It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: Watch out, bullies, lawyer Doris Chia is in the house

Litigation partner Doris Chia makes it a point to take on cases for the helpless and the bullied, because of the difficulties she encountered growing up.
The infant Ms Chia in the arms of her mother, who suffered from mental illness and was a suspicious and superstitious woman. Ms Chia when she graduated in 1990. She landed a pupillage with Harry Elias Partnership, and says she owes a lot to the firm'
Ms Doris Chia's father died when she was 10 and she and her three siblings were brought up by their mother who was schizophrenic. But thanks to good teachers and friends who lent a helping hand along the way, she is now a partner in a law firm.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG
The infant Ms Chia in the arms of her mother, who suffered from mental illness and was a suspicious and superstitious woman. Ms Chia when she graduated in 1990. She landed a pupillage with Harry Elias Partnership, and says she owes a lot to the firm'
The infant Ms Chia in the arms of her mother, who suffered from mental illness and was a suspicious and superstitious woman.PHOTO: DORIS CHIA
The infant Ms Chia in the arms of her mother, who suffered from mental illness and was a suspicious and superstitious woman. Ms Chia when she graduated in 1990. She landed a pupillage with Harry Elias Partnership, and says she owes a lot to the firm'
Ms Chia when she graduated in 1990. She landed a pupillage with Harry Elias Partnership, and says she owes a lot to the firm's founder Harry Elias.PHOTO: DORIS CHIA

Lawyer overcomes a childhood of deprivation to become trusty champion of the oppressed

Doris Chia does not particularly care for fish.

She blames it on poverty. Growing up, her family could not afford it because it was expensive compared to pork and chicken.

"One kilogram of pork, minced and eaten with rice, could last us one week," says Ms Chia whose father died when she was 10, leaving her and her three siblings in the care of their mother who had paranoid schizophrenia.

Today, as a partner in a law firm and one of Singapore's leading authorities on defamation, she obviously can afford all the fish she wants. But preferences, in this case shaped by deprivation, are hard to shake off.

Hair cropped short and decked out in black pants and a colourfully striped shirt, the bespectacled 49-year-old is sitting in the lobby of the Fullerton Hotel talking about her past. Although her childhood was painful, she has obviously put it firmly behind her, judging from the way she relates episodes with equanimity and good humour.

Life, she reckons, would have turned out quite differently if her father hadn't died young.

A sales executive in a Japanese switchboard company, he did well enough to afford a Toyota Corolla.

"I'm not sure but we think he died of liver cancer. My siblings and I pieced a lot of things together because my mother just refused to talk about him after that," says the second of four children. "Maybe it was extreme grief or the desire to start anew but she just took all his things and threw them away after he died."

Already a suspicious and superstitious woman before her husband's death, Ms Chia's mother became even more so after that. Fearing black magic, she would hang pictures of Jesus and put preserved seahorses - believed to ward off evil - in every room of their home.

One day, Ms Chia, her siblings and their pomeranian called Lucky found themselves moving to a rented flat in Teban Gardens.

An unfortunate incident took place at their new home, one which made her decide to become a lawyer. One of their neighbours had two children who kept taunting and throwing things at Lucky. One day, when its leash came loose, the pomeranian ran barking towards the neighbour's house. The infuriated neighbour kicked Lucky; it flew over the parapet and fell five floors to its death.

Ms Chia wanted to lodge a police report but her mother, who didn't want trouble, refused.

"My mother later got a summons from the Small Claims Tribunal. The neighbour sued us and said our dog bit his children. So I went with my mother to court. She had to say sorry to him for killing our dog, and shake his hand. That was when I decided I must be a lawyer and protect myself and my family. Nobody should bully us," she says.

But a legal career seemed like a pipe dream. Although the self-starter was bright enough to get into Raffles Girls' School (Secondary) after completing her PSLE at Corporation Primary, the situation at home was getting dire.

Ms Chia's mother, who found work as an administrative assistant after the death of her husband, was pathologically bad with money.

She used up whatever her husband left the family in no time, and frittered away her money on handbags and other non-essentials. Once she threw her entire month's salary into her church's offering bag, claiming she was following the example of the widow in the Bible who gave away her two mites - copper coins - to God who then showered her with blessings.

"We were very young so we didn't question it but we soon realised that she was not paying the rent and would not give us our school fees. There was no help at all from relatives because she went around borrowing money from them. It just disappeared so after a while, they stopped giving her (money). We had a very kind uncle who sometimes showed up with groceries," recalls Ms Chia, adding that her inability to pay her monthly school fee and $1 class fund earned her strange looks and snarky comments from her classmates.

To help out, she and her elder sister started giving tuition when they were in secondary school.

"We would then have some tuition money to buy food for the younger ones. When our fridge broke down, we had to eat mostly cabbage and carrots because they lasted longer than leafy vegetables. My sisters' hands were all orange from eating too much carrot," she recalls.

Although her mother managed to apply for their Housing Board flat in Clementi, her mental health got worse. Among other things, she started dressing bizarrely and claimed strange men were following her. Often, in the wee hours of the morning, she would play the piano, a legacy from their better days, without the muffler on.

Despite the turbulence, all her children did well in school, with Ms Chia even getting into Raffles Junior College.

Her civics tutor, Ms Kalyani Kausikan, told her not to worry about the fees for her A-level exams when she learnt of her circumstances. "I didn't know what to say at her gesture of kindness. I put all my effort into studying for my A levels," she says.

Her results were good enough to get her into law school at the National University of Singapore.

To pay for their university fees, both she and her elder sister, who got into NUS' science faculty, took a loan from their church. They also asked for extra because their mother had defaulted on her mortgage payments for over a year.

"We used the extra to pay the HDB and keep a roof over our heads," she says.

A few days before her annual exams one year, Ms Chia and her siblings received a call from the police informing them that their mother had been found wandering around Jurong East covered in mud.

Ms Chia's mother was warded at the Institute of Mental Health for a couple of weeks and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She was put on medication, and had to see the doctor once every six weeks. Medication helped to keep her condition under control, but getting her to take it or see the doctor was no walk in the park.

"She said she had been healed by God and would turn aggressive if we insisted," says Ms Chia, adding that her mother's condition remained the same until she died about 10 years ago.

With great candour, she lets on that for a long time, she felt a lot of resentment against her mother.

"She was a burden I had to carry, she was my problem... I used to get angry when people praised her and said she raised four graduates," says Ms Chia whose siblings all graduated with science degrees. "But we graduated not because of her but despite her.

"It was only after her death and after I grew older and experienced life that I began to understand what she was going through. She could have been like that because of extreme grief. She probably didn't know what to do."

Although her road was tough, the lawyer, who graduated in 1990, considers herself blessed to have friends and mentors who offered help at critical times in her life.

Just before doing her pupillage, a few friends from law school took her to a tailor in Telok Blangah and shelled out $64 to get her a black jacket for court.

"The jacket lasted me many years until I could afford a better one," she says with a smile.

Thanks to a law lecturer who decided she had "the killer instinct", she landed a pupillage with Harry Elias Partnership after her graduation in 1990. She says she owes a lot to the firm's founder Harry Elias, one of the country's best-known trial lawyers.

"I learnt a lot of things from him. I was this shy little thing. If you put two forks and two spoons on the dining table in front of me, I wouldn't know what to do. He saw something in me and was prepared to teach me. Maybe because he himself came from a poor background."

Like a sponge, she soaked up everything she was taught, and rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a partner in the firm where she worked for 18 years. Mentor and protege worked on several high-profile cases together. They were, for instance, the counsel for an American couple who lost $10.7 million to errant Singaporean lawyer David Rasif, who famously absconded with $11.3 million of his clients' money in 2006.

On one occasion, when she was still a novice, she took a ride with Mr Elias in his Jaguar. He asked if she knew how to drive. She said no, and that she couldn't afford a car anyway since she had a big study loan and her mother's mortgage to pay off.

"He told me I would have one in a few years. I laughed because it seemed impossible. But he was right. In three years, I paid off my study loan. I passed my driving test, put down 10 per cent on a Hyundai Accent, took my first plane ride... the rest is history," says Ms Chia who now drives a BMW X1 and lives in a condominium in River Valley.

Now the head of litigation, dispute resolution and arbitration at David Lim & Partners, she has, in her 25-year-career, handled some landmark cases.

One of the most famous was the 2005 Chwee Kin Keong v Digilandmall case when six complainants sued an online IT company over an order of more than 1,600 laser printers which had been wrongly priced at $66 instead of $3,854. Ms Chia was among the lawyers representing Digiland. In a landmark ruling, the court held that the IT company did not breach any contract.

But the cases she is proudest of are not well known.

"Actually the ones that I remember and enjoyed doing are the ones where I helped people. Yes, we all should make some money and have a better life but if you see somebody like where I was, with nobody to help them and not knowing what to do, you should help. Sometimes I'm not able to charge nothing so I charge very little instead."

The legal eagle, who has authored two well-received books on defamation, once helped three women sued for defamation by the management corporation of their condominium because they had raised uncomfortable questions at the annual general meeting.

Ms Chia, who has been in a relationship for the last eight years, is happy with the way life has panned out for her and her siblings. Her eldest sister is a tutor, her younger siblings are in the finance industry.

She wants to continue using her skills to help the bullied and the oppressed.

For people going through hard times, she has this to say: "Sometimes the burden seems very heavy and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, but if you keep walking and are persistent and determined, you will emerge from the tunnel.

"Along the way, (if) people stretch out with a helping hand, you must remember to thank them and you must try and pay this forward. This is what I try to do."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 17, 2017, with the headline 'Watch out, bullies, Doris Chia is in the house'. Print Edition | Subscribe