Ivy Josiah has often been at the front lines of the struggle to reform domestic violence laws and create refuge for mistreated women. As the executive director of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), Ivy is headstrong in her voice in the battle against domestic abuse. Through her irrefutable contributions to the nation, Ivy has been credited in helping to “put domestic violence on the national agenda”.
“I do not accept that women should be relegated to second tier status.” says WAO pioneer, Ivy Josiah. In a single sentence, the renowned activist manage to express the drive that has been powering her over the past couple of decades.
As one of the nation’s most influential activist, Ivy Josiah has often been at the front lines of the struggle to reform domestic violence laws and create refuge for mistreated women. “Society doesn’t choose for you, you as a woman choose for yourself.” Ivy Josiah believes that everyone has a choice, and you live the life you choose.
There were women before you, who have also struggled, who had to struggle even more to get to where you are today. Do not give up, and work with everyone.
For more than 15 years, Josiah was the face of WAO, a Malaysian NGO that has been providing free shelter, counselling, and crisis support to women and children who experience abuse, since its initiation in 1982. Today, it is the largest service provider for domestic violence survivors in Malaysia.
Despite the fact that women’s rights have come a long way since the ‘80s, the no-nonsense veteran social activist is adamant in her belief that it is essential to always take a step forward. “We as women have come a long way, but I believe we have a longer journey ahead.”
When asked if there is any advice that she would love to give to young women during this International Women’s Day, Josiah stressed that the importance of unity could not be understated.
“Carry on what you’re doing, don’t do it alone, that’s important. There were women before you, who have also struggled, who had to struggle even more to get to where you are today. Do not give up, and work with everyone.”
The diplomacy that comes from a more-than- two-decade role in the public eye is evident the moment Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali walks into the room. She addresses each one of us by name – myself, the photographer as well as the make-up artist – and continues to make the crew feel at ease for the next hour.
Elegantly clad in a traditional baju kurung, complete with a string of pearls, Dr. Siti Hasmah continues to exude the quiet dignity that generations of Malaysians, who grew up under the administration of Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, identify with her.
Yet, the wife of the premier, declares that she is just a “normal person” when we sit down for the interview, an assertion that seems contradictory to all that we know of her.
“I wanted to show that anyone can achieve what I have,” she explains the reason for writing the biography My Name is Hasmah, a statement that is perhaps a little hard to accept, particularly since apart from her role as the prime minister’s wife, Dr. Siti Hasmah was a pioneer in her own right, achieving much in her medical career.
She was the third Malay woman to become a doctor, the first to graduate from the Faculty of Medicine at University of Malaya in Singapore. She was the first woman to be appointed medical officer at the Maternal and Child Health Department in Jitra, Kedah and soon became the first State Maternal and Child Health Officer in the state.
Getting there, however, proved to be a challenge as Dr. Siti Hasmah candidly admits that her days as a medical student were pretty tough. She entered the first year of medicine without a background in Physics and Chemistry – the subjects weren’t offered at her alma mater St. Mary’s, resulting in Dr. Siti Hasmah experiencing her first setback in her very first year when she was referred in Physics.
“I expected to fail but I was determined and my father and siblings encouraged me,” she says, adding that for some reason, she escaped the fate of the boys who did not get through.
“They were asked to leave. The British probably had some affirmative action,” she explains. “They saw that the only Malay girl was very determined to study and decided to give her the opportunity.”
As a result, Dr. Siti Hasmah fell back a year, while Dr. Mahathir proceeded to the second.
“I didn’t mind because then I could understand my Physics,” she says, with a laugh. It also led to Dr. Siti Hasmah receiving help from Dr. Mahathir, who emerged as her “knight in shining armour”, as described in the book, when he volunteered to tutor her in Physics.
“The times we were together, people thought we were so romantic, but we were fighting all the time,” she says while laughing. “He didn’t know why I couldn’t understand Physics.”
Dr. Siti Hasmah continued to experience these setbacks throughout her university years.
“When I finally saw my name on the board that I had cleared all subjects, I wished my mother was there with me.”
Her parents, she says, were always encouraging, allowing her to pursue her ambitions.
“At the time (during the Japanese occupation) when you had young daughters of marriageable age, many parents married off their daughters, but my parents protected me. They said Hasmah wanted to study,” she explains.
“It is only with full determination that you can achieve something,” Dr. Siti Hasmah stresses while reiterating that it was the motivation behind My Name is Hasmah.
But it was those obstacles that led to a greater appreciation of her medical degree, citing that she counts herself “very lucky to have become a doctor”. That awakened a desire in her to contribute to society where health issues were concerned.
Dr. Siti Hasmah declares with much pride that she remained a government servant throughout her medical career. It was during those years that Dr. Siti Hasmah was confronted with the hardcore poor, and it was also during her years as a doctor working with rural communities that she witnessed the transformation that those communities underwent through the Rural Development Plan conceptualised by the late Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister.
“He is my idol,” she says. “If it wasn’t not for him, the rural areas would be as they were 60 or 70 years ago. He opened up the rural areas. It was a privilege to work under him.”
Dr. Siti Hasmah spent a year – 1955 – working in the paediatric ward of the General Hospital Kuala Lumpur. Back then, the wards had simple swinging doors that could barely keep the dogs and cats out. At the time, sanitation was poor in the city and patients were often plagued by two illnesses – diphtheria and tuberculous meningitis.
As a medical officer in Kedah, the young doctor had to deal with waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera. It was at Kubang Pasu, she says, that she learnt to work with rural communities. There she discovered that one of the biggest problems was that medical attention was not sought on time. The community was prevented by a range of issues, from lack of means to cultural practices, including requiring the permission of elders to seek medical attention.
“I developed a personal relationship with people. Apathy, poverty, ill health, illiteracy. These are the four evils of the rural areas,” she states. “Each one has to be eliminated and each one is interrelated.”
Later as the first State Maternal and Child Health Officer in Kedah, Dr. Siti Hasmah succeeded in bringing infant mortality down from 75/1,000 to only 6/1,000. The future wife of the Prime Minister was then invited to Washington, DC to give a talk on how this was achieved. Years later, in that capacity, Dr. Siti Hasmah was invited again to present Malaysia’s successful implementation of its micro-credit system.
“I wanted people to know that you have to work very, very hard,” she says, adding that you have to be “really sincere” in dedicating yourself.
Dr. Siti Hasmah certainly has witnessed much change. Back in the day, a Malay woman would probably graduate with a medical degree once in 10 years. Now, she says, they graduate by the hundreds each year.
I want to see young people today have a good life in the future. They have a lot of aspirations but you must have education, know what is happening in your own country and help society.
Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah
Being a professional isn’t enough if it only benefits the individual, she says. Instead as leaders of tomorrow, the younger generation need to understand the vision and needs of the country.
“We have been given the opportunity to not just educate ourselves but to be given jobs and positions. Use this opportunity with a lot of wisdom and thought, you are responsible for future generations.”
Dr. Siti Hasmah turns 95 on July 12, 2021 and her life continues to change drastically, especially when Dr. Mahathir made a comeback to politics and eventually became the seventh Prime Minister in 2018.
I still don’t have my husband. People always tell me, look after Mahathir, but who is going to look after me?
Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah
“I have to be with him, to ensure that he is all right, to ensure that he is well,” she adds on a more serious note, “after graduation, I always thought I would just be the wife of a doctor in Kedah and I was happy being a doctor. I enjoyed the work.”
Interestingly, Dr. Siti Hasmah doesn’t see herself as a woman of great strength. She certainly wasn’t when she was younger, she says. But perhaps she became stronger as the years went by. It is at the end of the interview that she shows us this softer and less stately side, telling us about her great love for music and writing. Already, she is in the process of writing her second book, but this time, it is going to be a romance novel.
In July 2011, a reported 50,000 people, defied authoritarian threats, and took to the streets as a show of discontent, demanding for electoral reforms and a just government. The protest moved to a global level with Malaysians taking to the streets in different capitals around the world. Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan who was Bersih 2.0 chairperson at the time, is quite dismissive of her role in galvanising the crowd, till reminded of those protesting in Melbourne wearing masks of her face.
She laughs, remarking, “They did that didn’t they…”
Ambiga first entered public awareness when she became the Bar Council president, organising the Walk for Justice which saw some 2,000 lawyers walk from the Palace of Justice to the Prime Minister’s Department. 2018 was a year of change for Malaysia, and Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan played a big part in making it happen. Chairing Bersih 2.0, the lawyer and human rights advocate played a big part in the rally in Kuala Lumpur that showed how united Malaysians were in the pursuit of a brighter future for the nation.
A former president of the Malaysian Bar, Ambiga is the founding partner of Sreenevasan, Advocates & Solicitors. Carrying over three decades of experience with her, she has the distinction of numerous reported cases at the High Court, Court of Appeal and Federal Court. Her plethora of achievements serve as a distinction as to her ability to make it in yet another field that has always favoured men.
Her convictions, she attributes to her father, the late Datuk Dr. G. Sreenevasan.
“He was very clear cut about these issues, about justice, peace, doing the right things. During dinner, he would talk to us about everything that goes on in the country, so we were all very aware of things going on around us.”
Taking on an activist role, however, brought in challenges that were initially unanticipated. Initially, Ambiga was quite unfazed about taking up the position of Bersih chairperson. “I thought free and fair elections, nobody could possibly oppose something like that but I was completely mistaken.”
It was then that fear began to set in as the “whole machinery of the State was thrown against Bersih.”
But Ambiga quotes the late Nelson Mandela, “It is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it,” adding that she is still unsure whether she has fully triumphed over it.
However, the massive turnout for Bersih 2.0, she stresses, must be looked at as a Malaysian story, as it showed that Malaysians regardless of age, race and gender, overcame their fears to stand up against the State. Ambiga was arrested during the protest. It was something that she had expected and was prepared to take the risk.
It is not easy but it is the knowledge that you cannot back off and you cannot weaken because the moment you as the person who is leading the movement does that, the whole movement is weakened. So it is a responsibility and it is that responsibility that kept me going.
Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan
“It is not easy but it is the knowledge that you cannot back off and you cannot weaken because the moment you as the person who is leading the movement does that, the whole movement is weakened. So it is a responsibility and it is that responsibility that kept me going.”
Ambiga hopes to see women playing a greater role in government. “We own half the sky so it should be equal, shoulder to shoulder. There is no reason why it cannot be (that way). We have some excellent women leaders – Yeo Bee Yin, Zuraida Kamarudin, Hannah Yeoh – who are just getting on with the job.”
For her part, Ambiga sees herself as continuing to be a critic, calling authorities out when there is a failure to act. A recent example is the controversy surrounding child marriage.
“We really need to push the narrative that we need to value the childhood of our girls and the federal government must step in. We cannot allow our children’s youth to be taken away from them.”
A lot of people know that I don’t have a team of people working for me. I like to do things by myself, and I find that very rewarding, and I’ve always believed that we should be the best versions of ourselves.
Her Royal Highness Tengku Datin Paduka Setia Zatashah Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah of Selangor is woman who wears many hats. From being the Make-a-Wish Malaysia patron to initiating the #zerofoodwastage campaign, spearheading the #SayNo2Plastic campaign to being a strong advocate against bullying in school, Her Royal Highness shattered every stereotype of a princess you might have.
With her formative years structured by British boarding school and early adulthood shaped in both Spain and France, Tengku Zatashah returned to Malaysia with a goal that’s rooted in progressiveness and aiding society. “For me, it’s a natural thing for me to help society. I’ve been doing charity ever since I was 10. It’s something that’s been very natural to me. When I got back to Malaysia, I really wanted to do more and give back to society.”
“Whatever causes that I’m passionate about, I’ll go out and dedicate my time to it,” she states.
Whether it’s Make-a-Wish Malaysia, the #zerofoodwastage campaign, or the #SayNo2Plastic campaign, to say that Tengku Zatashah keeps herself busy would be a severe understatement.
“I’m happy that many people have come on board. I do a lot for youth, women empowerment, wildlife, etc. A lot of people would say that I have too much on my plate. But hey, if I can do it, I’ll do it,” says the Selangor princess when asked about her thoughts regarding the exponential success that each of her projects has been receiving.
While Her Royal Highness is undeniably passionate towards her projects, she is equally vocal about advocating kindness. In 2018, #StandTogether, a nationwide campaign that aims to end bullying through promoting kindness in school, was created.
In Malaysia, eight out of ten kids are bullied. 80% of it is in the form of verbal bullying, and a lot of it is coming from classmates. So it’s from people that you know. This is something that we really need to address, and not sweep under the carpet.
The passionate royal also shares that it’s crucial that children take a stand for themselves. “The whole idea of National Kindness Week is to show kindness. This year, we are letting the kids empower themselves. We are conveying the message to the kids that you have to stand up, speak up, and be strong when handling these kind of things.”
The Selangor Princess states that living an “ordinary life” has always been essential to her. “I’ve always lived a normal life. I’ve always taken care of myself. I was sent to boarding school at the age of ten. And boarding school leads you to be very independent in life.”
Tengku Zatashah’s determination to be ordinary is apparent in many aspects of her personal life. She does not have a team working for her, nor does she have a personal assistant running errands for her, none of which conforms to the stereotype of being a royal. “I like to do things by myself, and I find that very rewarding, I’ve always believed that we should be the best versions of ourselves.”
Her Royal Highness stresses that it’s important for one to find the passion within. “My advice is to go out there and do what you really love. If you have that dream, don’t let anyone take that away from you. If it is your dream, go out there. But you’re going to have to work hard, it’s not going to come for free.”
Tengku Zatashah is also the recipient of the Prestige achievement award in 2018.
Women empowerment is at an all time high, and it is due to the voices of untiring activists such as Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir. An example of Marina’s frank and open voice was in January 2018 when she warned that the Islamisation of Malaysia would tear the country apart following a viral incident of a Muslim man slapping a Muslim woman for not wearing a hijab.
Besides being a voice for feminism, the eldest child of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is also an active socio-political blogger and patron of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation. In 2010, she was awarded UN Person of the Year for her good work in combating HIV/AIDS. The founder of Asian women traveller’s portal Zafigo.com, she exemplifies the undying fire of fighting the good fight. She is also on the board of Sisters in Islam.
“No one really looks at the real issues of women who are having a difficult time,” says Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, referring to her work with Sisters in Islam. “Instead they are looking at us and commenting about how we look and how little religious knowledge we have. Basically they don’t like women who talk back and that’s what we do.”
The organisation refuses to accept notions of Islam being a religion of inequality or injustice.
“We are fighting against that and some people don’t like it,” she states. “Not because they know anything about those issues but simply because they don’t like the idea of women speaking up.”
Sisters in Islam, she says, had to deal with so many attempts to silence the organisation. Their books have been banned and legal suits have been aplenty but these “ups and downs” are part of the process.
“When you have these challenges, you grow as a person, you grow as an organisation. It’s nice to have an easy life but if you never get challenged, you are never going to grow and test the limits of what you can take.”
Nonetheless, advocacy has its moments of frustration. And this has to do with obstinate people who are unwilling to really understand what’s going on, on the ground. Marina points to the recent case of a woman who was attacked in the lift. The suggestion that the victim should not have been out at all left her dumbfounded.
“I really can’t believe people say that. Someone said, you shouldn’t be out walking alone. So it’s the fault of the victim? That’s so 1950s. This is 2019 and we are still talking like that.”
Marina counters this frustration through her many encounters with young people. They give her hope, she says, and that means this “frustration” can be brushed aside as she looks to the future.
Marina describes herself as an “accidental activist.” It all started when she was invited to join the Malaysian AIDS Council. Through her involvement, she discovered that HIV/AIDS is a particularly difficult field. But she embraced the challenge and led the AIDS council for 12 years.
“I really grew as a person and learnt how to do advocacy for certain causes, how to communicate with people, how much knowledge you need and what leadership needs.”
Being an advocate for HIV/AIDS was difficult, she says, because it dealt with a lot of taboo subjects – sex, sexuality, gender equality – a lot of things that people don’t really want to think about. But in some ways, she says, her work with Sisters in Islam can be harder because of the limited space for women to air their views.
In the context of “Malaysia Baru,” she says it is important for civil society, including activists like herself as well as the general public to call out those who are not doing things right.
“We are all part of this project,” she says. “And we should all be working to make it happen.”
Marina received the Prestige achievement award in 2016
It may seem inconceivable to some but the young girl who became the face of urban television, fronting 8TV’s Quickie back in the day turned 40 last year.
“It is starting to hit me that I am turning 40,” she says. “I never really paid much attention to milestones but with my friends turning 40, I have started to think about it and I am starting to feel a little nervous. Maybe it is a self- imposed expectation over what I should be doing as marks of achievements, so I am starting to feel some trepidation.”
That she would feel anxious may seem odd to most. After all, Marion has accomplished much in her career and as a person. In her 20s, her rise as a TV presenter was swift as she helmed shows like One in a Million, The Biggest Loser, presented on Channel V and ESPN and scored a first when she became the face of E! News Asia.
On the personal front, Marion is a mother of three – Leia Rose, Lana Rose and Liam Naza. 2020 also see her celebrating her 10th wedding anniversary to SM Nasarudin SM Nasimuddin, group chief executive and joint group executive chairman of the Naza Group of Companies.
“I am satisfied with what I have accomplished,” she says. “I have always wanted to be a mother. I am so blessed to be able to find a man I want to spend the rest of my life with. By the time I was 30, I had done so much in terms of my career.”
Entering a new phase in life has, however, forced her to reflect and ask “what’s next.”
“My 20s was about me, myself and I,” she laughs. “I have been with Nasa since I was 25 so I was in a serious relationship but the focus was really on myself. In my 30s, it was about everybody else but me and I lost a lot of myself. The past two years have been not just about the kids and Nasa but also myself. I feel I am back at being Marion again.”
Mental health is something that I feel very strongly about. I feel that social media is such a powerful tool and while it helps many people, it is also a dangerous place.
What we are going to see emerging is a more self-assured Marion, someone who is comfortable in her own skin.
“I used to listen to people saying that when you reach a certain age you start to feel really good about yourself. I never believed it but I feel so much better about who I am as a person. I don’t feel the need to apologise about what I lack as a person. I am just myself and I really feel that there’s nobody I need to impress.”
Now she is ready to see how she can use her position to affect society in a more positive way. Of late, Marion has observed a trend among her followers who have turned to her about feeling depressed.
“Mental health is something that I feel very strongly about,” she asserts. “I feel that social media is such a powerful tool and while it helps many people, it is also a dangerous place.”
A chance meeting with a friend on “one of those days,” led Marion to contemplate on the negative aspects of social media. Feeling stressed and looking tired, Marion was taken aback when her friend thanked her for “being real,” after she confessed that it had been a difficult day.
“She said she follow mums on social media and they make it looks so easy!” She feels like the worst mother,” Marion recalls. “But no one has it easy.”
And that definitely applies to Marion. In fact, she describes herself as being quite moody. Some days are a struggle, she admits and it is something that she was up front about even with her husband. But those are days that don’t get shared on to the public.
Moved by the encounter with her friend, Marion shared a video to remind her followers to not be influenced by what they see on social media. The response was quite overwhelming which led her to reflect on how she can use her social media presence to counter its negative effects.
The format of this is still being worked out and Marion is not one to speak unless things are certain but it looks like we might see a return to her hosting days.
“My strength has always been speaking,” she says. “I believe people are able to relate when I talk so maybe something along those lines.”
One thing is for certain, that whatever Marion chooses to do, it will have to be on her terms.
“Everything that I do now has to be real,” she says. “If I were to do something in terms of hosting, it would be something I would have to produce myself. Then I would have absolute control.”
Truth be told, Marion wasn’t certain that she wanted to announce that she’s turning 40. But then she looked to many celebrities who were defying ageism.
“I looked at all these women who are 50 and rocking it, J-Lo, Jennifer Aniston, Nicole Kidman. When J-Lo came down the Versace runway in that dress she looked better than when she first debuted that dress. It wasn’t just about the way she looked, it was the confidence she had, that sense of I know myself.”
As someone who has been in the industry for more than a decade now, Marion is used to being under the scrutiny of the camera.
“I just want to be happy.”
“I am used to seeing my face blown up to epic proportions. I am used to my skin sagging, especially after three kids. I am terrified but what else do I want besides health. I want to age as gracefully as possible.”
Now entering her 40s, Marion is aware that by “god’s grace” she has all that she hoped for. To many it seems like she has lived a charmed life. But she stresses things have not always been easy for her. At just 21, she went through a “dark period” when she lost her father, a loss that still afflicts her today.
She is also rattled by the notion that “luck” played a part in her achievements. Quoting Oprah Winfrey who said “luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity,” Marion reminds that she worked and hustled to establish herself in the industry.
“I was on a plane almost every other day,” she states. “I had to be on set until 2am. On the week of my wedding, I worked until Tuesday, flew back on Wednesday and got married on Thursday. I work hard, I show up and I deliver.”
It has not been easy, she admits, but Marion stresses that she has been blessed. Now on the cusp of turning a decade, she says she “just wants to be happy.”