Her helping hand

Chong Phit Lian, CEO of Jetstar Asia Airways Pte Ltd
Chong Phit Lian, 59, alumni of Sekolah Sultan Ibrahim (SSI) Kulaijaya, is the Chief Executive Officer of Jetstar Asia Airways and Valuair.

I was born in Kulaijaya, the third in a family of seven siblings.  My father, a plantation contractor, enrolled me in the Kulai Chinese Primary School where I received a solid foundation in my education.  Later I joined SMK Sekolah Sultan Ibrahim (SSI) as it was the only secondary school in Kulaijaya at that time.

Although I was in a top class, I was not a top student because there were many who were considered the cream of the class.  I was active in sports, involved with track and field events, volleyball, netball and a state player for basketball.  As the Green House captain, I was often preoccupied with responsibilities or busy with games practice, which often caused me to miss lessons.

I played center-forward position in netball and remember an incident when we were competing against a Johor Baru school that almost got me expelled from school.  When I saw an opposing player behaving roughly against my teammate, I lost my cool and acted likewise.  As a result, our Physical Education and Disciplinary Master, Khoo Boo Tee, hauled my team up to see the headmaster, M G Parry.

Chong Phit Lian [Left] on holiday in London with her family
While waiting to meet Parry, I was terrified and imagined all sorts of disgrace because if I was expelled, I would face my father’s wrath and even be caned.  But I reasoned with myself that Parry would not kick all of us out because there were four house captains among us and they were also the school’s high-achievers.  As he was a sportsman, I believed Parry would understand and I gratefully benefited from his graciousness because he let us off with a stern warning and all of us completed our secondary education in SSI. 

I did not achieve a full certificate but this did not deter me from pursing further education in a Singapore polytechnic.  I shared a rented flat with three other girls and while I had a small income from giving private tuition, I prioritized my expenditure to pay school fees, rental and buy food.  Very often I went without three meals a day because I could not stretch my meager monthly budget and once when a tuition payment was late, I had to take a loan from a lecturer to pay my school fees.

Chong [Centre] on holiday in Spain with her children
So it was a sweet achievement to finally obtain my Diploma in Production Engineering and I started my first job as a Technical Assistant.  With plans to further my studies abroad, I took two part-time jobs, giving tuition in all subjects and selling insurance, to save enough money.  After two and a half years, I had sufficient funds to give a lump sum to my mother while I applied to various bodies for additional sponsorship. 

With support from the Chong Clan Association, the Hakka Association, the British Council and the Lee Foundation, I had sufficient funds to make my way to the United Kingdom for my first degree in Production & Manufacturing Technology at Aston University in Birmingham.  I spent my holidays in a part-time job as a factory operator to save more money and continued my studies.  However, I received a letter from my sister asking me to return home and when I did, I learnt that my elder brother had passed away, leaving his widow to care for a toddler and an unborn child.

This created a heavier burden for the family so I decided to take my younger brother with me to the UK for further studies.  It was a struggle but through hard work and sheer determination, I completed my Masters in Business Administration (MBA).  Back in Singapore, I got a job as Workshop Manager with United Motor Works, looking after fabrication, construction equipment, forklifts and generators.  It was a tough job but with good bosses who challenged me I was promoted every 18 months and after seven and a half years, I was General Manager.

I took a pay cut when I joined Singapore Technologies Corporation (that later became Singapore Technologies Industrial Corporation) as Manager but I was promoted even before I was confirmed.  I spent the next 20 years working with very good teams and when a new challenge with the Singapore Mint was offered, I moved on.  As Chief Executive Officer, I was involved with the business of printing money as well as in a wide range of the group’s leisure and lifestyle businesses.  (STIC merged with Sembawang Corporation to become SembCorp Industries. Singapore Mint was part of SembCorp Industries.) 

Chong [Seated Right] with some members of the SSI Alumni
and former headmaster, M G Parry [Seated 2nd from Right]
In 2006, I joined the airline industry, taking charge of Jetstar Asia Airways and Valuair, with a commitment to turn the company around and make it profitable in three years.  While skeptics were still questioning why I decided to look after “two sick birds” my team and a supportive group of shareholders helped me to turn the company around in two years.  Now with a modern fleet of aircrafts and expanding long haul routes, the company remains very strong in the budget airline industry today.

As I progress in my career, I often look back at my humble beginnings, recalling the hardship and struggles as there was little career guidance in those days.  To help needy and hardworking students achieve their education goals, I decided to start the SSI Education Fund that will be administered by the SSI Alumni.  I’m also ready to share my experience and offer counseling to guide youths to seek help from the resources available today and set them on track with their career paths.

A version of this interview was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 18 November 2011

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