PUTRAJAYA, Dec 2 — Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali today said she was grateful for receiving an education at an English school at a time when boys had been given priority by Malay families for schooling.
Dr Siti Hasmah, 89, observed that it was “not easy for women to reach the top”, pointing out that Malay families used to send their daughters to religious schools or village schools and that they were typically not provided with an education at a English school.
“I am very grateful, very lucky that my father did not have the same idea. He said gender is not a problem for him to send seven sons and three daughters to English schools,” the wife of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said during the launch of a book at the Perdana Leadership Foundation.
Dr Siti Hasmah said her father had continued to provide for her and her siblings’ education until they completed their Senior Cambridge certificates and until the Japanese invasion in 1941, adding that she subsequently became one of the country’s first Malay female doctors.
Dr Mahathir, who was also present at the book launch, said he did not like colonisation by foreign countries, but admitted that the “most significant change” of women receiving education during British colonial days is a legacy that has benefited the country.
Echoing Dr Siti Hasmah’s comment that Malay parents were in the past fearful of sending their children to missionary-run English schools, Dr Mahathir said the change in attitude towards the role of women in society happened as the contributions and advancement of non-Muslim women then became apparent.
“We gladly accepted the ability of women to play roles other than giving birth... And so it was that Malay parents — very few of them — decided to send their children to schools, but that change in character went on until we became independent and since then restrictions on women have been gradually whittled.
“It is because of our conservation of British culture and because of this, our women are far more free [sic] than many women in many other Muslim countries.
“We can pat ourselves on the back that we are not as conservative as some of the Muslim countries where women may be excluded — despite the fact that they may have acquired good education — from the normal life that is enjoyed by men,” he said in an impromptu speech.
The book launched today by Dr Siti Hasmah is titled Women Leaders in Malaysian Academia — Women Chancellors, Pro-Chancellors & Vice-Chancellors of Malaysian Universities 1957–Present.
It was produced jointly by the Perdana Leadership Foundation — of which Dr Mahathir is honourary president — and by the Multimedia University (MMU), which Dr Siti Hasmah has served as chancellor from 1997 to 2012.