When you imagine the qualities of a great leader, you might imagine their warm smile,…
We all know that to make a community great, there are unsung heroes in every sector, quietly working for the good of others without necessarily catching the eye of the mainstream.
Even when their contributions are recognised, they might flinch from the glory, happiest when working for the causes that spark their passions.
One such leader in our community is Dr Clara Tuck Meng Soo, a GP who has been making a difference in the lives of marginalised communities for the duration of her career.
You might have heard of Dr Clara Tuck Meng Soo recently in the news, when she returned her Order of Australia Medal after Margaret Court was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia.
As a transwoman, Dr Soo did this in protest of the award apparently legitimising the homophobic and transphobic statements that Margaret Court had made.
While it caught the attention of many, to Dr Soo, that was just one small protest in her long history of standing up for the LGBTQIA* community.
Dr Soo is guest speaker at the upcoming She Leads In-Conversation event, hosted by YWCA Canberra on 16 March. She will speak about her lifetime of looking after the needs of the marginalised and how her views on leadership have developed in those years.
Her passion for representing marginalised communities stirred early in her career when she started as a GP during the AIDS pandemic.
“I started at the Interchange General Practice in 1996, the year that we started to get access to the first truly effective treatments for HIV. At that time, a lot of gay doctors felt that we actually had a moral obligation to work in that area because the people in our community were dying.”
She was inspired at the time by Dr Peter Rowland, who had started the Interchange General Practice. The practice provided medical treatment to sexuality-and gender-diverse patients as well as sex workers, prison inmates and other marginalised groups.
“When I joined Interchange, one of the things I found was that it was a completely non-judgmental practice. [Dr Rowland] just thought ‘I’m just going to see everybody who’s in the margins and who’s disadvantaged’.” This is an outlook that Dr Soo has continued throughout her medical career.
However, she describes herself as an “accidental GP”. Although she excelled at school, becoming a doctor was initially more her mother’s idea than Dr Soo’s.
“My parents were very culturally conservative. I had a very cloistered upbringing and my mother was very controlling. If you have read all those biographies with tiger mums, she’s tiger mom plus one! We didn’t actually participate in any extracurricular activities. She discouraged friends from visiting us because she didn’t want us to be led astray by the naughty boys.”
“Like a lot of other young Asian people, my parents expected me to be a doctor.” And after a short period of rebelling against that idea purely because her parents wanted it so much, Dr Soo went to Cambridge to study medicine. The biggest lesson she learnt there, though, wasn’t from the classroom.
Because of her lack of socialisation as a child, Dr Soo didn’t know how to interact well with other students and was very quiet and reserved in classes.
“At the end my first year, I was one of the top three students in my year, and I said to myself ‘So if I study really hard and I get a top degree, yes my mum would be really happy, but I don’t know that it says any more to me’. I actually think that what’s really important for me in my life is learning some social skills.”
This certainly wasn’t easy, especially as a young adult, but it served Dr Soo well as a GP. “In general practice, you actually need to learn to talk to patients and relate to that person.”
Reflecting on her journey to her leadership position within the medical community in Canberra, Dr Soo noted that it was often difficult to have her voice heard because she doesn’t fit the mould.
“My experience of being a woman has only been for three years, but as a gay, effeminate Asian I probably shared a lot of experiences that women have. Like when I get on boards, I have to go through the process of proving myself before people listen to me. In the beginning, if I say something, it’s basically ignored. But if someone like my registrar, a tall white man, says something, everybody listens because ‘Oh yes, a guy like that, he must be saying something sensible’.”
Those three years as a woman following her gender transition have also reinforced Dr Soo’s belief in the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership.
“One of the things I learned in my recent journey is that, as women, we should use that emotional intelligence we have. I think that’s one of the things I wish I’d known earlier because I would have got a lot further earlier.”
Part of that emotional intelligence includes the capacity to stand up for her community, as she did in returning her OAM.
“What I said when I handed my award back was that I do not accept the honouring of somebody who’s made homophobic and transphobic statements. Whatever reason they give for giving that award, it will be seen by everybody in Australia as giving those views legitimacy. I thought I can make my small protest by saying ‘I do not accept that, and I do not want to be associated with this body that condones those views’.”
“I know that myself and my team have done work that’s worthy of recognition so whether we actually have an award for it, whether I’ve got some initials behind my name… I don’t need that.”
What Dr Soo does value, though, is connections with likeminded women, which is why she is keen for the upcoming event.
“I’m looking forward to talking to and meeting other interesting and exciting women who can educate me about different things!”
What: Leadership for change: a lifetime of looking after the needs of the marginalised with Dr Clara Tuck Meng Soo and Isabel Mudford
When: Tuesday 16 March from 6 to 8 pm
Where: Kambri Cultural Centre, ANU
Tickets: $30 YWCA Canberra members and ANU students / $45 non-members
Tickets and more information: ywca-canberra.org.au/event/leadership-for-change-a-lifetime-of-looking-after-the-needs-of-the-marginalised-with-dr-clara-tuck-meng-soo-and-isabel-mudford