Some time ago, I was waiting for the taxi queue at Raffles Hotel. It was Friday peak hour, my handphone batteries had gone dead and the doorman didn’t seem overly enthusiastic about hailing me a cab. But all that changed when a car pulled up and out stepped the hotel’s general manager, Jennie Chua. She came over to say hello and in the background, I saw the doorman snap to attention and virtually throw himself into the Beach Road traffic to get a cab.
Jennie is only 1.5m tall but she’s larger than life. You might not notice her in a crowd—until, of course, she speaks. She doesn’t demand that people look at her—they do. “She has a certain incandescence in a crowd,” says one long-time employee. “And that rubs off on people. There’s always laughter around her.”
Jennie obviously has presence. And a certain kind of power—not just to get cabs but to get things done. It’s a power built on years of proven performance.
Now, also president and chief operating officer of Raffles International, a position she has held since October last year, Jennie Chua has come a long way from her days as a school teacher.
After a short teaching career, Jennie studied at Cornell University and became the first Singapore woman to graduate from its School of Hotel Administration.
On graduation, Jennie worked in several leading hotels here and abroad before becoming director at The Singapore Convention Bureau from 1977 to 1988. While she was there, Singapore emerged as a premier convention city. She then joined the Westin Hotels as marketing director before taking up the post as general manager of Raffles Hotel.
Today, at 55, besides her association with Raffles, Jennie is a director of 29 companies and serves on 11 government and community service committees.
But it is Raffles Hotel, once thought of as a colonial bastion, which is synonymous with Jennie Chua. There’s certain irony to that. Seventy-five years ago, her Hainanese grandfather contracted to provide curry for the hotel’s Tiffin Room. If she had been around then, Jennie, female and Asian, might not have been allowed to enter the hotel, let alone head it.
“Seventy-five years ago, I would have left if they had turned me away, but I would have gotten even. Where I can, I will persuade, but I won’t confront.”
“Jennie’s remarkably rational,” says her former husband Goh Kian Chee, who works in the stockbroking business and with whom she’s on great terms. “She doesn’t arm-twist, unlike some women.”
Friends describe Jennie as being very much a man’s woman. Powerful men have been known to tell her things they wouldn’t tell their business associates or their wives. “I don’t mean to sound sexist,” says ex-husband Kian Chee, “but Jennie thinks and acts like a man.”
Others say it’s her wit that men love. “She’ll say to a man ‘You’re the love of my life’. It’s a little over the top, but everyone laughs and relaxes, and the man goes away feeling better about himself,” says Richard Lim, editor of The Straits Times’ Life! section. He’s known her for 10 years.
Jennie herself believes that humour helps put problems in perspective.
And then there’s her commonsense, what friends and employees say is her real gift. Jennie believes there is no problem that can’t be solved: “The solution may not be to everyone’s liking, or it may be satisfactory or even just so-so. But it’s a solution and everyone can move on.”
Go to Jennie with a real tangle of a problem, and she’ll sort it out. “She won’t tell you what to do. She’ll let you see there are three or four options and leave it to you to decide on the correct course,” says Diana Ee-Tan, senior vice president of marketing and operations for Raffles International. Diana has worked for Jennie, whom she still calls Miss Chua, from her early days at the Singapore Convention Bureau to the Westin Hotels and now at Raffles.
Jennie is also known to ring up Straits Times reporters when a human-interest story catches her eye. Says one source, “Jennie helps them, not just by giving money but also her time and advice. She wants to help them sort out their problems and take control of their lives again.”
By her admission, she had to grow up fast. Ten-year-old Jennie woke up one day to find men removing the bed she slept in: Her family had lost all their money, and the house and its contents had to be auctioned off to pay off debts.
“There were things I had to learn, like how to pay the PUB bill, and whether to borrow from Fifth or Seventh Uncle.”
It wasn’t just finances that the 10-year-old had to figure out. Even going to pay the bill took some readjustment. Having always been chauffeured, neither Jennie nor her mother had any notion of how to cross a busy city street. She remembers an incident when she and her mother attempted to cross a busy road.
“We were stranded in the middle, with cars honking. We started to cry. Finally, someone took us by the arm and led us to the other side. It was then I realised that in life you can stay stuck in the middle of the street and cry, or you can go forward. And ever since then, I’ve gone forward.”
Jennie has been known to take risks but people who’ve worked with her say she has an instinct for making the right decision, but not before she has dug deep. “She wants to know the upside, the rate of return, how long it will take before there’s a benefit,” says Diana Ee-Tan.
Business leaders trust Jennie’s judgement. If she believes in it, it’s good enough for them—the reason, perhaps, she’s managed to get notoriously tight-fisted businessmen to part with millions of dollars for charity and the arts. Gaurav Kripalani, general manager of the Singapore Repertory Theatre, says that over the past six years, Jennie has literally brought in millions of dollars for the SRT.
Jennie admits she uses psychology. “I zero in on what they’re interested in. If a man thinks that education is the government’s responsibility, I’m not going to ask him for a university endowment grant. But if he likes art, then I’ll ask him to buy a Picasso for the museum. You’ve got to tap into his psyche.”
Jennie may live a lot of her life in the public eye, but she’s worked very hard to keep her privacy. Long-time employees have never been invited to her home. And when she was hospitalised some time ago, she sent round a note to all staff appreciating their concern but discouraging them from visiting her.
Her ex-husband is her chum but Jennie admits she’s had to work at her relationship with Tan Siok Sun, the present Mrs Goh Kian Chee and stepmother to Jennie’s two sons. Says Jennie, “It was sensitive. Here’s Kian Chee married to a woman he really loves, yet his ex-wife is his best friend. But I appreciate the way she’s nurtured the boys.” Ken Yi, now 27 and recently married, grew up with his dad and stepmother. Yang Peng, now 22, lived with his mum. She says of the arrangement, “I guess it was practical at the time.”
Ken Yi says that, growing up, he felt like he had three parents. “I think that’s because everyone got along so well together.” The boys are now on their own, with different personalities. Jennie says that Ken Yi, a Cornell graduate who now handles direct investments for Temasek Holdings, is the Sensitive New Age Guy who looks on his wife as his equal.
Yang Peng, a graduate of Ngee Ann Polytechnic and now studying in Australia, is a bit of a macho man: “He thinks women should stay home and take care of the kids,” says Jennie.
Until recently, Yang Peng was very concerned about Jennie and her new boyfriend, who’s 12 years younger. She met him two years ago through mutual friends, and since then observers say she has been glowing. She’s taken up dancing, shed 7kg and revved up her wardrobe (she’s set her once-beloved cheongsams aside).
Ex-husband, eldest son, even her driver were all in favour of Jennie’s new interest. But youngest son Yang Peng wasn’t so sure. Says Jennie, “He was afraid I’d be hurt; he also worries about the social implications. And of course, he worries about where this new relationship puts him.” Now, she says, her son has worked out a relationship with her beau. “It’s very simple: Take care of my mother, or I’ll kill you.”
Jennie herself isn’t worried about the 12-year age difference. “This is another way Jennie thinks like a man,” says Kian Chee. “She doesn’t care what the world thinks about her new romance.”
Her new love has also made her look at life realistically. “When you’re younger, you have an ideal. He’s a fabulous creature who always looks like he’s stepped out of the shower with a rose on his lapel. At my age, you love a man, warts and all.”
She’s also taking a practical look at retirement. In the last few years she’s gone from a seven-day work week to a six-day one and is trying to whittle that down to a 5¾ day week.
“I don’t want to be rich but I want to be able to dine out in fine restaurants like the Raffles Grill. I want to be able to choose between Bali or Hong Kong. As a student in Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, I could only afford to eat fishball noodles or take the bus. I couldn’t do both.”
She has also mellowed. Says Diana Ee-Tan, “In the early days, if someone in the office was holding the telephone away from her ears and rolling her eyes we’d know it was Miss Chua on the other line.”
Jennie believes that 90 per cent of what we are, we are born with; the other 10 per cent is what life has made of us, and what we make of life. And Jennie Chua has made a lot of life. Yet she invites criticism, some of it from younger women who dismiss her as an “old hat”.
Jennie admits that the harshest critics of women in her generation aren’t men, but other women.
“Many of the younger women think we had an easier time. They say we only had to compete with men, while they have to compete with men and women. So they have to be more intense in their careers whereas I just lived life.”
Says long-time friend Elizabeth Sam, herself a Woman of the Year recipient two years ago, “Jennie and I were the first women in a man’s world. We put in extra effort. But, yes, we lived our lives.”
Adds Jennie, “If there was a chance for me to do something and it was appropriate, I took it.”
1963: Started her career as a teacher at 19. She was paid $199 a month, half of which went to her mother, the rest on clothes, eating out, make-up and costume jewellery.
1967: Studied Hotel Administration at Cornell University in the US, where her then husband was pursuing his master’s.
1971: Returned home after graduation and worked in leading hotels here and abroad, handling every aspect from housekeeping to F&B and marketing.
1977: Was made head of the Singapore Convention Bureau, a subsidiary of the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board.
1984: Awarded the Singapore National Day Public Service Silver Medal for her contribution to the development of Singapore’s convention industry.
1988: Joined the Westin hotels as director of marketing.
1990: Joined Raffles Hotel as general manager.
1997: Won her first award as a hotelier—Independent Hotelier of the World, 1997, from the US-based Hotels magazine, the publication for the hotel industry worldwide.
1999: Promoted to president and chief operating officer of Raffles International Ltd, the hotel management subsidiary of Raffles Holdings. Won her second hotelier award—Hotelier of the Year 1999, from TravelAsia magazine. This award salutes “the best, the bravest and the boldest” in the travel, hotel and tourism industry. She was also the first woman to be elected to the board of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce in its 161-year history.
THE RULES—ACCORDING TO MISS CHUA
Jennie says her staff must think she is a monster: Tough, strict, a stickler for rules. Her staff says she’s a breeze to work with once you know the rules because, combined with the strictness, is a clarity of direction that’s rare.
Rule No. 1: Never, ever go to Miss Chua without having your thoughts in order. Anthony Khoo, who worked with her at the Singapore Convention Bureau and is now manager of Kuo Properties, recalls her returning memos to her staff that said, “Please speak.” There’d be a queue of people who’d also gotten the memos. But his colleagues tipped him off. “When you get one of these ‘Please speak’ memos, don’t just hare off to see her. Sit down and think about what she’s most likely going to ask you, and then about what you’re going to say. And then think again and again and again.”
Rule No. 2: When things go wrong, let Miss Chua know right away. “She’s really sharp so you can’t sneak anything past her,” says Anthony Khoo. “If you do and she finds out, she’ll never trust you again. Tell her and she’ll help you solve the problem. But she will rip you apart and remind you of the 5,000 brochures that had to junked because somebody didn’t proofread properly.”
Rule No. 3: Uphold Miss Chua’s high standards. When Diana Ee-Tan first went on an overseas trip to Japan with Jennie, she twice slipped on a highly waxed floor at Narita Airport, sending all her materials flying. “After the second fall, I called out to Miss Chua who was walking ahead with a board member. And she turned to me and said, ‘Diana, please remember that you are an officer of this board, so please conduct yourself with a bit more decorum.’”