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.


 

1. Ho Ching

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. In her 17-year tenure at the helm of Temasek Holdings, Ho more than tripled its portfolio, from SG$90 billion in 2004 to more than SG$300 billion as of early 2021. 

Trained as an engineer, Ho began her career at the Ministry of Defence. She also worked at Singapore Technologies Group, becoming its president and CEO in 1997 before joining Temasek Holdings in 2002 and becoming CEO two years later. 

2. Halimah Yacob

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.

She was also adviser to the National Council of Social Services and served as minister of state in the Ministry of Social and Family Development. Yacob has served on various boards including Mendaki Sense, the Tripartite Workgroup on Enhancing Employment Choices for Women and the Tripartite Alliance on Fair Employment Practices.

3. Grace Fu

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 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.

Fu is also the leading contributor to the Young Women’s Leadership Connection Council of Advisors, and was a past chairwoman of the PAP’s Women’s Wing.

4. Chew Gek Khim

Chew Gek Khim is executive chairman of The Straits Trading Company (STC), part of the Tecity Group founded by her grandfather and former OCBC bank chairman Tan Chin Tuan. Tecity Group also has an investment arm, The Tecity Group Family Office, as well as a philanthropic division, The Tan Chin Tuan Foundation, with a mandate to help the poor, the widowed and the orphaned. Businesswoman and investor Chew is credited with turning the 134-year-old STC, which has its roots in tin smelting, into a streamlined, modern entity focused on hospitality and property.

Since she took on the chairmanship of STC, the firm has diversified into a modern company with interests in commodities, hospitality and real estate. Chew is also chairman of the Malaysia Smelting Corporation and ARA Trust Management (Suntec), as well as sits on several boards.

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5. Claire Chiang

Claire Chiang is co-founder of Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts, a global developer and operator of resorts, urban hotels and destination spas in various destinations. The group’s portfolio revolves around five brands: Banyan Tree, Angsana, Cassia, Dhawa and Laguna, which were all founded on the core values of well-being and sustainability.

Chiang is also a strong advocate of various social issues, helping to raise awareness of family violence, female board representation, work-life balance, and animal conservation, among others. She is a trustee of the Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund, chairs the Singapore Book Council and is a National Arts Council member.

6. 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.”

Prior to heading the National Gallery, Chong was president and CEO of the real estate company Ascendas from 2001 to 2013. In that time, she was recognised by the 2009 Singapore Business Awards as the Outstanding CEO of the Year. Prior to Ascendas, Chong was Assistant Chief Executive Officer and then Deputy Chief Executive Officer of JTC Corporation from 1999 to 2001.

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7. Angelene Chan

Angelene Chan is the chairman of DP Architects, the firm behind famous sites such as the Singapore Sports Hub, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay and The Dubai Mall. The company’s work in also evident in more than 20 projects and redevelopments along the Orchard Road shopping belt, including Wisma Atria, The Centrepoint and Mandarin Gallery. Holding the twin precepts of “design” and “people” close to her heart, Chan steers DP Architects in producing authentic and purposeful architecture that fulfils the needs of the community.

Chan first received recognition for her design credentials in 2010, when she was named one of Singapore’s 20 leading architects under the age of 45 by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. She grew from strength to strength, clinching the President’s Design Award (P*DA) for her design of Sunray Woodcraft Construction Headquarters in 2015 and being named P*DA Designer of the Year in 2018, Singapore’s highest design accolade.

As an active industry participant, Chan sits on the Board of Architects Singapore, the Urban Redevelopment Authority Board, the Professional Engineers Board and the Sentosa Development Corporation Board. She is also the chairman of the URA Design Advisory Panel and the vice-chairman of Dover Park Hospice.

8. Lily Kong

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. 

Kong has received five international fellowship awards including the Commonwealth Fellowship Award and the Fulbright Fellowship Award. She has also won the Robert Stoddard Award from the Association of American Geographers for her contributions to the study of religion.

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9. Chan Heng Chee

Among her many accolades, ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee is best known for being Singapore’s longest-serving ambassador to the United States, holding the role for 16 years. She is also an accomplished academic, occupying various appointments on the boards of local and overseas research institutes, universities and think-tanks; she was most notably founding director of the Institute of Policy Studies, which was established in 1988.

Chan’s early ambassadorial roles included Singapore’s permanent representative to the United Nations in 1989, and a concurrent position as Singapore’s high commissioner to Canada and ambassador to Mexico. She took on the post of ambassador to the US in 1996, and strengthened bilateral relations in education, trade, security, defence, and science and technology.

Chan was appointed chairman of the National Arts Council in 2013, and has been a member on the board of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre since 2015. She also chaired the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design from its establishment in 2012 until 2021. In addition she serves as global co-chair of the Asia Society and chair of the National Arts Council, and is a member of the presidential council for minority rights.

10. Cheong Koon Hean

Dr Cheong Koon Hean chairs the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), a government body that is part of Singapore’s Ministry of National Development. The CLC focuses on researching and sharing knowledge in areas such as housing, sustainable infrastructure, food security, biodiversity and technology with a view to enhancing the liveability of cities of the future.

Cheong is an integral contributor to Singapore’s current urban landscape. As CEO of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) from 2010 to 2020, she led the development and management of more than a million public housing flats. She implemented various sustainability, biophilic and smart features in HDB towns.

She was also chief executive of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) from 2004-2010, overseeing the conservation of heritage buildings, strategic land-use planning and the real estate market. Cheong played a significant role in the development of important growth areas such as Marina Bay.

She also chairs the nominating committee for the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize. The Colombo Plan scholarship holder graduated with science (merit) and first-class honours degrees in architecture from Newcastle University, UK.

11. Cynthia Chua

Cynthia Chua is a relentless entrepreneur and tastemaker in the truest sense of the word. Since 1996, the savvy founder of the Spa Esprit Group has built a lifestyle empire encompassing culinary, beauty, and health industries, including Strip, Browhaus, 40 Hands, Common Man Coffee Roasters, Tippling Club and Tiong Bahru Bakery.

Chua has also spread her wings overseas—the group’s 15 brands span more than 100 outlets in 12 cities including Bangkok, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

Chua has an uncanny ability to give consumers what they don’t know they want yet. She was first to market to introduce concepts such as natural wine bar Drunken Farmer, farm-to-table dining experiences Noka and Open Farm Community, as well as gut-friendly and gluten-free eatery The Butcher’s Wife. In keeping with her spirit of inventiveness, she launched the Blackout Mask under the Two Lips brand, which just opened its first boutique in Singapore.

The product—positioned as the world’s first activated charcoal mask that soothes, detoxes, brightens and moisturises the vulva—debuted in 2018 and was the first in a new range of upmarket intimate-care products aimed at empowering women.

12. Susan Chong

Susan Chong had a vision of saving the world from the blight of packaging waste when she launched Greenpac as a one-woman operation in 2002. The firm is now a leader in the re-engineering, design and distribution of eco-friendly packaging products and solutions, and counts some of the world’s largest Fortune 500 companies in aviation, defence and biotech as its industrial clients.

Chong’s firm has won various awards and certifications for its innovative and eco-friendly contributions, including Spring Singapore’s Quality Award in 2014. Greenpac also regularly clinches the WorldStar Packaging Award for innovation and quality in packaging. 

Chong encourages her 50‑strong workforce to focus on the community and environment and practises an inclusive hiring policy in employing ex-convicts as well as people with disabilities. She also picked up sign language to communicate more easily with some of her staff. 

13. Nana Au-Chua

Nana Au-Chua is chief operating officer of Million Lighting and a board director of Soles4Souls Asia, a non-profit social enterprise that originated in the US that collects used shoes to distribute as part of its disaster relief, direct assistance and micro-enterprise efforts.

Soles4Souls has donated more than 30 million pairs of gently used and new shoes to over 120 countries globally since 2006. Au-Chua amassed nearly 50,000 pairs as part of her first drive in 2017; that number increased to 450,000 pairs the following year. As a result of her contributions and efforts, Soles4Souls also opened its first warehouse in Singapore in 2020.

Au-Chua started her charitable efforts by donating care packages to residents in old folks’ homes and making ad hoc donations to benefit various causes. The avid photographer also raises funds for the Monaco Foundation and is a committee member of Kidz Horizon Appeal, which helps needy children with chronic illnesses.

14. Susannah Jaffer

Susannah Jaffer founded Zerrin in 2017 to address overproduction and overconsumption caused by fast fashion’s exploitative and unethical practices. The online marketplace features over 50 sustainable clothing and beauty labels, vetted through Zerrin’s Better Brand Framework, which focuses on five ‘P’s: People, Planet, Product, Packaging and Principles. A former magazine editor turned media and e-commerce entrepreneur, she also runs Zerrin Studio, a boutique creative agency offering photography, videography, fashion and product styling, consulting and content writing services.

In 2020 Jaffer was included in Eco-Business’ Youth A-List, which recognises the work of sustainability changemakers under the age of 30 in Asia Pacific. She has appeared on panel talks hosted by companies such as Great Eastern, Fashion Revolution, Coty, General Assembly and Green is the New Black, and also presented and mentored at Lasalle College of the Arts and Raffles College of Higher Education.

15. Aw Kah Peng

A 22-year veteran of the Singapore public service, Shell Companies Singapore chairman Aw Kah Peng is helping to steer the conglomerate in its energy transition path, in keeping with its parent company Royal Dutch Shell’s aim of eliminating net carbon emissions by 2050. The energy giant plans to achieve this goal by growing its renewables and low-carbon businesses, including hydrogen and biofuels.

Aw joined Shell in 2012 as its general manager for Global Commercial Strategy. She moved to the company’s chemicals division two years after that, and was appointed Chairman of Shell Companies in Singapore in January 2019. Aw is also the Asia Pacific focal for chemical sustainability at the company. Her past roles include CEO of the Singapore Tourism Board; prior to that she worked for 18 years with the Economic Development Board across various industries in the US and Europe.

Aw is a Fellow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, and a steering committee member of the Philip Yeo Initiative (or young entrepreneurs at the National University of Singapore.

16. Celeste Basapa

An avid philanthropist, Celeste Basapa is known for her ability and desire to help to raise funds for various causes. These include supporting needy and ill women and children, persons with mental health conditions, seniors in need of support, the arts as well as sustainability, climate change, and marine conservation.

Socialite Basapa is a regular fixture at charitable and gala events organised by the likes of the Singapore Repertory Theatre, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the Eurasian Association and the Chinese Women’s Association.

Basapa is also a member of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation First Circle, a group of individuals passionate about the environment and sustainable development. With her peers, she works with the charitable foundation to increase awareness of environmental issues and sustainability.

Basapa serves on one of the fundraising committees of the National Gallery Singapore, an executive committee member of the Chinese Women’s Association and a committee member of the Kidz Horizon Appeal. The trustee of the Estate of H Somapah—a prominent businessman in pre-independence Singapore—was also a member of the Eurasian Association Centenary 2019 gala committee.

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17. Ayesha Khanna

Dr Ayesha Khanna is co-founder and chief executive of artificial intelligence (AI) solutions firm and incubator Addo AI, which works with companies such as SMRT, Singtel, Pakistan’s Habib Bank and Japanese insurance firm Sompo to gather data and harness AI for greater automation and more optimised services.

Dr Khanna holds a Bachelor of Arts (honours) in economics degree from Harvard University, a Master of Science in operations research degree from Columbia University and a PhD in Information Systems from the London School of Economics. She is a regular speaker at financial and technology conferences, and has also spoken at TEDx events and chaired symposiums such as AI Asia.

She is also the founder of 21C Girls, a charity that provides free coding and artificial intelligence classes to girls in Singapore. Dr Khanna is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Councils, a community of experts who focus on emerging technologies, and also serves on the boards of Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Sport Singapore and the Infocomm Media Development Authority, the government agency responsible for developing and regulating Singapore’s technology sector.

18. Tan Hooi Ling

One half of the duo behind Grab, Tan Hooi Ling has had quite a start in her career, and not just because of the on-demand transport mobile platform that made her into one of the most prominent young tech entrepreneurs in the region. Fresh out of graduating from the UK’s University of Bath with a Mechanical Engineering degree, Tan was hired by consulting firm McKinsey & Company back in Malaysia to advise global corporations in Southeast Asia, North America, Latin America and Australia.

Recognising her potential, the firm sponsored Tan’s MBA education at Harvard Business School where she met her future co-founder Anthony Tan, and the idea of the ride-hailing app was first mooted. With the runner-up prize money the duo won for their business plan at the HBS New Venture Competition in 2011, in addition to personal funds, they launched the mobile app—then called MyTeksi—in June 2012. Before officially taking her position as Grab’s Chief Operating Officer in 2015, Tan Hooi Ling re-located to San Francisco, California, to join the software company Salesforce after finishing her term at McKinsey, where she led high-priority strategic and operational projects. At that time, she was working on developing the company with Anthony in her spare time.

Later re-named Grab, the platform quickly grew to offer food, grocery and courier delivery, as well as digital payments, on top of transportation. Now based in Grab’s headquarters in Singapore, Tan oversees the development of the company’s new products and technology, operations and customer experience.

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19. Carolyn Kan

Carolyn Kan launched Carrie K. in 2009, realising her dream of becoming a jewellery designer.

Once she found her calling in silversmithing, she learnt the craft from an artisan in Florence and started her career in fashion. “I have always had a passion for jewellery and making things with my hands,” she shared.

Describing her jewellery design, Kan, who previously worked at M&C Saatchi, said, “My advertising background plays a part in our style of design, which is a little tongue-in-cheek.” Her Morse collection, which features morse code diamond dots and dashes on fine gold and silver rings, remains one of Carrie K.’s most popular designs. The atelier has won awards such as Elle Awards Jewellery Designer of the Year 2010, and, in 2011, became part of the stable of labels for the Make One’s Mark concept store in Japan.

20. Naina Batra

Naina Batra is chairperson and chief executive of Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN), a platform of investors and social funders who deploy capital for philanthropic purposes across Asia.

Batra, who joined the network as CEO in 2013 and was named chairperson five years later, grew its membership base by over fourfold since she came on board. She also diversified its focus from venture philanthropy to encompassing social investors as a whole, including philanthropists, impact investors and corporate CSR professionals. AVPN currently works with more than 600 funders and resource providers in 33 markets, in areas such as education, gender equality and Covid-19.

Batra is also a board member of the Global Resilient Cities Network, an organisation that works to safeguard vulnerable communities against climate change and other physical, social and economic urban adversities. Her past roles include being head of human assets at The Monitor Group.

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21. Guan Dian

The Shanghai-based co-founder and Senior Vice-President, Asia Pacific of intellectual-property intelligence firm Patsnap, Guan Dian developed its presence as a patent-search provider and analyst in China. One who believes in the value of building meaningful relationships over anything else, Guan has been credited for bringing in the company’s first Chinese clients.

Patsnap was founded in 2007, and today has amassed an impressive pool of international investments, such as Sequoia Capital China, Shunwei Capital and Softbank Vision Fund two. Its clients include heavyweights such as NASA, IBM, Pwc, Ferrari, Vodafone, China Mobile, A*STAR, Starbucks and Lego. In March 2021, the unicorn company reached a valuation topping US$1 billion following its US$300 million Series E round.

Guan, who studied at Stanford University and the University of Singapore (NUS), was formerly an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston and a software engineer at Moowee, San Francisco, which provides video-application solutions.

She received the NUS Outstanding Young Alumni Award in 2019.

22. Sandra Chang

Sandra Chang is the director of Raffles Yacht Group, a firm that builds, retails and charters luxury yachts for leisure use. She is also vice-president and ambassador of the International Seakeepers Society Asia, where she takes part in island clean-ups and educational outreach projects with regional institutions on issues such as climate change and marine conservation.

These days, she often acts as a consultant to yacht owners and designers, on matters such as design and interior trimmings such as art and other decorative embellishments.

Chang is also a board member of the Singapore Jazz Association, where she works at raising the profile of the local jazz scene.

23. Rachel Lim

Rachel Lim is the co-founder of Love, Bonito, one of the first fashion labels with an online presence in Singapore. The brand debuted in its current guise in 2010, offering a range of women’s clothing that quickly attracted a following with its Asian fits, style, affordability and sheer variety—the omni-channel fashion brand launches more than 100 new designs every month. The brand recently announced the close of a Series C funding round, securing US$50 million, led by global investment firm Primavera Capital Group.

Lim started Love, Bonito in her final year at university in collaboration with two friends, when e-commerce was in its infancy. Since then, it has grown into a multi-million-dollar clothing empire. The brand designs its wares in-house, putting its fashion-forward stamp on everything from activewear and maternity wear to tops, dresses and swimwear. Overseas, Love, Bonito also operates retail outlets in Malaysia and Indonesia and has an online presence in US, Australia, the UAE, the Philippines and Greater China.

Lim’s business has also won a number of accolades, including the SME Asia Award 2013/2014 by The Asian Business Journal and Singapore’s Trade & Industry Association.

24. Dorothy Chan

Dorothy Chan is the executive director of real estate and hospitality giant Far East Organization (FEO), and the daughter of late property tycoon Ng Teng Fong, who founded the firm. FEO’s varied portfolio of businesses also includes retail, food and beverage, self-storage, laundry services, as well as the Agape Services social enterprise, which offers employment to the disadvantaged.

Chan herself is a big supporter of the arts as well as grassroots initiatives. Among her significant altruistic deeds was being the biggest single corporate donor at the Inter-Religious Organisation Singapore’s 2018 interfaith charity dinner event; Chan donated SG$200,000 and also sponsored the dinner venue of the Grand Ballroom at Fullerton Hotel. The JurongHealth Fund board director was also a recipient of the SG50 Outstanding Chinese Business Pioneers Award in 2015.

25. Esther An

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.

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