Chong Phit Lian is no stranger to the hard life. Born and raised in a small kampung in Kulai, Johor, she used to help her father, a subcontractor in a rubber plantation. She worked with him in the wee hours, parang in hand to fend off snakes, and supervised the rubber tappers.
She was 13, and unafraid.
As a polytechnic student in Singapore, she gave tuition to support her family after her father died. It was a difficult period, when even paying rent was a problem. She even had to knock on doors and borrow money from relatives.
At her Maxwell Road office, the 62-year-old shares: “I was never very smart, and had to repeat my O levels after I failed my Bahasa Malaysia. I’m not very tall, smart or good-looking. But I just had to overcome all these imperfections.”
When she was accepted to do an engineering course in England, the hard worker sold insurance and applied for grants to pay for the university fees. At university, she held down two part-time jobs, as a waitress and factory worker.
“HELP FRIENDS, FAMILY AND THE COMMUNITY. CONTRIBUTE TO YOUR COMPANY’S PROGRESS. ENJOYMENT IS WHEN YOU KNOW YOU ARE BRINGING VALUE AND HELPING IN ANY SMALL WAY YOU CAN.”
CHONG PHIT LIAN
CEO, SINGBRIDGE CORPORATE
By the time she graduated, she had become her family’s breadwinner, after two of her seven siblings died in tragic circumstances. Her younger brother was stabbed in a fight, after he tried to intervene. A few years later, her older brother was electrocuted in an accident.
She recalls: “It was terrible for my mum. I told myself, ‘Now I have even more to make up and I need to do my very best’. It doesn’t matter what you’ve gone through. Even if you fail in one aspect, it doesn’t mean you will fail in another. Every adversity can be an opportunity.
“Never say die.”
And conquer her obstacles, she eventually did. She returned to Singapore, and found an engineering job at a factory that traded and manufactured equipment for the construction, manufacturing and power generation industries. Within four years, she rose through the ranks and became its general manager.
After several stints in engineering and business development, she eventually became general manager of The Singapore Mint, rising to be its chief executive. Her tenacity and ability to adapt to difficult circumstances came in useful when she was appointed CEO of Jetstar Asia Airways in 2006 – an unprecedented move as she had no airline experience and her predecessors were men and Australian residents – and helped to turn the business around after several years of losses.
In 2012, she joined Singbridge Corporate, a Temasek Holdings subsidiary, which carries out large-scale urban-development projects in China, such as the Sino-Singapore Guangzhou Knowledge City project. She attributes much of her success to understanding and working around her imperfections.
Chong, who is married with two children in their 20s, says: “You have to know your shortcomings. By so doing, you know what you need to do, keeping in mind your surroundings, your team’s strengths and weaknesses, and your objectives.”