16 Apr Serene Chua
When she joined the Singapore Navy fresh out of university, Serene Chua was one of only five female combat officers in her cohort. This was 25 years ago, when the Navy had only recruited two batches of female combat officers — many of them were pioneers like Serene, who swam against the current and paved the way for future generations of female officers.
UNSAID speaks to Serene about how she went from nearly quitting on her third day, to sailing high seas as the Navy’s first female squadron commander.
A burning sense of adventure
“When I had just graduated from the National University of Singapore, I didn’t know what to do with my life, or which career path to embark on. It felt like God’s plan that I was invited for a career talk with the SAF. They proposed a career path that was exciting: anyone can drive a car, but whoa, to man a ship!
At the roadshow, they told me I could travel the seas, just like in the Navy advertisement. I wasn’t from a well-off family, and travelling overseas for work was a very exciting prospect. It suited my personality — I like something that is a bit more challenging and unconventional, not a desk-bound job.”
1. No clear roadmap in sight
“When the Navy recruited us, they had a roadmap for us to fulfill, which is to get a certificate of Bridge Watch keeping Certificate…a license to sail the ship. But beyond two years, they didn’t know what to do with us. They didn’t even envisage us to taking on a junior appointment on board the ship.
It was like trial-and-error. We tread the same career path as our male counterparts; we would go for upgrading courses, and then say, look, if our male counterparts can do it, why can’t we? It reached a point where we were always pushing the boundary.”
1. Realising that gender is no obstacle
“But as the other female officers and I edged forward, we realised that hey, we were progressing just as well as our male counterparts. Being the pioneer batch, we felt a heavy sense of responsibility, because we knew that we were charting the future for other female officers. If we didn’t do well, it could affect the career advancement of our juniors. Facing the challenges was like telling the Navy, ‘Look we are ready for something bigger, are you ready for us?’ “
2. Breaking down early on the job
“On the third day, I doubted myself already! To be trained as a naval officer, I had to undergo seven months of army training. Can you imagine for the first seven months, I was wearing the “number 4” (the camouflaged army uniform) and undergoing all the army training such as cheong sua (being at the frontline). On the third day I cried. I couldn’t take it because it was physically tough and I was not fit. I remember that when I went for the orientation, I failed my 2.4km run!”
2. Keeping the end in mind
“That day, I started thinking about why I was there, why was I doing this when I was a degree holder. Then I told myself, okay let’s think long term, with a longer horizon and a broader perspective. I realised, eh, I didn’t actually join the Army to cheong sua, I joined the Navy. I just have to bite the bullet for seven months, pull through and move on. The instructor there also told me: ‘Don’t worry; we will make sure we train you well, and you’re fit at the end of this journey.'”
3. Being away from family for long stretches
“In the early days, when I had to sail abroad, the longest time I was away was for two weeks. At that time, we didn’t have handphones and my husband was also away for overseas deployment. I had no contact with my family members and I had to leave my 1-year-old son with my domestic helper!”
3. Learning to wear many hats
“To succeed in your career, you have to make sure that you have good domestic and social support. And then you can have peace of mind and will be able to give more than 100 percent to your career. When sailing on the ship, I have my full concentration and commitment on the ship; taking care of the ship crew, the equipment and to achieve the mission.
And if you know that you want to start a family, you have to plan early. I’m not saying that female officers who choose not to marry and have children will not find happiness. What I’m saying is that I journeyed through to find a good balance; I’m very happy at home and at work. I think that completes me.”
1. Being on command
“To be able to be commanding officer of the ship is a pinnacle of the career, for both male and female officers. I was the fourth female officer in the Navy to be a commanding officer. I later became a squadron commander, and commanded four ships and two craft. I was the first, and so far, the only female squadron commander in the history of the navy.”
2. Contributing to National Day celebrations
“In 1999, the navy was tasked to be the parade and ceremonies committee for the National Day parade. It was a tough journey, it took one and a half years of effort, from the conceptualisation, to approval, rehearsals and the final implementation. But on the actual day, when the troops did well, that was a proud moment. We sang the national anthem and tears were rolling out.”
3. Camaraderie regardless of gender
“The female officers didn’t parachute into the organisation, we journeyed through. During the first 10 years of our career, we followed a structured career progression and planning; we started as junior officers and then we moved up the ranks. We grew together. I wouldn’t say there is disparity in the respect given to male and female officers. If you prove that you are worth your salt, you are accorded the same level of respect and recognition.”
“Take care of your health, both physically and spiritually, and then to have good support back home. To be financially sound, and then realise you still have capacity to serve God and contribute back to the society. To me that is happiness.”
Stay tuned to more stories from our ladies!