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Ambassador Chan Heng Chee

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Governing Board Interview Series

interview Regina Marie Lee

Ambassador Chan Heng Chee
Ms. Chan was Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States (US) from 1996 to 2012. (Karen Teo / Yale-NUS Office of the President)

Ambassador Chan Heng Chee joined the Yale-NUS College Governing Board in July 2013 and is currently Chairman of the National Arts Council and Ambassador-at-Large with the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In this email interview, she shares with The Octant her role in guiding Yale-NUS, as well as her views on female leadership, human rights, and the political climate in Singapore.

Could you tell us about your appointment to the Governing Board, and why you decided to take it up?

I was appointed a Trustee of National University of Singapore (NUS) upon my return from Washington after serving as Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States for 16 years. I was a faculty member of NUS, and Head of the Political Science Department before I turned diplomat … I have been interested in this project since it was started, and I’m professionally interested in the development of a good liberal arts education.

What is your role in the Board of Governors at Yale-NUS, and what unique perspectives do you bring to board meetings?

My role as a member of the Governing Board is to raise questions and provide advice to the Yale-NUS academic and administrative leadership … I am an academic, a university person, but I’ve served in government as a diplomat. I bring an international and national perspective to the discussions on the board.

Having served as Singapore’s Ambassador to the US for many years, what do you think is the significance of Yale-NUS in the relationship between Singapore and the US?

It used to be that the Singapore-US relationship focused mainly on trade and defence. As Singapore changed and the economy and society matured, we have expanded the areas of cooperation and collaboration. American investments have been coming to Singapore for decades. Singapore now invests in the United States.

Education is one area where we have deepened our relationship, certainly in the time I was there. Singapore math programs have been profiled and adopted in a growing number of American schools. We have educational alliances with many universities. Yale is the bluest of blue-chip universities in the US. The Yale-NUS relationship is high profile in both countries and has generated much interest. This is a significant relationship because it has caught the attention and imagination of the public in both countries. We all want it to succeed.

As Singapore’s first “Woman of the Year”, awarded by Her World in 1991, what are your views on gender roles in Singapore today?

Gender equality in Singapore is not at the level of Scandinavian countries or that of the United States. That said, a young woman in Singapore can take up any occupation she wants and do anything she wants. Lately, figures show the number of women on Singapore corporate boards is shockingly low compared even to our neighboring countries. And this is surprising as Singapore women have demonstrated their capabilities in business and the professions and are very successful. We can do better. Clearly corporate boards are largely a boys’ club. They are missing something. They could make even better decisions.

My advice to young women: go for it and do what you love. Don’t worry about what other people are saying about you.

What are your views on the current political climate of Singapore, and where do you see us going in the next 10 to 20 years?

Singapore politics is changing. The political system is opening up and politics is normalizing. In the next 10–20 years you will hear a diversity of voices and views.

What do you think is the key to being a successful diplomat, and what advice would you give students who hope to follow in your footsteps?

To be a successful diplomat you must have good people skills and communication skills. You must be activist, and entrepreneurial, spot opportunities and make something of the opening provided. I take intelligence and analytical abilities as given.

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