Have you ever met someone, got to know them and thought to yourself, “This is who I want to be when I’m older”?
Dr Selvamalar Ayadurai is that someone to me. The more I got to know her, the more I was blown away by all the amazing feats she has achieved.
There was one particular aspect about Dr Malar (as she’s fondly known) that made me realise she was in a league of her own. This aspect was her relative anonymity. As you’ll soon find out, Dr Malar has dedicated her life to uplifting marginalised women, but her name is rarely splashed across newspapers and media platforms.
Dr Malar is always working behind the scenes, silently driving the movement this world desperately needs. And she’s nowhere close to being done.
When it was suggested that I interview Dr Malar for a feature, I jumped at the opportunity. I certainly wanted to write her story but I truly wanted to have a conversation with her about this inspiring life she has led.
Despite her busy schedule as a Strategy Executor and Senior Lecturer at BAC Education, she graciously agreed and we spent almost 45 minutes in a meeting room, rehashing her life.
The Early Days
Dr Malar was born and raised in Ipoh, where she also attended a Convent school. Upon completing Form 5, she wanted to continue her studies but was unable to.
Financial constraints prevented her from pursuing her studies overseas, where most of her friends were headed.
“I wanted to study medicine, you see. But my dad told me to wait for both my elder brothers to complete their education before I continued with mine. So, in the meantime, I applied for teacher’s training,” Dr Malar reminisced thoughtfully.
As she was in the process of applying, her father got her a job as a clerk at the State Treasury of Perak.
Just as her brothers returned, Dr Malar’s father passed away after a nine-month long battle with throat cancer. She was distraught, and continuing her studies was the last thing on her mind.
At 23, Dr Malar was introduced to her husband, a dental surgeon who had recently returned from India.
“I very reluctantly agreed to the marriage, well, because I didn’t want to get married. I wanted to study medicine!” she chuckled, her eyes distant as she recounted her past.
Fast forward 2-3 years and Dr Malar married the dental surgeon. She was then transferred to the Jalan Duta Treasury in KL. “I had my sons soon after,” she beamed.
But Dr Malar still felt like something was amiss and she decided it was finally time to continue her studies.
She completed the Chartered Institute of Marketing at ATC and went on to complete her MBA externally with the University of Bath. She then pursued her PhD in Political Science, majoring in Corporate Entrepreneurship.
The NGO lead did all this whilst raising her three sons and working full time.
Dr Malar completed her PhD under the guidance of Professor Ramasamy (currently the Deputy Chief Minister of Penang). In 2003, Professor Ramasamy, a political advisor at that time, invited her to join him in Sri Lanka during a ceasefire period of the civil war.
“My roots are in Sri Lanka. My father was in fact an economic migrant and I had always wanted to visit,” Dr Malar explained.
Sri Lanka, TECH Outreach and Beyond
“When I reached Sri Lanka, Professor Ramasamy told me to figure out how I’d like to contribute. So, I went on a fact-finding mission,” Dr Malar said, a hint of determination in her voice as she narrated.
She met countless women who were affected by war and realised that there was a big need for more structured and sustainable aid. Dr Malar knew that charity was not going to cut it and the women needed a lasting solution.
At that time, she was also an understudy to Professor Muhammad Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. She learnt the Grameen microcredit financing scheme and realised it could be the solution she was looking for to sustainably rebuild these women’s lives.
Through this scheme, the women could be provided with small loans to start businesses. They would then repay these loans and all this money would be put into a revolving fund to aid more women.
The idea was brilliant. Dr Malar immediately introduced it in Sri Lanka for the women who were still trying to stay afloat during the ceasefire, having lost their husbands, brothers, and families to the war.
Dr Malar moved back and forth between Malaysia and Sri Lanka from 2003 to 2006. During this time, she was also appointed as an Entrepreneurship Consultant by the UNDP, where she continued to work with women situated in war-torn parts of Sri Lanka, empowering them and rebuilding their livelihoods.
Her friends and family back home repeatedly asked her to start an NGO in Malaysia. They explained how the women here needed her help too.
“I was afraid! Starting an NGO meant lots of responsibilities and I did not know if I had the competencies. But no one else was doing it at the time and there was a great need that required fulfilling. So, in 2004, I decided to start TECH Outreach,” Dr Malar said, in a blasé tone, as if she hadn’t galvanised a movement beyond her time.
I began to realise that humility was at the core of Dr Malar’s intricate identity.
In 2009, Dr Malar was approached by the UNHCR to work with 5 refugee communities in Malaysia – the Rohingya, Somalis, Afghans, Myanmar-Muslims and Sri Lankan Tamils.
TECH Outreach was given a four-year grant (2009 – 2012) and during this period, Dr Malar replicated the microcredit financing scheme for these refugee communities and they flourished with businesses of their own.
Dr Malar had a specific purpose for TECH Outreach – to go into locations that others do not usually consider. She wanted their impact to reach the most obscure parts of the world, where the forgotten lived.
“Take Nepal for example. Most aid is delivered to people living in Kathmandu. So, we decided to go to Sindhuli, a district located 5 hours away from the capital. The women there were affected by the Maoist war.”
The journey to Sindhuli is not an easy one, with big rivers to cross. Instead of feeling deterred, Dr Malar told her team “places like that are exactly where we need to go”
“Our work continues up until today in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Malaysia,” Dr Malar concluded, smiling in satisfaction, no doubt thinking about TECH Outreach’s uninhibited impact.
However, Dr Malar no longer spearheads these projects, having passed on the baton to other capable women. The NGO has evolved to become two separate entities – Women of Will (WOW) focusing on B40 women in Malaysia, and TECH Outreach which continues to focus on Sri Lanka and Nepal, and some work in Malaysia.
Experiences With Women From All Over
When I asked Dr Malar what it was like working with these women, she turned thoughtful – taking a moment to phrase her answer.
“I can’t really find the words. The realisation sort of hits you – that you can actually make a difference in their lives. Because all these women, whether Malaysian, Sri Lankan or Nepalese – they’re convinced that they can’t make it in business but they lack the capabilities and are filled with low self-esteem due to their troubling pasts,” the TECH Outreach founder explains, with an edge of sadness.
Tears clouding her voice, she continues, “You have to be really patient and spend lots of time with them. It’s incredibly meaningful because you are helping someone who really needs it, and more importantly, you’re providing attention to a person who has been left at the margins for too long.”
When the women she works with express self-doubt, Dr Malar immediately expels it, encouraging them to find their nichè.
TECH Outreach conducts classes for these women to provide them with additional skills and enhance their self-confidence.
Dr Malar has observed an incredible impact as a result of their work – the women are able to fund their children’s education, put food on the table and can even afford to buy things for their kids.
“Looking back, thank God I didn’t do medicine!” the social outreach expert joked.
When sharing a few experiences that were particularly close to her heart, Dr Malar spoke of her time working with the Myanmar-Muslim and Rohingya refugees in Malaysia.
In slight frustration, she divulged how due to prevalent stigmas and labels, these refugees stopped themselves from venturing out. Their lack of legal status only made things worse. However, Dr Malar tried her best to encourage them to start home businesses and it worked.
“These refugee women, who belong to the B20 category, need lots of trust, confidence, cajoling and motivation, and if you give them this, they will become who they can be,” Dr Malar earnestly said.
“And when the refugee women finally made it, they became so happy! Even now, when I think of the Myanmar-Muslims and the Rohingyas, I can only remember all the fun we had and how they were so cheeky with me,” she continued with a grin, joy filling her eyes.
In wrapping up my questions, I asked Dr Malar if she had anything to say to young women who are constantly doubting their capabilities.
With unadulterated passion, Dr Malar answered my question with this monologue:
“Women are the most amazing creation because they can do anything. Regardless of race, class, nationality, ethnicity – women are strong, powerful, independent, and empowering. The only hurdle in the way is their concern about societal expectations.
“Although we’ve come a long way, we still hear things like ‘You’re married with kids, you can’t go study’ or ‘You’re a girl, you can’t take IT’ or ‘Women don’t fly planes.’ And these comments give rise to self-doubt amongst women and young girls. So, they need to stay strong and rise above these remarks.
“And if women can do that, they’ve already won the war.”
This conversation with Dr Malar exceeded my expectations. She was empowering, motivating, enchanting and uninhibited. She spoke her mind and wore her heart on her sleeve.
Dr Malar understands more than anyone else that women do not need to be coddled, they need to be empowered. And that is exactly what she has been doing all her life. Throughout her journey, she never discriminated. Her willingness to help knew no bounds and I’m sure thousands of women owe their livelihoods to Dr Malar and her encouraging hand.
I’m not sure if it will ever be possible to live up to her incredible work but after our conversation, I’m more certain than ever that “this is who I want to be when I’m older.”