She brought Singapore to the forefront of the global convention business as a director at the tourism board. She later helmed and expanded two very successful hospitality brands – Raffles Holdings and Ascott Group. Now, she is Ambassador to the United Mexican States, after two terms as Singapore’s diplomatic representative to Slovakia.
But of her many roles, the one which HE Jennie Chua feels most privileged to hold is that of being mother to her two adult sons, and grandmother to five grandchildren spanning three to 13 years of age.
“On your deathbed, you don’t think about your last promotion or how many boards you have been on,” she says sagely, albeit perched on a chair swinging her feet as a carefree child would. “You think about family, friends – your community, the people who matter.”
Despite the mellow talk, Chua is far from thinking of retirement. At the age of 71, she is pursuing her entrepreneurial dream. Having given up an opportunity to go into the fast-food business in her 30s, and having now “finished with being an executive”, she has brought in Filipino burger-joint Jollibee. “I still enjoy an active business life,” she says. “And there is still a lot of life to enjoy after 70!”
The overachiever has her own take on the meaning of success, especially for women. She shares: “Men are judged almost always according to their career performance. But there are so many ways for a woman to be respected: by being a good mother, a good daughter, a good cook. So why should women measure their success by just one yardstick? I would love to be a housewife but had to make a living as a divorced mother raising two sons.”
Her alimony, by her own request, is a dollar a month. She did not see why she should depend on her former husband, who remains her close friend. “We are both graduates and had our own careers,” she explains. “We should be responsible for our own lives.”
This self-reliance is a life skill developed from young. She lived in the lap of luxury until 10 years old, when her father’s business failed and the family lost everything. Chua, as the eldest of 12 children, took it upon herself to help support her family. While in secondary school, she gave tuition to the neighbourhood children. In her pre-university days, she worked as a clerk at a nutmeg factory in the afternoon. “I learnt not to dwell on things or become bitter or self-absorbed,” she says. “Just look at the situation, learn from it, and move on. And moving on is the most important part.”
This was another lesson she learnt early on in life. Sharing an anecdote on the time she had to visit City Hall with her mother to pay an overdue water bill, the previously sheltered girl didn’t know how to cross the street and became stranded in the middle of it.
“I told myself if we don’t cross it we would be killed – and thankfully a lady guided us across. That is an analogy of life: When you are stuck in the middle, know how not to turn back, because then you will have to start all over again.”
When you are stuck in the middle, know how not to turn back, because then you will have to start all over again.
Chua does not quote philosophers or famous leaders – her wisdom is gained through small lessons in life. Yet, the school of hard knocks hasn’t hardened her. There is a gentle humility that makes her very human, despite her formidable achievements. Diana Ee-Tan, who is chairman of Mount Faber Leisure Group and has worked with Chua for 15 years, recalls an incident: “I had to attend an important Swiss Board meeting in Montreux at the very last minute, but it also meant that I would have to miss my father’s 70th birthday celebrations. With Ms Chua’s intervention, the Swiss Board rearranged the agenda so I could fly back in time for the celebrations.”
“She beings wisdom, intellectual challenge, insight and humour to everything she does. Her judgment and integrity are above reproach. She has the ability to talk to peopl eat every level, from the shop floor to the boardroom.”
Lord Charles Allen, Chairman, ISS A/S, where Jennie Chua served as a board member.
Chua, who was Her World Woman of the Year 1999, believes in influencing and steering people through living and breathing the simple values she subscribes to.
“I don’t think I should be writing a book or holding a seminar to share my values, but through day-to-day encounters with people – such as when they come to me with a problem or a complaint. I learn from various people by observing them; my mentor is everybody whom I have learnt from, on one or many occasions,” she says.
“Similarly, people should be able to observe how I conduct myself – and I have had a few younger colleagues who would tell me that they remember what I said and did. Then you realise that you have mentored somebody.”