REMEMBERING BETTY BENSON
11 September 1937 to 29 September 2022
We received the news of the passing of Beatrice (Betty) Benson, devoted steadfast handmaiden of Bahá’u’lláh, with much sorrow. Her tireless labors to advance the Cause of God, distinguished by her service as a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors in Australasia for two decades, of your National Assembly, and of the Auxiliary Board for Propagation in Australia, are remembered with great fondness and appreciation. May the memory of her selfless dedication as a teacher of the Faith continue to inspire and encourage all those who knew her. To her children and other family members we extend our heartfelt condolences and assure them of our fervent prayers at the Sacred Threshold for the progress of her radiant soul, now joyously reunited with her husband, Richard, in the heavenly kingdom. We advise you to hold a memorial gathering in her honor and, by copy of this message, call upon the National Spiritual Assembly of Samoa to arrange a memorial service in the Bahá’í House of Worship in Apia, as circumstances permit.
– The Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Mariana Islands dated 30 September 2022
Beatrice Benson better known as Betty Fernandez in her early life was one of the handmaidens created by the wondrous hands of Bahá’u’lláh and occupies a peerless and unparalleled place in the history of the Faith in Malaysia and the several countries where she served the Faith with such a devotion and commitment, leaving behind indelible traces for all generations to admire and to emulate. Born in Kuala Lumpur, the federal capital of Malaysia as the daughter of the late Anthony John and Margaret Grey Monteiro. She obtained her teaching degree from the prestigious Teacher Training College Kirkby, Liverpool in the United Kingdom in 1957. She returned to Malaysia and started her first teaching post in the government school in the town of Jasin, state of Malacca in January 1958. It was through mysterious circumstances that she accepted the Faith in that town that boasts of many historical events for the Faith. Mr. Leong Ho Chiew, a high-ranking police officer, Mr. Anthony Louis, a Technical Assistant with the Public Works Department and Tushar Kanti-Paul, a teacher at a Jasin Government School were carrying out aggressive teaching activities in Jasin when Betty arrived there. They introduced themselves to Betty who said she was looking for the local teachers’ quarters where she would be staying and further mentioned that she wanted to get to know more of the local people. The three replied quickly that the best way of getting to know the local people was to attend a ‘fireside’ at Leong Ho Chiew’s police quarters. When Betty joined the service as a teacher in the same school where Tushar Kanti-Paul was also teaching, and the latter introduced her the Faith first. Betty, a staunch Roman Catholic attended two firesides at the police quarters of Leong Ho Chiew. All she wanted was conclusive proofs that Bahá’u’lláh was the return of Christ. Initially she entered into a lot of arguments with Mr. Eustace Anthony Fernandez, affectionately called Tony Fernandez, a believer from a Catholic background and a Deputy Police Officer of Jasin District. She kept discussing the Faith with other elders from Malacca town such as Leong Tat Chee and G. Saurajen, the first believer of that town when they visited Jasin. A great help came from Miss Jeanne Frankel, an American pioneer and the Knight of Bahá’u’lláh from Nicobar Islands who stopped over in Penang in October 1957 and visited Malacca for the Summer School in December that year while waiting for her next posting to Cocos Keeling Islands. Jeanne was able to provide satisfying answers to all doubts that Betty had harboured in her heart. Betty got hold of all the Bahá’í literature available and became an avid reader, through which she understood so well the truth of the Mission of Bahá’u’lláh.
Finally, she accepted the Faith on 26 April 1958, and that was the beginning of a new chapter in her life which was a great blessing for the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh as well on account of the indelible services she rendered in several parts of the world till her passing. Betty came into the Faith when very few women were in the forefront of activities. She was one of those few ladies in the then Malaya who had a meteoric rise in serving the Cause and set example for several other ladies to emulate.
Betty was one of those fortunate who attended the Intercontinental Conference held in Singapore in 1958 where she was privileged to meet nine Hands of the Cause of God including Mr. Leroy C. Ioas, Mr. Tarázu’lláh Samandarí, Mr. Abu’l-Qásim Faizi, Mr. Harold Collis Featherstone, Dr. Raḥmatu’lláh Muhájir, Miss Agnes Baldwin Alexander, Mr. Shu’á’u’lláh `Alá’í, Dr. `Alí-Muhammad Varqá and Mr. Enoch Olinga, with some of whom she had continuous association in later years.
In late 1958 Tony Fernandez and Betty transferred to Malacca town where Betty taught at the Saint Francis Xavier School, the largest Catholic educational institution in the town, while Tony Fernandez served as the Chief Traffic Officer. Betty married Tony Fernandez on 5 October 1958 in Malacca, and that became the first Bahá’í wedding of the then Malaya. The wedding received opposition from the Catholic community in Malacca with the priests attacking the would be couple from the pulpits of the churches, but nothing could shake their firmness in the Cause as by this time they were as strong as the Rock of Gibraltar. This wedding brought the biggest publicity ever for the Faith with those highest in authority attending their reception, and with local newspapers flashing the news with photographs, only to silence the opponents forever. As the wedding was held immediately after the Intercontinental Conference in Singapore, two hands of the Cause – Mr. A. Q. Faizi and Miss Agnes Alexander attended their wedding, along with many other participants of that conference.
First Bahá’í wedding of Malaya. To the right of Betty is Hand of the Cause of God Mr. A. Q. Faizi, and to the left of Tony is Hand of the Cause of God Miss Agnes Alexander
The couple served the Faith in Malacca with great zeal and enthusiasm, including service on the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Malacca from 1959 to 1963 until their transfer to Bagan Serai town in the state of Perak, at the end of 1963.
It has to be mentioned that from the time of acceptance of the Cause, Betty was an active participant of several Bahá’í gatherings such as teaching conferences, summer, and winter schools, which she never missed, and she was a principal speaker on many of these functions. She had the privilege of meeting several Hands of the Cause who came to Malaysia while she lived there. Throughout her stay in Malaysia, she had the privilege of meeting all the Hands who came to the country such as Mr. Shu‘á‘u’lláh ‘Alá’í in January 1960 in Malacca town and met Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum in her visit to Port Dickson in 1961 and again at the First National Convention in 1964. Some Hands whom she met when they made repeated visits to this country were Mr. Collis Featherstone, Mr. A. Q. Faizi, and Dr. Muhájir.
Lunchtime with at the First Pan Malayan Teaching Conference at Happy Land hotel, Malacca in 1960. Betty at left is seated beside Mrs. Írán Muhájir. Dr. Muhájir is at right with his back to the camera
Campfire at the Sunshine Camp in Port Dickson during the visit by Hand of the Cause of God Rúhíyyih Khánum in 1961. Seated second from left on the canvas spread on the floor is Betty, with Lily Jansz of Penang to her left. At the extreme right is Mrs. Lily Chinniah, with Rúhíyyih Khánum to her right. The three ladies seated on chairs at the back of Betty are L-R: Mrs. Theresa Chee, Mrs. Shirin Fozdar, and Jessie Revell, Treasurer of the International Bahá’í Council
Betty, coming into the Faith at a time when much manpower was needed for propelling the Faith into greater heights, also was selected to serve on several committees from the time she accepted the Faith. The early years in Malacca town were very busy years for Betty. In 1960, she was appointed to serve on the Pan-Malayan Teaching Conference Committee, a precursor to the National Teaching Committee, with its base in Malacca town and was an active participant of the two conferences organized by the Committee in Malacca – the First Pan-Malayan Teaching Conference held on 8 May 1960 at Happyland Hotel in Klebang Kechil, Malacca, and graced by Dr. Muhájir. On the suggestion of the Hand of the Cause at this conference Betty was appointed on the Teaching Planning Committee that was formed at the conference. On 11 February 1961, a special gathering was held for the believers to meet up with Hands of the Cause by Dr. Muhájir and Mr. Tarázu’lláh Samandarí who came to Malacca. On 12 February 1961, the Third Pan-Malayan Teaching Conference was held at the Happyland Hotel in Malacca and graced by Dr. Muhájir in which Betty was an active participant. On 13 February 1961, Betty participated in a special Get-Together arranged for the believers to meet Mr. Samandarí.
Summer School of 1960, Port Dickson. Mrs. Leong Tat Chee – third from left; Betty, fourth from left; Mrs. Shantha Sundram, fifth from left. At the extreme right is Miss Koh Ai Leen, with Mrs. Lily Chinniah to her right.
In 1962, Betty headed the Naw-Rúz Sub-Committee in Malacca town and was the chairperson of the Naw-Rúz celebrations of that year, which was the grandest in the country to date, attended by some 150 friends. Her organizational skills came to the attention of everyone who placed accolades on this maidservant for a wonderful job done.
Betty had a passionate liking for field teaching. She singly or by joining others had undertaken many teaching trips to new areas from 1960 including the towns of Muar, Johor Bahru, and Kluang in the state of Johor; Mersing town in the state of Pahang, Tampin in the state of Negeri Sembilan and later Butterworth in the north. Betty was a natural choice to serve on the Women Affairs Sub-Committee when the National Teaching Committee of the Federation Malaya and Singapore was formed in 1963.
Thus, her stay in Malacca from 1958 to 1963 laid strong foundation for her in that she was inspired by several Hands of the Cause, appointed to serve on various committees, became a dedicated field worker, served on the Local Spiritual Assembly, and proved to be a good organizer of events. Throughout her stay in Malacca town, Betty was viewed as one of the most outstanding maidservants, with matchless dynamism and a strong driving force in serving the Cause.
Local Spiritual Assembly of Malacca, 1963. Seated L-R: Leong Tat Chee, Daisy Das, Betty, Chiang Kim Lin and Tony Fernandez. Standing L-R: S. Vasudevan, Tushar Kanti-Paul, Raymond Peter, and S. Bhaskaran
In the later part of 1963 Betty and Tony Fernandez moved to Bagan Serai, a town in the state of Perak, much to the sorrow of many in Malacca state. Tony Fernandez was the Officer-in-Charge of Police Department in the District of Krian, while Betty was a teacher at the government English Secondary School. It was a blessing as Bagan Serai was a small community before 1963, and with their transfer the community was activated with the formation of a Local Spiritual Assembly in 1965 and initiated several activities. In the same year Mr. Maniam Muthiah, a travel teacher to Sarawak returned to West Malaysia and stayed in the police quarters of Tony and involved actively in local teaching. Some of Betty’s students in her school too accepted the Faith and became the strongest of believers. The spacious police quarters of Tony Fernandez have naturally become a center of activities, serving the needs of both the urban and rural believers. One Mr. Rajagopal who was a field worker for the Cause, brought in several believers from the rubber plantation settlements into the residence of Betty for activities.
Local Spiritual Assembly of Bagan Serai, 1965. Seated in the centre are Betty and Tony Fernandez
Using their home as a base, Betty spread the Cause around places like the towns of Parit Buntar, Bandar Baru and Taiping, and the nearby fishing villages that had large concentration of the Chinese race. Betty also served at state level events, as she was chosen as the Chairperson of a highly successful Perak State Level Conference held on July 31, 1966, at the Double Lion Hotel in Kuala Kangsar. That was the town which was just opened to the Faith and Betty together with others saw to the consolidation of that nascent community.
Betty visiting the family of Mr. Phung Woon Khing in Kuala Nerang, Kedah, 1964. Betty is at the extreme left with daughter Zeena and Miss Khoo Siew Thay. Mr. Phung is at the extreme right, with his wife next to him carrying their daughter Judy Phung Li Lian. Beside Mrs. Phung is Ms. Phung Siew Ngeat, sister of Phung, and in front of her is Ms. Phung Siew Choo, another sister of Phung.
Naw-Rúz celebrations in Ipoh, 1965. Standing L-R: Chee Ah Hin, Rogers Sammy Chung, and Yeoh Chai Lye. Sitting L-R : Radhakrishnan, Betty, Theresa Chee and Tony
Meanwhile, it was while living in Bagan Serai that Tony was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly in 1965, and since then he was actively concentrating in matters related to the national institution, while still actively involving in local and regional activities. During the tenure of Betty and Tony in Bagan Serai many had accepted the Faith and become strong. Mr. P. Thinathayallam (now in Subang Jaya) accepted the Faith in 1965, and in the same year Mr. Munusamy Nathamuni (now a retired Major in Rawang) accepted the Faith in the dining hall of the residence of Tony, and Betty presented him with the a prayer book and the book “Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era”. Mr. Hua Keng Tong, who signed up on 12 March 1967 recalls receiving a white prayer book from Betty when he went to her house for the first time. Throughout that year of 1967 he was attending the deepening sessions and the Feasts at the residence of Tony in Bagan Serai that had truly enabled him to grip the essence of the Mission of the Blessed Beauty. Today he is a pillar in Skudai community in Johor state.
There was always a string of visitors to their residence dropping in to meet the rising community in their residence. In January 1967 Hand of the Cause of God Mr. Tarázu’lláh Samandarí made his last visit to Malaysia, this time with his son Dr. Mihdi, after attending the Bahá’í Seminar in Singapore in December 1966. Bagan Serai was one of the communities they visited during their two-week tour of Malaysia in January 1967, as mentioned in the Feast Newsletter dated 18 January 1967. Since Tony and Betty were residing in Bagan Serai, they organised meetings for the Hand of the Cause and his son in Taiping and Parit Buntar and then brought them to their home. Betty says, “It was a great blessing have them with us”. On the following day a gathering was held at their residence for the believers of Bagan Serai. It was in that gathering that N. Munusamy met Mr. Samandarí who was the first Hand of the Cause he had met in his life. He had registered that meeting in January 1967 as the most memorable day in his life. Betty also had the privilege of driving them to a few towns around Bagan Serai for teaching and all the way from Bagan Serai to the northern town of Alor Star to meet the believers there. Throughout this journey she gained so much knowledge, inspiration, and strength from her conversation with Mr. Samandarí, with the translation provided by by Dr. Mihdi.
Dr. Muhájir who had a fond liking for the couple and their two daughters dropped into their residence in Bagan Serai whenever time permitted as he was travelling up and down the country.
At the residence of Tony and Betty in Bagan Serai, January 1967. Seated are Mr. Samandarí at left and Betty at right, with Zeena next to her. To the right of Mr. Samandarí is Shirin. Standing at back are Tony (left) and Dr. Mihdi (right).
In 1967 Betty was appointed to the Women’s Committee which was formed by the National Spiritual Assembly. The mid-1960s was still the time when the Bahá’í women of Malaysia were still struggling hard to come into the forefront of activities. The initial work of the Committee was to compile a list of Bahá’í women, correspond with them and activate them, which Betty and her fellow committee members carried out religiously. With the launching of the Five-Year Period for Proclamation in Malaysia (1967-1973) the National Spiritual Assembly set up the National Bahá’í Information Service in order to spearhead the proclamation activities in the country, and Betty who was appointed to this body was actively involved in the proclamation activities.
While in Bagan Serai, the couple, as the key believers and towering figures gave all the encouragement for many projects to take off the ground. It was during their tenure in Bagan Serai that this community emerged as the pivot of Bahá’í activities in North Perak.
Their family moved from Bagan Serai into Petaling Jaya in 1968. Mr. N. S. S. Silan who was on the Local Spiritual Assembly since Riḍván 1967 recalls the coming of the family of Betty into Petaling Jaya in 1968 was adding of strength upon strength in this community. The Malaysian Bahá’í News magazine of March 1968 issue flashed this glad news, “Tony has been transferred to the federal capital and appointed Officer Commanding the Police District of Petaling Jaya”. Mr. Lum Weng Chew wrote the history of Petaling Jaya based on the records of the Local Spiritual Assembly. “The History of the Faith in Petaling Jaya” written by him and published in the The Satellite, the official newsletter of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Petaling Jaya mentions, “1968 was “spiritual take off” year for Petaling Jaya. Tony, a member of the National Spiritual Assembly and his wife Betty Fernandez joined the community and the local assembly in 1968. Their experiences in teaching and working for the beloved Cause were great assets to the community.”
The members of the Local Spiritual Assembly for 1968 were Mr. Tony Fernandez (Chairman), Mr. Leong Ho Chiew (Vice Chairman), Mr. N. S. S. Silan, (Secretary) Betty Fernandez (Treasurer), Mr. V. Theenathayalu, Mr. K. Sivaydan, Mrs. Rajah, Mrs. Gina Leong, and Mr. R. Ganasa Murthi. Betty continued to serve on the Assembly as Vice Chairman in 1969.
Although there was already a Bahá’í Centre at 8, Jalan Padang which was the home of Leong Ho Chiew, the residence of Tony and Betty at 12, Road 16/6 too was buzzing with activities. The couple volunteered to host Feasts, organise firesides, and observance of Holy days at their residence. The observance of the anniversaries of the Birth of The Báb and Bahá’u’lláh in 1969, with dinner parties attracted nothing less than 40 people. The Naw-Rúz of 1970 was celebrated with an open house with a huge crowd turning up. The Declaration of The Báb was also celebrated with a dinner party on the evening of 22 May 1970. On many occasions their house was more like a hostel to many local and outstation believers who used to congregate for gatherings, and Betty was more than happy to provide the best hospitality which was simply second nature to her. Betty moved with people of all walks of life. She was very much an embodiment of warmth, encouragement, and love, and whom believers could rely on for drawing strength during moments of distress.
Earlier in 1969 when the National Spiritual Assembly formed the National Coordinating Unit, Betty was appointed on this Unit. This Unit was to monitor closely the reports received from the Area Teaching Committees in West Malaysia and help the National Spiritual Assembly in planning and coordinating all teaching activities and activate the dormant Local Spiritual Assemblies and communities and encourage them in teaching work. From 1970 onwards the National Spiritual Assembly tasked Betty with special functions, and she started representing the Faith at several proclamation events such as the observance of the United Nations days. During the same year, the Senior Sessions Court President wrote a circular to various groups asking for representatives to serve in the Juvenile Court. The National Spiritual Assembly appointed Betty as one of the members to represent the Bahá’í community.
Sadly, their marriage ended in 1970, and Betty relied on the unfailing hands of Bahá’u’lláh in carrying on with her life. Bahá’u’lláh held Betty tight under His protective arms, as she was destined to do more thing for His mighty Cause, rather than dwelling on unpleasant accidents in life. Bahá’u’lláh’s good pleasure was always the goal and object of her existence from the time she accepted His glorious Cause. Bahá’u’lláh opened a new path of service for her to use her immense energy for the Cause. In May 1970, Counsellor Dr. Chellie John Sundram, with the blessings of Hand of the Cause of God Dr. Muhájir, appointed her Auxiliary Board member to serve in that capacity and to assist Mr. Leong Tat Chee of Malacca, the first Auxiliary Board member of Malaysia, who was ailing with a terminal illness. History has it that Betty was the first female Board member for West Malaysia. She demonstrated her immediate commitment to service as Board member. The Local Spiritual Assembly of Petaling Jaya in its Feast newsletter of 17 June, 1970 wrote, “We joyfully announce the appointment of Mrs. Betty Fernandez as an Auxiliary Board member. This momentous announcement surprised and thrilled many. We are very happy yet sad for Betty will not be able to serve the assembly anymore. However, we are proud, very proud to have an Auxiliary Board member residing within the jurisdiction of our assembly. Hearty congrats to Betty, may the spirit of Bahá’u’lláh be with you always”.
That was a new chapter in her life, and she not only served the Cause effectively as a Board member, but also set a great example. Betty made her debut as the newest Board member at the Summer School held in July 1970 in Port Dickson where she spoke on “New Race of Men” touching on the high standard needed of the Bahá’ís to win over the outside world. The audience was spellbound with the eloquence and clarity with which she spoke. From the very early days Betty had already become known as a well-read and knowledgeable believer, with a consuming interest in a variety of Bahá’í subjects. It did not take long before there were invitations extended to her from all over Malaysia. She obliged gladly with no moment of real rest for herself. Everywhere Betty went she radiated so much love, faith, and inspiration which the believers were looking for. She was a favorite among the youths of Malaysia, and from 1970 she participated in national and regional youth conferences to steer the youths to rise to higher levels of service.
Board member Betty speaks at the Summer School held in July 1970 in Port Dickson. Seated to her right is R. Ganasa Murthi
On 3 October 1970 Betty, Mr. V. Theenathayalu, Mr. Yin Hong Shuen and Mr. N. S. S. Seelan went as home front pioneers to Singapore to proclaim the Message of Bahá’u’lláh and to announce loud and clear in every corner of the island country the forthcoming Oceanic Conference of the South China Seas to be held in early January 1971.
Gathering of believers from various cultural background during a night session of the Oceanic Conference held in Singapore in early January 1971 when dignitaries of Singapore were invited. Standing at the extreme left is Philip Marangella from Japan, with Betty next to him. Squatting at extreme left is Miss Khoo Swee Tay, and squatting at the extreme right is Counselor K. H. Payman from Indonesia. Standing at the extreme right is Shirin Fozdar from Thailand. This famous photo was published in a Teaching booklet following the Oceanic Conference
Hand of the Cause of God Dr. Muhájir had a fond liking for Betty, and whom he had personally appointed onto a few committees before the election of the National Spiritual Assembly in 1964. She was faithfully supportive of all the plans that Dr. Muhájir gave the community after consultation with the National Spiritual Assembly. In Riḍván 1971, Dr. Muhájir presented a plan by which at least ten islands had to be opened to the Faith within the next six months. To carry out this task the Hand of the Cause appointed Betty as the coordinator, and those Islands were opened to the Faith under her able stewardship.
A gathering with David and Joy from Michigan, USA in Butterworth, 1971. Seated L-R: S. Nagaratnam, David Earl, Betty, Joy Earl, Lily Jansz. At the back-middle are Molly (L) and Dr. Sreenivasan (R) carrying Sha’in. At the extreme right at back is Vijayasegaran
In 1971 she went to meet the community in Thailand to represent Counsellor Chellie Sundram and in 1972 she represented the Continental Board of Counsellors at the National Convention in Thailand. She also spoke at the unit conventions and the National Conventions in Malaysia in 1971 and 1972. She was a great help in Singapore, both before and after it elected its own National Spiritual Assembly in Riḍván 1972. Upon being appointed Auxiliary Board member, Betty was involved in many activities and had not much time for leisure of her own.
During the National Convention of Thailand, 1971. L-R: Jaigopal Jand, Mrs. Maliheh Jafari, Victor Greenspoon, Yogachandra who pioneered to Thailand from Sri Lanka, Betty. Behind Betty are Mr. and Mrs. Robarts with whom Betty stayed in this trip. Mr. Robarts is the son of Hand of the Cause of God Mr. John Robarts. At the back is Nasser Jaffari, a pioneer to Thailand from Iran. Second from right is Mrs. Savita Jand and at the extreme right is Kuhn Noi.
There was also one untravelled path that she had travelled when she and Mrs. Shantha Sundram became pioneers of what was called the Pre-Declaration (Pre-Dek) Institute held in Penang in 1972 to address the needs of children nearing the age of acceptance of the Faith. It was the first time Pre-Dek Institutes were held in Malaysia or South East Asia. This was followed up with a few other institutes of the same kind in her absence from Malaysia.
Her last major activity in Malaysia was the first Winter School held in Johor Bahru in December 1972 where she had conducted a class on the Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh. In conjunction with the winter school a public talk was arranged at the Diamond Jubilee Hall in Johor Bahru with Betty, as the guest speaker spoke eloquently on the Faith.
In January 1973 she migrated to Western Australia with her two daughters. Prior to that, on 27 December 1972 a farewell dinner was given for two families- that of Leong Ho Chiew and Betty at the Petaling Jaya Bahá’í Centre. The Leong family was going to Tapah town in the state of Perak at end of December 1972. Many friends from Petaling Jaya, Kuala Lumpur, Klang and Sungei Way, as well as members of the national institution were invited. The departure of the two families was too painful a separation for all those who had developed boundless love for them. The Local Spiritual Assembly wrote in its Feast newsletter of 18 January 1973, “It was indeed a loss…. spiritually… financially … and those lovely dinners and buffets”. Suffice to say it was a great loss to Petaling Jaya but a precious gain to their respective destinations. While in Petaling Jaya Betty had given her fullest support to the community, both as a member of the Local Spiritual Assembly and as Board member. Betty as a Board member sent a message about the effectiveness of The Satellite newsletter in its 2 March 1972 issue:
“The Petaling Jaya Bahá’í Newsletter has been so dear to the hearts of all who have watched its growth from year to year that it has emerged itself into a vehicle known as “THE SATELLITE”. Throughout the Bahá’í world such an intimate organ as this has proven to be the means of great inspiration to the friends. It is my sincere wish that this organ will so knit the community of Petaling Jaya that each Bahá’í may become like a satellite revolving round the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh.”
Farewell dinner party for the families of Betty and the Leongs at the Petaling Jaya Bahá’í Centre
From Australia Betty continued to visit Malaysia from time to time to meet up with her family and old believers. When Betty came back to Malaysia three years later in December 1975, she met some 50 believers at the Petaling Jaya Bahá’í Centre, and gave this positively charged advice,“PUT FAITH BEFORE SELF AND YOUR TROUBLES WILL BE OVER.” To those who had gathered it became clear and manifest that Betty demonstrated the unshakable faith she had in the unfailing assistance that comes from the Blessed Beauty in times of trials and tribulations.
Earlier, while residing in Malaysia, Betty had developed the fondest liking for some souls. She had a great affection for Auxiliary Board member Mr. Leong Tat Chee whom she loved like her own father. When he passed away in October 1972, Betty had major surgery which required a blood transfusion and through which she contracted hepatitis. It made her very weak trying to heal from the operation and fight the hepatitis, but she was determined to attend his funeral. She flew from Kuala Lumpur to Malacca for the funeral. Of Leong Tat Chee she says, “I consider Mr. Leong my true spiritual father whose deep love for Bahá’u’lláh was exemplified in his life…His commitment to and love for the Faith was so advanced that he used every opportunity to assist each and every one who found the Faith to become committed and steadfast. Both my children were born in Malacca and the Leongs were my parents in every way. I could not have wished for more…”
Betty meets Leong Tat Chee at the residence of Inbum Chinniah in Kuala Lumpur on Naw-Rúz day on 21 March 1971, which also happens to be the date of birth of Leong Tat Chee.
Among others who gave her all the strength during moments of distress were Mr. Inbum Chinniah, who served on the National Spiritual Assembly from 1965 to 1972. Of Inbum Betty says, “I had not only known Inbum as a close friend but worked with him on institutional cooperation and coordination. We attended the same college in UK but on different years. We accepted the Faith around the same time, were able to confide with each other on critical matters.”
Betty was close to Counsellor Dr. Chellie J. Sundram and his wife Shantha and their daughters. There were also countless others whom Betty loved in Malaysia, but her life had to go on in another part of the world. She left the shores of Malaysia after registering a record of unprecedented and unparalleled services, never to be dimmed in the course of time, and which would outlast generations to come.
Betty and Mrs. Shantha Sundram at the House of The Báb in Shiraz, 1975
When arriving in Australia Betty was already well-grounded in several facets of the Faith with the kind of training, experience, and exposure she had in gained in Malaysia, and was able to accept new responsibilities. Thus, Australia greeted her with more work for the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh. She continued to serve with the same zeal, enthusiasm, and energy in the newly arrived land. In Western Australia, Betty worked as a teacher at Melville Primary School in Perth. She served on the Local Spiritual Assembly of South Perth from 1973 to 1977 and later was appointed as an Auxiliary Board member for Western Australia from 1977 until 1988. Dr. Peter Khan who was one of the Counsellors for Australasia was her mentor.
With Counselor Dr. Peter Khan
Although settled in a foreign land her coming to Malaysia was always eagerly waited for by the early believers. One of the happiest moments by the early believers was her participation as Board member in the South East Asia Regional Conference held in Kuching, Sarawak in December 1978 which had the theme of “The Mighty Forces Within,” and her talk moved the hearts of the audience. Throughout her stay abroad she visited Malaysia from time to time in her individual capacity, and some gatherings were arranged for her in some homes, all to be inspired by her stories.
Betty with Shirin at left and Zeena at right at the Bahá’í House of Worship, Sydney, 1989
During her Australian years, she visited and worked with Bahá’í communities throughout Western Australia, especially venturing out into the outback regions of the Kimberley, the Pilbara, the Gascoyne, and the Goldfields. In 1988, she began traveling to regions in the Pacific, spending time in the Island countries of Fiji, Tonga, Yap, and Palau. During this time, she met Justice Richard Benson, who was a Counsellor for Micronesia residing in Chuuk and who served on the Supreme Court of the Federated States of Micronesia. On 26 January 1989, Betty and Richard were married and she moved to live in Chuuk. From this point in her life, she became a full-time worker with Bahá’í communities, and she served on the National Spiritual Assembly of the Eastern Caroline Islands from 1989 to 1990.
Richard and Betty, 1989
Betty was appointed to the Continental Board of Counsellors for Oceania from in November 1990 to 2010, with jurisdiction for Micronesia from the Marshalls to Palau.
Members of the Continental Board of Counsellors for Australasia in 1991. Seated from L-R: Ben Ayla, Violette Haake, Sirus Naraqi, Tinai Hanckock,Kamran Eshraghian. Standing L-R: Beatrice Benson, Gayle Morrison, Bruce Sounders, Afemata Moli Chang, Betra Majmeto. (Copyright: National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States)
For the first ten years she worked in Tonga and the next ten years in Fiji and Samoa. She also carried out services on the east coast of Australia from time to time also New Zealand when needed. Betty and Richard moved to Guam from Chuuk in 2001 where they became an integral part of the community and from 2010 to 2019, Betty served on the National Spiritual Assembly of the Mariana Islands and on the Local Spiritual Assembly of Chalan Pago-Ordot.
With some believers of Chalan Pago-Ordot. Betty stands third from left and Richard is seated third from left
Gathering of some friends to meet Betty and Mrs. Shantha Sundram in Petaling Jaya, 2004
When her husband Richard became seriously ill in the last seven years of his earthly existence, Betty lovingly and selflessly took on the role of primary care provider. Betty’s daughter Zeena from New York visited her for the past five years and assisted by putting their administration in order and sorting through their belonging. Following Richard’s passing on November 17, 2021, Betty’s health declined. She had planned to move to New York to live with Zeena’s family and so Shirin and her husband Tim, flew from Australia to Guam to pack her up and escort her to New York. She was immediately hospitalized where medical tests revealed that she was suffering from widespread cancer. She went into hospice care at Zeena’s home where Shirin and Zeena’s families took care of her until her passing. In those fifty-four final days of her earthly life, Betty looked forward to the next stage in her soul’s eternal journey—meeting her loved ones in the kingdom of the unseen realms. While counting her last days the one thing that kept her happy was she receiving hundreds of messages from friends all over the globe via WhatsApp, which her daughters Shirin and Zeena read out to her. As the messages were read out Betty smiled with so much radiance. Perhaps she never imagined that she had earned the love and admiration of multitude of friends from across the globe. On 29 September 2022, the precious soul of the ever-precious Betty winged its flight to the realms above surrounded by her loving family. Betty’s greatest happiness was to have witnessed during her lifetime her two daughters Shirin in Tasmania and Zeena in the USA serving the Cause effectively, along with their spouses and children.
A very befitting funeral service was held for her, organized by the families of Betty’s daughters and their families. Numerous messages from institutions and individuals poured in carrying the greatest admiration and accolades for her services. The Supreme Body sent a weighty and loving message for her family. Betty was buried at the Bahá’í Memorial Park at Rose Hills Memorial Park, Putnam Valley, New York.
The International Teaching Centre sent a message dated 30 September 2022 to Dr. Kirk Johnson, Continental Board of Counsellors in Australasia, in which the institution mentioned that Betty will be remembered for her contributions to the progress of the many communities in which she served and that her distinguished record includes her services to the institution of the Counsellors—as an Auxiliary Board member and as a Continental Counsellor in Australasia—and her service on several National Spiritual Assemblies. The institution also assured its supplications in the Holy Shrines for the advancement of her noble soul.
Betty having lived the life had won over the love and admiration of the wider world as well. Jessy Gouge, Mayor of the District of Chalan Pago-Ordot, Government of Guam sent a message dated 1 October to the families of the two daughters of Betty in which he praised Betty, as one who was a very loving and caring person, providing encouragement and love to the lives she touched.
Betty occupies a special and unparalleled place in the history of the Faith wherever she served and has set examples that could perhaps be rivaled, but never replaced. She had truly adorned and added luster to the history of the Faith in many ways for the current generation and generations yet to be born to emulate and admire with awe and wonder. Betty had truly inspired countless souls across the several continents and the vastness of the Pacific where she had served the Cause.
Betty was an embodiment of genuine love for humanity. She had a soft spot for the downtrodden in society and found ways of extending financial assistance, without knowledge of others. Under all situations and tests and tribulations Betty had displayed such indomitable courage and unswerving dedication. Her faith and love for the Blessed Beauty was simply boundless, and her attachment to the Master was so great, that she would begin her days reciting the Tablet of Visitation of `Abdu’l-Bahá. Whenever friends with distress approached Betty for consolation she would invariably draw their attention to what the Blessed Beauty had said, “My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy,” something that she herself believed with heart and soul. And she would follow with her own advice, “Our lives are in His hands, and He does with us only what He deems best for us, what more can we ask?” Betty had fully resigned herself to the will of Bahá’u’lláh to decide the course of her life on this earthly plane.
Betty was always a source of strength to everyone who needed consolation. Many dejected or downtrodden were uplifted by her sincere love and kindness. She always referred to what the Writings had to say whenever someone faced trials and tribulations. That may explain why the very company of Betty would enhance the spirit of those who met her. She saw only the good in everyone who crossed her path.
Her favorite Bahá’í song was “Look at Me, Follow Me, be as I am, `Abdu’l-Bahá,” along with “Will you give your life for Bahá’u’lláh.” Her only goal in life was to cheer the heart of Bahá’u’lláh by serving the Cause to her best. Looking back into the life and legacy of Betty, there can be no shadow of doubt that she was created by the wondrous hands of Bahá’u’lláh for serving His glorious Cause in various capacities. Thus ended the illustrious life of a devoted and steadfast handmaiden of Bahá’u’lláh.
Resting place of Betty at the Bahá’í Memorial Park at Rose Hills Memorial Park, Putnam Valley, New York.
Betty shall always be seen as a shining example in every possible way, and her name shall forever be fondly remembered in our history.
- A. Manisegaran, Jewel Among Nations, Splendour Publications, Malaysia, 2003.
- A. Manisegaran, Dawnings, Bahá’í Publishing Trust of Malaysia, 2019.
- Email communications and personal conversations with Betty in the early days.
- Compilation of Newsletters of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Petaling Jaya availed by Mr. Lum Weng Chew of Toronto, Canada.
A word of thanks to Shirin Fernandez of Tasmania, Zeena Arturo of USA and Susheel Croft of Australia for availing some family photos.
31 December 2022
You may leave your comments at: email@example.com
33 thoughts on “REMEMBERING BETTY BENSON”
Dear Mr. Manisegaran,
I read this remarkable story of the late Mrs. Betty with so much enthusiasm and love. Since the time I started reading your book Jewel Among Nations, I consider myself a fan of this God-intoxicated servant of the Blessed Beauty, among others great souls. I see with much admiration the quality of steadfastness and constancy the Bahá’í women of Malaya/Malaysia have demonstrated through every boundary to achieve the impossible in their own ways, with Mrs. Betty as one of them.
The story brings to mind the following lines of The Greatest Holy Leaf, Bahíyyih Khánum:
“All the virtues of humankind are summed up in the one word “steadfastness,” if we act according to its laws. It draws to us a s by a magnet the blessings and bestowals of Heaven, if we but rise up according to the obligations it implies. God be praised, the house of the heart is lit by the light of unswerving constancy, and the soul’s lodging is bedecked with the ornament of faithfulness. Steadfastness is a treasure that makes a man so rich as to have no need of the world or any person or anything that is therein. Constancy is a special joy, that leads us mortals on to lofty heights, great progress, and the winning of the perfections of Heaven. All praise be to the Beloved’s holy court, for granting this most wondrous grace to His faithful people, and His favored ones, this best of gifts.”
Mrs. Betty’s statement “Put Faith Before Yourself and Your Troubles Will Be Over” – It’s so true and I feel myself a humble believer to this statement. You have distinctively highlighted the qualities of Mrs. Betty whose deep love for Bahá’u’lláh was exemplified throughout her life. ‘Abdu’l-Baha states that women have “special gifts,” in the following respects — greater moral courage, greater importance to the human race, greater burden, greater work, superior abundance of mercy, superior abundance of sympathy, more tender-hearted, more receptive, more instinct with power, intuition more intense and “the stronger wing”. I earnestly believe Mrs. Betty was the embodiment of those “special gifts”.
I fervently pray that the radiant soul of Mrs. Betty be richly rewarded in the external realms of God through the unfailing protection and bounties of the Blessed Beauty.
With loving Bahá’í greetings
As in all the stories you published in your blog about fellow Baha’is who had served the Faith in the 1950 to the 1960s, you have filled a void in my life about their glorious and gallant activities. In all honesty, comparing myself with all these spiritual giants, I seem to have wondered where I was and feel humbled that I had not done enough.
The story of Betty is well recorded with original research and would serve to inspire generations to come. My association with Betty began in 1968 when I moved from Alor Star to Petaling Jaya to study in University Malaya.Early that year she had moved into Petaling Jaya from Bagan Serai. When I became Secretary of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Petaling Jaya in 1972 she was a source of inspiration and motivation. The Petaling Jaya news organ “The Satellite” was in a way inspired by her. When I went through the records of the Local Spiritual Assembly to write the history of the Faith in that community, I got to get her services better. Reading this story by you, I have got a more comprehensive picture of her legacy.
I remember those meetings at Betty’s big bungalow in Section 16 as an undergraduate. She used to host gatherings of University students. Thanks to her hospitality and the yummy food, the students felt a needed change of routine student life. After the gatherings I remembered being taken home by Tony who would take a long route where he checked on petrol kiosk along the way while still in his police duties. Sadly, it was only for a few years before she migrated to Australia in 1973. She left when I was beginning to get actively involved in Bahai activities.
I am happy you have acknowledged my contribution to the story.
Lum Weng Chew
Thanks for penning this detailed story on Betty. I had known Betty, but there were no personal interactions. My interactions were only observations of her as I was very very young living in Seremban town. She had moved very closely with my grandfather Yankee Leong who was the first enlightened soul to accept the Faith in the country.
I did look up to her as she was beautiful, eloquent and gracious. Betty had interactions with innumerable Malaysian Baha’is. I know she loved her children very much and was an excellent mum.
Her soul is definitely shining brightly in the Abha kingdom.
What a pleasant gift. I opened my eyes early this morning in Sydney and the first thing l saw was this Angel Betty Benson’s life story. It’s first day of the New Year Day and glad l started my new year reading and reflecting on how Betty achieved this amazing Baha’i life that she lived to the fullest.
This heart-touching, soul-stirring, electrifying story captured my whole soul. Uncontrollable tears flowed down my cheeks. l wished l was living at her time and met this beautiful maidservant in person.
Many Bettys may be born in future, but this Betty Benson is simply irreplaceable I think.
I am very glad to have started 2023 reading Betty Benson’s boundless love for the Faith and her Lord.
Thank you so much for giving us the best new year gift. A right timing.
M. Kalai Selvi
You have captured the legacy of Betty in full, and the spirit with which she served the Cause with great accuracy. I remember vividly when she arrived in Jasin town in early 1959. Leong Ho Chiew, Tushar Kanti- Paul and I were walking around the town looking for enquirers when Betty alighted from a taxi and we entered into conversation with her. The rest is history.
As you have written, she has been created to do wonders for the Cause in manifold areas. She was the most dynamic female believer in Malacca during her time there. The dynamism with which she served, the commitment she had in competing tasks assigned to her, the unshakable faith she had in Bahá’u’lláh, the loyalty she had for the institution, the magnanimous heart she had in helping the needy- these are among the virtues that come to my mind when I think of her. Her time in Malacca was merely 5 years, but the record of service is there forever.
As she was away in Bagan Serai and Petaling Jaya until she left the country for good in early 1973, my association with her became lesser, But we met at gatherings and exchanged greetings and recollected the early days in Jasin. I used to read about her activities in the Malaysian Bahai News magazine and the Feast Newsletters published by the national institution and felt proud of her active involvement despite some disappointment in life. But she was as strong as a mountain. Speaking about her steadfastness during moments of tests, I can only think of this verse of Bahá’u’lláh from The Kitáb-i-Aqdas.
“Lament not in your hours of trial, neither rejoice therein; seek ye the Middle Way which is the remembrance of Me in your afflictions and reflection over that which may befall you in future. Thus informeth you He Who is the Omniscient, He Who is aware.”
I am happy her story is recorded with great detail for the future generations to admire and emulate. She is sure to get plentiful harvest from the Blessed Beauty in the Abha Kingdom for having served the Cause laboriously and sincerely on this earthly plane.
Anthony C. Louis
I read the story on Betty in full. You have portrayed in perfect words her tireless service and her unwavering faith in the Cause of God. She definitely was an embodiment of love for all. She was such a great soul. Her life was very inspiring and moving for us to learn and emulate.
Professor Dr. Ananthan Krishnan
Thanks for sharing the story of Betty. Wow, what a life! And such a comprehensive article, too. It’s so helpful to read these kinds of accounts- it really makes me reflect on how little I do.
It’s all too easy to get sucked into the apathy and lethargy that materialism brings with it.
A very good record of Aunty Betty’s life of service.
Aunty Betty and our mum Shantha Sundram were soul sisters and had a special bond after becoming Bahais in 1958. Tony Fernandez was my mum’s first cousin and coincidentally were investigating the Faith at the same time in different parts of the then Malaya. They served together in many projects.
One most lasting contribution would be the pocket size white colored prayer book, with plastic jacket cover which the National Spiritual Assembly of Malaysia commissioned these two ladies to compile.The very first edition in 1970 consisted of selection of prayers for different occasions. Many subsequent editions were compiled by my mum under the auspices of the Bahai Publishing Trust of Malaysia. The most recent edition was published without Shantha’s involvement after she passed away.
The white prayer book was so popular around the globe that many National Spiritual Assemblies started to order in bulk from Malaysia. After some time some National Spiritual Assemblies started to publish similar prayer books on their own.
Betty’s bravery and tenacity are beyond doubt inspiration for many of us. She was a firm believer as well. From a different religious background, she embraced the Faith and married the person with whom she had the most arguments on the authenticity of the Baha’i Revelation.
When she got herself deeper into community activities, her home was opened to all and it served as a ‘hostel’ for many friends. Some of us have difficulties in that regard.
And she is brave – travelling to many countries including Fiji, Palau, Tonga, Yap. Some of these places have their challenges but she did it! When we read stories of such magnitude, we are at times, envious as we couldn’t do what they did. They are all very wondrous stories of courage and fortitude.
When we seize opportunities like what Betty did, we would be amply rewarded.
You have written a story that brought tears. The story of Betty moved both my heart and soul. She was, is and shall ever be so dear to me for reasons I am going to mention. In 1967 Dr. Chellie Sundram met me in Alor Star when he came for a gathering there and asked me to go to visit him in Penang. As requested I met him in Penang, and he asked me to go to the home of Betty in Bagan Serai to help out in the teaching activities there. When I arrived there, M. Maniam was staying there. I heard from Maniam of the many activities that were going on in their house. I had missed the visit by Hand of the Cause Tarazullah Samandari and his son Dr. Mihdi in January 1967.
I too stayed with Maniam and both of us went teaching in the rubber plantation settlements for some two months. That was the time when she was involved in Tupperware business with which she supported both Maniam and me and funded several Bahai activities. On many occasions Betty used to send Maniam and me into the estates and pick us later in the evenings. After the two months I moved into Kuala Lumpur for a short stint and then Raymond Peter took me to assist him in the teaching activities in Jasin. Then I was back to the National Bahai Centre to serve as a staff under Inbum Chinniah. By this time Betty had already moved into Petaling Jaya. Before Raymond Peter went to pioneer in Sri Lanka with his wife Peter at the end of 1969, that great soul took me to Betty and asked me to give the needed care to me as I was physically handicapped.
One day in 1971 Betty informed me that she was going to Alor Star for a meeting and asked me to join her if I wished. She picked me up at the National Centre where I was staying and drove to the north stopping in some places. First we stopped in Ipoh and met one Mr. Marimuthu. Next we met Dr Sreenivasan in Butterworth. That was the first time I met Dr. Sreenivasan. After that she drove me to Alor Star. While she attended a meeting in Alor Star, I went to my hometown of Changloon.
Throughout the journey we discussed many matters relating to the Faith and some personal matters too. She mentioned how she came into the Faith, as you have written. She spoke mostly of the Teachings and the greatness of this glorious Cause. I asked her if she could speak Tamil. She smiled and said that she could understand Tamil but was shy of conversing in that language.
What I liked Betty most was the sincere and genuine love she radiated, and the limitless love she had for Bahaullah, and of course her unshakable love she had for Him. She was also strict and highly disciplined and stressed punctuality.
Betty shall forever live in my heart and soul. She has a great influence in my Bahai upbringing.
Thank you Mani, for the very informative article on Betty Benson.
When I lived in Brunei, I had of course heard of her activities in Malaysia but had not met her. I first met Tony when he came on a travel teaching trip to Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak with some other members of the National Spiritual Assembly of Malaysia in December 1968. The other three were Mr. S. Nagaratnam, Mr. Inbum Chinniah and Mrs. Shantha Sundram.
I think I first met Betty when I went to the Perth airport in 1973 to receive her and her children coming from Malaysia. They were accompanied by Tony who wanted to make sure that were safely settled in Perth. A short time after she arrived there was a Baha’i Youth Conference in Sydney and Betty packed her two little girls in the car and drove thousands of kilometers to the Conference. At the time I felt it was risky but now recognize this was but an example of her courage and complete faith in the protection of Baha’u’llah.
I cannot write highly enough of Betty and whatever I write about her cannot do her sufficient justice. She was a charismatic person and people were naturally attracted to her. Her arrival in Western Australia with her two daughters from Malaysia has left an indelible mark on the Baha’i community in that State. Her love for the Faith and passion for teaching immediately had an impact on the growth and consolidation of the Faith. Her weekly firesides became very popular especially among the youth. Her culinary skill with Malaysian dishes was an additional magnet. Her hospitality and friendly nature attracted many and there are those in the State and in other parts of Australia who consider her their spiritual mother. Once a person accepted the Faith, she would for years nurture and nourish their growth in the Faith and the love for Baha’u’llah.
Betty was a schoolteacher by profession and during school holidays she often travelled to other parts of Australia and the Pacific to teach the Faith. Often accompanied by Nahid Mishghin. Betty also travelled to different parts of West Australia to teach among the indigenous people.
By nature, Betty was very generous, and I can think of at least three people who lived with her for extended periods of time.
Soon after her arrival in West Australia she was elected on the Local Spiritual Assembly of South Perth. She was appointed to Regional Teaching Committee of West Australia and a couple years later she was appointed to be the Auxiliary Board Member for Propagation in Western Australia. I was at that time Auxiliary Board member for Protection, and we worked together in these capacities for over ten years. We travelled to many of the Baha’i communities together and often met with Local Spiritual Assemblies. The communities and Assemblies benefited greatly from Betty’s advice. She was always a great believer in the power of prayer and there were numerous occasions when her advice to individuals and communities who faced challenges was that they should pray for divine assistance. Sometimes her suggestion was that they should recite “Is there any remover of difficulties” prayer 500 times and also hold prayer vigils.
Our families become very close, and I have great affection and respect for Betty. Her children and ours are still very good friends though they live far from each other.
What more can I say about the one whom the Universal House of Justice has referred to as a devoted steadfast handmaiden of Bahá’u’lláh and one we always called “Dear Betty”? The author has written such a comprehensive story on the services of Betty that shall forever be remembered in our history.
Betty no doubt was among the stars of the Faith, particularly in Eastern Asia, Australia, and Micronesia where she devoted her entire life to the service and the promotion of the Cause of God.
Our first meeting was in the Summer School held at the Youth Hostel in Malacca in 1966. I traveled by land from Laos to Malacca. At that very first meeting itself her loving kindness and friendly attitude captured my heart and soul. She inquired eagerly about how the mass teaching was proceeding in Laos and wished that one day she would go to Laos for a visit. From that meeting on we became lifetime friends and on many occasions had opportunities to serve the Faith, whether it was in the teaching trips, training institutes summer schools, meetings of the Board members and conferences. All these bring back those fondest memories. For the sake of brevity, I can relate one or two memorable accounts; one is when a number of believers were invited to participate in a month of intensive teaching campaign in Hong Kong in I think 1971. Those who were involved were Yankee Leong, Betty Fernandez, Swee Thay and Yin Hong Shuen from Malaysia, Counsellor Vic Samaniego from the Philippines, Philip Maranggela from Japan, and myself from Laos. We were divided into three or four teams accompanied by local believers. Every morning after prayers we went out for meetings and shared the Baha’i concepts and Teachings with people in organizations, schools, colleges, associations, and some villages. Regardless of how well or challenging our encountering were, we enjoyed every moment of the campaign. Sometimes, I was on the team that Betty led, and I could see how naturally, and kindly Betty touched the hearts with her simple and metaphorical explanations following the Abdu’l -Baha’s approach which was quite effective.
Betty had a good sense of humor. Once Mr. Heshmatullah Aziz who was a resident of Hongkong invited us to dinner at the Peking duck restaurant. While we were sitting at a big round table chatting and waiting to be served, the cook came to our table carrying a big fat cleaned duck, as it was their custom to show us the kind of duck that was being cooked for us. The cook said the duck comes from China, then smiled, and left. Betty jokingly said “I wonder how the duck flew all the way from Peking to Hongkong.” We burst into laughter.
The second episode that I like to share is about a teaching trip that we undertook together in 1987 in the company of a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of Australia Dr. Jhon Davison to the aboriginal settlements in North West Australia. On those seven days of teaching and consolidation trip, we visited a number of Baha’i individuals and small communities. When we were visiting the family the aboriginal chief Jack Malardy had declared and was a teacher of the Faith. At that time, it was required that believers sign the declaration card prior to joining Baha’i activities. Jack Malardy’s daughter who agreed with the Baha’i teachings was hesitating to sign the declaration card saying why one must sign a card to become a Baha’i which to her was against her aboriginal belief. At this point, Betty to help in understanding the purpose of signing took a declaration card, sat by her side, and asked her if she could read the card and tell her what its content was. The daughter read the card explained what it meant and said it makes her think more seriously about it. They hugged and Betty said we must pray for each other. This indicates how thorough and meticulous Betty was in detail.
These are only the tip of the iceberg from the many memories that remain in my memory.
Dr. Firaydun Mithaq
Thanks again for yet one more great story, this time on one who had such a great influence and impact on my spiritual upbringing in the early days of acceptance of the Faith. The Supreme Body has paid the best tribute by calling her Betty Benson, “May the memory of her selfless dedication as a teacher of the Faith continue to inspire and encourage all those who knew her.” How could one deny such an impactful statement by the Supreme Body. I am one of the thousands who had known her and inspired by her. I am very much a living testimony to that tribute!
Betty was my school teacher at the Government English Secondary School in Bagan Serai. Little I realized she would be my spiritual teacher as well. When I accepted the Faith in 1967 in Bagan Serai, Betty and others were like my next of kin who had guided and nurtured me in my spiritual growth from the very beginning. When I went to her residence Betty gave me a little prayer book which I treasured and carried in my shirt pocket all the time through the years, until 198I, I passed it to my wife when we were married. It’s akin to the popular slogan “don’t leave home without it “. So, one can imagine how I treasure the prayer book and the memory of Betty.
In those days I used to help Mr. Rajagopal an active believer in producing the local Feast newsletters. We would cut the stencils and ran them on the Cyclostyle machine and stapled the newsletters before distributing them to Baha’is in nearby rubber estates on his trusted motorcycle. It was always a joy to meet and talk with such kind and friendly souls. We were all an active band of believers getting the encouragement from the Local Spiritual Assembly and Betty as well. In 1967 Bagan Serai was on fire with so many activities and we had a string of visitors. Bagan Serai was a hot spot for Bahai activities. Sadly, at the height of the growth of the Faith Betty’s family left for Petaling Jaya in early 1968 and in later part of that year I left for Penang. But Bagan Serai and Betty are well remembered now and forever!
Your detailed narration on Betty’s life has brought me fondest memories of years gone by. I truly believe that my association with Betty and others and the various Faith activities had strengthened my spiritual foundation early on and thus guided my spiritual path.
Hua Keng Tong
Thanks for a well-researched and comprehensive story on Betty. I accepted the Faith at a tender age of 16 in Segamat town in May 1962 and was a believer of the Ten Year Crusade period. In those days we did not have the fast means of communications as today and the only news was from the Feast Newsletters and circulars from the National Spiritual Assembly and other national committees. And of course, the occasional gatherings like summer schools. And my knowledge of Betty was only from these sources. From the little interactions or observations, I had known Betty as a charismatic person, very beautiful in appearance and in spiritual radiance. That was the impression and was also aware of her great services often spoken by believers I met.
But today, after reading your story on her, I have come to understand the depth and range of her services. Simply mind- boggling how she could do so many things single handedly. She has had so many bounties and privileges by associating with several Hands of the Cause who came to know her personally. They must have had strong influence on her. Sadly we do not have any more Hands to meet.
She was certainly among the early believers to have laid a strong foundation for the Cause in this country. She was also one of the few believers of the female sex to have risen high above several others in carrying the torch of Baha’u’llah. She belongs to an era that is not to return. We can only read about them, learn from them, and emulate them. They are the standard bearers!
Our family knew Betty from the early days when she arrived in Malacca, my parents, particularly my mother, was very fond of her and treated her like a daughter. Betty of course reciprocated with love and respect and always addressed her as “aunty”. Mother was a great cook and Betty enjoyed those delicious dishes cooked specially for her, often eating with the family at lunch and dinner times.
Many meetings were held in our home which became the local Baha’i Centre, with Betty giving talks on various aspects of the Faith as she shared her insights and wisdom.
One thing I have not forgotten was a talk she gave on prayers, saying that prayers were like breathing; if you stopped breathing you know what happens to your life, you die, and so it is with prayers, you must always pray and never stop praying as your prayers are your spiritual connection to God.
Betty was a great teacher and served the Faith and the community in her special and charismatic way, a stalwart and steadfast Baha’i who always placed the Faith first in her life, not just an ordinary Baha’i but a lover of Baha’u’llah .
She will always be remembered in the annals of the Faith in Malaysia, and her legacy of service as a devoted teacher, will be a shining example for generations to come.
Leong Ho San
The first time I met Betty was at fireside cum deepening sessions held every Friday evening at Leong Tat Chee’s house which was the Baha’i center on St. John’s Hill Road in Malacca town. That was in 1959. I had many questions to ask as the Baha’i teachings had a unique way of explaining things. Betty never failed to give satisfactory answers. She was the first to bring out the beauty in the teachings of the Faith as far as I am concerned. She was a fierce defender of the Faith. From those days onward I developed deep friendship with Betty arising from admiration. Betty was refined in speech, in the way she conducted herself and in her sense of humour. She lived with her husband, Tony Fernandez, on a big government house on the Pringgit Hill. I took pleasure in walking up that hill with ‘uppuma’ very famous South Indian breakfast dish made from dry roasted suji that my mother made for Betty as it was one of her favourite dishes.
I had the greatest respect for her opinions, and she is never known to indulge in loose talk.
Bhaskaran Sankaran Nair
One fine day in the first quarter of 1964 a gorgeous and beautifully dressed stand-in teacher walks into my classroom. She was a beauty to behold in the very laid-back town of Bagan Serai in the state of Perak. I was in Form 5 at the Secondary English School.
She came as a relief teacher just for 45 minutes and since most of us were confused as to what to make out of this lady, one of my classmates inquired about her religion and she said she was a Bahai and gave us a brief overview. I was very keen to know more about this religion.
Later that year l joined the Royal Malaysian Air Force and was sent to Australia and there whilst travelling by train from Sydney to Wagga Wagga, l saw an advertisement about the Faith along the rail tracks.
I was back in Bagan Serai in early 1965 and there an ex-school mate of mine takes me to meet a Bahai in the residence of Betty. That was none other than M. Maniam or Penghulu Maniam as he was called. Betty was the lady who planted the seeds and Maniam made them sprout at the right time. After a few sessions l declared as a Bahai in front of Betty and she gave me a prayer book and a copy of the book Bahaullah and the New Era.
During my visits to Betty’s residence, she was wonderfully kind to me and had plenty of encouraging words.
In January 1967 I also had a rare opportunity to meet the wonderful Hand of Cause Mr. Tarazullah Samadari at Betty’s residence. I had just come back to Bagan Serai and heard of the presence of the Hand of the Cause in town. I quickly rang up Tony Fernandez to enquire if I could meet him. Tony informed me of a meeting to be held in his residence for the local believers to meet him. I went for that meeting where a number of Bahais were present.
In 1968 Tony’s family was transferred to Petaling Jaya. Whenever l was in Kuala Lumpur I always visited Betty and Tony who resided in the neighboring town of Petaling Jaya. They always welcomed me and their encouragement and kind words had carried me to serve the Faith wherever l was.
Betty was a treasure that l will never forget.
Retired Major N. Munusamy
Kamsim and I, Ipad in hand, read about Betty Benson’s extraordinary historical contributions together. Back and forth we shared heartfelt memories of Betty each time one of her Bahai life events came into view, or as we scrolled down the page, picture after picture, made us feel a warmth, a gratitude and love for Betty and the other Bahai friends that we were fortunate to have known.
The descriptions also of this exceptional woman’s life stimulated memory and memory of her and memories of our own experiences with the Bahais we knew. Oh, how thankful we are for “Recollections” which allows Bahais all over the world to look back on those spiritually filled, intense, happy times.
Thank you Manisegaran!
Matt and Kamsim Wagner
It was in the early 1970’s when I first met Aunty Betty who was invited to give a talk to Teacher Trainees at Malayan Teachers College, Gelugor, Penang, Malaysia. The Talk cum Fireside was arranged by Mrs. Shantha Sundram, a close and intimate friend of Betty.
From the moment I met her, I was struck by her passionate and unwavering commitment to her values and beliefs. She exudes such charm and beauty and captivated the audience with her eloquence of speech and knowledge of the Baha’i Faith.
Another thing that impressed me most about this dynamic religious lady was her ability to inspire and motivate others. She had a way of speaking that was sincere and authentic, and she was able to engage others in meaningful discussions about spirituality and religion. She was also an extremely empathetic and compassionate person, always willing to listen and offer support and guidance to those who needed it.
Overall, Betty left a lasting impression on me. Her faith and dedication to her values were an inspiration to me, and I will always remember her as a shining example of what it means to live a life of purpose and meaning.
Wong Meng Fook
Thank you for that wonderful story on the wonderful Betty whom I got to know in 1959 when I just came back from the UK and was investigating the Faith. I became a believer in 1960 and right till May 1967 when I left for India as a pioneer, I had the opportunity to work closely with Betty and her husband Tony.
Thinking of Betty, one would be reminded of the force of strength she had in the teachings of Bahaullah. The dominant aspect had always been her unshakable Faith she had in Bahaullah. Under all circumstances he relied on His helping hand, and she displayed such a courage and determination. Betty is one whose example is a lesson for us all.
I would bravely sum up that during her stay in Malacca town till the end of 1963 she was the star servant among the women in that community. I would also say that Betty was one of the greatest and strongest believers among the women in Malaysia. I have heard of her great services since she moved into Australia until the evening of her life. She belongs to a class of her own and these days it is quite rare to get that kind of calibre.
May her soul continue to be rewarded and grow in the Kingdoms of God. On your part, please continue to pen stories of those who had served and loved the Glorious Cause of Bahaullah- in inspire ardent readers like me.
Dr. S. Vasudevan
I read this very moving story on Betty. At the outset allow me to say that the story is well researched and well documented. The photographs speak wonders.
From what I have read, Betty seems to have carried herself well and she presented the Faith very easily and very well among the English- speaking friends, as he language of communication was English. She had served in so many capacities, in national committees, Local Spiritual Assemblies and as Board member too. She had balanced herself well as a field worker and as in administrative capacity. Betty moved well in the upper bracket in society given that she was married to a high ranking police officer who too did so much for the Faith.
I came to know Betty well only after I was appointed as Administrative Assistant to Inbum Chinniah, Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly in 1969. Betty used to come to the national office often and that’s where I entered into conversation. She often braought along her two daughters Zeena and Shirin. She had a very calm disposition, always with a smile on her face. At conferences or any gathering she radiated so much genuine love. To individuals in distress, she showed true concern of which I had witnessed.
She did well in Malaysia during her time and it is sad that she had to move to Australia. Yet she had left ineradicable traces wherever she served. I am most happy to learn from your story that her two daughters Shirin and Zeena are serving the Cause well in Tasmania and USA respectively. I am not surprised at this. With a mother like Betty, the daughters would also become spiritual giants. Long live the memory of this precious Betty.
Good her services are now recorded for posterity.
My first contact with Betty was when she came to my parents’ place in the town of Alor Star in March 1971, to drive me to Kuala Lumpur at the request of National Spiritual
Assembly of Malaysia for me to have some experience in practical Bahá’í administration at the National Bahá’í Centre.
I remember very well it was the fasting month and having a slight cold and cough I was not fasting. When she learnt I was not fasting, she stopped on her way in a restaurant
so I could have a lunch while she waited. After that we stopped in Ipoh town at the home of Mrs .Theresa Chee for the evening and hit the road for Kuala Lumpur the following day.
In Kuala Lumpur I had the opportunity of knowing better this indefatigable lady on several other occasions.
She also accompanied the group going to Africa to the Subang International Airport in August 1972, as requested by the late Hand of the Cause Dr Muhajir, to ensure we took
off well prepared. Those traveling with me were Mr. Thanabalan, Mr. S. Ravichandran and Mr. N.S.S. Silan. Mr Inbum Chinniah and Miss Nargis from Africa started their journey slightly later.
That send off at the airport was the last time I saw her in person. Then I heard she had migrated to Australia.
Now I am privileged to learn from this story the great services she has done for the Cause of Bahaullah before being called to the Kingdom on High.
May her soul progress in the Abha Kingdom with plentiful blessings from the Blessed Beauty
As always, you have done a wonderful service in capturing the legacy of Betty Fernandez. I met Betty for the first time in Bangkok, while I was a pioneer to Thailand and remember vividly the time I spent with her. If I am allowed to summarize my meetings with her – I would say- she was a calm, nurturing and compassionate person. I still remember the way she cared so deeply with the local friends in Thailand and her gentle personality were seen as pillars of strength among the Thai friends. I admired her exceptional depth of knowledge of the Cause, intense ardor for the teaching work and radiant heart brimming with love for everyone who crossed her path.
Her legacy of service as travel teacher and her unswerving dedications to duty inspire generations to come.
Thank you for your excellent article on the life and service of our dear Aunty Betty Benson. Her life touched so many, and you have managed to capture so much of her unique spiritual qualities. I thought I knew Aunty Betty’s life well, but I learnt even more about her in this article.
I read this most inspiring story about Betty Benson. It is truly inspiring to read stories of these early stalwarts of the Faith who had devoted and dedicated their lives in raising up many vibrant Baha’i communities throughout Malaysia. We must thank our dear friend, Manisegaran for once again bringing out such gems as Betty Bensen into light.
Thank you Mani
Betty was a beautiful handmaiden of God, who lived and served for her Faith. Coming from a Catholic background, she investigated and was convinced of the return of Christ and understood His fulfillment of being reborn in the Glory of His Father.
A lady of who served the Cause of Baha’u’llah with distinction in all the places she lived. Many women would emulate Betty and pray to get that kind of strength , courage and love for God to live a life of the spirit.
God bless her soul.
Dear Mr. Mani,
Your story of Mrs. Betty Benson is really heart-warming and very inspiring. Sad she had migrated to Australia even before I got to meet her in person.
However, your story which depicts her activities in Malaysia and Australia and elsewhere in the early years is really marvellous and illustrious. We are able to know now , how much these early servants of Bahaullah had striven and made great endeavours to spearhead the Cause of Bahaullah in the different lands. This is first time I am knowing that Women in Malaysia have also made great sacrifices and had serve The Exalted Threshold in different countries with different capacities. These peoples can be easily regarded or categorized as true believers and enlightened souls. Betty was really gifted to have had the privilege to meet Hands of the Cause God Mr.A. Q. Faizi, Dr. Muhajir, Mr. Tarazullah Samandari, Mr. Enoch Olinga , Mr. Collis Featherstone, and others. That was a privilege no more available to younger generation as there are no more Hands. Some women in Malaysia from the time of inception of the Faith in Malaysia had made valuable and significant contributions in spearheading the Cause of God to greater heights internally and abroad.
Bahaullah had prophesied in the Suriy-i-Mulúk that true believers will arise and envelope the globe in the establishment of the World Divine Civilization. And today the Universal House of Justice in its recent 30th December 2022 message to Counselors says that enkindled souls among the Bahais and from the wider society will arise and take or upsurge the Faith of God to greater heights and dimensions in the on-going Nine year plan.
Pitamboro K. N.
I was so delighted to read your write up on Betty. I had known Betty from the time she accepted the Faith in Jasin. She moved into Malacca town where I was living with my parents. Betty was very close to my parents. To her my parents were her own parents. My parents too loved Betty as their own daughter. I can say that Betty was a very strong believer in the Faith of Bahaullah and would never compromise on the principles of the Faith. She was also a strong defender of the Faith. She was a wide reader and could answer any question on the Faith. Her love for Bahaullah was so intense. She was a very prayerful and a very sincere believer. Her heart was magnanimous. Unfortunately, my direct association with this angelic soul was not too long. I went abroad to the UK while she went to Bagan Serai with her husband Tony Fernandez who was a senior officer in the police force. They teamed up to serve the Cause in many capacities. When I returned from the UK we were in different communities, and we met only on occasions. She then left for Australia. Though she migrated to Australia, she had left behind the fondest memories and indelible traces of her great service to the Faith. I must admit that Betty was a pride to the Malaysian Bahai community, as she was in the forefront of activities. I learnt from your story that she had done well wherever she lived abroad, rising to great heights of service.
The community needs such exemplary Bahai women in abundance. May her soul be richly rewarded for the laborious services she had carried out on this earthly plane.
Dear Mani ,
The first time I met Mrs. Betty Benson ( then fondly called Betty) was in January 1963. I had been invited by dear Raymond Peter to spend some time after completing my Form Five in 1962 December.
Raymond, a Health Officer then in Malacca took me to Betty and Tony’s residence; Tony Fernandez was a senior Police Officer stationed in Mealacca Town.
Being of a Catholic background I was deeply touched by the confirmed and steadfast nature of both Tony and Betty. The previous night after a brief explanation of “Progressive Revelation” by Raymond I had almost already made up my mind to declare the Faith. After my declaration on 13th January 1963 my first close contact with Betty was in a teaching trip in her car along with some Bahais like Jami Subramaniam down south to a border town probably Muar. We had arrived at someone’s house and a fireside-like teaching was in process. It was my first exposure to the resurrecting spirit in every word uttered in that proclamatory gathering.
At one point Betty’s response to a question posed by an enquirer was something like this, “Can’t you see the blazing spirit awakened and manifest in us?” That was the kind of conviction and certitude that had enveloped her entire being. It was an eye-opener for a new born like me.
Throughout the many years I had seen her in meetings and gatherings that enkindled spirit had its transforming effects on those who came in contact with her
My association with Betty and Tony is somewhat limited as I had little interaction with them, but the kind of reports and narrations of her activities in Malaysian Bahai News was always a source of encouragement and inspiration to the people of the younger generation like me.
I once overheard that she was very much involved in the Tupperware business very common among the lady folks of those times. She had saved quite a substantial amount and gave all of them away as contributions when there was a call for Funds for some projects.Such an act of selfless sacrifice had such a penetrating effect on me that thereafter my understanding, outlook, and attitude toward contributions took a different meaning.
It is very rare that we find a person of beauty, charm, and grace both externally and internally. I dare say Betty was such a rare personality exemplifying and deserving and qualified as a true ‘Handmaiden of God’. She will always be remembered as one of the outstanding heroines of the Faith.
Dr. Joseph Swaminathan
Thank you for documenting my mothers service to the Faith in Malaysia. The photos are wonderful and the memories are such a delight to read. I was only a child in Malaysia so your account brought mum’s service to life for me. I so appreciate your work as a historian. Thank you so much.
All my mother wanted to do was to serve the Faith. Her journey in this life allowed her to do this in four different regions – ASIA (Malaysia), AUSTRALIA (Perth), the PACIFIC (Chuuk, Guam etc) and the USA (New York) where she is buried. A world citizen is what she is. No matter where she lived, all she wanted to do was serve.
She lived by the words:
“To be a Bahá’í simply means to love all the world; to love humanity and try to serve it; to work for universal peace and universal brotherhood.”
With appreciation and love,
Betty was a well-known figure in the Baha’i community of Malaysia, and a close colleague of late Mrs. Shantha Sundram. She was beautiful in stature, beautiful in speech, and beautiful in manners. She was self-confident. As in the words of Baha’u’llah she always displayed “purity of heart, chastity of soul and freedom of spirit.”
Though I know not her much, I first saw her at my first Summer School participation held at Vocational School in July 1972, Penang when I was a lad of no more than 22 in 1972. Later I remember having lunch with her and Dr. Sreenivasan at the latter’s home. Indeed, she obviously was much more than what I have described above.
If not for these wonderful qualities of hers I truly could not have remembered her till this day.
May God bless her soul.
Thank you so much for this most touching tribute to an amazing beautiful handmaiden of Bahaullah. As a child I admired her beauty, dynamism and eloquence. Indeed she is one of the important people in the early history of the Faith in Malaysia.
Thank you very much for your very kind service in doing so much to help every body to know and be inspired by all the good deeds of all our beloved Baha’i family members all over the world. Our beloved Aunty Betty strait away attracted admiration when we see her at conferences because of her beauty and loving personality. She always had a sweet smiling face when talking to others. We were not in the same community so I can only admire her and respect her and love her. I am sure every Baha’i has the same feeling for her .May God bless her forever!