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Doing more, going strong

Well-known family lawyer Anamah Tan of Ann Tan & Associates is expanding into the trust business to serve her clients better

'Others might think of retiring at my age, but I feel so energised, as this has always been my dream. I want Singapore on the global grid for the trust industry.' - Anamah Tan of Ann Tan & Associates

FRIENDS keep telling Anamah Tan of Ann Tan & Associates to retire. That is no surprise, given that Dr Tan, a decorated family lawyer and female rights advocate, is 75 years of age. But Dr Tan keeps breaking new ground, on top of her current work of fighting in court on behalf of her clients. In late 2014, a joint venture she set up obtained a trust licence from the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).

With the licence, the joint venture, First Names (Singapore) Pte Ltd can set up a range of personalised legal vehicles known as trusts. These vehicles are used in planning for the inheritance received by the next generation. Assets put in trust can be located not just in Singapore, but around the world.

As a result, the family law firm has become one of the rare few in Singapore to be able to offer a complementary business usually offered by major banks. Dr Tan says she did so because she felt the service standards of banks have slipped over time. "Whenever we obtained some good settlements for my clients, I would usually introduce her to my bank manager to help them to invest wisely.

"In the early days, a bank manager would be with the same bank for 20, 30 years and although the approach is conservative, I am all for it as it is safe for my clients. Nowadays the relationship managers change very often. I didn't find that very satisfactory for my clients. I felt there must be more we can do."

Dr Tan thus began looking in the last three years. She then found the First Names Group, an independent trust and fund administration provider operating primarily from the Isle of Man and Jersey. Established and well-known in the Western hemisphere, they were looking at expanding eastwards.

"We are people centred and share similar values," she says. "My joint venture partner makes it a point that the interest of the clients is our priority. They are not like a sausage factory. Each trust is bespoke, as each family, each institution is different from the next. Their needs are different at different stages of their development. A smooth transition from one generation to the next has to be handled with sensitivity to avoid possible conflicts."

Negotiations began in 2012 and concluded with the formation of the joint venture in 2014. The licence to operate was awarded to First Names (Singapore) Pte Ltd in November 2014. "We see Singapore as a potential hub for a growing trust industry in the Asia-Pacific," Dr Tan says.

A dedicated lawyer

The trust company is a joint venture happily undertaken by Dr Tan as a realisation of her dream to complete the circle of her work for her private clients who need this facility.

Born in 1940 and called to the Bar in 1963, she first started working as an Estates officer with the Housing and Development Board (HDB). In the evenings, she would visit HDB flats to convince flat dwellers that instead of renting, they could pay a few dollars more each month and own their flat after 10-15 years - a truth more Singaporeans eventually realised.

In the 1970s, she entered private practice, rising to become a partner of Laycock & Ong, one of Singapore's oldest local law firms. She then journeyed to the UK to get a solicitor's qualification to gain some experience in international financial instruments.

In the 1980s, she struck out again, founding Ann Tan & Associates. "I always wanted to have a boutique firm that provides holistic family solutions when a marriage breaks down. You start from the interests of clients first and foremost, and closely followed by the children's, which, sad to say, was not always achieved. It's always been my mission to try to limit the fallout on the children," Dr Tan says.

Over the next 30 years, her practice grew along with her reputation. She also took on many pro bono cases. "The best part of this is when years and years later, the children meet you on the street. They remember what I told them, that this is just between their parents, who love them very much, and that will not change. The children needed constant assurance."

For the longest time, she acted exclusively for women, whom she said usually got the shortest end of the stick in divorces. But in the last eight to nine years, she has acted for a number of men. "I find that the shoe is now more on the other foot," she says, adding that her male clients are "really decent guys".

Women's rights champion

On top of her formidable record in getting fair settlements for her clients, Dr Tan's work in women's organisations made her known to a wider circle. But whenever she was asked, Dr Tan says she had not considered herself a woman activist.

The "activism" all began in the early 1970s, when she and a group of women lawyers started the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers (SAWL) to improve the image and reputation of lawyers, and the value women lawyers added to the profession.

"In the 1960s, people were afraid of going to the lawyers - they cost a lot of money," she says. The SAWL started free legal clinics and gave talks on the different aspects of the law that affected daily lives. "We decided to do something so that factory girls will know what their rights are as employees and women knew about their rights under the law. But in those days, activism was a bad word. They called us the do-gooders who could cook up a meal for the less fortunate but also could give good legal advice for free too!"

From there on, the association offered its help to other women's groups, sometimes getting their constitutions in order. In 1979, the various societies banded together to form the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations, and Dr Tan became a founding member along with other prominent names like Mrs Julie Tan, Mrs May Wong, Ms Seow Peck Leng, Mrs Shirin Fozdar, Mrs Janet Yee and Mrs Caroline Lam.

Dr Tan's work on women's rights went regional and international. She became active in the Asean Confederation of Women's Organisations, in which she is still an adviser today. She was the president of the International Council of Women from 2003 to 2009. And she served as an elected member of the United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) from 2004-2008 with the support of the then-MCDS Minister Abdullah Tarmugi and former Senior Minister of State Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon.

In her professional work, she also had long advocated that she does not believe in an adversarial approach in matrimony law family matters. "I still think the conciliatory approach is the best. I am so happy that it's now quite the accepted norm," she says.

Vivacious, passionate for her work and still taking on pro bono cases, Dr Tan says she still has much to do - for her clients, and in the new trust business. "Others might think of retiring at my age, but I feel so energised, as this has always been my dream. I want Singapore on the global grid for the trust industry," she says.

"I'm very patient with my clients as they have gone through a rough time. I'm not so patient with myself. I always tell myself, hey, you can do a lot little bit more. I may not be able to run but I can still walk - albeit with the aid of a walking stick!"

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