Learning from woman builders of Malaysia

Malaysian women often fare better than they think they can, and in the building and construction industry, the so-called fairer sex are beginning to pull their weight towards a more gender-balanced workforce, including in top management.

The government’s call for 30% women in leadership positions in the private sector by 2020 seems absolutely possible to attain in the real estate sector.

We picked nine ladies who are leaders in the real estate industry, especially in property development, to provide some pearls of wisdom on what it takes to excel in a male-dominated industry. Happy National Day and Happy National Women’s Day to one and all!

Charmaine Lim Puay Fung (Titijaya Land Bhd executive director)

What can we do to encourage more women to be leaders? Any advice?

You need to be confident and determined. This will set us free from traditional gender perceptions. Your peers must know that even in a male-dominated industry, our iron will and hard work defines who we are.

With a strong mentality, you will be able to climb up the corporate ladder. It is easier now than in the past because of changing perceptions. The current era is one in which women can be a force to be reckoned with. We must dare to dream and act.


Many people think that the real estate industry is a male-dominated industry but I have met many engineers, contractors, architects and quite a number are women. I do not think women mind getting their hands dirty at a construction site. As long as you wear the proper attire and are able to get the job done, nothing can stop or hinder you.

What does the future hold for women leaders in Malaysia?

It is changing as you can see more women are taking up roles in corporations and even in politics. Notable examples are our deputy prime minister, some female cabinet ministers as well as other prominent women leaders in advisory and professional roles.

I would like to give some credit to the previous generation of leaders such as my father Tan Sri Lim Soon Peng for being open-minded towards having women in leadership roles. It is very unlike the past where some people thought that only men could be trusted to helm a business.

Wish for the nation

To witness the creation and expansion of more policies to help women grow and to see more women taking up key managerial roles.

I also hope for many positive changes in Malaysia — in areas like education and the economy. Lastly, stronger unity among the people; to stay united in harmony so we can achieve great things together.

Ter Shin Nie (Sunsuria Bhd business development director)

What can we do to encourage more women to be leaders? Any advice?

I believe nurturing sisterhood from a young age is important — celebrate each others’ strengths and accomplishments and lift each other up during trying times. Confidence in one’s ability plays a vital role in the workplace, and in turn, the workplace should make efforts to accord recognition and reward to those whose quality of work shines.

Providing the necessary support and resources for both men and women at the workplace and instilling a positive workplace culture that emphasises productivity and performance is essential. For example, to relieve working mothers, parental leave for fathers should also be promoted as this will not only allow mothers to invest more time into their careers, but also encourage fathers to be more involved in parenthood. An increasing number of jobs offer flexible work schemes, but are often targeted at women. This flexibility should also be accorded to fathers. This would not only encourage men to be more actively involved in childcare duties and remove gender social norms but also encourage women in the labour force.

Having role models from a young age is important to inspire women in taking up leadership roles. Being blessed with the opportunity to meet with talented people in and outside the industry who inspire and empower others, I believe cultivating a community of positivity, and surrounding oneself with people who challenge and push you is important. Thus, providing access to actively engage leaders, regardless of gender, through forums or small group sessions can help educate and inspire our female colleagues to grow and continuously learn in their respective fields.


I think the perception that we are in a male-dominated industry is still prevalent but I think in any business, as long as we remain true to our strengths in our approach to work, inspire each other to strive to achieve business goals, and stay committed, the perception would gradually subside. In addition, I believe shifting people’s mindsets requires addressing the barriers that affect everyone across the gender spectrum, not just women.

I also think that a positive organisational culture and creating a fair and equitable environment in the workplace are important.

What does the future hold for women leaders in Malaysia?

The future of a more equal representation of women in leadership roles in Malaysia seems promising. As a company that has an equal ratio of women and men working in Sunsuria Bhd, I’m proud to be a part of it. The future is bright for anyone who is committed and dedicated. As organisations and the government develop policies to cultivate a progressive and egalitarian society, I believe it is invaluable that women and men be given the freedom of choice in their careers as well as a homemaker.

Wish for the nation

I wish for a peaceful and harmonious Malaysia with all Malaysians uniting as one. Selamat Hari Kebangsaan and Selamat Hari Malaysia.

Teh Lip Kim (Selangor Dredging Bhd managing director)

What can we do to encourage more women to be leaders? Any advice?

Essentially, it is about choices and circumstances. Some women choose to stay at home, while others aspire to a successful corporate career. With the right balance, a woman can have a successful career and be a good mother and wife at home.

Women in Asia tend to think that they should stay at home and look after the family. The children come first, then maybe their husbands, then the in-laws. These are all important priorities, but women should also learn to prioritise themselves.

For a balance of work and motherhood to be successfully achieved, it is important for us all to be genuine and be who we are. Just to share my experience, in 2006, my oldest son, Ming, was diagnosed with autism and my whole world collapsed. But with each passing day, I began to see the world through Ming’s eyes. Every time he made eye contact with me, with every word he said to me, I had to put myself in his situation and try to make a connection with him.

Through Ming, I have learnt to look at the architectural design of a property through the homebuyers’ eyes, to determine if the spaces were too big or too small, and so on. Thus, I managed to take some lessons from a personal level to the work level. To me, that was a revelation and that was how I began to shape SDB’s DNA as a developer.

At work, I have a life coach, while I also coached others to make connections with peers and colleagues. From learning coaching at work, I could also translate it to the home with my second son, Mark. Along the way, Mark began to develop his identity and, today, he has a sense of who he is and his hidden potential.


It is important for women, whatever industry they may be in, to be able to handle and deal with pressure. Always remain calm and stay focused on what needs to be accomplished. Most of all, stay positive.

For me personally, daily meditation has helped a lot as it allows me to detach  from things that are negative as they tend to overshadow the good. Through meditation, I am able to be grateful for all the good things and learn not to sweat the small stuff.

It’s also very important for one to be at peace with oneself. When I reflect on the past two decades, one of the biggest challenges we faced was the Asian Financial crisis in 1997/98 in which we had to restructure SDB. Back then, we were a diversified group and I had to sell down or close down some of our companies and move into property development. It was a challenging period, but it helped transform SDB and propelled us to success.

What does the future look like for women leaders in Malaysia?

At SDB, women make up 50% of our senior management. We have implemented flexible working hours whereby the team can come to work at 7.00am or 7.30am, so that they can beat the traffic jam and leave at 4.00pm or 4.30pm, enabling our women colleagues to pick up the children, cook for their families and be the ideal mothers and wives they are meant to be.

More and more women are coming back into the workforce, which is a good thing for Malaysia. Organisations, in turn, should look beyond mere policies and focus on women leadership and culture in charting ‘gender balance’ progress. I believe there is a strong correlation between gender diversity and commercial success. At the top level, companies are able to see perspectives from both genders and build on the strengths of the collective whole. Companies should also implement equal pay schemes for men and women.

Wish for the nation

Malaysia is a blessed country. We have bountiful resources — oil and gas, plantations amongst others — and we are also located strategically within Southeast Asia. Skilled expertise is also one of Malaysia’s greatest assets. The workforce in Malaysia is young, educated and productive, proving to be one of the best in the region. Diversity is one of Malaysia’s greatest strengths.

Hence, my wish for Malaysia is for the country to continue progressing — not just economically, but also mentally, emotionally and spiritually — as a nation, so that the country is able to realise its fullest potential. I also hope for better governance and transparency so that we leave a more progressive Malaysia for our children, and our children’s children.

Lee Yoke Har (IOI Properties Group Bhd executive director)

What can we do to encourage more women to be leaders? Any advice?

As women are traditionally expected to play pivotal roles in the family, to enable them to juggle between that and work, we can provide a good support system with facilities like a feeding room and child care at work to help them achieve a healthy work-life balance.

It is also important to provide more opportunities in all areas including those that are traditionally men’s strongholds.

Women workers should also get involved and gain hands-on experience and know-how in their respective businesses so that they are prepared when the opportunity arises to assume leadership roles. The fundamental thing is to continuously upgrade their skills and knowledge in order to earn the respect of others.

Just be yourself, exercise feminine attributes such as patience, compassion and an eye for detail which will complement the differences in the male attributes.


Physical differences may pose a problem when carrying out duties onsite but generally this is not a hindrance to effective job performance. We currently do have women in our project management team who are performing well.

The industry is technically intense and physically demanding but women have proven that they can be equally, if not more technically skewed than men.

Remember that men have to prove themselves too in order to advance in their careers. Therefore, just do what the men can do and do better, and people will soon recognise your capabilities and give you the opportunity.

What does the future look like for women leaders in Malaysia?

The national initiative to push for 30% women representation on the board of directors of public-listed companies by 2020 is progressing well. Gender diversity is still a key factor that will give companies the competitive edge. Female directors can add value to the boards as they see things from different perspectives from men and this would ensure that matters of importance are thoroughly and comprehensively considered.

Such positive opportunities would help to elevate women in the workforce and enable them to contribute more to nation-building.

Wish for the nation

Immediately, to improve the domestic economy — the government needs to reduce our trade deficit and implement policies to make Malaysia an investment choice again for foreign investors.

In the medium term, to implement policies to incentivise innovation amongst enterprises and companies so as to elevate the nation’s competitiveness and in the longer term, to transform our education system and standard to equip the new generation with the skillsets required to take on the new economy.

Jane Leong (Mah Sing Group Bhd director of group strategy and operations)

What can we do to encourage more women to be leaders? Any advice?

I believe closing the gender gap in the workplace is important, especially in the brick and mortar industries such as property development and the construction sectors.

In Mah Sing, we have many women leading various departments such as landscaping, interior design, IT, business development, business process improvement and so on, many of which were traditionally led by men.

We are proud that about 45% of our management team are women and about 50% of our board consists of women, in line with the government’s call for corporations to increase the involvement of women at decision-making levels to 30% by 2020.

One obstacle women often face is that they have to take on the lion’s share of family commitments. In order to encourage more women to take up leading roles in a company, we need to change this mindset so that women are supported and can share these duties with their partners or family members. While at work, bosses can also play a role in supporting female colleagues by being understanding and provide flexible work arrangements, if needed, while focusing on merit and performance.

With that in place, it is also important for women today to take advantage of the opportunities provided within this space and to pursue more leadership roles in an organisation. Recognise opportunities and have the courage to pursue your ambitions and dreams.


Property development is traditionally seen as a male-dominated industry. However, there has been a gradual increase of women taking up roles that were seen as male dominated, such as project planning, project implementation and high-level decision-making roles.

When women become mothers and drop out of work, there is a huge loss of talent for companies and more needs to be done at all levels to support women as they make this significant transition of becoming mothers and raising the next generation of Malaysians.

In the workplace, Mah Sing has rolled out many initiatives to promote women to envision their career path and what they want to achieve in life. For example, we have organised an open dialogue session themed “Championing Women in the Workplace”, whereby we invited women holding senior level positions in the company to discuss the opportunities and challenges faced in the workplace. Subsequently, we have also rolled out a peer mentorship programme where women gather over lunch to inspire each other.

What does the future look like for women leaders in Malaysia?

I envision a gender-balanced world where women have the right to participate in all areas of society and the economy. More importantly, they are supported in both work and at home, so they can take on these roles. Society would also be better off as a gender-balanced world can help reduce poverty and encourage economic growth.

Corporations would benefit from having women planning homes and spaces, as they will be able to provide insights into their experiences, wants and needs that reflect 50% of the population.

Wish for the nation

I hope that all key sectors of the economy will continue to empower more female leaders in the workplace. Malaysia is a country that encourages business opportunities and I perceive National Day as a symbol of freedom as well as of doors opening for the country, allowing opportunities to flow in and for all Malaysians to seek opportunities in and beyond the country.

Ultimately, I hope for unity amongst all Malaysians to drive towards the same goals of making Malaysia a better place.

Datuk Hoe Mee Ling (Johor Real Estate and Housing Developers Association (REHDA) immediate past chairperson and Divisional General Manager of Eco World Development Group Bhd)

What can we do to encourage more women to be leaders? Any advice?

Corporations must acknowledge the importance of gender diversity at all levels of their organisations to accommodate broader skills, experiences and perspectives. If we focus on performance and potential instead of gender, we will definitely see more women rising up the ranks.

I would like to see corporations introduce specific programmes to harness women’s skills and to identify their best talents, thus maximising productivity and ensuring the long-term growth of the company.

My advice to women is to keep the faith and never give up. Based on my personal experience, I can assure you that you can be strong and persevere, and you will succeed.


Being effective is a prerequisite for a successful life, be it in career or family. As a woman, you must decide what matters for the roles you play and focus on them, own them and tackle them with all your energy. Do not leave anything to chance and always build up a strong unshakeable belief in yourself.

To rise to the top in this industry, you must be prepared to assume more responsibility and expand your skills and capabilities in all aspects of the industry.

Shake off the belief that you have to choose between career and family. Learn about work-life integration and you will have the best of both worlds. Do not undervalue or let others undervalue or even devalue your skills, achievements and contribution.

What does the future look like for women leaders in Malaysia?

There is so much potential for more women leaders in Malaysia, thanks to growing awareness as well as government policies, including a national initiative to raise women’s representation on public-listed boards to 30% by 2020.

There are many women leading large organisations in Malaysia, particularly in the banking sector. This will encourage other women, especially younger ones, to step up.

In the building and construction industry, women have proven themselves more than capable. Their contributions have helped to strengthen aspects of the industry such as quality assurance and development concept. Many internationally-recognised, award-winning projects were led by female directors.

Wish for the nation

I wish for sustainable progress for the economy, society and the environment. As we strive for sustainability, we will be in a better position to achieve our goal of becoming a fully-developed nation and an Asia Pacific economic hub.

Chan Ai Cheng (Malaysian Institute of Estate Agents (MIEA) President Elect and S.K. Brothers Realty (M) Sdn Bhd General Manager)

What can we do to encourage more women to be leaders? Any advice?

As men and women have different ways of thinking and solving problems, organisations need to embrace gender diversity to form good work dynamics.

More organisations are seeing beyond gender, prioritising performance and achievements as benchmarks for leading roles in their organisations.

Women should not be afraid to share their ideas and step up when the opportunity arises. They should undertake continuous education and skills training to stay competitive.

Although to get rid of stereotyping in the workplace is very difficult, over time as we work together, these walls will collapse. In time, we will not see each other based on race or gender, but as part of the team.


Balancing work and home responsibilities is one of the challenges faced by women. In the traditional mindset, women are primarily responsible for children and the household. As such, for a career woman, there are times when a sense of guilt slides in.

There are also issues like inappropriate advances from male clients or even colleagues, or even safety issues such as when a woman agent has to show a viewing of a property in quiet neighbourhood. Unwanted communication via text or emails is also a concern for women in the real estate industry. Hence, extra precaution is needed to protect ourselves.

Building a sisterhood in the workplace could help overcome these challenges. Women should support each other, share ideas, build a network and grow together.

What does the future hold for women leaders in Malaysia?

I believe that there will be more women taking on leadership roles moving forward, as they now have better education, exposure and opportunities.

For example, not a single woman won any of the five individual awards at the National Real Estate Awards in 2009. Now 10 years later, nine individual awards were won by women out of 16 submissions. That was a proud moment for women in the real estate industry.

Wish for the nation

MIEA adopts a theme — To be United, Relevant & Progressive. It is also my wish for Malaysia to be united as a nation, to have a relevant government and to be a progressive nation. Wishing all Malaysians a very Happy Merdeka!

Valerie Ong (KIP Group CEO)

What can we do to encourage more women to be leaders? Any advice?

Traditionally, the property and construction sector is dominated by a male workforce. It is not the same now. You will see an increasing number of women in many industries today because of social, media and legal/political influences.

To encourage more women to take on leadership roles, we must promote the concept of equality and gender fairness by creating an inclusive environment. As a leader, I would always describe and share my challenges and past experiences and to stress that a woman’s impact is important due to these attributes — patience, compassion and an eye for detail. And with this support, I hope to empower them to seek out better roles.


Many of the challenges that women face in the workplace are similar to those of men. Perhaps, some females worry about the lack of respect from their male peers but if you know your stuff and are confident, respect will come naturally.

What does the future look like for women leaders in Malaysia?

Now that more women are educated with equal rights to quality education, I believe there will be more women taking on leadership roles. It is quite evidently so, especially in KIP Group.

Wish for Malaysia

The National Day reminds us of our rich cultural diversity as our pillar of strength. I wish Malaysians will continue to unite to support and celebrate our differences everyday.

Lillian Tay (Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia (PAM) President and VERITAS Architects director)


What can we do to encourage more women to be leaders? Any advice?

The underlying subconscious and prevailing mindset in many Asian cultures is that the man will do the job better than a woman. So it’s very important to be undaunted and to always believe in yourself, that you are just as good and to recognise your natural strengths and focus on improving it further.

Until there is a stronger commitment to gender equity, you are less likely to be given the benefit of doubt in most situations, so it’s imperative to always strive to excel.


As in most industries, there is always a legacy of a boys’ club amongst the top players — it’s harder for a woman to tap into that business network. Again, a culture of hard work and excellence is the way to persevere and succeed in a male-dominated industry. Enterprise, fortitude and willingness to build strong partnerships will help women to succeed.

What does the future look like for women leaders in Malaysia?

I am very heartened and inspired by current efforts by the current government, to rethink, reform and transform many outdated institutional structures and to consciously change the general culture — to be more inclusive across age, gender and ethnicity including for leadership roles.

But we must urgently recognise and curtail both blatant and subtle forms of sexual harassment and gender prejudice in the workplace, in organisations and in our social relationships. Employers also need to scrutinise, identify and rectify the gender pay gap that is another legacy of a prevailing male-centric history embedded in many cultures and nations.

Wish for the nation

I hope the private sector and every industry, and even more so, every person in their own individual personal universe, take the cue from the current government and make firm commitments to enlarge women’s participation and leadership.

While the mother is venerated within our families, we need to recognise, celebrate, value and more equitably reward the quiet contribution of women in the working world, in their roles in community and civil service, in government and in private industry, as women have long been the unsung heroines and enduring foundation in the journey of nation-building in Malaysia.

This story first appeared in the pullout on Aug 30, 2019. You can access back issues here.

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