Journalist May Chen breaks barriers in Singapore

By Hanna Lustig September 30, 2014

The year is 2012 and Michael Phelps has just finished one of his final races in the London Olympic Games. Climbing nimbly out of the pool, Phelps begins walking toward the locker room, briefly pausing to chat with a large press contingent.

Somewhere in that crowd stands May Chen, a female reporter from Singapore, fearlessly holding her recorder aloft.

“I cannot see him and he for sure cannot see me,” Chen says. “I was just standing a little bit at the back and trying to peek my short head in.”

Chen jokes about the experience now, recalling how little she resembled her fellow sports journalists. She was not male or White or tall. Furthermore, she was incredibly young to be covering such a monumental event. Most sportswriters wait a lifetime to cover a single Olympics– Chen was only two years out of college.

“You feel like you’re part of history and because you’re a reporter, you’re reporting history for people who are not there,” Chen says. “It’s tiring, but it’s what you live for if you’re a sports journalist.”

It was an opportunity Chen never anticipated. In fact, she never imagined herself becoming a journalist at all, much less a sports writer. Humbly, Chen claims she “stumbled” into the profession, largely because of a mandatory internship during college.

Chen impressed her editors and eventually earned a press pass to the London Olympics – a rarity, given that only three or four journalists in Singapore receive credentials for any given Olympic Games.

“It’s not everyday you get to sit in a press conference with Michael Phelps or Roger Federer,” Chen says. “Or you look in front of you and see the world’s best athletes performing and doing things that hardly anyone else in the world can do.”

Singapore won two medals that year, and Chen brought home a wealth of new insight and enthusiasm to her position at The Straits Times, where she is a full-time sports reporter.

“In the newsroom, every day is fresh,” Chen says. “No matter how good or how bad you were the day before, you get to wake up the next day and be better. And as one of a small handful of female sports journalists in the country, this motivates me.”

The lack of female representation in the newsroom mirrors greater societal problems outside. In Singapore, women are encouraged to pursue an education and a career, enjoying the same opportunities and rights as men. Especially for a young country, Chen considers Singapore relatively progressive in combatting gender inequality. However, there is an undeniable absence of women in politics, business, and sports coverage. Even at The Straits Times’ Sports Desk, Chen is one of only two females on a staff of 20.

“While we don’t have inequality in a sense, the presence of women is still…,” Chen’s voice faces off as she considers the state of women in her home country. Ultimately, she says, “we still have some way to go.”

And clearly Chen is more than capable of keeping up. During her tenure at The Straits Times, she’s been nominated for Young Journalist of the Year in addition to winning awards for excellence in writing. She also broke a major story, revealing Singapore as the next host city for the WTA Championships.

The individual moments, however, are worth more to Chen than any award or byline.

“It’s made me richer for it. I wouldn’t have been able to experience so many things that I have over the past years if it were not for sports.”