By Raffles Press
This is a preview for our full International Women’s Day Special Edition.
Dear friends, teachers and alumni,
Happy International Women’s Month! In light of International Women’s Day (IWD), Raffles Press has compiled a publication to commemorate the many ex-Rafflesian women who have carved out their own domains of success. This is a simple catalogue that aims to bring the voices of different women to the forefront, together with their ideas, motivations and visions.
During the December holidays last year, we reached out to women alumni of all professions, ages and ethnicities, and invited them to be interviewed by us. To our pleasant surprise, the 11 ex-Rafflesians featured here kindly agreed to grace our publication. From politicians to community leaders, from athletes to artists, from businesswomen to lawyers, these alumni are trailblazers in their individual fields. Through this platform, they have contributed their unique, yet equally empowering narratives to women’s history in RI. 3 profiles of alumni from each of the 80s’, 90s’ and 00s’ can be found below. For the full edition with all 11 features, you can read them at www.tinyurl.com/rafflespressiwd. Subsequent features will be published individually after International Women’s Day.
Apart from the interview features, I would also like to point you to Connect The DOTs, a project initiated by my Press batchmate Samyak and myself, to raise funds for women from the low-income community. If you would like to contribute to making Singapore a more gender-equal society, please feel free to donate via www.tinyurl.com/connectthedots2021.
Happy International Women’s Day!
Shaun Loh (21A01A), Chairperson of Raffles Press
The ’80s: MOM Josephine Teo
By Shaun Loh (21A01A)
RJC alumnus Minister of Manpower (MOM) Josephine Teo is the third woman to be made a full minister in Singapore’s history after Lim Hwee Hua and Grace Fu. I spoke to MOM Mrs. Teo on her time in Raffles, her opinions on gender-related issues in our corporate landscape today and words of advice for younger women aspiring towards leadership.
- What are your fondest memories of studying at RJC? What were the best things to do in the Mount Sinai Campus back in the 80s’?
Whenever an RJC team got to a decisive round of a major sporting competition, we would all get time off from lessons to go support them. These announcements over the PA system were inevitably greeted with enthusiastic approval. The competitions themselves were always tense in an enjoyable way. Regardless of the outcome, we would have cheered till our voices were hoarse. If our team won, we’d get a bonus day off. There was always one competition or other and yet somehow, in between, we managed to study.
As for the Campus, everything was nice and new. Its proximity to Ghim Moh market was an absolute delight.
2. What was your favourite subject in RJC, and what extracurricular activities did you partake in?
I’m afraid it was not academic. I played basketball but a lot less than in high school. College was enjoyable because of the social activities. That’s important. We were all reasonably good in our studies. We also needed to learn about getting along with people and building relationships. These life skills are indispensable.
3. What aspect of politics excites you the most?
The potential to do good at scale and shape a better future for many people.
4. In Parliament last year, you reported on our public sector utilisation rate of paternity leave exceeding that of countries like Denmark, which is well known for its family-friendly policies. How else do you think we can reshape gender norms on parenting in Singapore?
It begins with the choices we make as individuals. For example, if you are a new father and your wife has a potential career-lifting opportunity, would you be prepared to shift your own focus to the family for a few years to support her advancement? Likewise for women, can we give space for our husbands to take the lead in parenting, accepting their differing styles and priorities? Full partnership in parenting is not easy to achieve, but well worth the pursuit.
At the broader level, employers and companies can do their part by providing family-friendly workplaces for employees – both men and women. This includes recognising the important roles that fathers play and supporting them when they take Paternity Leave, Shared Parental Leave and Childcare Leave to spend time with their families. It’s win-win, really – organisations with progressive practices tend to better attract and retain talent.
5. If you could give one piece of advice for young women aspiring to join politics, or rise up the corporate ladder, what would that be?
Years ago, I came across a quote of unknown authorship: “Don’t climb the ladder only to find that it is leaning against the wrong wall.”
Few significant things in life are achievable without effort and some sacrifice. It is therefore important to be clear about our aims and why they matter. At the same time, we need to set personal “red lines” beyond which we refuse to cross. For me, honesty and integrity, marriage and family are paramount. If I must compromise on these to do my job well, there’s no doubt in my mind that it is the job that must give way. Whatever you set your sights on will still be a hard slog, but hopefully, one with more lasting satisfaction than regrets.
6. What do you envision for women in Singapore in 2030?
Around the world, women have been disproportionately hit by the effects of COVID-19. But in Singapore, management of the pandemic and budgetary interventions have cushioned the impact on everyone including women. Our female labour force participation rate actually continued its uptrend in 2020. This fact alone is remarkable. It speaks to our women’s resilience as well as the broad support of our society for women.
Beyond employment, we must keep improving support for caregiving so that women can exercise a real choice. Women deserve the opportunity to fulfil both their family and career aspirations, and to have their talents benefit society in multiple ways. Singapore is doing a lot more, whether in terms of quality and affordable preschool education or elder care. Over the next 10 years, I hope these efforts will allow every woman to succeed in any domain they choose, and still care for the people they love.
The ’90s: Ms. Suba Sivakumaran
By Max Chwa (21A01B)
For those with artistic ambitions, the choice between one’s passions and a stable income can hold an unspeakable gravity. The pressure to succeed that many of us face only compounds the inner turmoil involved in selecting a university, a degree, or even a bonded scholarship. While these decisions appear to be one of life’s many crossroads, Ms. Suba Sivakumaran’s journey towards directing reveals that there’s more than one way to follow your dreams.
1. From what I gather, while directing is definitely a passion of yours, you’re also the head of Private Sector Development at the London office of Nathan. How do you balance your day job with your work as a director?
That’s right! My day job is in the world of development and aid work, and my work at Nathan is mainly for development projects in Africa and Asia, for the British government, the World Bank and other multilateral organisations. I have spent 15 years now working in international development, and in addition to keeping a roof over my head, it also allows me to work on the most pressing issues of the day, helping developing countries create jobs and improve welfare.
Being an independent film director, given the way the industry is moving towards more mass entertainment consumed on streaming platforms, means that most directors have day-jobs, as they work through late nights, weekends and holidays on their projects. This has been the case for me as I’ve directed one feature film and two short films in the last ten years. But I wouldn’t change it for the world!
2. What’s it like to be a film director, especially a self-taught one?
Hmm! A self-taught film director means one who has learned film and filmmaking on their own (obvious, I know!). The benefits of it are that you can build your own voice, identify the way you want to direct narratives, and be innovative and creative in making a film because you are not burdened by dogmas or textbook wisdom in making films. Like all art-forms, there is no one way of making films, and staying true to your voice is the most important and most difficult journey. All independent film directors face the same challenges, and I am no different – how to write their scripts, find production finance, shoot on limited budgets, get the film sold and distributed and reach audiences. It can be a lonely and difficult journey, and one needs the force of one’s convictions to carry on.
Having said that, I love being a film director. Each day is new and surprising; sets are full of puzzles and solutions, working with actors and crew in making stories come alive is a genuine transcendent act and has an element of purity in it. But a film director means one is an eternal student, forever trying to see the world in a different way, understanding the sources of meaning in everyday life, seeing, seeing, seeing without the chains in front of our eyes.
3. Has your experience as a film director been influenced by your gender?
I think being a woman does mean one experiences life differently. While the old forms of patriarchy are being challenged, they are not yet being replaced with new forms of social contracts that truly see all human beings as equal. Whether it is gender, race, class, caste, or sexual orientation, we all live lives that are formed by these structures, and the journey also means we need to understand where our influences, prejudices and dogmas come from. To genuinely throw off long-standing, traditional and dominant thought systems takes a lot of strength and questioning. That comes into my work, although it is a continual ongoing struggle, not to fall prey to despair at the state of things, while still remaining realistic about the battles to be fought. But yes, being a woman, with all the complexity it brings, has of course brought a certain view of the world forward into my film experience.
4. How did you take steps to involve yourself in the film industry?
While I did not go to school for film, there is still a tremendous amount of learning to do in order to do anything well. That learning – how to hold a camera, how to work with actors, how to write a script, how to work with an editor, how to understand the effect of sound on the experience of a film – has to be done. For me, I assisted a friend of mine on his short film in 2010, and that gave me the confidence to plunge into the unknown with my first short film I Too Have a Name in 2011. I also cold-emailed directors I wanted to work with, technical teams I wanted to work with and actors I wanted to work with. Many of them responded to my outreach, and were willing to give me the benefit of their time and attention. So I became involved, slowly, and through a lot of doubt, not knowing where to start, but starting anyway.
5. Have your experiences in Raffles influenced any of your films?
I think that the adolescent and late teenage experience (I was at RGS and RJC from 12 to 18 years old) is formative. I do think that my time at school has influenced me. It made me question authority, and recognise that authority is not always right. If authority is not always right, from where does it receive its legitimacy? And how does one become free from such authority? Those questions preoccupied me during my teenage years.
6. Did being an immigrant affect your experiences at Raffles Junior College?
Coming to Singapore from Australia when I was 12 and starting at RGS immediately was a bit of a shock – I am Sri Lankan Tamil by origin and I was placed in a Higher Chinese class (I was taking French as my second language). No one at the time understood what I was saying, due to a heavy Australian accent. The first year was quite difficult. So I had to learn to adapt – I modified my accent, found like-minded individuals (of which there were quite a few) and made deep and lasting friendships, which I still have today.
There are many similarities between being Sri Lankan Tamil and being Singaporean Chinese – a kind of obsessive focus on education and exam results, as well as an extraordinary work ethic being two of them. While I felt like an outsider in some ways, in other ways I did not feel like an outsider either. But inhabiting that in-between place, has taught me to be able to look at something both from the outside and the inside; neither to be a stranger, nor always be the ‘other’.
7. How has studying at Raffles Junior College shaped you as a person?
We were at the old RJC (in Ghim Moh). From being in a rather sheltered place at RGS, going to RJC felt like it was more open and reflective of all parts of Singapore (Relatively speaking — I recognise of course its privilege!) which I enjoyed. I met a group of people who were searching for answers, both personally as well as politically, and trying to understand what they would choose to believe in, as well as how to set the course of their lives. While we would all go on to different universities, countries, degrees and careers, I think that we were, for a brief moment, all at the same place of searching during those years, and that was special.
8. If you could give younger women interested in film one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would tell them not to worry so much about whether you’re going to ‘make’ it, but instead to remember why you are interested in film. Art is always a journey, and if you keep sight of the questions that motivate your search, you will always grow, and if at the same time, you keep working to improve your technical skills, you will get to the place you always wanted to go – to be a true artist. Everything else is ephemeral.
The ’00s: Dr. Elaine Kim
By Soh Jing Yee (21S03Q)
In celebration of successful female entrepreneurs this International Women’s Day, we have caught up with Dr. Elaine Kim. Dr. Elaine Kim is a Singapore-based female entrepreneur and palliative care doctor. Outside of her hectic work life, she is also a mother to 3 little boys. As a working mum herself, she was inspired to establish Trehaus—a modern preschool and childcare centre with a focus on raising changemakers for the future—in response to the woes of working parents in Singapore who are looking to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
- In your own words, can you tell us more about Trehaus?
So Trehaus is basically like a modern village for families. It brings together 3 main components—there’s Trehaus School, which is a preschool and childcare [centre] that takes kids from 2 months old all the way until 18 months old and till 6 years old; and then we have Trehaus Business Club, which is like a shared office space where you can work. We also have a crèche or nursery in Trehaus Business Club where you can have your baby looked after just a few steps away from where you are working; and we have a Trehaus Members Club [which is] basically a private members club for working families. I guess people say it takes a village to raise a child, and Trehaus is that modern village that makes work-life integration and work-family balance a reality for working parents and their family.
- What ultimately inspired you to establish Trehaus?
So I’m a working mum myself, I’m a working parent, I have 3 young children and I really believed, you know, that there was a way to not have to choose between family and career. [I believed] that you can be a successful working career professional while at the same time being able to prioritise your children and not have to miss out on the precious first few years of their life when they’re being shaped, that are so fleeting, and [so] Trehaus was established to solve the problems that I face in my own life. You know, [Trehaus came out of] wanting to find that balance between career and family, and wanting to solve these problems for so many other people who [are looking for this] balance.
- How have your personal experiences and values influenced your decisions in establishing Trehaus?
Yeah I mean [like] I mentioned earlier, it came out of my own personal challenges that I face and needing to find a solution for them. I [actually] have a different role—I don’t know if you know, but I’m a doctor and I do palliative care, so I work with terminally ill patients in my job as a palliative care doctor. And people in the last days of their lives, they don’t say they wish they [had] worked harder but [to them] it’s the relationships that matter—it’s family that matters most [and] they wish they had more time with their children, with their family and with their grandchildren. And so I really do believe that it is important to be present for your children growing up. At the same time, I do believe that people have so much to contribute to society and to the economy, and women, in particular, have a lot to contribute through work and [so] there had to be a way to find that balance of being able to have a career and at the same time prioritise family. And I think that led me to do that and behind everything, there’s a desire to make a positive difference in society.
- Are there any particular individuals who have helped shape your journey to establish Trehaus?
To be honest, I couldn’t have done without the support of my husband. As women [I think] we have a lot of strength, we have a lot to contribute. I was brought up with this [mindset] with my family and with my school life as a Rafflesian—I think I’ve been very blessed to have been brought up being told that anything is possible and that you can do anything you set your mind to achieve, and that was really rewarding for me.
But society is not always like that, and I think [with] the role of being a caregiver that women play, [there are] certain gender biases in society [such that] a lot of women aren’t able to achieve what they want and less than 5% of C-suite level women [are able to achieve success]. There’s still that glass ceiling that women are trying to break and a big part of [doing] that is having supportive people to encourage you and to say that you can, who support you in your journey.
So honestly, entrepreneurship is very hard, it’s very challenging, it’s a lot of work and I don’t think I could have done it without the support of my family, in particular, my husband. [Although] he’s a successful individual himself, but he’s willing to be supportive and encourage me to pursue my dreams and so I think that has shaped [this journey] a lot. Being able to have a supportive husband and being able to see that in my own life I’m able to have kids I’m also able to have a career, I think I am [enabling] more people to do that through the infrastructure that we’re creating through Trehaus.
- What are the most rewarding aspects of your job?
The key thing we’ve been focusing on recently in Trehaus has been developing Trehaus school. Trehaus school is a full-fledged preschool and childcare [centre] and it really comes out of our vision to provide the best sort of education, to prepare our next generation for the future world and to raise changemakers for the world of tomorrow. It’s really rewarding to see Trehaus school come together, [and] to see the children that are growing up in Trehaus school that really love learning—[they go through] not just knowledge-based learning but also things like developing their character, instilling things like empathy, grit, good social skills, good communication skills, entrepreneur skills and CEO skills.
They have a proprietary curriculum that we have developed, and I think [it’s really rewarding to] see this whole school come together, see these children grow up and allow the parents in our space to [be in close] proximity to [their] while working. Really, seeing that change happen [and] when you can tell kids love school [is] so rewarding, [especially] when you see parents come and tell us that “We’re so glad that Trehaus exists, it’s changed our lives and this is really a place where I know my kids are getting the best sort of education while I can be present”.
- Conversely, what are the most challenging aspects?
I mean, entrepreneurship is just incredibly challenging, really. COVID came and that just threw our entire business into a tailspin. And so we needed to be really resilient, adaptable, and to just have incredible grit, I guess, to get through the many ups and downs, and difficulties that you face in starting any business. So I think entrepreneurship has been very challenging.
- In your own experience, what are the challenges that you face from being a female entrepreneur?
As I mentioned earlier, I was very fortunate to have been brought up with a [mindset] that I could do anything. It’s not common for a lot of women I think, and a lot of women have less confidence to go out there in entrepreneurship and put [themselves] out there, so it’s something that we overcome. And I think the other thing is a very intrinsic, almost subconscious gender bias, [that you will notice for example] when you try to fundraise for your business.
Outside my role as a CEO of Trehaus, I’m also the co-founder of an organisation called CRIB, which is a network to empower female entrepreneurs to achieve their business dreams and we do it in a variety of ways. We have this networking platform that really provides the support and the social network which women are lacking, [especially] because a lot of business clubs were very men-focused in the past and we [are] determined to change that. Networking is so crucial in any business, and we’ve been trying to achieve that through CRIB Society which is our networking community.
[We have] CRIB Match, which helps to match female founders with business partners and investors, and CRIB Angels Club [which is an exclusive network that helps] to provide funding for female startups. And so these are a lot of the challenges that women entrepreneurs face. [With] this gender bias in raising funding for startups, only 3% of received funding actually goes to women at startups — it’s a clear funding gap [and] there’s not enough female investors. Some studies show that [even though] women and men are on the exact same page, men will get a higher level of funding than women, [and when] men and women approach a bank for a loan, men are more likely to get a higher loan. So there are statistics underlining intrinsic gender bias that women have to overcome.
We try to overcome that in our little way with CRIB Match and CRIB Equip to equip women with skills to be entrepreneurs. [Entrepreneurship is] already so challenging, so we need to make sure they’re fully equipped before starting a business. So I am taking steps [not only] in my own life, but also through CRIB to create more women entrepreneurs.
- What kind of impact do you anticipate that Trehaus will make on Singapore’s early childhood education sector?
We really are paving the way for the future of work, the future of education [and] really rethinking the way early education needs to be. [By] creating Trehaus school, and rethinking the way the workspace needs to be — and actually from when we first imagined Trehaus school to where we are today — [we can already] see the changes already starting to happen.
In a sense, COVID-19 has really accelerated a lot of it, a lot of how [Trehaus was] when we first opened was about working parents’ flexibility, allowing them to have the flexibility to work, to have their own arrangements and not have to sit in an office desk from 9-5. In that [aspect], COVID-19’s really changed that thinking and made people realise [they] can get work done without having to sit in an office from 9–5 and having to be separated from [their] child all day. So in a sense, we are trying for a very different world.
When we first started out, [we were] really aiming for entrepreneurs [and] freelancers that had the flexibility to make use of our services, or forward-thinking CEOs who are like “yeah we can do this and we can have our employees work from this place”, but now a lot of our members are actually at corporate levels. Big companies and MNCs have taken up corporate membership with us to allow their employees to work at our space, [and] people are starting to recognise that there is a different way of working, that you don’t necessarily have to make your employees choose between career and family and [they don’t have to] work from an office desk from morning to night. Yeah, I [do] think Trehaus is really paving the way, in a sense.
- What are your thoughts on this year’s International Women’s Day slogan: “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”?
In my opinion, [this slogan is] very relevant. Sometimes through crises, that is when strength is shown. And you know, hopefully, through this crisis, we can see more women emerge proving their leadership, their contribution [and] their worth.
- On this International Women’s Day, what is the most important message that you want to send out to young women thinking about their careers?
Well, I [would] emphasise [that] the entrepreneurship journey is a challenging one. But really, it has been taught to me since I was growing up that anything is possible [and] that nothing is impossible. If you really set your mind to it and you have a dream, [you should] just take a small step, [which will be] the first step [towards achieving] that dream. [Going] step by step will really make the achieving of this dream a reality. Don’t be afraid to take your first step towards this goal [and] always start with a first step.