Dato' Sri Tra Zehnder passed away on Friday, July 22, 2011, ten days after the launching of her biography on Wednesday, July 12. She is mourned by six children, 17 grandchildren, and four great grandchildren.
Tra was born in Miri on October 25, 1926, and was brought up in Kuching where she lived most of her life. Her father, Inting Jemat, and mother, Sara Unang, were both Iban from what is now the Sri Aman Division. At the tender age of seven she lost her mother, and at 14, her father. During the Japanese Occupation her maternal grandmother took her to live in a longhouse in the Batang Ai area. Not having been to a longhouse before, the 15-year old girl loathed her sojourn there, had to be moved, and so stayed with the family of a well-known Iban police officer, John Nichol Kassim, in the town of Simanggang. There she remained until the end of the Japanese Occupation.
Her father, a well-known non-commissioned police officer during the reign of Rajah Vyner Brooke, enrolled Tra in St. Mary's School, Kuching. There, she ran into trouble with school rules against fighting bullies to assert the dignity of Dayak students, especially female students. She cultivated the friendship of Mary Ong, granddaughter of the famous Ong Tiang Swee. Mary used to get one dollar as daily pocket money from her father, half of which she gave to Tra. Tra used the 50 cents to buy lunch for her poor Dayak compatriots in the school, an early sign of her mediating between the haves and have-nots.
She married an Anglo-Burmese Eurasian colonial officer, Leslie Ptolemy Zehnder, in February 1947. Her husband was a grandson of the famous Swiss-German Anglican missionary, John Louis Zehnder, who served for many years in Lundu. Tra's marriage placed her in Kuching high society of the time, a position not many women, least of all, Dayak women, were able to enjoy. It was from this advantaged status that she fought for equality for women and dignity for the Dayaks. Her husband, Leslie Zehnder, died in 1978 at the age of 69.
Tra was a founding member of Sarakup Indu Dayak (SIDS), or the Dayak Women's Association, and held various posts including that of President. Later, she became the group's Advisor, a position she held until the time of her death. She was also a founding member of the Sarawak Dayak National Union (SDNU), where she held the post of Vice-President from 1981 to 1990. In both organizations she played active roles. The leadership qualities she displayed in these two organizations caught the eye of F. D. Jakeway, the colonial Chief Secretary of Sarawak, and paved the way for her appointment as the first woman member of the highest law-making body in Sarawak, the State Legislative Council, known then as the Council Negeri. In the Council Negeri she spoke against injustice and the oppression of the weak, especially women and the Dayak community. She fought hard to get the postcards of...
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