Madonnas and Mavericks

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Power women in Singapore

By Dr Loretta Chen

“The real struggle for women… is that we are expected to be perfect and yet not look as if we are working for it.”

The journey and process of writing take you places. You are never the same person as you were when you first started. The ideas and words morph with each person you meet and each story you hear.

I had the privilege of meeting with and talking to 17 of Singapore’s most illustrious and well-respected women, across diverse backgrounds and demographics. They have shared their childhood struggles, countless challenges, personal tragedies and little victories. In today’s global climate, perhaps now more than ever, we need greater awareness of and united support for diversity against the rise of divisive rhetoric. And we can certainly do with more Singaporean female role models.

In the sphere of politics and diplomacy, there are Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, Speaker of the House Halimah Yacob and Worker’s Party Chairman Sylvia Lim.

Three women have served as Nominated Members of Parliament on top of being professionals in their own fields: ophthalmologist and nature advocate Geh Min, stage actress Janice Koh and water treatment magnate Olivia Lum.

Many of them are entrepreneurs, expanding the job market in scores of industries. Nichol Ng and Janice Wong are both passionate about food, one as a grocer and the other as a chef, both leading teams of staff.

Former CEOs Jennie Chua of Raffles Holdings and Fanny Lai of Wildlife Reserves Singapore are experts in their respective fields who have ventured to new, unchartered territories.

Other remarkable head honchos include Odile Benjamin of F J Benjamin, Cynthia Chua of Spa Esprit Group and Tjin Lee of Mercury.

From the realm of sports, we are honoured to have Paralympian Theresa Goh; from the music circle, the celebrated violinist Siow Lee- Chin; and from the TV world, the evergreen darling Xiang Yun.

And last but not least, the spunky and uncategorisable Gentle Warrior, Ivy Singh-Lim.

There is more than one way to list these luminaries as they are all so multi-faceted. You will discover other lesser-known descriptors, because amongst these women, we have playful professors, artistic businesswomen, entrepreneurial musicians, sensitive souls, cancer survivors, poverty conquerors, nature champions, enthusiastic mothers, happy singletons, amiable divorcees, contented wives and so many more.

All these women have courageously redefined what it means to be women of the 21st century, and have bravely forged ahead with their dreams—fearing nothing and no one.

For the purpose of this book, Madonnas and Mavericks: Power Women in Singapore, I have defined Madonna as a steadfast and virtuous woman after the Judeo-Christian tradition. She is a disciplined professional with specialised mastery that has taken her many years to hone and cultivate. This contrasts with the Maverick, a character born out of today’s fast-paced environment- a game-changer and a dynamic individual, one who revels in taking the bull by its horns and seeking new adventures.

One thing to note is that the Madonnas and Mavericks hold distinct views on feminism and the role of women in society. Their perspectives on marriage, motherhood and career differ and many even challenge Sheryl Sandberg’s notion of “having it all”. Some argue that we still have a long way to go, whilst some maintain that we have it good in Singapore.

A few share that motherhood is tough business, while some, like Earth Mothers, take it in gleefully and ask for more. Many agree that the workspace today can still be hard on women, and observe that women can sometimes be hardest on women.

To quote Brené Brown, “The real struggle for women… is that we are expected to be perfect and yet not look as if we are working for it. We want it to just materialise somehow. Everything should be effortless. The expectation is to be natural beauties, natural mothers, natural leaders and naturally good parents, and we want to belong to naturally fabulous families. … And when it comes to work, we love to hear, ‘She makes it look so easy,’ or ‘She’s a natural.’”

These women have unabashedly shared what they had to undergo to get to where they are today. The climb can be arduous and unglamorous and certainly not always “natural”. But what does make it beautiful is their unyielding passion, strength in spirit and staunch belief that things will always get better. They have embraced challenges and pain; taken a stab in the back, a kick in the face and a slam of the door, and they all somehow nd the courage to say in their own way, “Okay, this is how the world rolls. So this is how I will rock and roll.”

They have never allowed their circumstances to define them, and instead saw them as challenges to overcome. None of them used the victim card, “Boo hoo, poor me. It’s all my parents’, ex-husband’s, baby’s and future lover’s fault.” None. Zilch. Nada. They instead had a similar rallying cry, “Whether I like it or not, this ball is in my court. So what can I do?”

Either consciously or unconsciously, these women have all marched on to the beat of their own drums. They have crafted personal worldviews, distinct life philosophies and their own style of authentic leadership. Whether they are Madonnas, Mavericks or any other M’s, they are true beacons of light, worthy of being exalted as Power Women in their own right.


Dr Loretta Chen is a multi-hyphenate: leading creative and marketing director, leadership and theatre professor and bestselling author of Woman on Top: The Art of Smashing Stereotypes and Breaking All the Rules and The Elim Chew Story: Driven by Purpose, Destined for Change. Her third book, Madonnas and Mavericks: Power Women in Singapore, featuring the President, incumbent politicians, leading CEOs and celebrities, was launched in November 2017.

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