Forthright and Fearless – Legal Iron Rose Gets Candid
Source: Lianhe Zaobao
Article Date: 17 Mar 2023
Author: Poh Lay Hoon
In this exclusive interview with Lianhe Zaobao, Stefanie Yuen Thio, joint managing partner at TSMP Law Corporation, discusses her charity work, family, and being invited to tea by the People’s Action Party.
This article was first published on 12 March 2023 in the Singapore Mandarin broadsheet, Lianhe Zaobao.
SLW obtained permission to reproduce the article to give the legal community a broader view of legal reports for various news syndicates.
English translation by Ms Lim Hui Sin.
SG Her Empowerment started operating in January this year, focusing primarily on helping women who have been targeted by online harassment or harm. The initiative was started by lawyer Stefanie Yuen Thio, joint managing partner at TSMP Law Corporation, who is passionate about charity work. Ms Yuen Thio, who specialises in company law, is well known among the legal community for her toughness.
As TSMP Law Corporation celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, Lianhe Zaobao’s Face to Face tries to figure out what makes the worldly Stefanie Yuen Thio tick by inviting her to discuss her charity work, family, and being invited to tea by the People’s Action Party.
Stefanie Yuen Thio’s reply to our email request for an interview came through without any delay.
During our two-hour chat, she spoke a mix of standard English, Singlish, Mandarin, Hokkien, and Cantonese. Her tone was lively – like the colour palette of the artwork in her law firm office – and just as cheeky and witty.
Most striking of all was her openness; she made no “off the record” requests and did not try to hide her age, stating that she was 53 without any hesitance.
Stefanie Yuen Thio adopted her husband’s surname after marriage, adding Thio officially to her maiden name Stefanie Yuen. But in Mandarin, her family name was changed to ‘Zhang’ (Thio).
“Now that I think about it, if I had a choice, I will go back to Ruan (Yuen) because as a strong woman, I would rather have my own name,” she mused.
Strong Character Shaped by Her Parents’ Words
After 10 years at the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, a “very Westernised” Ms Yuen Thio surprisingly decided to head to the “very Chinese” Hwa Chong Junior College (now Hwa Chong Institution) to continue her education.
“It’s because I received a humanities programme scholarship – $1,000 a year, a king’s ransom to a student in 1987!”
But afterwards, even though she had already received an admission offer from Oxford University Faculty of Law, she could not go because her A-level results were not good enough to win her a scholarship. So, she attended the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Law instead.
Her younger brother did go on to read law in the United Kingdom, and the high
pound exchange rate added to the financial burden on her father, who was also supporting his own parents.
Yuen Thio’s parents told her straight that if they could afford to send only one of their children overseas, they would choose to send a son, “Because you’re a girl, and your future husband will take care of you.”
She agreed with them at the time, but the words left an indelible mark on her, and she was determined to become an independent woman who would not “rely on a man”.
Her father had also once reminded her not to be too assertive and to be more pliant and docile, as otherwise no men would want her as a wife.
But she did not take his advice to heart, thinking to herself it was no big deal if no man could accept her, and went on her merry way.
As it turned out, Senior Counsel Thio Shen Yi, 56, did fall for her, and the two married in 1994.
Mr Thio is the former president of the Law Society, as well as joint managing partner at TSMP Law Corporation. Under the husband-and-wife team, TSMP Law Corporation, which was founded by Mr Thio’s mother Professor Thio Su Mien, grew from a firm with seven lawyers to over 70 lawyers today.
TSM is Prof Thio’s initials, and the P in the firm’s name represents partnership.
According to Ms Yuen Thio, after Prof Thio retired from Drew and Napier LLC, she set up the firm to give her son a leg up in the profession. She also asked Ms Yuen Thio to join the new firm from another law firm.
Discussing her management philosophy, Ms Yuen Thio said it has changed over the years; when she first started at TSMP, she was the only lawyer there handling capital markets, and mergers and acquisitions.
Life is Short, Add Value or Shut Up
In addition to getting to grips with new practice areas and acquiring new clients, Ms Yuen Thio also had to balance the finances of the newly established law firm.
“Lawyers are engaged to give good and accurate advice, to not make mistakes, so in this sense we all have to be perfectionists,” she said. “This requirement is even more important in a start-up firm, and the challenges translated to a tough management style and a reputation as a demanding boss.”
But as the firm grew, Ms Yuen Thio realised it had become more important to build a firm where lawyers are invested and feel part of the family.
“Leading such a firm requires the partners to empower and inspire. These days I spend a lot more time coaching and engaging with young lawyers to train them for partnership and leadership, and I hold regular dinners at home with small groups where we can share and give feedback that flows both ways.
“I think the best management philosophy requires two-way respect and open communication, the team leader must be transparent and fair.”
Those who know Ms Yuen Thio would also know of her ability to talk to anyone – including a cleaner at an office, or the uncle sharing a table with her at the food court; she has even been known to help the owner of a rojak stall where she was queuing up take orders and collect payment when he was too busy to manage.
Ms Yuen Thio lives by the adage of putting clients first and has said she hoped they had her number on speed dial. “If there’s a problem, I want to be the first person they want to call.”
Because of the close relationship she has with clients, she would not hesitate to speak out when they have done something wrong. “Both sides must trust each other enough to have that frank conversation,” said Ms Yuen Thio.
“I’m not going to tell people what they want to hear. I think life is too short, just add value or shut up.”
Giving Back with the TSMP Foundation
Ms Yuen Thio and her husband are both Christians, and follow the Bible teaching of giving back, putting 10% of the partnership’s profits each year into the TSMP Foundation that was established in 2018 for charitable donations.
TSMP’s philanthropic efforts are focused on the young, the elderly, and the foreign workers in Singapore. The firm recently donated $150,000 to establish SG Her Empowerment (SHE), an initiative started up by Stefanie Yuen Thio.
Ms Yuen Thio said her husband’s sense of public service steers him towards using his talents and resources to help those in need. While she is driven by her belief that her success can be attributed to having had the good fortune to grow up in Singapore and being given good opportunities, and thus has a duty to use what she has been blessed with to help others.
Both are passionate about community service and are leading the firm they manage in giving back to society and continuing to expand TSMP’s pro bono legal services.
All TSMP lawyers commit to giving at least 25 hours of their time to pro bono work annually, and the firm is also closed for two days a year for everyone to participate in a charity event.
This commitment to charity, which Ms Yuen Thio says she is proud of, has repeatedly won recognition for the firm, including awards for their work in women’s empowerment. TSMP also became the first law firm to win the President’s Volunteerism and Philanthropy Award in 2018.
Ms Yuen Thio is also personally involved in several charitable causes, said she never really turns down charity appointments. Many years ago, she moved her terminally ill grandaunt who was suffering from cancer to the Dover Park Hospice (DPH). After her grandaunt’s death, Ms Yuen Thio met up with Dr Seet Ai Mee, Chairman of DPH and the mother of her Hwa Chong Junior College schoolmate, to thank her – and ended up being invited by Dr Seet to serve on the governance board.
After serving on the DPH board for five years, she left to join a charity helping those with low vision, set up by a friend whose son had been diagnosed with genetic eye disorder.
She is also a supporter of Operation Smile, which provides support for the treatment of cleft lip. In addition to fundraising, she has been on medical mission trips with the organisation, travelling with the medical team to Guizhou in China and other remote destinations.
“Failed” Mother and “Disobedient” Wife
Ms Yuen Thio recalls dictating legal opinions over the mobile phone to her secretary in between contractions in the delivery room as she was about to give birth.
Her son was born shortly after TSMP opened, she said. She was not even 30 and needed to learn how to run a law practice while dealing with the challenges of being a new mother.
“When (my son) Jonathan was just over a month old, I was already back at work. I was attending a negotiation meeting that ran to 3am, and I couldn’t breastfeed him.
“He started baby formula early. In his toddler years, he would have long afternoon naps because mummy would come home after 10pm and play with him for a few hours. I have always felt bad that I wasn’t there for him in the way so many parents are – for parent-teacher meetings, taking leave to coach for PSLE, etc.”
Fortunately, her relationship with her son, now 23 and studying business in the UK, remains close.
However, the self-proclaimed failed mother did have a few child-rearing tricks up her sleeve.
From the time he was 12, Ms Yuen Thio put her son to work for a month each year during the year-end school holiday. He went around with the firm’s courier to deliver various documents for his first such assignment; this was followed by bussing tables at her friend’s restaurant the next year, and then working as a doorman at a hotel, among other similar service jobs to gain life experience. It continued until he completed high school.
“I made him do it and I paid him if he was not being paid,” she recounted.
Her son dislikes the busy lifestyle of his parents and has said he would prefer to “study anything but law.”
When he was 15, Ms Yuen Thio took her son to Uzbekistan on a medical mission trip with Operation Smile, “Before we set off, he “kao bei kao bu” (Hokkien for “complaining”), asking why he had to go, but towards the end when we left, he teared up, so I believed it was meaningful for him.”
It was also her idea to send her son abroad for his studies, so he could learn to be independent. Despite her tough businesswoman image, she has no high expectations for her son, saying it would be fine as long as he completes his university degree and stays out of trouble.
Ms Yuen Thio had said that she does her best work under pressure and that she performs worst when she has only one piece of work to do. This reporter joked that she might have done better with more children and becoming a “successful” mother instead!
“Oh, it's really not possible. One already ‘pengsan’ (Malay for ‘fainting’). I can’t imagine if there were two or three.” she replied. “Being a mother is the hardest challenge, because you have no control.”
She said there was at least some control in the office, and there is some degree of predictability when you do your work but, “As a mother, every day is different; there’s no such thing as same-same!”
This reporter teased the headstrong, outspoken Ms Yuen Thio about the biblical teaching of wives submitting to husbands.
Her response, “Yes, I do that,” drew laughter all round.
Recalling the wedding held at Shangri-La Hotel 29 years ago, Ms Yuen Thio said, “When we were making our marriage vows, the minister asked, do you promise to love, honour and obey?’”
“I said, ‘I promise to love, honour,’ then waited a long time before I said, ‘and obey’ – everybody burst out laughing, because it is so unlike me to say ‘obey’.”
As she takes on more duties and responsibilities, Ms Yuen Thio feels a need for the Lord’s direction and protection more than ever, so she is always asking her husband to pray. She said that she and Mr Thio will pray together when important things happen that need their attention.
Ms Yuen Thio met her husband in his army days. He started pursuing her after seeing her onstage at an English Language Literary, Drama and Debate Society performance while she was at Hwa Chong Junior College.
Mr Thio came from a good family and was an athlete who also excelled in his studies. “But I didn’t care about all that, what really matters is how we get along,” Ms Yuen Thio recounted. “He chased me for six months, but I just didn’t like him then. He was very patient, and persevered for a long time before we finally got together.”
Ms Yuen Thio was very candid in sharing that her husband was her fourth boyfriend. And how many girlfriends did her husband have before they got together? “Countless… Anglo-Chinese School boys are very naughty,” she replied.
In her opinion, she has high EQ and the ability to see people more than she sees facts; while her husband is the one with the high IQ, being more intellectual and fact-driven, seeing things in black and white. “So, in a sense we’re quite complementary.”
While at law school, Ms Yuen Thio was also a journalism intern at The Straits Times’ Life! section. Thanks to her familiarity with the media, she is obliging with media requests and even became a commentator on the BBC since 2019.
Aware that she is more high profile than her husband, she once asked him if he felt upset or upstaged.
Mr Thio told his wife he was happy to be her cheerleader and driving her to her engagements; he described himself as being in the engine room fuelling her moves.
“I am very grateful I found a man who truly respects me,” she said.
Many of the flower arrangements at the law firm are the work of Ms Yuen Thio. Every Sunday, Mr Thio goes with his wife to the flower wholesalers at Thomson and then to the office to help her cut the flowers.
She once asked her serious-minded husband why he loved her.
He replied that he loved her for her slight “gila-ness” (“gila” is Malay for crazy).
Tea Sessions with PAP
By her own assessment, she is ill-suited for politics, and despite two invitations to tea sessions by the People’s Action Party, Ms Yuen Thio said, “I was trying quite hard not to be picked.”
Given her way with words, her professional success and multiple talents, this reporter asked if she had been invited to tea by PAP as a potential political talent. She was upfront with her reply, “Yes, twice, when I was younger.”
The first tea session left a deep impression on her; Christopher de Souza (current MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) was a fellow attendee at the event with Cabinet Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. “Chris de Souza was picked, he’s a nice boy, very proper, while I am very bochap (unmindful),” she said. “Frankly I think I was trying quite hard not to be picked, because I would so suck at it.” She has only vague recollections of the second tea session.
After that, then Cabinet Minister Lim Hwee Hua invited her to help at a Meet the People Session. She went along, spending four hours helping seven taxi drivers write letters of appeal for their minor traffic offences.
She then told Ms Lim that she was happy to help but felt she could probably do more good in the charities she served and help more people with the same resources.
“I cannot think of anyone who would be less suited to be a politician than a forthright and opinionated lawyer whose often provocative comments are often amplified on social media. Clearly and rightly, they (PAP) saw that too and I was not invited for any more sessions.”
Ms Yuen Thio shoots straight with her words, declaring her readiness to help behind the scenes through community service when ministers meet her. “So, they say, what would you like to do? And I say, whatever you need me to do – move table, move chair, I’m happy to do.”
“Anything but wear white, okay?”
She is clear that she finds it hard to take orders, “Even when ministers discuss matters with me, I’m still a bit irreverent.”
Has she ever been advised to tone down? Ms Yuen Thio is honest about being told that she speaks her mind too directly, but says she speaks out on things that she feels are important. “I try to be informed, balanced, and respectful when I put the view across.”
“As the saying goes, ‘All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men (and women) to do nothing’. If you see an injustice and don’t speak up for the underdog, or if you see a way for things to be done better for the good of the community, I think there is a duty to say so respectfully.
“If I can do some good, let me do some good. I’m not trying to climb some ladder, you know.”
She said she has a lot of respect for many of our nation’s leaders and does not agree with a lot of people who say the government is not open to negative views.
“I think they want to know that the people who are giving them that point of view are somebody who’s being a patriot rather than somebody who’s doing it just for the sake of opposing.
“I actually think that this government is quite open, but they need to believe that your intentions are aligned with theirs.”
She pointed out that having a common goal, which is the betterment of Singapore, was most important, “After all, I have no agenda. I’m not interested in being in politics. If what I say adds value, then I will say it, but if it doesn’t then I will stop.”
Source: Lianhe Zaobao © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.