Trailblazer – Young woman becomes first Chinese chief of Maritime Administration

8 April 2014

On 20 May 1999, Wong Soi Man became the first Chinese and the first woman to head the Maritime Administration, now the Marine and Water Bureau of Macao. She was also, at 32, the youngest person ever to lead the department.

For the fourteen and a half years since then, she has held the position, with responsibility for the city’s water system added to her portfolio in 2006.

She is one of the most prominent of the young Chinese who took over positions that had been filled for more than four centuries by Portuguese.

In her case, the contrast is striking. She sits in a chair that was occupied by Portuguese naval commanders, and oversees a department full of military tradition. She is a civilian, a graduate of Zhongshan University with a degree in electronics and a Masters in Maritime Safety Administration from the World Maritime University in Malmo.

What is more, she comes from a very modest family, not a quinta in the Alentejo. She was born in Guangzhou and her father died when she was seven. When the family moved to Macao in September 1980, her mother worked long hours as a housekeeper in a hotel to support the family. The family of four lived in an apartment of 20 square metres.

It is through her determination, academic success, personal skills and mastery of Portuguese, English and Mandarin that she has risen to her current position.

Independent girl

Wong was born in 1967 in Guangzhou. Her grandparents were natives of Doumen, Zhuhai and had moved to Macao. Later her father moved to the mainland to study, work and start a family. He was a technician in a machinery factory and her mother an accountant in a stationery shop.

It was a time of grain, meat and vegetable oil coupons; the family had enough rice to eat but meat, fish and other foods were not plentiful.

“My grandmother came from Macao to Guangzhou once or twice a year and brought food and clothes,” she said. “We had enough to live on. We did not feel hungry. It was the same for everyone. I played happily with the other children in the apartment building.”

When she was five, her father contracted a liver disease, probably cancer. For the next two years, her mother spent much of her time at the hospital looking after him. “She had no time to look after me and my brother.”

In 1974, her father passed away. “His death made me more independent. It was hard for our mother to raise us alone. She worked long hours. I had to look after my brother and prepare the food for when she came home.”

She was an outstanding student both in the classroom and on the sports field, where she excelled at the 100 metres. She represented her school and Macao at athletics competitions.

Move to Macao

After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, it became possible for mainland people to apply to rejoin their families in Hong Kong and Macao.

“It was hard for one parent to raise the family. So we applied to join our grandmother in Macao and this was quickly approved. We lived with her in her tiny apartment of about 20 square metres. It was not a good living environment and was smaller than our apartment in Guangzhou.”

Wong nevertheless adapted quickly to her new school and made new friends. The language of instruction was Cantonese, as it had been in Guangzhou. After one term, she caught up with her classmates in English.

Life was more expensive than in Guangzhou. Wong’s mother worked as a housekeeper in a hotel and her grandmother received money regularly from a son in the United States.

Opportunities then for tertiary education in Macao were limited. Many of her classmates chose to study in Europe or North America but her family finances would not allow that. So she chose Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, to study electronics; she returned to Macao for the summer and winter holidays.

“The study there was good. I lived in a dormitory with seven to eight other female students. Learning about human relations and the mainland were very useful for the future. I also met my future husband there. He is from Macao and was studying at Jinan University.”

They both graduated in the spring of 1989, the time of the student protests, and returned to Macao.

Localisation

It was the best time to be a young, well-educated Chinese in Macao. In 1987, Portugal had signed the Joint Declaration with China to return the city in 1999. It belatedly realised that it had to localise the civil service and quickly; it was in great need of good local candidates.

Wong and her husband benefitted from this wave and joined the government. In October 1989, the two were sent to the University of Lisbon to study Portuguese for one academic year with a group of Macao and mainland students.

“I found Portuguese grammar easier than that of English. After one year of study, I could speak and read a Portuguese newspaper. Local people were warm and friendly and welcomed us talking to them. It was a good opportunity to understand the society and culture. We liked the relaxed style of life. It is a good place to retire.”

Joining the government

In 1990, after their return from Portugal, she and her husband passed the exam to enter the civil service. She joined the Municipal Council (Leal Senado) and after a short time was transferred to the Maritime Administration, where she has remained since.

“There were naval officers there but they wore civilian clothes and put on uniform only for ceremonial occasions,” she said. “It was easy to adapt. Most of the staff were Chinese from Macao.” She was one of an intake of 20 who were being trained to take positions held by Portuguese. “I am very grateful to Commander Duarte Costa, who made a big contribution to the hiring and training. I owe him a lot.”

The newcomers were sent on one- to two-month training assignments to Portugal in 1992 and 1993.

In 1995, she was the single person selected to go for a master’s degree at the World Maritime University in Malmo, Sweden. It was a sign that her superiors had chosen her for a leadership role in the future.

The university was founded in 1983 by the International Maritime Organisation, an agency of the United Nations, to help improve the safety and efficiency of shipping on the world’s oceans. Wong did a one-year Master’s in Maritime Safety Administration. It was an important step in her international education; its students came from all over the world, especially developing countries.

Making history

On 20 May 1999, she was appointed director of the Maritime Administration, at the age of 32. The photograph of her taking the oath of office captures the historical importance of that moment; a slender Chinese woman, she is standing in front of Commander Zambujo Herlander of the Portuguese navy in his full dress uniform and Alves Paula, the last Portuguese Secretary for Transport and Public Works.

When she took over, the department had 300–400 people, including a training school, a museum and a dockyard. “I found the management a bit backward, and cases of nepotism. Some people had jobs thanks to introductions from friends and relatives or kept them through flattering their superiors.”

She introduced entry through competitive exams and gradually changed the system. “Firing someone in the government is difficult and complicated unless they have made major mistakes. All you can do is transfer them to another department. Fortunately, all the recruits who joined with me had the same idea to reform and modernise.”

She describes her management style as consultative, not dictatorial. She listens to the opinions of her staff and reaches a consensus which everyone implements.

Her job requires close cooperation with departments of the Zhuhai and Guangdong governments regarding Macao’s water supply. “Before the handover, because of the issue of sovereignty, there was a certain distance. After the handover, this disappeared. The cooperation is more direct. We feel we belong to the same family; only our areas of jurisdiction are different.”

Since all members of the Portuguese military had to leave before the handover, there is only one Portuguese left on her staff; she works in the Maritime Museum.

Wong works hard to promote a sense of belonging among her staff. When someone has a birthday, he or she is invited to Wong’s office for a gift and a handshake. At Christmas, there is a dinner and a party for all the staff and their families.

The department’s welfare team organises many activities, including participation in sports events. It also hosts open days when the public are invited to see its facilities. “Before, it was rather secretive. Now we want to build our reputation among the public and show them a sense of responsibility.”

New Duties

Her responsibilities increased greatly when she was assigned to be in charge of Macao’s water supply in 2006. In July 2013, her bureau was expanded to cope with such a responsibility.

This has brought many challenges – ensuring an adequate supply of clean drinking water to the city’s growing population, coping with water salinity and promoting water conservation among residential and industrial users. The Macao government has provided 450 million yuan (US$ 74 million) in financial support for the construction of a major reservoir in Zhuhai.

The water department has only a dozen members but Wong is hiring more.

On the marine side, there is much to do, including completing the new Taipa ferry terminal due to go into full operation in 2014, improving the Outer Harbour terminal that is handling an increasing number of visitors, and preparing the infrastructure for the bridge to Hong Kong and Zhuhai due to open in 2016.

“We take one step at a time. My aim is to do a good job and stay healthy,” said Wong

Her husband is in charge of IT at the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau. They have two children, aged 11 and 14.

“My status in the government is higher than my husband’s,” said Wong. “He is stubborn, though, and has a stronger character than mine.” (macauhub/ By Mark O’Neill)

MACAUHUB FRENCH