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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 07/16/2012

Singapore’s Ambassador Chan Heng Chee ends 16-year service in Washington

Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, right, accompanying Singapore's Senior Minister Goh Chok Thong, center, to a meeting with Ben Bernake in 2006. (Courtesy of the Embassy of Singapore)

After 16 years in Washington and two months of farewell parties — some 50-plus breakfasts, lunches and dinners — Ambassador Chan Heng Chee returned home to Singapore on Saturday. “It’s bittersweet and a little sad,” she told us Friday after a champagne send-off from her staff.

Chan turned her final week in D.C. into a sentimental journey: art museums, coffee at Patisserie Poupon in Georgetown and a final lunch at her favorite neighborhood restaurant, Nam Viet.

“I have been driving around just to look at the trees and get a feel of Washington before I go,” she said.

Chan, 70, was the second-longest-serving ambassador in Washington (only Djibouti’s Roble Olhaye, who also represents his country at the United Nations, has served longer) and the first female ambassador to the United States from an East Asian country. When she arrived in 1996, there were five other female envoys; now she counts 29 out of a total of 192.

Ambassador Chan, center, greeting then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, left, on a 2004 trip to Singapore. (Gerald Herbert/AFP/Getty Images)
Her advice to other women considering the job? “Never be daunted by the fact you are a female ambassador coming to a man’s world. Don’t begin by thinking you are disadvantaged. Just carry on.”

Which she did: Chan gained respect for improving trade relations with the United States, befriending D.C.’s network of powerful women and hosting lively dinner parties.

“I used to be a university professor of political science,” she told us. “When I throw a dinner party, I like a discussion. I didn’t know the word ‘salon’ until I got here and people told me I ran a salon. My first reaction was, ‘Is this good or bad?’ ” (The best conversations, she determined, are facilitated by arranging 14 guests around one long table.)

Ambassador Chan, left, with Chief of Protocol Capricia Marshall at the Washington National Opera’s 2010 masked ball. (Russell Hirshon)
One of Chan’s final farewells came Wednesday night at the art-filled home of superlobbyists Tony and Heather Podesta. “No country big or small has had a more effective advocate for her people,” Tony Podesta told the guests. Chan — who is headed to a third career as chair of a research center at Singapore’s University of Technology and Design as well as a stint as ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — said she’ll take home what she’s learned about charity and philanthropy.

“I’ve met so many people who put public service before themselves,” she said. “It happens in other countries, but not to this degree. It’s very American.”

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By  |  12:00 AM ET, 07/16/2012

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