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,” she states. “You had to quietly create your own ambition and work on it.”
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!”
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. 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.Soo Shea Pin
“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.”