Permaisuri Johor Raja Zarith Sofiah (second from right) handing over flowers to Almarhumah Sultanah Bahiyah, during a state visit to Perak in April 1972. Present are Almarhum Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah (left) and Almarhumah Raja Perempuan Muzwin (third from right) and Almarhum Sultan Idris Shah II (right). PIC COURTESY OF RAJA SARINA ISKANDAR

IN the spirit of International Women’s Day this week, I would like to dedicate this piece to all the prominent women in my life who have inspired me to become the kind of woman that I am today.

We often say that the modern day woman has many roles to juggle, but, it can be argued that throughout history, women have always played multiple roles in both private and public spheres. They are the backbone of society and their families’ pillar of strength.

I have witnessed first-hand that a woman’s maternal and feminine predisposition is what makes them excellent leaders and a force to be reckoned with.

One of the best examples I had for female leadership growing up would be my late maternal grandmother. She was known by the people of Kedah as Sultanah Bahiyah, but to me, she was simply my kind and loving Tok Mama.

I observed the way she carried herself in the eyes of the rakyat, and how she was at home with her family and istana (palace) staff.

Her private and public persona did not differ much; she was equally as lovable in public as she was in private. The only thing that differed was how much she allowed herself to be vulnerable when she was in the public eye, which was not much.

She had to mirror the strength of her husband, Almarhum Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah, and together their love and strength brought the people of Kedah together through thick and thin.

It is difficult to view public figures, especially those in royal posts, as possessing normal human infallibility because, oftentimes, the public only get to see the side of them that is always so put-together.

It is hard to relate to someone in such a high position, especially when the image of wealth and status erase any signs of hardship or trauma that they may have in their lives.

Almarhumah Sultanah Bahiyah was one of those people who many would have thought had no worries. She greeted everyone with much warmth and sincerity and her smile brought comfort to those around her.

As fate would have it, she battled cancer in the last seven years of her life, but, within that time frame, she established Yayasan Sultanah Bahiyah, a charity organisation that continues to actively support the people of Kedah to this day in the fields of education, health, youth development and many more.

As her cancer progressed, she lost the strength to walk or the appetite to eat. Despite the deterioration of her health, she remained a dutiful wife and always inquired on the wellbeing of her busy husband, who juggled the role of being a king to his people and a grieving husband to a dying life companion.

During meal times, she would ask the staff of his whereabouts and if he had already eaten. When my siblings and I came to visit, her illness temporarily took a back seat and she gave us all the attention in the world. We were too young to understand what cancer was, but, looking back, I am glad I didn’t, for I would have cried knowing that she had to endure so much pain.

In the final days of her life, as she laid on her bed, frail and out of breath, she told my mother: “I do not feel sorry for myself, but I pity the people of Kedah (when I depart).”

Even when death was near, she was still so concerned about the welfare of others. That was just the way she was: a caregiver to both her family and her state.

The apple does not fall far from the tree, because she raised two daughters, Tan Sri Tunku Soraya (the Raja Puan Muda Perak), and Tan Sri Tunku Intan Safinaz (the Tunku Temenggong Kedah), who have played pivotal roles in making me the woman that I am today.

Despite putting family above all, they are also heavily involved in philanthropy and championing causes they are passionate about.

As a young adult now, I see that my paternal aunt, Tuanku Zarith Sofiah, the Permaisuri of Johor, too, have mastered the balancing act of being not just a queen of her state, but a mother and a wife in a family that thrives on her love and strength.

The roles she plays are not easy and it has been made even harder after the death of her son, Almarhum Tunku Abdul Jalil.

Despite being in a highly demanding position, she continues to advocate the many causes she believes in. She continues to survey how her people are coping and I know that one of her greatest motivations to put a smile on other people’s faces is because she knows the bitter taste of grief. And, the reality is, we all taste grief and hardship at some point in our lives.

My late grandmothers, my aunts and, of course, my mother, have demonstrated that being sincere, considerate and generous in times of difficulty, are some of the more underrated qualities that great leaders should possess if they want to inspire people towards greatness.

In the words of Canadian poet, Rupi Kaur: “We all move forward when we recognise how resilient and striking the women around us are.”

To the women in my life, thank you for inspiring me and everyone around you with your resilience.

The writer is a freelance writer,
a blogger at She is a millennial trying to make a difference, starting with herself

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