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Gan Siow Huang and Poh Li San look back on how they overcame the odds in their respective professions

Both women carved out successful careers in male-dominated fields, before they joined politics

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People’s Action Party (PAP) parliamentarians Gan Siow Huang and Poh Li San have reflected on how they overcame discrimination as they carved out successful careers in male-dominated fields, before they joined politics.

Both Ms Gan and Ms Poh are first-term MPs who were elected to Parliament about six months ago in the 2020 general election.

Ms Gan was Singapore’s first female general and former highest female officer in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). A weapons system officer by training, Ms Gan rose to hold several command and staff appointments in the SAF over the next two decades and was promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General in 2015 at the young age of 40.

Four years later, in July 2019, Ms Gan was appointed Chief of Staff – Air Staff of the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). She resigned from the position less than a year later, in March 2020, to join politics.

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In what was a first for the ruling party, Ms Gan was fielded at a single member ward despite being a fresh face and beat her opposition opponent with 55 per cent of the vote. 15 days after the election, she was appointed Minister of State for Education and Manpower.

Looking back on her career in the military and how she thrived despite working in a male-dominated field, Ms Gan wrote on Facebook on Tuesday (19 Jan): “Some people believe that it’s difficult for women to do well in a male-dominated work environment.

“I had a fulfilling military career protecting Singapore for more than 20 years. I had colleagues and comrades with shared core values, and bosses who were supportive of staff with families, especially those with young children and elderly parents at home.”

Sharing that she is most thankful to her family for their understanding and trust and for allowing her to devote herself to her work wholeheartedly, Ms Gan said that it is her passion and the support of her family and friends that keeps her going.

She wrote: “It’s not been an easy journey but I will continue to push myself. What keeps me going? Well, I would say it’s passion for what I do, love of my family, and support from my colleagues and friends.”

The MP added that she was inspired by the stories other women shared about their working experiences at the PAP Women’s Wing Conversation on Women’s Development in the Workplace, last week.

Ms Gan’s post mirrored a social media post Sembawang GRC MP Poh Li San had published, last Saturday (16 Jan). Ms Poh also enjoyed a successful military career before joining the corporate sector and then politics.

Ms Poh joined the SAF at the age of 18 and was awarded the Singapore Armed Forces Merit (Women) Overseas Scholarship in 1994. She began her military career with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) as a helicopter pilot after completing her studies and has served as a search and rescue pilot in military missions.

In 2003, Ms Poh was made Assistant Director of the Future Systems Technology Directorate under the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and became Flight Commander of 125 Squadron, Sembawang Airbase two years later, in 2005.

In July 2006, Ms Poh was selected to be the first female aide-de-camp to then President of the Republic of Singapore, the late S. R. Nathan. She left the RSAF with the rank of Major in May 2010 and took on a senior leadership position at Changi Airport Group (CAG).

As Head of CAG’s Budget Terminal department, Ms Poh led the planning and development of the new Terminal 4 and currently serves as Vice-President of the Terminal 5 planning. She joined the PAP as an activist in 2018 and became an active grassroots leader in the ward that included two cabinet ministers at the time.

Ms Poh was fielded as one of the PAP’s candidates for Sembawang GRC in the 2020 general election and coasted the victory with 67 per cent of the vote. She was made Deputy Chairperson of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Sustainability and Environment after the election.

In her social media post, Ms Gan indicated that she faced discrimination as a woman in the SAF and had to work harder than her male counterparts to be recognised. Calling this discrimination “challenging,” she said:

“Discrimination against females in a male-dominated workplace has always been challenging. I joined SAF at the age of 18. In the 90s, I was one of the six RSAF female pilots. Compared to our male counterparts, we had to work much harder in order to be acknowledged.”

Rejoicing at the fact that female pilots are no longer a rarity today, Ms Poh advised other women who face workplace discrimination to speak up and chase their dreams instead of remaining silent. She wrote:

“I am certain that many women face similar issues during the course of their careers. It’s always easier to accept the situation and remain silent. However, I do not recommend such an approach. I’d always encourage young women to speak up, chase their aspirations and not let an unequal work environment dampen their dreams.”

The 45-year-old added: “I am glad that since 1965, Singaporean women have played a critical role in our nation’s success. Looking forward to have more women take on senior leadership positions!”

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