You can either choose to do what you like, or learn to like what you have to do.
That was the advice Ms Chew Gek Khim doled out to the audience, many of whom were students who were about to step into the workforce. That was the same piece of advice given to Ms Chew by her late grandfather, Tan Sri Tan Chin Tuan, a prominent banker and philanthropist, when she complained to her grandfather about something she had to do in her younger days.
Speaking to a crowd of 180 attendees, Ms Chew, the Executive Chairman of Straits Trading offered her views about work life, growth of Straits Trading vis-à-vis the development of Singapore, gender discrimination and the growth of the tourism industry in Singapore, amongst other things, during The Distinguished Business Series held in London on 21 October.
Helming one of the oldest companies listed on the Main Board of the Singapore Stock Exchange, Ms Chew proffered that Straits Trading’s growth is in tandem with the development of Singapore. She highlighted that the stability of a country played a part in how well a company functioned. She elaborated: “Some of the prosperity and the benefits of the company are not due just to the management. Management is important, but for example, real estate will only prosper if the country itself prospers. The same is also true of hotels and investments. So some of the developments are partly due to the economic backdrop and the places where they operate.”
Being the first female Executive Chairman of Straits Trading, it drew interest amongst the audience to seek Ms Chew’s views on gender discrimination in the corporate world. Ms Chew offered her insights that women in countries that face manpower constraints like Singapore and New Zealand, face lesser discrimination. She illustrated that with a personal anecdote. “After World War Two, my grandfather had his first female secretary. He had a female secretary because so many men were killed during war. And the interesting thing is that when he was about to recruit his first female secretary, her grandmother went to interview him, because she wanted to make sure that her grand-daughter wasn’t going to work for somebody who was improper or had improper motives. The point I’m trying to make is, women came into the workforce because of necessity.”
She then recounted her days as a young lawyer, where gender came into play too. “When I first started work as a young lawyer, I found it difficult at times, when you walked into the room with some other men on the negotiating table, and your male colleague could say, “Oh I know you from the army, you were from this company, this battalion and there was an immediate bond. You don’t blame them but on the other hand, as a woman, you don’t fit. Similarly, people try to bond outside business. I used to get calls: ‘Do you play golf?’ and I said: ‘No’ and I know I’m left out. I don’t play golf, I don’t drink, I can’t go fishing with the boys and I can’t ask them: ‘Will you go shopping with me?’” With that, peals of laughter filled the ballroom. The crowd was visibly entertained and there seemed to be quiet acknowledgment of truism in her words.
The crowd was also keen to hear her views about the health of the tourism industry in Singapore. “Optimism” summed up her diagnosis neatly. Apart from the government’s plan of making Singapore a centre for conventions, she felt that Singapore’s current status as an aviation hub will further invigorate the already vibrant tourism industry in Singapore. She added that Singapore’s location within Asia Pacific, alongside “the rise of wealth in China and India, and more people travelling within South-East Asia”, will make the nation well-placed to usher in more tourist dollars.
With that, the Distinguished Business Leaders Series ended; but the evening had not – Singaporeans tucked into a buffet spread and took the opportunity to interact with Ms Chew who shared more anecdotes and insights that kept Singaporeans engaged.
The event attracted 180 attendees, many of whom are professionals.
By Yee Wei Zhen