The Singapore Woman Award: Beauty For Ashes

It started with a Facebook message from my friend Sarah, whom I got to know as a volunteer writer for the church news website, which I serve on as editor.

She asked if she could nominate me for the Singapore Woman Award, a people’s award run by MediaCorp, this year headed, as it has for the last three years, by Radio.

I laughed when I saw her message – don’t get me wrong, I love Sarah, I was so honored and touched that she’d even thought of me – because what Sarah didn’t know was that I was on the planning committee for the very first Singapore Woman Award, when I was the editor of Vanilla magazine and we helmed the award.

I said yes to Sarah, making a mental note to have coffee with her soon, and forgot all about it.

A few weeks later, I was having dinner with my family when my phone rang. I never pick up my phone during dinner, so that itself was a miracle. On top of that, it was an unknown number.

It was Jo’An from MediaCorp, who chirpily congratulated me for being one of the three honorees selected. I didn’t know what it meant at first, until she said “You and two other nominees were selected out of over 100 entries to be our top three.”

Ohhh. Now I was in shock. Jo’An told me she would be in touch about the interviews that had to be done before the event night, which was on 22 March.

I hung up and looked at my son. “Hey, I’m one of the top three nominees for the Singapore Woman Award.”

He raised his eyebrows and gave me a lopsided grin. “Cool.”

When I told my 11-year-old, she said with confidence, “You’re going to win, Mom.”

When I told my husband, he said “Let’s go and celebrate!” (We went out for wings and beer that Friday.)

All this before I even knew who the other honorees were. I already felt like a winner to my family, and it was all that mattered. It didn’t even occur to me to ask who the other two ladies were.

But when I did find out, I was pretty much flummoxed by how I even made the top three. One was Bridget Tan (whom I knew as Bridget Lew Tan), the founder of HOME (Human Organisation for Migrant Economics), who passionately fights for the rights of migrant workers in Singapore, and the other was Cassandra Chiu, a woman who lost her sight at the age of eight but who now runs a counselling practice called The Safe Harbour.

I mean, hello! If there was a class lighter than “flyweight”, that’s what I felt like next to these women.

Over the next two weeks the three of us came together to speak on radio shows (Gold 90.5 and Class 95) and TV (AM Live), and as we did, I got to know my co-honorees better.

Cassandra in the Gold 90.5FM studio with Gurmit Singh (Mark and Brian Richmond were there too)

Cassandra in the Gold 90.5FM studio with Gurmit Singh (Mark and Brian Richmond were there too)

Cassandra’s story blew me away. She was diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease at the age of 8 and began losing her sight. Taunted and teased by her classmates, she didn’t have an easy childhood, but her mother constantly reminded her not to focus on her one disability but on her many other capabilities. She represented Singapore as a swimmer, and busked for 10 years, earning enough to put herself through school to get her Master’s degree. When nobody would give her a job, she decided she would start a counseling practice to make a living helping others.

But the thing she said she was proudest of was the fact she was a mother. Her little daughter Cady is six, just like my Little B. During the commercial break at one of our radio interviews, we sat chatting about motherhood. As if she could read my mind, she said, “My mother never got rid of me when she knew I had this illness. Besides, if Cady has it (Stargardt’s), I’m the best possible mother for her because I can guide her through this.”

Those words just struck my heart like an arrow. Her deep faith, her mental strength, her ability to see the good in every situation — it truly amazed me! I’ll be honest — if I could vote, Cassandra would get my vote for the Singapore Woman Award.

(From left) SWA 2011 winner Bernise Ang with Cassandra, Esme, me and Bridget
Bridget’s work I was a little more familiar with. The first year I co-founded Women Make A Difference, a women’s group that got women together to raise funds to help those in need, we raised funds for women and children who were trafficked. Bridget had started HOME for about two years, and already she was helping women who had been trafficked into Singapore, including a young 16 year old girl who had been forced to service hundreds of foreign workers. The girl, when rescued, could not speak for months. Bridget and her team patiently worked with her, giving her shelter, friendship and security, till finally she opened up.

WMD gave its first year funds to HOME to help pay for its rental. It was only for three months’ rental but it was our small gesture to show our support for her work, which has grown into two centres — one for women and one for men. Her unflagging fight against trafficking was noticed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who called her a “Trafficking-In-Persons Hero”.

My video playing in the Island Ballroom. Photo: Daniel Poh

My video playing in the Island Ballroom. Photo: Daniel Poh

The Awards Night, held at the Island Ballroom of the Shangri-La Hotel, was like a high school reunion for me. Having worked for MediaCorp three periods of my life — I was an Arts writer for 8 Days (1991-1994), the editor-in-chief for ELLE (1999-2002) and finally I was editor for Vanilla (2007-2009). I enjoyed meeting my old friends, like Hossan Leong and Charles Ho (both of whom I worked with on my last public play, ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky, with The Necessary Stage); Rose Tan, Mark Richmond, Georgina Chang, Pierre Png, Florence Lian, Vernetta Lopez… Lovely people who I have had the privilege of interviewing or working with in one way or another.

My kids and mom-in-law with Pierre Png, Gurmit Singh and Mark Richmond.

My kids and mom-in-law with Pierre Png, Gurmit Singh and Mark Richmond.

It was marvelous to see Laura Hwang, who was on our judging panel the first year and who remains on the panel, this year the head judge. Elim Chew, my sister-in-Christ and a friend I deeply treasure. Saleemah Ismail, my woman-power buddy and former President of UNIFEM, who opened my eyes to the atrocities around us and to the things we can do to help women and children.

With Mr Threez, Big B and Middle B. Photo: Daniel Poh

With Mr Threez, Big B and Middle B. Photo: Daniel Poh

But the people I was happiest to see were those seated at my table. MediaCorp so kindly provided each of the honorees their own table — we could invite 7 guests and our tables were each hosted by two MediaCorp personalities. My very special guests were my husband, my mother-in-law, Big B (looking so handsome in a brand new POA shirt I bought him that afternoon) and Middle B, my best friend Karen (what a rare treat! Our schedules are too crazy for regular meet-ups), Sarah my nominator, and Yung Shin, my colleague from City News, who did a wonderful interview with me after. I did consider bringing Little B but she wouldn’t have had the patience to sit all night, way past her bedtime. *I missed her*

She who started it all: Sarah Teo

She who started it all: Sarah Teo. Photo: Daniel Poh

Pierre and Georgina were the two MediaCorp personalities assigned to our table. I was chuffed to sit with Pierre — it seemed a lifetime ago when he first came to our ELLE office, intimidated by our (admittedly) beautiful, well-dressed and well-educated team of women. He was such a different young man then, before Singapore discovered what a model of true love he stood for, when he donated part of his liver to save his then-girlfriend Andrea D’Cruz, now his wife. Andrea I had known since my earlier days as editor of Female, when she was one of our 50 most gorgeous women. They are one of the most beautiful and loving couples I have ever witnessed. Andrea was one of the first to leave me an encouraging comment on this blog — I was truly touched by her words.

With my sweetest, deepest, lovingest best friend Karen Tan, the most talented actress in the world.

With my sweetest, deepest, lovingest best friend Karen Tan, the most talented actress in the world. Photo: Daniel Poh

To have my bestie with me was such a treat. She caught my eye and laughed when the videos were screened. It was so obvious to her too, that it was crazy to even be in the running against a crusader like Bridget and an overcomer like Cassandra. I mean, what had I done? I started a blog. I spoke about closing the gaps in insurance policies. It seemed to me… so insignificant, compared to my co-honorees. But I was glad, so glad in my heart, that God and the judging panel saw fit to put me there among the three. I didn’t think I was going to win, but it really didn’t matter, because I had already received such a reward, which was this night!

So it came as a complete surprise — shock! — to me when the judging video came on. It was Laura, speaking about this year’s competition, and how stuck the panel was when it came to selecting one winner, and so… THEY SELECTED THREE!

My brain hadn’t caught up yet, but I was staring at Karen and she was mouthing, “You won!” And I remember frowning and thinking, “Huh? What’s going on?”

Mr Threez said, “You all won!” And it dawned on me, that there were THREE winners of the Singapore Woman Award!

As I got up, my husband kissed me. Then Pierre took my hand and said, “You have to hold my hand. I’m freezing!” And we walked to the stage together with Gurmit Singh escorting Bridget and Tay Peng Hui guiding Cassandra and her seeing-eye Labrador Esme.

I know it sounds cheesy but my heart really did overflow with thanksgiving. I knew God and only God could have worked this out that all three of us were the winner. Because each of us is so different, and the work He has given us to do and the strength He has given us to do it with is worth celebrating. Standing there on stage, I prayed that my words would glorify Him.

Three winners for this year's Singapore Woman Award - praise God!

Three winners for this year's Singapore Woman Award - praise God! Photo: Daniel Poh

Each of us got to say a few words, clutching the glass trophies that Guest-of-Honour Madam Halimah Yacob presented to us. Cassandra was ever eloquent, expressing her thanks that all three of us won. Bridget held her award up and said, “This is a political statement. It is not just an award for me, but for all the women in HOME, this is your award!”

I was, honestly, still stunned, and said so. Then I thanked God I was alive today and standing here. To my surprise, the room cheered and clapped.

When I got back to my table, Karen was weeping (and smiling). Later, she said, “You know, when you thanked God you’re alive, I remembered how scared I was when you told me…”

It’s been nearly two years, but some memories are as vivid as the moment they happened. I am grateful that God has given us more years to be besties — I pray we’ll make the most of it!

Middle B, looking so beautiful, was so proud of me. I have to say that’s one of the best feelings in the world, when your children aren’t embarrassed you’re their parent! “You should have been the only winner,” she said, in her innocence.

Receiving my award from the authentic and brilliant Minister of State, Madam Halimah Yacob

Receiving my award from the authentic and brilliant Minister of State, Madam Halimah Yacob. Photo: Daniel Poh

The rest of the evening was a time of mass hugging and photo-taking. I was glad to have time to chat with Madam Halimah — who surely must become one of our women Ministers soon, now that we are severely lacking one — and to introduce her to my husband.

We came home, all happy, kids all sleepy but in a good mood. As I floated off to sleep, I thanked God for His lovely present. Truly the words of Isaiah 61:3 came true for me tonight.

“To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.”

He gave me beauty for my ashes; joy for my mourning.

For every woman who passes through this blog, who is suffering in one way or another, I dedicate this award to you.


The following week, Bridget, Cassandra and I returned to 938 Live to do a radio interview with Howie Lim and Keith De Souza. As the ladies and I sat in the waiting room chatting, we discovered we were all convent girls — Bridget was from KC, Cassandra from IJ Bukit Timah, and I was a Canossa Convent-St Anthony’s girl. They are both Catholic, I a Christian, and all we do — we realise after sharing — we do for God. It tickled me as much as it warmed my heart to know that God was working through the three of us, in such different yet such similar ways.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sandy Yeo
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 15:40:51

    SO HAPPY & PROUD of you, Threez. You have blazed the trail for us! Keep shining for the Lord! Xoxo


  2. Ros
    Apr 08, 2012 @ 04:22:52

    Words are never enough to express how I feel.. So happy and proud of you 🙂 I can imagine God looking down from heaven beaming :))


  3. Chevron
    Apr 08, 2012 @ 15:08:08

    Your story had been inspiring to many… hopefullly can hear you share in person someday.. Congrats to you!


  4. PC
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 04:54:24

    Hi Theresa,

    Congratulations! I think the nominations is for both how quickly you picked yourself up upon facing problems and how you act in the face of adversity – it is not easy to be brave when facing problems, but it is even rarer to reach out for the greater good of other strangers when you could have been resting at home.

    Warm regards


  5. virtual office
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 19:12:20

    You can certainly see your skills within the paintings you write. The sector hopes for more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to say how they believe. All the time go after your heart.


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