It has been decades since she left her profession as a driving instructor but Hajah Baidah Hj. Salleh has not changed much.

At 78, she is still bubbly, friendly and easy going. Dressed in her typical baggy baju kurung and pale coloured head covering and looking fit, she seems to be basking in her sunset years and she drives like a woman half her age. She loves the freedom and is grateful for the blessing of health in her life. “As long as I can still walk, I can’t imagine myself depending on others to drive me every time I want to go somewhere, meet friends or run errands,” she quips.

She recalls with pride the days when she was a driving instructor and how she was the first Malay woman to take up the job along with a couple of Chinese ladies. It was her younger brother who encouraged her to apply for the post, seeing that she had ‘such extraordinary courage’ whenever she was behind the wheel. She was a fast driver who used to scare her driving instructor out of his wits for speeding up at certain places when she was still a learner. She remembered him exclaiming, “Just drop me here…. no need to go for the test!” She passed the driving test without much difficulty.

According to Baidah it was not easy for her to qualify as a driving instructor considering she only studied up to primary two at a local Malay school. Apart from limited vacancies, the applicant had to pass the theory and practical tests. Having passed the tests in 1976, she became the first Malay woman to be a driving instructor. To help her start the ball rolling, her brother bought her a car, which was a second hand white Datsun for the driving lessons.

The tomboy in her stood her well in facing the tough nature of the job. She remembers having tattooed Chinese men as her students and these men, according to her, were gangsters because “they liked to fight.” Despite their outward appearance, Baidah was unafraid and took them in. “But they were nice to me,” she recalls. “Men were easier to teach than the ladies. Most lady learners were so nervous about driving that some of them had to repeat the test up to three times.” she says. As a result, she had to find ways to help them relax. She would play catchy tunes on the cassette player or bring them to quiet roads where there were not many cars.

One of her students, Hapaline Lonsa who was an Immigration officer then, and now a television producer, still has vivid memories of her driving instructor. “She really had to put up with me because I was such a lousy driver especially when it came to ‘L’ parking,” she recalls. Determined to see her pass her first test, Baidah gave her extra classes without extra cost. Despite all the efforts, Hapaline did not show any improvement to such an extent that it behoved Baidah to use a cane on her! “It was just a very slight stroke,” says Hapaline.

Seemingly, the cane did not work. There was one incident where she was almost knocked by her student. “It was close to my test,” Hapaline continues, “and I couldn’t do the ‘L’ parking after trying many times. I believed she was getting a bit annoyed because she shouted at me. I panicked and instead of pressing the clutch and the brake gently, I pressed the accelerator so hard that she jumped to the side for safety! On the day of the test, she came early to pick me up. Bringing a bottle of water with her, she asked me to drink it. She told me that it would help to calm me down.”

As Baidah looks back to those memorable years, she feels as if they only happened yesterday. She had wished she could bend back and touch those happy times. However, one thing is certain – you can be rest assured of a safe journey when she is behind the wheel!

Christina Thomas-Mamora is an award winning writer who has written numerous articles on women in the local media and more recently a book entitled ‘Women who Inspire.

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