Although most of the heads of hospitals may be doctors or have accounting backgrounds, Chong Soon Mei worked her way up for 34 years from being a Nurse Aide to becoming CEO at Pantai Hospital Ampang (PHA).
Rojak Daily spoke to Chong about her journey to the top of the ladder, the current nursing shortage, and what she does to wind down from work. The 54-year-old currently oversees 356 staff at the hospital which is ranked no.90 on Newsweek’s Best Specialised Hospitals APAC 2023.
Nursing an Ambition
Second from left: Chong when she was a Trained Nurse Aide
From a young age, Chong knew where her true calling lay. In a Facebook post published by Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur, she said, “You won’t believe the reason why I wanted to become a Nurse. Actually, I just loved their ‘angel’ looks as in those days nursing uniforms used to be white. It gave the impression of a ‘clean’ & ‘pure’ look. Since I was ten, I will stay in front of the television just to watch the nurses in action.”
Even though her family tried to dissuade her, right after completing high school, she worked at a clinic for nine months while waiting for the opportunity to join a nursing school or to find a hospital which would sponsor her for the course. She related, “I had already made up my mind to be a nurse so there was no point to enrol in colleges because this was always my dream since I was young.”
“This was a different path than what a current aspiring nurse would take. Nowadays, there are many private colleges or even in the government there are nursing colleges for those who have decided they want to go for nursing.”
Then in March 1989, she enrolled in a 20-month course as a Nurse Aide Trainee at Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur (previously known as Pantai Medical Centre). “It was a certified course, so they issued certificates. Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur was one of the first private hospitals at that time, so they hadn’t started the Staff Nurses' Training yet. I thought to gain some experience I would enrol myself in this.”
After that, she worked in various departments for three years before the college opened for registered nurses. “I was sponsored by the hospital to do a three-year course before I graduated as a Staff Nurse in 1996.” She explained that the career of a nurse progresses differently from other fields where you typically finish your studies before embarking on your career, “In nursing, once you graduate as a Staff Nurse, in between when there is a course you can go for it.” This gave her the opportunity to further her studies in nursing.
Far left: Graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing
She worked then at Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur for 22 years including being a Nursing Officer (also known as Assistant Director of Nursing in other hospitals).
In 2011, she moved to Tropicana Medical Centre (now known as Thomson Hospital).
There she went in as Deputy Director of Nursing, became the Director of the department, then became the Director of Operations, and finally, she was appointed as Chief Operating Officer in 2017. “When I was given the opportunity to do Operations, I took up the challenge and found that I was quite suited for the job.”
In 2018, she was called back to Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur as its Coo and was subsequently appointed as CEO of PHA in 2021.
“I must say that I’m very lucky to be a born and grown product of Pantai Hospital. When I was a nurse and throughout my 22-year journey at Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur, I was given a lot of training and given a lot of opportunities to grow. Besides nursing courses, I was able to attend management courses and work with other leaders in the company,” Chong reflected.
“Before joining healthcare, I always had the misconception that the highest hierarchy of nursing is the Matron’s position because that is how it works in the government sector. I used to admire those wearing the cap with lace on it.”
“I used to dream and wonder which day I would reach that position. After I joined Pantai, I learned that in Nursing, we can do a lot more. I then realised that we do not have to stay as a Nurse forever,” elaborated Chong.
So, when she was given the opportunity to do different things, she decided to have a go, but she said, “I never knew that I could be a CEO one day.” She even asked her Management if they were sure about choosing her for the role but replied, “If you have confidence in me then I’ll give it a try.”
Chong explains that she is not the first to reach such a milestone as there are two other nurses she knows of within IHH Healthcare Malaysia (a world-leading integrated healthcare provider that owns PHA, one of 16 hospitals in IHH Healthcare Malaysia’s network) who also went on to become CEOs.
“I saw these two success stories, but I previously thought that only accountants or doctors or those with financial backgrounds could be CEO,” said Chong. She said speaking to a friend who is also a CEO now in the healthcare industry, they never thought that they could be where they are now when they used to do night duty together.
Juggling Work-Life Balance
The mother of two said that initially when her children were younger it was harder to balance her personal life and her career, but it has gotten easier in recent years.
“I still have two or three hours before bedtime to spend with my family and I still have time to watch TV. I also play Candy Crush,” she laughed, saying that she finds it relaxing.
“A shortage of nurse personnel is a global issue right now,” Chong shared. She explained that with their licence, nurses can choose to work abroad. “The colleges are finding it difficult to recruit student nurses. It is a big challenge now for the healthcare industry.”
“There were many nurses who quit after the pandemic had been ongoing for a while. While everyone was at home, healthcare workers had to report for duty. They had no choice but to work during that time, but they had to go through a lot of stress and fatigue.” She continued that many have also gone on to Singapore or Saudi Arabia once the travel restrictions eased after the pandemic.
There is also a common perception that being a nurse is only for the ladies, but Chong shared that there are many male nurses in Malaysia nowadays too.
A Leading Lady
Chong, who appeared down to earth during our chat despite her position also shared some advice on how to be a leader, “As a leader, it's important for us to serve as a role model, demonstrating how to maintain a balanced and unbiased approach in any situation. I used to tell myself that we need to have self-awareness and not be too arrogant. It doesn’t matter if you’re the boss, we have a lot to learn from others as well.”
“If we have a decision to make or a problem to solve, we don’t brainstorm alone. We have to discuss with our team how to resolve the matter. I believe that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I remind myself that we need to be humble and continuously improve ourselves,” she concluded.
What a motivational story for all young nurses!