Annabel Pennefather, a highly successful Singaporean lawyer and former sportswoman, is out to prove that women can hold their own against men at the workplace.
During a primary school English oral test at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ), then situated on Victoria Street, Annabel Pennefather was asked by the principal, a nun, what she would like to be in the future.
She told the principal that she wanted to travel and see the world, and hence chose the profession of a flight attendant.
She never donned a sarong kebaya for Singapore Airlines, but she did end up flying high in a different way.
Today, Pennefather is without doubt one of the most prominent figures in Singapore’s sporting history. She was the captain of the national women’s hockey team in the ‘70s and had made the headlines countless times for her achievements in the sporting arena: She was named a council member in the Singapore Sports Council, the tournament director for Women’s Hockey at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, and the nation’s first woman chef de mission at the Olympic Games.
Annabel Pennefather (second from left) with former national swimmer and waterpolo player Tan Eng Chai (first from left) and then-national paddler Li Jiawei (second from right) at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Image source: Annabel Pennefather
Her achievements in the legal profession have been just as outstanding, showing that women can be equally, if not more, capable than men in the workplace.
Pennefather, was the first woman in the century-long history of law firm Donald & Burkinshaw to become an equity partner. She had been there for just five years before this milestone appointment.
She was also one of the few female vice presidents of the Law Society of Singapore, and served as a government advisor on property laws for more than 20 years.
The thought of becoming a lawyer first surfaced when Pennefather, then a teenager, had to decide what course of study she should apply for at the then-University of Singapore in Bukit Timah. She was initially leaning towards the foreign ministry until her father suggested that she consider law, citing how his cousin, the late E. W. Barker – a former politician of the People’s Action Party who served as the law minister from 1964 to 1988 – had made a name for himself as a lawyer. It was eventually her grandmother, Alice Pennefather, who convinced her that she should give the legal profession a shot.
Pennefather decided to focus on conveyancing and property law, which her father had recommended after observing how several of his Eurasian friends had been doing well in these areas. Eager to thoroughly understand the practice before taking on cases, Pennefather decided to spend some time working in the Registry of Land Titles before joining Donald & Burkinshaw.
When asked whether she was the perfect example of the career woman whom many wished to emulate, Pennefather humbly pointed out that women were already well-represented in the law sector by the time she started. She noted that the Registrar of Land Titles at the time was a woman, Mrs N.C. Yoong. There were also several other women lawyers practising in Donaldson & Burkinshaw.
In fact, there were many women in the workforce. Pennefather said that, while some women – especially those from more traditional backgrounds – remained at home doing the chores, most of her peers were out working.
“The majority of my teachers in CHIJ on Victoria Street were women. A significant number of my lecturers and tutors at the University of Singapore were women, too. In fact, one-third of my classmates in university were female, and they were from both Singapore and Malaysia,” she recalled.
Unlike today, Pennefather says, the lawyers of yesteryear actually had much more forgiving working hours. They usually worked from 8.45am to 4.45pm and overtime was not all that common.
As Donaldson & Burkinshaw was located at the Mercantile Bank Chambers near Raffles Place, she usually had time to take a stroll from her office to the Singapore Cricket Club at the Padang for club or national hockey team activities that started at 5.30pm.
Pennefather also remembers how most of her lunch hours were spent taking leisurely walks and shopping at Robinson’s, which was then located in a former colonial-style building in Raffles Place.
“Work hours were less demanding in my earlier years of practice, so it was not too difficult to finish work and still have time to play hockey. And when I needed to travel for hockey competitions, which at that time was mainly to Malaysia and the odd trip to Hong Kong or Sri Lanka, I just used my annual leave,” said Pennefather.
“Fortunately, I had the support of my family, particularly my mother and aunt, to help with keeping an eye on my daughter whenever I had to travel for my sport commitments and that certainly helped immeasurably.”
After spending a decade at Donaldson & Burkinshaw, Pennefather joined Arthur Loke and Partners and played a key role in setting up the firm’s conveyancing and property law practice. She then joined Khattar Wong & Partners, where she eventually became a senior equity partner. Throughout her illustrious career, Pennefather handled cases related to leasing of major commercial property developments and hotels such as Tung Centre, Pacific Plaza and the Mandarin Oriental.
Annabel Pennefather addressing the crowd at the Law Society of Singapore’s dinner and dance in 1996. Image source: Annabel Pennefather
Till today, Pennefather still remembers the invaluable advice from her mentors when she first started practising law. Unlike the unscrupulous and power-hungry lawyers who are often depicted in television shows today, Pennefather said that she was told to always be respectful.
“During my earlier years of legal practice, I was fortunate to work with and be mentored by two leading conveyancers, the late H.M Dyne, who was one of the senior partners of Donaldson & Burkinshaw, and Mr T.P.B. Menon, a leading conveyancer who also served as the president of the Law Society. I recall that whenever I had the opportunity to talk to them, they never failed to remind me how important it was to show respect to our fellow practitioners in our dealings with them,” said Pennefather.
“In particular, I was told never to have my secretary put through a call to another practitioner for me, or to keep a fellow lawyer on hold till my secretary was able to connect the call to me. That was a big no-no in the industry, and it is advice which I have always endeavoured to follow through my subsequent years of practice.”
Reminiscing about her early days as a lawyer, Pennefather said she misses how there used to be a stronger sense of camaraderie among the lawyers in Singapore, of which there were fewer than 500 in the 1970s.
“The closer camaraderie between a smaller group of practitioners facilitated a willingness to share experiences, to mentor and to observe the etiquette expected in dealings with each other,” said Pennefather.
“There are now significantly more lawyers than when I first entered the practice and more areas of practice, especially those focusing on niche areas such as the environment, technology, digital media and platforms, and not forgetting sports and the sport industry.”
Though she had experienced much success on the law and hockey fronts, Pennefather’s life wasn’t always rosy. In 1996, she underwent a surgery to close a hole in her heart. That same year, she broke up with her husband of 25 years. Pennefather then decided to take a break from law to recover from this episode.
She made an emphatic comeback in 2004, combining her two life passions when she became a consultant for the sports law practice at Harry Elias Partnership. In 2009, she returned to KhattarWong LLP (now known as Withers KhattarWong) as a senior consultant for the firm’s sports law practice. She continues to practise today.
Her expertise in both law and sports saw her become the deputy president of the International Hockey Federation’s judicial commission in 2012. Four years later, she achieved yet another milestone in her career by becoming one of the first two women as well as the first Singaporean to be appointed to the International Association of Athletics Federations Ethics Board.
When asked about the secret to her success on both the hockey and law fronts, Annabel said it was down to proving one point: girl power.
“I would say my philosophy to life is to give my best and more in any role that I find myself in, especially roles that may not have previously been open to or occupied by women.”
“In this regard, I continue to remind myself and others that, whilst it is important to be the first, it is more important not to be the last.”
Written by: Alywin Chew
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