Smalltown girl who raised bar beyond belief

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AS far as the first girl from the little Portuguese Settlement in the backwaters of Malacca, to enter university 35 years ago is concerned, glass ceilings are meant to be smashed.

Tan Sri Rebecca Sta Maria, also the first to complete Form Six in the community, has been on a record-breaking streak since — fuelled only by unbelievable drive from within.

Not one to blow her own trumpet, the 58-year-old who could pass as one a decade younger, was surprised to be appointed deputy secretary-general of the International Trade and Industry Ministry (Miti) in 2006 when there were other eligible male candidates.

Four years later, she became the first woman secretary-general of the ministry.

“I did not expect to rise to this level. If you look at history, this post has always been held by a man. I would have been happy, as my husband (S. Jayasankaran) always says, to retire as a senior director in Miti,” she says with trademark humility when it comes to her personal achievements.

Her professional accomplishments speak for themselves.

Glass ceilings have never fazed the wife and mother (daughter, Raisa, will get married later this month) who candidly admits to its existence.

She broke it into smithereens with unrivalled passion for the job and a remarkable ability to endear herself to her superiors through first-rate performance — naturally a cut above the rest of the pack.

Rebecca (from the Hebrew word meaning ‘captivating’), who retired yesterday after 35 years in government service, has been described by staff and the myriad admirers she has won over with her efficiency as the quintessential civil servant.

Forty ambassadors and scores of members of the diplomatic corps and friends who turned up at a farewell dinner for her last week, agreed as did the many not there.

She acquitted herself with distinction in all posts held, delivering on promises made to superiors, subordinates and the countless people who came to the ministry for assistance.

“And because I was breaking new ground, foremost in my mind was that I needed to come up to speed and prove wrong those who had doubted my abilities,” she tells me with the same mix of vim and verve that has earned wide admiration, and a few detractors along the way who doubted her capability.

The naysayers did not expect Rebecca going into overdrive to prove herself at a job that came naturally to the fast-speaking (in excellent English to boot) and quick-acting English Literature graduate.

I have always considered Rebecca — an old colleague from her short stint at a newspaper in the early 1980s — as someone intended for great things that even she did not know at that time.

With her sweet smile and excellent work ethic, she was the darling of the editors who saw a bright future for her.

But she realised her calling was elsewhere and joined the civil service where she found her groove.

Rebecca, never one to mince words or not call a spade a spade, albeit in a most diplomatic manner (no wonder countless diplomats think the world of her), has smiled her way through the fiercest storms she has endured within the ministry and without.

Gutsy does not even come near what she is, say those who have worked with her or others who know her penchant for efficiency, hard work and the ability to see beyond the immediate.

It showed early in her days at the settlement where she learnt self-motivation and perseverance from paternal grandmother Margaret Low who taught her discipline, time-management and the fact that love conquers all by looking after a brood of 12 grandchildren.

“She was illiterate but taught us lessons through the way she lived her life,” she says of the gritty Nyonya Malay and Kristang-speaking who served as an exemplar for the impressionable Rebecca who hung on her every word — and acted on it.

There may be numerous examples of her superlative resilience in public and private lives but one tells the story like none other.

“My sisters and I had gone back home to Malacca that morning to see our mother’s doctor who gave us the news that she had 4th stage cancer. We brought her to my home and as we were almost there, I got a call that I had been promoted to deputy secretary-general,” she says, her expression speaking volumes of her utter sorrow and elation that day.

But she took it all in stride, doing what she had to do for her mother and for the huge responsibility that had been laid on her shoulders by her mentor of sorts, then minister Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz.

As the clock ticked closer to the end of the 60 minutes she had allocated for this interview, I asked the question on most minds: why is she opting for retirement two years ahead of time?

Rebecca, wearing mostly black (with a beige top) that she treasures for its ability to withstand the rigours of travel and countless meetings at home or abroad, did not need to think of an answer.

“It’s guilt. I realised that I had to spend more time with my husband (who has been retired for a year and half after half a lifetime of trying to keep up with her) and daughter. My priority now onwards will be my family,” she says with a certainty born out of conviction that enough sacrifices had been made by all three since her career took off.

How is the woman who can’t sit still going to spend the rest of her days?

“The first thing I am going to do is complete the book my three sisters (she has two brothers) and I started on our family recipes handed down over the generations and the lessons we learnt from our parents and grandparents,” says the prolific writer of memorandums at work who has only completed 5,000 words for want of time.

She wants to spend the whole of next month at this labour of love besides engaging in counselling at a suitable place. There is also a think tank in Indonesia she has agreed to do some consultancy work for.

But enough is enough where a full-time job is concerned although captains of industry will be falling over themselves to catch one of the creme de la creme of the civil service.

Rebecca sees me out but I cannot leave without asking the question that talks about a little-known side of the woman who has been loved — and feared — by many.

Does she really have a collection of designer shoes ala Imelda Marcos?

She laughs (‘not even 100 lah’), looks at her Ferragamo Salvatore ‘that have never pinched’ and proceeds to give me and photographer Harie Anggara an ikan terubuk each from Sarawak.

Her successor, Datuk J. Jayasiri, has huge shoes to fill.