Community Voices

Lam Min Yee And Lam Tse Yi On What’s It Like To Be Born Among Power Women

The Lam sisters tell us about what it means to them when talking about gender differences and gender equality in the wake of International Women’s Day 2020.

Lam Min Yee And Lam Tse Yi On What’s It Like To Be Born Among Power Women

Anchor Image: Lam Min Yee and Lam Tse Yi

Over generations, gender equality has not been achieved in a single country. To highlight how we should all march towards this goal by 2030, UN Women marked 2020 as the year to launch its multi-generational campaign, “Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights For An Equal Future”.

Organised as a global mobilisation, its goal is to amplify and accelerate efforts to make gender equality and women’s rights a lived reality. And that can only be done by galvanising attention and action on key issues ranging from equal pay, equal sharing of unpaid care and domestic work to equal participation in economic and political life as well as in decision-making in all areas of life.

For the Lam sisters, they were born in the position to make a mark for themselves. Their grandpa, a multi-sector business industrialist, was a pioneer of the diamond industry in Southeast Asia, while their father Freddy, a pioneer of the regional bullion industry, is a veteran businessman and established ASEAN business community leader. He served as President & Vice-President of ASEAN Chambers of Commerce and Industry, as the longest-serving Vice-President of Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as numerous honorary and exco roles in Singapore’s apex business federations, national review committees, councils and statutory boards for over three decades.

The Lam family, Tse Yi, Freddy, Junie and Min Yee

Nonetheless, the sisters are forces to be reckoned with in their own right, and they have gone on to do community services too.

Elder sister Min Yee is a Boston-trained economist and experienced gemologist, who was strategically brought into the folds of their traditional family business as a transformation and changemaker, before transitioning to the role of executive director of the Lam family office, while Tse Yi is the senior regional legal counsel and director at a global Forbes-ranked performance chemicals multi-national corporation based in Singapore.

Apart from their respective careers, Min Yee is an active museum docent with a keen interest in world history, international relations and geopolitical issues, while Tse Yi loves culture and fashion in her personal life, and passionately advocates equal opportunities, diversity and inclusion in the corporate world.  She is also an active leader in her company’s ‘Pandemic Committee’ which was established in the wake of the recent coronavirus outbreak in Asia. Here, they share their thoughts about gender and generational equality.


MIN YEE SAYS

I come from a multi-generational lineage of entrepreneurs and my family draws great inspiration from our lineage of strong women. My great-grandmothers were active in community service, while my maternal grandmother led her family’s rubber estate business as a 20-something during post-WWII Singapore.

My mother Junie was among Singapore’s pioneers in rehabilitative medicine. After returning from London post-studies, and working in the field of Occupational Therapy at the University College Hospital, she was an active proponent for the adoption of activities of daily living (ADL)-based assessment at local hospitals in the 1970s. This methodology remains an integral part of our daily vocabulary.

The women in our family really do hold up half the sky. We were nurtured from young to always think positive and turn every adversity into a challenge.

As such, women in our family really hold up half the sky and I like to think that my sister Tse Yi and I are born from that crucible of ‘power women’. We have been taught that nothing is impossible nor beyond reach for women, so long as we are provided education, skill-sets, opportunities and family support.

I consider myself a global citizen having been born in London, trained in Boston as an economist and earned my stripes managing our family business. I’m also a history buff and an avid heritage volunteer with a passion for women’s rights, adventure travel, gastronomy, music, arts and world culture.

So when I joined the family business, I based my hiring policy on merit. By ensuring that the effort of every staff was recognised, regardless of gender, this policy has helped to foster organic growth within our company. I believe that one’s commitment, expertise, experience — independent of gender — are the real factors that hold sway in modern-day boardrooms.

That said, being female has proven to be tremendously advantageous for me! A woman’s eye is usually keener on details, and our opinions are often sought in the diamond and jewellery industries. And very quickly I learnt from my father how ‘soft power’ was important. Whenever negotiations became deadlocked, I became the ‘key’ to unlocking those testosterone-fuelled knots! 

IWD reminds us to reflect and honour both the “she-roes” and the heroes in our lives.

International Women’s Day reminds us to honour the ‘she-roes’ (and heroes!) in our lives, the people who inspire us to be the best that we can be.

Like my grandpa, who was an early pioneer in pre-independence Singapore’s nascent diamond industry. I remember as a three-year-old, I spent some afternoons accompanying him at the office during his retirement years. It was during our precious moments of play where he inculcated my love and passion for the business. My ‘toys’ were diamonds and gemstones — guaranteed to ‘spark joy’ at any age!

International Women’s Day is a celebration of all facets of womanhood, our collective achievements no matter how minute or significant, and the progress of gender equality and women’s rights.

In a speech in February by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, he described women’s inequality as ‘stupid’ and a cause for global shame. ‘Women have equalled and outperformed men in almost every sphere,’ he’d pointed out. ‘It is time to stop trying to change women, and start changing the systems that prevent them from achieving their potential.’ Wow.  

It is also an occasion to reflect on how fortunate some of us are, compared to our sisters in certain segments of society. Did you know that Singapore passed the Women’s Charter to protect women’s rights in 1961, which precedes the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1979?

Our Ambassador-at-Large, Professor Tommy Koh, wrote in a commentary, Women’s Quest For Justice And Equality, in The Straits Times: ‘The struggle by women for justice and equality is one of the longest in the history of human rights. Although much progress has been made, the struggle is not over in some parts of the world.’

I believe, therefore, we can go beyond contemplating how everyone can play our part to ensure equal access to opportunities and freedom for women the world over. We should endeavour to collectively engage in this conversation and join the cause.


TSE YI SAYS

I see International Women’s Day as a meaningful celebration and reminder of the progress women have made in aspects such as personal growth and development, safety awareness and legal rights.

Even though popular opinion appears to be that we are still a long way from achieving gender equality, I believe that if every woman plays her part — whether it’s just to stand up for her own personal rights, or investing in self-improvement — it helps to keep up the momentum of progress. Every effort counts towards making that ‘quantum leap’ to equal opportunity.

People who know me know I am not shy to speak to my mind and champion my personal opinions and beliefs. I lead various interest groups and communities at my workplace, and my personal favourites have always been those related to promoting equal opportunities for women.

This year’s IWD theme of ‘Generation Equality’ is a progressive and dynamic approach towards modernising gender equality, keeping the pursuit relevant.

International Women’s Day is an occasion close to my heart as I am leading the ASEAN Chapter of my company’s “Women’s Network”, a global network which welcomes female and male employee-participation, and promotes equality and inclusion throughout the organization.  Diversity and inclusion are values which are firmly entrenched as part of my company’s DNA and internal culture.

Having been in corporate counsel roles in leading MNCs for over a decade, I have observed that women are generally suited to corporate practice by virtue of our natural eye for detail and inherent meticulosity.  Male corporate lawyers, while typically not as detail-oriented, tend to be natural-born negotiators. So both genders bring their own strengths to the corporate table, and offer symbiotic skills.

As a female corporate leader, it is important not to be overtaken by the “superwoman syndrome”; instead, I strive to earn respect through hard work, logic and persuasion — qualities which I believe transcend any gender prejudices or preferences. I embrace leadership as one of enabling excellence in others, and I want to be genuine and authentic and to be a good listener. I also try to keep my ideas and concepts simple.

I hope more corporate women leaders can develop their own effective brand of leadership so that together, we can improve the board diversity landscape in Singapore and other parts of the world.

In many ways, my mother and my grandmother have left an indelible impression and influence on how I conduct myself as a woman in my personal life and at work.

My attitudes as a modern woman are shaped by my grandmother and my mother, who taught me by example that I should always be humble, kind, positive and self-disciplined; that I follow my intuition and maintain my integrity and values, and that I be focused, steady, agile and resilient to overcome adversity. 

My late maternal grandma was born in pre-war Malaysia. She was well-educated, independent and unconventional as a woman in her time. She even swam competitively for her state. Shortly after marrying her childhood sweetheart, World War II arrived. When my grandfather passed on, my grandmother was left with an unfamiliar new business to manage, young children and in-laws to care for, so she made a strategic decision to move the family to Singapore.

At the same time, she had to expeditiously learn to manage a challenging family business which she had no prior experience in — rubber estates.  This industry was (and remains) not only a male stronghold, but one which requires close physical supervision and strong leadership. But my grandmother learnt fast and displayed great business acumen, gumption and above all, an indomitable spirit.

It illuminates why my grandmother is the source of my inspiration. She was born at a time when women did not dare dream of having equal opportunities, yet she held her own in the face of adversity and courageously took on every challenge and obstacle that came her way.   This brings to mind my early days in litigation, when there was significant imbalance in gender ratio, possibly amplified by the fact that I had chosen to focus in shipping litigation, a firmly male-dominated specialisation! But this never daunted me, not even the fact that many male ship-crew regarded having women onboard a ship or vessel as ‘inauspicious’.

I will always remember how my grandmother was my only ‘supporter’ in the family when I expressed the desire to pick up roller-skating as a teenager because she taught me from a young age that girls can do anything. She even sponsored my first pair of roller-skates!

I had my sights set on becoming a lawyer since I was 10.

I had my sights set on becoming a lawyer since I was 10. And I fondly remember my grandma making the long trip to attend at my convocation in the UK in her later years.  I felt that I’d made her proud of me and that memory has empowered me to carry on her legacy of being a ‘progressive woman’.

That said, women and men are really two sides of a coin — forged of the same material but carved differently yet both are equally important. There would be neither balance nor dimension without the other. We should view gender differences more positively; take time to appreciate what each brings to the table.  

Life is short, so my hope is that every woman strives harder to achieve what makes her happy and fulfilled.”

Related Stories