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!

It’s Great Being A Woman

Happy New Year, everyone!

I’ve just passed the six-month mark since my mastectomy. Though I still wake up with some tightness where I had my surgery, I am 95 percent able to do everything I used to do, and I am so grateful for that!

These past six months, I have met women who have gone through different types of cancers and other life-threatening illnesses and incidents. I am amazed by the two things that unite all of us — the love for life and the spirit to “get over it and carry on”. There is no patience for moping or self-pity of any sort!

My buddy Joyce (left), who had a heart issue last year, is one of the most positive and funny women in the world.

I have also met men who have gone through surgeries for different things — while some of them are positive and have made healthy changes to their lives, I cannot say the men share the same joie de vivre I have experienced with the women.

It’s as if having a second chance at life has unleashed all their creativity and sense of fun. We compare scars like war veterans (except for the part where we collapse in giggles over games of “show me yours and I’ll show you mine”). We swop recipes for healthy, cancer-busting meals (and then some other recipes for “midnight comfort foods”). We encourage each other to live healthier — exercise, drink birds’ nest, take breaks from work, manage stress. We boost each other’s egos — my friends make me smile by telling me they never would have guessed I had a mastectomy because my breasts now look like an absolutely normal pair (from the outside, at least).

Maybe it’s just how God made women. Maybe we just have look-on-the-bright-side DNA. Maybe it’s our inbuilt survival instinct — we have to be our best, strongest self or how can we look after our children who need us?

Whatever it is, I know it’s great to be a woman. We are as strong as we are gentle. We are as intuitive as we are intelligent. We get to have babies, and our babies will always love us no matter how old they grow.

I’m blessed to have a husband who totally spoils me, who is my best friend, who laughs at my jokes and who makes me laugh till I snort rice grains out my nose. I’m blessed with children who know when to hug me when I’m down, who kiss me on my nose “till your chest gets better, Mommy”, who tell me jokes and get the punchline all wrong. It’s truly a wife’s and mother’s privilege.

My good friend’s mother, Aunty Mag, used to be a radiologist. When she visited me in hospital, she said to me, “You know, it seems terrible now, but breast cancer is one of the best cancers to have. Because when you catch it early it is in a part of your body that can be removed. If it’s colon cancer or stomach cancer, it’s far more terrible.”

In the bigger scheme of things, she is absolutely right. I didn’t even need chemotherapy or radiotherapy after my mastectomy. It’s great being a woman.

Post-script: Great Eastern is running a pledge campaign titled “It’s Great To Be A Woman”. Make your pledge at http://www.itsgreattobeawoman.com or click here! (You can vote for my pledge too – search “Threezframe”). For every pledge Great Eastern will make a donation to the Breast Cancer Foundation towards research and support for breast cancer patients. Let’s make it 20,000 pledges!

Better Be Good To Me

Breathe. Let go. And remind yourself that this very moment is the only one you know you have for sure. ~ Oprah Winfrey

I love Oprah. She is practical, frank and honest. With herself and with other people. She’s ending her talkshow — the final season of Oprah has just begun on US television — because times have changed, ratings are down, viewers are looking for something fresh.

When I worked at Vanilla, we had to find quotes for every “opening page” in the sections of the magazine. This was both a great and painful task. However there were two sources that never failed me: Eleanor Roosevelt and Oprah.

This quote from Oprah reminds me of the first time I read O magazine. It was such a new concept — this is Oprah in print and she is on the cover of the magazine every single month! (Unheard of in women’s magazines!) But it was the content that did it for me — she gave out wisdom on how to be good to yourself so that you are in shape to be good to others. If you can’t love yourself, there’s no way you can love others.

I always believed I looked after myself, but when my breast cancer happened, one of the most mind-blowing revelations I received was that I didn’t know how to be good to myself any more.

I didn’t know how to stop and do nothing, and simply rest.
I didn’t know how to say no to somebody asking for help.
I didn’t know where to draw the line in doing things for other people.
I didn’t know how not to give to others, mostly at my own expense.
I didn’t know how to express my feelings, for fear of hurting someone else.
I didn’t know how to write creatively anymore, because my mind was full of criticisms, comments, and the most famous retort of all “DON’T YOU HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO???” Like work for money, make more money so you have more money to give away to other people?

I had grown so fearful of being selfish that I was becoming one big blob of “selflessness”. I lost myself. I didn’t care about “stuff” — because “I’m a kind and generous person and that’s the only thing that counts.” The last time I went shopping for clothes was out of sheer necessity — I needed elastic-banded pants after surgery. I think manicures and pedicures are a waste of money. I used to cut my hair once a year and do home-colour — I reckon I saved at least $5000 in the last 7 years doing that. I used to think massages were the most wicked luxury (but now I need back and neck massages purely to ease the pain).

But being home after surgery, I faced a body that said to me, “STOP! I’m not going anywhere anymore. You. Have. To. Stop.”

And so, I was forced to stop. And consider my life. Yes, I had helped people for many years in a row. I had given most of my savings away and I’m not even Warren Buffett. Looking back the last 7 years, my bank account has dropped by 80%. Most of it had gone to a “bigger cause”. I don’t regret any of it, but it was quite stunning to do the sums. I can only pray I’ve “invested” in good ground, and that the people I put my faith and money in are now living better lives.

This year, because I had committed a certain amount to a project that is very dear to my heart, I told my husband we should forego our annual holiday. My kids need an increasing number of tuition classes and therapy, and our cost of living has escalated in the last two years due to growing children and aging parents. What we make, disappears before we get a chance to carve off a bit for saving.

Then the cancer happened. And I found myself regretting that I did not go on that holiday. I also came to realise I had put my self — my body, my mind, my personality — on hold for everybody else. I can’t bring myself to buy a designer item anymore: I was faced with a gorgeous Fendi snakeskin bag two years ago. It was a sample sale and it was going for a fraction of its original cost — a mere $1000 for a Fendi oversized hobo bag made from treated snakeskin that was iridescent in colour. It had my heart. I still can’t believe it but I walked away from that bag because I could use that $1000 for a shower head that my husband liked.

Practical Me won again. “I have too many bags already”, “How many shoulders do I have? Why do I need another bag?”, “It’s cruel to kill snakes for their skin.” i think I came up with 1000 excuses not to buy it.

I know how frivolous it sounds, but you’re looking at a girl who used to spend $3000 on clothes, shoes and bags every month. Being editor of ELLE meant I got discounts for everything – but it also meant I had to go shopping every month to make use of this privilege.

But while I am proud that I am no longer addicted to my Previously-Must-Haves — my YSLs, my Hermes, my Gucci — I didn’t realise I had swung the other direction and become Poverty Patsy.

Cancer has a way of waking people up. It may not be the most pleasant “wake up call” but it does make you stop and take stock.

• I have probably passed the mid-point of my life. I have less than half my life to go. And the hard truth is, cancer a second time is a very real possibility.
• I am going to be 43 — what legacy have I left for my kids (scary one, this one)?
• God gave me XYZ talents — what have I used them for (this one threw me into an abysmal depression and I am still feeling its effects). Am I living someone else’s dream instead of the one God gave me?
• Have I been a faithful steward and built lasting treasures (spiritual and physical) for my children and my children’s children? (A big NOT YET here. Terrifying. If I had died from this cancer, I would never have the chance!)
• If I had died from this cancer – would I regret not going on the holiday earlier this year? The answer is yes.

I watched Queen Latifah in the hilarious Last Holiday (2006). She plays a department store worker who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. She decides to cash out everything and “go out with a bang” — on her final holiday. It seems like a cliche — but right now, I can identify with that feeling. Finally, I deserve to be nice to myself, for once. (I still can’t say that without twinges of guilt, but hey at least I’m saying it.)

So I am going on that holiday at the end of the year. I know my money can be “better spent” helping others but … this time, the “needy person” is me. I just helped raise $600 monthly for a widow and her sons (it’s a 2 year commitment so she’s going to get at least $14,400 from the Women Make A Difference campaign we started) — and I’ve made sure I am one of the donors too. (Wanna join in our campaign for Madam Rokiah Bte Atnen? She lost her husband in a freak bus accident, and she has four sons to care for, one of whom has kidney failure. Click here to find out more.)

So, I think, spending $350 on a ticket to watch U2 — yes, for ME ME ME — is a small reward I can give myself for staying alive. I have put it off over and over again because it just seemed too much money to make myself happy. Well, TOUGH. I’m really doing it this time.

I'm going to watch U2 live! I'm going to watch U2 live!

I refuse to feel guilty about treating myself reasonably any more. I won’t have it. I don’t want to pretend that I am so selfless that everything I have is meant to be given away. I don’t hoard it, but I’m not going to kill myself for spending some of it on me and my own family for once.

The Bible says “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” (Galatians 6:9).

I’ve always read this passage as “doing good to others”. But “well-doing” is not just being good to others: it is being faithful to God, it is being consistent with my daily spiritual disciplines, it is to keep hoping when doubts come rushing in, it is keeping myself in a place where I will not be weary to keep doing what God wants me to do. I am weary — and it is because I am not taking care of myself so that I can run a long race. I am running on fumes, and that’s not how God wants me to run. I must be prepared to run the full race — I must be in good shape spiritually, physically, prospering in every way even as my soul prospers.

So why am I writing all this? Probably I am feeling guilty about doing something for myself, and need to justify it to myself. (I have to be honest, right?) But it’s a done deal. The tickets are booked. I am leaving on that jet plane and I am going to enjoy that U2 concert if it’s the last thing I do.

And I hope it is not!