Prestige Malaysia has been in a fortunate position to tell the stories of amazing women who have impacted and continue to impact our society in numerous ways. They range from politicians to corporate figures, to activists, to entrepreneurs, to philanthropists. Our goal in telling these stories is to inspire others to do the same. Over the years we have managed to amass a wide variety of interviews that represent different voices and thus cover a range of perspectives that prove to be insightful.
It is for this reason that Prestige launches Prestige Women which encompasses the viewpoints of the women who have forged their own paths. With this site, Prestige Malaysia plans to continue focusing on stories of women’s empowerment that inspire others to reach for their goals.
Lee Jim Leng knows what she wants in life. During her early adolescent years, she told her parents she did not want to enrol in a Chinese school for fear of having to cut her hair short. When the time came for her to pursue her tertiary education, she settled on Canada. “Why so far?” her father asked. “It’s the cheapest place to study!” she replied candidly.
Though banking was never on the cards, Jim Leng graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from Acadia University and a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from Dalhousie University. It was then that she discovered she was actually good at accounting and finance, hence settling on banking as a profession. “Funnily, being a banker was not even something we would ascribe to be when we were in our primary years. When the teacher asked us to list down our top three professions, I filled in nurse, air stewardess and pilot,” says the CEO of Hong Leong Investment Bank, who has made banking her world for more than three decades now.
“The truth is, during the initial stage of my career, I had no idea that banking was going to be my one and only career. I only know I was very excited with the learning environment and that I was actually quite good at it!” The formidable CEO and managing director who currently leads the investment banking arm of Hong Leong Capital first dabbled in commercial banking at Ban Hin Lee Bank Bhd in 1989 before moving to corporate finance.
In 1993, she joined Schroders Malaysia and fell in love with the fast-paced world of investment banking where the stakes are high and fortunes are made. But success does not come without hardships and Jim Leng has had her fair share of rejection during her initial years at Schroders. How does she retain a sense of optimism when the going gets tough? “Most people often quit when times are bad. But when you love what you’re doing, everything has a purpose. I have always embraced the attitude of giving my best and focusing on improving every day. It’s the culmination of the little steps that we take that will make us stronger by the day. And I believe in perseverance, humility and sincerity,” she says.
Her unwavering spirit and perseverance stems from a challenging childhood as Jim Leng, who hails from Penang, recalls sharing the same room with her family of six until they could afford their first low-cost flat. “My dad was born in China and only came to Malaysia at the age of 12. He runs a trading business and was only able to afford schooling up to primary six. But he worked so hard and I was ever so proud that he made it on his own and enough to send me and my siblings abroad,” she shares. Thus, Jim Leng has always embraced setbacks as part of her life.
We learn to accept that we can’t have everything. We work around it, try to overcome them and accept that once we’ve tried our best, limitations must be embraced.
Lee Jim Leng
Jim Leng’s steadfast resolution and ability to adapt in any situation has also contributed to her success, leading her team to achieve a few firsts, including ushering in a new era of capital repayment and working with the Securities Commission Malaysia on the first private debt securities during her time at UOB. “For an investment bank, the biggest asset is our talent pool. Each year, we invest heavily in talent building to drive innovation. This helps us find better solutions to meet our clients’ needs,” she says.
However, a good team falls back on a true leader and Jim Leng believes in transformational leadership by leading through inspiration, empowerment and stimulating her employees to exceed normal levels of performance. “I believe in direct sponsorship and accounting of results, rewarding for performance and recognition for innovation. If you are good at what you do, the results should follow,” she remarks.
In today’s digital era, she acknowledges that knowledge is almost a given and the rise of Alipay and Wechat has surfaced as a new threat to banks. But Jim Leng has always believed in the key value of applying sincerity in looking after her clients’ long-term interests instead of chasing after profits for the bank. She notes that profits made from short-term strategies without taking into consideration of the client’s interest will often result in a loss of long-term brand reputation and sustainability of the bank.
It’s easy to see why Jim Leng’s clients trust her enough to build a close rapport as she is able to strike up a conversation with anyone at any given time. This winning personality has carried her through and she believes that being outspoken is a quality that, when used with skill and wisdom, can set you apart from the crowd. “The key is to be selectively outspoken and applied effectively to get your thought process and idea through,” she says.
Armed with an equally bold sense of dressing which may sometimes be seen as unconventional in the traditional world of banking, Jim Leng is unabashedly unapologetic as she cites Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson as other unconventional CEOs who no longer abide by conservative dark suits dress codes. “What I am sure is that when I feel good in what I wear, I exude confidence. I’m hoping to send across the message that my abilities are not judged by what I wear but rather how I conduct my conversations and presentations professionally and competently to my clients.”
As the only girl in her family, gender was never an issue in her household as her parents never interfered with her career plans. As for whether she believes in the notion that women have to prove themselves a lot more in order to reach leadership positions, she wholeheartedly disagrees. “Most employers and institutions today practise and embrace diversity and equality. Women who did not move towards substantial leadership positions were often forced to leave the industry halfway to care for their children or ageing parents,” she remarks.
After being in a banking career spanning almost 30 years, Jim Leng fuels her thirst for success and life’s indulgent pleasures through her inherent passion for her job. “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it,” she says, quoting Maya Angelou before strapping on her blue Prada heels and strutting out the door.
There is an almost Thatcher-like quality to Soo Shea Pin. That she displays a similar fortitude in the way she presents herself is perhaps unsurprising. After all Shea Pin was a young law student in the UK during the rise of Thatcherism. Incidentally, the former British prime minister, was also a strong influence on Anya Hindmarch, the witty accessories line that the former lawyer turned entrepreneur introduced into Malaysia 10 years ago.
Like Thatcher who displayed ambition even as a child, Shea Pin, at a young age, also knew what she wanted to become. At just nine, she informs without hesitation, she knew that she wanted to be a lawyer. It was a profession, she believed, that would give her a voice that seemed to be absent among women during the era of her childhood.
“I came from a background where women had very little power and very little independence,” she says. “It was always the men making money and the women were housewives with no say. I believed that there must be a way to do something to see that you don’t become one of those women.”
Shea Pin knew that she wanted to be “someone strong” and being a lawyer, she says, encapsulated that. There was a certain stature that came with being in the law, where one would be heard simply by virtue of one’s occupation. It, however, seemed a distant goal. Women lawyers, at the time, were rare. The late Tan Sri P.G. Lim was one of the few women who belonged to the profession.
There weren’t many people to inspire you and there was no CNN or anything like that. You had to quietly create your own ambition and work on it.
Soo Shea Pin
Making it all the more challenging was that Shea Pin who studied in a Chinese language school was not very proficient in English as a child. Reader’s Digest, she says, was her “English teacher” and she used to underline all the unfamiliar words. That meant almost every word, she adds in jest.
But she was aware that education, particularly for women, would be the means through which one could gain standing in society and excel in life. Thus, even when as a pre-university student, she struggled with English Literature, constrained by language, raising doubts among her lecturers about her ability to pursue Law, Shea Pin knew that it was something that she had to do, “by hook or by crook.”
The struggle continued as a student in the UK. English, she stresses, was everywhere. As an undergraduate, it was just about understanding the basics and achieving a higher grade was something that didn’t even factor into the equation. But it was while pursuing the Bar that everything just “clicked”.
“I could speak well and understand the intricacies of being a lawyer,” she says. “I realised that if I wanted to be a barrister, I would have to think and be like one.”
Thus, when she passed the Bar, an exam that had a 75 percent failure rate, Shea Pin returned to Malaysia with greater confidence. As a young lawyer, she had found her voice. People listened when she spoke. Nonetheless, she was also aware that as a young woman, constantly coming into contact with men who were bankers, developers and in business, that there were many things that she couldn’t do, simply because she was a woman.
“You couldn’t just go for a meeting and exercise your voice,” she says. “I had a lot to prove and show that I was capable. I learnt to communicate.”
When attending meetings, Shea Pin would arrive earlier to ensure that she could choose a strategic seat that would allow her to address everyone in the room. She would arrange her files in a certain way to ensure that she would not struggle with papers during the meeting.
Life as a lawyer was demanding. Shea Pin worked eight days a week. Two hours a day from your sleep every day, she says, will make eight days in a week.
“I felt very good about it. I felt I could do more,” she says. “You begin to feel the power in you that you never discovered. You can get carried away with that energy and power because you keep stretching yourself until you can’t take it anymore. Then you realise you have more!”
I felt very good about it. I felt I could do more. You begin to feel the power in you that you never discovered. You can get carried away with that energy and power because you keep stretching yourself until you can’t take it anymore. Then you realise you have more!
Soo Shea Pin
Along the way, Shea Pin discovered that she had mastered the ability to communicate with these lawyers and bankers. She also came into contact with other women attempting to make their way in the world.
“I admired these women who I worked with because I knew how difficult the environment was to be independent, to have a voice,” she says. “After a while, it became not difficult anymore. I think when people find that you do your job, that you are responsible, they will respect for what you do and what you say.”
Having come from a traditional upbringing, Shea Pin believed that education was the path to achieving a higher level of economic independence. The world is different now, she acknowledges.
“You don’t have to go through the typical way of achieving things in life.”
It is, perhaps, that which led to Shea Pin embarking on a different profession after practising as a lawyer for 20 years. It wasn’t that she was approaching 40 – age doesn’t bother her – but following changes that were starting to plague the legal profession, Shea Pin began searching for more.
“I felt I needed more meaning in life,” she says. “Being a lawyer gave me meaning but having gone through many years of it. Then there was the constitutional crisis, the Bar Council problems with the arrests of lawyers, things were not the way that I felt it should be. I felt that lawyers should be more independent, efficient and respectable. All the answers were not positive. I felt it was time to move on to a new point in life.”
Having come into contact with many successful men in business, Shea Pin was inspired to discover if she too was skilled in business.
“I wasn’t sure I had,” she says. “It was an instinctive move to do something different in life and pursue my passion for business.”
The opportunity came when at 40, Shea Pin received a call from a friend who suggested the possibility to venture into the fashion industry.
“I was instantly attracted to the idea and started venturing into that, again not knowing how but somehow the confidence grew and the direction became clearer as I became more decisive to leave the legal practice and move bravely into the luxury fashion retail business.”
Now having successfully introduced the Anya Hindmarch and French Sole brands into Malaysia, Shea Pin celebrates 10 years as an entrepreneur in 2018. Despite both brands having to shutter due to unforeseen circumstances, Shea Pin continues to established her presence in the fashion retail industry with the opening of British royal heritage brand Halcyon Days and later on with Feith, a multi-label shoe company she founded together with her daughter Wen Fei.
“Women somehow have become so strong, maybe not by choice but by circumstances that if you are not, you will just be a traditional woman and is that what you want?” she asks. “If that is what you want, fine but if not, then you have to find your way.”
From her modelling days to working with big names like filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai in Hong Kong, Danielle Peita Graham talks about her journey in rebranding herself as an all-round culinary entrepreneur.
Danielle exudes an air of confidence so effortless that some might feel intimidation in approaching her. With her commanding presence, she navigates our photoshoot dressed in elegant FENDI with ease and little direction.
Before our interview began and our initial introductions were done, I knew we were in the presence of a food savant. One can’t help but notice Danielle’s apparent love for food as she fawns over her bowl of take-away Thai glass noodles, casually chatting away on how much she loves spicy Thai food, having spent some time in Thailand for work and travel.
Born in Kuala Lumpur, to a Malaysian-Chinese mother and an Irish father, Danielle was raised in Australia before she returned to Asia – Hong Kong in particular – to make her mark as a successful model who adorned numerous magazine covers. Perhaps her most recognisable stint would be her Olay advertisements. Others also remember her as Nurse Danielle in the Nicholas Tse and Stephen Fung starrer 2002, as well as the Wong Kar-Wai directed DJ Shadow music video, Six Days.
Danielle recounts her childhood memories growing up with her parents who played a big part in nurturing her passion to what it is today. “I was exposed to cooking at a very young age. I grew up in the kitchen helping both my parents after school. My dad taught me to make mashed potatoes when I was eight years old and my mum; her famous fried rice,” says Danielle with a smile.
Her childhood nostalgia has made her a firm believer in always making home-cooked meals for her family in Malaysia. To ensure that they get the right balance of nutrients in their bodies, Dannielle has taken charge to ensure they always eat healthily. “It is really important to me. The food we eat really sets the tone for who we are,” says Danielle.
This resolve of hers has managed to instil interest and remarkable culinary skills in both of her young children; Ben, who is 11 years old, and Sophia, who is nine. It is a feat of extraordinary measure in this day and age, especially when kids are harder to pry away from the many screens that they are exposed to and Danielle agrees wholeheartedly.
“It is a life skill knowing how to cook! It’s survival! I’m thankful that both my children have taken a keen interest in cooking,” she says. Ben’s speciality is cooking steaks, while Sophia has recently “graduated” from using a kid’s knife to an adult one, and this, says Danielle, brings her great motherly pride.
Rebranding herself from a model to a chef was not as difficult as she thought. Danielle says that the shift was surprisingly natural for her. Having accumulated recipes she developed since 18 years of age when she was living alone in her apartment in Hong Kong, as well as recipes handed down by her family, she finally took the leap of faith and self-published her first cookbook, On The Table At Home, in 2016.
“Being a mum during the pandemic is also like being the teacher, referee and chef. As a woman there are so many roles that we constantly need to play.”
Featuring home-cooked yet restaurant-worthy recipes that make up the perfect amalgamation of East meets West, the project had been a dream of hers since she was a teenager. “I wanted to share my recipes in hopes that it will inspire others to cook, and share their love with their friends and family. To me, food is love. There is just no better way to show it.”
Since its debut, the cookbook has been a continuous success. There have been multiple requests to restock the shelves especially at the Kinokuniya bookstore at Suria KLCC, Malaysia as well as in Singapore, so naturally we had to ask the obvious; is there another cookbook in the works? “You know what? A lot of people have been asking me this. I do have a lot of new recipes written, so it’s definitely on the cards,” says Danielle.
To further establish her role as a culinary maven, Danielle also had the unquenchable desire to introduce her very own kitchenware line. With a group of partners to support her vision, the aptly named ‘Danielle‘ essential kitchenware line was launched in 2019 on her 40th birthday in Hong Kong. However, starting this new venture wasn’t easy.
There was a lot of back and forth in perfecting the line which has now grown to include a wide range of quality German-steel knives, cookware, cutting boards, and also a special-edition parent- and-child knife set for family home-cooking moments.
“It was of utmost importance that the kitchenware line was authentic as possible. My name is on it and I use them too,” says Danielle. With more products launching soon on her website and in stores, Danielle’s ultimate goal is to make lives easier while making cooking more enjoyable at home.
With the ongoing pandemic affecting everyone in different ways, Danielle shares that she finds juggling being a mother and managing her burgeoning culinary career a constant work in progress.
“I’m naturally quite an energetic person and I like the challenge to keep myself busy, but I do find it hard at times since there is only one of me! But I try my best,” says Danielle.
“I love to support the local talent. I think it’s very important to buy from our farmers and fishermen especially during these times.”
“Being a mum during the pandemic is also like being the teacher, referee and chef. As a woman there are so many different roles that we constantly need to play.”
One of the ways Danielle managed her time as well as her children’s during the lockdown was by keeping busy with her On the Table at Home delivery initiative which started during the first Movement Control Order in March 2020 and is still ongoing.
The idea sparked when one of her girlfriends, Datin Dian Lee, suggested that she should do it as a business. Having her kids help to chop vegetables and assist with the logistics proved to be fruitful not just for her family, but also for her local customers as well as those from Singapore, United States and Europe who ordered Danielle’s home-cooked food to be delivered to their families in Kuala Lumpur.
“It felt really rewarding. The act was so sweet and heartfelt, that is why I constantly say that food is love. It’s a great way of showing love and spoiling your loved ones.”
With no plans to slow down anytime soon, Danielle now has her sights set on launching a YouTube channel featuring her recipes. For now, she finds it crucial that she is able to help local businesses despite not being able to go to her usual markets during the lockdown. “I love to support the local talent. I think it’s very important to buy from our farmers and fishermen especially during these times,” says Danielle.
The joy she finds when she scores a fresh produce is indescribable. She tells me that she’s such a regular at the market that everyone knows her and she enjoys special discounts. She even has her own “fish guy” and “chicken lady” whom she constantly communicates for updates on fresh produce. “You know, I have them all on speed dial,” adds Danielle with a laugh.
This article was published on Prestige Malaysia January 2021 issue
The beauty of youth is that you are allowed to act, perhaps somewhat impetuously. That was certainly true of Hannah Yeoh, who at the age of 29, made the decision to run for public office, contesting for the Subang Jaya state seat during 2008 general elections.
“The good thing about being young and not exposed to politics is that I didn’t know the magnitude of what I was getting into,” she says. “Also I didn’t have time to think. I was given maybe about two weeks before nomination day to say yes.”
Often described as an “accidental politician,” Hannah’s interest in politics was stirred with over a simple discussion about voting. At the time, she was not even a registered voter and ironically, the first vote she cast was for herself. Her decision, she says, was largely driven by her faith, which prompted her to give herself for a “higher purpose.”
If one were to go by the results of the election, the decision to venture into politics was certainly the right one. Hannah who contested under the Democratic Action Party (DAP) ticket defeated the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA)’s Ong Chong Suan by a whopping 13,851 majority.
Nonetheless, Hannah admits that she had a mixed reaction to the huge mandate she received. At that point, she realised that her life was no longer her own.
“It is not something where you can tender your resignation after one or two years,” she states. “It is not about myself anymore. We were not prepared for impact it would have on our marriage and on our youth. But we gave our commitment and we have to honour it. The good thing was that although everyone said it was impossible, the impossible happened.”
Though gender wasn’t an issue for her in an urban seat like Subang Jaya, she describes 2008 as being a “pioneering” time for women in politics, where one has to work especially hard to prove oneself.
“You have to have the capacity to learn and function in that role. Then once you establish a reputation, it makes it a lot easier to convey that message.”
Now, she informs me, the Selangor state assembly has the highest representation of women, boasting 15 women in the house.
When it came to overcoming the age factor, Hannah worked to turning her lack of experience into a positive.
“Yes, I had no experience but no experience in corruption.”
It was a good feeling, she recalls, walking into the state assembly where took an oath and pledged to her best.
Looking back at her early years as an assemblywomen, Hannah admits having bit a tad overzealous during her first term.
“There is a big difference between my first term and my second term,” she says. “During my first term. I had no problem opening my mouth and firing away. Then you understand that politics is about building relationships. It is about interacting with another person or a group of people. If you are not happy with an issue, don’t attack the civil servants who are executing but deal with the issue.”
Some stern advice came from a DAP stalwart Theresa Kok, following a newspaper headline proclaiming, “Hannah Yeoh lashes out,” after the then first time assemblywoman criticised civil servants who absent during a state assembly sitting.
“She told me that you don’t achieve anything like that,” says Hannah. “Now I look at younger reps and advise them that there are many ways to skin a cat. You don’t need to be so harsh and direct. Age as well had made me wiser.”
In 2013, Hannah returned to the Selangor State Legislative Assembly, this time with an even a greater mandate, winning with a majority of 28,069. Her second term at the Selangor state legislative assembly became all the more significant when she was named Speaker of the House, the first woman and the youngest to occupy that position.
They didn’t have the intention of appointing the first woman speaker. When it happened, we then realised that it had never happened before.
“They didn’t have the intention of appointing the first woman speaker,” she says. “When it happened, we then realised that it had never happened before.”
Stepping into the role did prove to be stressful. For starters, the Speaker of the House must know all the seats, 56 in total. Her youngest was also just three months at the time.
“As the first woman Speaker, I knew there would be no room for mistakes or else they will say a woman is not suitable to be Speaker,” she explains. “I was also hoping I would be able to control the House and I knew I could not afford to be seen to be impartial. If you start off right, then you will have the reputation of being fair.”
Her intentions, however, haven’t wavered from the reasons that she entered politics in the first place.
“My aim is to be just a role model,” she states. “I want to show that you can go into politics, remain clean and excel in the work that you do. I believe that in every election you have nothing to lose. If you don’t win again, that’s fine. I know that I can always go back to law.”
She asserts that it is about living for a greater purpose than oneself.
“If you are just working to pay bills, you can get very disillusioned but when you are living for a purpose that is beyond you, even when you have nothing at the end of the month, it is still rewarding.”
Young people, she says, have a lot of energy and ideals. Thus, it is important to channel that in a positive manner.
“Find that purpose beyond you and identify that cause you can live for.”