I met Mr Ho Kwon Ping in 2000 when he was a speaker at a White Collar Crime Fighting Conference. Although he was a well-known business leader, I saw a very humble and down-to-earth businessman. We had designated escorts from The Singapore Police Force to guide the speakers around the exhibition hall but Mr Ho declined having one and preferred to walk around the exhibition hall himself. Although he had achieved a lot in life, his quiet persona and down-to-earth personality made me wonder about the woman behind this successful businessman.
Ms Claire Chiang, the better half of Mr Ho Kwon Ping, comes across to me as a stoic “Iron Lady”. I have never met her before but I have read many articles which personified “Iron Lady” Ms Chiang to be a gutsy, motivated and very determined businesswoman. Most of the articles talk about Ms Chiang’s achievements in the business arena, her conviction to feminism and her determination and strong desire to make life and business work. I did not want to read about Ms Chiang from the articles. I wanted to hear this “Iron Lady” speak and share her own life and business experiences.
So when I found out that Ms Chiang was going to be one of the speakers at “Can Women Have It All?” forum organized by Mums@work, I jumped at the chance to listen to this female business leader speak and of course, to meet her in real life. True to words and articles written about Ms Chiang, she was every bit the devoted business leader who had a very strong conviction for life.
When she spoke, I listened intensely because her speech was thought -provoking. She did not speak about her achievements but shared on how to balance life, work and motherhood. She was providing us, the younger women entrepreneurs at the forum insights on “how to have it all” by drawing from her own experiences. I told myself I must get an interview with Ms Chiang for my blog site when I got home. I asked the organizer about getting in touch with Ms Chiang, but she said she could not give out any details. So I chose an easier route and wrote in to Banyan Tree Holdings to ask for an interview and I was elated when Ms Chiang agreed to do the interview.
Much of what she says in my interview with her comes from her own life experiences, her sacrifices and her triumph to get people to sit up and listen to what she needs to say. You can say she is a true motivational speaker. She is also one of the pioneer women entrepreneurs and one of the two women in 89 years of history to be admitted to the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. As an NMP, Ms Chiang also raised many issues in Parliament related to the social service sector, women, family, education and the disadvantaged.
The interview which I did with Ms Chiang features a softer side of her as a mother and wife and how she runs her household. I asked her many personal questions from her pregnancy to being a mother, a wife, and then a business leader and how she managed to juggle so many hats at one time. She was very candid and kind to answer the questions forthrightly, making the interview really interesting and captivating at the same time.
Without any snips or editing, I present to you Super Mom, Super Wife & Super Entrepreneur- Ms Claire Chiang.
THE INTERVIEW WITH MS CLAIRE CHIANG
1) Why did you choose sociology as a major in University? Did you actually want to do something else?
I was accepted to the law faculty but decided against it as I was told it was a cut and dry discipline and did not fit with my personality. Sociology has provided me with a broader and more insightful perspective on how business, society and government work.
2) You have a very strong conviction to feminism and a great passion for life. Was this shaped by your early formative years? Did your parents inculcate this conviction and passion in you?
It is a journey of awareness, sharpened by travel, reading, and engagement in community efforts. As a working woman, wife and mother, now social activist, you cannot but become clearer about the important role women play in shaping and defining gender relations and defining the notion of what constitutes a good society. We have our views, and they should be heard and included in all political discourse. Although my parents are traditional, they gave me the room to express and find myself by supporting all my engagements.
3) Although your family was not rich, your mother made sure that you had a proper and good education to give you a good start in life, what do you think about this?
I think that is the best thing a mother can do for her daughter. Despite limited opportunity on her own behalf, my mother ensured I completed my tertiary education which to her was a symbol of the lifeline for my personal development.
4) You became a human resource director in your husband’s company, why did you leave to set up your own business?
I was co-founder of Banyan Tree and in my job I continue to guide the human capital planning and development while taking on other roles.
5) Why were you enthralled by the spa business? Was it something you have always wanted to do, to house travelers, give them a wonderful and relaxing time and also help local businesses?
I think of spa as a “Self Pampering Art.” As part of the Banyan Tree wellness experience, our spas are a vital part of the guest experience as many come to our resorts to rejuvenate and enjoy a moment of stillness from their hectic daily lives. The spas are an extension of the concept of Banyan Tree, which shelters travelers and provides a space for respite.
6) Your company is now a multi-million dollar organization because of your conviction and business acumen, how do you feel about achieving so much?
This is not just a product of my own effort. My husband, Ho Kwon Ping, is the visionary leader, supported by a wonderful team of architects and our property-based staff which now numbers 9,500 associates from 59 countries. We have expanded into different brands, including Banyan Tree’s sister brand, Angsana, and it is really the collective journey of achievement for which we are most grateful.
7) What was your first reaction when you knew you were going to be a mommy?
Exhilaration! Motherhood is a unique experience that only a mother to be goes through.
8) Were you prepared for your pregnancy?
Yes, I was already 30 when I planned for my pregnancy, which at our time was considered rather late. I did all the necessary medical tests, and read thoroughly to prepare myself mentally for the baby.
9) Was your husband supportive during the pregnancy?
He was very involved and supportive. We were on our own in a small 2-room apartment without any help. This was very much a shared experience which I feel is a very important journey for a new mother to be.
10) Were you prepared for your own childbirth?
No, I went to birth classes in Thomson Medical Centre, without reading about or anticipating a Caesarean birth. After many hours of labor, the doctor decided that C-section was necessary for my own safety and that of my child. Kwon Ping rushed to a bookshop to read up on the topic straightaway.
11) How have things changed for you after you have become a mother?
Motherhood is the critical milestone for any woman because you become responsible for a vulnerable young person whom you have to also raise. Motherhood teaches you all the qualities required for protecting and nurturing others. It also gives you a perspective about family and draws you out from your own self-centredness.
12) Did you stop working after your first child was born so that you could be with him during his formative years?
Yes, I consciously took two years off from work because I did not have a helper, and I took care of my first child as I wanted to learn all about motherhood from breastfeeding to making baby food through motivating infants. Those years prepared me to be a competent mother while I continued to read, write and travel with my son. Motherhood did not stop me from being active; it became known that when friends invited me they also invited my son.
13) As a mother, what do you expect from your children? Are you a Tiger Mom?
The definition of a Tiger Mother is relative. Many would think I am a Tiger Mother because I do exercise discipline. The only expectation I have from my children is that they try and do their best. If they have tried, and failed, I have no issue. If they do not even try, and give excuses, that’s when the Tiger rears its head and snarls.
14) What type of education did your children have? What do you think of the local school education system? Do you think our Singaporean children are having a well-rounded education?
All three children went to Nan Hua Primary School because I wanted them to have a Chinese education. My eldest went on to Hwa Chong Institution and then Hwa Chong Junior College; later to The Wharton School at the University in Pennsylvania to complete his education. My daughter went onto Raffles Girls’ Secondary School followed by completing her degree at the London School of Economics. Ren Chung enrolled at ACS in an IB programme and will go to the army in 2013. All three have different strengths and I do think the local school system could do less with examinations and grading, and do more with grounding our children in humanities and engaging them intensively in processes of discovery and experimentation in the world of the humanities. Let specialization come later. That said, parents are still the teachers in terms of life values and moral standards.
15) How do you bond with your children? Do you have special moments or activities which you share with them?
Being the “Tiger Mom,” I set up times for “meals of the day,” “meals with grandparents,” and “holiday planning.” These are the non-negotiated family activities that they must be involved in though they are already 30 (Ren Hua), 27 (Ren Yung), and 18 (Ren Chung). Planning family activities and special moments require planning, determination and commitment. Parents must try to set up time, no matter how busy they are, for this process. They should invite the children to propose ideas. As long as children are interested in what you plan for them, they will enjoy being with you.
16) Have you given up any great overseas job opportunities so that you can be a mother to 3 wonderful children and a wife to Mr Ho Kwon Ping?
Yes, I had to leave an engaging job in the faculty of medicine at HK University in order to return to Singapore with my husband after he was summoned following his father’s stroke. We had just moved into and renovated an apartment in Hong Kong city after spending three years in Lama Island. Though unhappy about this need to move, my role as wife at this juncture was a priority consideration. As it turned out, it was a turning point in my life journey.
17) You have an extremely tough and hectic work schedule as the Senior Vice-President of Banyan Tree Holdings, being a social activist, a volunteer, an entrepreneur and being appointed to sit on many Government and Education Boards, how do you ever find the time to spend with your children and your family?
Planning and commitment are two important exercises for a busy person. In 24 hours, and I need to only sleep for six, I have many hours to spread around in achieving “self bits,” “marriage delights,” “children’s joy” and “work chunks.” We can have it all!
18) You have made many firsts by breaking the norm for Singapore Women. You were one of first women to be elected to the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, how did you feel about the election? For many people, it is deemed a great achievement but is it difficult sitting in a Board Room with all male traditional Chinese business leaders? How do you make these men listen to what you want to say?
Many men in SCCC have said they would like their daughter to be like me but not their wife. You can imagine the anguish they would feel towards an independent woman like me. It’s a matter of creating more opportunities and platforms for men and women to work together and feel comfortable with each other. I am grateful for that experience, to have helped to bridge that traditional ceiling, and made wonderful friendships in the Chinese Chamber, especially in leading the Career Women’s Group for 16 years while being in charge of other committees. People, not just men, listen to what you want to say if you say it with reason, sincerity and integrity.
19) What advice do you have for Singaporean Women aspiring to be entrepreneurs and social activists like yourself?
A journey is 1000 steps, as the wise saying goes. You don’t get to a destination by dreaming about it; you take the first step towards the direction now. You give time to achieving the goal.
END OF INTERVIEW