Tra Zehnder: A woman true to her calling, responding to every call for help and giving her best in solving people’s problems
ELOQUENT, bold and drawn readily to the dynamics of politics and community development at a young age, Dato Sri Philomena Tra Zehnder was the first woman to be a member of the Sarawak State Council.
A daughter of a Sarawak Ranger, Tra grew up in Kuching where she went to St Mary’s School. At age of 21, she married a Eurasian, Leslie Ptolemy Zehnder who was a government officer with the Department of Forestry – the couple had seven children.
Tra was 18 when she found herself sitting with the founding fathers of Sarawak Dayak National Union (SDNU) at meetings, which led to the setting up of the society in the mid-1940s.
Aimed at promoting and safeguarding the social, cultural and economic welfare of the Dayaks in Sarawak, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) was officially registered in 1956.
Tra and her mentor Barbara Mendu Bay (renowned for her volunteer work and eventual political participation) were likely the organisation’s only female members since its establishment. There, she developed her speaking skills and confidence in communicating with people.
At the height of anti-cession, Tra joined Mendu and another senior comrade, Lily Eberwein (an early patriot and a pioneer for women in public life) in protesting against the cession. Her involvement in the anti-cession campaign was an eye-opener and a trigger point for her to enter politics.
Tra was in her early 30s when the Sarakup Indu Dayak Sarawak (SIDS), the women’s wing of SDNU, was formed in 1957. The women had a flying start with Mendu as the founding president and Tra, the honorary secretary. The latter was already setting her sight on raising the socio-economic standard of the Dayaks and keeping their rich cultural heritage alive.
They organised and ran various programmes and plans meant to benefit the Dayak community, including adult literacy classes for women and the conservation of their rich cultural heritage. It was during this time that the modern adaptation of the authentic Iban traditional costume for women and the ‘ngajat’ (traditional Iban dance) was introduced.
Tra, who had also been the president of and advisor to SIDS, took pains to encourage young Dayak women to join the association as she looked forward to seeing more women taking up leadership roles.
Member of Sarawak State Council
Like her mentor, Tra also made significant contribution to a few other NGOs, particularly the Sarawak Red Cross Society (now Malaysian Red Crescent Sarawak Chapter). Based on her outstanding contribution in voluntary and social services, she was nominated as a member of the Sarawak State Council (now known as Sarawak State Legislative Assembly, or DUN Sarawak) by then-Governor, Sir Alexander Waddell, in 1960.
She only accepted the post after it was affirmed that she was given the same power as the elected members in the council.
To Tra, it was a tall order but she also wanted to be a voice for her community. With her willingness to learn and seek advice from her seniors in SDNU, Tra was confident that she could be counted on to speak for the Dayaks.
One of the key issues that she raised concerned the cultural identity of the Dayaks. She proposed that the annual Dayak Harvest Festival (Gawai Dayak) be recognised and gazetted as a public holiday by the colonial government.
The motion seemed to fall on deaf ears, but that did not deter her from pursuing her cause. Tra’s persistence paid off when the annual festival was finally gazetted as a statewide celebration for the Dayaks later in 1962. Today, as she had envisioned, the festival proves to be a uniting factor among the Dayaks of many ethnic groups.
She also called upon the government to ban the sales of postcards with images of topless Iban women in souvenir shops and other tourist outlets, contending that the images were ‘sexualised and exploited by the players in the tourist trade’.
She also raised several questions regarding the scholarships for Iban children who were found to be lagging far behind those from other races in terms of education.
She truly believed in representing her community well at the state council. A good listener, the young Tra delivered her points with eloquence and such a characteristic boldness that she was held in high esteem by her colleagues, and the Dayak community at large.
‘Alliance may lead to colonisation’
In 1962, she represented SDNU in the Cobbold Commission, an independent body set up to gauge the people’s response to the formation of the Federation of Malaysia on the key issues raised. At a meeting with Lord Landsdown, chairman of the commission, and Mr Narasimhan of the United Mission of Inquiry, Tra voiced the concern over Sarawak being a part of the federation.
She stressed that the Ibans were not prepared for the partnership as they were still lacking in education, and that the alliance might lead to a form of colonisation by Malaya.
Her farsighted and honest contention was obviously disregarded.
The colonial government seemed to have made up its mind to relinquish control over Sarawak to the Federation of Malaysia. Circumstances were also said to have paved the way for the successful implementation of the Malaysia proposal in September 1963 – the threat of communist uprisings; Sukarno’s idea of uniting Indonesia with Borneo, Malaya, the Philippines and Brunei; and the commission’s claim that a majority of the population was in favour of the formation of Malaysia.
Although saddened by the decision, Tra sportingly conceded and gave her support. Subsequently, she made many trips to the rural areas to explain to the Dayaks in the longhouses about the formation of Malaysia and why they had to give their support to the new government.
A few years later, she joined Sarawak National Party (SNAP), a predominantly-Iban political party founded by the first Chief Minister of Sarawak, Tan Sri Datuk Amar Stephen Kalong Ningkan in 1961.
By then, she was in her early 40s and at the prime of her life. Soon, she was involved in the setting up of the party’s women’s wing where she was voted the chairman.
Fire of patriotism
Such was the fire of patriotism in the handful of Iban women then. It was her good friend Vida Bayang, a niece of Mendu, who encouraged her to join the male-denominated party. Vida, a home demonstrator with the Department of Agriculture, had always been supportive of Tra. Forthright and persuasive, she proved to be a good motivator and was confident that Tra was able to take her fight for the betterment of the Dayaks to a higher level of attainment.
The two women laboured relentlessly for the party, making frequent trips to the remote areas of Sarawak in their efforts to instil political consciousness among the rural folk. Tough and determined, they endured long journeys through rough roads, fast-flowing rivers and jungle trails – Tra even fell off her boat into the rough waters – to get to their destinations.
Tra’s struggle in politics saw her championing her cause on various platforms. After many years in SNAP, she left the party to join Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) and founded its women’s wing in 1987.
However, she resigned from politics the following year to give rise to a new breed of politicians.
At 62, Tra wanted to focus on social and community work. Following her resignation, she accepted the appointment of a Temenggong (the highest title of a community chief) for the Iban community in Kuching Division by the state government; thus, making her the first woman to hold the post.
A committed woman true to her calling, she responded to every call she received for assistance and gave her best in trying to solve people’s problems whether they were personal, social, or community welfare. A good listener, Tra was never short of words of encouragement as she went about her work.
First head of Majlis Adat Istiadat
Tra held the post until 1996, the year she made history again by being the first woman to be appointed as the head of the Majlis Adat Istiadat – a unit in the Chief Minister’s Department dealing with matters relating to Dayak native customary laws and practices in Sarawak.
As head of the ‘Majlis’ (council), her foremost concern was on the well-being of women and the indigenous communities. As a result of her initiative, the Majlis incorporated a provision in its code of customary laws and practices for native women to seek legal recourse for compensation and child maintenance through civil courts.
She also fought for more land for native farmers.
It did not matter to her if her views differed from the mainstream. For one thing, she was sincere in her words and in her pursuit for the betterment of her community, and the society at large. The petite and energetic political veteran, in her 70s, showed no sign of slowing down as she worked tirelessly for the marginalised and powerless.
Tra was 76 when she retired as the head of the Majlis Adat Istiadat after finishing her second term in office. Concerning her personal commitments, however, she knew no retirement. Even in her twilight years, she ‘still dreamed dreams for her people, still encouraged others and still a highly regarded community leader’.
She wanted to see more Dayak women joining the political fray.
“But they must seize the opportunities to build themselves up in knowledge and in finance – only then they can become good politicians,” she had once said.
Fighting spirit for community
One of the bright women of Sarawak’s pre-independence years who were not afraid to take on new responsibilities and challenges, Tra’s lifetime achievements manifested the learned and fighting spirit in her.
Having trodden the paths of pre-independence and post-independence, Tra’s message still rouses the conscience: “If we don’t get ourselves involved in politics, we will not have a say in the government.”
Her crusade was ultimately for the common good of her community and country, as she had demonstrated throughout her life – it was never for any personal gain or self-glories. In her lifetime, she had been involved in several organisations such as the Juvenile Court (Kuching) where she was an advisor, the Anti-Tuberculosis Association Sarawak as its president, the Women Advisory Council, the Social Development Council, the Marriage Tribunal, Yayasan Perpaduan Sarawak – just to mention a few.
For her vast contributions, Tra was conferred many awards, including the ‘Tun Sri Fatimah Wanita Cemerlang’ in 1992 and the ‘Eminent Propagator of National Unity’ presented by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in 2007.
In 2010, a vibrant 84-year-old Tra took to the stage on a wheelchair to receive the Datuk Patinggi Laila Taib Award from the then-chief minister, Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, in recognition of her significant contribution to the state.
She was the first woman to be bestowed the award.
After a brief illness, the patriot and female pioneer of Sarawak politics passed away on July 22, 2011, at Sarawak General Hospital in Kuching. Hundreds of people attended the funeral at Kuching’s St Joseph Cathedral to bid farewell to ‘the grand old lady of Sarawak politics’.
Education, cultural identity and community participation were the major thrusts of her crusade since joining politics and involving herself in social activities.
She had toiled the field and sown the seeds. She had planted some of the early seeds of community pride and social consciousness, and left behind an indelible desire for the new generations to forge links across the ethnic divide to enable them to rise and progress.