Hubert Burda Media

International Women’s Day: Malathi Das

The family lawyer and president of the SCWO tells us about being a “role model”.

For Malathi Das, starting her three-year term as president of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) in 2014 was a breath of fresh air. A commercial litigation and family lawyer used to a male-dominated field, she now steered a coordinating body for 60 groups representing 500,000 women. And to mark International Women’s Day, the council recently inducted 14 more women into its Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame. Among them are several pioneering athletes, diplomats and Supreme Court judges. 

“As a lawyer, I am excited about some of the names,” she reveals. While men outnumber women in law, she points out that there is no short supply of trailblazing women. “Look at the number of Senior Counsels — there’s Indranee Rajah [now in politics], Deborah Barker, Engelin Teh, Molly Lim and on the bench, Belinda Ang,” she rattles off. A director at Joyce A Tan & Partners, Das herself marked a first both for Singapore and as a female, when she held the presidency of The Law Association for Asia (LAWASIA) and the Pacific from 2011 to 2013. 

Raised in a “fairly gender agnostic” environment, it came as surprise to her that young lawyers from countries such as India, Japan and Korea would ask to take pictures with her at LawAsia gatherings. “It was then that I became more aware of the responsibility I carried to encourage and inspire. And so for subsequent events I was invited to, I stopped asking if it was because they wanted a token woman and would field questions from a woman’s perspective or on issues relating to women,” she shares. 

You’ve said that you were raised in a “fairly gender agnostic” environment. What do you mean by that? 

I used to say “gender blind” but that suggests people are blind to gender like if they can’t see it, it doesn’t matter to them. I didn’t grow up in a typical Indian household; my late father was very empowering, in that he didn’t believe girls were simply meant to get married. He gave us a good education and told us we could do whatever we wanted. So I just did things that came naturally to me. I enjoy advocacy and talking with people, so I went into legal work. Maybe because of my experience growing up, I never really felt like I had to either be one of the guys or fight harder to be a woman in a leadership position. 

But yet you have become a voice for women’s empowerment, through your work with SCWO and the Zonta Club of Singapore. 

In Singapore, we take for granted the fact that we don’t have to knock down doors to get in. But in a lot of other countries, it is actually still a struggle. Even in education, we used to think that it was the men who stood in the way of women, but sometimes it is other women, for instance, a mother standing in the way of her daughter’s education or career. That is so much more of an obstacle, because I think we all see our mothers as role models and they pass on these messages to their daughters and sons. We always talk about changing the mindset of men, but I think women have a huge role to play too. 

Given that you hold several leadership positions, do you consciously see yourself as a role model? 

If some people look at what I do and think that is within their reach, I will be quite happy about that. But when one looks to a role model, they look for the qualities of a leader they themselves would want to be. For example, I don’t have children, so I will not be a good role model for those who are trying to manage the work-life balance of juggling work, family and children. But in terms of being a good daughter, a good employee, a boss, or helping other women, sure, why not? 

I was just at the bus interchange the other day and two girls who we helped through the Zonta Club’s Project Pari (which provides pocket money and life skill programmes) came up to me and said that they’ve now graduated from secondary school. And one was now headed to ITE and the other to polytechnic. When you are literally recognised for the work you do, that is so special. I like the fact that these girls felt that we actually made a difference in their lives. 

You are a commercial litigation and family lawyer. Why did you choose to specialise in these fields? 

When you go into practice, you don’t specialise so quickly, you try to learn everything you can. I actually did criminal work when I first started, because I wanted to. But because I believe in the basic goodness of human nature, I found their disorienting behaviour hurt me. I wondered why they’d do what they do, only to end up hurting their family. I realised later that the empathy I felt for my accused clients was actually for their wives and children. So slowly, I went to my boss to say that criminal law wasn’t for me. 

Why I do family work now is because I think I’m good at it. Litigation work too. I won’t be modest there…but having the law deal with family disputes is very challenging. Where the judge and lawyers are concerned, we finish, close the file and move on to the next case, but the family has to go on. The children have to grow up and live with that dynamics. When clients come to see me and ask if they can win, I always say that in a family case, there are no winners. You are both going to lose; it’s just that I’ll try and make it less painful for you. That’s all I can do. Family law is a niche for me and I think I can make a difference.

Malathi Das wears the Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref 7200/1R.