From The Straits Times archives: Her World's top women of the year Rachel Eng and Sim Chi Yin

Singapore Press Holdings' magazine Her World has crowned lawyer Rachel Eng,46, as Woman of the Year for her work as a trailblazer in the legal field and at home as a mother of three.

The magazine also presented the annual Young Woman Achiever award to freelance photographer Sim Chi Yin, 35, who is known for her photographs on social justice issues, such as the lives of migrant workers.

Here are profiles of Ms Eng and Ms Sim from The Straits Times archives:


Not just an 'ordinary girl' from HDB family

This story was first published in The Sundays Times on March 13, 2011

By Wong Kim Hoh, Senior Writer

She is a prime specimen of social mobility, the hot button issue that has provoked parliamentary debate and dominated newspaper headlines of late.

Ms Rachel Eng, 43, may be the managing partner of WongPartnership - one of Singapore’s biggest law firms - but she describes herself as just “an ordinary girl from an HDB family”.

The eldest of three children of a salesman and a seamstress, she grew up in a three-room flat - which has since been torn down - in Tiong Bahru. Just a stone’s throw from the then gangster-infested

Redhill area, hers was a colourful neighbourhood filled with working-class folk and the odd petty criminal.

She herself had a tangle with a snatch thief when she was a law undergraduate in the mid-1980s. She was going home one evening when a man entered the lift with her and snatched her gold necklace.

“He wanted to take my handbag too but I kicked him and he ran out of the lift,” says Ms Eng, who gave chase after her pleas for help fell on deaf ears.

She failed to nab the robber but the episode offers an insight into her feisty and gutsy nature, probably forged out of necessity and circumstance.

Both her parents had to work.

“We were on our own so we had to learn to be independent. There were no luxuries, no tuition or piano lessons,” says Ms Eng, who, as the eldest child, had to cook for her two younger siblings and coach them in their studies.

Fortunately, they were all academic self-starters.

Ms Eng, for instance, went from a neighbourhood primary school to the prestigious Raffles Girls’ School and Hwa Chong Institution before graduating with a law degree from the National University of Singapore. Her brother is now an engineer, and her sister an accountant.

Although she was offered two scholarships - one to study maths or physics in New Zealand and another to study Japanese in Japan - the effectively bilingual Ms Eng opted to do law instead.

“I was quite curious to find out what law was all about. You roughly know what a teacher does,” she says, adding that she probably would have ended up as an educator had she gone to New Zealand.

Upon graduation, she cut her teeth working in two law firms, including Allen & Gledhill, before joining WongPartnership in 1995.

She specialises in equity and debt capital markets, real estate investment trusts and also corporate finance.

“With dispute work, you get activated when a client has a problem. With corporate work, you’re always working towards some form of positive transaction, which is a nice feeling,” says the diminutive woman who is recommended as a leading legal brain in several publications, including Best Lawyers International and Chambers Global – The World’s Leading Lawyers.

High-profile initial public offerings that she has worked on include those of CapitaMalls Asia Limited (the largest initial public offerings in Singapore since 1993), Parkway Life Reit, Ascendas and Ascott Residence Trust.

When she joined WongPartnership in 1995, the firm had a team of 50. She rose through the ranks and helped to build the firm, which today employs 250 lawyers and has offices in Shanghai, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Beijing.

Last September, she became Singapore’s first female managing partner of a Big Four law firm, when co-founder Dilhan Pillay Sandrasegara left to become the head of portfolio management at Temasek Holdings.

Modestly, she tries to downplay the achievement, saying there are several outstanding female lawyers in Singapore such as former colleague Lee Suet Fern, who’s gone on to found Stamford Law Corporation.

But Ms Eng was a natural shoo-in for the job.

After all, she grew up in the firm, helped to develop the practice and knows the firm’s ins and outs as well as all its partners.

“I guess I’m lucky because my spouse has always told me to take an option if it becomes available. He’s never held me back; in fact, he’s always egging me to do better,” she says of her husband, the chief information officer of a pharmaceutical company.

Junior college sweethearts, they married in 1995 and have three children, aged between eight and 14.

She is not sure if she’s ambitious but “I like to do my work well”.

Although she manages the firm, she is also a key revenue earner.

“Sometimes I tell Alvin that maybe I should just do one thing, like running the office,” she says, referring to Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo, who is also one of the firm’s co-founders.

She adds, with a laugh: “I tell him I’m not ambitious but he has this famous quote: ‘But we’re ambitious for you, Rach.’”

Ms Eng agrees that many working mothers struggle between career and family.

Her own approach is to be rational and work around limitations.

“You know yourself best: Is your spouse supportive? Can you get help? Is your maid reliable?” says the lawyer who lets on that she does not have any domestic help, and splits the housework with her husband.

Counting herself blessed and lucky, she describes her own situation as “an alignment of the stars”.

Her parents and mother-in-law help to look after her children; she works for a family-friendly firm which advocates flexi-hours and telecommuting work arrangements. WongPartnership, incidentally, was recently voted Employer of Choice 2010 by Asian Legal Business magazine.

“My husband and I agree that we want the flexibility to be able to work from home but we don’t want our home to be our office. And we have a pact: No matter how late we work or how busy we are, we target to have the children home with us every night,” she says.

“Our parenting style is free-flow. We don’t tell our children what we expect; we just guide them along,” says Ms Eng who coaches them in their studies once a week.

“By and large, they’re very self-sufficient, and they grasp concepts very quickly and easily,” she says, almost with relief.

She has also taken a practical approach to her career by choosing an area which recognises the limitations she faces but which matches her inclination.

“I like doing mergers and acquisitions, but it’s very exacting work and sometimes you have to travel at very short notice,” says Ms Eng, who handled the largest competitive takeover in Singapore’s history - the $10 billion merger of Overseas Union Bank with United Overseas Bank - some 10 years ago.

But with children at home, she opted instead to develop capital markets, an area which is less frenetic and which gives her lead time to plan and make arrangements for help if she has to travel.

“Choose within your limitations; ask yourself what areas offer you the best chance of taking a good shot,” she advises working mothers.

Weekends are spent with the family, which leaves her precious little time for her complaining friends who often ask her why she has to work so hard.

She grimaces, and says with a sigh: “It is probably best not to question why you are at the printers proof-reading at 3am when other people are working or partying.

“Because when you start to question, it’s hard to pull back.”

She laughs and says with mock resignation: “It must be this Gen X HDB mentality: must work hard.”

kimhoh@sph.com.sg

Q&A

You have three young children, no maid, and a big job. How do you manage?

You just have to be very focused and disciplined. You know lawyers, they like to talk and when they do, hours would have passed before they know it. So you must know when to say “cut” and go.

For me, the period between 7.30pm and 9.30pm is very important. I try to be at home with my family then. When it’s past 9 and they’re about to go to sleep, I’ll be on my notebook and work until I get everything done.

Children tend to become grouchy when they don’t see you so I have this pact with my firm: If we have to entertain clients, they will always ask me but I can always say no.

It has been said that no matter how woman- or family-friendly an organisation is, working mothers will not be treated equally with their male counterparts.

It depends on perspective. We have a merit system in the firm. Say we have a male or female partner working full-time in the office and I have a female staff member who asks to work one day or two afternoons from home. We are not saying their productivity is less, but no matter how you put it, the one who works from home somehow will not be able to discharge some of the functions like supervising some of the associates in the office.

If we pay and remunerate the same, it’s not fair to the person who is in the office. So we pay the person working from home well but we pay those who are in the office better.

Structurally, if you pay everyone the same, people working full-time in the office, including guys, can also ask to work two days from home.

But so long as the mothers working from home feel they are being justifiably rewarded, I think it’s fair.

Do you agree that male and female leaders operate differently?

We shouldn’t stereotype, but by and large, I think women look at things from many perspectives. They can also multi-task better; they can work and organise their kid’s birthday party at the same time.

I’m also told we are more collaborative but may take a longer time making big decisions. Men take bolder strokes; they don’t look at what gets killed. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on the decision.

But really, it’s difficult to generalise.


Home-grown photographer in VII

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 10, 2014

By Desmond Lim

At just 1.52m tall, Sim Chi Yin is petite by any standards. But the 35-year-old photojournalist will now stand shoulder to shoulder with the giants of the photo world.

Sim is the first Singaporean and Asian to join the ranks of the exclusive VII photo agency this month first as an interim member, then with full membership on the cards, subject to voting by other members, two years later.

The VII photo agency, so named because of the number of its founding members, was established in 2001. The founding members are famed photographers Ron Haviv, Gary Knight, Antonin Kratochvil, Christopher Morris, John Stanmeyer, James Nachtwey and the late Alexandra Boulat.

Though new members have joined and others have left over the years, the agency, with 21 members now, remains one of the most recognised in the world.

Based in Beijing for the past seven years, Sim got the phone call informing her of the news from her mentor and VII photographer Marcus Bleasdale on a Saturday night about three weeks ago.

She said: "I answered and he said, 'Congrats, you're in - if you want it'."

It was good news but the gravity of those seven simple words soon bore down on the photographer.

"It's a great honour to be in an agency with living legends in the field, with photographers whose life's work sit on my bookshelves."

"I'm excited and, at the same time, a little scared. I'm still growing in my craft and have a lot to do to work at the top of the league," adds Sim, who has been in the VII mentor programme for the last three years. It is a professional development programme where senior VII members handpick and mentor emerging talents.

VII photographer Ed Kashi says via e-mail that he is excited at having the Singaporean in the cooperative and calls her "a hard worker, great journalist, team player, smart and good person".

A history and international relations graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Sim is a former Singapore Press Holdings scholar and Beijing correspondent at The Straits Times. In 2010, she quit her reporting job to return to what she calls her "long-neglected mistress" - documentary photography.

In the few short years since becoming a freelance photographer, she has muscled her way to international recognition in the competitive world of photojournalism.

Sim was a finalist for the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography last year. She was among the Photo District News' (PDN) top 30 emerging photographers last year and on British Journal of Photography's Ones To Watch list of photographers this year. Her works have been exhibited in New York, Cambodia and Oslo.

She now regularly shoots commissioned works for major publications such as The New York Times, Time magazine and Le Monde. While based in Beijing, she also takes up assignments outside of China.

"I've long had an intellectual interest in China and studied Chinese history at university, and I'm working to document slices of what the country is today and where it's heading," says Sim, who has no long-term plans to move out of the country.

"There are many stories to tell here and I can go local - working on my own to get close to people and deep inside situations," she adds, switching effortlessly between English and Mandarin while speaking to Life! over the telephone from her apartment in Beijing.

Joining VII and having the agency represent and distribute her works is a major milestone in her career, but Sim is not about to take her foot off the pedal.

She currently has her plate full, working on personal long-term documentary projects about her ancestral roots in Guangdong, the urbanisation of China and the issue of silicosis - a deadly occupational disease that afflicts miners when they breathe in silica dust.

A film version of the silicosis story, which Sim is co-directing, is also in the works.

The photographer has travelled to a mountainous rural village in the Shanxi region of China about 10 times in the last two years to document the plight of a silicosis-stricken Chinese miner and his wife.

Some of the photos show her emaciated subject writhing on the bed as he gasped for air. The images are stark, intimate and can sometimes be hard to look at.

"The level of intimacy Chi Yin managed is testament to the amount of time and effort she put into the project. And also testament to what the (miner's) family thought of her," says her mentor Bleasdale.

Sim also put the miner in touch with a Chinese non-governmental organisation, which provided him with medical assistance.

The family now calls her "jiu ming en ren" (Mandarin for "saviour").

The socially conscious photographer is adamant that advocacy goes hand in hand with her photography.

"We need to ask why we are taking those photos in the first place, why we set out to do the documentation," she says with a conviction and intensity that belies her age.

"A sense of social purpose is always important to me. It's about what issues you care about and how to make people care about it also, in a very noisy world."

The former reporter is not new to standing up for the underdog.

She was prolific in producing stories about migrant worker issues as a journalist at The Straits Times and spent her days off travelling to Indonesia to document the lives of domestic workers headed for Singapore.

The awardwinning body of work was published as a book, The Long Road Home, in 2011.

In that same year, Sim also produced the Rat Tribe series of photographs, shot between 2010 and 2012, which documents the lives of migrant workers who have made their homes in the basements and underground air raid shelters of Beijing.

Veteran Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas called the Rat Tribe project "outstanding". Magnum Photos, founded in 1947, is a photo agency many regard to be the best in the world. Founding members include legendary photographers such as the late Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa.

"Chi Yin has a committed interest in stories that are often not the most obvious, but ones she deeply connects with in an intuitive way. I could feel her curiosity and seriousness when we first met in Singapore in 2006," says Meiselas, who helped Sim secure a place in the Magnum Foundation's Photography and Human Rights fellowship at New York University in 2010.

Sim's membership at VII comes at a trying time for the industry as print publications, hit by declining circulation globally, are cutting back on their photo budgets.

VII photo agency has not been spared from the state of flux. It closed its physical office in Paris and its gallery in New York earlier this year and employs a skeletal staff to keep itself nimble. Members pay a monthly fee and work with the agency on pricing for their images, while the agency takes a commission.

According to Kashi, the collective is also actively exploring new business strategies involving the use of different media such as film and working more with schools and non-governmental organisations.

Early last month, VII had a week-long "print flash sale", where some of its member photographers' prints went on sale for US$100 (S$124) each.

Magnum followed shortly after with its own 67-hour US$100 print sales to commemorate the agency's 67th anniversary. The photo agency has also partnered start-up company Photo.Clothing to provide images for printing on T-shirts.

These unprecedented attempts at capturing the mass market hint at how uncertain the market is, at a time when a question mark hangs over the relevance of independent photo agencies.

But Sim remains unperturbed by these trends. She says: "I want to try to look under the hood and learn how things work in the agency and industry and do what I can to contribute to the agency."

Mercurial market conditions are not the only challenges she has to contend with.

"The move from a cushy staff job to becoming a freelancer is a major transition that I still grapple with," admits Sim.

"I was naive in thinking that I just want to take pictures when I started out freelancing. I didn't realise it also means running your own business. The constant worry about money is actually very taxing."

She adds: "My parents thought that I was throwing away a good job. My dad was aggrieved that my pictures were no longer in The Straits Times for him to tell his friends about and quietly clip and file away."

"But I tell him, 'Pa, but my pictures are now on the front pages of The New York Times','" she adds. Her retiree parents who live in Singapore have since come around and are quietly supportive of her choices.

She hopes that becoming the first Asian to join VII will help more Asian photojournalists get a footing on the international stage.

"My dad used to tell me: 'Bie ren mei zou guo de lu, ni bie zou'," Sim says, which means "don't take the road that no one has travelled on" in Mandarin.

"But how can I do that? I'm a journalist." she adds.

deslim@sph.com.sg


Newly minted VII photographer Sim Chi Yin's selected works

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 10, 2014

Homegrown photographer Sim Chi Yin, whose work has won international acclaim, adds another feather to her cap this month as she becomes the first Singaporean and Asian to join the prestigious VII photo agency.

The former Straits Times China correspondent will start off as an interim member whose full membership will depend on a vote by other members two years later. She was also in the VII mentor programme, where senior VII member Marcus Bleasdale guided her, for the last three years.  

We take a look at just a slice of her award-winning body of work. 

A young woman prostrating herself after taking every step during her pilgrimage to Lhasa in August 2006. Her hands were covered in animal hide mitts and her legs cushioned by a rubber apron as she made her way by the side of a two-lane highway between Lhasa and Damxung. The journey for some pilgrims can take up to two years. 

Former samsui woman Yip Say Mui, 90, collecting cardboard around a market near her Redhill flat to earn some money in 2008. She was too old to work any longer in a construction site, and too proud of her independence to rely on government welfare. Madam Yip has since died of throat cancer.

People in the Myanmar village of Tumyung, accessible only by an hour-long ride in a small boat from the town of Phyarpon, struggling to get life back to normal after Cyclone Nargis hit in mid-2008.

A worker dusting down the Juche Tower, which symbolises North Korea's ideology of self-reliance, next to a bronze statue of three people - the intellectual, worker and farmer, each holding high their tools, forming the insignia of the ruling Korean Workers' Party. 

Singapore Paralympic swimmer Theresa Goh preparing to hit the pool hours after landing in Beijing for the 2008 games.

Blind Chinese judokas - all Paralympics hopefuls - practising their moves at a new 222 million yuan (S$44 million) training centre built in Beijing's southern suburbs after five years of lobbying by disability advocates.

The skulls of some of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia on display in 2009. 

A high school student taking notes on a genocide education tour in front of a painting by S-21 survivor Van Nath, at an exhibition at the prison which is now a museum.

Rural house church leaders praying in 2010 at a gathering in Nanyang city, Henan province, known to be a hotbed of house churches. In recent years, the urban Chinese congregation has grown much more quickly than the rural one but it was here in the countryside that Christianity took root over the past 30 years, with many converting because of health or family problems.

Farmer Ci Ahpo getting his eyes tested in Yunnan province before being prepared for free surgery by Singapore volunteer doctors in 2010. He had been blind in his right eye since his 20s, and a cataract had clouded his left eye in recent years.