Mummy…and her career


By Marina Mahathir

From my earliest memory, my Mum always worked. I can remember clearly that every day she would get into her car and go to work, first at the General Hospital in Alor Setar and later on, when she moved to public health, in a green building near the hospital before moving to head the Rural Health Training Centre in Jitra.

In fact our homes were directly related to her work. As a government officer she was entitled to government housing. So for the first ten years of my life, we lived at what was 929 Jalan Maxwell, a short drive from the hospital. It was a double storey house with only two bedrooms, one for my parents and one shared by all of us kids.

The best thing about it was that it had a huge garden that was our playground. Every afternoon after we’d had our baths and changed into fresh clothes, we could run around that garden or follow our gardener Pak Hashim around as he did his work, begging him to tell us stories about Sang Kancil and other Malay folk tales.

One time there was so much rain that our entire garden turned into a large pool. One of my uncles brought over a toy motor boat and we set it sailing in the garden-turned-pool.

When my Mum was transferred to Jitra, we also had to move house into the quarters in the training centre compound. I remember crying myself to sleep on my first night in our new home because I had never known any home besides 929 Jalan Maxwell. The Jitra house was a one-story bungalow again with only two bedrooms. This time my parents moved into the smaller bedroom and all of us kids got the master bedroom with one large bed and one bunk bed. Whenever our cousins from KL visited, we laid a mattress on the floor and inevitably all of us wound up sleeping on it.

My mother was a career woman at a time when few women had careers. Apart from her friends in the hospital, few of her friends worked outside the home. As a result, I didn’t have many friends whose mothers had careers either.

Which was not something I thought much about because to me it was normal to have two working parents. Until one day when my mother took me to visit a friend of hers who had many daughters whom I also knew though was not particularly close to. Their mother was a homemaker and a great cook. But for some reason on that occasion those girls decided to make me feel bad because I had a mother who worked outside the home. “You don’t have your mother to spoon-feed you!” was their particular taunt.

I was very confused by this. I had never thought it was a bad thing that my mother worked and had never felt neglected by her. After all in those days Mum would come home from work at 4pm and had still plenty of time to be with us until our bedtime at 8.30pm. Was not being spoon-fed such a bad thing?

Well, I suppose in the end having a career woman for a mother meant that we kids learnt to be independent and do things for ourselves. We did not want for anything, least of all the attention of our parents. If anything we didn’t mind a bit less attention especially around exam time.

We also had access to her in her office if we needed her since it was so nearby. When we lived in Jitra, I often stopped by her office before I went off to afternoon school. One time I dropped by as usual feeling very morose. Mum sensed something was wrong and sure enough when she asked me, I promptly burst into tears. My pet rabbit had died and I blamed myself for not caring for it well enough. It took Mum a while to calm and soothe me but to this day I feel heartbroken about that rabbit.

As a child I didn’t really understand that my mum was a pioneer of sorts. She was the first woman state medical officer of health but although this meant she had the responsibility of looking after the health of all the citizens of Kedah state, we children were quite oblivious to her stature. She was very close to the then Sultanah of Kedah, the late Tuanku Bahiyah, and had been a close advisor to Her Highness when she was expecting and delivered her daughter, Tunku Intan Safinaz. There was so much excitement in Kedah at the birth of such a precious baby then and my Mum was part of it.

When we moved to KL in 1974 when Dad joined the government as Minister of Education, Mum continued working at the Institute of Public Health in Bangsar. And in fact she worked all the way until retirement age, despite also having the responsibilities of being the PM’s wife. Her experience in medicine and public health helped her a lot in those responsibilities I think because she had long developed the ability to talk to anyone regardless of their station in life while working in rural health in Kedah.

The discipline needed for her career also stood her well in her role as the PM’s wife, as well as the requirement that she be well-versed in whatever subject she needed to talk about publicly.

I remember in 1995, Mum led the Malaysian delegation to the UN Conference on Women in Beijing. The months preceding it involved much discussion about the issues that Malaysia would uphold at the conference. Of greatest concern to her was that at that time (if I remember correctly) Malaysia had not yet ratified the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and she was determined that we did not go to the conference with that hanging over our heads. Malaysia finally ratified CEDAW on time and Malaysia’s stand at the conference was very progressive although we still had reservations on some clauses.

On the eve of the conference, Mum was one of 12 women from around the world honoured at a special reception hosted by UNIFEM. Jane Fonda was the presenter and lots of famous feminists such as the late Bella Abzug was there. (I was part of the NGO delegation to the NGO Forum in Huairou, not the official one but managed to sneak in with Mum to this event. I remember that the venue was Malaysian-owned and the owners ‘hijacked’ Mum as soon as she arrived, took her to a special VIP room where they served satay and basically kept her away from the actual reception downstairs. During the awards proceedings they (all men) pretty much encircled her and monopolised her. I know they meant to be hospitable but in the end I had to tell them to let her mix around with all the other prominent women from all over the world because that’s what she came for. (The hazards of being a Malaysian VIP overseas)

On another occasion I was with Mum when she spoke on a panel promoting breastfeeding in Washington DC, along with then First Lady Hilary Clinton and the model Vendela. Breastfeeding was a subject close to Mum’s heart so she could speak about it with great knowledge and passion. It was not the first time she had spoken on panels like this in DC. Previously she had also spoken on drug abuse with former First Lady Nancy Reagan and on another occasion, talking about Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia and microcredit programmes in Malaysia at a conference on the lending programme pioneered by the Nobel Laureate Prof Yunus, a good friend of hers.

Although Mum has retired for some time now, she is very proud of her years as a working woman. She did struggle with that typical dilemma that career women have of balancing work and home and to this day she still thinks she could have done more for us. But she also recognises that in many ways, life was much easier in those days when help from the extended family was easier to come by and when working hours were still reasonable with just short commutes to work. She feels very much that women today have so much more challenges in life and that more should be done to support women, especially mothers, who work outside the home.

Marina Mahathir is a social activist.

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See also: Mummy – from my point of view