She provided a place of hope, refuge and development for destitute children facing the daunting challenges of life.
Professor Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin,
Member of the Nomination Committee
Education and Community
Datin Paduka Mother A Mangalam A/P S Iyaswamy Iyer was born in Singapore on May 17, 1926. She spent her childhood living in an extended family home with her grandfather, CK Sundaram Iyer, as patriarch.
"I must say I had a privileged background as my grandfather was a landed proprietor with quite a number of houses, but he was frugal. He always had a sob story about paying bills, and that encouraged me to do something to relieve the situation, to study harder and build myself up," she says.
A contemplative person from a young age, Mother Mangalam received her education at Raffles Girls' School and the Saradhamani Girls' School in Singapore. Her life's path was set in her teenage years during World War II, as she wanted to alleviate the pain and suffering around her.
Mother Mangalam made the decision at the tender age of 19 to devote her life to God and community work.
"I was actually known to be a dreamer, and in one instance my teacher stated in my report card, 'Mangalam is a dreamer'. This characteristic of mine, made me look inside myself. I did a lot of thinking and I started to philosophise about life and death. When the war broke out, I realised what I wanted to be. I felt sorry for the war victims, and this was the thing that motivated me to get involved in social work."
In 1948, the 22 year old took a bold step to leave her family in Singapore and come to Malaya, where, upon passing her teacher training course, Mother Mangalam started teaching in Kuala Lumpur. She was posted to a Tamil school in Bangsar where the students were mostly from poor families.
She spent her time away from the classroom assisting her spiritual mentor, Swami Satyananda, in his relief work among the poor.
Swami Satyananda founded the Pure Life Society in 1949, with the aim of promoting multiracial and multireligious understanding through lectures, forums and programmes.
As a child, Mother Mangalam was inspired by her mentor's teachings and talks on religion. "I used to gasp with wonder even then, though as a child, you don't understand religion," she said. It was no surprise then that she sought his guidance as she settled upon her life's purpose.
Devotion to the Creator, and a compassion for the downtrodden which shaped the Pure Life Society led her to dedicate her life to welfare work, and she was initiated into the Pure Life Society in 1949 with the title 'Sister'. In 1985, she was bestowed the title 'Mother' by the Society.
Happy family. A recent photo of Mother Mangalam surrounded by children from the orphanage.
Purity of heart
Despite her gentle and quiet disposition, Mother Mangalam did not shy away from difficult situations. She was moved by the plight of children displaced and orphaned by the war, and wanted to start a home for them. In 1952, the first few buildings were put up for that purpose, and since then the Pure Life Society home had sheltered and nurtured over 2,000 children of all races and creeds. The home was the first non-government orphanage in the country.
In the 1960s. Children from all races and backgrounds come together at the orphanage. Many of the children who grew up under her care have gone on to become successful individuals.
Life was difficult in the early years of the Home, as Mother Mangalam and the children had modest meals as money was scarce. However, she persevered, and over time, things improved.
"My only wish is that the children that were brought up under our care develop themselves so that they will be useful to themselves and society. If it were only for themselves, I wouldn't be happy. And I must say quite a number of them are going in the way that I want them to be," she said.
Many of the children under the care of the Home have grown up to have successful careers in medicine and the civil service, among others.
In the ensuing years the Home expanded into an institution to include schools, clinics, recreational halls and vocational training facilities.
Mother Mangalam has always been a firm believer in the concept of purity, which she says is the thread that binds all people together, and can motivate a person to reach his or her full potential.
"Purity is an element present in all religions, and it doesn't mean a life with no marriage. It means the use of creative energy within us for a higher purpose, for the propagation of species and creation in other fields like music, art or scientific discoveries, for the benefit, welfare and comfort of mankind. These divine elements are often misused, all because of people's misunderstanding of this great power," she said.
Mother Mangalam also dabbles in poetry, and in 2001 a book of poems written by her called Dew Drops on A Lily Pad was published by The Pure Life Society in conjunction with her 75th birthday.
She has also written another book on the History of Kuala Lumpur Schools in Tamil and has been the editor and publisher of the Dharma Quarterly since 1961.
Mother Mangalam's belief in the power of purity extends to her idea of national unity, and how charitable and foster homes which cater to specific races do not contribute to building national unity.
"Homes have been set up separately, and this I don't agree. We never say no to anyone and if a case is worthy, we always take the child in. These children who live in a home will have to relate to a multiracial society outside. These are their growing years, and if they are going to be confined to one race or religion, they will be looking at others with hostility, and this is not good," she said.
Mother Mangalam has been widely recognised for her work among the poor and disadvantaged. She received the Kesatria Mangku Negara (KMN) by Seri Paduka Baginda Yang di- Pertuan Agong in 2003 and a Pingat Jasa Kebangsaan (PJK) from the Sultan of Selangor in 1955. She was also honoured with the Tun Fatimah Gold Medal from the National Council of Women's Organisations in 1977.
Mother Mangalam remains modest about her achievements. "My achievement? I don't know what it is really. All have contributed to the work, that's all I can say; the environment, people and the children have played a part in what has been achieved thus far. For me, the most important factor is building the right human capital to continue this work in the future, as without it, we cannot achieve anything," she said.
A recipient of the 2010 Merdeka Award in the Education and Community category, Mother Mangalam takes this latest honour in her stride. "Nothing is static in the world. What gives me real joy is being healthy enough to carry out my work," she said.
A glimpse from the past. The late Tun Fatimah Hashim, the country's first woman cabinet minister visiting the children at the orphanage, accompanied by Mother Mangalam.
Mother Mangalam has been a 'mother' to multi-ethnic orphaned children throughout the years, and is a testimony that a life dedicated to serving others can bring fulfilment and joy.
Her selflessness, spirit and lifetime of dedication to the less fortunate personifies the Spirit of Merdeka.
"… for it is in peace and tranquillity that a Nation can progress …"
Excerpt from Dew Drops on A Lily Pad