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picking up the pieces
Published on: Sunday, April 02, 2017

By Mary Chin
THE recent International Women’s Day (IWD) celebration with the theme “Be Bold for Change” prompted hitherto bashful women to take to the stage to bare it all – the challenges faced in life, forgoing higher education in favour of younger siblings, the hurt (physical or mental or both) inflicted by errant husbands, thus driving them to divorce, the bold decision taken for career advancement, enormous sacrifices made for the sake of families, poignant stories of how they lost their loved ones prematurely but picked up the pieces to start anew because life has to go on, and what have you!

The special gathering was the initiative of Co-Founder of Lean Sabah, and supported by property developer Eliza Goh. Janet Anthony, now a Corporate Manager with the Sabah Credit Corporation, aspired to earn an MBA degree 15 years ago. But could she attain her goal as a wife, mother of two children (then aged 9 and 6) and a full-time employee? However, her yen for knowledge and strong desire for higher qualification got the better of her.

“I made a bold decision to pursue my studies in UMS. Simply, I wanted to stand among Sabah’s well-educated ladies. When I was young, there was no opportunity for such pursuit,” she said. So Janet registered herself as a student for the part-time course in MBA at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) in 2002.

As expected, it was no plain sailing. The challenge was to drive all the way from Penampang to UMS after work to attend classes three times a week from 7.30pm to 10.30pm. “I thought I could put aside all other considerations to concentrate on my studies. But it was easier said than done. There were times when I just wanted to throw in the towel,” she admitted. “I even asked myself – what am I trying to do? But then there was no turning back at this stage.”

Occasionally, Janet couldn’t help falling asleep in class due to lack of sleep. “Tiring, many a time I woke up at midnight to complete my assignments as well as my dissertation. Thankfully, with support from family and friends and especially my Professors, I managed to graduate in 2004,” she said, adding she and others were the university’s first batch of part-time MBA students to graduate that year. The moral of her story is that when you have set your sights on doing something, nothing is impossible. “Be bold to change your life for the better.

When you embrace a strong desire to achieve a goal, go all out for it. Success will be yours no matter how difficult the journey is. Put your whole heart and soul into it,” she said matter-of-factly.

By 2016, Papar-born Hjh Masnah Matsalleh was due for promotion after serving in the Ministry of Communication and Works (now renamed Ministry of Infrastructure Development) for 29 years and then as Budget Officer for five years in the Ministry of Finance.

“As civil servants, we can’t resist that (promotion). That is our expectation. The opportunity was there, I had to grab the opportunity. But then I was instructed to stay on in the Ministry of Finance.

That was the challenge before me. So what was the bold action I took?

“I went knocking on the door of the Number One (none other than Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman who is also State Finance Minister). I had to see the boss. I appealed to the CM to please let me go…this is for my future.

“Thankfully, the CM is understanding and supportive of women’s promotion, and had no objection,” she said in retrospect. And so Masnah was promoted to be the new Director of Sabah Women’s Affairs Department (Jhewa) in June last year.

That milestone in her career meant moving away from finance and reaching out to the women in Sabah.

“So that was the bold decision I made. I have been nine months into the job now, and have produced a few ‘babies’, and planning to produce more,” she quipped. “I am happy at Jhewa. The staff are ‘unsung heroes’.

But the job is gratifying. What is more fulfilling is the gratitude of women who had received help from Jhewa.

You can see the happiness in their eyes.”

Making her pledge to “Be Bold for Change”, Masnah said as Pengarah (Director), she is in the midst of planning for positive change. “I am aware that the gender parity gap is still wide and to close this gap may take about 170 years. Nevertheless, I am doing my bit…bridging this gender gap will be my top priority.”

Towards this end, the Director, who attended the UN Conference on Women in Geneva last year, will be reaching out to the heads of department and agencies in an effort to get them to understand the concept of gender parity and related perspectives. “Once they get the perception correct, the task of narrowing the gap will be easy,” she added.

Being perceived as too young and therefore “green” was the challenge faced by entrepreneur Niney Chong.

Unsurprisingly, she would be asked, “Can you do it or Are you experienced enough or Are you ready to take up the challenge?”

For instance, she was considered too young when she wanted to attend the Women’s Directorship Programme (WDP) to prepare businesswomen and executives for membership in corporate boards.

So how did she cope with the perception? Boldness was the answer. “I am very lucky to have helpful people around me, notably senior women ‘empowering’ me. My bold move is to approach people for help.

This (idea) is what I have, can you support me? Just being bold enough to ask for support,” said Chong, a Sabahan, who moved back to Sabah from Kuala Lumpur where she had worked as a marketer.

“It was a ‘make it’ or ‘break it’ opportunity.”

That was five years ago. Earlier, attempts to return to Sabah were a futile exercise because there was no opportunity. The women who “empowered” her were Datuk Adeline Leong (whom she befriended at the Kota Kinabalu International Airport), Hanaa Wong Abdullah and Datin Jeanette Tambakau (now past Presidents of Sabah Women Entrepreneurs and Professionals Association (Swepa), and current Deputy State Secretary (Administration), Datuk Asnimar Hj Sukardi, to name a few.

Faith and support from others backbone to any success story “(Datuk) Adeline had trust in me. Before I knew it, I received a call from (Datin) Jeanette telling me I would be the Marketing Director for Swepa’s Conference on Wellness Journey (at the behest of Adeline).

Hanaa was then the President. I became a new member,” she remembered. “Oh Boy, I told myself, what did I get myself into? I took up the challenge as it was a ‘make it’ or ‘break it’ window of opportunity.”

With teamwork, the Organising Committee was able to sell 500 seats in less than three months, according to Chong. “That was my first breakthrough in Sabah.”

Once, when approached, Asnimar told her: “Come to my office. Amazing idea, go for it.”

In the meantime, Chong pondered over the fate of women below 45 years of age, wondering how they could move on and contribute to society, especially those who decide to re-enter the workforce. And two years ago, she attended an overwhelming Lean In Women Summit in Malaysia participated by 1000 people.

Inspired by the success stories of women, including housewives, about their career advancement and endeavours, Chong and Hanaa co-founded Lean Sabah as a support group in January this year. Lean represents Lead, Empower, Achieve and Next-Level.

Losing a loved one is unbearable, what more with two as in the unfortunate case of Registered Nurse (RN) Alice Kunjan, now the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Klinik Malaysia (KM) Medical Services. “This is the right moment for me to share,” said an emotionally charged CEO.

The world virtually caved in on her when she was widowed at the age of 28 and her son was only four – her husband, an employee of Shell, died in a fall in Labuan. Following the tragedy, she requested a transfer back to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH), Kota Kinabalu. “I could not continue to live in the same house because I would miss him dearly.”

Kunjan prayed to God for help, imploring Him to show her His way “so that I can move on and bring up my only child”. She asked God for three things – to be the best as a nurse, to remain sane and to have the best for her son in life. “I have seen people who have gone through major life challenges, and they break down and become mad.

I know what madness means, there will be no more life.”

Salary wise, it was not sufficient to support her son’s needs in his growing years, so she made a bold decision to go to KL for post-basic training to become a specialist nurse. “During this period, I had to leave my son with my Dad as my Mum had passed away in my second year of nursing.”

At one stage, given her night duty as a Nursing Sister, Kunjan had no choice but to leave her son with the babysitter for a whole week.

Meanwhile, with support from her family and friends in Rotary, Toastmasters and Swepa, Kunjan, like a Phoenix, rose from the ashes to be reborn. At 38, she became a Matron of the then Sabah Medical Centre (SMC), fulfilling her dream to be one before 40 after securing her Advanced Nursing Administration qualification from the Royal College of Nursing, London. Eight years later, she joined KM Medical Services, of which she is the CEO today.

Tragedy struck again in 2002 when her son, then 24, was killed in a freak accident while conducting aircraft training for new recruits in Penang. “I was devastated. It broke my heart into millions of pieces.

Losing your husband is different from losing your very own child whom you carried for nine months,” Kunjan said.

After going into depression, she told herself, “Nobody is going to help me in this state. Everybody else (in my situation) is still going on with their lives. How can I not move on in life? Connecting with them (friends)…those were the special moments I had with them. And that has kept me going until what I am today.

“And I thank God that I am 64 and still working. I am very blessed with lots of friends like all of you ladies who are all powerful,” concluded Kunjan who also has an MBA and a Professional Diploma of Business Management.

By her own admission, the other side of Joanna Kitingan, a senior civil servant, is that she is a single mother and the “hurt” was deeper than what others had gone through in similar circumstances. “It was absolutely a nightmare but I could not fall to pieces for the sake of the children. Thank God, I managed to heal and move on.

Positive thinking is essential for survival.”

She is now both a “father and mother” to six lovely children, having taken the bold decision to divorce her husband some time ago, and to raise the children singlehandedly. “I asked for a divorce because he had another woman in his life. But to let go, I have forgiven him,” she said unabashedly in her bold sharing.

During his hospitalisation, Kitingan visited him when he related how he survived his ordeal to which she replied, “I survived giving birth to the six children. Now I forgive you because we have six beautiful children.

You will always be a parent to the children, but we have to move on.”

She added: “That was the breakthrough. When you forgive, you unburden yourself but you have to take responsibility. I am moving on. I am active, I am happy with my life.”

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