Anson Chan

Anson Chan - Former chief secretary

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am


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Integrity, among the many qualities that make a successful female leader, comes above all else for Anson Chan Fang On-sang. 'In public life, you have to be whiter than white,' she says. 'You don't have the luxury of talking off the top of your head. The buck stops with you when you hold high office.'

She also lists intellectual rigour, convictions, courage, humility, empathy and the ability to develop constructive relationships as necessary attributes to reach the top. Chan is speaking from long experience, having shattered countless glass ceilings as she rose to the top of Hong Kong's government, starting in the 1960s, when women were few and far between in the civil service.

In 1984, Chan became the first female civil service director when appointed director of social welfare. Nine years later, she rose to the post of chief secretary, becoming not only the first woman but also the first Chinese to fill the position.

This, she says, was her biggest professional achievement. 'To have led a 190,000-strong civil service before and after the handover - a well-respected, efficient, clean civil service whose members shared a common set of core values - and pulled in the same direction to serve the people of Hong Kong.'

Chan stepped down as chief secretary for administration in 2001. She subsequently served on the Legislative Council, winning a by-election on Hong Kong Island in 2007, and remains active in public life. She is known for her commitment to bringing democracy to Hong Kong and is a leading figure in the Citizens' Commission on Constitutional Development which promotes civic engagement.

'If money is important to you, forget about public service. You will get more brickbats than bouquets. But there is tremendous job satisfaction if your heart and mind are in the right place - to serve the community and to make a difference, particularly to the weak and the disadvantaged.'

Although the world has changed a lot since she started her career, Chan says women continue to face prejudices based on stereotyping, juggling different roles that are sometimes conflicting, and resultant guilt feelings, and sometimes feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.

'We need a change of mindset that acknowledges women as a valuable human resource worthy of investment and ensuring equal opportunities in education and training to enable women to develop their full potential,' she says.

Her advice to career women is: learn to organise your time, say 'no' sometimes and accept that you cannot have the best of all worlds. The best way to overcome challenges and obstacles, she explains, is simply never to give up.

Chan believes working women also need to find a way to balance work and family responsibilities. Support from the spouse and family is important too.

Chan regards her late mother, Fang Zhaoling, as her most important role model. 'She was a woman ahead of her time and an example of what can be achieved despite life's adversities. I admired her grace and beauty, her tenacity, generosity of spirit and her ability to excel in her different roles as a mother, a homemaker and as a notable artist.'

And what does Chan think is her own biggest personal achievement? 'To have raised two wonderful children who are good, decent human beings and a credit to themselves, to their families and to society.'