Noeleen Heyzer not only saved Unifem, the precursor of UN Women, from financial collapse but also turned the small grant-making agency into a powerful policy tool for boldly addressing the crushing economic and social disadvantages that silence women worldwide. She understood women in distress; echoes of her own early life resonated in what she heard in stories told in village huts, communal longhouses, roadside markets.
Memories of tragedy and grief run through her memoir, “Beyond Storms and Stars,” recently published in Asia and to be released by Penguin in the West in late September. It is available on Kindle.
Heyzer was born in 1948 in Singapore, then part of Malaya (later renamed Malaysia), a British colony disrupted by the destruction of World War II and a communist insurrection that followed. Her fragile family was at times virtually homeless and often hungry. She recalls days with no food in the house, when she and her little brother foraged for leftovers from diners in a gambling hall.
Her father deserted the family in a fit of violent rage. Her mother, failing to keep the family afloat financially, drifted into crippling despair and died at age 26. “She had lost the will to live,” Heyzer writes in her riveting memoir. Noeleen was just 6 years old.
A resourceful Grandma who, despite her grief, took on the challenge.
Anna Ong Choo Lian, Heyzer’s maternal grandmother, had migrated to Singapore from China as a girl looking for work, married there and raised a family. Once again, with the death of her daughter, she had young children to care for.
Among other calculated decisions she made was to convert to Roman Catholicism because it was a strong supporter of education in Singapore. At age 8, Noeleen had never been to school. Catholic education opened the door for her. It led to two degrees, a bachelor of arts and a master of science from the National University of Singapore as well as a doctorate in social science from Cambridge University.
As she developed a reputation for her academic research and writing, Heyzer came to the attention of leading international figures in development policy, such as Amartya Sen and Richard Jolly. In 1979, she joined the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in England. In 1982, she took her first United Nations job, at the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, or Escap, in Bangkok. She was hired to work on programs of youth unemployment and development.
Heyzer writes that she accepted the appointment “full of enthusiasm and idealism.” It was not an auspicious introduction, however, to the UN.
“I was totally unprepared for what awaited me,” she said in her memoir. “ESCAP had fallen from its peak of excellence and purpose, I had to navigate a bureaucracy that was built on the best ideals of the UN Charter . . . but had been captured by men with agendas that I found unworthy of the UN. She recalls how the male leadership in the section where she worked had turned the working culture “toxic.” There was widespread abuse of the duty-free privileges like the importing of luxury cars to sell to rich locals for a “commission.”
“Worse than this corrupt practice was the unfiltered misogyny in the organization,” she writes. “Sexual harassment was rampant. My faith in the organization collapsed when I witnessed how sexual servicing was negotiated with development partners and incorporated regularly into professional missions.”
After two tumultuous years, she resigned and moved to the relatively new Asian and Pacific Development Center in Kuala Lumpur. She and her husband, Fan Yew Teng, a political activist in Malaysia, were sometimes separated by their careers in New York City and Asia and some varying viewpoints on the political future of Southeast Asia. “While there were differences of perspective, and the political climate in Malaysia made life very difficult at times, as a couple we survived these challenges,” she wrote in an email to Passblue.
The couple remained close partners in the lives of their twin daughters, Lilianne and Pauline, until Fan Yew Teng’s death of cancer in Bangkok in 2010.
In 1994, as preparations were underway for the Fourth World Conference on Women, scheduled to take place in Beijing the following year, Heyzer was appointed executive director of Unifem. By then she had amassed great experience for hours and days of sitting and listening to women rarely reached by the UN.
In the steamy forests of Borneo, she learned about the destruction of family livelihoods by the clearing of productive land for developers of oil palm plantations. In the harsh landscape of Afghanistan, she was pressed on the imperative need for female citizenship. In the hot African Great Lakes region, she led discussions on peace and security and the development of democratic cultures. In the Philippines, she helped create programs that provided protections for migrant workers, many of whom were recruited as household help by the rich in Hong Kong.
Heyzer saw the Beijing conference as a chance to announce her plans to reposition Unifem as a strong universal movement for the 21st century. She writes that she did not want to go to Beijing as a beggar. “We will not go wearing sackcloth and ashes; we are small but we will play it big.”
But first, there was the near bankruptcy of Unifem and the shambolic state of its financial records. With the support of Joanne Sandler, a communications and management expert who became her deputy, and James Gustave Speth, the administrator of the UN Development Program, which oversaw Unifem’s budget, they put the financial house in order and reduced the agency’s liability before the Beijing conference. Its stature grew.
Heyzer remained as executive director of a revigorated Unifem until 2007, when she was appointed executive of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific as an under secretary-general until 2015. It seems fitting that she returned to a commission once known for misogyny as the first woman to hold the top position. Since her retirement from the body, Heyzer has been a member of the UN secretary-general’s high-level advisory board on mediation and a distinguished fellow of the Singapore Management University and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
As an expert on the Burmese military coup and its aftermath and on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Asean, she has been an occasional contributor of opinion columns for PassBlue.
“Beyond Storms and Stars: A Memoir,” by Noeleen Heyzer; ISBN: 9789814954242.
This review was updated.