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Is a simpler life a happier life?

Updated: Mar 10, 2020


She was one of those larger-than-life persona that you would meet maybe only once or twice in your lifetime. A force of nature that easily made a class of 200 suddenly so attentive and brimming with motivation.

​She was Dr. Loretta Chen, a professor of mine whom I had the luck of getting to know back in February 2019. This woman is also an award-winning director, media personality, best-selling author and just so much more than these titles would ever do her justice.

I signed up for a four-day winter session taught by Loretta in what was my last few months of university. Just after the first few lines, I was hooked. I thought life ended after graduation but there I was listening to this incredible woman who’s achieved so much that I couldn’t help but wonder “how did she pull it off?”

So we sat down with a voice recorder in hand, and after almost a full year coming, I am beyond ecstatic to finally be able to share Loretta’s wisdom to the rest of the world. In this interview we dove into her passion, failures, the challenges faced as a woman and Loretta’s advice to girls all over the world.

In your own words how would you best describe yourself?

I'm independent, bold, adaptable, fun, creative, compassionate and kind.

So you’re doing all these exciting things that you are extremely passionate in, but how did you first discover that? There are so many things that you were able to choose from, but how did you eventually figured out that ‘this is my passion, this is where I want to put my effort in’?

I always knew from a young age that I loved communicating and connecting with people. I loved understanding what made them tick.

I didn’t know exactly what form my career could take but I knew that it had to involve people. I also knew it had to involve creating. As I got older, I realized I could come up with infinite ideas because I had a vivid imagination and a creative drive. And you know schools don’t really do a great job of making you feel that’s necessarily a good thing but my parents were seminal in making me think and feel that I was the most amazing thing in the world. So, to your question, I think having parents or a guardian, mentor, role model - someone that loves and supports you, having that one person who believes in you, and think that you’re the bee’s knees is so important.

Because my parents made me believe that I could do anything I set my heart and mind to, I just felt it was the most natural thing to pursue my passion and my purpose, even in an environment that didn’t seem to quite allow that. I was raised in Singapore which is rather conservative. I also went to an all-girls convent school so that was even more so! But even then, I always dared to push margins as frontier and create new theatrical productions. I was always the person who would take the mic and host the school concerts and productions. My creative flair was certainly enabled by the network and circle of people who loved me. I think that really was key which is why I am so big on paying it forward and am a huge proponent of mentorship.

So you weren't afraid of failure because even if you did fail you had all these people who supported you?

Yes because I knew I would bounce right back and dust myself off and jump right back on the pony again! In my TED talks, I often share about the power of failure. I truly think that the support I had from my parents was seminal in making me who I am.  In my later years, I created my “brand” precisely by being able to lean into vulnerability and share my failures. This is what leads to authentic leadership. Once when I was 24, I tried to attempt suicide as I am depressed from having witnessed two suicides. Sharing intimate stories like this allows me to connect with my audience and readers. Harking back to your earlier question on how I discovered my passion, I always knew I wanted to connect with people. I did not know the exact form but through the years, I realized that my unique gift was my ability to create, connect, communicate and not be afraid to show my vulnerability which in itself is a mastery of self and display of inner strength.   I realize in today’s day and age, that’s what people need to know and embrace as they are surrounded by influencers that flaunt wealth, strength and enormity of wardrobes but don’t showcase their human side.  We don’t see the overcoming and the struggle – which gives today’s youths a very skewed perception of adulting. I, on the other hand, am very comfortable with who I am and this has become synonymous with my “brand” – that I don’t have to be perfect. Neither do I strive for perfection but that the value is in the strive and seek to be the best version. And if I f*** up, I’ll dust off my dress and get back in the fray with scars and all but with a winsome smile. I am less “Marie Condo manicured bonsai” than “wabi sabi kintsugi” (laughter). What has kept me going is knowing that the work that I do has an impact on the community. I have people come up to me to thank me for what you do and stand for. I get notes on social media, emails and greeting cards. All this is heartwarming and keeps me going. It’s not money that motivates me otherwise I wouldn’t be an artist and an educator! (laughter) It’s not fame either as I'm not keen to be a social media influencer as I am more drawn towards one-on-one connection.

Touching back on the topic of suicide, it is a very sensitive topic especially here in Asia but what made you decide to share your journey?

I realized that the society I lived in was a bit of a Potemkin state where everyone pretends they are living in perpetual bliss and Instagram harmony. I felt I needed to change this perception as I imagine how much pressure it is for one to have to live like that, and for another who looks up to this unreal lifestyle and thinks it is reality. This sense of disinformation and discord with reality is worrying.

Today, some social media personalities use their platform to showcase their realness and celebrate their “authenticity”. But a decade or two ago, there was nary a role model like this that stood up to say, “Life can be hard and that’s all part of the journey”. I felt this sends a wrong signal to anyone who is distressed or depressed to equate their feelings with being a failure at life. I felt I had to do my part to change that perception and used my public platform to start a national conversation. I was the first in Singapore to speak up on depression, LGBTQIA and suicide and was doing my rounds on television, radio, magazine centerfolds and even landed on the front page cover of the national press!

It was not easy putting myself on the line but as an artist and an educator, I felt I had a duty to speak up. I am infinitely thankful my family stood by me each step of the way, which in turn, reinforced my raison d'être and inspired me to speak up for those who can’t and don’t have the support I have.

What challenges did you face as a woman who’s accomplished so much? You’re also one of the first female directors in Singapore as well, were there any particular challenges that you had to go through because you're a woman?

Absolutely. There were many challenges - especially as an Asian woman. People tend to think you’re not going to be as smart, driven and capable. I can cite a couple of examples where I felt I was discriminated because I was a woman.

So one incident I would always remember was when I was a director working in the biggest arts complex in Singapore. One day the Executive came down and he was unhappy about something that transpired. There were other ways of explaining the situation to me but he literally stood over me and spoke to me with his finger pointed and wagging to my face. He basically talked down to me and poo poo-ed me like a little girl.

To make matters worse, he did all this in front of a paying audience as they were leaving the auditorium. The altercation only ended when a gentleman from America stood up and said, “I do not know what happened but I am not keen to know. All I know where I come from is that no gentleman ever speaks to a lady like that.”

That comment sank in with the Executive and he backed off.

I knew that I was talked down to because of my gender and youth. It was never about the content as he could have called for a meeting, sent a text or email or sent his staff to speak with me if it was that urgent. I was given a dressing down because I was a young girl and seen as “powerless”.

Another is what always bothers me is when men and woman in higher positions of power who are supposed to be more educated often condescends, because they should know better than to do that.

The other incident has to do with my female Chair in the first educational institution that I worked in. Two key takeaways: I was sexually harassed at work by a male colleague. Back then, we didn't have a #MeToo movement and I debated for a whole year before finally deciding to share with my Chair as the perpetrator was getting aggressive as we shared the same office.

I remembered my Chair telling me I couldn’t be sexually harassed because I was a lesbian.

She even insinuated that I deserved to be sexually harassed as I was not straight! It was terrible. That very same Chair then took the opportunity to question my excellent student feedback. She suggested that I bribed the students and fashioned the student feedback into a popularity contest! It was very disheartening as I worked so very hard. I was enthusiastic, passionate and I taught my heart out. I also have no doubt students know which teachers are pushovers, who give out easy As and those who put in effort that are well loved and respected. I knew I was the latter.

These are the kinds of perceptions I had to deal with when I was younger as I was gregarious, colorful and so exuberant. Many Singaporeans didn’t know how to deal with me and wrote me off as fluff. Now that I'm older, people treat me with greater respect as my physical self has finally caught up with my innate confidence and larger than life persona.

I have a side that is silly, creative and fun, the “OK, yay! Let’s see it your way and we can all play!” and this other intellectual side with more gravitas that goes “Please don’t mess with me as I actually know my stuff”. When I was younger, it was hard for others to reconcile my nuanced selves especially since I was a girl, very creative and always wore interesting outfits. I found it a kick when I was younger to shatter people’s perceptions of me! (laughter)

What kind of advice would you want to give out to girls all over the world?

That we should empower each other, uplift one another because it really takes a village. I will also say to not downplay the power of one small act of kindness. Many people think that to make change, you need to go out there and do something grand. But one genuine act of kindness can have a ripple effect and it can empower and inspire people. People do remember these small acts of kindness and I think women should do more of that for each other instead of putting each other down.

We should also learn to be more kind in thought and speech instead of finding negative things to say. Of course, one can give constructive criticism which is useful but there is no need for mean spiritedness that cuts others down. I know this exists as I was there being trounced upon and beaten down which is why I am all about creating a positive, affirmative climate where we can be generous, uplifting and empowering.

Loretta’s new book Inspiring Women of Hawaii is available at Costco, Target and all good bookstores in the USA. All proceeds of the book go towards the Women of Waianae Scholarship fund. She also has a new film, Secrets to Happiness premiering at film festivals internationally.

Interviewed by: Bella Utami & Dipa Karno

Written by: Bella Utami

February 2020


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