Barbara Bay — a woman of substance

A woman of substance is a woman of power, a woman of positive influence and a woman of meaning.

– Anon

The best Facebook post I’ve read over the past few days has to be the story about Madam Barbara Mendu Bay, easily Sarawak’s most well-known woman patriot, social activist, political fighter and finally, a humble caregiver and a selfless one-in-a-million.

I must say “well done” to an old friend, Christina-Thomas Mamora, for penning the article on Barbara and telling her story of sacrifice and compassion for her beloved homeland, Sarawak, and her fellow Sarawakians.

It has been quite a long time since I last read about Barbara and I consider Christina’s piece most timely as I have been advocating for more women to play a bigger and prominent role in frontline politics in recent times.

Oh yes, many of us are so fed up with the men in politics these days. The men are the cause of the toxic politics going round in circles in the country today.

Why, didn’t we have four prime ministers over the past four years? To refresh your memory, we have Datuk Seri Najib Razak as prime minister in 2018, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 2019, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin in 2020 and Datuk Seri Ismail Sabi Yaakob in 2021.

If GE15 is called next year, we could possibly have another new prime minister in 2022. That will make five PMs in five years!

The frequencies we change our prime minister is unprecedented. This is not something that is “Malaysian”. It isn’t something to be proud of. In fact, we should lower our heads in shame that our politics has sunk to this level.

Look at Malacca. It just took four disgruntled men to force a state of 932,000 people to its knees.  The state legislative assembly has been dissolved to pave the way for elections. This is political treachery at its worst!

So yes, we welcome our women to play a bigger role in Malaysian politics, not always subservient to the men as has always been the case.

True, we have more women politicians today with more lawmakers among them. But their role in the party is limited to heading the women wing. In cabinet posts, they are usually appointed to the less important and less significant portfolios.

The important posers are. When can we have a woman duly elected as president of a major political party? When can we have a woman chief minister or menteri besar? Do we need a few more generations before a woman becomes our prime minister?

Before we assign our women such heavy tasks and hold them to such high expectations, let us ask them one simple question.

To me, this is an all-important question on how a woman leader should feel and act at the most difficult moment of her high office.

When she is short, would she sell her jewellery in desperation in order to help the poor and needy? Gold and diamond rings and necklaces cannot feed the hungry. They need food.

And Barbara did just that. This is what made her special.  

Christina wrote – “During the Japanese Occupation in Sarawak, Barbara laboured selflessly to help 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.”

This proves that everything was about others, never about herself.

To a woman, jewellery is an important, valuable asset and heirloom to be passed down to usually the female members of the family – firstly, to the eldest daughter and then to the eldest granddaughter and it goes down the lineage.

I commented on the Facebook post that “Madam Barbara Mendu Bay – caring, humble, honest, selfless (always giving and expecting nothing in return) – exactly the kind of women we badly need today in Sarawak politics. But, are they any?”

After a FB friend reacted that “I would apply your comments to men in as much!”, I replied that “Men politicians are worse. 90 percent of them are self-serving”.

Barbara, born in 1900, died at a ripe old age of 86 in 1986. In her later years, she also donated a few pieces of land at Kenyalang Park in Kuching to the Anglican Church. St Faith’s Church and St Faith’s Primary School now stand proudly on Barbara’s land that she so unselfishly gave away to the Anglican community.

What a woman of great distinction and compassion Barbara was. Born an Iban and later married to a Chinese, Barbara was the rare breed of Sarawakian woman and truly one-in-a- million.

Will some of our Sarawak women stand as tall, and as generous and compassionate as Barbara Bay?

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.