Chan Heng Chee
Distinguished academic and diplomat
Regarded as one of Singapore’s most successful diplomats, Chan Heng Chee was East Asia’s first female ambassador to the United States. She represented Singapore in Washington between 1996 and 2012, making her one of the country’s longest serving diplomats.
Heng Chee came from a middle class family whose parents worked hard to finance her education. In the 1960s Heng Chee was the first woman to graduate with first class honours in political science from the National University of Singapore (NUS). She then obtained a Masters from Cornell University in the United States and in 1974 completed a doctorate at NUS, with her thesis exploring the dynamics of Singapore’s one-party dominance.
Next Heng Chee lectured at NUS and was the first woman to head the Department of Political Science. She later also served as the Executive Director of the Singapore International Foundation, Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, and she was the founding Director of the Institute of Policy Studies.
Having made her mark in academia, in 1989 Heng Chee began her diplomatic career when she became Singapore’s first permanent representative to the United Nations. She also served concurrently as Singapore's High Commissioner to Canada and Ambassador to Mexico.
Her 16 year tenure as Singapore’s woman in Washington began in 1996, when US-Singapore relations were soured due to the caning of an American teenager for vandalism. Earlier regarded as a critic of the People’s Action Party (PAP), Heng Chee expressed surprise at her appointment, describing herself as having been "anti-establishment” and a “bit of a dissident” before being made ambassador.
During her watch, U.S. Singapore relations flourished in areas including trade, defence and security. Highlights included the signing of the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (USSFTA) in 2003, and the Strategic Framework Agreement in 2005, deepening the two nations’ defence relationship.
Often described as a “dynamo”, throughout her distinguished career Heng Chee has received numerous awards, including the Inaugural International Woman of the Year Award from the Organisation of Chinese American Women, Singapore’s first "Woman of the Year" by the magazine Her World, and the Distinguished Service Order from the Government of Singapore. In 2011 she was named by the influential The Washingtonian magazine as one of "100 Most Powerful Women" in the capital.
When Heng Chee left Washington in 2012 at the end of her appointment, she received the Inaugural Asia Society Outstanding Diplomatic Achievement Award, the Inaugural Foreign Policy Outstanding Diplomatic Achievement Award, and the United States Navy Distinguished Public Service Award
Upon returning to Singapore in 2012, Heng Chee became Ambassador-at-Large for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also took on a range of board and trustee positions in the academic and public sectors locally and internationally.
"I’ve been very fortunate. Whatever I’ve done, I’ve always loved my work."