From humble beginnings in Malaysia to the first female Asian executive to hold a top management position at Bayer Thai Co. Ltd, the story of Celina Chew is inspirational. At the heart of her story is a place she will always call a home, a place which from the tender age of nine provided her with an education that would shape her life. That place is, of course, Australia, where our story begins in 1970s Perth.
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In 1976, when Chew was nine years old, her parents decide to leave Malaysia in search of a better life for their children in Perth, Australia. Chew recalls: “At that time, my parents thought that the educational facilities and future career opportunities in Australia would give their children the start in life they had always wished and hoped for.”
Although as fresh migrants in an unfamiliar environment Chew remembers the understandable “struggles and adjustments” her parents had to deal with when they first arrived, Chew has mostly fond memories of growing up in Perth. “I remember long hot summers, watching cricket and tennis on TV, listening to radio broadcasts of Aussie rules football matches in winter and crabbing in Mandurah,” Chew’s says.
But education was always Chew’s main focus, and she is in no doubt about how much her Australian education impacted her life. “The impact of my education in Australia has been substantial. My strong education in a different cultural environment, based on critical thinking and values of fairness, inclusion and respect for individuals, has shaped the way I interact with people and make decisions throughout my life,” she says.
Following high school Chew enrolled in a law degree at the University of Western Australia. Her decision was largely influenced by her passion for “words and ideas”, something her Australian upbringing helped to nurture.
During her time at university Chew met some truly inspirational people, but she finds it impossible to single one out. “I think I was inspired to some extent by everyone I met. I would find it difficult to pinpoint one particular person. At university I was blessed with having some of the most inspirational teachers and friends I have ever come across in my life,” she says.
In 1992, following her graduation, Chew continued her education in Hong Kong. “In 1992, China was just starting to open up and represented an interesting opportunity. I also wanted to ‘find my roots’ and learn more about China’s history, culture and society. The University of Hong Kong’s Masters of Law course was great way to achieve both aims,” Chew explains.
Chew stayed in Hong Kong for five years, practicing law at an international law firm, before joining Bayer in 1997. For the next 15 years Chew lived and worked in China as in-house counsel for Bayer, which she describes as an “invaluable and fascinating experience”.
But the biggest break of her career came in May 2011 when she was handed the reins of Bayer in five Noorth ASEAN countries. Her appointment as the new managing director of Bayer Thai Co. Ltd, was a surprise for most people, both inside and outside the German chemical and pharmaceutical giant.
The surprise was not only because she was the first Asian female executive to hold a top management position at Bayer Thai Co. Ltd, but also the fact that Chew had no previous background in the nitty gritty of the business, coming from a service background in legal affairs. "It was unexpected, but for me it was an exciting new role which gave me the opportunity to learn new things," says Chew.
Although many observers saw the appointment of Chew as an example of the 149-year-old firm finally breaking the glass ceiling, Chew says that “as the daughter of a female physician in Malaysia - a rare thing in the old days - being a woman never came up in my head”. Chew feels her views were formed whilst working in law. "In a law firm, if you can get the job done, you're hired. They don't care if you're young or old, if you're man or woman,” says Chew.
Since becoming the MD of Bayer Thai Chew has spent a lot of time evaluating her management style. Unsurprisingly her upbringing in Australia has had a big impact. “Growing up in Australia has had a big impact on my management style. The school system in Australia encourages curiosity and individual development, which is why I like direct, open and respectful communications. I also think that fun and humour at work and when interacting with others are important - something I certainly got from the Australian people,” says Chew.
Now happily settled in Bangkok, Chew enjoys the food, the Thai people and the beautiful islands, but there are many things she misses in Australia. Top of the list are her parents, sister and brother who all still live in Perth. “I miss my family most, and try to return to Australia as often as I can. I usually manage about 4 times a year.”
But it’s not just family that Chew misses. “I also miss my friends and their families, the blue and wide open skies of Perth, and walking around my neighbourhood.”
Although Celina has no immediate plans to leave Bangkok, when asked if she can ever imagine moving back to Australia she says “definitely”.
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