There is an old saying, “Behind every successful man, there is a woman.” Well, I’m not exactly sure how true that is anymore, now that the times have changed. I mean, even Singapore has a female President right now.
In her new book, Dr. Loretta Chen provides a timely tribute to outstanding Singaporean women who have scaled the heights, and contributed significantly to the growth of our nation. “Tough times don’t last, tough people do”, she says. The multi-hyphenate Dr Chen shares with us how “Madonnas and Mavericks” came about.
What do you hope for your readers to receive through your books?
My message would be to take the leap of faith if your soul so demands it and to allow the obstacle to be the way. Embrace challenges, take the stab in the back, the kick in the face and the slam of the door and yet emerge to say, “Okay, even if this is how the world rolls, this is how I will choose to rock and roll.” Never allow your circumstances to define you and play the victim trump card. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Nobody can make me feel inferior without my consent” so always choose to empower yourself by taking accountability for all your own actions and march to the sound of your own drum.
When interviewing the 17 women in this book, was there a particular moment which stood out with any of them?
If I had to pick one, it would be Nichol Ng, the Managing Director of Food Xervices and Founder of Food Bank. Perhaps it is because we are similar in age, and have spent more time together but I think her sharing of her eating disorder is admirable and relatable.
Like her, I was seemingly strong, confident and an over-achiever but deep down, I, too, shared the same insecurities and dabbled with slimming pills, body wraps and laxatives before coming into my own in my 30s where I was much more comfortable being in my own skin and found my own voice.
Today’s media landscape places so much emphasis on physicality and the constant need to curate one’s lives on social media platforms can inadvertently send out negative messages to our young. That is why I think media owners, influencers and personalities should take the time to counter this “skinny-skinny-skinny-sell-sell-sell” narrative with one that celebrates diversity in body types; sizes and elevates personal triumphs and achievements over sheer physical beauty which is also culturally indoctrinated.
Is there a personal idol of yours that you look up to?
Today, Aung San Suu Kyi is an ambivalent character especially with the Rohingya crisis but when I was growing up, I admired her greatly. She was an intense intellectual, freedom fighter and a symbol of quiet resilience and grace under pressure. And she sure could rock a sarong.
In a local context, I would say Sylvia Lim is my #girlboss. Her sense of patriotism, dedication to Singapore and depth of courage is the stuff myths are made of. Her altruism and ability to stand up for what she believes in is what we teach our kids to do and then regret when they get hurt and we urge them to stay out of trouble. She is smart, articulate, and humane and has the tenacity to stick to her guns when the going gets tough and has earned the respect of even her biggest detractors. I don’t know Quah Kim Song or anything about football, but I am sure he knows a good catch when he sees one.
What is success to you?
There is a difference between achievement and success. I have achieved all I have set out to do but my definition of success is not determined by what I have achieved but by my ability to have peace of mind, live with compassion and wisdom as well as my commitment to being accountable for my own actions.
I began to fully meditate upon my mortality and decided that since my years on Earth were finite so what I should invest in are things that truly matter to me, namely my family, my passion for education, the arts, people and the importance of happiness.
I decided to simplify my life and take on only projects and work that are meaningful to me and impactful to others. This led me to my move to Hawaii and contrary to what most think, I decided to move to the islands first before I met my husband. And as if the universe was conspiring with my intentions to slow down, I ripped both my knees in a surfing accident a couple of days before my wedding and was not fully mobile for the next two years. During this time, I became a mummy to three fur babies; decided to take writing more seriously.
What is your take on gender equality?
There has been significant progress but there is still much work to do. I like to believe that women and men alike believe in the cause, as leaders do, lead by example and by shouldering the burden of holding up the torch and being that beacon of light for others to follow.
By extension, I do believe that women leaders do need to hold themselves to a higher moral authority and look out for their fellow women to ensure that they aren’t sidelined or victims of bias. This also means that we must dare to break stereotypes and not be afraid to stir controversy if it benefits the greater good.
In real terms, this means that those of us who have “made it” need to use our influence to effect positive change from top down to drive innovation and transformation that has a lasting impact which may require getting her hands dirty and feet wet. I have always exhorted that women need sponsors and mentors. We have to identify other high-potential women and strategically map their way to the next level whilst also ensuring their mentors guide and cushion their fall on their way up. The journey is not painless but ultimately rewarding and fulfilling, especially if you pay it forward.