Soaring above the trivializing, tiresome cliché of “Behind every great man is a great woman”, the wives of Malaysia’s six Prime Ministers stood/stand tall on their own, behind absolutely no one.
Tun Sharifah Rodziah Syed Alwi Barakbah 1920-2000
Malaysia’s ‘founding father’, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj.
Tun Sharifah was of Hadhrami (Yemeni) Arab and Malay descent, and a member of the illustrious Barakbah clan of Alor Setar, Kedah (where she was born and raised). Her eminent relatives included Tun Syed Sheh Hassan Barakbah, the former Governor of Penang, and the first Malaysian Lord President of the Federal Court.
Tun Sharifah was Tunku Abdul Rahman’s third wife – she was preceded by his first consort, Thai-Chinese heiress Lady Meriam Chong, who died tragically as a result of a gross medical blunder while stricken with malaria in 1935; and Briton Victoria Coulson, Tunku’s former landlady in England, with whom he parted ways in 1938 (but officially divorced only in 1946). Tunku and Tun Sharifah met through her brother, Syed Omar Barakbah, Tunku’s university mate in Cambridge. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Tunku left England for Kedah, where he married Tun Sharifah in 1939.
Though their union produced no offspring, Tun Sharifah was a loving mother to Tunku’s four children from his previous marriages; the couple also adopted a boy and three girls of various races.
In spite of her famously retiring nature, Tun Sharifah, who passed away at the age of 80, is credited with playing a significant role in rallying support for her husband during Malaya’s turbulent formative years. She was also heavily involved in numerous welfare causes; and a strong proponent of sports for women – she was Chairman of the Women’s Football Association, and Life President of the Asian Ladies’ Football Confederation.
Tun Rahah Tan Sri Mohammad Noah Age: 83
Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s 2nd Prime Minister; establisher of Barisan Nasional; and the architect of the New Economic Policy (NEP).
Born in 1933 in Muar, Johor, Tun Rahah is the youngest of the ten children of Tan Sri Muhammad Noah Omar, one of the founders of UMNO; the first Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat; and co-founder of Genting Highlands Berhad. Tun Rahah is of Buginese descent, and traces her roots to the 17th century ‘Bugis Raja Chempa’ in South Sulawesi.
Tun Rahah’s marriage was, to an extent, an arranged one – Tun Abdul Razak’s university mate in London, Tan Sri Taib Andak (future Chairman of Malayan Banking Berhad), had been entrusted by Tun Abdul Razak’s father with finding his son a Johorean bride. Taib slyly arranged for Tun Abdul Razak to catch sight of Tun Rahah, then a 19 year-old Fifth Former at Convent Holy Infant Jesus in Johor Baru. The future PM was instantly enamoured; while Tun Rahah, who was provided a picture of Tun Abdul Razak, found him “slim and handsome.” After accepting his proposal of marriage, the couple was engaged for 9 months, before being wedded in 1952. After almost 25 years of marriage, Tun Rahah was widowed, at the age of 43, when Tun Abdul Razak died in office from leukemia in 1976.
Tun Rahah is the mother of five prominent sons: the eldest, of course, is our current Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak; and the youngest is the distinguished Chairman of CIMB Group, Dato’ Seri Mohd Nazir Razak.
Tun Rahah is Chancellor of the university founded in honour of her husband, Universiti Tun Abdul Razak; served as patron of the Muslim Women’s Action Organisation (Pertiwi); and was President of the Girl Guides Association of Malaysia.
Tun Suhailah Tan Sri Mohammad Noah 1931-2014
Tun Hussein Onn, 3rd Prime Minister of Malaysia; and first UMNO Youth Chief
Tun Suhailah was the elder sister of Tun Rahah. Also born and raised in Muar, Johor, she received her early education at the Melaka Convent.
Tun Suhailah encountered Tun Hussein while he was in the Malayan Civil Service, holding the post of District Officer for Klang and Kuala Selangor. They married in 1948 when Tun Suhailah was just 18 years old. Less than a year later, Tun Hussein made his grand entrance into politics as the first Youth Chief of UMNO, a party his father, Dato’ Onn Jaafar, helped found. Tun Suhailah was then swept up in the heady whirlwind of the glamorous Malayan political scene as her husband rose swiftly through the ranks, first attaining the lofty position of Education Minister, before being appointed Deputy Prime Minister in 1973. It was the death in office of her brother-in-law, Tun Abdul Razak, which finally propelled Tun Suhailah into the role of the wife of the Prime Minister of Malaysia in 1976.
Tun Suhailah and Tun Hussein Onn had six children, all of whom went on to become great successes, including their eldest son, the current Minister of Defense, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein. Tun Suhailah is also the maternal aunt of current Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
Tun Suhailah, who passed away at 83, is best remembered for being instrumental in setting up the Welfare Association of Wives and Ministers and Deputy Ministers (Bakti), which focuses on helping children with special needs. She also took over the reins of Pertiwi and the Girl Guides Association from her sister, Tun Rahah.
Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali Age: 89
: Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest-serving Prime Minister
Tun Siti Hasmah was born in Klang to a Minangkabau family whose ancestors hailed from Rao district, West Sumatra province. She is the 6th of 10 siblings who include former Bank Negara Governor, Tun Ismail Mohd Ali; and former Menteri Besar of Selangor, Dato Ahmad Razali Mohd Ali. She received her early education at Methodist Girls’ School, St Mary’s School and Pudu English School in Kuala Lumpur, before enrolling at the King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore after World War II on a scholarship. Tun Siti Hasmah was the only female Malay student in her batch. She graduated as a medical doctor in 1955, and joined the government health service to become one of the first Malay woman doctors in Malayan history.
One of Tun Siti Hasmah’s college mates was none other than Tun Mahathir, and although theirs was not a case of “love at first sight” (according to the former PM), their relationship blossomed over time. After a year of courtship, they married in 1956. The couple moved to Tun Mahathir’s hometown of Alor Setar, where he set up his own practice, and Tun Siti Hasmah served at the city’s General Hospital. In 1963, one year before Tun Mahathir kicked off his political career by being elected as Member of Parliament for Alor Setar, Tun Siti Hasmah was named Director of the Alor Setar General Hospital – the first Malay woman ever appointed to the role. Both Tun Siti Hasmah’s and Tun Mahathir’s careers and renown would skyrocket in parallel with each other from that moment onwards. Incidentally, 2016 marks the couple’s 60th wedding anniversary (wow!).
Tun Siti Hasmah and Tun Mahathir are the parents of four biological and three adopted children, who include former Menteri Besar of Kedah, Dato Seri Mukhriz Mahathir; businessman and Malaysia’s 28th richest person (according to Forbes Asia) Dato’ Mokhzani Mahathir; and celebrated sociopolitical activist and writer, Marina Mahathir.
Aside from being a female pioneer in Malaysia’s medical field, Tun Siti Hasmah has made her mark as Patron of the Malaysian Pediatric Association; Patron of the Malaysian Association of Maternal Health and Neonate; President of the Malaysian Medical Association Foundation; and member of the National Committee of the World Federation of Mental Health. She is currently Chancellor of the Multimedia University of Malaysia.