Iconic KL teacher soldiers on for women’s rights
KUALA LUMPUR, April 19 — The name Rasammah Bhupalan inevitably evokes a rush of emotion in elderly members of the teaching fraternity and women’s rights activists.
Mere mention of the master educator elicits similar sentiments among former students who cannot forget the lasting effect she left on them.
While their views may differ according to vocations, they agree on this: She is an extraordinary woman who changed their lives for the better.
Rasammah, a month short of 89, still makes an impact on many with her boundless energy and a vivacity absent in many her age.
The Tokoh Guru 1986, conferred a Datukship by then Yang diPertuan Agong Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin in 2008, is still in the thick of lending her considerable teaching experience to the present generation of education administrators and teachers.
The wheelchair she uses is no impediment to the go-getter with a never-say-die attitude that saw her through grave illness last April.
The former principal of Methodist Girls School Kuala Lumpur is still a formidable figure “doing what I am doing as the Lord has a purpose for me.”
It is no wonder she is a national icon in teaching born as she was into a family of educators.
We were having tea at her Bukit Damansara condominium unit with the conversation interrupted by numerous phone calls seeking her advice and her take on a variety of things.
Plying photographer Azneal Ishak and me with cakes, Rasammah clearly still practises what she preaches in terms of good manners and the importance of virtuous living (her former students remember this well) .
“The nobility of purpose, the total application of principles of truth, integrity, responsibility and sacrifice; no feeling of hatred to any group. This must be a part of you,” she says with conviction.
Rasammah still sits on the Methodist Education Foundation board and remains head of the National Congress of Women’s Organisation’s (NCWO) law and human rights commission.
As founder of the first Women’s Teachers Union in 1960 and co-founder of the NCWO, she is a pioneer in the women’s rights movement.
Rasammah, founder of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) Vocational Training Opportunity, has successfully trained and empowered over 1,000 economically disadvantaged young women since its advent in 1998.
It was her family background and upbringing that veered her towards a career in teaching.
Her father, PE Navarednam, headmaster of the Gopeng English School, later became founding president of the Malayan Teacher’s Association (MTA) at a time when unions were taboo and non-registerable. It is no wonder Rasammah grew up to be truly her father’s daughter.
At 16, Rasammah, with her sister Ponnammah, 18, joined the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, an all-women’s wing of the Indian National Army (INA), to fight against the British occupation of India.
“If you read about the Amritsar Massacre in Punjab and what happened in many parts of India, how could you just sit and do nothing?” she asked with fire in her eyes.
The two sisters attended a rally at the Ipoh Club Padang to hear INA leader Subhas Chandra Bose passionately appeal for volunteers.
To their family’s horror, the Navarednam sisters went off to the training camp at Waterloo Street in Singapore where they picked up combat skills.
They found favour in Captain Dr Lakshmi Sahgal, an INA officer heading the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, and their military experience was made a little easier with a mentor at hand.
“We marched from Singapore to Rangoon to train for battle. Dr Lakshmi was a fantastic woman who participated in all forms of military training just like the men.”
Rasammah returned to Malaya at 18 in 1945 to continue her secondary education.
“I realised Malaya was where I enjoyed all the blessings in my life and became deeply attentive to the issue of unity.”
She joined University Malaya in Singapore in 1949, graduating in June 1953 to begin her teaching career at the Methodist Girls School in Penang.
Her fight for women’s rights came about in 1957 when the Education Ministry introduced the Unified Teaching Service Scheme (UTS) that institutionalised wage discrimination against women.
That same year, Rasammah mobilised women to demand equal pay and established the Women Teacher’s Union (WTU).
Calling first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman women’s biggest ally then, Rasammah said he was the only one who listened to WTU and took up their cause.
“He truly believed in the upliftment of the marginalised and women teachers will always be grateful to him,” she says, adding that a single wage scale for teachers became a reality in 1964.
She soon began campaigning to end domestic violence and rape through NCWO.
The campaign calls were heeded and their efforts led to the enactment of Law Reform Act (Marriage and Divorces) Act 1976 that protects women against polygamous marriage besides reforming custodial proceedings.
Describing her life as “wonderful,” Rasammah thanks God for the blessings bestowed upon her, her late husband Dr Franklin Bhupalan, three children — Subhashini,
Dr Nazri and Dr Anand — seven grandchildren and a great grandchild.
“I say with humility we have been richly blessed,” she says, adding that there were some heartaches and disappointments along the way.
All told, hers is a life worth living.