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.

The Good Year: Reflections Of Gratefulness

It is the last day of 2011. Happy New Year, everyone.

I have to admit, as I grow, I get more sentimental. Can’t let a year slip into the next without taking stock.

It’s been a good year, I thank God for all of it. When I started 2011, my frame of mind was still very much on my recovery from breast cancer. At that point, I felt I had and would always be redefined as “Theresa Tan, breast cancer survivor”.

One of the highlights of 2011 was watching my best friend Karen Tan being brilliant as the Wizard in Aladdin.

Time heals all, as the saying goes. While I can’t say I’ve forgotten that I had breast cancer and went through a major surgery last year, I can say now that that fact is no longer so raw to me. Whether it’s acceptance, or merely a dulling of the senses, the thought of having gone through cancer no longer reduces me to that emotional creature from a year ago.

While I am writing this, my friend—I’ll call her Rose—is going through a relapse of liver cancer. I haven’t been able to contact her. She’s left her mobile with her maid, who valiantly attempts to answer all my frantic questions with her limited English. Ultimately, it’s boiled down to this: Rose is very ill, she had a fall last week, she doesn’t want to see anyone, and no, thank you, she has no appetite for turkey and ham.

Yesterday my best friend Karen Whatsapp’d me to join her in praying for Emma Yong, who is going through a relapse of stomach cancer, an illness she was first diagnosed with early this year. I haven’t been in touch with Emma since she and the Dim Sum Dollies agreed to be part of Women Make a Difference’s anti-trafficking campaign in 2008. I wish I knew her better — we first met when she was a JC student helping out at her aunt’s comic book shop in Serene Centre. She asked me how she could get into theatre in Singapore. Such a beautiful, sweet girl who turned out to be one of Singapore’s most luminous talents. When I hear her name, I think of that JC girl, and I cannot imagine cancer touching her. It’s a travesty.

Cancer — it kills, steals, destroys. It is an abomination. I hate it. We need to find a cure—if not in my generation then in my children’s generation. If not in theirs, then in their children’s generation. We must not stop looking for a way to beat this thing.

The lovely Emma Yong who kindly supported WMD's anti-trafficking cause as one of our poster girls

But I am constantly amazed and moved by the ones who go through cancer determined not to let it ruin their day. I’m told Emma remains cheerful and positive, and she is going for treatment. It is my deepest prayer she comes out of this wholly and completely healed. Miracles can happen! They will!

This year was really a test year for me. I had made a promise to myself to live life as fully as I can. I know it sounds like just another one of those things to say — but I was pretty determined to do it. I failed in some areas but I succeeded in others.

One of the things I have always wanted to do was to bring my children on a trip to help in a Third World country. It’s been on my mind since 2004 when I was editor for Tiger Tales, the magazine for Tiger Airways. Looking at all those budget flights to neighbouring countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, I dreamed of the day my children would be old and independent enough for me to expose to how the other half of the world lives. When my cancer happened, this, oddly, was one of the things that I didn’t want to leave undone for too long.

My wish came to pass this December, when I brought Big B and Middle B with my mother-in-law to Phnom Penh with a group of her church friends. They do a yearly Christmas cookout for children in the villages. I was told we would be serving 900 kids, but that number grew to 1000 and then to 1200 by the time we left for Cambodia.

Middle B (left) with a fellow visitor and a Cambodian youth leader

By the time the cookout actually happened it was close to 1500 kids—good news travels fast. I was touched and proud to see my children chipping in to help give out the packets of food, the sweets and balloons to the little boys and girls, many of them looking after their younger siblings. My daughter’s compassion was evoked as she distributed the goods. “You mean they only get one sweet?” she said, horrified. “Why can’t we give them more? And don’t we have toys to give them? Why just one balloon?”

But soon she understood the charm of having just one balloon. She blew up a pink one and spent a long time tossing it around with a delighted three-year-old girl. That balloon would be lovingly deflated and brought home to be inflated for play another day.

Middle B and her little balloon-loving friends

My 12-year-old son, while not as smitten as his sister, was taken aback with the fact some of the children didn’t even have pants to wear and were running around half naked. “They need money, Mom,” he noted wisely. “They need a lot of help.” So, I asked, are you going to be the one to help? He smiled grimly, his brain clicking into motion.

Tragically, I lost the little Sony camera I had brought—most of my precious photos of the trip are gone. What you see here I took with my Blackberry camera. It’s sad but as Middle B reminds me with a wide grin, “It just means we have to go again next year, Mom!”

The fact she declared Cambodia the “best holiday ever” warmed my heart. Still does.

Another goal I found myself setting this year was to run. But really this was by accident. I was running about 2 to 3km three times a week at the start of this year, just round the block and back to my place. But as it got more fun, I thought maybe I should sign up for a race, and the Nike Goddess 5K just happened to be the first thing to pop up on my computer screen. I signed up and that turned out to be the first of seven races I ran this year.

I’ve always had jersey envy for the Standard Chartered blue-and-green running top. Forgive the bimbo reason: it just looks nice. Plus it’s obviously the race of the year we’re talking about.

Chris, my physio, didn’t think going from doing a series of 10K runs to a full marathon was a good idea for my body. I agreed. So initially, I had logged in to sign up for the 10K Stanchart run but the slots sold out in 4 days! Ridiculous!

I asked Mr Threez if he wanted to do the half-marathon with me, and he LOL’d. But that was in September. We both ran the half-marathon in the end, and he finished half an hour before I did! So much for LOL!

I finished the race! I can't feel my legs!

I’m not sure if I can ever do the Stanchart full marathon—the heat is too much for me—but I’m glad I completed the next best thing. If I had a Bucket List (which I refuse to call this – “kicking the bucket” isn’t the most dignified reference!), this would be one of the items I strike off with glee.

It’s been a good year. I’ve been back to the US with Mr Threez, eaten the Maine and Boston lobsters we always dream and talk about, watched Spider-Man the musical, run a 10K race in cold weather in Brooklyn, eaten duck confit at Balthazar’s, and simply enjoyed each other’s company thoroughly.

My brother and sister-in-law were gifted with their first child — a beautiful girl! I cannot express how happy it makes me see their greatest wish come true!

We’ve caught up with good friends, old friends — tonight, the first group of my husband’s friends that I met when I was 19 and we had been dating two weeks. Now, 26 years later, we are still here, still friends, still laughing at the same silly jokes and spending New Year’s Eve together.

The three individuals responsible for a large percentage of the smiles and laughs I enjoy daily.

And I’ve had many chances to spend time with each of my three children. I’m proud of Big B for working and praying hard to get into his dream secondary school, and for setting a great example for his sisters. We’ve discovered new loves together—I had bought the BBC Sherlock series and felt like watching something one night while the rest of the house was asleep, and Big B accompanied me. It turned out to be our favorite Sherlock ever, and we have watched it over and over again with Middle B and Mr Threez.

With Middle B, I’ve had the most fun this year. It was a bumper crop of concerts and shows this year: Taylor Swift’s concert in February, Justin Bieber in April, The Lion King, Aladdin and just this week, Wicked. It was really fun sharing the songs I love with my little girl, and going to a gig with her was definitely a high point of this year.

For Little B, this has been a year of great growth for her. Her language has improved by leaps and bounds in these past 365 days, her sense of humor has developed nicely, and she is doing something I never thought would happen — she is learning how to swim. In my mind, if you can’t understand instructions, you can’t learn how to do something. But she’s understanding it, and she’s learning it. And I’ve learned a lot from her this year too—that pigs are charming and every Lola deserves a big brother like Charlie.

I’m blessed. Each day I have is a gift. Sometimes I think we’ve got it all wrong — we’re not all “forced” into this world to “make the best of it”. We’ve got the Golden Ticket. We get to live this life, smell these smells, see these sights, fall in love with our spouses, discover the little people that are our children, eat and drink the most amazing things…sure there’s cancer and hard work and stress but to me now, those don’t outweigh the good bits—not one bit.

Here’s wishing all of you a wonderful New Year’s Eve evening as you usher in 2012 — may the new year bring fulfilled dreams, laughter and love.

Happy Women’s Day! (aka The Women Who’ve Changed My Life)

I could not let 8 March pass (it’s 11.10pm when I begin writing this) without a salute to the women who have really made International Women’s Day worth celebrating!

That there even is a Women’s Day is both a great thing and a sad thing. Obviously it was founded because women weren’t being appreciated enough for all that they did! But it’s also wonderful because for one day (in fact, one month) in the calendar year, we girls get to really relish what being female is all about.

(I write this in the midst of one of the worst pre-menstrual storms to hit me, by the way. The irony.)

I’ve been thinking all day about the many women who have helped shaped me into the person I am today. There are so, so many! But here are the top 5 who have impacted me in greater ways than they’ll ever know.

1. My mother Ann Phua
I’ve written an ode to my mother last year on this blog. My mom was not a fuzzy-huggy-kissy mother. She was a tough-love mother. When I failed my Grade 6 piano exam, my father looked at me and knew I was not having fun any more, and suggested that I quit. (I was, of course, very happy.) My mother on the other hand, would not hear of it. “You wanted the piano, you have to go all the way.” Her reason back then was that I might (seeing that I was such a poor student) have a backup plan as a piano teacher. But I had no such intention (and today I am still the world’s worst trained pianist). BUT what she did teach me was perseverance. There was satisfaction when I finally got my Grade 8 results and it wasn’t a “barely passed” for once. But I have to admit I was glad to end all lessons!
My mother and I had legendary fights (involving pulling hair and kicking and all that). She made the Tiger Mom look like a pussycat. But she instilled in me
a) a fear of God: “God is always watching even if I am not!”
b) the importance of filial piety: “If you don’t treat your parents well your children won’t treat you well.” (True. Biblical.)
c) the wisdom of marrying a man who truly loved me (actually, her words were, “Better to marry someone who loves you more than you love him” but I couldn’t. So I married the man who loved me as much as I loved him.)

2. My best friend Karen Tan
Karen and I have such a strange relationship. One day I’m sure our tale will be some British film. We were schoolmates in secondary school — she was popular, I was invisible. We became friends when she dated a boy who was friends with a boy I dated, who was always terrible to her. I spent countless days (and some nights) listening to her sob, wondering aloud when this diabolical relationship would let go of her. Thank God, it did. She met and married the most wonderful doctor in the world, Quek Swee Chong. I remember he proposed when they were both on the Nile (okay I forget if it was on a boat in the Nile, or looking at the Nile, but the Nile was involved).

Karen on her part watched me fall to pieces when the boy I liked so much left (you know how emotions are 1000% sharper when you are a teenager), and she wrote me a card bearing the verses Ephesians 3:16-19:
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

This card was pinned to the board above my desk for more than 20 years — I finally took it down when I was cleaning out my parents’ place after they passed on. Those verses gave me immeasurable comfort even though I had yet to know God — but they were planted in my heart, and my soul knew there was a Christ who had this incredible love for me. It was only a matter of time (18 years from the year Karen gave me that card) that I got to know Him and His love.

Karen has truly been God’s gift in my life—we have had great times together, survived motherhood, overcome all kinds of illnesses—and she continues to be the person I run to first (after my husband) when I have a crisis. I pray I am the same for her, always.

Nanz and her beautiful baby Zoe, born 2 weeks before my Little B!

3. My inspiration Nanz Chong-Komo
Nanz is one person that I hold in such high regard because she is a rare specimen who walks the talk, and her heart is so incredibly big, I think it’s the reason she’s so tall. Since I met her in the late 90s when One.99 Shop was a roaring success and I interviewed her for a series for Female magazine, I have had the great fortune to get to know and to work with her over the last 8 years. When I met her again at a Christian business meeting, she had the most incredible glow. She was pregnant with Christian, her second child, and Zara was just a few months old. Being a new Christian, I naturally gravitated into her cell group. And I can tell you it is a great privilege to be in Nanz Chong’s cell group because it girds you daily just to know she is praying for you.

If you have ever heard and watched Nanz pray, you’ll know what I mean. “Storming heaven” is a suitable phrase.

Because of Nanz, I grew in my walk with the Lord. Because of Nanz, I prayed, fasted and believed for God to do a miracle in my husband — and watched in amazement as God did it! Nanz was there throughout to cheer us on. Because of Nanz, I discovered I really did enjoy being a writer and editor even though I thought it was something I was going to leave behind forever — I had the great privilege of helping to edit her first book One Business, 99 Lessons.

Three years ago Nanz and I embarked on an ambitious new media business called Nanzinc.Com. It was hard work but as with all things that Nanz touches, it was exciting and a great learning journey. Sadly for me, my cancer took more out of me than I initially thought. It was the hardest thing for me to tell Nanz I could not continue with Nanzinc — I was letting down the person I admire the most in this world after my husband. (I didn’t even do it right, but I’m too embarrassed to give details).

My prayer is one day I will be wholly well in my body. I will have learned to manage my stress. And I will have the chance, if she will let me, to do something meaningful with Nanz, the woman who taught me that nothing is impossible.

4. My editor Agatha Koh
Aggie was my second boss at my first writing job. She was editor of 8 Days magazine and I was her Arts writer. Her late husband, David Brazil, was a controversial (and endlessly entertaining) author and nightlife writer who for some reason, decided I could be groomed to write better. So Aggie would bring me his critiques week after week, addressed to “Bluestocking”, paperclipped to a well-thumbed issue of last week’s 8 Days. Aggie, on her part, would mock me mercilessly for being too Singaporean in my syntax and lexicon choices. Together, they made me a much better writer than I would have been had I continued to believe I was the Best Darn Writer 8 Days Had (we all thought that about ourselves, really).

Aggie left after two years, and then offered me a job at a new magazine called ETC. It was a fortnightly entertainment magazine, and she doubled my pay. I became the music editor and was paid to go on trips to cover things like the MTV Awards and concerts all over the place (highlights included trailing Pearl Jam and Nirvana, meeting Dave Grohl, having tea with Slash…exciting stuff). From that experience I grew to be a tough-as-nails reporter — no star left unturned!

After ETC I left, and was soon swept up in the surreal world of women’s magazines (Female, then ELLE… and later, Vanilla). But Aggie’s standards and regiments (okay okay, maybe 70% of them) stuck with me. She used to howl at us to read the papers (not just the Straits Times, which was, in her eyes, not really a newspaper, but International Herald Tribune, Asian Wall Street Journal before it was banned, and her favourite: the London Times weekend edition). From her I learned that you can’t let a shoddy page go to print if you can help it. Even if you can’t help it, you have to take it back and make it better. Printers have stopped production for her. Distributors have made their truckdrivers work OT for her. Such is the magic of Agatha Koh.

Today, Aggie is the Group Editor for custom titles at MediaCorp. She is still as sharp as nails and as mercilessly sticky as a Persian cat that’s taken a fancy to your Gucci suede jacket. I would do anything for Aggie — God knows she has trained me to!

5. My angel Ho Yeow Sun
Like many people, I read about Sun way before I met her. But unlike most people, I thought her Armani dress was not sexy enough. Sun and I met around 2002 when I interviewed her for a cover story for DARE magazine (another of Aggie’s brilliant products which sadly died). We met again when I founded my women’s group Women Make a Difference. I wanted to make these pink T-shirts (they were meant to be kitschy and cute so women would wear them as an insider joke during IWD) and then have celebrities wear them on an ad campaign. My cause was the fight against sex trafficking of women and children. The other women were my friends Karen Tan, Kit Chan, Nanz Chong, Beatrice Chia, Eunice Olsen Tan Kheng Hua and Denise Keller. I wanted someone who was a mother and an international name, and at that time, Sun had just gone to the US and released some amazing chart-toppers.

I sent her some material via her office, and was surprised when I got a call — she had gone to the websites I sent info on, done her homework, cried (like me) and shown it to her husband. She not only agreed to be one of my 8 women, she said she wanted to personally give our cause $10,000, together with some anonymous friends.

Sun — for all her immense talent and public persona — is not a person of that many words, but she chooses each one carefully. That makes her seem reserved sometimes, but she is always warm. And I can always trust that she says exactly what she means—a lost art today, especially in entertainment.

I only started attending City Harvest late in the year after Sun endorsed WMD. I admit that her approach to my cause opened my heart up a lot—it’s not often, when I ask people to endorse something, that they actually do the research. Most will say yes or no based on our relationship, which isn’t a bad thing, but I feel all the more supported when a friend feels what I feel. Karen and Nanz also both delved into the sex trafficking horror I introduced them too — they became impassioned spokespeople against this atrocity during WMD events.

Sun has become one person I call on when I am most down, and when I have to make really hard decisions (because her words are constantly seasoned with salt—wisdom like I’ve never known). She’s one person I can talk to completely honestly, knowing she will know what I mean or get to the root of what is bugging me. She’s like an older sister to me, a gentle guide who never, ever judges. I’m constantly amazed at how she does it. She puts others first, even when she’s not feeling so great, or when her own troubles seem insurmountable. When I grow up, I want to be like Sun.

There are so many other women who have touched my life — my mother-in-law, my daughters, Elim Chew who is a constant rock and a reminder that with God all things are possible; Mary Loh whose generosity and constant prayer intercession has moved me in the right direction… My oldest and dearest pals Grace Lee and Clara Goh and Judith Tan… So many of my awesome friends at church, at work… All those great women in the volunteer or fundraising circles (Saleemah Ismail, Melissa Kwee, Darryl Loh, Adeline Yeo, Celeste Basapa). My children’s teachers. My former colleagues. So many I could write a book or two.

Thank you for being the best woman you were created to be. This world needs you!