Every year, The Singapore Women’s Weekly gives prominence to 18 distinguished and powerful women who are successful in their own right as part of the Great Women of Our Time Awards. Meet one of 2020’s three Honorary Award Winners, Irene Ang, CEO & Founder of FLY Entertainment.
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Irene Ang has put Singapore’s media and entertainment industry on the global map after several actors under her artiste management company, FLY Entertainment, joined the cast of Hollywood blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians.
A decade ago, when she spoke to The Weekly as the Great Women of Our Time Awards 2010 Arts & Media category winner, she shared that her dream was to send FLY Entertainment artistes to Hollywood. Three years later, she did just that.
In addition to her artiste management company, Irene has since also branched out into other businesses, including FLY Rooftop Bistro & Bar, Femme5 (a domestic helper agency), and a new noodle house called Soi Canteen (which serves Thai food).
Looking back, Irene recounts, “We may have started out with just eight artistes, but we always aimed high. Today, FLY Entertainment has 68 artistes, and we will keep growing because after Crazy Rich Asians, Hollywood is aware of Singapore. From the crew, to the producers, and even the directors, they were surprised and impressed with the level of talent and acting skills of our artistes. Before this, they didn’t realise that Singapore is effectively one of the few Asian countries with a full-fledged English channel – but now, they know.
“Singapore has become the buzzword for Asian talent,” she continues. “So when you come to Asia, you think of Singapore, and you think of FLY. This is our opportunity – at FLY Entertainment, we still maintain our audition criteria of being bilingual and bi-talented, so our artistes have at least two talents, or are able to perform in two languages. This has been our guideline and it has never changed for me.”
When Irene launched FLY Entertainment 20 years ago, she began with the tagline, “Asian talents, global audience”. “I’m very glad that I can now see the ‘global audience’. Deep in my heart, when I set that goal, I felt that my dream of somebody in Singapore winning an Oscar was a ridiculous dream. But after Crazy Rich Asians, I think that it might come true in my lifetime after all, possibly in the next 10 years. What we have is talent, but we lack opportunities and now, the opportunities are coming closer to our shores.
“My artistes, like Adrian Pang, Tan Kheng Hua, and even the younger ones like Constance Song and Tosh Zhang, have worked with world class productions like HBO. I’m very proud that they’re able to carry themselves on the same platform as Hollywood actors. So regardless of whether or not we get that Oscar, I feel that I’ve already attained my goal.”
There’s a saying that true leadership is about bettering the lives of those around you. Irene certainly walks the talk with her collaborative style. “To me, it is not possible to be successful by yourself,” she says. “Even if I make a lot of money, if I have nobody to go out with, it will not make me happy. I feel that doing things with others, going through things together and succeeding with them, makes the success more meaningful.
“A successful artiste needs a good manager, a good script, a good assistant, and a good production house. Likewise, a good F&B chain cannot run if you have lousy chefs,” she points out. “So I think everyone can have it all if they learn how to find the right people to partner or collaborate with. You can have it all, but you can’t have it all alone – you need to have people to have it together with.
“In the past, when FLY Entertainment was just starting out, I saw myself as the boss. But over the past few years, I feel that it is no longer important whether I consider myself as ‘the boss’ or an artiste. What’s important to me, is that in everything that I do, I value add. I also try to share my past experiences with people I’m working with in my current projects. I now see myself more as a coach, or an enabler.
It is easy to win when times are good, but it is during times of crises that real leaders rise up to the test. “The pandemic is probably one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in my life, but from its onset (and along with the past crises that have happened in my career), I learnt that being ready and reacting fast is key,” says the 52-year-old.
Irene quickly recognised that COVID-19 was going to be around for a long time. “I pulled my team together to study all the government grants available to help keep the business going,” she reveals. “The first thing that struck me was that I have so many mouths to feed and so many people’s livelihoods to protect. My priority was to make sure that my people still have their jobs by the end of the pandemic.
“Honestly, I’m very thankful for all the job security funds and payroll schemes that our government has put in place to help Singaporeans get through this. What saddens me is when I see people spending a lot of energy complaining, instead of seeking out all these grants that are available.
“We’ve all had to relearn our skill sets,” says Irene, “But my team has been great in transforming our services from ‘traditional’ productions and events, to online social media campaigns. Everyone really stepped up to pivot and adapt.
“For instance, I started giving online talks and conducting courses during the Circuit Breaker, so I now have a refreshed portfolio as a trainer, life coach, and sales coach,” shares the dynamic multihyphenate, who has also been engaged to host a series of virtual workshops, webinars, and masterclasses as part of the SkillsFuture campaign that kickstarted in August this year. “I’m really excited about this because I’ve come a long way from not knowing much about IT, to being someone who’s now able to teach with SkillsFuture. It’s quite remarkable. I feel that I’ve achieved so much in the last few months.”
Subscribing to Mahatma Ghandhi’s famous words, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”, Irene says, “You can always find a way to do something as long as you put your heart to it. So I would rather spend my energy trying to create more learning opportunities.”
Her wide industry network has her fingers dipped into several on-going industry conversations and informal group chats on the ground. Reflectively, she shares her insights, “People are helping one another with jobs. There are also those who are coming up with ideas like, ‘Let’s do this, we can produce a song…’, and some production houses will offer to chip in by providing their editing services for free.
“Despite the pandemic fallout, I’m very thankful for what we have. These unprecedented times have shown me that we are all much more resilient than we think. I’ve seen folks across industries mutually supporting one another, and sharing lobangs. We can really accomplish great things when we band together.
“Everyone is trying to find ways to make the situation less painful. In an ironic way, the pandemic has brought the industry closer – I’ve even seen competitors coming together to create projects to keep everyone going. It is very encouraging indeed.”
The Great Women of Our Time Awards 2020 is brought to you by the presenter, Lancôme.