Scooping up spoonfuls of rice from a styrofoam box, Irene Ang digs into a late lunch, while her makeup artist waits to touch her up. She looks sharp in a dark blue sequined top and a velvet blazer – just the right blend of business and party – and though it’s partly because she’s due at an event later that night, it is also significantly emblematic of the persona she takes on as the CEO of her 18-year-old company.
“My real nature is very playful,” she says, “but running this business, I’ve to struggle against it.” That means deciding to get serious in the office, administer tough love to staff members, and even play the disciplinarian at times, a role that’s nothing like Rosie, the over-the-top, garish caricature I grew up watching on Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd. But it’s a small price to pay for the long-standing success of FLY Entertainment (FLY), an artist management agency with a stable of household names under its wing. Either way, her inherent jocundity will ultimately make its way into the forefront. She could be knee-deep in a serious discussion in one second, and indulging in tomfoolery the next.
It is 4pm on a Friday, and I’m in her office for an interview. At the 40-minute mark, I ask her about the importance of mentorship, on which she speaks with gravity and a quiet earnestness. Having delivered a lengthy, thoughtful answer to my question, she pauses and looks to the doorway. Then, I hear an abrupt “Bobby!” A handsome head pops into the office. It’s Bobby Tonelli, a Singapore-based American actor and host, who Irene greets gleefully, giving me a glimpse of her natural charisma. Fun-loving, personable, and endlessly energetic, the 49-year-old multi-hyphenate is all about the people.
Though she denies being a workaholic, she’s a multitasker who feels most fulfilled with a packed schedule of back-to-back projects. Halfway through our conversation, she interrupts her own response and asks her personal assistant if I’ve been offered a drink. In another moment, she breaks into an unrelated remark about how I looked like a former intern. I can almost see the millions of thoughts running rapidly through her head. It’s no surprise just how many pies she has her entrepreneurial finger in. Along with FLY Entertainment, she has also founded two dining establishments (FRY Bistro and Bar Naked), A.I. Pictures, a film production company, Running Into The Sun, a concert promoter, and Two Queens Asia, a women-only event organiser.
Despite having so much on her plate, she still takes on a motherly figure for her close-knit family of FLY staffers, guiding firmly, reprimanding fairly, yet loving freely. “I try to constantly remind myself to be human and compassionate,” she shares. “It’s important for a boss to know that the bottomline is important, but humanity is also very important.” Irene Ang may be most known as everyone’s favourite on-screen comedy wife, but with the heart she brings to her leadership approach, she could be everyone’s ideal boss as well.
ETHOZ: What are the challenges of managing a company like FLY Entertainment?
Irene: I often feel that Singapore is still in its infancy in terms of being a media player. Particularly for us, it’s more challenging because firstly our product is not like a handphone or a car, our product is human. And as complex as humans can be, double it by having artistic people. I think the biggest challenge for us is trying to be fair to all artists, yet at the same time, all of them are so different, so you need to make them feel different and treat them differently.
Many of my people have been with FLY for about a decade or two. This is actually very rare in the media industry because people move around, and you mustn’t undermine the fact that these people have stayed so long because we’ve spent a lot of time and energy going through ups and downs with them. We are not so mercenary, so during their “down” period, when they give birth or are going through a bad patch, we are still there. And generally for me, I don’t give up on people until they give up on themselves, or they do something really harmful to themselves or to the people around them.
We operate like a family, so the challenging part is that sometimes when you get too close, it’s very hard to be disciplinary. People will say, ‘Oh, you’re very soft.’ It’s not that I’m soft. I’m just more forgiving, and I would like to be more human and compassionate.
ETHOZ: Were there moments where you felt like giving up?
Irene: I think on an annual basis, there will be one time. For the last 18 years, from the beginning till now, every year, there will be one time where I’d want to throw in the towel. I say this as a fact. For example, this year, the economy is so bad that I’ve to work harder to achieve maybe 75 per cent of what I normally do in the past. There are friends who ask me out for coffee or drinks. I absolutely have no time this year, and they say, ‘How can it be? You said the economy is slow.’ There are people who sit there and let it be slow. But you can double up and try to make it not slow for you. So I have to work much harder, adapt to changes, do more research, come up with more ideas, fight disruption, and motivate the staff.
ETHOZ: What keeps you going?
Irene: People. At the end of the day, you’ll realise that there’s only so much money can do. Money is important, don’t get me wrong, because money can do a lot. But you’ll realise that people are very important. I think the purpose of life for me is to touch people and affect change, and that keeps me going, knowing that whatever I’m doing I am a contributor of change in my industry, in my family’s life or in Singapore. It just makes life worth living.
I watch this show on Netflix about Nina Simone, this legendary black singer, possibly the first classical black pianist. I see a lot of similarities between me and her. In America, in those days, you don’t see blacks being classical, so when she played piano in the bar, they wanted her to play pop and sing. She felt, ‘I’m a classical musician. You ask me to sing what?’ She had no choice for survival. She had to sing. And that’s how she became a famous singer-pianist. She later became a voice for the black people. How I understood her is that me being famous will be a voice for the underprivileged, for the sideline people, for young people and entrepreneurs. So when I feel like giving up, I will think of other people who may feel like giving up. If I don’t give up and I overcome it, I can then give them hope.
ETHOZ: How do you personally define success?
Irene: I think success is not just monetary. I’ve met people who are not wealthy, but they are very successful. They have a happy, well-balanced life. I think success is a state of mind. I think society’s definition of success is to drive a Lamborghini, a Ferrari, and unfortunately, from my understanding, some of the saddest, most insecure people are the ones with these flashy cars. Sometimes I see that they have these so that it’ll make up for what they don’t have.
To me, success is having a well-balanced life of family, faith, friends, and health. If you’re healthy, your family doesn’t hate you, and you have a handful of friends who you know that if you ever need help, they will always be there, I think that’s very successful already. And by that definition, I’m rather successful. I’m very well-balanced. My weekends are spent with all my close friends, my family. At the end of the day, I equate happiness to success. If you are happy and at peace with yourself, then you’re really successful. Money, flashy cars, and big houses are really not the definition of success for me.
ETHOZ: How do you balance being a tough boss and an approachable one?
Irene: I get very confused by people. Some people say I’m too tough. Some people say I’m too soft. The people who benefit from my softness will say I’m too tough. The people who want me to discipline their staff will say I’m too soft. The important thing is I try, but I think I’m not successful yet, to be gentle as a dove and sharp as a serpent. I think when I’m tough, I am very “tough love”. The older generations can take it, but I find that it’s particularly hard with the millennial generation. I don’t know why. I try to constantly remind myself to be human and compassionate. It’s important for a boss to know that the bottomline is important, but humanity is also very important. My real nature is very playful, but running this business, I’ve to struggle against it. It’s a constant struggle for me coming to the office and being not me – and that me is very playful, fun and crazy.
ETHOZ: As a woman in charge, what advice do you have for other aspiring female bosses?
Irene: Use your womanhood to your greatest advantage. Be not afraid to ask men for help because men like it. That’s one thing I learnt. I think it’s important as a woman to just say, ‘Eh, bros, I need help.’ Also, don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe in. I always believe in standing up for what I believe in. I will speak my mind, but respectfully. I think the best, if you want to run a business, is to have the boldness, the risk-taking streak, and a bit of the gungho-ness of men, and yet retain your feminine meticulousness. Because women are supposed to be more meticulous, more sentimental. You can learn to be more bold. A lot of times, my friends will say I think like a man, but I run like a woman. I think that works for me.
Use your female natural maternal instincts to the max. I treat all of [my staff] like they’re my kids. When I scold them, I will sayang them after. And women can take a lot of pain. Women give birth. They can take pain better than men, so I think women make better bosses because they can deal with more pain.
ETHOZ: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Irene: I had a school teacher, Mr Ronnie Oon. A long time ago, I was a school counsellor. I never wanted to be a counsellor because I was popular with the kids. I was the bad girl. I represented them and I was good in sports. Suddenly, you make me a counsellor means I’m the enemy right? So I didn’t like it and I said, ‘I don’t want lah.’ He said, ‘This is a test. Let me just tell you, in life, if 20 of the people you know like you, you are very successful already. If you want to be a good leader, you have to learn to make decisions that not everyone will agree with, but you know in your heart is the right thing to do.’ So running this business, I’ve hung on on several occasions to what he said. You cannot please everyone. If people don’t understand what you do, but you know in your heart that it’s right, then you should just continue to do what you believe in.
ETHOZ: You’ve talked a lot about mentorship in various interviews. Why is it so important, and how does one find a mentor?
Irene: I believe in paying forward, and I believe that I benefitted a lot from mentors. I’ve different mentors for different things. When I was growing up, I didn’t know what mentorship was. I only had role models. My role models were my mother, my grandmother, my teachers, some of my seniors, and even classmates. It’s important to have someone that has done it to advise you, and I learnt that in my career and business, I grow very fast because people who have done it taught me and gave me advice. It benefits both the mentee and mentor because as you’re mentoring, you learn to remind yourself of your values, and you also reflect on where you are now.
For a mentee, [be] open-minded, not stubborn or hard on your way, and know that not everything your mentor says is correct. Pick what works for you and what wisdom they have, because wisdom is something that can cut across time. A lot of my mentors are from books, are not even real people. Or rather, they are real people, but they are not alive, like Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa. If you have the opportunity to mentor some young people, it’s important to know that there’s a lot you can do to shape the young generation.
My first official mentor was my boss when I was doing insurance. His name is David. He saved my life when I was suicidal. He taught me if you put your heart and mind into something and you keep going and never give up, you will never fail. That’s why I can go through a lot of hardship and I’m very resilient. At one point, I was with Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE), and we got to see young people’s business proposals, and give out grants to young business people. I got a chance to mentor some of them. Those are just by chance. I think if you want to benefit from mentoring, the most important thing is to be able to open your mouth and ask.
ETHOZ: What do you believe makes a good leader?
Irene: A leader that can influence people to grow positively. There are leaders who are very charismatic, very smart, but they lead people to put wrong priorities in life. I think a good leader is one that makes the followers want to lead also, want to be shepherds guiding the sheep, and also towards something that’s for the greater good of the society, of mankind. I’ve seen many horrible political leaders in history who lead people to the wrong way, and people just follow blindly. A good leader should make people think, be strong, be on their own, be able to stand up for themselves or for others. That’s what my mentor taught me. He taught me the power of bringing people along in your success. Because he was successful and he tried to teach me. Even though I’ve left him, because I resigned and jumped into a totally different industry, he didn’t even bat an eyelid. He said, ‘If this is what you want to do, then make sure you be the best. I’ll just be here to support you. Don’t give up halfway. Don’t be a fly-by-night.’ So he allowed me to do what I wanted to do, he’s happy that I found something and he let me go.
A good leader needs to learn how to let go. In the end, I came back and made him my partner when FLY was relatively successful. Although I’ve been running this business, when it comes to big decisions about the company, I still go to him. That’s how a leader should be. A lot of my junior staff, I tell them, ‘I don’t expect you to stay in FLY forever, but while you’re here I just want you to learn as much as you can.’ It saddens me when they leave, but for those who’ve left and found a better job, I’m actually happy for them. A lot of leaders fail to understand that people go. I think they know but they fail to embrace it.
ETHOZ: What other milestones are you hoping to achieve in your career?
Irene: I’ve not yet acted in a Hollywood blockbuster. I’ve not yet even acted in a leading role in a drama. Because people just typecast me in comedy… but I’m very sure I can do a dramatic character. I’m just waiting for the right role. It’s something that I can’t control. If it comes, it comes. And I’m sure one day, it will come. I’m quite confident because I’m not old enough. It’s like Meryl Streep. Her best roles are now. That’s what I want to be. I want to be Meryl Streep. I want to be 60 and kicking ass with my acting.
For the business, I hope to expand the artist management. We are already expanding but we don’t have to move geographically because a lot of the networks are in Singapore. Discovery, Netflix, AXN, Fox. They have all made Singapore their Asia headquarters. We made a big milestone this year with Henry Golding being the lead for “Crazy Rich Asians” and a few other artists being in the Singapore cast, so we are very proud. That is a big stepping stone. I would like to see more of that. I would like to see more of our artists doing this sort of Hollywood movies, or even China or Korean movies. The next milestone is to see people coming to Singapore after “Crazy Rich Asians” to know that we have, I dare say, the best Asian English-speaking actors congregated here. The feedback from Warners and “Crazy Rich Asians” directors was they were very impressed with our Singapore cast, our standard of English, acting, and comedy. That was very encouraging. I hope to see Singapore being the hub to find big Asian stars for Hollywood movies. I think it’s coming soon. Whether I’m in it or not, it’s not important. I think business-wise, that will really benefit the artists we manage.