Women Now

Meet your Her World Woman of the Year and Young Woman Achiever 2016!

One’s a social worker who founded Singapore’s first centre dedicated to domestic abuse; the other’s a gungho go-getter who has resurrected the dying funeral business. Both are trailblazers in the truest, most triumphant sense of the word
 

Speaking as a regular guy, I’m telling you that the two women you’re about to be acquainted with are awesome individuals, and the awards they’ve won are a huge deal. 

Ready for a bracing dose of invigorating inspiration? Before we introduce you to your new role models, here’s what you should know about the judging benchmarks and prizes proper. 

Speaking at today's press conference, Ms Jennie Chua, chairperson of the judging committee, says the panel appraises shortlisted candidates on qualities which are quite frankly universal and timeless: “They must be an inspiration and role model to society, and they must represent and project the best of Singapore, at home or abroad.” 

When all is said and done, the Her World Woman of the Year and Her World Young Woman Achiever awards are accorded to women who are go-getters ahead of the game; whose achievements in their working and public lives have made a mark on society; who are basically stewards of Singapore – challenging criteria, to say the least.

Happily for 2016, Jennie says the decision was “a relatively straightforward process.” Her palpable pride for this year's winners was corroborated by no less venerable a figure as Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister for Social and Family Development, our Guest of Honour for the night. Mr Tan noted in his dinner speech that "the Her World Woman of the Year and the Her World Young Woman Achiever Awards are an extension of the magazine’s values [and] shine a spotlight on women who are empowered, ambitious, talented and successful", and that "the winners are women of calibre who have accomplished many 'firsts' in Singapore’s history."

Indeed, this year’s winners are two very special women whose strength appear to stem from a soul-searing sense of social justice. Their work revolves around the shackled and subjugated, the deprived and disenfranchised. 

So say hello to – drumroll, please – our Woman of the Year, Dr Sudha Nair, 58, executive director of family violence specialist centre Promoting Alternatives to Family Violence (Pave) and Pave Siglap; and our Young Woman Achiever, Jenny Tay, 30, managing director of Direct Funeral Services.

DR SUDHA NAIR, HER WORLD WOMAN OF THE YEAR: HEALER OF HEARTS

Let’s address the awkward elephant in the far reaches of this room. Sudha knows what some of you are prolly thinking – eeyer, social worker? Softies. Bunch of bleeding heart liberals

In a pointed preemption of your preconceived notions – and in a sign of her sardonic and sagacious character as well, we might add – our Woman of the Year tells the roving reporters thronging today’s press conference that hers is a mischaracterised and misunderstood line of work: “By choosing a social worker, [Her World] recognises my profession – a profession that is often underestimated and regarded as little more than a soft option for kind, good-hearted people who hand out financial aid and food rations.”

But what do social workers do? As Sudha puts it, their job is a delicate dance that pirouettes upon the porous perimeter where the personal bleeds into the political: “Social workers operate at the point where personal troubles and public issues intersect; where the goal is to help people solve problems as well as to cope and function effectively.” 

Also well worth highlighting is the fact that the advancements accrued by Sudha and her #squad are not amorphous, but actual and appreciable. Take it from the woman herself: “Social workers are custodians of public funds and advocate for real change in policies and services,” Sudha explains. “We identify gaps that need to be addressed, and ensure that the delivery of social services is humane, accountable and efficient.” 

“Humane, accountable and efficient” – assiduous HR-friendly attributes Sudha seems to have in spades. Indeed, her CV reads like that of a consummate candidate for Most Tireless Overachiever. To wit – and deep breath, now – besides presiding over Pave, Sudha tends to the team behind Project 4650, an initiative that intercedes for impoverished individuals hunkered down in interim rental flats. In 2015, she snagged the singular distinction of being the first social worker ever to be tapped as a Member of the Public Service Commission, the influential institution that tracks the career progression of promising civil servants. Oh, and she’s also overseeing the opening of a child protection specialist centre, which will welcome victims of violence come 2017. Phew.

“YOU ARE NOT A DOORMAT. YOU ARE A PERSON – SO BE THAT PERSON.”

At this point, you’ll be forgiven for throwing up your hands and pegging Sudha as a superhuman outlier. Not so. The softspoken social worker concedes to feeling flashes of human empathy when faced with the visceral fear visited upon the pain-wracked people she counsels – a dizzying dread she describes as “domestic terrorism”. 

“To me, family violence is nothing less than terrorism in the home,” she declares. “The victims we deal with – spouses, intimate partners, children or the elderly – are individuals terrorised behind closed doors. Imagine living in round-the-clock fear; where the people you love who are supposed to love you back are in fact your tormentors; where you continually walk on eggshells, terrified of sparking a violent episode. All this in your home. And you feel you cannot tell anyone.” Sobering stuff. 

Appearing visibly moved, Sudha also related a powerfully poignant anecdote that’s indicative of her honest-to-goodness devotion to the cause: “When I think of the women who have come to Pave, I think of Grace. She was 58 years old when I first met her. Married for more than 30 years, she finally decided to get out of her very abusive relationship by divorcing her husband.” 

Sudha continues: “A year after the divorce, her ex-husband went to her HDB block and slashed her so badly that she described her stitched-up face as a ‘jigsaw puzzle’. He was jailed, but he told her he would never let her go. She lived in terror that he attack her again when he was released. 

“I placed Grace in a group of women survivors and there, she realised she was not alone. We developed a joint community safety plan with the prisons, the police, the grassroots and the MP, all of which succeeded in keeping her safe. Grace went on to remarry, and she exemplifies our belief that there is life after violence. As she puts it: ‘After 30 years of abuse, I can finally smile again.’”  

How on earth does Sudha stay sane being surrounded by so much sadness? A healthy helping of humour, obviously – “if not, you'll be the most miserable person ever,” she quips – plus toughness and tenacity thrown in for good measure. In an exquisitely evocative turn of phrase, she says that “social work requires heart, but it is neither a soft heart nor a calloused one – many of us who practise social work are strong and resolute.” 

What’s next for our Woman of the Year? Quite a lot, actually. She’s girding herself for the shadowy spectre of elderly abuse as Singapore gets ever “greyer” by the year, and is championing for a broadening of options for cohabiting couples, who do not as yet enjoy the same legal protection available to married heterosexual couples.

But hey, Sudha is sanguine about the strife ahead of her. “I've been in social services long enough to know that if you hammer hard enough, someday somebody will hear you,” she says.

Indeed, her work ethic is a walk-the-talk lesson in #ItGetsBetter optimism that’s not lost on this observer. A similarly empowering sense of ownership is something she tries to inculcate in female survivors of abuse. “We often tell them, ‘You are not a doormat. You are a person – so be that person.’” #Applause!

JENNY TAY, HER WORLD YOUNG WOMAN ACHIEVER: A UNIQUE UNDERTAKING

From the comforting cocoon of a therapist’s couch to the hushed halls of a funeral parlour, meet Her World Young Woman Achiever 2016 recipient Jenny Tay.

Yes, Jenny is that undertaker who took those “viral” coffin-themed pre-wedding pictures, but the 30-year-old’s narrative – unconventional as it is in the finer details – will surely resonate with anyone who’s had to choose between conviction and a cushy career.

First question: Why? What’s a young woman like Jenny doing in this well, dying industry? Easy. As she puts it, she wants you – and you, and you – to start thinking long and hard about the D-word. 

“For the longest time, the way people approached death was simple: Ignore it because it’s ‘suay’ (Hokkien for unlucky),” she explains. But this head-in-the-sand attitude also meant that essential end-of-life preparation is postponed until one’s quite literally at death’s doorstep – not a good way to go, to put it mildly. Advanced planning spares everyone involved from prosaic paperwork and the banality of bureaucracy, “[freeing] you up to mourn and seek proper closure during your last moments with that person,” Jenny says.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone steeped in a “my condolences” culture, the woman is chock-full of memorable maxims that won’t look out of place on a millennial's Facebook feed. Speaking to the press pack at today’s conference, Jenny has this to say about that very same D-word: “I’ve witnessed firsthand how death can mend broken relationships and bring a family closer together. Dealing with death every day has made me cherish life and the people around me even more. My philosophy is a variation of carpe diem, but better: Seize today, for you never know whether tomorrow will come.”

This focus on the family isn’t surprising, come to think of it. Even funeral directors have to start somewhere – and for Jenny, that somewhere is home. Her 70-year-old Dad Roland Tay is a bona fide bigwig in the business – the colourful, celebrated and (it must be said) chubby undertaker is a gregarious and generous philanthropist; he’s beloved by many for arranging free funerals for penniless “clients” and murder victims alike. 

“SEIZE TODAY, FOR YOU NEVER KNOW WHETHER TOMORROW WILL COME.”

But something seemed to be missing. Jenny explains this ennui thusly: “I was adamant on professionalising and changing the public image of our trade. I see our work as being no different from that of a doctor or a nurse – we’re also providing a professional and essential service for the society. It is only through changing the public image that I will be able to continue my Dad’s legacy, and entice future generations to continue in this trade.” In other words, like Aretha Franklin and so many women before her, Jenny was looking for some modicum of respect. 

Young blood has since breathed a new lease of life into a moribund management system. “When I first came in, there was no such thing as career progression or a conducive working environment. Instead, a person would be hired for a specific role and would continue to perform that same role until they left,” says Jenny. That has all changed – these days, working at her company entitles you to medical insurance and overseas training courses, plus a plush pantry not unlike those seen at your more typical entrepreneurial enterprise.

A sampling of other initiatives she’s set into place include the Direct Life Foundation, a non-profit arm of DFS which aims to birth fresh dialogue on death through interactive activities and educational material like a children’s book (co-authored with her husband Darren) with an almost unbearably moving title, Where Did Grandpa Go? 

Speaking of kids, another problem that has perturbed Jenny since her formative years has been the downright depressing bleakness blanketing most typical funeral services. “A wake should be a celebration of life and should give visitors an idea of what the deceased was as a person,” says Jenny. “This is why I believe a funeral should be handled with as much professionalism as any other important event, like a wedding” A grave mistake, so to speak, and something to mull over, don’t you think?

In any case, her very visible presence has resurrected interest among fellow young 'uns in the field; Jenny says DFS’s weekly inbox includes at least two to three resumes from fresh graduates and career switchers – a veritable deluge compared to the single paltry applicant per three months she saw just three years ago.

Which brings us to work. Here’s Jenny’s Instagram-friendly #QOTD on the punitive pressures placed on working women today: “As a woman in Singapore, I have experienced my fair share of gender discrimination, especially in my extremely male-dominated field. When I first joined, a lot of people in my trade dismissed me right off the bat. Now, my vendors tell me to my face, ‘Sorry leh, last time when you join, you look so demure and timid, we all thought you cannot last long, one.’”

For someone who has pulled off so much in so little time – Jenny’s just 30! – it’s fitting that she rounds off her speech with a rallying cry for working women riven by self-doubt: “I’m still the same person. I still want to look good, I’m meticulous, I’m organised, I’m feminine. People seem to think that to survive in my industry, you have to be manlier, but I don't think so. Why can’t you be a woman and do well?” 

As I see it, Jenny is at the vanguard of a generation of successful Singaporean woman, fearless, footless and unafraid to do what they feel needs to be done. Indeed, the woman herself recognises and appreciates her unique place in history. “I want to give this generation and the next a better impression of this industry, so that they’ll consider it as a career,” she declares. “I want to build a legacy.”

And there you have it, Dr Sudha Nair and Jenny Tay: Singaporean sisters bound by a sense of conviction and commitment to doing what they know to be right. 

All-round awesome individuals, these two, and well worthy of being christened this year’s Her World Woman of the Year and Her World Young Woman Achiever. Brava!

Want more? Check out a really cool retrospective of our past winners, plus this year's champs in action at the press conference earlier that day. Enjoy:

 

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