“I am gender-blind,” said Ms Saw Phaik Hwa, President and CEO of SMRT Corporation, to a room-full of high-powered women, who had gathered to hear her speak at the inaugural NUS Women’s Leadership Forum, organised by the National University of Singapore (NUS).
In an informal speech peppered with humorous anecdotes, the charismatic NUS alumna shared her experience of entering what was a male-dominated workforce at SMRT back in 2002, where the senior management preferred to be called by their titles, “brigadier, brigadier-general or admiral”, to a culture today where even the frontline staff call her “Phaik Hwa”. Today, 43 percent of SMRT’s senior management comprises women, up from 11 percent in 2002. In the eight years that she has headed the public transport company, SMRT has transformed from being “operation-oriented” where the primary aim was to run trains to being business-centric, with MRT stations re-imagined as vibrant lifestyle hubs. The changes in SMRT’s vision and operation style over these years could be viewed as “a scenario of what a woman can do in an organisation”, she said.
While taking questions from some of the 60 women who attended the lunchtime talk, among them CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical practitioners, Ms Saw elaborated, “It is my personal philosophy to be gender-blind. I’m not conscious of myself as a woman. I see people not as a man or a woman but as a person.” Addressing the issue of whether a woman needs IQ or EQ to succeed in a male-dominated work place as she did, Ms Saw said, “You need both. You are dealing with very capable and smart people and you need to add value.”
Ms Saw, who has a Bachelor of Science (Hons) in Biochemistry from NUS, spoke passionately about her attachment to Eusoff Hall, one of the halls of residence at NUS, which led to her running for, and winning by a landslide, the position of Eusoff Hall President. She said, “I love Eusoff Hall. I always wanted to serve Eusoff Hall.” She added, “I want to do things. If I believe in it, I want to do something about it. I want to lead people.” But politics is not for her, she said. The experience of running for Eusoff Hall President showed her how divisive the election process was and how it “destroyed values”. “Win or lose, you hurt people,” she said.
Ms Saw’s boundless energy and passion sees her serving on the boards of many companies. She is also an ardent practitioner of tai chi. She said, “I do things that I am interested in. I want to make a difference. As long as you can make the change happen and you believe that your existence will change something, you will go and do it as you are invigorated. It’s not just running on a treadmill.”
The session was chaired by Dr Astrid S. Tuminez, Vice Dean (Research) of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
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