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Sabah women shine abroad
Published on: Sunday, August 26, 2012

WHERE have all the Chinese women gone?

Some of whom are doctors, paediatricians, pharmacists, architects, accountants, lawyers and other professionals.

School headgirls like Chong Fui Mee and Liew Chern Yun are nowhere in sight. It is learned that Tawau's Dr Jane Pang and KK's Dr Judy Teng, a consultant paediatrician, among others, are working in the United Kingdom while Dr Michelle Yong, a genito-urinary specialist, had worked there for many years before moving to Australia.

And where are our former State athletes like runner Fung Soon San, field events champions Mary Wong and sister Ann Wong, track queen Wong Yee Ying and national fencer Wong Yee Mei?

Yee Ying, also a former Miss Sabah, is reportedly residing in Australia while Yee Mei, 38, now a mother of one, is a pilates trainer in the United States. (Pilates is a physical fitness system developed in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates and popular in the United Kingdom and United States of America). A Yayasan Sabah scholarship holder, Yee Mei, who also excelled in State hurdles, graduated with a degree in Physical Fitness from the Wichita State University in Kansas. She came back once in the hope of securing employment but since Yayasan Sabah could not offer her a job within a certain period of time, she was released from any obligation.

Through fencing, she met her hubby, Fitzgerald Tsen, also a national fencer, and the duo used to compete at international level as far as Korea before tying the knot.

This pertinent issue (declining Sabah Chinese women population) inevitably surfaced during the launch of a Statewide Socio-Economic Survey on Chinese Women in Sabah in conjunction with International Women's Day earlier this year. Federation of Chinese Associations Sabah (FCAS) Women & Senior Citizens Bureau Chief, Datuk Agnes Shim revealed that based on the 2010 Population Census, Chinese women in Sabah total 142,425 and this accounts for only 9.2pc of the total female population.

The idea of the survey was mooted by her.

There are many factors for the migration of Chinese women from Sabah from the sixties and seventies right up to recent years, citing economic considerations, "greener pastures", alleged discrimination, lack of job opportunities, children's further education or children's future for their painful decision. And scores of women followed their husbands overseas upon the latter's retirement from government service or the private sector.

One other determining factor is "relationships" leading to marriage with an American, English or Australian suitor.

Among the earliest to migrate to Australia in the seventies were the Lai sisters, Clare and Maureen, who are ex-Franciscans and daughters of a former Kudat District Officer. Clare is happily married to a New Zealander. Chan Pek Lan, who studied at All Saints' Secondary School in the sixties, was head of one of the libraries in England.

She has retired and was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) two years ago by the Queen of England.

Former History teacher Doreen Wong, whose husband (the late Datuk Chong Thain Vun) perished together with 10 others in the June 6, 1976 plane crash off Sembulan, Kota Kinabalu, has since moved to Australia with her two sons. Even Sabah's first woman accountant, Agatha Sun has faded into obscurity. Corinne Chin, a one-time public relations practitioner with a leading hotel in the State capital, has settled down in Canada.

Talented Michelle Chung, who graduated in the Performing Arts from the United States, has shunned Sabah in favour of Singapore.

And the latest information received is that architect Belinda Chia has recently moved to Australia for the sake of her child's future.

From one perspective, what is apparent as a colossal brain drain from Sabah has become a mammoth gain by countries like the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Middle East, China and Singapore, to name a few.

A classic example is that of KK-born Senator Penny Wong, 44, who left Malaysia and went to Australia in 1977. How we wish she had created history in Malaysia. Instead, she became the first Asian-born Federal Minister in the Australian Federal Cabinet, and Australia's first Minister for Climate Change and Water in 2007. And in September 2010, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that Wong had been promoted as Minister for Finance and Deregulation. It made us jealous to learn that she (Wong) has for many years been trying to get more women to run for Parliament for her political party (Australian Labour Party).

Not surprising because Australia is the first country in the world to give women both the right to vote and the right to stand for Parliament.

Going by the composition of the Federal Parliament by gender, 27 of the total of 76 Senators are women, and in the House of Representatives, there are 37 women out of a total of 150 members. In contrast, Malaysia is still lagging behind in terms of women's political representation.

Labuan-born Susan Ng served at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in the seventies before moving to the United States where she worked as a nursing sister. The adventurous lady later set foot on the Middle East where she spent six and a half years in the noble profession before calling it a day in February this year. In fact, it is common knowledge that retired nurses from Sabah were lured to lucrative work offers in the oil-rich Middle East.

Kota Kinabalu's Dr Kong Soon Oi, who left for Singapore for further studies in 1968, has settled down in the island republic with a permanent resident (PR) status. She graduated with a degree in social work from the National University of Singapore in 1971.

"It so happened I married a Singaporean who is an IT Consultant.

In those days, I was under the impression that it was difficult for foreigners to work in Sabah," said the mother of two.

"Well, I am still a Malaysian. I am a Sabahan at heart."

Nevertheless, Dr Kong, who is probably the first Sabahan to obtain a doctorate in social work (1991), appreciates Singapore for having given her the opportunity to develop herself career wise.

Now re-employed, the old girl of Sabah College continues to lecture in social work at the National University of Singapore.

Sabah's first woman oncologist, Dr Lo Soo Kien from Tawau has been working as a consultant medical oncologist with the National Cancer Centre in Singapore since November 2008.

While it has always been her wish to contribute to cancer care in Sabah, it is not likely to happen for now.

"Singapore is my base at the moment as my husband and two children are here. However, I would certainly love to come to Sabah to help out with some complex cases on a regular basis," she said when asked on the possibility of returning to Sabah in the near future.

And in response to Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai's call to Malaysian doctors serving abroad to return to serve the country, Dr Lo said:

"There is a lot that one could help with the experience one has built up studying and working abroad. I agree that we should each contribute to our country, whenever and wherever possible."

Following years of studies and working experience in Australia (2003-2011), Vivian Ho decided to leave and explore the world.

Born in Kota Kinabalu, she is a design architect who graduated with a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Queensland in 2010.

Ho, who loves to travel, has visited up to 15 countries and cities.

"The various cultures all over the world are just amazing," she remarked.

With ambition throbbing in her blood, she landed a job in Callison, Shanghai.

Callison is one of the top US firms with expertise in mixed-use shopping mall. Notably, it has been named 1Retail Design Firm in World Architecture.

Since Ho joined Callison a year ago, she has participated in more than 10 projects. Currently, she is working on Shanghai Vanke and Chengdu 2411 City, two mixed-use shopping malls.

China is growing at a tremendous rate, she observed.

Projects are non-stop coming in and all are on the fast track, according to the design architect. "One shopping mall just needs two to three years to complete from design drawings to construction.

Each mall is of huge magnitude."

This, she said, is unlike the situation in western countries, where shopping malls usually take six to seven years to be built.

Ho added: "I am glad to have a chance to work not only with the locals in Shanghai but also western architects from USA. They are very experienced and rated as top architects.

"It is very important to learn and acquire experience, not only through participation in good projects but also from reputable architects."

She attributed her career success to family support all the way, saying "They support my dream, my career and everything I decide to do."

Doesn't she miss home?

"Yes, of course," came the reply. "My parents are in Sabah.

Sabah is close to my heart and it is developing. But I'd prefer to gain experience overseas first before contributing to the State in the future."

On her future plans, Ho disclosed that she would remain working in China for another two to three years.

"Afterwards, I may try US, Hong Kong or Singapore.

To me, the most important thing is to get an architect's licence in Malaysia and US within three years.

This is one of my dreams."

Tawau-born Cecilia Chong Bitt Kim bade adieu to Sabah, Malaysia and migrated to Australia with her family back in July 2006.

By then, she was the Communications Manager while hubby Thomas was a Project Manager with Shell IT International in Kuala Lumpur.

"We couldn't both resign from our jobs at Shell IT International.

He kept his job in KL and when I found a job in Melbourne with The Victorian Workcover Authority (a State Government agency), he joined us in November," she said.

The former student cum teacher of Sung Siew Secondary School, Sandakan, cited three reasons for this crucial decision, partly influenced by the fact that she was trained in Australia as a teacher.

She obtained her Bachelor of Economics degree and a Postgraduate Diploma in Education from La Trobe University in Melbourne.

The children's education was foremost in the minds of the couple.

"I wanted my children to enjoy education. I felt the whole attitude towards education here in Australia would be more suitable for them," she said in an interview via email.

"I say 'enjoy' because education should be all-rounded and wholesome, not just paper-chasing and academic-centric."

Secondly, Chong's contention is that Australia practices democracy, saying "And it's not just lip-service but amply demonstrated in its policies."

She added: "In short, you will be rewarded accordingly, based on merit and not on ethnicity.

Sure, you might experience the odd discrimination but that's limited to everyone's personal experience."

Her observation is: The bottom line is that majority of the people will outwardly condemn discrimination, and again, that is clearly a policy that the Australian Government supports.

In contrast, this is the opposite in Malaysia where the Government is allegedly practising discrimination in many forms, not clandestinely but publicly as manifested in many of its policies.

Last but not least, Chong said the lifestyle in Australia is more conducive.

"Put simply, we enjoy the myriad of activities through the four seasons in the year made available to us as a family unit."

According to her, the non-availability of live-in maids has also helped train her children to be more independent and mature in more ways than one.

Her 10-year-old son walks home by himself and is in charge of cooking rice and washing everyone's lunch boxes the minute he gets home.

"This is a task I cannot envision a child his age doing in Malaysia.

My eldest child, a girl, who is 17, has been working over the weekends since a year ago.

She wants to earn her own money for a holiday after her VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education equivalent to STPM in Malaysia).

And she is also saving up to buy her own car," she said, adding that without a personal tuition teacher, her kids learn to work hard and be disciplined in their studies.

Currently, Chong is in the retail industry and managing the flagship store of an Australian kids' fashion business.

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