Her World Woman of the Year 1991: Chan Heng Chee

by Her World  /   August 17, 1991

Professor Chan Heng Chee’s life has been full of firsts in male-dominated fields. But if you think the Ambassador-at-large and Chairman of National Arts Council is all rational mind and cold logic, think again. Here is one woman who can’t find her parked car sometimes


Her stepsons call her Heng Chee. Friends know they can phone her at midnight to pour out their woes. Her staff like her for being a democratic boss.

Critics, however, slate her for having a sharp tongue. The lady is undiplomatic, she would make more enemies than friends as ambassador to the United Nations, charged some bruised egos. In the university political science department that she headed, she was called a dragon lady. “She looks so aloof, thoroughly intimidating,” remark those who’ve seen her from a distance.

It’s her mind that intimidates most people. A mind as sharp as a razor, rationality applied all the time, arguments marshalled in a logical coherent fashion. Matched to a calm, modulated voice, it comes across pre-eminently as a voice of reason, which is why her detractors find her irritating and her admirers love her.

Heng Chee sees it quite differently: “In fact, my style of debate is rather mild, Singaporeans somehow cannot accept being criticised.”

In a man’s world, she says, “you’re either a Margaret Thatcher or a pushover. A lot of competent women end up being described as a dragon lady or a Thatcher. If they call me that, it just means I’m doing my job.”

Such is her standing, it’s hard to address her as Heng Chee though she asks you to. Heng Chee seems irreverent, but Professor Chan is too formal, so many people avoid addressing her altogether. Her staff refer to her, respectfully, as Prof Chan.

She is a cool, elegant figure in a long-sleeved, below-the-knee dress. Her room, in the office of the Singapore International Foundation, is large and neat and smells pleasantly of the perfume she wears.

She’s just turned 50, but her face is strikingly youthful. It’s her reputation that frightens people, she claims. “When I walk down the street, people stop me to ask for directions. When people don’t know who I am, they don’t find me cold.”

In person, she’s not at all intimidating. You notice how she shows an interest in who you are, she asks about your family and interests.

Always a bright child, she got better and better, as she cut a trail-blazing path from academia to public life.

She was the first woman political science lecturer, the first woman to head the political science department at the National University of Singapore, and, in 1988, the first director of the government think-tank—the Institute of Policy Studies. Then she was Singapore’s ambassador to the UN. In 1991, she returned to start the Singapore International Foundation, entrusted with the goal of fostering links between this country and Singaporeans living abroad, and with giving its citizens a more international outlook.

She has also authored three books and edited two, winning twice the National Book Award for non-fiction. One was for The Dynamics of One Party Dominance: The PAP At The Grassroots and the other, A Sensation of Independence: A Political Biography of David Marshall.

Her long list of accomplishments made her an obvious choice as the first Woman of the Year, an award given this March.

Associate Professor Ann Wee, a long-time friend who nominated her for the title, says, “I could think of no one else with the same level of achievements.”

And yet Heng Chee doesn’t see herself as particularly ambitious. She never set herself goals. As a student, she wanted to become a librarian “because librarians were the only women in those days to be sent abroad.”

But she did very well in political science and the breaks came. The first was securing a First Class Honours, followed by a scholarship in 1967 to do her Master’s in Cornell University, New York, and then a doctorate in the University of Singapore in 1974.

Another big break was getting her thesis on Singapore’s post-separation struggle published by Oxford University Press. It was recognition at an international level.

Heng Chee acknowledges it’s tough being a leader in a man’s world. “I know my male colleagues in the political science department felt threatened when, for instance, I had to decide who would be promoted. They looked on me more unkindly than if I were a man.”

At the UN, “very much a men’s club”, a woman was an oddity. At functions, she often found herself sitting with ambassador’s wives, rather than with ambassadors. “The men would never tell me a dirty joke. They didn’t know how to behave towards me,” she recalls, laughing. There was a memorable occasion when a man she met was so flummoxed, he addressed her as “Your Highness”.

Friends swear the public impression that she’s terribly serious is totally unfounded. A close friend, anthropologist Dr Vivienne Wee, says Heng Chee cracks up over jokes, dirty jokes included. Assoc Prof Ann Wee of the NUS Social Work and Psychology department describes her as “far from stodgy. She’s lively as a cricket.”

And if she is critical, it’s in a purely professional way, says a friend of more than 20 years, Dr Sharon Siddique, the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “Asians have a difficult time divorcing a personal opinion from a professional one. She will not hesitate to discuss a professional matter but she won’t put people down.”

Heng Chee’s friends are fiercely protective of her and it is little wonder why. She says, “I don’t need many friends, but I have a few very good friends. And if they are in deep trouble, whether personal or financial, and need help, I’m at my best. I’m there for them when no one else wants to know them.”

Her staff at the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) appreciate her openness to diverse views. Research assistant Eddie Guo says, “As a boss, that’s her best quality.”

She never pulls rank, says the SIF’s assistant director, Kang Siew Kheng. “She is very high on intelligence, and low on insecurity. We’re very partial to her. And she’s not like some bosses who maintain a distance. She likes to lunch with us.”

Friends say her deepest regret is not having children of her own. But it’s a subject she prefers not to talk about.

She is also reticent about her relationship with her two stepsons, Harold, 26, an engineer, and Arnold, 23, who’s about to enter university. But friends praise the way she’s handled being a stepmother.

Dr Vivienne Wee remembers when they came to live with Heng Chee, they were then 11 and 14 – difficult ages to deal with – but Heng Chee quietly coped. She helped them with their schoolwork, organised their tuition and switched them from Mandarin to Malay as a second language when they had problems. “Their father was away quite often. What’s wonderful is she would never exact a debt of gratitude from them.”

Out of respect to their mother who lives in Singapore, Heng Chee will only say she and the boys are close.

“We’re friends. I never try to be their mother.”

Family ties are important to her. The second in a family of two boys and two girls, she was closest to youngest brother Heng Wing. Her father was a businessman. Heng Wing is Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s Press Secretary. Heng Loon is Mindef’s Director of Manpower. Elder sister Heng Wan is a teacher.

As a child, the greatest influence in her life was her paternal grandmother. Her name, chosen by Ah Ma, means “celebrated pearl”.

Five-year-old Heng Chee, Ah Ma’s favourite grandchild, used to run around their Joo Chiat neighbourhood, asking which of the bibiks wanted to play mahjong with granny.

Once the game started, the little girl was left to amuse herself. She remembers sitting in the garden watching people. Or drawing a map of neighbours’ houses and making up stories about the families.

The grown-up Heng Chee doesn’t play mahjong. But she still enjoys sitting in the garden. Except that now she spends her time there having a cup of tea, watching the light change at dusk and feeding her carp and the birds that visit her garden.

Always, she’s thinking about work. “Intellectuals are a nation’s expensive pets. We’re paid to think. If I have a project, I think of how I’ll do it. If I’m writing a paper, I think through an idea. Or analyse a remark someone made. Was there truth in it? Was my response satisfactory?”

Home is her haven. And hers is as neat and unpretentious as she is self-possessed and unflashy.

Her bedroom, with its pine bed, cream-coloured bed-linen, small shelf of books and grey curtains, is as plainly functional as the Neutrogena moisturiser standing on her bathroom countertop. Her dressing table is naked except for a bottle of Miss Dior and a crystal apple.

Heng Chee has always thought of herself as an ugly duckling. “Way back, people were always telling me, ‘You’re so thin’. Then Twiggy was all the rage and everyone said, ‘My, you’re so slim’.”

Her two-year stint at the UN was a success. In 1989, she led the Singapore mission to lobby for votes for an ASEAN-backed resolution on Cambodia. Votes were expected to fall because Vietnam had pledged to pull out of Cambodia.

ASEAN, suspecting Vietnam of not keeping to its word, wanted an international supervision of the withdrawal. Heng Chee’s energetic lobbying was credited for boosting the votes to 124.

She also worked to get Professor Tommy Koh elected as chairman of the preparatory committee for the Earth Summit in Brazil in June this year.

However, her return home a year before the end of her three-year term sparked off speculation about marital problems. Friends confirm her 17-year marriage has hit a rocky patch and that Heng Chee has been deeply hurt. When she married at 33, she chose her intellectual match. Husband Tay Kheng Soon, tall, tanned and ruggedly attractive, is one of Singapore’s most vocal architects.

Private troubles aside, she says, “I can honestly say I’m not the neurotic type. I’m generally a happy person.”

Her discipline is tremendous. The secret of this go-getting Aries is being able to stick like glue to a schedule. “When the boys were young, I would have dinner with the family, talk to them, see them settled into their own activities and then work. I’m a night person, so working at night, even until 3am, was easy.”

Superwoman she may seem to be but she’s only human, Sharon Siddique reveals, “She’s a terrible driver. We’ve gone around the university several times on the wrong side of the road. She sometimes cannot remember where she’s parked the car. Or she goes to a nice coffee place and then can’t find it again. When we go out, we’re like a couple of absent-minded professors.”

They both have taken to walking in the parks in the early morning—the only exercise Heng Chee gets. She is amused by the stiffness of landscape design in Singapore. “I wonder why our sense of aesthetics, whether in buildings or gardens, is so rigid. I think it’s our national character. Everything’s correct, precise. We’re almost Germanic.”

The same kind of inflexibility, she feels, exhorts women to lower their expectations in order to marry. “But because excellence is so much emphasised, it’s very hard to convince Singapore women that they should not be picky when it comes to choosing their life partners.”

Old age doesn’t bother her. She wants to continue working until she drops dead. She won’t colour her hair but she uses more skincare now than before. “The only thing I’m really afraid of is losing my eyesight.”

As for goals and ambitions, she reiterates: “I have no plan. You can plan and it’s very frustrating when you don’t achieve your objectives.

“I don’t call it planning. I call it plain worrying.”

More facts about Heng Chee

BIO
Born 1942, Singapore

EDUCATION
First Class Honours (Political Science), University of Singapore, 1964
Master’s in Political Science, Cornell University, New York, 1967
Ph.D, University of Singapore, 1974

POSITIONS HELD
First woman head of NUS Political Science Department, 1985
First director of the Institute of Policy Studies, 1988
First woman permanent representative to the United Nations, 1989
First director of the Singapore International Foundation, 1991