In the newly renovated spaces of the Danish Embassy in Singapore, Personal Assistant Mary Narayanan enjoys her new private office. Even though she is truly a people’s person, she also likes the fact that she is now able to close the door behind her and focus on the tasks ahead. But when the door is opened Mary’s warmth immediately rushes towards anyone coming in contact with the neat, little lady with the characteristic curly hair, black as ebony.
On her desk lies a little, red leather notebook. Time has taken its toll on the book, and the back is supported by several layers of tape. From inside, dozens of yellow ‘post it’ notes are peeping out showing names and numbers, as all of the pages are already full, and have been for quite some time. For 40 years that little, red notebook has been Mary’s faithful helper at the Danish Embassy.
For four decades, Mary Narayanan has served as an assistant to seven different Danish ambassadors in Singapore. Back in the 70’s before it was even a real embassy, she was there.
Last year on the 1st of November Mary was honoured for her lifelong effort helping Denmark and Danes in South-East Asia, at a reception held at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen. Here, she was given the Silver Medal awarded by Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II and presented to her by former Ambassador Vibeke Rovsing Lauritzen or “lady boss”, as Mary also calls her.
“The medal is a lifetime achievement for me. It’s a real meaningful milestone of which I am so happy and grateful,” Mary says in a tone of voice filled with emotions and also pride.
Vibeke Rovsing Lauritzen was also the one who had arranged and hosted the reception where former colleagues and Ambassadors came from all over Denmark to celebrate their highly appreciated assistant, something that almost overwhelmed Mary.
“They came for me. Solely. I could not believe it. The reception was a moment I will always treasure,” says Mary.
Among the guests were Niels Kaas Dyrlund who was the ambassador to Singapore from 1994 to 1997. Sadly he passed away only two weeks after the reception, but despite being fatally sick, he came to greet Mary.
Mary Narayanan with all ‘her’ Ambassadors to Singapore, from left to right: Ambassador Vibeke Rovsing Lauritzen, Under-Secretary for Foreign Trade and Investment. Ambassador Klavs Holm, Centre for Public Diplomacy. Ambassador Niels Dyrlund (sadly he passed away on 14/11/2010). Ambassador Jens Peter Larsen (retired). Ambassador Jørgen Holm (retired).
Back in Singapore, Mary’s current colleagues of course also acknowledged her admirable achievement, even though under somewhat less formal circumstances. A ‘pizza party’ was thrown at the office, and also in Singapore the celebration meant seeing old friends. Among others, Priest at the Danish Seamen’s Church, Ronald Pedersen showed up talking about old days. Mary was there, you see, when Ronald Pedersen and his wife, Inge, came to Singapore for the first time to set up the Danish church 25 years ago.
Diplomatic among diplomats
As in any career, Mary has had her ups and downs. The, over time, countless business delegations have always meant a lot of extra hours behind the desk coordinating this and that. Most recent in connection with the Youth Olympic Games held in Singapore, where the Danish Embassy hosted a reception for all the Danish athletes.
“I can only take it one day at a time, and the many hours simply come with the territory. If I did not like my job, I would probably not stick around for 40 years,” says Mary. And the job has always liked her as well, so today there is still a strong bond between Mary and several of the former Ambassadors.
“If there’s a mutual respect you will work great together professionally and often socially as well. But that respect has to be earned from both sides. Over the years I came to respect all of my former bosses,” she says.
But when asked to mention some of the best moments from the 40 years, Mary is reluctant. She hesitates to speak about specific incidents because that would not be fair to the other ambassadors not mentioned. That is the kind of woman Mary Narayanan is.
Still, there is no doubt that one of the longest serving ambassadors Jørgen Ørstrøm Møller, holds something special with Mary. Today the former ambassador works as an adjunct professor at a Singaporean university within South-East Asian studies and is widely known around the world. And Mary and him speak to each other as often as their busy schedules allow it.
“He is just wonderful. You will tell him one thing that he already knows, and he will tell you two things that you don’t know, and at the same time he is one of the most humourous persons I have ever met,” says Mary with a smile. But humour is not the only Danish characteristic, Mary is fond of.
“Danes are always very open minded, and say what they mean. In Asia it is very important to save face. Danes don’t really care about that. If they make a mistake they don’t think to much of if, but move on and learn from it. I like that,” she says.
A kind of retirement
At the end of this year, Mary Narayanan was supposed to retire after her long and glorious career at the Embassy. But that is not entirely what is going to happen. Mary has been asked to stay on for a part time gig training a new assistant, and she did not hesitate for long before deciding.
“This part time job offer fits perfectly with my wish to stay forever young. I can’t just quit like that, I would miss it to much, and I think maybe the Embassy would miss me to,” Mary says with a twinkle in her eye.
Even though still on the job market, Mary is beginning to look at things to do when it is all over, and the first priority will be her family.
As a hobby project she is preparing a scrapbook of her 40 years of service, where former colleagues and their wives have to contribute.
“I am e-mailing to the wives of the ambassadors asking them what pictures they have gathered over the years. I think I will have better luck asking the wives, and I look forward to making this book of memories,” she says.
Besides the scrapbook, in her spare time Mary is also involved as a volunteer in an orphanage project in Cambodia. An activity she hopes to put a lot more hours into, when she eventually leaves the Danish Embassy.
So Mary has a lot to tend to in her “retirement” but she would not have it any other way.
“Life is short and I shall enjoy my life to the fullest. The challenge is to remain young at heart, always,” she states.