Interview with Ong Huey Hong

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Ong Huey Hong

The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.”

This is exactly what Ms. Ong Huey Hong did, and in 2013 as the Director of Cruise with the Singapore Tourism Board she was presented with the inaugural Rama Rebbapragada Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Cruise Industry in Asia. And according to The Wall Street Journal this award was given to Huey Hong “In recognition of her influential role in the development of Singapore’s Marina Bay Cruise Centre, which has proven to be a catalyst in transforming Singapore’s cruise landscape.”

So just how did this petite and gracious young woman who was born and bred in the small town of Kuala Belait manage to make such an indelible mark internationally, in this mainly male dominated industry? Speaking to Huey Hong you get a sense of her quiet resilience, intellectual curiosity and unbreakable willpower – attributes which undoubtedly have helped her to soar to such great heights.

If you do an internet search on the name Ong Huey Hong you will discover an impressive and outstanding record of her academic achievements, “Huey Hong holds a Bachelor of Engineering (First Class Honours) in Naval Architecture (1996) from the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where she won first prize in Naval Architecture. She holds a Graduate Diploma in Financial Management from the Singapore Institute of Management (1998), where she won the Gold Medal Award for Class of 1998. She also holds a Diploma in Shipbuilding & Offshore Engineering from Ngee Ann Polytechnic (1993), where she won the Gold Medal Award and Second Most Outstanding Student in Ngee Ann Polytechnic in the year of 1993. In addition, she has a Master of Business Administration (Banking and Finance) from Nanyang Technological University.”

Obviously a woman who is driven to excel and to succeed – we wanted to find out more about her journey from Kuala Belait to Singapore and the world. In our interview with Huey Hong she gave us an insight into her personal background; and shared thoughts about the cruise industry and the future.

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Tell us about your journey from Kuala Belait to Singapore.
Twenty three years ago I finished my secondary education at St. John’s School in KB and wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do. But I always believed that no matter what I did I must always do my best. This has been my life motto. So throughout my early years in school I always worked hard – from Primary 1 to Form 5, I always strived to be the top student. And this attitude has helped me to do my best.

I really wanted to study overseas, but coming from a family of five, my father told me that if I wanted to do this I would have to find a way to support myself financially. So after graduating I worked during the day, and gave tuition classes at night. During that time I was applying for a place in Singapore’s polytechnics, I wanted to study Business administration or Chemical Engineering but I did not get into those courses because they were very popular then. Instead I was accepted to study Ship Building and Offshore Engineering at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. By then I had saved $3,500, enough to buy a oneway air ticket, pay for one semester school fee and pay for a few months of room rental. The limited amount of money I had did’t deter me from pursing my dream, I was confident about my financial situation because I was told by one of my ex-colleagues that I could apply for a scholarship in Singapore, which I did and I got the scholarship from a sponsoring company.

How did you qualify for a scholarship?
The panel looked at my O’ Level results and they were very good and I also had a personal interview. I guess that I must have impressed the panel with my aspirations.

What course of events followed?
Well as I said before, my attitude of trying to do my best meant that I worked very hard to make the best of the opportunity which I’d been given through the Ship Building Course. After graduating from the Polytechnic I joined the company that had sponsored me. I worked with that company for about one and a half years and then got a scholarship to study Naval Architecture course in the UK.

You are a qualified Naval Architect. This a male dominated filed, what was it like being a woman in this type of industry?
In fact, at that time I was the only female Naval Architect in my company. To a certain extent people tended to be more gentle with me. But I knew that I had to show people that I knew my stuff. I had to conduct myself in a professional manner in order to gain the respect of my colleagues and clients. I believe that it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman / or you are young or old, as long as you know your work, conduct yourself professionally and have a positive attitude you are unlikely to face discrimination.

Could you give a brief description of what a Naval Architect does?
Naval Architects design ships from scratch – from the hull form to the layout, speed, performance and weight of the ship – we need to know about every aspect of the ship. It is a tough job that involves working in the office and also going out onto the vessel to certify performance. I would say that it is a complicated field as you need to have an artistic ability to be able to envision the big picture of the finished product; but as well as this, you also need to be an engineer, with meticulous project managing skills to ensure that all details come together and work according to design. Being a Naval Architect honed my skills of looking and thinking strategic issues with a big picture in mind, and seeing through execution matters on the ground. These skills have helped me in my later career as a business development specialist, a corporate planning officer and a director of a business unit.

As you said earlier on, Naval Architecture was not your first choice but did you eventually develop a passion for it?
I must admit that I did develop a passion for it. You need to put a lot of effort into this job in terms of design and the outcome is always very satisfying. It’s amazing to see such a complex project come to life and know that you have played your part in making this possible. It is very satisfying – I always tell people that “I have ship in my blood” (laugh). The tough part of this job is the long working hours. When I became a mother the demand coming from both family and work was challenging so when another opportunity presented itself I decided that it would be best for me to make the most of it.

ong4After being in the shipbuilding industry for 10 years, how did you go about making a change in your career?
I started off as a Naval Architect in ST Marine and moved on to Strategic Plans at ST Engineering involving business development work.

In 2007 an opportunity came to work with the Singapore Tourism Board as Corporate Planning Director. After three and a-half years, there was an internal opportunity to head the cruise division in STB and I put up my hand for it. Although I am familiar with ships, I still had to learn all about the cruise industry – this was a new and challenging area but my colleagues were there to work with me as a team

As the first Asian to win the Rama Award, tell us about the exciting developments that are taking place in the Asian cruise industry.
In Europe and the USA, going on a cruise is a typical leisure option but in Asia this has mainly been associated with gambling. As well as this, many people still have this misconception that you have to pay for the cruise and then still pay for your food and entertainment while on board. My team and I, and trade partners such as Asian Cruise Assocaition have worked hard to change this perception.

My challenge has been to promote the advantages of cruises to the potential cruisers in terms of the variety of destinations; the convenience of having paid an all inclusive fee upfront for top class amenities onboard, like fine dining and entertainment. On the supply side, we have worked with our ASEAN partners such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Thailand, Malaysia, to highlight our rich cultures and heritage to major cruise companies based in the USA and Europe in order to attract them to bring their best-in-class cruise ships to to the region. One of our goals is to convince both potential cruisers and cruiselines that cruises in South East Asia offer a unique opportunity to have a variety of experiences, for example you can sail from the city of Singapore to a cultural experience in Malaysia and then to a beach in Phuket.

As a Bruneian and being in the tourism industry, how do you think we can encourage the growth of our own tourism industry?
First of all people need to be made more aware of Brunei as a possible tourist destination. I believe that we have a lot of unique attractions to offer, one of the most interesting being our Monarchy. I grew up knowing that the Monarch has a heart for the people – I think that people would be very intrigued by the story. Even till this day, people ask me about Jerodong Park, and whether or not it is a free attraction that His Majesty had built for his people. Brunei has built a name for itself, it can be harnessed more to encourage tourism, boost the economy and create more jobs.

The Monarch’s heart for its people could draw people to Brunei, especially around Hari Raya as they would get the opportunity to experience this first hand. I also think that the airfares to and from Brunei need to become more competitive to match those in other places in the region, this could help to boost tourism.

Do you have any plans of returning to Brunei?
If there is an opportunity I would love to come back to Brunei to give back to the country – help the economy and to create more jobs for locals. Being born in Brunei my heart will always be there.

This article was published in the Apr-Jun 2014 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!