Veteran diplomat who blazed the trail for women recognised at NUS alumni awards

In 1964, Professor Chan Heng Chee was the first woman to graduate with first-class honours in political science from the University of Singapore.
In 1964, Professor Chan Heng Chee was the first woman to graduate with first-class honours in political science from the University of Singapore.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE -East Asia's first female ambassador to the United States is no stranger to being a pioneer, or dealing with tough binds.

In 1964, Professor Chan Heng Chee was the first woman to graduate with first-class honours in political science from the University of Singapore, which later became the National University of Singapore (NUS).

"Coming to NUS really opened up my mind and fed my hunger for knowledge," said Prof Chan, adding that many of her role models were female social workers whom she had read about in the university library.

In the following years, she went from being the first woman to head the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore in 1985, to the nation's permanent representative to the United Nations in 1989.

When asked about the challenges she faced as an ambassador, Prof Chan noted that men had some advantages in building camaraderie by playing golf or smoking together.

So when she became dean of the women ambassadors in Washington, she tried to help other female ambassadors who lacked connections by organising meals with important people, including the presidential cabinets and justices from the Supreme Court such as the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Last Wednesday (Nov 3), the Ambassador-at-Large received the Eminent Alumni Award at the NUS Alumni Awards 2021.

The award recognises alumni who have distinguished themselves nationally or globally.

Another recipient was first-generation leader Ong Pang Boon who graduated from the University of Malaya - once part of the University of Singapore - with a geography degree.

The third recipient, Mr Philip Yeo, chairman of consultancy Economic Development Innovations Singapore, was honoured as a prominent leader in the Singapore Administrative Service spanning almost three decades.

Prof Chan continues to wear many hats. She is deputy chairman of the Social Science Research Council and chairman of the board of trustees of the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, as well as professor at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities in the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

"Nothing comes without hard work," she said in her advice to young people. "And when you have put in a lot of work, your interest develops further."