A Letter To My Younger Self: Puan Sri Siew Yong Gnanalingam, Former MAS Spokesperson For 17 Years
Dear Siew Yong,
The year is 1969, after the May 13th racial riots and you have just graduated from the University of Malaya, with your whole future ahead of you. An ambitious Capricornian, you have applied for your dream jobs in the public relations field, even though you graduated with an Economics degree.
Your dream is to also travel the world and so obviously, you applied to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, besides applications to an advertising agency and the Economic Development Board of Singapore (EDB).
The first job offer came from EDB and you grabbed it. It was not a mistake as you learnt a lot in your first job and was recognised for your dedication and hard work with a promotion within 5 months.
However, a month later, an event caused a traumatic experience for you. A job offer from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was personally delivered by your parents, who advised you not to accept, as you wouldn’t have been able to marry; no husband would follow his wife on an ambassadorial position to play second fiddle. This is the early 70s, when family roles were extremely conservative. It was a hard decision to give up the dream offer.
In the meantime, you had also applied to Malaysian Tobacco Company for a position as their first lady executive and beat 6 other shortlisted candidates for it.
Why did you sacrifice your promotion to take the MTC job to the disbelief of your boss? The promise of a training stint in UK was a big bait for a starry-eyed baby bird that wants to fly.
Now on reflection, having declined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs job and the EDB promotion and joined MTC as its PR Executive, was it worth the sacrifices? I am telling you today, all the fateful decisions you made during the first 6 months of your working life have been good, as you had your BAT training stint in UK as promised, reconnected with someone from University who will be the love of your life, married him and are blessed with 3 wonderful children and 5 grandsons to date. Although you had to leave the company 7 years later when your husband became a Director, you later joined MAS for the dream job you never dreamt of living, to travel the world in first class comfort for you and family. You had the most wonderful career of your life as MAS spokeswoman and head of PR for 17 years and a short stint to build the image of MASkargo, before retiring as Vice-President, Group Communications at 50, fulfilling a 19-year career in MAS.
What was it that made it possible for us to live our dreams? I would categorically say that dad being our biggest supporter and inspiration, very unusual and unexpected in that day and age, made us feel anything is possible if we work for it.
The time to retire was opportunity to begin another phase of your life, giving back to society through a service organisation, Soroptimist International, culminating in you becoming President of Soroptimist International South West Pacific and your present-day role as Chair of SI International Convention 2019 in Kuala Lumpur, making it a historic first venue in Asia in 84 years of SI Convention history. You found time to offer your services as a trustee on several Boards of NGOs and Foundations like Women Institute of Management, Yayasan Sejahtera, MySihat and Nanyang Press Foundation and to start Ayur Centre in 2000, the premiere ayurvedic centre in Malaysia today.
What was it that made it possible for us to live our dreams? I would categorically say that dad being our biggest supporter and inspiration, very unusual and unexpected in that day and age, made us feel anything is possible if we work for it. The song, “You raise me up” comes to mind when I think of dad giving me the spirit to believe I could reach for the skies, if I wanted to. He made me feel that going for leadership position is no big deal, so it was for me to be a girl guide troop leader, prefect and head girl in school. You know he was our biggest fan, supporting us in sports and extracurricular activities because he believed in gender equality and so ensured, even his daughter had the time and opportunity to hone her abilities and interests, much to mum’s exasperation, when she needed help in home chores and being told “She is a schoolgirl, housework is not for her”. I must credit my elder brothers who were equally supportive in funding me for my studies and overseas trips.
Working in a man’s world was not difficult as it has set you on the right footing to always feel you deserve your accolades and you are respected for what you can do.
Your instinct was right. To be the first lady executive was a real positive. There were perks too, remembering you were given a Board Director’s room when they realised you could not stay in the dormitory with other male participants in the UK Training Centre! Your male colleagues were absolutely gentlemanly and the positive work environment stood you in good stead to make you strong and confident in your years in MAS. Working in a man’s world was not difficult as it has set you on the right footing to always feel you deserve your accolades and you are respected for what you can do.
Read part 2 of our letters series, where we delve into the joys and struggles of Shalin Zulkifli our National Bowling Champion, detailed in a heartfelt letter to her younger self:
Photos: Shaffiq Farhan
Art Direction & Styling: Liew Chiaw Ching
Makeup: Maggie Mah from MM Production using YSL Beauty