Devaki Krishnan: First woman elected to public office in Malaysia

Devaki Krishnan: First woman elected to public office in Malaysia

Tan Sri Devaki Krishnan, the first Malaysian woman elected to public service (an honour recognised in the Malaysia Book of Records), achieved eminence in Malaysian politics before the country was even founded.

She revealed that her interest in politics was sparked by two women winning seats in elections in Sri Lanka and Singapore, which was practically unthinkable in those days. She was six years old when a woman won in an election in Sri Lanka. “It impressed upon me that women too could achieve success if we have the courage to do so,” she said in an interview when she was aged 93.

The “Grand Dame of Malaysian Indian politics” was later recruited into the multiethnic Independence of Malaya Party by Datuk Sir Onn Jaafar and won the Bangsar seat on the Kuala Lumpur Municipal Council in 1952.

“The party committee unanimously chose me as a candidate without asking for my consent. It was quite surprising that they informed my husband before informing me,” she said in an interview with Bernama.

Devaki Krishnan and her biography ‘With Elegance and Commitment’ – Bernamapic

She said her late businessman husband P. Krishnan was her pillar of strength who encouraged Devaki, who was a teacher then, to be involved in politics. “He and my father-in-law decided to buy me a car and taught me to drive so that I could move easily during the election campaign,” she recalled.

Devaki said there was a parade of over 50 cars in Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman after she was elected councillor for Bangsar. “The moment I stood up in the open-top car and waved to the crowd, I knew that there were huge responsibilities for me to carry out. Today I’m proud that I served the people well.”

Devaki retained the Bangsar seat for a second term in 1955. She also has the honour of being the first Malaysian Indian woman to contest in a general election when she contested as an Alliance candidate for the Sentul parliamentary seat in 1959 – but lost.

In civil defence, Devaki was in charge of the medical clinic at Stadium Merdeka during the May 13, 1969 riots, caring for some 3,500 victims and the homeless.

Devaki – who was born in Port Dickson, Negri Sembilan, on March 11, 1923 – later joined the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). She became a lifetime member of MIC and was instrumental in the establishment of the party’s women’s wing. She was appointed as MIC secretary in 1975 and Wanita MIC deputy chief in 1984.

Among the significant awards she received during her lifetime were the Serving Sister of St John Award by Queen Elizabeth II, Tokoh Wanita Award, and Tun Fatimah Award for her contributions to women’s empowerment and welfare services recognised both globally and locally.

NST montage of Devaki’s life highlights

“She once played a key role in advocating for amendments to the Guardianship of Infants Act, allowing single mothers to care for their children,” said Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri. “The impact of her work resonates not only within the government but also in the hearts of those whose lives she touched.”

The eldest of six children, this daughter of the last Acting Controller of Post and Telecoms of Malaya during the British Malayan Administration and an alumnus of St Mary’s School of Kuala Lumpur, Devaki played a fundamental role in shaping the early fabric of Malaysian society.

She worked with contemporaries such as Onn, Yong Shook Lin, Tun Omar Ong Yoke Lin, Puan Sri Putih Mariah, Tun Fatimah Hashim, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Sambanthan, Tun Tan Cheng Lock and Tun Tan Siew Sin. These illuminating figures rallied the Merdeka movement and developed the concept of a Malaysian society.

  • Compiled from various sources


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