life traversing the dense and treacherous forests to bring INA soldiers to safety following the bombing of the Red Cross hospital in Rangoon, Burma. After the war concluded, Janaky returned to Malaya and was part of the Indian Congress Medical Mission. It took her into rubber estates across the nation, granting her a firsthand encounter with the everyday lives and working conditions of rubber tappers and labourers, particularly those of Indian origin.


It was in 1946, when Janaky joined forces with John Thivy to establish Malaysian Indian Congress, the first Indian political party in Malaysia. Janaky was the Wanita MIC chief and served as chairman of the MIC Batu branch[1].

Janaky’s war did not end after Merdeka. She turned attention to social justice issues, becoming one of the earliest fighters against child marriage in Malaysia. Janaky became  part of the 1972 commission set up by the government to review existing laws and possible amendments that abide by the UN conventions on marriage consents, minimum age and marriage registration, before moving on to become a senator in the Dewan Negara of the Malaysian Parliament[1].

Source: The Star

For her contributions to both Malaysia and in the fight against the colonial British under the Rhani of the Jhansi Regiment, Janaky was awarded one of India’s highest civilian honours, Padma Shri, in 2000[1]. She was, in fact, the first woman of Indian descent beyond the borders of India to receive the honour.

Puan Sri Janaky Athi Nahappan would tragically lose her battle with pneumonia, passing away at her house in Taman Tasik Titiwangsa on 9 May 2014 at the ripe old age of 89.

#2: Khadijah Sidek, A Woman Ahead Of Her Time

Che Khadijah Mohd Sidik, more commonly known as Khadijah Sidek, emerged in 1954 as a rare woman nationalist and politician, setting her apart as a remarkable figure.

Born in West Sumatra, when Khadijah landed on the shores of Singapore in 1946, she was a woman on the run. Following Japan’s surrender in World War II, she was associated with the paramilitary women’s division of the anti-Dutch revolutionary army—named the Puteri Kesatria or “warrior princess.” Within this role, Khadijah undertook the mobilisation and training of young girls, contributing to their preparedness.

Khadijah’s journey took her to Singapore with the purpose of expanding her women’s military school. In addition, she assumed the presidency of HIMWIM (Himpunan Wanita Indonesia Malaya) in Singapore, an organisation that empowers under-educated women by imparting housekeeping skills and nurturing their political awareness.

However, in the aftermath of allegations of attempting to overthrow the British government, Khadijah, who was three months pregnant at the time, faced arrest. She was subsequently imprisoned for a span of two years (1948 to 1950) in Singapore under the Emergency Act, even giving birth to her daughter in that confinement.

Following this prison sentence without trials, Khadijah was exiled for ten years in Johor Bahru. But, the punishment did not dull her fighting spirit, as she joined UMNO and became a congress member in 1953. In 1954,  Khadijah was the first woman to be elected to head the Kaum Ibu wing (now Wanita UMNO).

Raised in the matrilineal Minangkabau tradition of the region, Khadijah was outspoken and pushed for the increase of women representatives, also granting women the right to vote in the 1953 UMNO General Assembly. Her suggestions caused an uproar from the male delegates and it was her forward-thinking beliefs and sharp criticism that led to her being expelled from the political party in 1956. 


Khadijah was not disheartened as she continued to fight for the separate women’s section and women youth’s section in UMNO, travelling across the peninsula to recruit members for the Kaum Ibu wing, resurrect defunct branches and establish new ones . 

You  must  not  be  proud,  be  humble;  listen  to  criticism  but  don’t  be  depressed;  treat everyone equally, rich or poor, like sisters. If your attitude is like this, then you will be successful wherever you go.– Khadijah Sidek via Memoirs of Khatijah Sidek: Puteri Kesateria Bangsa [1]

Her expulsion was upheld by the UMNO executives, leading to Khadijah joining the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (now PAS) and was elected as a Member of Parliament under its banner in 1959. Khadijah was vocal in highlighting issues such as girls’ education, rural economic development, and health infrastructure in rural areas.

In 1972, she returned to UMNO but did not hold a significant role. Khadijah passed away in July 1982 at the age of 65.

#3: Suriani Abdullah/ Eng Ming Ching, A Firebrand

While the role of communists in the struggle for independence is marked by controversies, the fiery spirit and the passion for change exhibited by Eng Ming Ching isn’t up for debate. She was later known as Suriani Abdullah following her marriage to the Chairman of the MCP Abdullah CD in 1955 [1]

Her affiliation with the Malaysian Communist Party (MCP) was initially sparked by her friendship with Chin Peng, who eventually ascended to the leadership of the party. At 16, Suriani became a member of the MCP during the early 1940s, when anti-Japanese resistance gained momentum.

In the period leading up to the Japanese invasion in 1941, Suriani exhibited her proactive spirit by orchestrating a strike among women workers in Kampar, Perak. Following the conclusion of World War II in 1945, she continued to contribute actively, assuming the role of a women’s activist within the ‘open’ segment of the party’s organisation.

Her anti-Japanese and anti British sentiment was very strong, she’s also instrumental in our journey to Merdeka but people don’t know much about her. – Professor Dr Shakila Parween Yacob, Department of History, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, University of Malaya [1]

Driven by her resolute anti-colonial convictions, Suriani’s memoir reflects her capture by Japanese troops on January 28, 1945. Following her capture, she was transported to Ipoh, where she endured imprisonment and severe torture. Her remarkable courage earned her the esteemed epithet “Serikandi Anti Jepun” or “Heroine Against the Japanese.”[1]

After World War II, the MCP entrusted Suriani with the role of a government official within the British Military Administration (BMA) in Perak.But, it was short-lived. In 1948, Suriani took to the jungle to fight the British colonial forces. 

As the communist party fell apart in Malaysia, she eventually sought refuge in Thailand and remained there until her passing in 2013.

#4: Siti Rahmah Kassim, Donating Gold For Malaya’s Freedom

​​“Gold can be bought again, but not our independence,” those were the words of Siti Rahmah Kasim, who took off her golden bangle, a wedding gift from her father to aid the Merdeka delegation to earn Malaya’s independence. Her gesture prompted others to pledge their cherished possessions – wristwatches, necklaces, even gold teeth [1]

Source: Astro Awani

There was a woman with a gold tooth. She wanted to give it away, so she went to the back (of the hall) to take it off in order to make a contribution. – Siti Rahmah Kassim [2]

Rahmah’s unwavering spirit in the quest for independence has consistently shone through. Her political journey started when she was 18, with her participation in active protests against the Malayan Union.  A pivotal moment came in 1959 when she made history as the first woman to participate in the general election as a candidate. 

The spirit of love for the country is not the same as the feeling of love for fellow human beings. Our struggle is followed by a sense of responsibility to the trust, requiring sincerity and the spirit of defending what is enjoyed. – Siti Rahmah Kassim[3]

Rahmah secured victory in the state assembly seat of Terentang, Negeri Sembilan, and steadfastly upheld this position for two consecutive terms, an accomplishment that spanned until 1969. Alongside her political endeavours, Rahmah actively participated in numerous non-governmental organisations.

Her involvements encompassed the Islamic Welfare Organisation of Malaysia (PERKIM), the Negeri Sembilan Single Mothers’ Association, as well as her role as the deputy president of the Malaysian Single Mothers Council[1].

In recognition of her significant contributions to the nation, Rahmah was bestowed with the title of “Tokoh Wanita Negeri Sembilan” in 2016. The Merdeka fighter passed away in 2017[1]

#5: Sybil Kathigasu, Unsung War Hero

In 2017, a petition went around to laud her efforts that rightfully deserved a place in history books and on the silver screen. On her 117th birthday in 2016, she was also the subject of a Google doodle. Sybil Kathigasu, a Malaysian-Eurasian nurse, was a picture of courage in her fight for independence during World War II in Malaya[4].

During the Japanese occupation, she served as a nurse, her skills and dedication led her to be known by the moniker: ‘Malaysia’s Florence Nightingale’. Married to Dr. Kathigasu, the couple operated a clinic at t No. 141, Brewster Road (now Jalan Sultan Idris Shah) in Ipoh from 1926 until the Japanese invasion of Malaya. The family fled Ipoh for the safety of Papan, days before the Japanese occupied Ipoh[4].

In Papan, Sybil and her husband lived at No.74, Main Street. Here, they discreetly maintained a shortwave radio, regularly tuning in to BBC World Service broadcasts. Fluent in Cantonese, Sybil, alongside her husband, played a covert role by providing medicines, medical assistance, and vital information to the resistance forces. Specifically, they extended their support to members of the 5th Independent Regiment of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA)[4]

In July 1943, their activities were exposed, leading to the arrest of Dr. Kathigasu’s husband, followed by Sybil’s arrest a month later. Both fell victim to brutal torture inflicted upon them by the Kempeitai.

For two years, Sybil and her husband were interrogated and tortured by the Kempeitai. Undeterred by the ordeal, they held firm to their commitment to secrecy. Both were thrown into Batu Gajah jail.Sybil received a life sentence for her actions, while her husband received 15 years of imprisonment.

Once Malaya was liberated from the Japanese in August 1945, she was flown to Britain for medical treatment. She began writing her memoir; No Dram of Mercy.

For her courage and bravery during the war, Sybil received the George Medal for Gallantry in 1948 and to this day, remains the only local woman to ever receive the medal. Few months later, she succumbed to acute septicaemia, brought on by a previous injury she sustained during her torture[4].

Today, her residence in Papan belongs to a private individual and is open for viewing. In tribute, a road in Fair Park, Ipoh, was named Jalan Sybil Kathigasu.

#6: Tan Sri Datin Paduka Seri Dr. Aishah Ghani, The First Female Senator 

Tan Sri Datin Paduka Seri Dr. Aishah Ghani is one of the earliest Malaysia’s female politicians. Her involvement in politics started in 1945 when she became a member of Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS), the women’s wing of Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM) party. She led AWAS and was a journalist at Pelita Malaya, a PKMM publication [1].  

A year later, she left PKMM following her rejection of the communist ideology and noted the party leaders were too ambitious: “cita-citanya ingin menjangkau awan.” However, her passion in supporting the nation’s journey to independence did not dull [1]

Aishah participated in the March 1946 rally, which marked the inaugural Malay Congress that eventually laid the groundwork for the establishment of UMNO. However, Aishah wanted to succeed in her own right, so she departed for London to further her education. 

She returned in 1959, and worked as journalist at Berita Harian, the editor in Group Releases New Straits Times. In 1963, she rekindled her involvement in politics, becoming a member of the UMNO Supreme Council and securing the position of vice-chairman within Wanita UMNO [1]

In 1962, she was appointed as a Senator, becoming the first Malaysian female and the initial woman representative to the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization (UN). Aishah also assumed the role of General Welfare Minister in 1974, a position she occupied until her retirement in 1984.


Throughout her tenure, she was recognized for advocating Syariah legal reform and headed a high-level committee aimed at implementing reforms on Muslim Marriage and Divorce Laws. A move that was unfavourable to many:

Unfortunately, these laws were subverted by conservative religious scholars and officials in various states who were unhappy that she made polygamy almost impossible for Muslim men.
– Helen Ting in the Women in Southeast Asian Nationalist Movements [1]

As a Welfare Minister, Aishah established homes for the marginalized, such as Rumah Kanak-Kanak Tuanku Budriah for children born out of wedlock, Rumah Seri Kenangan for old folks and building more homes to facilitate Persons With Disabilities (PwD)[5].


After her retirement in 1984, Aishah assumed the role of chairman at the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation (Kraftangan Malaysia) and the Centre for Protection of Women Darsaadah. Aishah passed away at the age of 90 in 2013. 

#7: Tan Sri Devaki Krishnan, Local Champion

Dubbed as the ‘Grand Dame of Malaysian Indian politics,’ Tan Sri Devaki Krishnan is the first woman elected to be in public office. She stands as one of the remaining members of the Merdeka generation, celebrating her centennial birthday in the year 2023 [6].

The eldest child in a Tamil family of Sri Lankan descent, Devaki graduated from St. Mary and became a school teacher. In 1949, she was an active member of the Selangor Indian Association and the Women’s International Club.

Source: The Star

In 1951, Devaki received news from her husband that her community had nominated her to contest in the Kuala Lumpur Municipal elections. She was the first woman to win an election in Malaysia. Later, she was approached by the late Dato’ Onn Jaafar to become part of the Independence of Malaya Party (IMP).

I will interest myself particularly in the lot of the women of Kuala Lumpur and in extending the programme of social work already carried out by the municipality.  
 Tan Sri Devaki Krishnan in her 1952 manifesto [7]

Devaki won election to the Municipal Council, thus becoming the first woman in the country to be elected to public office.

In 1955, she contested for a second term for the Bangsar municipal council and won. Following the election, she became a member of the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), she was a champion of pushing more females in the nation’s political system.The inception of Wanita MIC took shape in 1975, during which Devaki Krishnan held the position of secretary. In 1984, she was appointed as the deputy president of Wanita MIC.


No one taught them to come out as they were shy and had strict upbringings. Wherever they opened branches in MIC, I would open a women’s branch. I will take the women aside, talk to them, and tell them what they would gain and how they could go about becoming members. – Tan Sri Devaki Krishnan [8]

Devaki remained one of the longest standing members of the party continuing to  chair St John’s Ambulance Association and be active with the National Council of Women’s Organisation.

The exemplary leader has been honoured with accolades and awards, including the Serving Sister of
St John Award by Queen Elizabeth, Tokoh Wanita Award and Tun Fatimah Award for her contributions. Devaki is the first Malaysian of Sri Lankan descent conferred the Panglima Setia Mahkota award, that carries the Tan Sri title.

#8: Shamsiah Fakeh, A Fearsome Orator

Born in Kuala Pilah, Negeri Sembilan, Shamsiah Fakeh’s nationalism was ignited after listening to the speeches of UMNO and PKMM leaders at the time. She slowly became more involved with PKMM following her discussion with Wahi Anuwar, a PKMM leader.

A fierce orator, she was scouted by both political parties; she eventually chose to be part of PKMM in 1945, believing it was more dedicated to achieving Malaya’s independence. In the following year, Shamsiah assumed the chief role of PKMM women’s wing from Aisyah Ghani (a veteran UMNO leader and the first female senator) and AWAS[1].


In 1948, however, PKMM, along with AWAS and the youth wing of PKMM (API), was banned in the wake of the declaration of the Malayan Emergency.

Left-leaning leaders were arrested one by one and Shamsiah was forced to retreat into the jungles alone or with her child several times. In Kampung Lubuk Kawah, Pahang, she encountered the 10th Regiment of the Malayan People’s Liberation Army of the CPM led by a Chinese PKM member under the guise of a Malay name, HJ Hashim[1].

In actual fact, I am not a female leader of MCP or a famous female public figure, I am just a pejuang wanita who struggled against the British for the independence of my homeland, and for the emancipation of women. – Shamsiah Fakeh [1]

The 10th regiment was forced to retreat to the Thai-Malay border following a series of military defeats; Shamsiah was part of the retreat and continued to fight as a guerilla. When the communist party weakened, she and her husband were sent to China in 1956 to learn more about communism.


Shamsiah and her husband lived in exile for close to 40 years, running their own Malay language radio, and worked as factory workers in the 1970s after being kicked out from the communist party. Even though the communist party remains a thorny subject, Shamsiah wrote in her memoirs, urging readers to differentiate the colonial era under the British and the ensuing independence.


In 1994, Shamsiah and her family were allowed to return to Malaysia. She led a relatively quiet life until her passing in October 2008 at 84.

#9: B.H.Oon, Set The Stone For More Women In Law

Lim Beng Hong, also known as B.H. Oon, was pivotal in laying the foundation for increased female representation in Malaya’s judiciary and legislative systems. 

In a period marked by limited educational opportunities for women, B.H. Oon attended St. George’s Girls School in Penang. Her journey led her to become a barrister in 1926 and she subsequently established her own law firm and maintained its operations for five decades. She then achieved the distinction of being the first inaugural Malayan female lawyer admitted to the English Bar.

Her application to join the Bar of the Straits Settlement and the Federated Malay States, which were exclusively open to men at the time, prompted a revision of the regulations. As a result, she emerged as the first Asian woman lawyer within the Bar with notable accomplishments extending to her participation as one of two women in the Federal Legislative Council in 1948 [9].

This council was a precursor to Malaysia’s eventual liberation from British colonial rule. BH Oon held this position until 1955, steering the course of nation-building in the lead-up to the momentous Merdeka.

Her engagement also extended into politics, as she played a significant role in co-founding the Malayan Chinese Association and held a local councillor position in Butterworth from 1954 to 1957. Her contributions were acknowledged on an international scale, evident by her reception of one of the most esteemed British honours—the Order of the British Empire—for her dedicated service to the general public.

In 1971, she achieved another milestone by becoming the first Malaysian president of the International Federation of Women Lawyers. This organisation extends legal services, particularly to women and children. BH Oon’s dedication to her cause endured, as she remained actively involved in politics and the pursuit of justice, even handling criminal cases, until her death at 81 in 1979 [9]

Explore our sources:

  1. K.Kaur. (2020). Khadijah Sidek, Siti Rahmah Kassim, & Other Fearless Female Merdeka Fighters You Might Not Have Heard Of. The Rakyat Post. Link 
  2. E.Choo. (2018). The Tale Of Bangle. Going Places. Link 
  3. M.Ishak. (2015). Korban gelang kahwin demi kemerdekaan. Berita Harian. Link 
  4. S. Paul. (2017). Here’s Why You Should Care About Sybil Kathigasu, Malaysia’s Forgotten World War II Hero. SAYS. Link
  5. A.Syakir. (2022). 4 tokoh kemerdekaan wanita dan sumbangan mereka terhadap Link
  6. I.M.Iskandar. (2023). Devaki Krishnan: An exemplary role model for women. New Straits Times. Link 
  7. N.Khor & I. M.M. Adnan. (2007). Mothers of substance. The Star. Link  
  8. The Star. (2007). Spirit of the pioneer. Link 
  9. M.A. (2021). B.H. Oon, the lawyer who opened the doors for women to practice law in Malaysia. Link

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