updated 21 Oct 2011, 04:31
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Wed, Aug 10, 2011
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Singaporean women take charge
by Gwendolyn Ng

If you caught this year's National Day Parade yesterday, you would have witnessed a little-known but significant piece of history in the making: More women held heavyweight roles in the celebration.

Two women took charge of two important segments for the first time: the marching parade and the musical.

Master Warrant Officer (MWO) Jennifer Tan, 45, was the parade's first female regimental sergeant-major (RSM), while theatre thespian Beatrice Chia, 37, was its first female creative director.

MWO Tan's booming voice was heard throughout the march-in, as she commanded the 3,000 participants in 29 contingents, while Chia helped conceptualise the musical and directed the cast.

Whether or not the series of firsts was a coincidence, it mirrors the amount of progress that Singapore women have made over the decades.

In 1957, only 26.1 per cent of women worked. Now, about 56.5 per cent of women are in the workforce. Women are also taking up more key leadership roles in the private sector and in the Government.

For example, four women police officers have held the senior position of Police Land Division Commander in the past 13 years.

There are currently six land divisions in the Singapore Police Force, namely Central, Clementi, Tanglin, Ang Mo Kio, Bedok and Jurong. Assistant Commissioner of Police Florence Chua is currently in charge of the Jurong Police Division.

As for MWO Tan, she said she was "honoured to be the first female RSM" but reiterated that she faced the same challenges as her male predecessors.

Still, she acknowledged that it would have been tougher if she or any other woman had taken on the role in the past, saying that "it would have been a great challenge for females to take on a combat role and command the men" then.

"But now, in society, people are open to women taking on high appointments."

Chia echoed MWO Tan's sentiments and pointed out that capability - not gender - counts these days.

She said that her gender might have mattered at the beginning, but "after the first few seconds, you sort of throw that out the window and everybody gets down to work".

Ms Nicole Tan, president of women's group Aware, said: "There have definitely been many improvements, although we would like to see a faster pace of change in terms of more women achieving leadership positions."

She believes that, as women make up half of Singapore's population, fair representation is important to ensure diversity of experiences and views. Nonetheless, MWO Tan's role in this year's parade is a landmark.

Her disarming personality makes her popular with the children in the contingents.

She said: "As you can see, all the children are very close to me. As I walk past, you see they like to stick to me. They look upon me as a mother figure." She is a mother of three sons, twins aged 21 and another who is 19.

Chia said the musical, which is told through the eyes of a mother and son, has received positive feedback that it packs a more emotional connection. She said her role as creative director was intertwined with her personal role as a parent.

Like any working mother, she juggles her career and family.

She said, half in jest: "I'm a mother of an extremely hyperactive four-year-old, Sol, who, at this point, is not talking to me because he has not seen me for quite a few months."

She is quick to add that there are perks to being the parade's creative director.

She said: "My son's still happy as he gets to see the parade and the rehearsals on Saturdays. He loves the tanks, the fighter jets, the helicopters.

"So I think my credit rating in his eyes is quite high."



Customer-service officer at a manufacturing company

NDP leadership role: Red Cross first-aid volunteer team leader

Why she volunteers for the Red Cross: For the past decade, Ms Tan, a former kidney patient, has been a first-aider at every National Day Parade (NDP) and rehearsal, except for the one last year.

The youngest of three children, she had a kidney transplant on Christmas Day in 2009, and was still recuperating months later.

Now healthy, she said: "It's good to be back doing what I love. It's such a rare chance to be part of a national event."

Before her kidney transplant, Ms Tan had to regularly undergo dialysis for her failing kidneys.

Despite her ill health, the feisty woman was not one to let it bog her down.

She underwent dialysis on Saturday mornings, then zipped off to the NDP rehearsals and the celebrations without fail.

Explaining what keeps her volunteering all these years, she said: "It's fulfilling knowing that I can help others. I want to make myself useful."

Though her family worries that her NDP volunteering will tire her out, she is confident that she's up to it.

She said: "As first-aiders, we are supposed to take care of ourselves first, before others.

"You don't want to become the first casualty."

This year, she is leading a team of four volunteers, all of whom tower over her 1.5m frame.

Because of her petite stature, Ms Tan said that it can be tough convincing her fellow volunteers, especially guys, that she can be their leader. She admits that she faces gender bias from time to time.

She said: "I could sense that the guys initially looked at me differently as a leader. But over time, I proved that I am capable, and they have accepted me."



Assistant Superintendent of Police at Bedok Police Division

NDP leadership role: Police Contingent Commander

Why she decided to join the police force: Even when she was a young girl, Ms Seah knew what she wanted to be when she grew up - a police officer. She said: "It was the only job I applied for after I graduated, as there was no doubt in my mind."

Inspired by her auxiliary police-officer mother, who works at Changi Airport, she recalls being awestruck by her mother's sharp-shooting skills.

"I was really proud of her. My mother gave me her marksman badges, which I still display on my study table," she said of her mother, who is in her 50s.

Throughout her life, there were signs of her police ambitions. In school, she joined the National Police Cadet Corps and the air rifle club. And, as a Sociology undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, she did her honours thesis on criminal justice.

In May last year, she joined the police, and was posted to the Bedok Police Division as an investigation officer this May.

She enjoys the full support of her family, which includes her younger brother, 15, a student, and father, a retired businessman in his 50s.

The latest feather in her cap: She was hand-picked from a shortlist of five candidates to be the Police Contingent Commander for this year's National Day Parade (NDP).

A police spokesman said Ms Seah stood out with her "leadership attributes" and good perfor- mance during drill training.

Ms Seah said she "was sur- prised to be chosen" and was "honoured to be able to repre- sent the Singapore Police Force at the NDP".

Taking on leadership roles is not new to her.

During her training at the Home Team Academy, her squad mates believed in her abilities and voted her as squad chairman.

She said: "It's quite rare for a female to take on the role as chairman. Hopefully, I set a precedent and more females will step forward to take up the role."

Though the police force is still largely dominated by males, she hopes more females will join her in the fight against crime.

Quoting United States women's activist Bella Abzug, Ms Seah said: "The test for whether or not you can hold a job should not be in the arrangement of your chromosomes."


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