Pandemic not all doom and gloom, says Malaysia’s first ever elected woman, now 97

Devaki knew little about politics, but her heart was stirred to action after hearing news about two women representatives winning seats in elections in Sri Lanka and in Singapore.

KUALA LUMPUR: Looking out of her window, 97-year-old Devaki Krishnan smiles fondly as the Jalur Gemilang waves gently in the breeze.

To patriotic Malaysians, the banner, known in English as the Stripes of Glory, embodies the thrill of gaining and celebrating the nation’s independence.

“I feel very happy when I see it,” she tells FMT. “When it flutters this way and that, it’s very pleasant to the eyes, and peaceful to the heart. It settles the mind.”

The veteran politician wishes young Malaysians would respect the Jalur Gemilang and learn why their older countrymen take such pride in it.

She can still remember Tunku Abdul Rahman’s booming voice and the atmosphere as everyone in the stadium echoed the first prime minister’s shouts of “Merdeka!”

She remembers clearly the historic day in Stadium Merdeka, when Tunku Abdul Rahman declared Malaya’s independence, with seven booming shouts of “Merdeka!”

She remembers the impassioned atmosphere as everyone in the stadium roared in echo of Tunku’s cries.

And she remembers the feeling of national unity, which will never be forgotten by those who were there. “We were one family at that time,” she says.

She talks of Tunku’s charisma and magnetism. ”Whenever he came to see us, we always gathered around him.

She considers the late Tunku a father and friend, describing of how one of his favourite Indian dishes was kattirikai karuvadu, or eggplant curry with dried fish.

“He liked to eat eggplant curry with dried fish. He would even say it in Tamil,” she says affectionately, perhaps recalling her Sri Lankan Tamil heritage.

Devaki became the first woman to be elected to public office in Malaysia when she won a seat on the Municipal Council in Kuala Lumpur in 1952.

At the time, she was a schoolteacher who knew little about politics, but had been stirred to action on hearing about two women winning seats in elections in Sri Lanka and Singapore. Such events were practically unthinkable in those days.

Devaki, the first female elected official in Malaysia, with Malcolm MacDonald, the governor-general of British territories in South East Asia.

“Both of them were Indian women, and all the other races had supported them. That gave me hope. I thought: if they can do it, why not me?”

So, she stood in the election, supported by her community and, as it turned out, a majority of the diverse electorate.

When it was officially announced that she had won her seat, she was driven through the streets of her new constituency, in an open-top convertible, addressing the cheering crowds with microphone in hand.

“It was a very big parade. The only sadness is that there were no film cameras to record the occasion,” she said.

Yet the memory is obviously crystal clear to her.

She was later recruited into the Independence of Malaya Party (IMP) by the late Onn Jaafar.

It was then that she got the chance to mix with many of the people who played key roles in attaining Malaya’s independence.

As an aside, she mentions another claim to fame which obviously means a lot to her. “In Kuala Lumpur, I was the first Indian lady to drive a car.”

She is currently a life member of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).

“I’m the longest-standing MIC member. Longer than Samy Vellu or anybody.”

Devaki proudly shows some of the photographs she took with historical figures, including Harold MacDonald and Tunku Abdul Rahman.

She is proud of that, but longs to see younger blood rise through the ranks in Malaysian politics, to replace her and the rest of the old guard.

She believes that young people should be well-educated and given more opportunities in politics.

She regrets that the representation of women in politics is still not as strong as it should be, and she wants to see more of them serving in Parliament, state governments and local councils.

As the breeze picks up again, her eyes are drawn to her beloved Jalur Gemilang stirring.

She raises her own flag every year in mid-August and flies it for a full month until the Malaysia Day celebrations end.

“We should all pay great respect to the flag. The flag is the Rukun Negara, the Rukun Negara is the flag.

“Younger Malaysians must be taught the beauty of the flag, and the reasons why we fly it. They must know how difficult it was to win our independence.”

Her Merdeka wish this year? For the Covid-19 pandemic to be over.

The damage being caused to the country by the pandemic saddens her, and yet for all the misery the virus has caused, she’s able to find a silver lining.

“Everyone’s stuck in the house, so families have been reunited. Normally the children don’t see their parents, the parents don’t see their children. In these times they are seated together around the family table.”

It’s normal for each outgoing generation to question the values of their up and coming young replacements.

For all Devaki’s concerns about modern Malaysian youth, the generations on the rise may well be more patriotic than many older people are aware.

After all, young people thrive on keeping secrets from their elders. That never changes.

Right now, thousands of youngsters are celebrating Merdeka by flying the Jalur Gemilang not out on the streets or from tall buildings, but in the way that means most to them in their new world: virtually, as emoticons on social media.

But that’s their secret for now.