Where many leaders feared to tread and would rather take an easy passage, Barbara Mendu Bay chose to take the risky path to uphold the cause of her community during war, anti-cession period
BARBARA Mendu Bay was well-known for her early volunteer work and political activities. She had been described as a ‘no-nonsense lady’ and a highly practical and independent-minded woman.
She was one of the few women who dared to make a difference in her day as a trailblazing female politician and outspoken party campaigner.
Like her peer and comrade Lily Eberwein, who was recognised for her campaign for Sarawak’s independence, Mendu was persistent in her outreach to the poor and the needy, as well as her crusade for social change. She defied social conventions by breaking forth from the constraints of her customary realm to pursue her cause.
When she was in her early 40s, she began volunteering under the Japanese Occupation.
This petite-size lady cut a busy figure and was never short on zeal. Her foresight and commitment to humanitarian work boded well for her future political involvement.
Born in 1900, Mendu – whose father was an Iban from Bukit Balau in Sri Aman, and mother an Iban from Lundu – received her formal education at St Mary’s School in Kuching.
In 1917, she was one of the first students to enrol in a nursing programme in Malacca.
She worked as a nurse in Perlis after completing the training, then returned to Kuching to work in Sarawak General hospital for a few years. When she volunteered to care for wounded battle survivors during the Japanese invasion, her nursing background came in handy.
Breaking with tradition
Bold, daring with foresight, Mendu broke with tradition in ways more than one. She went against her parent’s wishes when she married a man of her choice, Ng Siak Ngee, a Chinese businessman who was in the rubber trade, at 26. The decision was, to the common eyes, deemed unruly. Marrying a man outside the community was a rare occurrence then as arranged marriage was the norm of the day.
A woman of her ethnicity during her time was normally expected to work in the farm and look after her family. Mendu was ahead of her time. After she got married, she gave up her nursing job to set up a transport company, Borneo Garage, of which she was the sole proprietor. The company was already making money when the first Dayak cooperative was formed in the late 1930s.
Consequently, she contributed to the association as a shareholder.
Her business was interrupted when the Japanese invaded Sarawak in December 1941. The Occupation brought disruption to the administrative and economic infrastructure of the country, which resulted in widespread poverty.
During the war, Mendu showed exceptional bravery and generosity. To aid certain European officers escape jail, she risked being caught by the Japanese military government. She gave them six of her company’s cars so they could evacuate to Kalimantan via the Indonesia-Sarawak border. When she gave the automobiles away for a good cause, she never thought of it as a loss.
Along with a few brave women, she smuggled food to European officers and civilians who were detained at the prisoners-of-war (POW) camp, which was located at Batu Lintang in Kuching. It was a risky mission that could result in them being apprehended and imprisoned if they were caught. The women, nonetheless, were undeterred, and they carried out the mission to the best of their abilities.
Her empathy shone across. She volunteered to care for wounded battle survivors, some of whom were horribly burned during the troubled times, in addition to carrying out her ‘secret mission’.
Children who had been orphaned by the war were fed, cared for, and housed at her home.
Because of her competency and status within her community, Mendu was appointed by the Japanese to lead the Iban section of the newly formed ‘Kaum Ibu’ (women’s association) in 1944. They did not know of her ‘secret mission’; otherwise, far from being favoured, she would have been arrested.
Although the ‘Kaum Ibu’ was set up for the benefit of the Japanese (the women were mainly involved in raising funds and organising concerts for special occasions such as the birthday of the Japanese Emperor and Japanese War Heroes’ Day), it provided Mendu with invaluable experience that would equip her better for her future undertakings.
During her involvement as a leader in the organisation, she also had the privilege of meeting with some influential figures in the Japanese administration, which helped boost her confidence further.
Mendu was a keen learner. She never attended motivational talks or public speaking courses. There was none then, but she fared well as an influential leader as she emboldened herself to take up challenges and learned from real situations.
After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, Mendu made no attempt to pick up her transport business again, which was disrupted during the war.
Instead, she joined the newly-formed Sarawak Red Cross Society, where she volunteered to transport seriously ill patients from remote villages in Serian, Bau and Lundu to the general hospital in Kuching for treatment and medical care. In recognition of her contribution, she was conferred the Member of the British Empire (MBE) award by the British government.
Usually clad in the same ‘sarong kebaya’, which became a trademark of her dress code, she laboured selflessly to help lighten the burden of others, especially the sick and the poor. In helping others, she seemed to care little about herself. She even took the trouble to sell her jewelleries, including a gold bangle of high sentimental value given by her husband, to help the needy. This was when her financial resources were scarce.
During the cession controversy, she was busy helping the rural sick and the needy, especially those affected by the war, yet she was able to answer the call to patriotism and joined her comrade Eberwein and the others to demonstrate against the cession.
From anti-cession to founding of ‘Serakup Indu’
The unsuccessful attempt to liberate Sarawak from the British colony shifted Mendu’s attention to the Sarawak Dayak National Union (SDNU), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) established in the mid-1940s. She wanted to see Ibans progress alongside their Chinese and Malay counterparts, and make their voices heard.
“The cession was an important chapter in the history of Sarawak,” she said.
“It served as a good reminder of the need to be wise and meticulous before making any commitment, which might bring undesirable results.”
In the wake of this, Mendu turned to the Dayak National Union to seek the collective voice of the Dayak community so that their representation would be heard and heeded.
When SDNU was registered in 1957, she was asked by the committee to set up the women section of the association. Subsequently, she sought the help of a few prominent Iban women from the Anglican Women Fellowship to get things going. Hence, the founding of the Serakup Indu Dayak Sarawak (SIDS), the women section of the SDNU, in 1957 with Mendu as its first president.
SIDS opened its membership to women from the various ethnic groups within the Dayak community. As president of the organisation, Mendu underlined the importance of education.
“Send your sons and daughters to school,” she was often heard saying.
“If you want to see your people progress, encourage them to study.”
Her tireless efforts and considerable influence in the community had not been overlooked.
Soon, she was invited by the founding fathers of the newly-established political party, Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), to join the party.
The year was 1959. Mendu had not considered joining politics, but after serious thinking, she accepted the invitation. As a result, after finishing her first term as president of the SIDS in the same year, she decided not to seek re-election.
As a champion for social reform, she believed that it was a good move as it would pave the way for other women in the ‘Serakup’ to lead and realise their potentials. This would avail her of more time to focus on her calling to serve the common good through politics. Nonetheless, she continued to keep abreast of the organisation’s progress and gave the women her continued support.
Her first year in politics was spent intensively campaigning among the Ibans in the first and second divisions, urging them to give the party their complete support. In the two divisions, she won over more than half of the Iban population, including Lundu, to SUPP.
Her compassion and genuine concern for others had been the key to her campaign’s success.
Mendu was unconcerned about being recognised. Her MBE honour was removed by the British government due to her political engagement, but she seemed unconcerned.
After three years in the party, she was appointed as a member of the Kuching Municipal Council. Later, she was elected as vice-chairman of SUPP, a post she held until her death in 1986.
It was in 1974 that she founded the SUPP Women’s wing and became its founding chairman.
Joining forces with Lily Eberwein, Tra Zehnder
In 1962, Mendu along with Eberwein and (Dato Sri) Tra Zehnder were among the local leaders and individuals who met with the Cobbold Commission on behalf of their respective communities to discuss Sarawak’s rights in relation to the formation of Malaysia. The commission was set up to gauge the people’s response to the proposal.
As she had said, ‘Be wise and meticulous before making any commitment which might bring undesirable results,’, the three women voiced their concern over Sarawak being a part of the federation.
They maintained that their country was not ready for the partnership as they needed more time, as well as more educated Sarawakians, before they could make such a crucial decision.
However, after a statewide visit and extensive enquiry by the Commission, it was found that ‘the majority of the population was in favour of the federation on condition that the rights of Sarawakians were not compromised’.
As a result, the Federation of Malaysia was formed on Sept 16, 1963.
Advocating importance of education
Mendu was a one-of-a-kind figure in her period. Even today, it is difficult to find a Dayak woman who could match her dedication to her community’s cause and the advancement of women’s social status.
She gave generously from her own money as she went about her humanitarian duties, such was her zeal and determination.
Having stressed on the importance of education, she managed to start a school to cater for the poor children living in the Sekama area where she lived not long after Malaysia was established. With the help of two dedicated teachers, Eunice Antan and Lamin Manggau, the humble school became an education provider for the poor for many years.
For her commendable work, she was awarded the Johan Bintang Sarawak (JBS) by the state government. The present road in Kuching city, Jalan Mendu, where she lived and where her school once stood, was proudly named after her.
At the latter part of her life, she made a personal donation of a few pieces of land situated in the premises of Kenyalang Park to the Anglican Church, where she had served as a parish counsellor. It is on one of these parcels of land that the St Faith’s Church and St Faith’s Primary School now stand.
Mendu, who had seven children, breathed her last at a ripe age of 86 in 1986.
Long after she had gone, Mendu is remembered and honoured as a leader of distinction and great compassion by the Iban community. Where many leaders may fear to tread and would rather take an easy and safe passage, Mendu chose to take the risky path to champion the cause of her community during the war and anti-cession period, even at the expense of losing the MBE title bestowed upon her by the Queen.
In her life-long crusade, sacrifice had been a consistent factor that had kept her faith and struggles unblemished.