What life - and brushes with death - taught a S'pore lawyer

Never-say-die lawyer Wong Kai Yun kicks off this four-part daily series in which The Straits Times documents women from across Asia and the challenges they face and overcome. It caps the Year of Celebrating SG Women and recognises that advancing women's interests in society remains an ongoing endeavour.

Ms Wong Kai Yun credits her decision to stubbornly press on with work for how far she has come in her practice today.
Ms Wong Kai Yun credits her decision to stubbornly press on with work for how far she has come in her practice today. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Singaporean family lawyer Wong Kai Yun may be considered among some of the world's most powerful women, but she knows what it is like to feel small and inadequate.

The co-managing director at Chia Wong Chambers, who has been recognised yearly on the Citywealth International Financial Centre Power Women Top 200 list since 2013, describes her experience as a speaker at a global conference.

"My co-panellists were all very tall, and the podium - when I stood next to it - came up to my chin," says Ms Wong, who stands at a petite 1.52m tall. "We had to consider, should I then be excluded from the panel and get another to deliver my speech, or should they find something for me to step on, which would have been very obvious as someone would then have to carry in a box."

Reluctant to accept either of the options, Ms Wong asked instead for a handheld microphone and put in the extra effort of memorising her speech so that she could step out directly in front of the audience to deliver it.

"The easier thing to do when you feel so awkward is to say, okay, why don't I just skip that part," she says. "It's in situations like these that you've got to just force yourself to do it."

That wouldn't be the only time that Ms Wong, 50, chose to take a less-expected route in life.

In 2007, at what seemed like the height of her career, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer when consulting a doctor over a bloated stomach. The five-year survival rate for this stage of cancer is 39 per cent, according to the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance.

Then 36 years old, she had just pulled out as equity partner at a big law firm to start her own practice with a co-partner, Mr Chia Boon Teck. They had hired a young team of lawyers and had already taken on several cases.

"It felt like you couldn't have found a higher place to fall from," says Ms Wong.

The doctor advised her to undergo surgery immediately to remove her ovaries. Aggressive chemotherapy lay on the horizon as well.

"I was afraid I would die, yes, but I also asked myself if I would still carry the burdens of others I'd already committed to," she says.

Doubling down

Instead of taking time off work, Ms Wong decided to double down - fighting for her life, for the colleagues who had left their jobs to join her, and for the clients who had put their faith in her new firm.

Over the next decade, she continued to work intensely, concealing her health issues from most people, even as she underwent several operations, chemotherapy, lost all her hair, and fought off complications and a few more cancer scares in 2011 and 2016.

She hid her illness as she did not want it to affect people's confidence in her firm or risk having legal opponents use her situation to their advantage.

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She went around in a wig, attended hearings in between treatments with the intravenous cannula still attached to her arm beneath her sleeve, and tried her best to appear as normal as she could.

"Through the experience, all the more I recognised that it's a blessing to be able to do a good job," Ms Wong says.

"You often hear that nobody ever regrets on their deathbed that they didn't work harder. But having been on the deathbed a number of times, I can say that that's not true. At least not for me."

The family lawyer explains: "Whenever my condition was really critical, I didn't think that 'oh, I should have played a lot more'. Rather, I thought a lot about how I could have dealt with that client's matter when I had the time and helped to sort out their life, but now it's still half-baked.

"With each person who tells me 'I was glad you were there when my life crumbled', I think that maybe I was kept alive just so I could walk through that moment with that person. And if that's the case, shouldn't I then do it to the best of my abilities?"

Ms Wong, who is single, also learnt to appreciate spending more time with her mother, a retired schoolteacher, as well as her three brothers and their families. Her father had died shortly before her cancer diagnosis.

Pursuing equality

Ms Wong credits her decision to stubbornly press on with work for how far she has come in her practice today.

The National University of Singapore law graduate has, since 2015, been named each year in the Doyles Guide, which recognises the country's top family and divorce lawyers. She has also been consistently nominated as a Litigation Star in family and matrimonial disputes in Benchmark Litigation Asia-Pacific, a guide to the region's leading lawyers.

"Because I chose not to give up or slow down when I was younger, I have had the privilege of watching Singapore's family laws grow and change according to the evolving gender roles and family dynamics in the country over the past 20 years," Ms Wong says.

"Today, compared with many other Asian countries, Singapore is seen as a more gender-equal society with no - or a much higher - glass ceiling. But it really wasn't that long ago that this wasn't the case."

Ms Wong Kai Yun (far right) as executive editor of the special issue of the Singapore Journal Of Legal Studies, during the 50th anniversary of the Women’s Charter in 2011. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SINGAPORE JOURNAL OF LEGAL STUDIES

Ms Wong raises the example of joint child custody, which became the norm in divorce cases in Singapore only in 2005, where both parents have equal rights in making key decisions for their child.

Previously, the norm was sole custody in which the parent whom the child was to live with, typically the homemaker mother, was given the exclusive rights to make all the decisions in the child's life.

Ms Wong explains that the Women's Charter - legislation aimed at protecting and improving the rights of women in Singapore - was enacted in the 1960s, "at a time when women were truly not equal".

At that time, the charter was aimed at ensuring, among other things, that married women - who were then mostly housewives, often with significantly lower educational qualifications than men - had equitable financial support in terms of division of assets and maintenance upon a divorce.

The change in the child custody norms in 2005, Ms Wong says, could be seen in part as a symbolic recognition that women now have the same educational opportunities as men, are also working with the same earning capacities; and that with both genders having become more equal, the fathers should therefore have the same rights as the mothers to make major decisions for their children even if they do not live with them after divorce.

'Work in progress'

More recently, the Women's Charter was amended in 2016 to allow incapacitated men to seek maintenance from their former wives.

Parliament, though, has remained hesitant to grant all men the right to do so even if their former spouses earn more or own more assets than they do, arguing that women still tend to become more financially vulnerable after a divorce.

Advancing gender equality in Singapore "will always be a work in progress", Ms Wong says, adding that in pursuing this end, women must also be prepared to accept the full suite of changes involved.

"Once we become truly equal, legal indulgences and liberties previously put in place to equalise things will also be taken from you," she says. "The hard part is, do you want the law to reflect society as it is now, or do you want it to reflect the ideals that we are aiming towards?"

For women seeking greater equality or fairer representation in the workplace, Ms Wong has this advice to give: "We will know where that glass ceiling is only if we first apply ourselves in reaching out to touch it, and then to keep pushing against it."

And when the going gets tough - whether in work or in life - "just take the next step... focusing not on why you've found yourself in this situation, but rather on how to get through it", she says.

This is a learning point she has applied time and again in life, especially during her battle with cancer.

Ms Wong has been keeping her cancer in check and the next five-year mark is in 2022. For now, she continues to give her best shot.

"You never know what you are capable of until you try. You can walk out of it only if you keep at it. Just take the next step."

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