In 2018, Datin Catherina Christine Cherian moved to Bangkok with her husband, HE Dato’ Jojie Samuel, Malaysian ambassador to Thailand, who Elite+ interviewed for our April-May issue last year. In this article, Datin Catherina offers a personal perspective of her relationship with Thailand.
Datin Catherina grew up in the small town of Kuala Terengganu, located on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science from the National University of Malaysia and later pursued postgraduate diplomas in Education and Public Administration as well as an MBA. Datin Catherina met her husband when they participated in a one-year pre-service training programme with the Administrative and Diplomatic Service of Malaysia. They had been accompanied by their two daughters on all of their postings until this one, as both are now working adults in Malaysia.
When asked about the highlights of her professional life, Datin Catherina recalled, “As the spouse of a diplomat, I was granted leave to accompany my husband on his postings abroad. However, when he was posted back to Malaysia, I worked at the National Institute of Public Administration and the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs. At the National Institute of Public Administration, I was involved in training new recruits to the civil service on government mechanisms and policy. At the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs, I worked in the Policy and Planning Division. I still remember the time I travelled to Cha-am in Thailand to meet with my Thai and ASEAN counterparts for a regional level meeting on intellectual property in trade. After four postings abroad, I took early retirement from full-time employment, which has give me time to pursue my other interests, like reading and gardening.’
When I asked what is her greatest passion, Datin Catherina said, “I have always been intensely focused on improving the lives of the underprivileged and marginalised. Both in Malaysia and on our overseas postings, I have endeavoured to help the needy in local communities. I began when still in university, as my friends and I provided extra classes for children living in the slums. Then, as an adult in Kuala Lumpur, I joined my church members in providing food and shelter in slum areas.”
She went on to say, “In 2003, when the Second Gulf War broke out in Iraq, we were living in Ankara, Turkey, where there was an influx of refugees from Iraq who were fleeing the atrocities of war. Many came to churches and mosques seeking help. At the Meryem Ana Church in Ankara, which we attended, I oversaw the aid program for refugees. I was drawn to this task because as a child in the 1970’s, I had witnessed refugees from Vietnam who fled to the shores of the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. They were known as “boat people”, and the suffering and misery I witnessed have remained a vivid memory until this day. In Ankara, I helped organise food, clothing and medical aid for the refugees. I have to admit that I also had a very soft spot for Iraqis because I lived there from 1998 to1999 and had witnessed the suffering of the people as a result of the UN sanctions placed after the first Gulf War. There was hardship all around, made worse with air strikes and later the second Gulf War.”
“In 2012, while in Havana, Cuba, I worked with my local church to provide micro-credits for Cubans wishing to start small enterprises. The amount of money given was small (micro-credit) and once the amount was repaid, the credit recipients could apply for a larger loan. I am happy to say the system worked well, and the Cuban people we helped were very grateful for the opportunity to increase their income. In the same year, Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of Cuba causing much destruction and loss of life. At that time, I was president of the Asian Women’s Group in Havana. Everyone wanted to help and we managed to send food, clothing, drinking water, torchlights and other necessities to the victims. The 12 Asian embassies represented in Havana assisted generously.”
Elite+ asked Datin Catherina about her views on women’s roles. “Naturally, women today have an important role to play, more than ever before. Education has opened many doors for women in every field. Women can choose to have a family or not, and their choices are respected. Nevertheless, as a wife and mother, I feel that the pursuit of careers and financial gain should not be at the expense of the family, but many women can successfully pursue multiple roles. We are fortunate today that spouses play an increasingly bigger role in sharing responsibilities. A good support system is essential for women to reach new horizons.”
Asked about her current posting, she explained, “In Thailand, I have been a member of the Red Cross Diplomatic Committee for three years as I believe by helping raise funds for Thai organisations, I am giving back in a small way to this country that has welcomed us with open hearts and warm smiles. I was also a member of the YWCA Charity Bazaar committee in 2019 and more recently, I am involved in the group “Malaysians in Bangkok- Hands that Serve”, which offers help to the needy. It was started to help Malaysians in distress when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. Since then, we have extended help to all those in need.”
Datin Catherina has been heavily involved in assisting to promote the cultural relationship between Thailand and Malaysia. She recalled, “Since 2018, our prime minister and his wife have visited Thailand five times, and I have been quite involved in preparations and assisting with the delegation. Furthermore, through my involvement in the Spouses of Heads of Mission (SHOM) group, I have enjoyed many visits and cultural activities in Thailand. I have organised the “Getting to Know Malaysia” session in which we had a dance troupe from Malaysia perform a variety of dances - Malay, Chinese, Indian and East Malaysian. Our audience was also able to enjoy Malaysian cuisine during that event.
“At the Embassy of Malaysia, we have a small women’s group that has reached out to the local community by giving donations to schools and slum dwellers. I have also been involved in finding vendors to sell Malaysian food and products at various bazaars and food promotions held in Thailand. Every year since 2018, my husband and I have participated in the Thai Silk Exhibition, proudly displaying our outfits made of beautiful Thai silk.”
As we ended the interview, Datin Catherina said, “Thailand is a beautiful country with so much to offer. I understand why tourists flock here. The country is clean, economically progressive and rich in culture and delicious cuisine. I have been enjoying my stay tremendously and as Malaysia is not far away, I know I will continue to visit Thailand once we complete our posting.”
“I believe wherever fate leads us, we have to do our very best. Life is too short to be spent on complaints and regrets. A calm mind and a healthy body are important for everybody. So do take care of yourself!”