For Toh Puan Umasundari Sambanthan it was vital to raise awareness among rural women of the benefits of Malayan citizenship. Her lifelong battle has been to bring uneducated rubber-tappers into mainstream national life. As the wife to one of the founding fathers of Malaysia, the late Tun VT Sambanthan, she was one of the earliest crusaders of championing women’s rights in Malaysia.
Toh Puan Uma passed away peacefully on 31st January aged 90. She was beloved by many and a friend to every Prime Minister in the last six decades. We bring you her remarkable story.
Who is Umasundari Subramaniam?
Umasundari Subramaniam was born in Bruas, Perak to O.M. Subramaniam, a senior officer with the Public Works Department and his wife Jayalakshmi Swaminathan Sastrigal. Her education at the Anglo-Chinese School in Sungai Siput, Perak was nothing less than stellar as she won the Best Indian Student of the Year scholarship in 1942.
She finished her primary education during the Japanese occupation. After the war when she was 19, her father gave her the option of either getting married or studying when the whole family went back to India at that time.
It was reported that it was her father that encouraged her to study science because according to him, “If you had been in a free country, you would have studied science.” Without much hesitation, she decided to study science. She studied at the University of Madras, majoring in chemistry thus graduating with First Class Honours. She then studied for a master’s degree at the Presidency College, Chennai in India.
Uma’s return to Malaya
Uma didn’t complete her postgraduate degree in India. She came back and did voluntary work in a hospital in Muar because her degree wasn’t recognised, even though she had a bachelor’s degree with First Class honours. However, a school in Singapore was looking for science teachers, so she got a temporary — month-to-month job.
Then, she obtained a prospectus for a master’s degree in Germany. That university wanted a reference. By that time, her husband-to-be (VT Sambanthan) had become the first MP for Sungai Siput, and he was given the portfolio of Labour (Malaysia’s first Minister of Labour). So, her dad convinced her since he’s a family friend, that she should ask for a reference from him.
That’s how she first met Tun VT Sambanthan. This was in February 1956, during Chinese New Year.
She did not get the reference. Instead, she received a marriage proposal. They were very much in love and tied the knot in May 1956.
Toh Puan Uma Sambanthan’s Social Contributions
It was a really interesting time for Toh Puan where she had the first-hand experience of meeting various little groups at their home, bringing their memorandums which her husband had to summarise. She also met key figures in the MCA and UMNO leadership at gatherings where she was the only graduate among the ministers’ wives. That’s where she started to get involved in activism and social work.
It was the wives of ministers who were actively involved with social work, especially in the kampungs. Toh Puan was one of the founders of the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO). Whatever needed pioneering, she was prepared to turun padang and she made sure everyone worked together as a multi communal group.
An avid reader throughout her life, Toh Puan made sure her role was for the people and with the community at large. She didn’t want to take any political role. She ran her husband’s home and did work in the Sungai Siput constituency with the rakyat.
Her involvement with women’s groups was to raise the status of women. Toh Puan Uma sought to challenge conventional social barriers regarding women as she was a firm believer of women being in positions of leadership. By working together with women from all races, she was able to address such social imbalances.
It was basically an attitude change, for both the women and those who were working with them: from a feudal system to a democratic system. The role of women became more significant in a democratic society both politically and socially.
From the last quarter of 1956 till the 1970s, Toh Puan worked with the National Association of Women’s Institute, organising proper nutrition and healthcare for kampung children, reviving local recipes and income generation, in general.
She was also the chairman and director of the National Land Finance Co-operative Society, set up by her husband in 1960 to mitigate the fragmentation of foreign-owned plantations and loss of employment.
Like her husband – who died of heart disease in 1979, aged 59 – who was well-known for his interest in educating the people, Toh Puan was also active in the area, organising the infrastructure for the first government girls’ school in Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, and the first government primary school in Selayang Baru, Selangor, using facilities available from the government.
Toh Puan was truly a sharp mind and a treasure trove of pre & post Merdeka insights. She was also one of the few who had that unexplainable aura of genuine love, care and concern for everyone around her.
Rest well, Toh Puan Umasundari Sambanthan. You have made a difference & inspired many in your own gentle way.
*Featured image sourced from The Star