Chandramalar Chelliah: Matriarch of Malaysian police force

Chandramalar Chelliah: Matriarch of Malaysian police force

THE send-off was remarkable. Dressed in their full uniforms, the police officers reverently lifted the coffin onto their shoulders and carried it to the hearse nearby.

Once the coffin was carefully placed, they stood upright to offer a salute. In this ordinary neighbourhood, the sight of these sombre officers milling around the tented terrace house wasn’t something you’d see every day, making it all the more exceptional for the 84-year-old matriarch who’d departed.

But Chandramalar Chelliah was no ordinary woman.

The retired assistant commissioner of police (ACP) had created a legacy unparalleled by many. The throngs of attendees at her funeral testified to a woman who’d made a significant impact on those around her.

Muted conversations, interspersed with smiles and thoughtful contemplation, centred on her remarkable life and larger-than-life personality. Tales of her bravery, adventures and dedication to her family were shared among those present.

“I can take any job at any time against the men, and I can do it better!” she asserted proudly once. That’s not an empty boast.

In 1972, Chandramalar became the first female leader of the Anti-Vice Branch in Penang, where she was dubbed the “Woman of Steel”. She earned this title through her relentless efforts against gambling kingpins, drug traffickers and pimps in the region.

During the 1970s, her reputation was further bolstered by her famed skill in breaking down brothel doors with a single, forceful kick, a remarkable feat that garnered substantial media coverage. “The trick is to aim for the hinge!” she said drolly.

The plainly dressed woman with short cropped hair would confidently stroll into gambling dens and casually seat herself at the table. With a calm demeanour, she’d ask: “Saya pun boleh main kah? (May I also join in?),” a phrase that served as a cue for her detectives to move in. Following her signal, they’d swiftly take action to shut down these establishments.

Terrified gamblers would scramble out of the windows, screaming in panic: “Kelinga cha bor lai leow! (The Indian woman has come!)”, when they caught sight of her.

“You know, men hate to be walloped by women, especially Indian women,” remarked Chandramalar back then with a chuckle, adding: “But criminals โ€” especially the Chinese โ€” are very respectful when they know you’re not corrupt.”

Demonstrating her relentless commitment, Chandramalar once pursued a suspected drug dealer for about eight kilometres across George Town, Penang, eventually cornering him in an alley.

In another incident, she was unexpectedly hit in the face with a crash helmet by her target. Prompt assistance from her fellow officers led to the quick arrest of the assailant.

Suren Ananthavadivel, the second-born of Chandramalar’s three children, reflects: “These tales were conveyed to us by my father and those who once worked alongside mum. She seldom spoke about her professional experiences with us.”

Despite the perilous nature of her job on the streets, Suren recalls his childhood as “normal”, saying: “Mum was frequently away on her assignments, leaving my father to manage things at home.” Fondly, he reminisces about Sunday morning outings with his father who was a teacher, enjoying meals at nasi kandar stalls.

It was different when they went out with mum, however. “Most times when we dined out at restaurants, we’d soon discover that people had anonymously paid our bill. Mum detested this and would insist on paying, often ending up in an argument with the restaurant owner, adamant about settling her own bills!” he recalls, laughing.

After a brief pause, he adds thoughtfully: “That was mum for you. Incredibly upright and always committed to doing things strictly by the book.”


Growing up, Chandramalar loved sports and movies.

Chandramalar, in her younger days known for playfully bending rules, was a precocious child with a profound love for cinema, often secretly going out to watch movies. This rebellious spirit later evolved into a deep admiration for the police force, particularly attracted by their uniforms, compelling her to join their ranks. “My parents were supportive, but my mother cried when I had to cut my long hair!” she recalled blithely.

In 1960, Chandramalar started her career as a probationary inspector. There, she effortlessly excelled in shooting, self-defence, judo and handling direct combat with armed individuals.

Chandramalar, when she first joined the police force as a probationary inspector in 1960.

She was also an exceptional sportswoman and participated in track events for both her school and state in her younger years. She continued this passion while serving in the police force.

Remarkably, in one race, she competed while three months pregnant with her first child. Her husband, Anantha, although concerned, proudly waited at the finish line with a bottle of chicken essence to celebrate her achievement as she crossed the tape, winning the race!

Her husband was Chandramalar’s pillar of support.


After graduation, Chandramalar was initially assigned as an investigating officer at the police headquarters in Penang. She then spent two years as a prosecuting officer in the magistrate’s court.

In 1972, she made history as the first woman to lead Penang’s anti-vice section, a role that immersed her in the midst of the island’s struggles with prostitution, gambling and drug issues.

As the head of the anti-vice section, Chandramalar was at the forefront of combating these vices. She and her team of 13 policemen, often riding Honda motorbikes, conducted an average of 200 raids monthly, targeting up to 15 brothels or gambling dens each time.

Chandramalar wasn’t only a leader, but also took an active role in undercover operations. She sometimes posed as a sex worker to entrap pimps and mingled with gamblers, granting her a deeper insight into the illegal activities she was determined to curb.

“We were never aware of what she did,” insists Suren, adding: “Mum made sure we were insulated from the darker, seamy world she found herself in.”

Back row (from left) Suren Ananthavadivel, Selvy Sophia Kasparis and Kuhan Ananthavadivel. Seated Chandramalar and her husband, Ananthavadivel Ponniah

There were exceptions, of course. One day, Chandramalar brought back her revolver and showed it to her 6-year-old son. “She let me see it. But when she wasn’t looking, I took it out and walked around with a loaded gun tucked under my arm! Thankfully, she caught me before anything happened!” he recalls sheepishly.

On another occasion, Suren found himself stuck on the roof of his house and unable to descend. ‘My mother had to call her policemen to assist me in getting down. I think it was at that moment when I truly realised that she was part of the force!” he says, laughing at the memory.

But some things were kept away from her family.

Despite the risks associated with her profession, Chandramalar shielded her family from threats, only revealing them much later. “I never knew about the threats we faced until we were older,” her 54-year-old son shared, reflecting on the dangers of her career kept hidden from them.

Suren fondly recalls one of the more peculiar aspects of his mother’s job: finding expensive toys mysteriously left outside their home. “To a 6-year-old boy, it was thrilling but my mother always insisted on removing those toys. I never got the chance to play with them!” he says, smiling. Reflecting on her integrity, he adds: “That’s just how she was. My mother adamantly refused any form of gifts and never accepted a bribe.”


In 1974, she was one of two Malaysian police women officers sent to the International Police Academy in Washington DC to train in police management.

Chandramalar’s steadfast adherence to integrity wasn’t well-received by everyone. “There were efforts to set her up, and anonymous poison-pen letters were sent, falsely accusing her of corruption,” Suren recounts. This came to a head in 1976 with a formal investigation, much to his mother’s dismay.

However, this challenging episode unexpectedly worked in her favour. The probe conducted by the Bukit Aman police headquarters not only cleared her of any wrongdoing, but also showcased her exemplary work to Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Tan Sri (later Tun) Hanif Omar.

She was soon promoted to the rank of assistant superintendent and became the first woman to take on the position of an executive staff at the police college in Kuala Kubu Baru, Selangor.

Her memory for legal statutes were legendary and she was such an enthusiastic lecturer that her voice reverberated through the walls. “Mum was so loud that the other lecturers simply gave up and allowed her to teach their students too!” says Suren, grinning.

With Chandramalar’s career taking a more stable turn, family life also became more settled. She was able to spend longer hours at home, cooking dinners for her family and was no longer out late into the night pursuing criminals.

At the police college, the former Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Noor, then a commandant, would often pass by their house on his way from work.

Drawn by the enticing aroma of fish curry, he’d call out: “Chandra… very nice smell!” Suren can’t help but chuckle as he recounts this memory: “My task was to tapau (pack) the fish curry and deliver it to him!”

There were accolades and more promotions to follow.

In recognition of her distinguished service, Chandramalar was honoured with prestigious awards from the king: the Ahli Mangku Negara (AMN) in 1977 and the Kesatrian Mangku Negara (KMN) in 1994.

Her career continued to progress when she was promoted to Deputy Superintendent of Police in 1981. Following this promotion, she was assigned to Shah Alam, taking on the role of officer in charge of commercial crime for the state of Selangor.

Assigned the task of resolving a backlog of cases across Selangor, the feisty officer turned this into a family affair. The whole family would accompany her as she travelled throughout the state, meeting with investigating officers and working through each case to alleviate the backlog.

Suren fondly remembers these times: “It felt like a family trip and we absolutely loved it! Many officers were so thankful for her assistance and would often treat us to meals!”

Proud grandparents.

Sharing an interesting detail about his mother, Suren reveals: “My mother actually never drove! When she first got her driving licence in Penang, she accidentally bumped her car at the police gate and developed a phobia of driving. During all her raids, she rode pillion on motorcycles, and for other occasions, it was my father who drove!”

Eight years later, Chandramalar was promoted to superintendent of police, becoming the first woman to hold this rank. She was appointed the deputy officer in charge of criminal investigation (courts) for Kuala Lumpur.

Chandramalar’s illustrious career culminated in 1994, when she retired as the assistant director of research and planning in the Criminal Investigation Department at Bukit Aman, attaining the rank of assistant commissioner of police.

Notably, she was the first non-Malay woman to achieve this prestigious honour, marking a significant milestone in the history of the Malaysian police force.

“To us, she was simply ‘mum’,” says Suren softly. He emphasises that despite her demanding workload, their family always remained top priority for her. “She always made sure that she was there for us, no matter how busy she was,” he adds.

After retiring, Chandramalar continued to focus on her family and helped her husband teach children in their neighbourhood. Suren reveals a heartfelt detail about her later years, noting: “She deteriorated after his passing in 2021.”

Deputy Commissioner of Police Datuk Sasikala Devi a/p Subramaniam paying a visit to Chandramalar last November accompanied by her police contingent.

Struggling with dementia, she experienced a decline in her memory, signifying a profound shift in her life. “Seeing her change was hard,” her son concedes, adding: “Yet, we were deeply thankful that the police force and those who’d known her never overlooked her contributions. They stayed in contact right up until she passed away.”

As her final journey commenced, a convoy of police vehicles solemnly trailed the hearse, accompanying Chandramalar to the crematorium. This gesture was a fitting tribute, symbolising the deep respect and honour the police force held for her lifelong dedication and service.

The “Woman of Steel”, though no longer with us, leaves behind a legacy that will endure. Her memories and stories, rich with courage and dedication, will continue to inspire and resonate for generations to come.

  • by Elena Koshy (Text and images reproduced from New Straits Times)
A grand send-off for the late Chandramalar Chelliah by the police force.


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