Time magazine, in 1948, referred to her as the “Edith of Malaya”
after Edith Cavell, a British nurse who was executed by a firing squad
for aiding the escape of allied soldiers during World War 1. Sybil and her husband, Dr Abdon Clement Kathigasu, operated a clinic
in the small town of Papan, on the outskirts of Ipoh, Perak, where they
covertly supplied medicine, and provided medical services and refuge to
resistance fighters for years until their capture in 1943.
“There is no need to hire external consultants; it has the resources
to do so in the Curriculum Development Division and it can always run
them through experts such as Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim
for an assessment,” said the National Union of the Teaching Profession
executive council member.
The couple also surreptitiously shared information gleaned from BBC broadcasts on banned shortwave radio sets. Sybil’s lips were sealed even when Japanese soldiers hung her
7-year-old daughter, Dawn, from a tree with her hands bound and a rope
tied around her chest with burning coal placed under her.
But Google’s doodle on Sybil might be the only highlight of what she
is remembered for, as the history syllabus in public schools continued
to remain oblivious to her contributions nearly 70 years after her
death. The National Professors Council’s head of the history, heritage and
socio-culture cluster Professor Datuk Dr Teo Kok Seong said it was high
time that History textbooks were reviewed to include Sybil.
He said the review could be easily done by researching her memoir, No Dram of Mercy, as part of the five-yearly schedule for updates and it would not take much time or funds. “It’s a shame that she is not mentioned in textbooks. “(The late) Sybil’s contribution is big and the least she deserves is an unvarnished account of her deeds.”
“Sybil is also one of the many unsung heroes of our history. There
are also underrated figures, such as Yap Ah Loy, who is widely regarded
by many as one of the founding fathers of Kuala Lumpur, but is barely
mentioned beyond a paragraph in textbooks,” added Teo. He said Sybil, being a woman of minority descent, could also become
the poster girl to push for a more balanced representation of all races
in the Malaysian historical narrative.
“The Education Ministry should strive to strike a better balance in the representation
of minorities by doing a review. “It will also bring change to the historical narrative,” said Teo. He further said the review should be done within the 1Malaysia framework to serve as an impetus to engineer social change. Teo said history advocates could also open up social media for
discussions on the subject, using it as a platform to pitch who students
should learn about.
“Malaysians can put up petitions and vote for icons like Sybil to be
included and suggest names. Political will can also swing in favour of
causes like these if there are strong social media campaigns,” he added. Parent Action Group for Education chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul
Rahim said the “democratic” review would be a vital step in making the
subject less snooze-worthy.
She said people would be excitedly debating and pitching ideas on
figures and events they felt the next generation needed to know about. “Frankly I think all students have had an overdose of Para-meswara
and the old Malay sultanate,” said Azimah, referring to the founder of
Melaka. “History is not dead or stagnant. The fact that they can review
Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics means that they should
be doing it for this subject.”
“(In this case), acknowledging Sybil in the syllabus sends a good
message to students that credit will be given where it’s due in Malaysia
and that all races helped build the nation,” she added. Azimah said honouring Sybil by including her in the books would also
mark a milestone for women as they were largely sidelined in historical
accounts on the country’s struggle for independence.
She said alongside Sybil, there were many icons, such as Tan Sri P.
Ramlee and Genting founder Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong, and issues, such as
mass murders during World War 2 and concentration camps run by the
Japanese, that deserved to be documented in textbooks. Badan Warisan Malaysia president Elizabeth Cardosa said Sybil’s
fortitude against the circumstances of the Japanese Occupation, her
subsequent incarceration and torture should be recounted on every
“There should be no excuse of not having enough information to include Sybil in the annals of Malaysian history,” she said. She added that documentation available included Sybil’s memoir and
oral histories. Her old shophouse in Papan, which is now a museum
dedicated to her, also served as a valuable resource. “The question of its inclusion in our national history is one of how it fits into the official national historical narrative.”
Former history teacher Chan Cheng Huat said while the final say on
including historical figures in the syllabus rested with the Education
Ministry, social media campaigns could tip the scales. “If the campaign works, then the whole syllabus should be reviewed
after weighing the contributions of Sybil or anyone society feels