Tan Sri Dr. Asiah Abu Samah

Former Education Director-General, Education Ministry

“Ours was a different time,” says Tan Sri Dr. Asiah Abu Samah, former director-general (DG) of the Ministry of Education. “Those days when you are a student in the university in the 1950s, education was the only field open to us girls. But I enjoyed what I was doing and we worked hard.” 

Ambition, she adds, was not the culture at the time. As a young student at a Methodist school, the educationist says she spent her childhood time reading the classics. These days, she laughs, students even struggle with simplified versions. 

Well, for someone who says that she had no ambition, Asiah has certainly achieved much, establishing her place in history when she was appointed director-general, the first woman to occupy that position. 

“Fortunately or unfortunately,” she says, in jest, when I remind her of the pioneering appointment. “At one point, it was touch and go,” she says. She was the most qualified in terms of seniority, already holding the position of deputy director-general at the time. “But anybody can find a good reason,” and there were those who had their own agenda. 

It was also easy for her detractors to asset their influence. “Men can easily do it over golf, over nasi kandar.” 

“But I was lucky,” she attests. “I had superiors who fought for me.” 

And as a result of their endorsement, Asiah was appointed to the position by the Education Minister at the time, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. It was the support of those superiors, among them Tun Hamdan Sheikh Tahir, Tan Sri Murad Mohd. Noor and Tan Sri Abdul Rahman Arshad, that she largely attributes her success to. 

As a young lecturer at the Language Institute, she recalls being summoned to the Ministry by Hamdan, who informed her that she would be sent to the famed Tengku Kurshiah College (TKC) as principal. 

“I had the shock of my life,” she exclaims. “I was so young. I never had any dreams of becoming a principal. There were others who were suitable but they were married. I was free and available.” 

Uncertain, she sought advice from others, including from the renowned writer Adibah Amin, who encouraged her to take the position. 

“She was a wise person and she said, why don’t you go?” 

And so she went. The girls were apparently quite excited at the prospect of having a young principal. But despite her being, “barely older” than the girls, Asiah quickly asserted her authority and established herself as a strict principal. It was while there that she started to witness the change that was starting to impact women. 

“From my days as principal of TKC, I saw that the employment world was opening up for ladies. They were going for medicine, engineering, accounting, law. But during my time, there were very few doing medicine. The law faculty also only opened in my third year, so they were interesting and exciting times.” 

After a few enjoyable years at TKC she returned to “civilisation” as she puts it, where she assumed the position of deputy director of the Teacher Training Division. 

As a young graduate in the field of Education, post-independence, Asiah witnessed the emergence of the Malaysian education. In 1956, the Razak Report was released which advocated for the teaching of national language in schools. It was a challenge, even for her, when she had to teach Malay at the Westlands School, Penang. 

“I had only studied Malay until Primary Four,” she says. “The boys had done it until Form Three, so in a way they were better than me.” 

Later, there was the installing of Bahasa Malaysia as the national language, which was recommended by the Rahman Talib report. Then there was also the issue of getting qualified teachers. When she was at TKC, she says, even getting an Economics graduate to teach the subject proved to be a challenge. Later, Asiah was involved in a total revamp of the system, following the implementation of the KBSR and KBSM system, which revolutionised the way teaching was done in Malaysia. Till then, she says, there was no wholistic plan. Everything that had been implemented involved a lit bit of “chopping and changing” of the existing system.

It was former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam, who was Education Minister at the time, who suggested the need for an in-depth study to assess just how many students were able to read and write. 

“It was one of the first times that the ministry was doing a big-scale study,” she explains. “We found that many children, more than what we thought we would find, didn’t reach the level required. That became the focus of the ministry, that children knew their 3Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic).” 

Later, as DG, Asiah was instrumental in implementing the system for secondary schools. At the time, Anwar who had become Minister pushed for the idea of integrating values into education, which posed another challenge for the administrators. 

One of the areas that the DG felt particularly strongly about was that Music Education be introduced as part of the curriculum. This involved the teaching of national songs in all schools, including Chinese language schools. That resulted in a big “hue and cry” from politicians who claimed that it would change Chinese schools. At the same time, she also recalls, the Muslim religious leaders, objected to the use of string instruments. 

“We had a tough time trying to reason with them but we managed to push it through. I am very proud of that.” 

As the first woman to occupy the position of director-general, Asiah adopted a “gentler” approach. 

“I didn’t like open feuds, so I had my own way of reacting to them,” she says. “I worked harder so you can’t find fault with what I did.” 

She had left her more “authoritarian” side at TKC. At the Ministry, she abided by her belief in the 3Fs – to be firm, fair and friendly. 


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