International Women’s Day 2021: 10 Women Who Are Shaping Singapore
From Chew Gek Khim to Grace Fu, meet the female leaders whose impressive work has put our nation on the map
This story was first published on March 27, 2018, and updated on March 4, 2021.
Additional reporting by Ho Yun Kuan.
This prominent politician has pioneered several firsts in Singapore: she was the first female speaker of parliament and is the first female Malay president of the country, a position Halimah Yacob currently holds following an election walk-over in October 2017. The mother of five grew up in poverty and has been working since she was 10 years old. She is well-regarded for being down-to-earth and a “champion for the underdogs”, famously refusing to move into the presidential office, Istana, following the elections. She preferred to stay in her public housing flat but gave in due to security concerns from the authorities. A women’s activist, she has actively pushed for the awareness of mental health issues and issues plaguing senior citizens.
Chew Gek Khim
According to Forbes last year, Chew Gek Khim’s family is the 29th richest in Singapore with a net worth estimated to be around US$1.26 billion. The executive chairman of Straits Trading Company assumed the control of her family business in 2008 and transformed it from an old-fashioned tin smelter to a modern firm that, in addition to tin smelting, is involved in real estate, hospitality, and fund management. The lawyer-by-training also heads Tecity Group, which was founded by her late grandfather and one of Singapore’s pioneer banker Tan Chin Tuan. (The Group comprises Straits Trading, Tecity Management and Tan Chin Tuan Foundation, and owns the Tan Chin Tuan Mansion.)
Ngiam Le Na
Men are not the only ones who can play a part in defending Singapore. As the deputy chief executive (Strategic Developments) of the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), Ngiam Le Na believes that this male-dominated field can only benefit from the diversity of perspectives that women will bring.
Defence isn’t just about the military might, either. DSTA has been leading Singapore’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic last year, with Ngiam overseeing the development of self-help temperature checking kiosks, faster swab tests and analytics tools for contact tracing, as well as the procurement of medical supplies.
As the first woman to lead one of the big four law firms in Singapore, the ex-deputy chairman of WongPartnership has always been a vocal advocate of helping women thrive in a male-dominated industry. She credits her former employer for showing her how it could be done when it went the extra mile to create a work-from-home set-up for her while she was expecting her first child. For the late 1990s, this move was ahead of its time.
When Eng left WongPartnership in 2018 to strike out on her own and found Eng and Co LLC, she wanted to create the same supportive environment she had enjoyed. Last year, her company, which is a member firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), was named Employer of Choice in an industry-wide survey by Thomas Reuters.
In 2019, Eng joined PwC’s Global Legal Leadership Team. She is also a board member of the Central Provident Fund Board (CPF) and the Singapore representative of the Asean Business Advisory Council. Outside of work, she is a mentor at the Young Women’s Leadership Connection (YWLC). She was named one of Forbes Asia’s Power Businesswomen last year.
As the fifth president of Singapore Management University (SMU), Professor Lily Kong is the first woman and the first Singaporean academic to helm a local university. The geographer was formerly a provost at SMU and a faculty member at the National University of Singapore’s geography department for close to 25 years. She was also appointed a Member of the Public Service Commission in January 2009, conferred the Public Administration Medal (Silver) in 2006, and the Public Service Star in 2020. Her work gained international recognition last year when she was named one of 25 outstanding female leaders on Forbes Asia’s Power Businesswomen list.
Chong Siak Ching
The National Gallery Singapore chief executive officer assumed her role in 2013 and under her leadership, the museum welcomed more than 1.65 million visitors between April 2019 and March 2020. In a previous interview with Tatler, she said: “We want to inspire our visitors, pique their curiosity, and touch their hearts, and we all try to live and breathe these words every day.”
A true multi-hyphenate, Chong Siak Ching is also a Justice of the Peace, Singapore’s Non-resident Ambassador to the Republic of Chile, and a board member of Singapore Press Holdings and Mandai Park Holdings. She is on the governing boards of Yale-NUS College and Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, the latter of which she joined as Chairman last year. She is also involved in charities such as Parkinson Society Singapore and YMCA.
The wife of prime minister Lee Hsien Loong is arguably Singapore’s most influential woman—she was number 30 on World’s Most Powerful Women 2020 list by Forbes, ahead of even Queen Elizabeth II at number 46. Despite being in the global limelight, Ho Ching is known for being the reclusive CEO of Temasek Holdings and is widely credited for expanding its horizons to Asia and beyond. Under her leadership, Temasek’s portfolio value has grown from S$90 billion when she took the helm in 2004, to more than S$300 billion in March 2020. After 17 years of leading the company to success, she is set to retire in October this year.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate has described herself as zealous when it comes to her work, and it shows. After joining Chinese insurance giant Ping An as chief information officer (CIO) and chief operating officer (COO) in 2013, she quickly climbed the ranks to become group co-CEO and group executive director today. She is most noted for successfully steering the firm through a digital transformation, diversifying its interests into fintech, artificial intelligence and smart city solutions.
The tech investments have paid off and Ping An is currently China’s largest private conglomerate by revenue, raking in RMB$174 billion in 2019. The firm’s success has put the spotlight on Tan, who ranked 21 on Forbes’ World’s Most Powerful Women 2020, the only other Singaporean besides Ho Ching on the list.
The current minister for Sustainability and the Environment started her career as an auditor in the banking sector before joining PSA Corporation in 1995. There, Grace Fu moved up the ranks steadily and was appointed as the CEO of PSA Southeast Asia and Japan in 2004. She entered politics ahead of the 2006 General Elections and was appointed minister of state for the Ministry for National Development the same year.
The National University of Singapore alumnus went on to helm various positions in different ministries before becoming a full minister in 2012. In 2015, she was appointed Minister for Culture, Community and Youth. She stepped into her current position last year, when the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources was renamed Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) to better reflect the new challenges facing the current generation. In her new role, Fu will be looking at the generation of green jobs and industries, leading efforts to mitigate the consequences of rising sea levels on Singapore, as well as driving the Singapore Green Plan 2030.
In a list about the influential women who are helping to shape Singapore, Esther An’s contributions are probably the most tangible, because they involve the very structures we live, work, and shop in. The chief sustainability officer of City Developments Limited (CDL) has been shaping Singapore’s cityscape since 1995, when she joined the company to set up its corporate communications department, and subsequently, pioneered its sustainability initiative. Under her leadership, the company adopted a “conserving as we construct” philosophy, integrating environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) principles as well as green building processes into its operations. CDL was named the top real estate company on the 2020 Global 100 Sustainable Corporations in the World.
Today, An is an eminent figure in the sustainability movement, both local and abroad. She is a vocal advocate of the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and in 2018, was conferred the SDG Pioneer for Green Infrastructure and a Low Carbon Economy by the UN Global Compact. She also serves on the boards of several organisations, including the World Green Building Council Corporate Advisory Board, Asia Pacific Real Estate Association, and Singapore Green Building Council.