‘Iron Lady’ of Sabah tourism, Irene, dies at 70

KOTA KINABALU: Known as the “Iron Lady” of Sabah tourism, Datuk Irene Benggon Charuruks (pic) will always be remembered, thanks to her contribution to turning the state into a renowned national and international tourism destination.

Whether it was her former colleagues at Sabah Tourism Board (STB), tourism players or ministers, all of them agree that Irene was the driving force behind the rise of Sabah as Malaysia’s top tourist destination.

Irene, who passed away at 4pm on Monday after a brief and sudden illness, helmed STB as its general manager for 25 years before her retirement in March 2016. She was 70.

Irene will always be remembered as one of the key figures who guided the fledgling Sabah tourism industry into the multibillion ringgit industry by pushing tourism products as well as lobbying international tourism agencies to bring in the tourists.

Current STB general manager Noredah Othman said that Irene believed that Sabah is a great tourist destination and drove that message clearly to convince everyone she met.

“She was our driving force and matriarch. She instilled in us that Sabah is a great destination.

“Her passion and commitment went beyond words and accolades. She taught us and, myself especially, that doing our best is not enough, ” said Noredah.

She said Irene nurtured Sabah’s tourism industry from “a baby to adulthood” and was instrumental in the development of key tourism and cultural events in the state as well as pushing for more air accessibility and other improvements.

“Most people call her the Iron Lady, but for us at STB, she was a combination of a boss, mother, aunt, friend and most of all our pillar, ” she added.

Former state tourism, culture and environment minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun, who is now Local Government and Housing Minister, also credited Irene as one of the driving forces in Sabah tourism.

He said that many of her tourism programmes were models for other states to follow.

“Irene leveraged on Sabah’s natural beauty like the forests, parks, islands among others to make the state a key destination in the country and region, ” he added.

Irene leaves behind her husband Sevee Charuruks and three children Devi, Rani and Zuhan.

She will be buried on Friday.

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