Her Excellency

The Chief Corporate Officer of CapitaLand speaks about life as Singapore’s Non-Resident Ambassador to the Slovak Republic

Issue: May 2010

Jennie Chua
Ms Jennie Chua - proud to represent her country in the Republic of Slovakia

When Ms Jennie Chua was appointed Singapore’s Ambassador to the Slovak Republic, a sense of duty and responsibility weighed heavily on her.

“It’s a delightful feeling but it’s strong. You know you have to represent your country well,” says Ms Chua.

Despite holding numerous directorships, being a diplomat still brings new meaning, learning and experiences to this hospitality veteran.

“I was called by the Slovak Republic to present my credentials to President Ivan Gašparovič. When I arrived, a car with Singapore’s flag at the front came to pick me up. When I got to the Presidential Palace, there were two sights welcoming me - the flagpoles flying Singapore’s and Slovakia’s flags and the Guard of Honour dressed in their traditional military uniforms. I stood there listening to the ‘Majulah Singapura’ being played – thousands of miles from home. Then I walked down to inspect the Guard of Honour. She said and added: The feeling is so precious and this sense of pride in your own country is heightened,” she recalls.

Life as a diplomat began with this sense of national pride, followed by a series of visits to build and seal new relationships between the two countries. It was a role that was new and unknown, something that Ms Chua clearly liked talking about.

Journey of discovery

As a Non-Resident Ambassador, Ms Chua has been visiting the Slovak Republic, on average, two to three times a year during the last three years. During these trips she discovered a country with an alluring contrast. The country has a history of more than 1,500 years old yet it has only gained its independence sixteen years ago in 1993.

And what struck her are the similarities between Singapore and Slovakia.

trips
Every time Ms Chua visits Bratislava, she discovers interesting nuggets about the country.

“Slovakia is a small country by international standard. Like us, they have a five million population and no natural resources. So, they are dependent on its people for growth. While new to politics, their history is much longer than ours. Their university is 400 years old and their national literacy rate is more than 90%. For centuries, Slovakia was a seat of learning; a centre for scientific exploration and a fount for philosophical thinking. You can see they have a very long history,” she observes.

Slovakia was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and subsequently Czechoslovakia. With the recent independence, the republic did not inherit much wealth after the separation from the Czechs.

“Yet the Slovakians still managed to achieve double-digit GDP growth. So like us, they had to maximise on whatever they have and build their country upon it. That’s why the similarities are quite apparent.” she says.

Bridging the gap between newfound friends

As a diplomat, Ms Chua is mindful that she is the face of Singapore to the Slovakians. She likens it to the role of a Chief Executive Officer.

“When you are CEO, you are the face of the company like Mr Liew Mun Leong is the face of CapitaLand. How he speaks, what he does, how he runs the company - these are things that people associate the company with. When you represent your country, people tend to look at you and judge you and say ok that’s a Singaporean, and therefore your country. So people draw a conclusion based on whether they like you as a person, your ability to respond to difficult situations, how intelligent you are, and how you react to an awkward question or a request for help,” observes Ms Chua.

president
Presenting her credentials to President Gašparovic in 2007 marks the beginning of Ms Chua’s diplomatic journey and a new friendship with Slovakia.

And Ms Chua is well aware of her heavy responsibility – representing her country well and bridging the gap between two newfound friends. And her hospitable nature and sense of humour have put these new friends at ease.

“President Ivan Gašparovič came to Singapore about four years ago, a gesture to show that they regard us as an important friend. During that trip, we named an orchid after him and his wife. In my last visit, I saw him and after talking for about an hour or so about his country’s developments and challenges, he asked about his orchid. I said it’s thriving. I told him that I will go and water the plant myself. So when I came back, I went to water his plant and took a picture and sent it to him through the Ministry’s diplomatic channels,” Ms Chua recalls.

Driven by passion and a strong sense of purpose, Ms Chua is always looking for ways to make her visits to Slovakia meaningful for both parties.

“During your tenure you must do something to add value otherwise the diplomatic role becomes just a cosmetic function. That’s why whenever I go on a visit, I’m always thinking of how to add something valuable to the relationship? Is it culture this time or an economic element? During one of my earlier trips, I managed to persuade an informal delegation of a group of friends who are in business, like Douglas Foo from Sakae Sushi, to explore Slovakia. Later, I invited two officers from Spring Singapore. Recently, I travelled together with 35 persons from the Singapore Press Club. So every trip I go, I try hard to add something fresh, something of value,” says Ms Chua.

Charmed

Among the many things in Slovakia that have charmed her, it’s the people who have made particular impression on Ms Chua.

“The Slovakians are very smart but not complicated. Most of the time when you talk to business people there, or officials, what you hear are what you get – straightforward, honest and candid,” she remarks.

Secretary
The Ambassador is impressed with her interactions with young and intelligent people like Diana Strofova, the State Secretary in the Foreign Ministry and a former Miss Slovakia

One of the people that left a deep impression on Ms Chua is the State Secretary in the Foreign Ministry, Ms Diana Strofova. To her, Strofova is a great example of a Slovakian woman. This is because Strofova is not only beautiful, she is also very intelligent and diligent.

“In the interactions with Ms Strofova the last three years, I have found her to be on top of the important issues at hand and her thinking is very sound. She is very efficient and straightforward. For example, if she tells you that something can be done, you can be sure she’ll get it done,” remarks Ms Chua.

And then there are also other Slovak businessmen that Ms Chua had made friends with.

“There’s Peter Korbacka who is about 40 years old. His company owns real estate, hotels, a fleet of private jets, TV stations and the famed Sparta Prague football team etc. These are people who not only have businesses but also other interests as well. So my interaction is wide ranging with the foreign affairs people and the private sector. I see how the Slovakians present themselves and I think the prospects of the two countries continuing to work for mutual benefits are extremely good.” assesses Ms Chua.

Finding the right fit

As business leader who has spent more than three decades managing large corporations, Ms Chua skillfully uses her talents and experiences to keep organizations, businesses and individuals engaged and help them explore business opportunities that are mutually beneficial.

“If you look at Slovakia’s main export and their main industry, which is motorcars, there is not very much for us. We are not a manufacturer. So the areas we can link together would appear to be in the SME. For example if there are good craftsmen in Slovakia for furniture and we in Spore have good furniture designers, then we can combine the two. If the market’s Europe, it’s even better because from there you can send them out,” suggests Ms Chua. “So to me, it would seem like a good combination of capital, geography and cost containment. I have spoken to the Chief Executive of Spring Singapore and he has expressed interest to explore the possibilities further.”

Second term

As the Chief Corporate Officer of CapitaLand holding numerous directorships, Ms Chua is often asked how she manages to juggle so many roles in her career.

“The thing I decide to say ‘yes’ to, I must enjoy. Then it doesn’t feel like a chore or additional board or additional work.” she says.

She has clearly enjoyed her diplomatic role. So when the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Head of Civil Service, Peter Ho, called her to ask if she would continue to stay on as the Ambassador to Slovakia, she readily said yes.

“There is no need to be coy about it. If you think you enjoy what you are doing, have a good relationship with the country you are accredited to and you can add value, why not?” offers Ms Chua.

Currently serving her second term, she says there is a lot left to be done.

“I’m running from first base to second base. I haven’t hit home run yet. I haven’t hit the ball in the perfect pitch and curve. So, there is a lot more of the same to do. There are different people I need to share information with and introduce the country to. I also need to improve on my own network with the private sector there and consolidate relationships with the government officials, including the people in the economic, transport and culture ministries.” she humbly adds.

With her proven track record, it won’t be long before those diplomatic relationships and friendships are firmly sealed, together with business deals between the two countries.

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