Loretta Chen, 41, aka Edmund Chen's younger sister and theatre director has recently released Madonnas and Mavericks: Power Women in Singapore. The book profiles 17 women in diverse fields who have contributed to the growth of our nation, including President Halimah Yacob, Paralympic medalist Theresa Goh, and Loretta’s own sister-in-law Xiang Yun. The bubbly and outspoken author, who met a Korean architect in Hawaii and married him two years ago, released her tell-all autobiography Woman On Top in 2014. She shares: “After I moved to Hawaii, I wanted to still stay connected to Singapore, and one option to do that was through writing.” The Hawaii-based adjunct professor adds: “I thought it would be interesting to work on another book where I tell the stories of these strong Singaporean women — their failures, successes, and life lessons learnt. I wanted to feel inspired myself too, and that was why I embarked on this book.”
8 DAYS: Congrats on your new book. How did you shortlist the 17 women, who are from vastly different backgrounds, ranging from fashion and media to sports and politics?
LORETTA CHEN: Shortlisting took some time and effort but one of my criteria was that the list had to be as diverse as possible, [and span] race, religion, age, industries and sexuality. The only thing in common was that they are Singaporeans and women.
Were there any women who were offended that they didn’t make the cut?
If there were women who were offended, I don’t know about it yet! I will know after your article comes out. Let me know if you get any hate mail (laughs).
You spoke to Halimah Yacob before she became President. Did you get a chance to visit the now-famous Yistana, her jumbo flat in Yishun Ave 4?
(Laughs) No, I visited her at her office in Parliament when she was still Speaker of Parliament. Her story left a very deep impression on me. She shared with me how her mother passed away on Polling Day during the General Elections in 2015, and what it was like growing up as one of six children to a single mum. She’s really people-centered and she wanted her chapter in the book to be named ‘The Servant Leader’. It just shows what kind of person she is, and how she’s really someone who puts duty above all else. In the end, I named her chapter ‘The People’s Advocate’. She struck me as a very humble and real person who’s always fighting for people in the working class.
You also interviewed your own sister-in-law, Xiang Yun, for the book.
(Guffaws) Yeah, it felt really weird. It was interesting because the interview was held at home. What was more interesting was what was left unsaid. There are so many things shared between us that I don’t even really need to interview her but we have to pretend that the readers don’t know some things, so I had to ask some blatantly obvious questions (laughs). I knew her so intimately as my sister-in-law in a familiar setting, but during the interview, she also gave me a lot of insight into how the media landscape has radically changed over the years. Listening to her, I was reminded of how humility has served her well, how she has no scandals and is so well-liked by everyone in showbiz. It’s not easy, especially in this industry.
Your book is about allowing the voices of women to be heard, which is sort of related to the Harvey Weinstein saga in Hollywood. Have you ever experienced sexual harassment?In fact, I have. It’s so much easier to talk about it now as it happened 17 years ago. I was a young professor at 24 years old, and working in a polytechnic here. This professor in his 30s would hit on me, and often make lewd sexual comments about me or other women, discussing women’s breasts openly. When I raised it to my female boss then, she said it was impossible and that it could never happen just ’cos I was dating a woman at that time. I’m married now, but can you imagine how vulnerable I felt then? I didn’t know who to tell. That’s also one of the reasons I decided to dedicate my life to being an educator. I want to be an informed, wise and compassionate educator, and watch out for my staff and students.
There are many T-shirts with feminist slogans on them. What do you think of this fad?
Any kind of visibility is always great. When you put issues out there in public, it does generate some sort of awareness and it does give a voice to those who are disenfranchised. Social media is powerful in that messages reach us in a way that they couldn’t in the past. On the other hand, yes, I still worry that sometimes things can be politicised, aggravated and exaggerated. But in general, if it achieves some of its objectives for the victims who first spoke out, I think it’s successful in that regard.
What’s one thing you learnt on the job that they never taught in school?
It’s that you have to always take accountability for your actions. What others do to you is their karma, but what you do to others is your own. You can’t change anyone else, but you can certainly create change in yourself. It’s often so easy to put the blame on someone else, but we have every responsibility to choose wisely, and make wise decisions based on what we know.
Madonnas and Mavericks: Power Women in Singapore is available at all major bookstores.