How 3 Malaysian Women Continued Their Success As They Grow Older

The Infamous Quote, Inspiration For Many Women

By Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh

Hot on the heels of Michelle Yeoh’s success as the first Asian to win the Academy Award for best actress – at the age of 60 no less  (just wow!) –  we interviewed three Malaysian women who, like Michelle, continue to find success later in life.

Michelle had already carved her name in Hong Kong, but when the movie industry there slowed down, she brought her career to Hollywood and achieved a comeback.  

All three women in this article have made it in their own right.

In a world that glorifies older men but mostly puts down older women, these women deserve applause for their grit and tenacity in flipping the script and charting their own paths to victory.

Here are their stories.

Malaysia’s #1 soul diva, Poovaa, 43

Poovaa participated in Asian Dream

Poovanesvary Sri Rama, or Poovaa as she is officially known, may not have won AXN channel’s 2020 show Asian Dream which pitted six contestants for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour with Michael Bolton, but that experience has only made her determined to keep chasing for success.

“It was my first experience being on a reality show and I learnt a lot about TV production and being on set,” Poovaa said.

“It was great to meet one of my idols Michael Bolton who gave me some great advice. But the thing that really hit me, which everyone knows is that reality TV is really “unreality TV”. All these “reality” shows are scripted, and the producers fix the storylines and guide the contestants in the direction they want in order to make the show exciting.”

She was voted out despite giving a great performance on her last episode, a disappointment not only for her but many of the show’s viewers.

Bolton, along with fellow judges Morissette Amon and Jannine Weigel had praised Poovaa’s vocals but said she “lacked growth and emotional vulnerability”.

“Being a soul singer, we’re emotionally vulnerable,” Poovaa said.

“But this goes back to what I just said about reality shows being fixed in order to make the show more dramatic. The lack of growth was because they wanted someone younger to mould. After all, I was already an award-winning singer with a strong career path. I started my professional career at 29.”

That strong career path includes, of course, winning the Best New Artiste title at the 2014 Anugerah Industri Muzik (AIM) and representing Malaysia at the Hong Kong Asian-Pop Music Festival in 2015.

Despite the strong musical roots in her family — Poovaa’s great-grandfather was an Indian classical musician in Malaya — she said she wasn’t encouraged to pursue a musical career.

Previously, she worked as an account manager for a media company.

However, one-day Poovaa decided to go for her dreams and pursue a musical career after all.

Her husband (now ex), whom she still considers a good friend, supported her and told her to go for her dreams. Motivated by his support, Poovaa moved out to focus on her music.

Despite starting out a bit later than most artists, Poovaa said she has never experienced ageism.

“Maybe it’s because I look a lot younger than my age? But for independent local music artists in Malaysia, it’s always difficult because there’s hardly any support either from the industry or the public. And this is something I want to change in the coming years.”

In fact, Poovaa considers age as a motivation and not a loss.

“I’m glad I started later because I have more experience, more stories to tell and better songwriting skills. Plus I can make my own decisions without being taken advantage of, which is a major problem with young music stars.”

Not deterred from her Asian Dream experience, Poova is planning a lot of things. “I recently launched a new website that is promoting me to new audiences both locally and internationally.” 

“I have more singles I want to produce, and we’re working on a concert for later in the year,” she added.

“Basically, I’m using 2023 to lay the foundations for a successful 2024 and beyond which will include more performances at international music festivals and tours across Asia, Australia and further. Now that the pandemic is over we are going full throttle in pushing out the Poovaa brand.”

What is her advice to women who feel they have passed their prime after a certain age?

“When I watched Aretha Franklin playing the piano and performing in 2020 at the age of 78, I had tears in my eyes and was so inspired to watch how graceful and energetic her performance was,” Poova said.

“I realised that age has nothing to do with how good you are as a singer and that with age you become a timeless legend, and that is the artiste I inspire to be — timeless and rock n roll.”

Housewife, businesswoman and author extraordinaire, Marhaini Mustaffa, soon to be 50

Marhaini with her daughter, Marisa. Photo credits to Caring For Marisa IG

Last year, Marhaini Mustaffa was quoted in the media saying “I would consider myself a late bloomer. For me, starting the business was a rallying cry for housewives and women to know they always have the opportunity to start their own business or learn new things to be independent.”

That business is Just Mars, which Marhani humbly describes as a small venture selling handcrafted batik goods, with each product being “as unique as the person using or wearing it.”

She started the business while taking care of Marisa a few years ago, the daughter she lost to an inoperable brain tumour.

“I was motivated to start the business as it was a means of not ‘losing’ myself while being a caregiver and a mother,” Marhaini said. 

“It gave me the means to have a business of my own, to be independent, to keep going and to know that I am able to do something for myself while taking care of Marisa and my family.”

So deep was Marhaini’s devotion to her daughter that she said: “Taking care of Marisa is the most profound, life-changing experience for me. It has shifted my perspective and set priorities in life. It made me realise the importance of motherhood, loving oneself and trying to keep a balance of it all.”

“When Marisa passed, I questioned whether I wanted to continue doing so,” Marhaini said, referring to her business. 

“After much thought, I realised it would be continuing what we started together and it would enable me to move forward in life.”

Marhaini has also written a book called Caring for Marisa: A Memoir of Grief & Healing.

So what is her definition of a late bloomer?

“That is a very subjective question but I believe as long as we’re willing, able and capable we must do and live life to its fullest,” Marhaini said. “It’s never too late to do anything or to try anything you’ve always wanted to do. We must all have hope and dreams irrespective of one’s age. It’s also important to be proud and unashamed to do what you feel you need to do.”

“I am still a housewife,” Marhaini, who is a mother to a few children at the end of the day, said.

“That is a result of losing a child which made me realise the importance of family.”

At the end of our interview, Marhaini said, “The best years are what we make of them.  There is always a path. Some paths may be harder than others but importantly never give up on yourself and think there’s nothing you can do.”

Maritime-lawyer-turned-writer, Heidi Shamsuddin, 50

Heidi with her book, Nusantara: A Sea of Tales

After growing up in Petaling Jaya and Seattle, Heidi Shamsuddin spent many years in the legal field, and then at age 39 became a writer. 

“I studied law and trained as a barrister and solicitor in the UK,” Heidi said.

“In fact, I worked for many years as a maritime lawyer in London, but once my family returned to Malaysia I decided to take a break since I had two young children to raise at the time. I was always open to going back to maritime law as I enjoyed doing litigation work. However, I suppose I got side-tracked by my love of writing, which is probably why I’m still doing it today.”

Her first book was published in 2012 when she was 39.

“I am a full-time writer and this encompasses many things including writing and editing, not just books, but also picture books, screenplays, academic articles and others. I also give talks about writing in general and more specifically, the folklore of Southeast Asia which is my specialist subject. Last year, I was the keynote speaker at the IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People) Conference in Putrajaya and I was also invited to perform two of my stories with Orkestra Sri Temasek at the Singapore Writers Festival. In my spare time, I run a YouTube channel dedicated to promoting our local and Southeast Asian folktales.”

So illustrious is her literary career that her books and short stories have been published by Penguin, Oyez Books, Fixi, MPH and Oxford University Press.

In 2012, Heidi won the regional prize for the Eye Level Children’s Literature Award, and in 2017 she won the IPCC Award to produce a short animated film based on her story, Batik Girl.

Her recent book, Nusantara: A Sea of Tales published by Penguin Random House SEA contains the most comprehensive collection of folklore from around the Southeast Asian region.

Heidi’s upbringing plays a huge role in the person she is today.

She said: “Our mum stayed at home and was the ultimate mother figure to us. Basically, she really focused on her children and took care of us to the best of her abilities. Growing up, I was a bit jealous of my friend’s mothers who worked because they seem so much more interesting, but now that I’m a mother, I can really appreciate and be thankful for the stability and love that my mother gave to us and I suppose this has had an effect on how I bring up my own children. My decision to take a break from the law so that I can raise my children probably stems from that, and indirectly led me to a writing career since this is something I could do from home and in my own time.”

Heidi said it was not a smooth transition from being a legal practitioner to a writer, “At first, it was strange to make the transition from writing legal documents to writing fiction. However, the more I wrote, the more I found my own style and voice. I really enjoyed the creativity involved in writing fiction and putting a book together. At first, I just wanted to try writing a story and I told myself that if that didn’t work out, I could always go back to law. At the time, I discovered that there was a children’s writing competition sponsored by the Eye Level Children’s Literature Award so I went for it and to my delight, I won the regional prize for my short story, Johan the Bee Hunter. That’s when I knew that I wanted to become a full-time writer and to really master the craft of writing.”

Just like Poovaa, Heidi said she has not experienced ageism.

“I have not personally experienced ageism in my line of work probably because there are so many older writers in this country,” Heidi said.

“I don’t feel threatened by younger writers and in fact, I welcome people of all ages to enter this field as it will enrich the literary scene in Malaysia. It feels wonderful to grow old in Malaysia. I grew up in Malaysia but lived abroad for many years. So to be able to spend my senior years in my country of birth feels extremely comforting. I now live just down the road from where I grew up as a child, and I love the sense of familiarity when I drive past the same roads I used as a child.”

Heidi has several projects up her sleeve, including currently collecting more folktales to be included in a second volume to her last book Nusantara: A Sea of Tale.

Heidi embraces growing older.

“I spent my 50th birthday recovering from a midtarsal foot fusion surgery. I decided to finally deal with the pain in my foot so that I could face my fifties with a new lease on life. After being unable to walk for seven weeks, I am really looking forward to my fifties. I’m looking forward to getting stronger, and healthier, being free of pain, writing more books and creating interesting and new content. Unfortunately, a few of my friends and family have already passed on at a younger age so I know that it is truly a privilege to be able to grow old. I’m looking forward to it.”

Heidi has this firm-yet-loving advice to women who feel like they have passed their prime: “Think hard about what is truly important in your life. For most people, it will probably be something like spending time with family and friends, health and financial security. For me, this list included leaving a literary legacy. For others, it might include things like travel or starting a business. You’ll be surprised to find that this list will be extremely short. Once you’ve figured out what is truly important to you, then you can really focus on the things that matter and let go of the rest. I find that this exercise helps me hone in on what I really want and as result, I spend my limited time and resources on the things that really give me joy and purpose.”

“It’s not too late and you are never past your prime.”

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