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A Candid Discussion with Dona Emalda, the Jane of All Trades

Siti Hasanah
By Siti Hasanah

Last update on December 15, 2023 · 6 min read

When you hear "construction yard," gritty images and less-than-glamorous thoughts probably come to mind. Despite its gritty exterior, construction is a crucial hub of innovation, shaping the world we live in. Think about the bridges that connect us, literally and metaphorically. They're made in these yards. Sadly, the hardworking folks behind these structures often don't get the credit they deserve.

One such unsung hero is Dona Emalda. With a career spanning over 20 years in marine, oil and gas, and renewable energy, Dona brings a wealth of experience and a down-to-earth spirit to every project. Her career has been a journey through various roles—construction manager, planning engineer, risk analyst, and site manager, to name a few. She doesn't just navigate the complexities of construction; Dona orchestrates them with finesse. Now a freelancer, she continues to weave her magic, bringing a wealth of experience and a humble spirit to every project she touches.


A picture of Dona during one of her adventures with MMHE.

1. You’ve had various and versatile roles working in energy, could you share your experience in navigating the different job roles in the industry?

I frequently change job positions whenever I feel like my role hasn’t satisfied me enough or I feel frustrated over different circumstances.

When I was a QC Inspector, I encountered situations where Purchasing constantly bought low-quality items, which prompted me to become a Purchasing Officer. Afterwards, I changed to become a Planning Engineer, then moved to Project Team when I felt like we didn’t have enough budget to run my project. Next, I moved to PMO where I set the procedure, Budget, Plan and Quality plan, but then again I was frustrated as the construction team was not able to perform as per my target. So then I moved to Construction Manager and Yard Manager of a fabrication yard and after a couple of years setting up the yard, I felt like there were no more challenges in the field. Finally, I decided to move out and explore the horizon on a new type of project that I had never been involved in before and it was overall an amazing journey.

Being in a different industry allows me to continuously learn new things, to the point where I can never say that I am fully experienced in one. Technology is always evolving and it requires me to keep thinking out of the box and pushing the boundaries.

2. What inspired you to pursue a career in marine, oil and gas, and renewable energy?

Adventure and continuous challenges. I get easily bored and this industry is rapidly evolving, which keeps me on my toes all the time.

3. Could you share your experience being a freelancer? What are some benefits of freelancing for you?

Let’s just say my work-life balance is much better after becoming a freelancer.

I’ve been a freelancer for more than 2 years now and it challenges me to be agile in the new environment and perspective. I can be a client, a main contractor and a subcontractor within a 1-week gap and I also had to keep in mind that even with experience on my belt, it did not make me more experienced than the person that has been doing it for years. I merely have a different perspective on how to improve the progress of work and fix it in a better manner.

The benefit of freelancing not only lies in freedom of finance but also freedom in different aspects of your life; including time and location. In 2023, I had several jobs that allowed me to work while I was travelling in Indonesia with my husband. Then I continued to work in Singapore and Malaysia. Now I’m back in Indonesia, working from home and being by my daughter’s side as she starts university. Let’s just say my work-life balance is much better after becoming a freelancer.

4. Were there any challenges and setbacks that you experienced pursuing this career path?

Being a freelancer can make people wary of who you are. They don’t know who and what is your background, especially when you’re working from home, you aren’t able to meet with the person face to face so miscommunication often happens. It takes time to adapt to other team members while a freelance job is usually a short period job. Other setbacks are when there is a waiting time or gap between jobs or even an overlap between the jobs, so I must juggle the work time.


A photo of Dona and her colleagues during a previous project.

5. There may be gender stereotypes and obstacles endured by women working in engineering – have you ever faced any challenges in your specific field?

Most of the people who met me for the first time are wary of me, as being a woman in these industries has the stereotype of a “woman on top attitude” – which basically means I’m perceived as a “know-how”. But when we started to get acquainted, I think they get that I'm a team player, not someone who wanted to rule them. A human approach plays a big role there, as I treat them equally and I want them to treat me the same. I always build the relationship among my team members with respect and honour.

However, it’s different with my extended family and society in Indonesia - being an Asian woman, there’s this prejudice that career women neglect their family, making them a second priority. I do leave my kids as I work overseas and travel, but I never neglect them, they are my number 1 priority above all. There are times when I have to juggle between work and family, like when I have to put my kids in pyjamas and drive around with them until they fall asleep before I come to the yard to do a site inspection, or when they all get chicken pox and hospitalised and I had to leave the yard to stay in the hospital with them for days - my kids know I’ll always be there for them. For my husband, I am so lucky to have a man by my side who understands me - He even travelled with me on every project that I was assigned to.

6. What is the best advice you’ve received during your career?

An old man said to me at the beginning of my career, “You do what you can with what you have”, another way to say be creative with what you have in your possession instead of asking for what you might not have.

7. You’ve worked in different countries before, what were the best memories that you had while travelling and working in new environments?

I was travelling from Batam yard to the Singapore office for my regular meeting, so I only carried my laptop as I planned to go back on the same day.  On the ferry to Singapore, my boss called me and instructed me to fly to France that very night to meet the other team there. I was rushing to get myself a Schengen visa on the same day which normally takes at least 1 month for an Indonesian. After discussing with the team in the office, I was assigned a new project and I had to do a presentation on Project Construction to our future client in France. I spent the 13-hour flight in front of my laptop to get familiar with the project scope and create a Project Execution Plan, which would normally take 1 to 2 months to build.

I arrived in France and went to the meeting, which consisted of the Project Directors from the Joint Venture company. I wondered “why me” -  they ended up choosing an Indonesian woman as their Construction Manager for such a high-profile project. Nevertheless, I managed to do the presentation and by the end of the day, my Commercial Manager approached me and shook my hand. He requested me to stay in France for a couple more days to discuss my presentation.

8. Do you have any role models or mentors that you looked up to in your career?

I do have Mr. Lum Kin Wah and Mr. Wong Yu Liong. Mr. Lum is an ex-CEO of OTTO Marine Pte Ltd. He’s currently retired but he exposed me to various positions in the company. Mr. Wong Yu Liong is ex-GM for Sembawang, Batamec Shipyard and now he’s in Citra Shipyard Batam. He was my mentor, guiding me a lot on Project Management.

They set up a reputable shipyard in Indonesia and brought in young people from all over Indonesia. They developed them in their yard from management trainee up to GM level. They gave chances to the young and guided them up to their career path.


Dona and 2 of her colleagues.

9. What advice would you give to young women aspiring to pursue leadership and managing roles in this field?

It’s not easy being a woman in a man's world. Though, it doesn’t make you superior or above men when you are in the top position. Instead, you should identify who is the weakest link of the team, be the one that makes the team stronger, united and solid, and together as a team you can achieve any target and obstacles given. You should also definitely try freelancing, as it can give you so much freedom these days. As a wife and mother, you don’t have to sacrifice your career or ambitions. You can have it all when you become a freelancer.

10. Could you share a bit about your long-term goals? What would you like to achieve in the next few years?

Life has been good to me, so I would like to pay back to the people who have helped me in the past, by giving them the support they need. At the same time, I also plan to continue travelling. I’d like to go all around Indonesia and hopefully be able to travel to Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Myanmar, and India where I can meet my old teammates.